In the 1870s social reform movements swept across the nation. Law and Order Leagues, and other similar organizations, sprang up to campaign against issues as varied as baseball on Sundays, drinking, gambling, and sex trafficking.
Forty years later, members of the Saratoga County community formed their own Law and Order League to address many of these same “evil” influences on society. The leader of this organization was George H. West, the son of Galway, NY farmer Matthew West. The younger West had been elected to the New York Assembly where he served in 1899 to 1900.
The Law and Order League’s focus on protecting the morality of white women brought them to take on what was called at the time “white slavery.” Among other reasons it was believed by these reformers that drinking, drugs, lack of modesty, dance halls and the theatre were the source of sex trafficking of white women.
A bill introduced in the 1909 New York State Legislative session was not acted upon, but a reintroduced attempt in 1910, known as the Brackett-Whitney Bill, passed was signed into law. Brackett was Senator Edward T. Brackett of Saratoga Springs. Whitney was Assemblyman George H. Whitney of Mechanicville.
That same year the league attempted to stamp out gambling in Mechanicville. Represented by Ballston Spa attorney Hugh Whalen, the group filed a citizen’s complaint requesting that an investigation be made to determine if the crime of keeping a gambling establishment was being committed there. In their complaint, they alleged that gambling houses were “running full blast” on both Railroad Street and Park Avenue.
By December of 1910 indictments had been brought against local residents William O’Rourke, Barney Patrick, and Edward O’Neil. When the question of whether keeping a gambling house was in the penal code, the cases were put over to the next court term. In response to this setback, George West pressed his case to the village trustees. Among his complaints was that local police were failing in their duty to prevent the sale of liquor to minors, gambling, and “profanity on the streets.”
In the March 1911 term of the Saratoga County Court, the cases against O’Rourke, Patrick and O’Neil came to trial. Witness after witness was called, but none claimed they could recall when they played poker at these establishments and the cases were dismissed.
That same year, efforts to halt gambling across the state were in full swing, with one of the most sweeping changes when the New York State Legislature outlawed the placing and recording of bets, effectively shutting down horse racing in the state – including at Saratoga Race Course – in what is now known by racing fans as “The Dark Years.”
Possibly due to the increasing anti-gambling push across the state, the Law and Order League again started investigations into gambling in Mechanicville. This time the League focused on Deputy Sheriff Albert B. Houseworth, bringing a charge of “repeated neglect of duty” against the officer in January of 1914.
When interviewed by the Mechanicville Mercury, Houseworth responded to the charges that he allowed violations of the laws forbidding the sale of liquor and the playing of baseball on Sunday, as well as allowing gambling to flourish in the village. In his response, he said he was no longer the “goat for the glided reformer and never supposed that a Deputy Sheriff of Saratoga County had to act as a private detective for the Secret Law and Order League.”
The Law and Order League responded by reminding everyone that they had written Deputy Sheriff Houseworth on numerous occasions over the previous year informing him of the business places in Mechanicville with gambling machines, and identifying two active gambling places in the village. They called for the County Sheriff Clarence L. Grippin to intervene.
On January 3rd, 1914, the Mechanicville Mercury reported that Deputy Sheriff Housworth was at risk of being removed from his position. At risk was also his $65 a month job as a patrolman for the village of Mechanicville. A week after the charges were brought against Houseworth, Sheriff Grippin sent deputies to Mechanicville to shut down those places alleged to be involved in gambling. Though no charges were filed, their doors were closed to business and the gambling machines removed.
The Law and Order League’s campaign against gambling in Mechanicville was the last time any of their activities were reported in local newspapers. George West continued to work on social reform as superintendent of the New York Civil League’s Law and Order Department in Albany, NY. He passed away in 1936 at the age of 81 and is buried in Ballston Spa Cemetery.
Photos, from above: The sneering women of the Law and Order League in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach; George Herrick West 1854-1936 (courtesy Saratoga County History Center); and H. W. Lytle & John Dillon’s From Dance Hall to White Slavery: The World’s Greatest Tragedy (Chicago: Charles C. Thompson, 1912).
Dave Waite is a resident of Blue Corners, Saratoga County and has written many articles on upstate New York history. When not researching or playing with his cat Gus, he and his wife Beth seek solitude on remote ponds in the Adirondack wilderness. John Warren contributed to this story.