Rothstein_ The Life, Times, And Murder Of The Criminal Genius

David Pietrusza

Part 22

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Hired killers do not shoot once, hoping a single slug will suffice. Lead is cheap. They certainly do not fire that single bullet into a man's gut. They blow his head off, saw him in half with a stream of Thompson submachine bullets. They keep firing until out of ammunition, until their weapons are white hot, until so little remains of their victim that his own mother couldn't recognize him.

Nor do hired killers toss the murder weapon onto the pavement at the very scene of the crime. The East River is far too convenient for that.

Hired killers did not murder Arnold Rothstein.

So what are we left with? Not much. No planned murder, no plot. Just George McMa.n.u.s in a room with Arnold's overcoat.

Which is actually the best place to begin-because from the circ.u.mstances of that topcoat, we know many things. We know Rothstein made it to Room 349, and we know that George McMa.n.u.s was there at the time. We know that words were exchanged, a single shot fired, a murder weapon flung through a window screen, and the room's inhabitants-the dying and those determined not to die anytime soon-fled posthaste.

There was no struggle. We know that for two reasons. First, there were no powder burns on A. R.'s clothes. Second, the angle of the wound meant the shot came from an odd corner of the room. Rothstein may never have seen his murderer fire.

So who was in the room? Rothstein? Yes. George McMa.n.u.s? Yes. McMa.n.u.s not only left his overcoat in the room, he grabbed A. R.'s. Hyman Biller? Yes. But who were John Doe and Richard Roe?

To understand who was in the room, we have to understand why George McMa.n.u.s originally checked into the Park Central. It was not to kill Arnold Rothstein, nor threaten him-although he was certainly enraged at him-nor even to run another floating c.r.a.p game.

It was because George McMa.n.u.s had had a fight with his wife.

That was it, plain and simple.

And why the Park Central? It was a gambling hangout. t.i.tanic Thompson and n.i.g.g.e.r Nate Raymond took rooms there. Even A. R. maintained a $14-a-day two-room suite in the place-but there was a far better reason.

The Park Central was where George McMa.n.u.s's intimates livedhis bagman and enforcer, Hyman "Gillie" Biller, in Room 1463; his brother Frank, an official of the Children's Court, in Room 252.

Hyman Biller and Frank McMa.n.u.s were with George McMa.n.u.s when Rothstein arrived. A. R. had no bodyguard, carried no gun, because of the fourth person in the room: "Richard Roe."

"Roe" was a retired police detective. After all, no one would harm the Great Brain with a former cop in the place. A former police officer in Room 349 guaranteed A. R.'s safe pa.s.sage.

That cop was former Detective Sergeant Thomas J. McMa.n.u.s, George's and Frank's brother. Tom made first-grade detective in 1911, left the force in 1914, returned in 1915, and left for good in 1919 to operate his own floating c.r.a.p and card games. Tom might be retired, might have even crossed over to the other side of the law; but to those in the underworld, a former cop never lost his status completely. With Thomas J. McMa.n.u.s in the room, a man like Rothstein would be safe.

When A. R. entered Room 349, he removed his topcoat, sat down, and talked. He argued-and someone shot him.

It was not anyone standing near him.

Said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Norris: The man who fired the shot might have been standing on his right side or even partly behind him. It is impossible to be sure that Rothstein was sitting, but this seems to have been the case. The reason is that the skin is marked above and to the right of the wound in a way that indicates the victim was seated while the a.s.sailant was standing. Rothstein was certainly not facing the man who shot him. It seems probable he was not expecting the shot at all, and possibly that he did not know who shot him.

"Possibly that he did not know who shot him." Rothstein always threatened to name anyone who dared shoot him. He would not live-or rather he would not die-by the gangster's code of honor, of silence. He proved he would go to the police if necessary, as when he was robbed by "Killer" Johnson. His deathbed silence puzzled many. Perhaps he simply had nothing to tell.

And just as he may not have known who shot him, we do not know why he was shot.

Presumably the shooter panicked as tempers rose. Perhaps he thought A. R. was pulling a gun. The three and Biller had all been drinking heavily. The gun may even have discharged accidentally. We will never know.

The were shocked. Someone wrestled the gun out of the shooter's hand and flung it through the window onto Seventh Avenue.

Who shot Rothstein? No one involved was in the mood to ever discuss the case, but someone finally did.

The killer.

In one sense, our source is unlikely, but in the Damon Runyon world of Arnold Rothstein, not unlikely at all.

Meet Al Flosso, professional magician.

