Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Day the Bombs went off in Saratoga

It was shortly past the midnight hour and most reasonable people were already tucked in their beds when an explosion tore through the darkness of Congress Park.

Startled residents were jarred awake from their calm summer slumber and the rumor-mongering erupted just as suddenly: “Canfield’s has been dynamited!”

In those days Richard Canfield’s Casino was simply called Canfields – named for the owner of John Morrissey’s old Saratoga Club House – and the place where it stood was called Canfield Park. Barely a decade after the events of that crazy week in August 1905 occurred, the club house and the park would belong to Saratoga Springs, and the village and town of Saratoga Springs would be incorporated to form a city.

The explosion at Canfields that late Wednesday night had shattered windows and split an interior column, but was not the result of a purposeful act, an employee of the club house told newspapermen. The electric lights had failed, and to provide light Richard Canfield lit the gas jets and a cluster of burners. Gas had leaked through some rusty pipes, the employee explained, and the build-up of pressure caused the blast. Everyone seemed comfortable with the explanation and for the rest of the week life returned to the normalcy of a busy summer during which Saratoga would spend $80,000 on music alone for the entertainment of its guests.

At the Convention Hall opera singer Madame Rider-Kelsey wowed the crowd with her powerful, yet sympathetic voice. At Yaddo, Spencer Trask, “clad in corduroys and giving orders to a gardener near a clump of rhododendrons,” spent time in the summer heat with a writer from American Homes and Gardens, resulting in a large cover story in the magazine about the estate, two decades before it first began to welcome artists-in-residence. At Saratoga Race Course, the 17th day of the meet hosted six races and featured The Seneca – a six-furlong race won by Incantation, narrowly defeating second-place finisher Taxer, who came in at 40-1.

On Friday night, Victor Smith conducted Doring’s Orchestra of Troy at Congress Hall. And Louis Conterno directed The Fourteenth Regiment Band of Brooklyn in selections of the operetta “Babes in Toyland” on the piazza at the United states Hotel, leading them to their finale of “Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye .”
That night at 10:45, a loud explosion resonated on Woodlawn Avenue next to the United States Club. The blast shred the pieces of a shoeshine stand, broke the windows of the club and an adjacent garage, and badly chewed up the ground outside the club at 12 Woodlawn Ave.

Moments later, another blast was heard. This time it came from the park, near the window of one of the dining rooms at Canfields. Thousands of people gathered on the streets to try and find out the cause of the two explosions. No one was injured, but there was concern and curiosity. The fire department and police were called to both scenes, where crudely-made bombs were discovered to have been set off.

In the park, detectives found sheets of paper where a series of phrases had been printed with a rubber stamp: Canfield and Ullman to be dynamited; Ready to Go Off; Canfield says gas, I say dynamite; Twenty pounds of dynamite found at Canfield; Beware!

The police began their search for suspects and the event made headlines of both regional and national newspapers. “Two Saratoga Explosions,” said The New York Times. “Bombs for Gambling Houses,” said The Newtown Register, which began with the lede, “Saratoga is experiencing a reign of terror. Dynamite bombs have been thrown at two of the largest gambling houses in the country.”

Anti-gambling sentiment was high and consideration was given to the idea that the bomb-makers may have either been reformers, or pranksters, or potential robbers setting bombs as a distraction. Gambling was illegal, but authorities rarely enforced it, says current city Assistant Police Chief Greg Veitch. “Efforts to stop it were only made occasionally and only at certain locations.”
Joe Ullman, who operated the Bridge Whist Club on Phila Street, became extra-cautious after he was named as a target, in the rubber-stamped letter found outside the club house. Two days after the two explosions occurred, Ullman received a parcel in the mail and while carefully pulling it open noticed a coil of wire inside of the box. He called police who found that the package contained dynamite and a fuse and cap.

Newspaper reports say the contents were purposely not connected and would not have ignited, and therefore was meant as a warning. In his book “Such Was Saratoga,” published in 1940, author Hugh Bradley had another idea, however. “Only the fact that the caps were defective had prevented it from detonating,” writes Bradley, adding that a flyer similar to the one found near the park bomb two days earlier was found inside the box. Ullman said he was at a loss to account for the mayhem.

“It would seem to me that some foolish person has been trying to create a sensation wing to the unusual prosperity of the town,” Ullman told reporters. “The reformer always believes he is the only honest man in the world, and especially so when somebody else is making a success of which he is not capable.”

There is no record the bomb-maker was ever found and it is believed the person responsible for the events that occurred in August 1905 took the secret of his motivation with him to his grave.

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