Before there was Vegas, there was Newport
From its beginnings as a military outpost at the edge of the American West, Newport radiated an aura of sin.
Its reputation was rooted in the Newport Arsenal, established in 1803 for state and local militias from throughout the eastern United States. Within the decade, it evolved into the Newport Barracks, and it was the last major American military installation at the fringe of the great western frontier.
In many ways, Newport was a frontier, too: a lawless slip of territory at the edge of civilization; a place where drinking, prostitution, gambling, gunplay and all-around carousing were the natural order.
“Add to those beginnings the flatboat era, the steamboat era and then the Civil War, with all the elements each layer brought to the mix, and you have the makings for a real sinful environment,” said Dr. James Claypool, a retired Northern Kentucky University history professor and executive producer of a video retrospective entitled “Girls, Guns and Gambling: How Ordinary Citizens Drove Vice out of Newport.”
Newport's sin city image stretched deep into the 20th century, cracking in the 1960s, but even then persisting until the 1980s, when voters began electing reform city commissions determined to finally see Newport become known for more than being a haven for nude dancing.
As city leaders rethought and reshaped Newport's image, strip clubs were shut down, historic preservation was encouraged and entertainment shifted from strippers to riverfront restaurants. By the 1990s, the Newport Aquarium had been recruited and Newport on the Levee conceived, allowing Newport to begin to leave its past, if not entiredly behind, then at least in the rearview mirror.
It had traveled a very long road to get there, though.
Perched at the southeast corner of the confluence of the Ohio and Licking rivers, the Newport Barracks in the early 19th century soaked up the currents of history and the waves of immigrants to the Ohio River valley.
Within a few years after the Kentucky legislature responded to James Taylor's petition to incorporate its charter as the newest village in the commonwealth on Dec. 14, 1795, Newport was beginning to build a reputation that would color its image for the next 200 years.
“The Germans brought their beer drinking and their sporting tradition,” Dr. Claypool said.
“Then you had the Catholic church, with its need for lotteries and festivals to raise money for charitable giving. Gradually, what developed was a collective mindset that gambling, per se, and drinking, per se, are OK. Even to this moment, I think you'll find that's still the mindset in Northern Kentucky.”
Newport was not the only river town hospitable to gambling and patrons of assorted other indulgences. Dr. Claypool noted that, throughout the westward expansion, towns like Cicero, Ill.; Port Arthur, Texas, and Pascagoola, Miss., had similar environments. But in the days when Las Vegas was little more than a crossroads in the Nevada desert, Newport was known more than anywhere else in the nation as a town where, if you could imagine it and pay for it, you could do it.
It was during some shadowy meeting of underworld kingpins, Dr. Claypool suggests, that Newport and the rest of Northern Kentucky were parceled out to the Cleveland syndicate, also called the Mayfield gang. In any case, organized crime found fertile ground in Newport, establishing its earliest presence around the time of Prohibition, then growing throughout the Depression.
Ken Fields was 14 when his parents moved from Mount Adams to a house at Fifth and Isabella in Newport's west end in 1945. He grew up in Newport when it truly was America's Sin City. At 71, the retired Kentucky Post carrier has been a member of the Newport School Board for 33 years.
“You had several elements running gambling in Newport in those days -- and they were always trying to kill each other,” Fields said.
“First, you had the syndicate -- Red Masterson was the enforcer for the people from Cleveland. The guy was like an angel, jovial with a great big smile. But you knew he'd killed people. Everyone knew --
“Then you had Frank 'Screw' Andrews, an independent operator who had the clubs that served the black clientele in the numbers racket. He had the Alibi Club and the Sportsman's Club, both on Central, and the Golden Lounge on Fourth. He killed people, too.”
Competition between rival factions was fierce, and the stakes were high. Published accounts indicated the Sportsman's Club grossed an estimated $1.6 million in 1959 -- well above $7 million in today's dollars.
In the pantheon of old-time Newport gangsters, Andrews stands out as a one of the more trigger-happy examples. He took over the Alibi Club after its owner was gunned down -- a crime in which he was a prime suspect.
He also was a leading suspect in the shooting death of an employee he claimed had stolen from him. He admitted to killing another rival club owner, but was acquitted of murder when the judge ruled self-defense.
Screw Andrews met his own untimely end in 1973 when he “fell” out of a sixth-story window at St. Luke Hospital, in a part of the hospital that now houses its sleep disorders center. The story that circulates to this day is that three large men in suits showed up at the sixth-floor nurses' station that night and told the nurses on duty that it was time for them to take their break, which they were convinced to do.
By the time the nurses returned to their station, the three men were gone and Andrews' crushed body was lying twisted on the pavement below.
