“There seems to be no end to the marijuana ‘plantations’ unearthed in the borough. Here Sanitation Department Chief Inspector John E. Gleason examines a plant taller than he, found in a lot at 81 N. 4th St. With him is Dennis Healy, Sanitation District Superintendent for Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Millions of dollars worth or the plant have been dug out here in the last 60 days.”

When Marijuana Was Growing All Over Brooklyn
by Ben-Yakas  /  January 24, 2014

“In 2014, the Brooklyn DA is fighting against the state just to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. It’s hard to believe, but up until about 1951, Brooklyn was a veritable marijuana mecca where cannabis grew all over Williamsburg, East New York and Cobble Hill. As you can see in the photos above, via the Brooklyn Public Library, there were literally 10 foot tall Cannabis sativa plants sprouting in Brooklyn back then. In 1951, there was a major crackdown on the plants, with a Sanitation division called the “White Wing Squad” confiscated and destroyed 41,000 pounds of the plant, led by Sanitation Department Chief Inspector John E. Gleason. Brooklyn alone accounted for about 17,200 pounds.

This White Wing Squad, so named after their white duck cloth uniforms, were held to strict moral standards by Gleason. Among other things, they were barred from entering saloons, using foul language, and neglecting horses. To give some perspective: in the summer of 1951, the Brooklyn Eagle reported on some “daring marijuana farmers” who had established a “farm” in a lot at the heart of Brooklyn’s projected Civic Center. When the White Wing Squad busted them, the Eagle estimated that about $6 million worth of marijuana had been incinerated in Brooklyn up to that point.”

“Evil harvest : Inspector John E. Gleason of the Sanitation Department supervises as departmental workers load uprooted marijuana onto truck. Weeds found growing near Williamsburg Bridge were dug up as part of citywide campaign to eradicate marijuana from lots and outlying roadsides”

White Wings and Dream Stuff
by Ben  /  January 28, 2011

“In the summer of 1951 New York City was a marijuana jungle. From underpasses in the Bronx to empty lots on Avenue X, the razor-toothed fronds of 10 foot tall Cannabis sativa plants could be seen all around the city happily waving in the wind like any other innocuous and legal weed. But for all their persistence in invading the city’s forgotten horticultural corners, these plants were likely waving farewell: New York was no friend to pot.

“A girl from Texas sits dejectedly while Assistant District Attorney Felig examines $80,000 marijuana cache detectives had found in her Hotel St. George room”

Over the course of the summer about 41,000 pounds of marijuana were uprooted and destroyed during a campaign to eradicate the psychotropic stuff from vacant lots in the city. After Queens, Brooklyn accounted for the largest haul — about 17,200 pounds. Though the bust in one article occurred in Greenwich Village, the leader of this group of “strikingly pretty girls” and musicians copped to finding his marijuana “somewhere in Brooklyn.” As to what they were doing “sitting hobo style around a man preparing marijuana in a frying pan” is, however, anyone’s guess.

“Assistant Borough Superintendent McMahon and Chief Inspector Gleason supervising the destruction by Sanitation men of a clump of marijuana”

Responsible for all this destruction was General Inspector of the city’s Sanitation Department, John E. Gleason, who headed up a special “White Wing Squad” charged with harvesting and incinerating the dubious crop. Here we see him standing in a cornfield, arms akimbo, as his men lay the prized narcotic at his feet. The Eagle reported that the “drug plant” was growing here in “lush impudence.”

“Chief Sanitation Inspector Gleason directs three aides as they uproot a patch of marijuana near Fairfield Ave. Note: At the time of cataloging, Fairfield Avenue does not exist in Brooklyn.”

Though sounding like a team of angelic superheroes, the “White Wing Squad” was in fact a group of run-of-the-mill sanitation workers. The term “white wing” was a nickname given to the city’s Strongest in the 1890s when Colonel George Edwin Waring Jr., as head of the Sanitation Department, decided to dress his garbage men in white duck cloth uniforms with the aim of instilling some badly-needed martial order in what he saw as a rag-tag crew.

“Sanitation workers reap a potentially unhappy harvest of marijuana weeds from the rear lot at 51 Concord St. Once ferreted out of the ground, the growth is immediately destroyed. Supervising the anti-dope squad are Borough Sanitation Superintendent Walsh, left, and Chief Inspector Gleason.”

As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, authors of Gotham, relate, these white uniforms weren’t the only regulations imposed upon sanitation workers at the time — in addition to the pristine duds, Waring’s troops were barred from entering saloons, using foul language, and neglecting horses.