Al Flosso, the "Fakir of Coney Island," a 5'2" Lower East Side vaudevillian who had sold magic kits to gawkers at Tim Sullivan's Dreamland-with a young Bud Abbott as his shill. A fellow vaguely remembered by the magic community, but by n.o.body else.

Al Flosso's sister-in-law had married bookmaker Hawk McGee, a George McMa.n.u.s employee. McGee introduced his new in-law to his boss, and the big gambler and the tiny magician grew to like each other. One night, a drunken McMa.n.u.s revealed, "I did it, you know. I was the one who gave it to Rothstein."

Actually knowing what so many merely suspected frightened Flosso. While George McMa.n.u.s lived, Flosso kept silent. However, years later, he and his son Jack went for a drive. At a stoplight, Al Flosso confided to Jack Flosso what George McMa.n.u.s told him.

McMa.n.u.s also talked to his old a.s.sociates, confiding details of how he shot A. R. He either told t.i.tanic Thompson directly, or Thompson heard it from people McMa.n.u.s had spoken with. Years later Thompson provided this account to writer, Oscar Fraley, best known as author of The Untouchables.

Frank McMa.n.u.s and Hyman Biller were definitely in the room. "I'm getting a lotta static from some of the boys you owe money to," McMa.n.u.s told Rothstein. "Some of 'em are anxious to get out of town, back home, and they're crying on my shoulder for their money."

"Let the b.a.s.t.a.r.ds cry," Rothstein replied. "They cheated me, and I don't like that a bit."

Big George protested, "A. R., there wasn't any cheating going on. h.e.l.l, you know that. The guy doing the dealing most of the night didn't even know that much about the game. You gotta pay off pretty soon, A. R., or these guys are liable to start getting ugly."

"The fact is I couldn't pay them right now if I wanted to," Rothstein retorted, not calming McMa.n.u.s down a bit. "I got too much money tied up in the elections. You just go tell them they're going to have to keep their shirts on."

McMa.n.u.s tried reason. Now he rushed to a table and pulled out a revolver and shouted, "A. R., I got nothing against you, but I'm being held responsible for something you are supposed to be taking care of. And I don't like that. I'm not asking you to make those I. 0. U.'s good; I'm telling you. G.o.dd.a.m.n you, Rothstein, pay the money."

"Hey, George, calm down," A. R. pleaded. "I'm gonna pay; don't worry. I just need a little more time."

"You've already had time," McMa.n.u.s spat back. "Time's up. Come up with the money. Now."

And with that, George McMa.n.u.s shot Arnold Rothstein. t.i.tanic Thompson's version of events had the two gamblers struggling and McMa.n.u.s's gun discharging accidentally, but the physical evidence makes this scenario unlikely if not impossible. Gene Fowler, who possessed his own impeccable sources on Broadway, told a slightly different story of a "half-drunk" shooter meaning to scare Rothstein by firing a shot past his side, but being so inebriated, missed. In both versions, the shooting was accidental, and explains why Jimmy Hines would so solicitously aid a friend, McMa.n.u.s, who had shot another powerful friend, A.R: McMa.n.u.s didn't mean to do it.

It was just one of those things that happened on Broadway.

But hadn't we said earlier that gamblers don't do their own shooting? No. We said that it was "not a premeditated shooting by gamblers." George McMa.n.u.s hadn't meant to lure Arnold Rothstein to his death. His big drunken Irish temper had erupted. He reached for his gun, pulled the trigger, and accidentally let A. R. have it.

The New Republic had very neatly and properly ruled out several categories of suspects. But it also incorrectly ruled out McMa.n.u.s: Some way or other, he doesn't seem to qualify as the shooter.

He is a big man, a bully man; not the gun-toting type. I question if he ever carried a gun in his life. He doesn't have to; he is big enough to shoulder people out of his way and to smack them down, which he probably does if they don't like it. Big men are not gunmen. Gunmen and killers are almost invariably small men, physically unfit, and their careers of violence usually begin on the playground where, as boys, they refuse to take a beating from the bully. They are undersized, and you can prove it by looking them over, from the frail, blond Billy the Kid down to Red Moran, the latest victim to "grease the griddle" at Sing Sing Prison. The big man waiting trial does not fit in the frame.

The New Republic got one very important detail very wrong. George McMa.n.u.s did indeed carry-and use-a gun. In 1902 he served time for threatening to murder a henchman who testified against him after a police gambling raid. In October 1910, he waylaid Tammany District Leader and former Manhattan sheriff and Street Cleaning Commissioner, George Nagle, promising to kill him if he didn't pay a $50 gambling debt. Polly Adler was the 1920s most famous madam. Her upscale East 59th Street wh.o.r.ehouse catered to celebrities George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and actor Wallace Beery, and to such underworld figures as Eddie Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Frank Costello-and to George McMa.n.u.s. In her autobiographical A House Is Not a Home, Polly recounted just how drunk and violent Hump McMa.n.u.s could become. Once, he waved his pistol threateningly at her. Polly temporarily got it away from Big George, but later that evening he fired a shot through the bordello's French doors.