“Then you had the Farley brothers, who were independent operators from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky,” Fields recalled.
“They had the 316 Club at the end of Fourth Street where the bridge is and a bust-out joint called the Dogpatch Club at Second and York, along with the Tin Shack across from 316.
“A bust-out joint is a place where you'd go and have a drink. And when you left, you'd be hit in the head and relieved of whatever money you had. You'd see these guys go to the police and complain, and the police would put them in jail for complaining. Or they'd put them in a cab and tell them never to come back.”
Fields told of selling The Cincinnati Post in downtown Cincinnati in 1943 when one of the Farleys was machine-gunned to death outside the Flamingo Club on York Street in Newport:
“The mob ran the Flamingo, so maybe that particular Farley shouldn't have gone around there at 4 a.m. That morning, the newspaper rounded up a bunch of us newsboys and took us in a truck to Newport to sell a special edition:
“'Farley Boy Wiped out in Newport' -- that was the headline.”
It was a time when Newport police dressed in $500 suits and alligator shoes to collect their weekly kickbacks from the clubs; a time when prostitutes plied their trade on doorsteps and from windows from one end of town to the other.
“Across the street from the 316 Club was the Tin Shack, which was actually a cement building with a saloon on one floor and a house of ill repute on the other,” Fields said.
“In the summer, they kept the casement windows open. A bunch of us kids would quietly pile up cement blocks and climb up so we could see inside. It was my introduction to sex education. Then someone would see us, and we'd take off running across the floodwall --
“Southgate Alley was full of houses. A woman called Rusty was the madame, and she was always inviting us to come in, you know, as a joke --
“At the corner of Third and Central was a house that operated around the clock, right next to a ballfield a bunch of us kids had built ourselves. The woman there was just beautiful. At the age of 13, I was smitten with her.
“From time to time, she'd holler, 'Hey, Ken, could you run to the store for me?' She'd give me money, and I'd pick up whatever she wanted. And she would always ask me, 'Now, Kenny, how do you want to be paid?' I embarrassed so easily, and she would laugh.”
Newport's so-called gambling heyday could not have happened without the cooperation of the police, the courts and other key elected officials in Newport and Campbell County.
The story of Hattie Jackson illustrates the point.
She owned Hattie's Club on Fourth Street. In the early 1950s, she was having problems with thugs rolling her customers. Her complaints to Newport police were ignored. So she asked then-Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney William Wise if she could air her complaints before the grand jury, and he agreed.
The night before she was scheduled to testify, Newport police raided her club on trumped-up charges and put her in the basement cell in the jailhouse. A sewer lid in the cell was left open, and Hattie Jackson spent the night with several large rats. By the time she was called before the grand jury the next morning, she had been reduced to incoherent babbling.
A passage in Newport, Kentucky: A Bicentennial History points out that gambling and vice “flourished so openly under the very noses of police that, by 1959, there were 15 betting parlors and 10 houses of prostitution no more than two blocks in any direction from the police station at Fourth and Columbia.
“Likewise, Wise and Campbell County Circuit Judge Ray Murphy were perfectly content to ignore wide-open gambling so long as the club owners took a 'gambling holiday' during the four times each year when they impaneled the grand jury.”
From time to time, a reform effort would spring up, only to quickly fizzle. In the late 1940s, for example, a minister at one of Newport's Baptist churches announced he was forming a committee to clean up corruption.
“A young woman made an appointment to talk to the minister,” Fields said.
“Once she's in his office, she started screaming and tearing her blouse. Suddenly, the door opened and a photographer snapped a picture.
“And that was the end of that reform movement.”
It was the mob's modus operandi in Newport. If you were part of the gambling community and you crossed the syndicate, you either disappeared or were shot to death. If you were outside the gambling community and started talking about cleaning up Newport, you would be maneuvered into a compromising situation. A photographer would show up, and you would be discredited, humilitated and portrayed as a hypocrite.
It would happen most famously in 1961, when a reform group calling itself the Committee of 500 backed former Cleveland Browns quarterback George Ratterman in the race for Campbell County sheriff. Ratterman's campaign pledge was simple: To drive gambling out of Newport.
An attempt to discredit Ratterman, just as the Baptist preacher had been discredit before him, turned out instead to be a spectacular failure, one that would sow the seeds of change for Newport.
“What caused the Committee of 500 to come together was not moral outrage so much as it was civic outrage,” Dr. Claypool said.
“These were people who finally got fed up with the fact that they weren't running their own community. Their concern was with the corruption in the police department, the corruption in the courts and the image Newport had nationally.
“There was finally this sense that things had gotten too far out of control.”
Kentucky Post, September 4, 2004, By David Wecker, Post staff reporter,