SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Saratoga is known for health, history, and of course, horses. And all three can be on display at any time around this race track. But, some of the history in this city is not looked back on too fondly. The Spa City was once a hotbed for organized criminal activity.
"They had no restrictions on how they operated their business. They were killers, they were murderers."
And for three months each summer, they called Saratoga home.
"These were national figures, on the level of Al Capone,” said Saratoga Springs Police Chief Greg Veitch.
"The payoffs were supposedly $1,000 a day," said Maria McBride Bucciferro, Saratoga Living executive editor and co-owner.
Mobsters, here to run a business: a dicey, but profitable one. Starting in the 1820s -- more than 30 years before the race course even opened, casino chips became the Spa City's unofficial currency.
"I knew people who rented their dining rooms for poker games,” said Bucciferro.
Flush with mob money, Saratoga's gaming parlors became high-rent. By the roaring 20s, more than a half-dozen, high-stakes casinos popped up.
There were the infamous "lake houses," like the woodsy "Arrowhead Inn," and art-deco hang-out "Riley's." And, of course, the only one that still stands today: Canfield Casino in Congress Park.
"Mainly it started with Arnold Rothstein,” said Veitch.
Yes, that Arnold Rothstein, who recently found new fame on the hit series Boardwalk Empire, for an old act of infamy way back in 1919.
"People said they were actually discussing the World Series fix at the Brook, which was located on Church Street in Saratoga,” said Bucciferro.
But Maria McBride Bucciferro, who has spent years chronicling the mafia's influence in Saratoga, says these campy tales don't even begin to tell the whole story.
"After world war one, the start of prohibition began, so with that came the birth of the American gangster,” she said.
That description fit Rothstein and his fellow crime bosses like a well-pressed suit.
"Meyer Lansky and Lucky Lucciano were part of murder incorporated. They were part of the commission that gave the green light to mafia murders,” said Veitch.
But their casinos put a stop to poverty in Saratoga Springs, and it bought them the kind of favor with city residents they rarely showed others.
"Over time people assumed that without the gambling, the town would go downhill economically and invariably, the grand jury would fail to indict them,” said Veitch.
Just to give you an idea of how large this industry was: in the summer of 1901 the Canfield Casino, by itself, pulled in $600,000. In today's money, that would be worth close to $17 million -- big business.
"It wasn't like it was this horrible vice, it was just the way things are and a way to help your family,” said Bucciferro.
By the 1950s, government crack downs put an end to the corruption. Today, Saratoga's tourism industry still depends on wheeling and dealing, but it happens on Broadway and at the Race Course. But it will always owe a bit of its heritage to some colorful characters -- a debt, thankfully, the city will never have to repay.
"The names of people that have been here and have been involved in certain things in Saratoga Springs is astonishing. And I think we can honor and appreciate our history without condoning what was happening,” said Veitch.