Far be it from me to presume knowledge of a 19th century garbage man’s soul, but how were men charged with cleaning up the 2.5 million pounds of horse manure and the 60 thousand gallons of equine urine that collected in the city’s streets supposed to refrain from profanity and drink? Who knows — but as mysteries go I suppose it ranks right up there with the marijuana omlets those Beatniks were frying up in the Village.

Anyway, back to the naughty plants at hand. In our photo collection we have a number of photographs showing these White Wings (though now their outfits are a rather darker shade of drab) out picking plants as tall as Christmas trees, carting plants away, and burning great piles of prohibited plants. It was an epic battle of Man v. Nature and Man was showing Nature — in this case, not Everest or the Atlantic but rather a scrawny weed — who was boss.

“La Guardia pouring beer in office during Prohibition”

In one photo (top), captioned Plenty of Dream Stuff, we see Inspector Gleason and Denis Healy, Sanitation District Superintendent for Greenpoint and Williamsburg, taking the measurements of one especially lofty specimen. At this point in the summer — August 2nd — the Sanitation Department had already dug up “millions of dollars” worth of plants from the “marijuana plantations” of Brooklyn.

But just how many millions of dollars had these pop-up plantations disgorged? In an earlier Eagle article from July 28th 1951 detailing the “daring marijuana farmers” who had established a “farm” in a lot at the heart of Brooklyn’s projected Civic Center, the estimated value of all the marijuana destroyed in Brooklyn was reported to be nearly $6,000,000. So by August 2nd the total value of pot destroyed in Brooklyn alone must have been well north of $6,000,000. Plenty of green dream stuff indeed.

“In the shadow of Brooklyn Federal Building, one block north of Tillary St., a new crop of marijuana is cut down by sanitation workers. Inspectors from the Sanitation Department survey the operation, latest in joint efforts by the two departments to rid the city of the weed.”

The proposed site of the new Civic Center wasn’t the only municipal hot spot for impromptu pot farms. Here we see inspectors from both the Sanitation and Police Departments overseeing a harvest in the shadow of the Brooklyn Federal Building. On the left we have Inspector Frank Creta from Sanitation and on the right a very nattily dressed Deputy Inspector from the Police Department, Peter E. Terranova.

“Ready for picking is this lofty stand of weed, discovered at Avenue X and West 11th St. in Gravesend. Getting ready to harvest the crop are Deputy Inspector Terranova, left, head of Police Narcotics Squad, and General Inspector Creta and Associate Superintendent Ferretti of the Sanitation Department.”

But these high profile plantings were the exception. More often than not these so-called marijuana farms were found growing in anonymous vacant lots such as this plot on Livonia Ave. and Warwick St. Or this one at 82 Butler St., where over 100 pounds of pot were hauled away.

“Police Inspector Terranova, commanding officer of the narcotics squad, flanked by a Sanitation workman and general inspector of the department, exhibit part of a haul of more than 100 pounds of marijuana found growing at 82 Butler St. the dope weed was burned in department incinerators.”

After being felled and used like safari beasts for some photo ops, the plants would then be taken to Sanitation Department incinerators in Woodside, Queens where Chief Inspector Gleason was on hand to oversee the fiery eradication. The photos you see here in this post come from a file labeled Crime: Drugs: Marijuana — it’s a pat taxonomy indeed, and constitutes a kind of shorthand for what was, and is, the law of the land.

And since laws, from the minute they are conceived, are both buoyed and attacked by supporters and detractors alike, I thought for sure we might find in these photos of Gleason’s marijuana vigilantes some pro-pot faction, unintentionally caught by the lens of the Eagle photographer, standing by in the wings betraying in their expressions a softness in their hearts for the demonized plant.

And in looking closer, beyond the posturing of the suits and the cops, you can just make it out — it’s a certain sort of conspiratorial glimmer, a smile, a shadow of a smile, some flicker of dissent passing over the face… maybe it’s there in the grin of the white wing… or in the fishy cigarettes of the laborers…

or in the full-on-bliss of the woman whose yard accounted for 100 pounds of the evil, malevolent, impudent, illegal, notorious dream stuff.

And though the story of marijuana in the summer of 1951 may end here, the story of crime didn’t end for everyone involved in this crusade. Looking for a little more information on General Inspector John E. Gleason I dug up a photo file of him. At first glance it loooked like just more of the same — Gleason standing beside a sanitation worker sternly appraising a freshly bagged pot plant.

But there on the back of one of the photos was glued an article from May 14 1953 headlined: Gleason Draws 3 1/2 Years in Probe of Fuel Extortion. Turns out our do-gooder Inspector was found guilty on four counts of lying to a Grand Jury which was trying to find out who succeeded James J. Moran as head of the $500,000-a-year fuel oil installers’ extortion racket in the Fire Department.”



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