The History of Riley and the Roaring Twenties: The Death of Arnold Rothstein

The Pendergast machine kept Kansas City a wide-open town, all through Prohibition. The first boss of the machine was Big Jim Pendergast, a hard-living, brawling Irishman who owned a saloon in the West Bottoms neighborhood. He died in 1911 and his more business-like brother Tom took over the organization, which made sure that only Democrats who towed the Pendergast line could be elected. The Pendergasts achieved their power by doing favors for the grass roots, making sure to feed the needy and care for the poor, in exchange for their votes. Harry Truman became a county judge and then a U.S. Senator (the so-called “Senator from Pendergast”) because he was supported by the machine. The Pendergasts maintained cozy relations with organized crime in Kansas City, led by the DiGiovanni brothers and represented politically by Johnny Lazia.

Kansas City is known for jazz, barbecue and baseball. Today, the American Jazz Museum is located in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, in the same complex as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. While 18th and Vine is the traditional hub of black commerce in Kansas City, the center of the jazz scene in the twenties and thirties was at 12th and Vine, as immortalized in the song “Kansas City.” The clubs mentioned by Riley all existed and in the twenties they featured jazz by a wide variety of players, including the “Big, Black & Dirty” ensemble favored by Jack O’Neal. The scene exploded into a major home of American jazz in the thirties, with musicians like Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Jay McShann. Riley was fortunate to have heard the beginnings of Kansas City jazz.

 Alfred Loewenstein was a mysterious man. It was not entirely clear where his money came from, but it must be said that no clear evidence exists that he participated in the narcotics trade, as claimed by Cornelius. Speculation on this front has arisen mainly because of his meeting with Arnold Rothstein in May of 1928, and his mysterious death the following July. No theory that has been advanced to explain Loewenstein’s alleged fall from his private plane is remotely credible. At least the explanation by Cornelius has the virtue of simplicity. The entire story of Rothstein competing with Frankie Yale for a narcotics connection with Alfred Loewenstein, and then murdering both Yale and Loewenstein to acquire that connection, is supported only by the account of Riley and Cornelius.

Rothstein was truly hurting for money in the summer of 1928, because of failed investments and large gambling losses. He then lost big in a poker match with, among others, Titanic Thompson and Nate Raymond, in September. Thompson was initially partnering with Rothstein, but canceled the partnership during the game and instead partnered with Raymond. As the man who set up the game, Hump McManus was obliged to see that Rothstein paid his markers, but Rothstein kept putting it off, saying he would pay them after the upcoming elections on which he had made major bets.

On November 4, 1928, Rothstein took a call at Lindy’s, which he regularly used as his office. He then handed his gun to Jimmy Meehan, saying he had to go see Hump McManus, who was staying in Room 349 at the Park Central. Sometime later, Rothstein came lurching down the steps of the hotel, shot in the groin. He died two days later. A panicked search was undertaken for Rothstein’s records of his crimes, only some of which were ever found. With public pressure mounting for a prosecution, Hump McManus was finally put on trial for the murder almost a year after Rothstein’s death. The participants in the September poker game gave conflicting and confusing testimony. McManus was acquitted. Many years later, he claimed that he had indeed shot Rothstein. Nowhere in the historical record have I found any suggestion that Rothstein was actually shot by the person blamed in the reports of Riley and Cornelius.

Damon Runyon died of lung cancer in 1946. As Cornelius reports, his ashes were scattered over Broadway from a plane flown by World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. In his honor, Walter Lippmann and others formed the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

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