Newport: Kentucky's Open City
Dealer Pays off in a game of Twenty-One in the Yorkshire, one of Newport's busiest dens. It opens at 11 a.m. seven days a week and remains opens long as there are customers betting.
The Glen Rendezvous Club, Newport, Kentucky. This establishment offers a girl show and authentic French cooking along with the usual gaming devices of a casino.
Roulette at the Beverly Hills Club in Southgate, a town which borders Newport. Above are a spotter, left, and a two croupiers.
A woman playing chuck-a-luck also at the Beverly Hills. Nearby Cincinnati provides most of the patrons for Newport- area gambling halls says the author.
A Game of Hazard - played with three dice - at the Yorkshire Club. In Newport, gambling is an estimated $20,000,000-a- year business.
The Rev. Dudley Pomeroy, a Baptist pastor of Newport, with a group of his young people. He feels the abolition of gambling is probably hopeless, and would settle for a cleanup that merely meant "no sale of liquor to minors, observances of legal closing hours, and stamping out of prostitution."
In early 1959 a number of Protestant ministers and highly respectable, churchgoing laymen of Newport, Kentucky, were spending many of their evenings in a most unseemly fashion. They patronized bars, shot craps, played roulette and placed bets on horses in the various casinos around the city, bought liquor after hours and frequented street corners where they knew they’d be most likely to be approached by the local Jezebels.
The reason for this seeming departure from rectitude became known in February when the clergymen and parishioners, representing the Social Action Committee of the Newport Ministerial Association, appeared before the Campbell County Grand Jury to seek indictments of Newport’s mayor, city manager, police chief, chief of detectives, liquor administrator and all four city commissioners for nonfeasance of office.
The testimony presented against the officials was voluminous and detailed. Gambling was flourishing openly throughout the town. State and city laws governing the sale of alcoholic beverages were being flouted. Prostitution, or at least solicitation—the investigation was understandably incomplete in this area, was prospering with almost no police interference.
These conditions, the witnesses said, were a matter of common knowledge—numerous newspaper reports were introduced to support this contention—and because the city fathers had done nothing to correct the situation, they had obviously and deliberately failed to carry out their oaths of office. Impeachment was therefore, demanded.
To the astonishment of almost no one familiar with the customs and mores of this northern Kentucky city, the grand jury had little interest in such harsh measures. In its final report before disbanding, the jury admitted that it had been presented with indisputable evidence of widespread illegal activities in the city, but this, the jurors felt, would be a prissy reason for endangering the municipal posts of nine amiable men. Therefore, there would be no indictments. With world-weary tolerance the jury concluded in its statement that, “Mankind, having been born in sin, will ever be prey to the temptations of sin.”
“I wish those guys had been thinkin’ that way when they had me up there on a burglary rap,” one accused malefactor is reported to have said wistfully while reading a newspaper in his cell the next day.
In taking a lenient view of Newport’s foibles, the grand jury was only following a course set by innumerable other such bodies in the past. With the exception of a few brief periods of uneasy experimentation with reform, Newport has been a wide-open town and one of the nation’s big centers for illegal gambling for about sixty years.
The 1920’s were Newport’s gaudiest period. The town was then a popular refuge for bootleggers, gangsters and assorted dubious characters who, for one reason or another, found it advisable to absent themselves temporarily from the police or business associates in other cities. Violence became commonplace in northern Kentucky, and law enforcement was about on a par with that in Cicero, Illinois, in the heyday of Chicago mobsters’ activities there.
The brothels of Newport did everything but put up electric signs and take space in the newspapers to advertise their presence. Gambling was not restricted to casinos and saloons. Almost every drugstore, candy shop, grocery and dry-cleaning establishment had slot machines on display. Liquor flowed as though the Eighteenth Amendment had never been added to the Constitution.
Although the city has become considerably more circumspect since that time, the citizens have never shown a burning desire for a radical change in the basic modus vivendi.
