William J. Donovan (a.k.a. "Wild Bill") Takes on Buffalo

Col. Donovan of the Fighting 69th -Source: freerepublic.com

By Stephen Powell

Probably one of the more notable events in Buffalo History were when then District Attorney William J. Donovan executed a couple of raids in Buffalo on prominent Buffalonians during Prohibition. Both of these events backfired and made him so reviled in Western New York that it eventually cost Donovan the Race for New York State Governor in 1939, where he lost in Western New York by a wide margin.

What did he do to make people hate him so much? He touched the untouchables and conducted raids on two exclusive speakeasies and in a separate case charged the Mayor of Buffalo with trafficking liquor (bootlegging).

The Buffalo of the 1920's was a decidedly wet heavily industrialized Northeastern city. There was a dominant German culture here that was reflected in the amount of beer Buffalonians brewed and consumed. As Prohibition rolled in, the Northeastern industrialized cities continued to drink rivers of booze even though it was against the law to possess it. Buffalo was known as a big drinking town. In 1908 alone, this city of Buffalo, NY pumped out over 31 million gallons of beer. Every bit of it was drank locally, none went to waste. So much beer was made there that you could run it over Niagara Falls for over a minute and a half!

Two decades later you could barely tell Prohibition was in effect in Buffalo's. Buffalo's battle against Prohibition was consistent and unyielding throughout the 1920's but largely ineffective. Twice during the so-called roaring 20's Buffalo's flamboyant mayor Francis X. Schwab appealed for repeal, and modification of Prohibition. His appeals were twice rejected. Schwab, a colorful character with a thick German accent fought to keep citizens of his city from being "poisoned" by contraband liquor. Schwab had a heavy bias in wanting anti-liquor laws removed; he was a part owner of the Broadway Brewing Company. Yet, his appeals were altruistic. People were in fact being poisoned by bad liquor, going blind or worse. In his zeal to combat the 18th Amendment, this outspoken Catholic mayor also drew the attention of powerful adversaries, including the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan was on a mission of hate and division, specifically targeting Catholics. This made Schwab a prime target. The Klan sent a hit man to kill him, but failed to get the job done. Politically, Schwab was in a complex position, on one hand he was bound to enforce the law, on the other he had to do what he thought was right by campaigning for the legalization of light wines and beer. The Klan, backed by powerful Protestant leader Littleton E.H. Smith openly attacked Schwab saying he had "winked at lawlessness" and "advised others to become lawless."

Not only had Mayor Schwab encouraged others to break the law, but he had broken the law himself. In May 1922, Buffalo Mayor Francis Xavier Schwab was charged of manufacturing and selling intoxicating beer at his brewery. 84. The Schwab case made headlines across the country. The high profile case was to be prosecuted by none other than the prominant U.S. Attorney, Colonel William J. Donovan, known in later years the founder of what would become the C.I.A. When asked to comment on the case against Buffalo's Mayor Donovan said he believed that if Schwab was "…guilty, let him be given the extreme penalty." The son of Irish immigrants, Donovan was a hard driving overzealous man who had earned the title of "Wild Bill" from his exploits in battle during World War I. Donovan had graduated from Columbia College in the same class as Franklin D. Roosevelt and like Roosevelt, he was destined for great fame and power. Donovan, however had met his match in Schwab who short circuited the system and pled nolo contender too the charges placed against him and was fined five hundred dollars. Schwab triumphantly and promptly paid his fine and with a smirk, dismissed the whole matter.

After the Schwab case was over, Donovan rose up in the ranks of Buffalo's elite. It wasn't long before he lost all respectability among Buffalonians. Part of his fall from grace came from his attempt to prove his power to his peers in Buffalo Society. Donovan broke from the good old boy network and conducted a raid on one of the most elaborate speakeasies ever built in America, the exclusive Saturn Club of Buffalo. It was this move that made the overzealous Donovan an outcast in his own town.

The Saturn Club, built in 1922 served as a private place for Buffalo's elite to gather and socialize and of course, drink. The club remained low key, even as one of its most visible members, Bill Donovan himself was getting pressured to prove his loyalty to the federal government. Donovan was also a member of the Country Club of Buffalo another exclusive men's club.

Rumors circulated as to Donovan's motives for raiding his own clubs. Some still say Donovan had a chip on his shoulder and wanted to prove to his cronies that he had real power. Still others said that Donovan flat out warned his comrades of the impending raid. No one took him seriously and his remarks were ignored.

On August 29th, 1923 Federal agents under Donovan's control raided both the Saturn Club and the Country Club of Buffalo. The raids brought national attention to Donovan, the city, and of course the members of the clubs. The listing of those charged with dry law violations in following days newspapers read like a who's who of Buffalo leading businessmen.




Donovans raids may have been sensational, but they only succeeded in making him the most disliked man in Western New York. Sixteen years later, when he was defeated as he ran for governor in 1939 Buffalonians proved that they did not forget Donovan's betrayal. He lost heavily in Western New York, mainly because of his activities during Prohibition.

Neither Donovan nor the federal government could stop the raging river of alcohol flowing into Western New York. With over 8,000 speakeasies scattered across the Queen City the task of controlling them was daunting, if not impossible. Local officials did little to try to stop them. Buffalo's Mayor Schwab advocated legalizing and taxing them, as a means of controlling them but his admonitions were not upon.

Despite Schwab's efforts to ease enforcement of the Federal law that was prohibition the 1920's, brought hundreds of raids were conducted against the "soft drinkeries." Of course it was during election years that the number of these raids peaked, and each days news seemed to bring word of another bust. Disguised as a bum, Mayor Schwab himself even conducted his own investigations into the conduct of these clandestine saloons.

Many of the places raided during Prohibition in Buffalo were everyday working class clubs and restaurants. Neighborhood places like the Hasenpfeffer Club at the corner of Virginia and Ellicott Street was the target of only one raid during that decade. The Lakeview Barrelhouse on West Chippewa Street, which was literally a brewery barrelhouse, was raided twice. The swank Hertel Club on Hertel Avenue, Volker's on Elmwood Avernue, Diamond Lil McVans on Niagara Street, the Little Harlem Hotel on Michigan Avenue, Jew Minnies on Pearl and Tupper Street were just a few of the thousands of places around town to buy a drink, if you had a membership card. Buffalo was so awash on drink that one English reporter proclaimed that Buffalo was the "…second largest center of prohibition evasion in the United States and a metropolis of make-believe and camouflage."

In these private spaces, patrons drank almost anything with any hint alcohol in it. Mayor Schwab vigorously complained about the numbers citizens being poisoned by the poor quality bootleg liquor being sold in the city.

-Fore more about the life of William J. Donovan a.k.a. "Will Bill Donovan" see the Winter 2003 Issue of Western New York Heritage Magazine. Click here to buy.


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