New York gambler and underworld kingpin
"The J.P. Morgan of the underworld"
a.k.a. "The Brain," "Mr. Big," "The Big Bankroll"
A capitalist in the truest sense of the word, Arnold Rothstein was probably the most powerful man in New York City at his peak in the early 1920's. Rothstein used his formidable intellect, impeccable organizational skills, and steely nerves to amass huge fortunes in a wide variety of shady enterprises, invariably placing the risk, both financial and legal, on the unsuspecting shoulders of his colleagues. His many disciples eventually became kingpins in their own right, overlords of the extremely lucrative mob activity in the Prohibition days. The first to bring corporate organization to the underworld, Arnold Rothstein put the "organized" in organized crime.
Rothstein was born in Manhattan in 1882, the second of five children in an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, shopkeeper Abraham Rothstein, was an upstanding citizen, and his four siblings turned out the same way. But Arnold had no interest in playing by any rules but his own.
Introduced to gambling at a young age, Rothstein soon decided he had had enough of school, dropping out when he was sixteen. His mind was very quick and he could perform arithmetic operations on large numbers virtually instantly. Better able to calculate odds than his opponents, he began playing dice and cards for small stakes, keeping record of every cent he won. Billiards was another of his pastimes; he soon developed great skill and won money consistently at the pool tables. He didn't just let his winnings sit idly - he's a capitalist, remember? - but instead financed the escapades of less successful gamblers in a very lucrative loan sharking operation. Rothstein never had to get his hands dirty - there was always a thug in his employ to take care of things if someone didn't pay up.
Naturally, this didn't please Rothstein's father one bit. Averting further domestic conflict, the seventeen year old moved out and took a job as a traveling salesman. Selling cigars while further honing his pool skills, he saved his money until he had enough to quit the legitimate job and begin a career as a bookmaker. His bankroll continued to grow along with his reputation. "The Big Bankroll" always won in the long run, because he could afford to lose more in the short term than anyone else.
In 1909, Rothstein married actress Carolyn Greene and opened his own gambling house. It catered to the wealthy and vain, with some patrons losing tens of thousands of dollars in a single night. He continued to finance others' illegal schemes at exorbitant interest rates, at the same time channeling much of his profits into legitimate businesses. It was necessary to pay off the police for "protection," of course, and Rothstein ingratiated himself masterfully with New York's corrupt Tammany Hall political establishment.
Others died mysteriously and fell to the law, but Arnold Rothstein was seemingly untouchable. No one could connect him conclusively with any of the criminal activity he had to be involved in. He opened more casinos and bought race horses and tracks. He had the financial means to cover any bet, and routinely carried hundreds of thousand-dollar bills in his jacket. Often suspected of fixing horse races, his success there was probably due to his superior information; with contacts everywhere he knew more about the horses than their owners did.
Many promising young gangsters received training in Rothstein's methods. Among his young associates were Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Legs Diamond, Meyer Lansky, and Frank Costello. These uneducated street thugs eagerly learned the principles of business organization and the cultural refinement of society's upper crust. Rothstein was always on the lookout for new talent, and his protégés were invariably loyal to their teacher.
Rothstein's name will always be linked with the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which nine Chicago White Sox baseball players received money to throw the World Series. In actuality, the ballplayers were approached by his associate Abe Attell, acting on his own initiative. Though Rothstein would later profit from wagers on the Series, he could truthfully say in court that he had rejected Attell's scheme. Rothstein's money and influence got to the players by other channels, of course, but still he managed to stay out of the clenches of the law.
At the onset of Prohibition in 1920, Rothstein began smuggling in liquor from England, though, as always, he restricted his involvement to financial backing. Bail bonds, narcotics, and pilfered Wall Street securities contributed more to his ever-growing empire. His personal wagering became legendary; single bets in the six figures were not uncommon, and he won the vast majority of them. His credo was such that he would bet on anything but the weather, since it was the only thing he couldn't fix.
In 1928, Rothstein's luck changed. He incurred huge losses in a card game with gamblers from out of town. Convinced that the game was rigged, he stalled on paying off his debts. After several weeks, the gamblers grew restless, as did George McManus, a local bookmaker who had hosted the game. On November 4, Rothstein was called to McManus's room at the Park Central Hotel. Soon afterward, he was shot once in the stomach with a revolver.
Arnold Rothstein died in a hospital bed the following day, November 5, 1928, having steadfastly refused to name his assailant. McManus was the primary suspect, but no witness could place him in the hotel room at the time of the shooting, and the courts acquitted him. The other gamblers all had solid alibis.
To this day, Rothstein's murder remains officially unsolved. He died without ever having been convicted of a crime.