The experience of the most recent reform movement is typical. In the November, 1949, election a group of candidates won the approval of the voters with a mild “clean-up-but-don’t-close-up-Newport” platform. However, when the new officials took over, they found that the gamblers, café owners and liquor dealers, long accustomed to unfettered operation, fretted under even such minor restrictions as legal closing hours and no sales on Sunday. Soon the regulations were being generally ignored.
After several months of dismal failure to achieve minimum regulation, the authorities reached the unhappy conclusion that the only way to clean up the city was to close it up. Gambling laws were enforced, and all of the major casinos were shuttered.
This uncomfortable situation was permitted to exist only until the next municipal election in 1951, when the reformers were ejected from office by an overwhelming vote. There has been no organized political movement to alter Newport’s cultural pattern since then.
“If we don’t go too far, we can clamp down on prostitution and maybe do something about after-hours sales of liquor without raising much fuss,” one Newport official told me. “But anybody who’d run for office on a platform of throwing out gambling would get about as many votes as a prointegrationist candidate for a Mississippi school board.”
Newport has none of the bright, brassy glamour usually associated with a gambling center. It is a drab, shabby-looking community of about 33,000 which lies just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. A pair of bridges connects the two cities. The northern Kentucky town is old—it was incorporated in 1795—its streets are narrow, most of its buildings are ancient and begrimed, and its atmosphere is vaguely depressing.
Yet, in this unprepossessing setting, gambling is estimated to be a $20,000,000-a-year business. Employment is high. One out of every 145 adult residents holds a fifty-dollar “gambler’s stamp” issued by the Federal Government, and this ratio includes only those who work with the numbers pool or accept bets on racing or other sporting events. The numerous persons who operate the crap tables, roulette wheels and similar on-premises games are not required to have stamps and are, therefore, officially uncounted.
Despite the vast amounts of money which change hands within its one and half square miles of municipal territory, Newport has long been in straitened circumstances. City employees are poorly paid. For example, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree receives a starting salary of $3150 annually. Until the end of 1959, the pay of policemen and firemen was among the lowest in the country among cities of comparable size. An increase, approved by the voters in the last election, improves the standing of the two departments somewhat.
Economically Newport is almost wholly dependent upon Cincinnati. Although the Kentucky city has some industries of its own—a steel mill, a clothing factory and a brewery are the biggest—a large majority of residents work in Ohio.
Cincinnati and the numerous conventions held there also provide most of the patrons for Newport’s gambling halls; and an astonishing number of prosperous, respectable citizens on the Ohio side of the river prefer to have their liquor illegally delivered from Kentucky to buying it at their own, state-operated stores. Cincinnatians also purchase most of the bottled goods sold in Newport on Sunday.
For newspapers, Newport must even depend upon special supplements published by the two Cincinnati papers for local coverage. Both do an adequate job of reporting Kentucky news, but they usually avoid crusades on the theory that outside interference would be resented by the natives.
There is considerable validity to this belief. Relations between Cincinnati and Newport are frequently testy. Newport is viewed by Cincinnati as a disreputable relative, too close to be disavowed, but certainly not to be invited to a family dinner. Newport feels, with some justification and much heat, that Cincinnati’s well-advertised municipal morality is maintained not because of the basic rectitude of the citizens, but because they can freely indulge their illicit impulses simply by crossing the Ohio River.
“If those bridges ever fall down some night,” one resident of Newport said grumpily, “every crap game in this town will be gone the next morning.”
At the moment, though, the bridges are still firmly in place, and Newport offers the visitor a rich variety of ways to test the laws of probability in a selection of surroundings ranging from plush to grubby. There are some 150 bars and night clubs in the city, and almost all of them provide at least the means for wagering on horses. Most of the larger places, however, thoughtfully provide a number of routes to insolvency.
