In the Early Years: Technology improved for Oneonta police in 1935

Criminals in 1935 would not find Oneonta to be a “pushover” town when it came to law enforcement.

“The Oneonta Police department is preparing to meet the modern gangster on even ground,” The Oneonta Star reported on Monday, Jan. 21, that year. “In the near future, Chief Frank N. Horton announced yesterday, the department will be equipped with a sub-machine gun and a two-way radio-telephone service.”

 These were state-of-the-art technology upgrades for the time and Oneonta appeared to be proud of them, approved by Common Council in the 1935 budget and said to “bring Oneonta’s Police department on a par with other cities in the state, and will materially aid in preventing crime.”

Officers were ready to be trained to use the machine gun, which could fire a 50-shot drum in three seconds, a rate of 800 shots per minute. It weighed nine pounds loaded, so the weapon could be used with one hand like an ordinary revolver for single-shot fire.

To the best of my knowledge, there was never a time or crime in that era that required such firepower in Oneonta. The other new crime fighting tool, the two-way radio, was handy and useful.

By April, the radio equipment had arrived and been installed at police headquarters (then found at the Oneonta Municipal Building, today’s 242 Main St.), as well as the two “prowl” cars used on the streets. Tests were made all over the city and outside the limits, and all transmissions were strong and clear.

Prior to this new technology, The Star reported that officers had to watch for a red light at the top of the municipal building, indicating an emergency was in progress. Instead of awaiting the arrival of a prowl car to pick up the emergency information at headquarters and go, officers could now be dispatched and head to the scene immediately.

Another advance in police work in Oneonta came in March 1935. The department sought supplies used for fingerprinting individuals who wanted to have their fingerprints on file for personal identification purposes.

“Several months ago the department of Justice advocated national fingerprinting,” said M.L. Thomas, a fingerprint expert in the department. “Many Oneontans responded and their records are now on file at Washington, D.C.” It appears the program was tried earlier and was now becoming a permanent part of Oneonta’s police work.

Outreach to young people was part of crime prevention in 1935, just as it is today. On Thursday, Feb. 14, Police Attorney Joseph P. Molinari was a guest speaker at Oneonta High School.

“Crime does not pay and the life of a gangster is short,” Molinari told the students, himself a 1919 graduate of OHS. He pointed out the short careers of John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Baby Face” Nelson, stating that “these criminals could never have enjoyed life on their ill-gotten gains, as their luck could not go on forever. In the end they were killed and society was avenged.”

Molinari was in his early career at the time in Oneonta. It was only about a month later, Thursday, March 7, when Molinari announced he was seeking the post of Otsego County district attorney, a job he was elected to. In 1943, Molinari became Otsego County judge, and in 1951 New York’s Sixth Judicial District Supreme Court justice.

While police work was becoming more high-tech in 1935, the routine tasks still needed to be done, which many area residents of 2015 might identify with.

“Stop does not mean slow,” Chief Horton declared on March 25 while announcing that motorists must observe the various stop signs about the city. Police opened a campaign that day to compel motorists to observe the signs and had issued four summonses to drivers failing to stop. Those drivers were set to appear before Judge Frank C. Huntington in city court.

Interestingly, the signs were triangular in shape and made of iron, but the article in The Star didn’t tell what the color was at the time.

On Monday: The region went in front of the cameras for production of “Susquehanna Stories.”

Mark Simonson is Historian of Oneonta City, Twice a week he writes for the thedailystar.com, including this article. What he outlines in this article is more about Two way radios, but also early 20th century crime prevention techniques. 

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