After the .38 caliber slug entered A. R.'s body, everyone fled. A. R. staggered down a stairway. Everyone else headed their own way. Sober enough to realize he was in big trouble, George found a phone booth at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 57th Street and called Jimmy Hines. Hines sent Bo Weinberg to take him to safety in the Bronx.

Cover-up Number One, orchestrated by Jimmy Hines, was beginning. It would end a year later with Hump McMa.n.u.s's acquittal.

Frank and Tom McMa.n.u.s and Gillie Biller knew they hadn't fired any shots. Big George was in trouble, but they weren't too worried about themselves. They hadn't done anything. h.e.l.l, they'd even wrestled the gun out of George's hand. So they remained in the area, keeping their heads, plotting what to do next.

George McMa.n.u.s was the most famous member of his family, an irony because the were actually a police family. Frank worked in the Children's Court system. Tom had reached the rank of detective before retiring. Another brother, Stephen, remained on the force, holding detective rank. Their father, Detective Sergeant Charles McMa.n.u.s, had been one of Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes' "Forty Immortals," an elite corps of nineteenth-century crime stoppers. To be an "Immortal"-or even one of their sons-brought a place of honor at any precinct house.

The George notwithstanding-were as police department-blue as any family in New York. The force would take care of them, because they were part of that bigger family of the NYPD. Once it became known the had been involved in the Rothstein shooting, and not just George but Tom and Frank, well ...

Cover-up Number Two.

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Park Central staff discovered the wounded Rothstein at 10:47 P.M. Around midnight, off-duty police officer Thomas Aulbach ran into Tom McMa.n.u.s near the corner of West 50th Street and Broadway. Unlike brothers George and Frank, Tom did not live in Manhattan. He resided at 2328 University Avenue in The Bronx. What was he doing there on a bone-chilling Sunday night just a few blocks from the Park Central? Was this not beyond the realm of coincidence if he had not been in Room 349 just an hour before?

From the vantage point of years one thing is obvious. t.i.tanic Thompson was wrong when he swore from the witness stand that you can't cheat in a Stud Poker game patronized by professional or big-time gamblers. I must disagree with t.i.tanic's sworn statement.

I know differently.

If McMa.n.u.s conspired with Raymond, Thompson, et al. to fleece Rothstein, he deserved to have his $51,000 loss returned from Nate Raymond's winnings. But if A. R. never paid n.i.g.g.e.r Nate, Nate could never repay McMa.n.u.s. Hump McMa.n.u.s wasn't acting on behalf of Nate Raymond, not driven to a drunken lather from consideration of some Californian he barely knew-he was looking out merely for himself.

And that would explain why Nate Raymond and all emissaries of Raymond's were missing from Room 349-why everyone in the room was connected with George McMa.n.u.s.

The Big Bankroll didn't die over a $300,000 gambling debt. He wasn't that big anymore. He died over a measly $51,000-not much more than double the price of his casket.

CHAPTER 24 * Epilogue

The times were changing in November 1928. The Big Money from Wall Street would soon vanish. Prohibition would follow. Tammany Hall would soon be out of power. Maybe A. R. would have adjusted. He was smart enough and tough enough. But maybe he, too, would have wound up behind bars-like Capone, Lepke, or Luciano. You never know. Arnold Rothstein died at forty-six. Most of his contemporaries survived him. Some for months. Some for years. Some for decades. Tidying up the loose ends of the life of Arnold Rothstein, here is the fate of these members of the supporting cast. One cannot help concluding that while crime pays temporarily, in the long run its bill usually comes due with a rate of interest even A. R. dared not charge: NICKY ARNSTEIN emerged from Leavenworth on December 21, 1925. His marriage to f.a.n.n.y Brice survived jail but wilted from verbal abuse and adultery. They divorced in 1927. "I didn't even go back to New York for my clothes," Arnstein would recall. "She auctioned them off with her furniture later. I was through."

In 1964, when Arnstein's son-in-law, producer Ray Stark, was working to bring Funny Girl, the story of the Brice-Arnstein romance, to Broadway, he feared Arnstein would sue over his onstage portrayal. Stark invited Nicky to New York for the premiere. While in Manhattan, Arnstein hit Stark up for money repeatedly. When the producer finally had enough, so did Arnstein, who returned home, huffing, "I don't want to see what they will make me into."