The Yorkshire Club and its nearby neighbor, the Flamingo, are typical of the more elaborate institutions. Each is large and fairly attractive in an over-glossy fashion, and the Yorkshire’s bar and restaurant serve good drinks and food at moderate prices. The gambling casino is in an adjacent room which the casual patron can ignore or enter according to his whim.
The Flamingo’s casino, which differs only in detail from the Yorkshire’s, has dice tables, roulette wheels and blackjack games. The back wall is covered with enormous blackboards which list the races on all major tracks in the country, along with the baseball and important college football or basketball games to be played in the coming week.
Because competition is stiff there are a number of places which operate as night clubs, complete with floor shows, to entice the customers. The best of these is the Beverly Hills, in Southgate, a small community which borders Newport.
Beverly Hills has a spacious, handsome dining room, fair food—it once was excellent—and a resident chorus line. Well-known bands and such entertainers as Joe E. Lewis, Martha Raye and Pearl Bailey are regular attractions.
The adjoining casino has nothing so crass as blackboards and racing entries. In this oddly quiet, well-decorated room, the customer walks on deep-pile carpet, is soothed by soft unobtrusive music and, if he tires of or is beaten by roulette, dice, blackjack or chuck-a-luck, he can sit at a comfortable table at one end of the room and revive his spirits with drinks and sandwiches served by sympathetic and understanding waiters.
Even if he happens to be there on a Friday night, when the casino is usually jammed—most of the business is done on weekends—there will be little noise to disturb his contemplation. Patrons line the various brilliantly lighted tables and place their bets, throw dice, murmur a request for a card from the blackjack dealer, all with blank faces and lack of animation. The sound of the equipment in operation, the click of chips and the low, monotone voices of croupiers are the only audible evidence that one is not in the reception room of a funeral home.
On a less elegant scale is the Glen Rendezvous in Newport itself. Until a few years ago this intimate supper club booked acts comparable with the Beverly’s, but now the emphasis is heavily upon strip-tease.
The casino at Glen Rendezvous is livelier and much smaller than Beverly’s, but it offers the same gaming devices as the larger club.
Slot machines, which once were to be found in abundance in Newport, have largely disappeared, even from the regular gambling establishments. Perhaps the Federal tax of $250 annually for each machine has contributed to this lack of popularity.
However, I did encounter a row of mechanical pirates at the Copa Club, a huge, barn-like establishment which features leading Negro acts. There were, of course, other forms of gambling for those who like to have company while losing money.
Although Newport has its full quota of “bust-out joints”—establishments where the dice exhibit the training of Seeing-Eye dogs and the backs of cards convey as much as the fronts to the dealer—most of the larger places zealously guard their reputations for honesty, maintain the decorum of a church social in the casinos and make no effort to lure casual visitors into the games.
However, the Silver Slipper, a major establishment on Monmouth Street, Newport’s main thoroughfare, not only tries to persuade the customer to gamble but entices him into an unfamiliar game. When a customer starts from the bar toward the night club, he must pass through the casino. If he is not a regular patron, he is greeted at the entrance to the gaming room by a warm, friendly fellow who shakes him by the hand and then guides him off to a small tabled to receive a souvenir of his visit.
The attendant at the table presents the patron with a key ring or ball-point pen and then generously offers two free throws of the dice to the visitor. These are not ordinary cubes, but Egyptian dice, eight-sided affairs with a number on each facet. The visitor rolls the dice, and the croupier adds up the numbers which appear on top. “Four-seven-nine-thirteen-sixteen-eighteen-twentytwo-twentysix,” he intones at a speed rivaling that of a calculating machine. The eight dice are placed in the cup before the average player has totaled more than three of them. The attendant points to a chart bearing numbers which rests on the table, and the lucky player finds that he has won two dollars.
