In this episode, we hear from David Pietrusza about Arnold Rothstein, the man considered to be the "Grandfather of Organized Crime". And how he set up a gambling resort in Saratoga Springs that changed the way Americans looked at gambling forever.
David Pietrusza: Arnold Rothstein has been called the grandfather of organized crime the father of organized crime the crooked uncle of organized crime. He is the man who put so much together in the decade where so much is coming together.
Harry Sultan: This is Episode two of the mini series, The Wheels Keep Spinning. We left off the last episode with Arnold Rothstein coming to Saratoga to open up the next big gambling house called the brook but to get a sense of this casino's role in Saratoga Springs history and to understand just how in a role it was in the formation of the Las Vegas Strip we need to know more about the man behind it.
DP: This is David Pietrusza, author of Rothstein the Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series.
HS: David is going to take us through Arnold Rothstein story from the beginning when Rothstein was born in 1882.
DP: He comes from a good Jewish middle class family. He's his academic career is shall we say stunted because of a certain lack of interest in subjects that go beyond mathematics and gambling and he has a bit of an attitude. Actually a lot of an attitude.
HS: His affinity for mathematics, his is love of gambling and this attitude all played into his hands from a very early age.
DP: Certain professions are young men's games. Sports, politics, crime, you know the older you get, you stop playing chances, but young man can advance very very quickly. And Arnold Rothstein can move up very quickly from being just some punk on the street placing bets to being the fellow who is accumulating that bankroll and the fellow who is is associating with the higher class people.
HS: And this is what set Rothstein apart from so many gamblers at that time.
DP: Rothstein figures out that to make money you hang around with rich people. Rich people have more money than poor people.
HS: He was able to associate with these high class people because he didn't carry himself like a low life street gambler.
DP: Rothstein is not a ‘dese’, ‘dem’, and ‘dose’ guys. He dresses very conservatively; quality stuff but off the rack.
HS: And it wasn't just that he dressed the part but he acted like a higher class guy too.
DP: He’s not a drinker. He does not do drugs. He has a weakness for sweets.
HS: These qualities made him much more trustworthy to many high society types that wanted a more reliable and respectable place to gamble. So he decided to open up an establishment specifically to that demographic. In 1909 he opened up an apartment casino on West 46 Street of Manhattan that catered exclusively to wealthy New Yorkers.
DP: And Rothstein's able to carry this off better than most
HS: Rothstein’s casino apartment was immediately successful to the upper class gambling crowd of New York. And the success wasn't just great for him, it meant great things for Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall as you may remember from the last episode was the political machine that ran much of New York. In the early 1900s, Tammany Hall still had power and one of its bosses Big Tim Sullivan would get payoffs from Rothstein’s winnings. So the better Rothstein was doing the better big team would do too. And for quite some time this relationship with going great, though it didn't last.
DP: There is a problem involving another gambling house in the area run by a guy named Beansie Rosenthal. Beansie is another favorite of Tammany boss Big Tim Sullivan but he ain't as bright as Arnold Rothstein.
HS: Beansie Rosenthal, like the rest of the apartment casino owners had to pay off Big Tim, but Beansie refused to pay and his place is broken up by one of Big Tim’s crooked cops, a guy named Charles Becker. Beansie, thinking that his best course of action would be revenge on Becker decides to give a series of interviews to a newspaper about Becker and Big Tim's corruption.
DP: Becker wants to kill Rosenthal. Becker is an incredibly violent bad cop and he wants to kill him.
Rosenthal steps out to the sidewalk one night a very quiet night. A car pulls up. People start firing at him. It's the first drive by automobile shooting in American history. They may have been drive by horseshoe hooligans before that but nothing by car.
HS: Even though Becker thought he was above the law. He was put to the electric chair for the murder. And while there was justice for this crime it also put a spotlight on other criminals in the underworld.
DP: But in the aftermath of this the gambling houses in Manhattan are shut down. It gets too hot to handle. And this is one of the reasons why we have another phenomenon which Arnold Rothstein is known for in the musical, in the movie Guys and Dolls there's a fellow named Nathan Detroit. It was based on Arnold Rothstein. In Guys and Dolls, there’s a great song called It's the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.
HS: Floating craps games - which are essentially just a game of craps that occur in a different spot every night to avoid being shut down by the cops - have been going on in New York for quite some time. So for Arnold Rothstein to be successful at it he knew that he would have to do it better than anyone before him.
DP: Who invents things is one thing who perfects things is another thing.
HS: And Arnold Rothstein perfected it?
DP: Arnold Rothstein is very good at perfecting things. He makes sure that the locations are better than say old stables down the Lower East Side and they are classier hotel rooms that the cops will not knock on the door.
HS: Rothstein was operating these for a while very successfully. He was making profits while still upholding a certain level of class about him, but he knew that there was still more to be made with a more permanent upscale casino. The problem was that it was tough to do in Manhattan. Not only was the heat still on from the Rosenthal murder, but for Rothstein to really make a respectable casino, he needed space that just wasn't available in New York City. But since 1904 Rothstein had been going up to Saratoga Springs in the summer to gamble at the track. He knew its rich gambling history, and he knew the Canfield's casino had closed its doors and that there were a lot of wealthy gamblers with money to lose. So he, like Gideon Putnam, John Morrissey and Richard Canfield in years past, decided to move his business upstate. But it wasn't like he was the only one with the idea to open a gambling house.
Greg Veitch: You could play at any number of other places. There were certainly dives.
HS: Saratoga Springs Chief of Police Greg Veitch
GV: The mayor of Saratoga Springs who ran his own gambling operation, the place was a literal dive that women would actually cross the street as they were approaching his place, walk on the other side of the street, and then cross back over just so that they wouldn't have to walk in front of Caleb Mitchell's dive.
