Saturday, February 5, 2011

The crime commission comes to Hudson

Mention Hudson’s Diamond Street to people of a certain age in the area and you may be likely to hear a story about a neighborhood known for its flaunting of the law, a place where gambling and prostitution thrived.

The funniest story this reporter heard related to Diamond Street, by then renamed Columbia, involved a man I met in Kinderhook. It was the late 1940s and he and his new bride, on their way south to honeymoon, stopped in Hudson for the night. Not knowing their way around, the newlyweds ended up on Columbia Street looking for a hotel. The man left his bride in the car and went to find out the price of a room at what appeared to be a small hotel. He soon realized his mistake when he was greeted by the denizens of the establishment. Needless to say the couple didn’t stay.

Our friend in Kinderhook may not have been aware of Hudson’s reputation, but he was apparently in the minority.

“The little town with the big red-light district,” as Hudson was known for many years, had a reputation that stretched along the east coast and through history, beginning almost from the founding of the city in 1785.

Everyone from early sailors who plied the Hudson to Albany politicians who came down from the capitol on Fridays, allegedly after knocking off early from governmental duties, spent money and time with the painted ladies of Hudson. While there they could also take a roll of the dice, plunk down cash for a chance to win at the numbers, or place a bet for horse races anywhere in the country they happened to be running.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly with Hudson’s vice trade until that warm summer night when a long line of trucks and sedans slowly pulled onto Columbia Street.

Fifty state troopers quickly smashed in the doors of six “disorderly houses” as the newspaper delicately put it, located on Columbia Street between North Third and Fourth Streets. Twenty three women were rounded up, as were two Hudson Police Officers who were in one of the houses of assignation at the time. Four of the women were charged with operating the houses; the others, prostitutes all, were charged with vagrancy.

A pinochle game was raided as well that night, with other gambling house raids following.

While the raid stirred the city and county up and generated some headlines regionally, it also turned the head of a man who had of late lost a run to the White House.

A year and a half after the raid, in December 1951, then-Gov. Thomas Dewey issued an executive order that sent his State Crime Commission, created by Dewey in April 1950, to Hudson to look into “the relationship between organized crime and units of government.”

The committee reported its findings to the governor and legislature.

Hudson was only the third place the commission had been to, the others being Staten Island, where waterfront corruption was looked into, and St. Lawrence County.

The public hearings, according to Judge Joseph Proskauer, who headed up the commission, were being done for the sake of “the public peace, public safety and public justice.”

The commission came to Hudson and set up camp at the county courthouse for three days, from Dec. 17 to 19, subpoenaed 200 county residents and ripped the lid off a corrupt system that included collusion between government officials, gamblers, and houses of prostitution. Several wire services were also brought to task for providing tickers so that illegal horse room operators could get up to date information on horse races around the country.

Interestingly, the only connection the commission found between organized crime and Hudson’s inner-workings was between a gambler named Raymond Van Buren, who ran an illegal horse room and had a tenuous connection to Frank Erickson, New York City’s “King of the Bookies.” Van Buren allegedly gave a good bit of money to the Hudson Democratic Committee in order to keep his business open.

What it did find included a city police force and city officials who seemed to look the other way when it came to prostitution and gambling and both Republican and Democratic committees that shook down vice peddlers and used some of the money to buy votes.

John Gibbons, the former Democratic County Committee chair from 1931 to 1951, admitted that he would meet with other committeemen at the Register-Star building, then known as the Evening Register, to dole out funds to be used “as they saw fit.”

When asked if the money was used to buy votes, he answered in the affirmative, adding “anybody likes a dollar bill.”

When confronted with paperwork that showed the party disbursed more money than they had taken in, he had no answer.

The Republicans, according to testimony given at the hearings, apparently ran things the same way.

Former district attorney and city judge Thomas Kennedy told the commission that he made “contributions” to the county Republicans and that the amount paid was directly “calculated on length of term and salary.”

John Fardy, the former head of the Hudson City Democrats and police commissioner, told the commission that there was an arrangement with the Republican Party to divide up city government positions, giving the example of the Republicans agreeing not to run anyone against the Democrats’ city judge candidate and in exchange the Democrats allowed the Republicans to run the mayoral candidate unopposed.

Vera Faith, who operated a house of prostitution at 340 Columbia Street, was brought before the commission. She said she usually had between one and three girls working for her at any one time. An advertisement in a Poughkeepsie social event program that read “Vera’s, Come on up boys. Sporting Merchandise” was trotted out for the hearing.

Carol Desmond, the operator of a house at 325 Columbia Street, also appeared. She was a little less forthcoming than Faith, saying that the three girls that worked for her—Donna, Patricia and Billy—“sold things.”

When a stack of cards with the girls’ names and heart-shaped punch holes was proffered, Desmond answered simply that they “were used in my business.”

In the eight month period, in 1949-1950, she operated her business, Desmond made $24,000, almost $220,000 in today’s dollars. She didn’t pay taxes on any of it.

The citizenry, when brought to bear for Hudson’s rampant vice, pretty much had the same attitude as Samuel Berman.

“They might profit by it, but I don’t think they condone it,” he said of the city’s business community.

Berman owned the house at 325 Columbia Street, which he rented to Desmond and eventually sold to her.

He told the committee that he suspected what the house was being used for, but didn’t know for sure.

When Kennedy was asked why he didn’t clean up the city while D.A., he answered that he had tried to get outside help for an undercover investigation, but was told that he would have to go through regular channels, that is, Hudson’s mayor and the governor’s office.

“I might just as well put it in the paper,” he said.

The district attorney who did finally help clean up the city was John McLaren. He went directly to the governor’s counsel, who put him in touch with the NYS Police superintendent, leading to the Hudson raid.

He told the commission that he had had trouble getting the Hudson Police to cooperate. They balked in regard to getting warrants, he said.

But even McLaren had balked at untangling the strings that led from vice to government.

He told the commission he would be “glad to prosecute gamblers and hoodlums, bring some political figures in here, as you’ve’s tough.”

After the dust cleared from the commission’s presence, a dozen Hudson officers are brought up on different charges, with nine being reinstated with back pay. Benjamin Goldstein, a crap game operator, does a year in jail and the houses of prostitution, its denizens and Hudson’s colorful past fade into history.