A few moments later the game becomes more complicated. Some totals, it seems, are neither winning nor losing numbers, but simply require the house to double the amount the player may potentially win; but he, in turn, must also double his bet. Before long the situation becomes feverish. The stack of possible winnings is now enormous, but so is the amount of money the player has already lost in an attempt to win the big prize. He is further unnerved by his complete inability to do mental arithmetic at one tenth the awesome rate of the croupier. A few moments later, just as the player is within a half point of taking the grand prize, he makes the horrible discovery that his wallet is empty. Is he finished now that a small fortune is within his grasp?
Not at all. Suddenly another pleasant man, apparently equipped with some kind of fiscal radar, is at the player’s side offering to extend credit upon the presentation of proper credentials. The player receives his financial transfusion, and he’s back in the game—for a while. Later there is a check to be signed when he finally gives up.
Not long ago a salesman who lives in Cincinnati took his wife and his parents on a tour of Newport. The Silver Slipper was the last stop. He became involved in the Egyptian-dice game while the others watched, and several minutes later forty-five dollars, all the cash the party had with them, was gone. He began playing on credit and, at the end of twenty minutes, he was suddenly and horribly aware that he had lost an additional $435, for which he gave his check.
“We all seemed to be hypnotized,” he said in a disbelieving tone when he told me of the incident later. “I’m no gambler—I’d never lost more than ten dollars before in my life—and there I was playing for more money than I could possibly afford to lose. And the funny part is, neither my wife nor my parents tried to stop me. They must have been as dazed as I was.”
The morning after the experience, the salesman decided he’d been fleeced and ordered his bank to stop payment on the check. His wife and, to a lesser degree, he were worried about possible retribution from the gamblers; but so far he hasn’t received even a telephone call asking him to make good on the check.
Most of the big gamblers in Newport frown on the tactics used by the Silver Slipper. “Hell, that’s cheap carnival stuff,” one of them said when I told him of the salesman’s troubles. “We’re in a big business and we gotta act big. A guy gets conned into playing and he loses his dough, you always got a squawker on your hands. They make problems for everybody. All we gotta do is play the percentages and behave ourselves, and everything works out fine.”
To be sure, there are occasional publicized protests, but these, while embarrassing can usually be ignored or strangled with bureaucratic red tape. To guard against the unlikely possibility of an intractable grand jury’s seeking firsthand evidence, the gamblers simply store their equipment whenever the jury’s in session and take a vacation.
But the problem was somewhat more awkward in 1951 when Estes Kefauver’s Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce took an interest in Newport’s affairs.
The committee first established the scope of gambling in northern Kentucky, then uncovered the fact that a Cleveland syndicate controlled a major part of the operations in Newport and followed this with some inquiries about incomes which placed a number of gamblers in an extremely bad light with the Internal Revenue Service.
Next, the committee called in some Newport officials and asked why a situation, in flagrant violation of the laws of Kentucky, had been permitted to continue. The senators were probably more stunned than enlightened by this part of the investigation.
For example, George Gugel, who has been chief of police in Newport since 1946, said that he was astounded at the testimony that there was gambling in his fair city. Rudelph Halley, chief counsel of the committee, asked the police chief if he wasn’t familiar with the fact that any local cab driver could take a customer to a gambling emporium in a matter of minutes. Gugel said humbly that never in his life had he ridden in a taxi.
After several equally unrewarding exchanges, Halley asked with some awe, “Would you be surprised to know there is gambling going on?”
“For me, yes, because I’ve never been in there,” Gugel said virtuously. “All I know is what somebody told me.”
A curious incident which took place a few years later revealed that during the interval Chief Gugel had become at least partially acquainted with the seamier side of his city. Some background information will be helpful in understanding what follows. It seems that for years the police force and the detective bureau had operated more or less independently and coordination of activities was often lacking.
In any case, detective Jack Thiem, for reasons still unknown, decided to raid Glenn Schmidt’s Playtorium, one of Newport’s better-known gambling spots. To witness and record the projected triumph of virtue over vice, Thiem invited a photographer from the Louisville Courier-Journal to accompany him—there is no local newspaper.
