Friday, October 11, 2013

Albany Ale: Broadway Empire

I've been wanting to write about Albany and Prohibition for some time now. I wasn't sure how I wanted to go about it. The problem is prohibition isn't really a beer story.

Don't get me wrong Albany was affected by Prohibition just as every other city in the United States was. By law, the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol was illegal. Because of that, Albany saw its share of  illegally produced, and or cut, “bootleg” alcohol as well its fair share of speakeasies. As a capital city, the demand for alcohol by powerful political figures was high. Being located half-way between the Canadian border and New York City on U.S. Routes 9 and 20, also made the area a stop-over for whiskey leaving Canada bound for New York City, Boston, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Albany was, for lack of a better term, “wet” with strong, alcoholic spirits like gin and whiskey.

Beer however, was another story. Because of its low alcohol content it can't be cut with water, or spiked with another form of alcohol, without notice. At the time, to be profitable beer had to be made in quantity, and therefore required large facilities to make it. Large facilities are hard to hide from Prohibition officers and other law enforcement officials. By 1920, the first year of national prohibition, only three of the seven breweries operating in the city, a year earlier would still be open—Beverwyck, Dobler and Hedrick.

Beverwyck, began operating as Beverwyck Co. Inc, and closed its ale producing counterpart Quinn & Nolan, focusing on making malt vinegar, near beer and soda. Feigenspan Brewery, the parent company to Albany’s Dobler Brewing Co., shut down its brewing operations in Newark, New Jeresey and convert that brewery into a coal and ice producing facility. In Albany, Feigenspan kept Dobler open and produced near beer and soda, as well. 
Dan O'Connell in 1937.
Courtesy of the Times Union

Hedrick Brewing Co. was the exception to this. And, it's a big exception. Almost as if it were right out of HBO's  Prohibtion-themed, television series Boardwalk Empire. We could call this version Broadway Empire, after Broadway in downtown Albany.

Initially Hedrick closed, but was purchased by a group of local businessmen who appeared to be operating the business legally making a non-alcoholic concoction of apples and malt. They were in fact, bootlegging. Producing beer and pumping it out through the basement of the brewery. They were eventually caught and prosecuted in the mid 1920s. Former Albany County District Attorney John J. Conway, would defend the group, taking ownership of the brewery in lieu of owed legal fees. Conway was a close friend of the Albany County Democratic Committee head, political boss, and ultimately the driving force behind Albany’s nearly sixty year Democratic Machine, Daniel P. O’Connell.

O'Connell, who came from nothing and grew up in Albany's south end, had been elected in 1919 as City Assessor, but quit a few years later to head the Democratic Party in Albany. From that point, he and his cronies—including O'Connell's brother Solly, and the longest-termed mayor in the history of the United States, Erastus Corning II—ran Albany like Capone ran Chicago. O'Connell's power wasn't limited to just Albany either. His Democratic Machine had links to both the State Capitol and Washington D.C. As one of the dominant political forces in New York, O’Connell had deep influence—both legal and illegal. Along with the polling places and political patronage, O’Connell controlled Albany’s police force, its red-light district, gambling, bootlegging—and with Conway’s acquisition of Hedrick Brewery—its beer. Hedrick continued producing illegal, full-strength beer after Conway assumed ownership, and although Conway owned the brewery, its profits benefited O’Connell. The last thing O'Connell was going to allow was competition—be it in politics or booze—and he did an amazing job of keeping out both the Republicans and the rackets out of Albany. 1931

That year John Moran—better known as Jack "Legs" Diamond—showed up in the city.

Diamond (center), just after being released
from the hospital in 1931.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
Diamond, the flamboyant associate of the recently murdered Manhattan gambler and racketeer Arnold Rothstein, was attempting to expand his former boss’ booze and crime empire up the Hudson River. This expansion did not go unnoticed by the other mobsters in New York. Since the late-1920s, Diamond had been in a turf war with a Bronx-based gangster Dutch Schultz. A war that resulted in a number of lead slugs being pulled from Diamond's body. In 1930 Diamond—having recently been kicked out of Europe, when officials there realized he was on the hunt for narcotics and booze—was shot at the Hotel Monticello on the West Side of Manhattan. The gunmen peppered him with four rounds. He recovered, but by that point Schultz had moved from the Bronx into Diamond's territory in Manhattan. Diamond new it was time to get out of New York. He and his crew set up shop at the Aratoga Inn, in Cairo, New York, a tiny hamlet an hour south of Albany. 

Why Cairo, you might ask? 

