Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Arnold Rothstein, Dark Genius of the Mob

Was Arnold the Shooter?

During the early morning hours of May 16, 1917 Rothstein was enjoying one of his favorite pastimes — rolling dice in a floating crap game. The game was being held in a second floor suite at the Hotel St. Francis on West 47th Street. Rothstein, who was sponsoring the game, made sure all the proper hotel employees were tipped handsomely to make sure the game was not bothered. Around 3:00 a.m. five gunmen entered the hotel lobby after being informed by an accomplice who was participating at the dice tables. While two of the men stayed downstairs, the other three went up to the room and used the elevator boy, who doubled as an errand runner for the gambler, to get inside.

Rothstein knew most of the players in the room. In addition to professional gamblers the group included stockbrokers, doctors, actors, attorneys and businessmen. One man that stood out to Rothstein was a two-bit gambler who had the distinction of being present at several games that had recently been held up. As the masked gunmen entered the room Rothstein's first reaction was to drop his bankroll, estimated to be $60,000, to the floor and kick it under a rug. His next response was to keep his eyes on the inside accomplice, who had seen Rothstein drop the money, throughout the whole ordeal.

When the robbers searched Rothstein and found just $2,600 in his watch pocket they angrily removed a diamond stickpin he was wearing.

"I'll send you the pawn ticket, AR," the gunman said.

"Don't bother," Rothstein replied. "I'll have it back before the mail carriers arrive tomorrow morning."

Rothstein never took his eyes off the man he suspected of conspiring with the robbers. When the gunmen left, he bent down and picked up the hidden wad of cash. As Rothstein had vowed he had his stickpin back the following morning. As he discussed the robbery with his friend Swope, the newspaperman poked fun at the gambler and told him the police were already aware of what took place and that they considered Rothstein "too yellow" to talk to them. Telling Rothstein, "They're laughing at you, Arnold. The word is out that you're buffaloed," Swope finally got the gambler's goat. Rothstein went to the police station and identified two of the robbers from mug shots.

On August 22, 1917 Rothstein appeared in court and testified against the two gunmen. Based on his testimony the two men were convicted and sentenced to Sing Sing. One of the men, Albert Johnson, cursed Rothstein and vowed to get him. Two months later Johnson escaped, but not before telling a cellmate that he planned to kill Rothstein. The police notified Rothstein of the escape. Although his friends advised him to leave town until Johnson was captured. Rothstein refused claiming it would make him look scared and that it would tarnish his fearless reputation. Despite the iron façade, Carolyn later revealed that he was afraid. Weeks after the escape a New York police officer informed Rothstein that Albert Johnson was killed by a security guard in Detroit while trying to rob a bank.

Less than two years later Rothstein was a participant in another floating crap game, this time on West 57th Street. The police were tipped off to the game and a raiding party showed up. One of the officers pounded on the door and shouted, "Open up, before we bust in." The raiding party was dispersed by a volley of bullets that crashed through the door. Miraculously the gunfire caused only three minor flesh wounds.

The officers cried out, "This isn't a stickup, it's the police."

The door was quickly unlocked and the angry raiders entered and arrested 20 men including Abe Attell, a Rothstein bodyguard and former featherweight boxing champion. The men were searched, but no gun was found. A patrol wagon was summoned and the men were escorted to it. As the gamblers were being loaded on, a bystander watching the procession pointed out to one of the officers a figure hiding on the second floor fire escape.

After the wagon took off, two officers re-entered the building and climbed out on the fire escape where they discovered Rothstein hiding with a revolver. Rothstein then drove the wounded officers to the hospital, where their wounds were attended to, and then back to the station house where he was booked on an assault charge. Rothstein then provided bail money for all the gamblers who had been arrested.

Despite the fact the police officers admitted they had made a mistake by not properly identifying themselves, an overzealous inspector, Dominic Henry, with the help of an assistant United States attorney, pushed for an indictment and received one on June 5, 1919. When the case was called Rothstein's attorney requested a dismissal, which the judge readily agreed to. Later, one of the newspapers hinted that Rothstein had paid $32,000 to get the case quashed.

An investigation was called and in a bizarre twist of events Inspector Henry found himself indicted for perjury — convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. It would take the maligned police official until 1924 to get his life, finances and career with the police department straightened out.

While the incident showed the power of Rothstein's influence, the publicity, which he always sought to avoid, troubled him.

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