The passage of the Volstead Act and prohibition against intoxicating liquor caused a profound change in American culture by breaking the traditional mold of heroes and anti-heroes. Popular media has romanticized the anti-hero “gangster” role, and some of the greatest actors of the movie-making era have portrayed names like Al Capone, “Bugs” Moran, “Bugsy” Siegal and “Machine Gun” Kelly on the silver screen. In many instances, thugs, authorities and officials become the puppets of the crime boss, or the authorities become as violent as the criminals do.
Things were quite different in Albany, which sat at the crossroad between Canada and New York City. The “boss” was a political figurehead that the public saw as “Jesus Christ in baggy pants and a brown three-inch brim fedora,” (Kennedy, O’Albany) and he squared off against criminal boss Jack “Legs” Diamond. In both instances, the characters blur the line between hero and anti-hero as they become entrenched in the popular lore of the Prohibition Era.
New York History (NYH) recently had the opportunity to talk with Dan Swinton of Mountain Lake PBS, Executive Producer of William Kennedy’s Prohibition Story. In this thirty-minute WHMT documentary, Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy tells the story of the violent exploits of gangster-bootlegger Jack ‘-Legs’ Diamond.
NYH: How did you decide to pursue this topic?
Dan Swinton (DS): We wanted to do a local “tie-in” to the national Ken Burns’ series “Prohibition,” and we knew that Albany had a rich prohibition-era history. We identified William Kennedy as the resident authority on the subject, and decided to pursue a single interview with him as the backbone for the film. Prohibition and particularly gangsters have a mythic quality that often makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction – even in the press of the day. We decided to take one storytellers approach to the subject to avoid becoming mired in the contradictions.
NYH: What was it like working with William Kennedy?
DS: Kennedy himself will relate that researching the ‘true’ history of Jack Legs Diamond was a mammoth undertaking, and fraught with dead ends and bogus accounts of people who supposedly knew him. We interviewed Kennedy for 5 marathon hours in one day. For a man in his 80’s Kennedy was a complete gentleman, and was as sharp as a tack. It was a great experience. His encyclopedic knowledge and really his performance in the delivery made every edit difficult. I hated to have to leave anything on the cutting room floor.
NYH:Is there anything that you learned that you found particularly interesting
DS: I was largely unaware of Dan O’Connell and the Albany Democratic Machine’s flagrant involvement in the liquor trade. As the story unfolded, I was attracted to the idea of two gigantic figures – O’Connell and Legs coming together like an acid and a base at the climax of the film.
NYH: Where do you plan to go from here?
DS:There are several directions I could go from here. Dan O’Connell deserves his own documentary, but in my new position at Mountain Lake PBS I’m interested in discovering the untold history of the Adirondack region and finding the storytellers of the North Country. The Adirondacks were, in many ways, America’s first frontier and is rich in history and lore that I can’t wait to dig into.
You can watch William Kennedy’s Prohibition Story online.