Rural Greene County was the perfect place to pinch the supply of booze moving from Canada to New York City. It was secluded which made hiding liquor easy, yet close enough to Albany to satisfy Diamond's insatiable appetite for the nightlife. Diamond was becoming a celebrity. The press glorified his antics. They portrayed him as a gentleman gangster; a daring, Robin Hood-like character—stealing from the rich and giving hooch to the poor. In reality, that was far from the truth. Diamond was a brutal killer, and he laid claim to the "whiskey highway" with a vengeance. In the spring of 1930 Diamond beat a truck driver he believed was running booze. Shortly thereafter, he kidnapped and tortured a local bootlegger named Jack Duncan. Arrested for both assaults in the spring of 1931, he was tried and acquitted on the first charge, but the charges of kidnapping and torture wouldn't be so easy to avoided. The law wasn't Diamond's only problem, either. Six days after his arrest, a gunman sunk three bullets into Diamond while he was eating dinner at the Aratoga. Again, he recovered. The acquittal and attack only bolstered Diamond's reputation as the un-convictable, un-killable gentleman gangster.  

During Diamond's recovery, New York State Troopers raided his headquarters in Cairo, recovering $5,000 worth of illegal alcohol—which added federal bootlegging charges to his list of crimes. In August of 1931, Diamond and his lieutenant Paul Quattrocchi were tried on violations against the Volstead Act, and sentenced to four years in prison. Diamond appealed the conviction. Within a few weeks, Diamond's kidnapping case began. His savvy lawyer, Daniel Prior, petitioned to have his trial moved from Catskill to Troy, New York. Prior seriously doubted a conviction from a Rensselaer County jury enamored with Diamond's charming ways and reputation. Out on bail and bidding his time during the federal appeals process, Diamond set-up shop at the Kenmore Hotel in Albany. Diamond used the hotel's Rain-Bo Room like his own personal living room, dancing, womanizing and playing the hotel's piano well into the night. 

Obviously, a man in Dan O'Connell's position did not like having such a high-profile threat to his empire cavorting the night away at one of his city's premier establishments. O’Connell tolerated the gangster at first, and actually arranged for police protection for him, at the Hotel. But when rumors that Diamond had plans to get into the beer and extortion business in Albany arose, tensions escalated.

Prior was right, Diamond was acquitted of the kidnapping charge. On December 17, 1931 Jack Diamond was free and clear, and the federal charge of bootlegging was under appeal. The world was Diamond's oyster. He headed straight for the Kenmore, and spent most of the evening celebrating there with friends. He left around 1am, stopping first at his mistress Kiki Roberts place, before going home to his Dove Street apartment. Just before dawn on the morning of the 18th, three shots rang out. Legs Diamond, the un-killable killer, was found face down in his bed with three bullets in his skull.

Rumors were abound about the killing of Americas favorite gangster. Suspects included his biggest rival, Dutch Schultz, Arnold Rothstein's protegé Charlie Luciano, and the Philadelphia bootlegger Waxey Gordon. The most accepted theory, however, is that O’Connell had Diamond killed for trying to move in on his bootlegging and beer operations. William “Doc” Fitzpatrick—a friend of O’Connell’s and an Albany police sergeant and future chief of police—was most likely the triggerman.

Diamond was dead and the official repeal of Prohibition went into effect almost exactly two years later on December 15, 1933. Hedrick Brewing Co., closed in 1965*, and Dan O'Connell would continue to run his Democratic Machine in Albany until his death in 1977.

Albany doesn't have many gangster related prohibition stories—nothing compared to New York or Chicago. But the one it does have, sure is a Duesy.

*The Hedrick name was sold to Piels in 1965 who continued to make it at Hamden-Harvard Breweries in Willimansett, Massachuset, until the name was again sold to Eastern Brewing Co., in Hammonton, New Jeresy in 1974. Production of Hedrick stopped when that brewery closed in 1990.   



  1. Craig, that's very interesting. I knew Legs Diamond related to the Albany region, through William Kennedy's "Legs" (thus far unread), but none of the detail. I must pick up this book, the first in his famous series on modern Albany history. Have you met him? I doubt he would find the Albany Ale Project anything other than fascinating...


    1. I've not met Kennedy. But I've read his Albany cycle. "Billy Phelans Greatest Game" is my favorite. It deals with the kidnapping of Patsy McCall's (Kennedy's thinly vield version of Dan O'Connell) nephew. Billy Phelan, the protagonist of the book is the son of Kennedy's character Francis Phelan, the focus of Kennedy's Pulitzer Winning "Ironweed".

      As far as Diamiond goes, there was a 1960 movie, "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond", starring Ray Danton. It was not accurate to the real story at all, but it was the film debut of Dyan Cannon! Parts of the storyline involving the character Gyp Rosetti on HBO's third season of it's series "Boardwalk Empire" were loosely (very loosely) based on the time Diamond spent in Cairo. Because the show is set in Atlantic City, the fictional rural town of Tabor Heights, was used rather than a village in upstate New York.

  2. Interesting, thanks for this. I only knew Ironweed (fine book) and must get these other books. A quick check online shows Kennedy is 85 now but still active. He'd remember some of the Albany ales in the 50's and 60's (it now occurs to me), although who knows if he likes beer. Still, as a journalist in that era he'd probably be able to recount a tale or two!