Nicky Arnstein died at age eighty-six in Los Angeles on October 2, 1965.

ABE ATTELL continued finding himself in and out of trouble. In July 1929, he beat the rap for scalping fight tickets. In 1931 Justice Department officials raided an unlicensed New Jersey radio station linked to a $100 million-a-year, twelve-ship, rum-running operation. Inside, they discovered a little black book containing several references to Attell.

Eventually, the Little Champ went straight. He owned Abe Attell's Steak and Chop House at 1667 Broadway (and was charged with staying open illegally on primary day, a benign transgression by Attell standards) and another bar, May O'Brien's (named after his second wife) at East 55th Street and Second Avenue.

In the late 1950s he appeared with several other ex-boxers, on the television quiz show, The $64,000 Challenge, against a team featuring Dr. Joyce Brothers. He later acted shocked to find it was fixed. (In typical Attell fashion, he denied everything.) Boxing's oldest living ex-champion died at age eighty-five on February 6, 1970 in New Paltz, New York. Despite having fixed the 1919 World Series, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955, the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1982, the San Francis...o...b..xing Hall of Fame in 1985, and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOAB H. BANTON'S handling of the Rothstein case ruined his dreams of a judgeship. He returned to private practice, never again held public office, and died at age seventy-nine on May 29, 1942.

GEORGE YOUNG BAUCHLE died forgotten at age sixty in suburban Port Chester in July 1939. The Times decorously termed him "well known as a first nighter, automobilist, and patron of various sports."

HYMAN "GILLIE" BILLER, widely thought to have perished during his flight from New York following Rothstein's murder, reappeared in Miami in January 1930, penniless and supposedly fearing extradition. Less than two weeks later, District Attorney Crain quashed Biller's indictment-an almost unprecedented dismissal in a murder case where the suspect remained a fugitive. That April, Biller returned quietly to New York. In early August, police discovered him gambling at Yankee Stadium and, despite his loud protests, ejected him from the ballpark. That was his last time in the public eye.

f.a.n.n.y BRICE had second thoughts about divorcing Nicky Arnstein. "I didn't believe we were through . . . ," she later contended. "I knew I was just as much in love with Nick as the day I first saw him." In February 1929, however, she married showman Billy Rose at a City Hall civil ceremony. Brice eventually turned her back on the ethnic humor that launched her success, and gained perhaps even greater fame in Hollywood and on radio as bratty, accentless "Baby Snooks."

She died at age fifty-nine on May 29, 1951, of a ma.s.sive cerebral hemorrhage.

LEPKE BuCHALTER and Gurrah Shapiro continued labor racketeering. In 1936 federal authorities convicted both of Sherman Act violations. In 1937 they won a new trial, but before it began, they disappeared. Buchalter remained at large until the night of August 24, 1939, when he dramatically surrendered to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and gossip columnist Walter Winch.e.l.l. "Mr. Hoover," said Winch.e.l.l, "meet Lepke."

"Nice to meet you," Lepke replied calmly. "Let's go."

Buchalter thought that surrendering to the FBI would secure immunity from prosecution by Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey for the murder of candy-store owner Joseph Rosen. Lepke was wrong. The feds double-crossed him and turned him over to Dewey. After numerous delays, Buchalter went to the chair at Sing Sing on March 4, 1944.

NATHAN BURKAN, after gutting A. R.'s papers, returned to the lucrative world of copyright law, becoming general counsel for Columbia Pictures and one of several counsels for United Artists. He died of "acute indigestion" at his Great Neck estate on June 6, 1936. He was then working on the Gloria Vanderbilt custody case, representing Gloria's mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt.

SLEEPY BILL BURNS virtually disappeared following the Black Sox Scandal. He died at age seventy-three at the Trammel Rest Home in Ramona, California on June 6, 1953. Burns' obituary did not appear in the following edition of the Official Baseball Guide.

MAURICE CANTOR lost his a.s.sembly seat in the 1930 election. Shortly thereafter he moved out of New York City to Long Beach, Long Island. In the 1930s he defended such hoodlums as Salvatore Spitale and Lucky Luciano henchman Jack Eisenstein. In 1959 he reappeared in public view during an investigation of corruption at Roosevelt Raceway.

HAL CHASE never appeared in major-league baseball after the 1919 season, but played semipro ball until age fifty. Increasingly alcoholic, he drifted around Arizona and California mining towns, ultimately being supported by his sister and her husband. Neither could stand him. Chase died of beriberi on May 18, 1947 in Colusa, California.

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