Arnold Rothstein (January 17, 1882 – November 6, 1928), nicknamed "the Brain," was a Jewish-American gangster, crime boss, racketeer, businessman and gambler who became the leader of the Jewish mob in New York, succeeded by Meyer Lansky. Rothstein was widely reputed to have organized corruption in professional athletics, conspiring in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed the Jewish mob from small, thuggish street gangs into a sizable criminal empire, run like a corporation, with himself at the top."
Rothstein failed to pay a large debt resulting from a fixed poker game and was murdered in 1928. His criminal empire was succeeded by Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel and led in part to the downfall of Tammany Hall and the rise of reformer Fiorello La Guardia. Ten years after his death, his brother declared Rothstein's estate was bankrupt.
Early life and education
Arnold Rothstein was born in New York City, the son of a wealthy Jewish immigrant racketeer and businessman, Abraham Rothstein, and his wife Esther. After his early use of chicanery, extortion, and theft, Rothstein disavowed such behavior in later years and became known as a philanthropist, donating to Beth Israel Hospital. Arnold was skilled at mathematics, was well-read, and was being groomed to take over the legitimate business of his father. However, Arnold dropped out of school and developed an early interest in illegitimate business which he easily found amongst his father's early connections. His older brother studied to become a rabbi.
While still a child, Rothstein began to indulge in gambling, but no matter how often his father scolded him for shooting dice, Rothstein would not stop. In a rare interview in 1921, Rothstein was asked how he became a gambler: “I always gambled. I can’t remember when I didn’t. Maybe I gambled just to show my father he couldn’t tell me what to do, but I don’t think so. I think I gambled because I loved the excitement. When I gambled, nothing else mattered.”
By 1910, Rothstein at age 28 had moved to the Tenderloin section of Manhattan, where he established an important gambling casino. He also invested in a horse racing track at Havre de Grace, Maryland, where he was reputed to have "fixed" many of the races that he won. Rothstein had a wide network of informants, very deep pockets from amongst his father's Jewish banking community, and the willingness to pay a premium for good information, regardless of the source. His successes made him a millionaire by age 30.
1919 World Series
There is a great deal of evidence for and against Rothstein being involved in the 1919 World Series fix. In 1919, Rothstein's agents allegedly paid members of the Chicago White Sox to "throw," or deliberately lose, the World Series. He bet against them and made a significant profit in what was called the "Black Sox Scandal."
He was summoned to Chicago to testify before a grand jury investigation of the incident; Rothstein said that he was an innocent businessman, intent on clearing his name and his reputation. Prosecutors could find no evidence linking Rothstein to the affair, and he was never indicted. Rothstein testified:
"The whole thing started when (Abe) Attell and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing. The world knows I was asked in on the deal and my friends know how I turned it down flat. I don't doubt that Attell used my name to put it over. That's been done by smarter men than Abe. But I was not in on it, would not have gone into it under any circumstances and did not bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was under way."
In another version of the story, Rothstein was first approached by Joseph "Sport" Sullivan, a gambler, who suggested Rothstein help fix the World Series. Rothstein supposedly turned down Sullivan's proposal but when he received Attell's offer, Rothstein reconsidered Sullivan's first offer. He figured that the competition to fix the game made it worth the risk to get involved and still be able to cover his involvement. David Pietrusza's biography of Rothstein suggested that the gangster worked both ends of the fix with Sullivan and Attell. Michael Alexander concluded that Attell fixed the Series "probably without Arnold Rothstein's approval," which "did not prevent Rothstein from betting on the Series with inside knowledge."
The odd thing – or perhaps not – about the legal battle surrounding the World Series fix, Leo Katcher says, is that “[a]ll the records and minutes of the Grand Jury disappeared. So, too, did the signed confessions of Cicotte, Williams and Jackson… The state, virtually all of its evidence gone, sought to get the players to repeat their confession on the stand. This they refused to do, citing the Fifth Amendment.” Eventually, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. Katcher states, “Thus, on the official record and on the basis of [State Attorney Maclay] Hoyne’s statement, Rothstein was never involved in the fixing of the Series. Also, on the official record, it was never proved that the Series had been fixed.” All eight White Sox players were forever banned from the game of baseball. Despite all his denials, though, Katcher notes that “while Rothstein won the Series, he won a small sum. He always maintained it was less than $100,000. It actually was about $350,000. It could have been much – very much – more. It wasn’t because Rothstein chickened out. A World Series fix was too good to be true – even if it was true.”
1921 Travers Stakes
Rothstein owned a racehorse named Sporting Blood, which won the 1921 Travers Stakes under suspicious circumstances. Rothstein allegedly conspired with a leading trainer, Sam Hildreth, to drive up the odds on Sporting Blood. Hildreth entered an outstanding three-year- old, Grey Lag, on the morning of the race, causing the odds on Sporting Blood, to rise to 3-1. Rothstein bet $150,000 through bookmakers, allegedly having been informed that the second favorite, Prudery, was off her feed. Just before post time and without explanation, Hildreth scratched Grey Lag from the starting list. Rothstein collected over $500,000 in bets plus the purse, but a conspiracy was never proven.
