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County had share of problems during Prohibition

March 4, 2014

Prohibition of alcohol in the United States did not begin with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919. Nearly a century earlier, temperance societies were formed in an effort to curtail the use of alcohol.

Groups like the American Temperance Society, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League advocated for voluntary abstinence from alcohol, but eventually began pushing the federal government for a legal ban. By 1916, 26 out of 48 states were already dry. New York state was not one of them; in fact, almost 75 percent of the state's tax revenue came from the taxation of liquor. During World War I, the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act provided a sort of temporary prohibition. The government regulated commodities that were needed for the war effort; grains used for distilling alcohol were included, as they were needed for food.

The 18th Amendment went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920, making it a federal crime to sell, manufacture, transport, import, or export "intoxicating liquors." It is interesting to note that consumption of those intoxicating liquors was not prohibited. The National Prohibition Act (commonly called the Volstead Act), drafted by Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, was created to enforce the amendment. Prohibition would not be repealed until thirteen years later with the passing of the 21st Amendment.

Enforcement of Prohibition in New York was left to federal officers, as there was little support for it at the state level. The Bureau of Prohibition, the federal law enforcement agency created to enforce the Volstead Act, conducted raids throughout the U.S.

Agents were in Fulton County often, arresting the owners of business establishments as well as individuals suspected of being in possession of booze.

In April 1924, they were in Gloversville twice within two weeks. While in town to testify against four residents arrested in raids, they conducted two more raids on North School Street. Part of the headline in the Morning Herald read: "Woman Breaks Bottle. Raiders Claim Mrs. Derrico Destroys Evidence by Using Force - Not Held." Mary Derrico wrested a bottle of alleged liquor from the hands of the agents before smashing it against the furniture. She suffered a rather severe cut during the fracas and required the attention of a doctor. Neither she nor her husband, Joseph, a grocer, was held.

The WCTU chapter in Gloversville even assisted in some arrests when, in fall 1922, they reported to the police three men staying at the Hotel Kingsborough. With the aid of the women, also staying at the hotel, the police discovered 102 bottles of beer and a pint of whiskey. Prohibition agents made arrests in Northville, Broadalbin and elsewhere throughout the county.

Supporters of the 19th Amendment had high hopes for its success. Former professional baseball player and converted evangelist Billy Sunday put it this way: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

Unfortunately, just the opposite occurred. The dark, sinister side of Prohibition meant an increase in crime, gang activity, and corruption. All over the country, politicians and police officers were some of the speakeasy's best customers - or at the very least, corrupt law officials would accept money to look the other way. Crime became organized on a large scale for the first time, and illegal hooch wasn't the only vice they provided: Prostitution and gambling came right along with it.

The "Bootleg Trail" was a passage that connected Canada with New York City, allowing for the transportation of whiskey from Canada. It ran right through the Adirondacks, and a local woman may have had connections with the activities surrounding it. On May 8, 1931, the Morning Herald published the story of a woman - believed to be Mildred Duesler or Mildred Anderson of Gloversvillle - who was found dead along the trail, not far from the highway. She had been missing since March. The paper reads: "various sources police learned yesterday that Miss Duesler or Anderson, came here from Oneonta to learn to become a glove maker. She was employed for some time in one or two local factories. Police information was to the effect that she would disappear for short periods of time and had very little to say relative to her trip."

One surmises that Duesler/Anderson had some connection to the bootlegging operation. No further information about her or her death appears in later issues of the paper.

Because there was no standardized production of liquor, people began making their own. "Bathtub gin" was a blanket term used to describe any sort of alcohol made in the home - usually in the bathtub. It could consist of any combination of grain alcohol, fruit juices and other ingredients, and it was obviously very poor quality. Unfortunately, these mystery concoctions were not entirely safe, and many people suffered irreversible damage or lost their lives drinking them. In 1935, 15 people in the Gloversville area (and 18 in Utica) would lose their lives to poisonous liquor.

Local law enforcement gave this epidemic the moniker "the Creeping Death": death crept up on the victims, and doctors knew they were going to die but had no way to stop it. Death eventually came from the leakage of fluid from the brain after ingesting large quantities of the rubbing alcohol that was part of the brew. Even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the illegal production and sale of booze was lucrative and few were inclined to give it up.

The citizens of Gloversville were obviously shocked and dismayed by the large number of deaths in the community.

The Morning Herald proclaimed it the "worst tragedy in years." People criticized law enforcement for not doing enough to shut down illegal liquor operations. But a break in the case finally came when one of the victims of the Creeping Death told the police where she bought her supply. As she waited in the hospital to die, Mrs. Lena Snyder of Bleecker Street claimed that she purchased a pint for a dollar from Mrs. Mary Derrico (evidently not the same Mary Derrico whose bottle-smashing antics made the paper in 1924).

Derrico and her son, Thomas, were arrested. He was charged with the illegal sale of alcohol, but Mary was charged with that and second-degree manslaughter. The Derricos claimed they bought their liquor from John DiPedro and Salvatore DiDominick of Little Falls. DiPedro led the police to the home of the DiBenedetto family in Utica. Salvatore DiBenedetto and his two sons were arrested and charged after it was discovered that they had used antifreeze radiator compound in their liquor, though they had not intentionally made it poisonous.

Mary, who had not realized the deadliness of the stuff she was selling, and because of her cooperation with the authorities, was fined and put on probation for five years. She would not go to jail so long as she followed the terms, which included a weekly visit with her probation officer, attendance at church, and cutting all ties with the illegal liquor business.

Although it was no "Boardwalk Empire," the story of Prohibition in Fulton County is one full of the things that speak to Americans' fascination with the Jazz Age. Since there was little support for Prohibition in New York state, it's not surprising to learn that some of this county's residents were willing to break the law to ensure the continued enjoyment of an alcoholic beverage.

Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.



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