When Thiem and his companion burst into the casino, the officer was astonished and embarrassed to find Chief Gugel and three detectives from Thiem’s own office among those present. The photographer, of course, snapped a picture of the encounter, but it never saw publication. Gugel immediately placed the cameraman under arrest and destroyed the film.
Gugel was briefly suspended from his job, less because of his choice of divertissement than because of the uproar the newspapers created over his highhanded treatment of a member of the press. Thiem was summarily fired, presumably for gross infraction of fraternal courtesy.
Because Gugel, detective chief Leroy Fredericks, the mayor and the city commissioners had proved to be something less than effective allies, the reform-minded Social Action Committee attempted for some time to interest state officials in a cleanup of Newport. Thus far the men in Frankfort have shown no enthusiasm for the undertaking.
In the summer of 1958, for instance, The Louisville Times ran a series of articles about wide-open gambling in Newport. When these reports were brought to the attention of Gov. A.B. (Happy) Chandler, he dismissed them with, “We have no information of the truth or falsity of his [the reporter’s] statements—officially or otherwise.”
With Governor Chandler’s door firmly closed, the reformers tried another tack a few months later. As do most states, Kentucky specifically forbids gambling in any establishment which holds a liquor license. Therefore, the Social Action Committee reasoned, if the state commissioner of Alcoholic Beverage Control would enforce this law and revoke the licenses of all who violated it, a damaging, if not fatal, blow would be struck at the gambling interests.
State commissioner Alfred Portwood was, if possible, even less helpful than the governor had been. “They [the newspapers and other complainers] are painting a picture that does not exist there,” Portwood said. His investigators had looked into the complaints, he continued, “but we did not find any evidence to prove the information that was reported.”
Since this second defeat in Frankfort, the Social Action Committee has returned to harassing Newport’s mayor with repeated requests for a sweeping investigation by the state police. Under Kentucky law, the state police may not officially come into cities of the first five classes without a written invitation from the chief executive of the municipality.
Mayor Alfred G. Maybury, who left office on January 1, 1960, was especially sensitive on this point because, in an incautious moment during a campaign, he once promised to take exactly that step. In 1958 he became so unnerved by demands that he fulfill his pledge that he said he was delegating the authority to call the state police to city manager Oscar Hesch.
Hesch, who had served both as mayor and city commissioner of Newport, is an experienced hand at tossing hot political potatoes, and he immediately heaved it back with a note from the city solicitor to the effect that certain of the mayor’s powers, including the right to yell for help, can’t be relinquished to a deputy. The unwanted authority remained stuck on a hall ceiling midway between the mayor’s and the city manager’s offices.
The Social Action Committee remains astonishingly good-natured in spite of its frustrations, setbacks and complete lack of progress. “We knew when we started out that we couldn’t change things overnight,” Christian Seifried, the chairman, says mildly. “But eventually we’ll win.”
Seifried, who has lived most of his life in Newport and has been a letter carrier for the past eighteen years, bears no resemblance to the popular image of the rampaging, hell-fire-and-brimstone reformer. He is a friendly, calm man in his mid-forties, who speaks of his home city with warmth and well-tempered hope.
He is, however, a man with strong religious convictions and, in the course of delivering mail, he has daily contact with a number of Newport’s brothels and gambling places. “I made a pledge to God and myself that I’d do something about the situation if the opportunity ever presented itself,” he told me.
In 1956 he decided the time had come and he went to the Rev. Harold Barkhau of the Northern Kentucky Association of Protestant Churches with his plan. The Social Action Committee was then formed with a minister and two laymen representing each of the Protestant churches in Newport. There are about thirty members.
“We first wrote to J. Edgar Hoover for advice on our problem,” Seifried said, “and he told us that our main job in the beginning was to bring conditions to the attention of the public. I think we’ve done fairly well with that.” He smiled ruefully. “I can’t say the results have been very impressive so far, thought,” he added.
by James A. Maxwell. This article originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post of March 26, 1960.