Prohibition and organized crime
With the advent of Prohibition, Rothstein saw the opportunities for business; he diversified into bootlegging and narcotics. Liquor was brought in by smuggling along the Hudson River, as well as from Canada across the Great Lakes and into upstate New York. Rothstein also purchased holdings in a number of speakeasies.
With his banking support, and high-level Jewish political connections. Subsequently, his criminal organization included such underworld notables as Meyer Lansky, Jack "Legs" Diamond, and Dutch Schultz, whose combined gangs and double-dealing with their own respective bosses subverted the entire late 19th century form of political gangsterism. Rothstein's various nicknames were Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Man Uptown, The Big Bankroll and The Brain.
Rothstein frequently mediated differences between the New York gangs and reportedly charged a hefty fee for his services. His favorite "office" was Lindy's, at Broadway and 49th Street in Manhattan. He often stood on the corner surrounded by his bodyguards and did business on the street. Rothstein made bets and collected debts from those who had lost the previous day. Meanwhile, he exploited his role as mediator with the city's legitimate business world and soon forced Tammany Hall to recognize him as a necessary ally in its running of the city.
Some say Rothstein was the "Moses" of the Jewish gangsters, the progenitor, a rich man's son who showed the young hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style. Lucky Luciano later said of him, Rothstein "taught me how to dress."
Gambling debt and murder
On November 4, 1928, Arnold Rothstein was shot and mortally wounded during a business meeting at Manhattan's Park Central Hotel at Seventh Avenue near 55th Street. He died the next day at the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital in Manhattan. The shooting was reportedly linked to debts owed from a 3-day long, high-stakes poker game in October. Rothstein hit a cold streak and ended up owing $320,000. He claimed the game was fixed and refused to pay his debt. The hit was intended to punish Rothstein for failing to pay his debt. The gambler George "Hump" McManus was arrested for the murder, but later acquitted for lack of evidence.
According to Kevin Cook in the book Titanic Thompson (2010), the poker game was fixed by gambler/con man "Titanic" Thompson (real name Alvin Clarence Thomas 1892-1974) and his associate, Nate Raymond. Due to some complicated side bets, by the end Rothstein owed $319,000 to Raymond (much of which Raymond was due, by secret agreement, to pass on to Thompson); $30,000 to Thompson; and approximately $200,000 to the other gamblers present. McManus owed Rothstein $51,000. Rothstein stalled for time, saying that he would not be able to pay until after the elections of November 1928, when he expected to win $550,000 for successfully backing Hoover for President and Roosevelt for Governor. Thompson testified at McManus's trial, describing him as "a swell loser" who would never have shot Rothstein. According to Cook, Thompson later told some of his acquaintances that the killer had not been McManus, but his "bag-man", Hyman Biller, who fled to Cuba shortly afterwards. Ironically Rothstein last bet was one of which he would have won-although he never collected on it.
On his deathbed, Rothstein refused to identify his killer, answering police inquiries with, "You stick to your trade. I'll stick to mine." and "Me mudder (my mother) did it.". Rothstein was buried at Ridgewood's Union Field Cemetery in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony
Break-up of empire
At his death, Prohibition was in full swing, various street gangs were battling for control of the liquor distribution, and the carefully constructed political boss structure of the late 19th century was in total collapse. Frank Erickson, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and other former associates split up Rothstein's various "enterprises" after his death. With Rothstein's death, the corrupt and already weakened Tammany Hall was critically weakened, because it relied on Rothstein to control the street gangs. With Tammany Hall's fall, reformer Fiorello La Guardia rose in prominence and he was elected mayor.
Ten years after his death, Arnold Rothstein's brother declared Rothstein's estate bankrupt and Arnold's wealth disappeared.
In popular culture
- Rothstein is referred to as "The Brain" in several of Damon Runyon's short stories, including a fictional version of his death in "The Brain Goes Home". As a newspaper reporter, Runyon came to know Rothstein personally and later covered the trial of his alleged killer.
- In the novel The Great Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim is a Jewish friend and mentor of Jay Gatsby's, described as a gambler who fixed the World Series. The character is commonly assumed to be an allusion to Rothstein.
Films and Television
- He was portrayed in the 1960 film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond by actor Robert Lowery.
- In the 1961 The Big Bankroll by David Janssen.
- In the 1981 film Gangster Wars and series The Gangster Chronicles by George DiCenzo
- In the 1988 sports drama film Eight Men Out by Michael Lerner.
- In the 1991 film Mobsters by F. Murray Abraham.
- In the 1999 biopic Lansky by Stanley DeSantis.
- In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, he is portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg.
Waxey Gordon - worked as a rum-runner for Rothstein during the first years of Prohibition.
Harry "Nig" Rosen - involved in narcotics with Rothstein during the mid-1920s.