HS: And as the amount of these less-than-elegant gambling dives became more prevalent, the allure of letting Saratoga be an open town for gambling became a lot less appealing. But when Rothstein decided to move his operations upstate, he didn't care that Saratoga was trying to clean up its act.
GV: It was one thing to believe the Saratoga should be clean when you’re, you know one of the political chairmans of the town until Rothstein shows up with a check for sixty thousand dollars and then maybe Saratoga it doesn't need to be so clean.
HS: And so 1919 Arnold Rothstein bought a plot of land on the outskirts of the city and turned the mansion on that property into an extravagant casino called The Brook. He didn't just want to bring back high stakes and high society gambling to a city that was now overrun by gambling dives. He wanted to make a place so successful that people forgot about Morrissey and Canfield. To do this he went above and beyond what his predecessors ever could have. He had a free limousine service that shuttled his guests to and from their hotels, imported the best chefs from New York City to cook 500 plate meals at a time for a menu without prices, and hired some of the best entertainment acts of all time for no cost to his guests. He knew that if people didn't have to worry about paying for their food or for their entertainment they were more likely to spend their money on gambling. And that's exactly what they did. But no matter how elegant the book was it was still an illegal establishment to understand a little more about how it managed to stay open. I spoke to a woman who is actually alive to see it.
Minnie Bolster: I know about the Brook
HS: This is many bolster well bolster.
MB: Well I’m Minnie Bolster. Actually I was Minnie Clark and I was born up the street at the hospital 1920, August 19.
HS: The hospital many was born in was a straight shot down the road from The Brook on Church Avenue. And though Minnie wasn't old enough to go into the book she has memories of seeing it, watching the crowds of well-dressed people walk in while her and her friends stood on the other side of the gate, which he was able to do because her uncle was one of the people hired to guard the place.
HS: Yeah your uncle was a pretty powerful person more or less?
MB: Well he was a policeman.
HS: Oh wow.
MB: You see the police were, They were in on it. Nobody talked about it, but the police, many of them had second jobs with them. The Mayor probably wouldn’t have told you but, everybody knew it.
HS: John Morrissey and Richard Canfield both ran their casino without the police bothering them because he cozied up to the town. Morrissey would buy new steps for churches, pay mortgages of widows and Canfield extended the public parks. But Arnold Rothstein wasn't as much of a so-called gentleman gambler as his predecessors. He didn't care about having the towns people like him as much as he cared about making a profit so as long he paid off the right city officials to keep his doors open and his roulette wheel spinning he was happy. But something else changed between the time when Morrissey and Canfield operated their casino and when Rothstein operated his that made the prospect of taking bribes as a police officer much more lucrative. You see the year after Rothstein opened the Brook, the 18th amendment came into effect in January 1920 thus beginning prohibition.
Rothstein's model had always been to provide the best of the best to cater to the top of the market for the biggest payoff. And bootlegging alcohol was no different. While others were diluting their whiskey in order to sell more of it Rothstein knew that if he got high quality liquor from overseas and sold it untampered he could sell it for a massive profit as well as getting repeat business. He also recognized that if people knew that Brook had the best alcohol in Saratoga then thats where they would go to drink, and once they were there they'd likely stay and spend their money gambling. As Rothstein’s business kept expanding, he realized. He couldn't oversee all of it on his own. He realized that he would need to find someone else to help him.
DP: So in the early 1920s Arnold Rothstein is looking around for some new talent who could help him. And there are some people floating around in the Lower East Side, in Brooklyn the environments which are not quite Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue, and the great find is a fellow named Meyer Lansky “Little Man”, who Rothstein sees as a person who will take his principles and put them into action.
HS: Rothstein takes Meyer Lansky and his friend Benjamin Bugsy Siegel under his wing and begins to teach them everything he knows about bootlegging, running a casino and just how to thrive in this criminal world. For the next eight years Rothstein is a mentor to these gangsters and they had a lot of success working together between rackets and New York City and Saratoga. But in 1928 Rothstein's luck began to change. He was invited to a high stakes poker game in an apartment close to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.
DP: Rothstein keeps playing and losing and playing and losing. He's always got sort of good hands but not good enough to win in any sustained way. And the more he's playing the more he becomes convinced he's been set up and he's being cheated he's being cheated and finally he has this one hand which he bets an immense amount of the night, the highest amount on one hand up to that point. Loses again, and says ‘I knew it, I know what you guys have been cheating me and you. I'll be damned if you'll you'll collect from me’.
HS: Rothstein doesn't pay. He leaves and for two weeks is using the money that he owes these people from the poker game for his other investments. He gets a call from the man who organized the poker game to come meet him at the Park Central Hotel. Rothstein agrees and leaves his booth at the Lindy’s restaurant to meet at the hotel. It's impossible to know what happened during the meeting but we know what happened immediately after.
DP: What then happens - that we know for sure - is that the night watchman, the help at this hotel, see a guy coming down the stairs in the basement. And it's Arnold Rothstein he says ‘help I've been shot’ and they take him to a hospital. A day or so later he dies without giving any details of what has happened at all. He refuses to to squeal.
HS: Arnold Rothstein the pioneer of the floating craps game and the founder of the Brook died on November 6 1928 at the age of 46. And while he may have died young his legacy and influence in the world of gambling kept going long after he was gone. After Rothstein's murder his protegé Meyer Lansky and his colleague Ben Bugsy Siegel used what they learned from Rothstein as the foundation for their next big undertaking. A luxury resort casino in the image of the Brook, out Las Vegas, Nevada.