Case Closed: "I Did It, You Know"

NOW FOR THE INELEGANTLY POSED, but inevitable, question: "Who done it?"

It is well and good to know of Arnold Rothstein's connections to the Black Sox scandal, his dealings with police and politicians and racketeers, his big hauls at Saratoga and Aqueduct, his drug dealing, and bootlegging and loan-sharking; but if we do not finally know who murdered Arnold Rothstein-and why-we leave with a hollow feeling, our major question unanswered. We want our murder mysteries, but we want them solved.

Arnold Rothstein's murder triggered three separate cover-ups. Everything about A. R. was complex, convoluted, layer upon layer. So it was with his death. Three separate cover-ups veiled the true story. The first, a Jimmy Hines-directed Tammany whitewash, resulted in a botched trial and George McManus's acquittal. The second, a Jimmy Walker-inspired effort directed at the police-and his own police commissioner-that would purge the force of its best honest cops. And three, a wide-ranging cover-up by the police themselves aimed at protecting one of the department's more prominent families.

Tammany did not rule Manhattan for a century by being stupid. Some of its officeholders possessed immense talents; a few were men of unusual integrity. The machine's leaders, especially Charles Francis Murphy, recognized the necessity of presenting quality candidatesan Al Smith, a Robert Wagner-to the voters. The same held true in appointive positions-particularly in the police commissionership. Any number of undeserving relatives could be hidden in the streetcleaning department or on the docks commission, but a police commissioner must inspire public confidence. Taking office in 1926, Jimmy Walker selected George V. "George the Fifth" McLaughlin, a prominent Brooklyn banker and Al Smith's former State Superintendent of Banking, as New York's top policeman. McLaughlin took his reputation and job seriously, raiding political clubhouses that sheltered gambling, firing bad cops, promoting a number of honest and competent officers-including Lewis J. Valentine, Vincent Sweeney, and Dan Manger-and creating a special Confidential Squad to root out official corruption. Police and political establishments fought him at each turn. By April 1927, McLaughlin had had enough and resigned.

To succeed McLaughlin, the mayor selected his former law partner, Joseph A. Warren. Walker trusted Warren to refrain from excessive diligence, and to summarily demote any honest cop he could find. But Warren proved as honest as McLaughlin. He retained the Confidential Squad, promoted Valentine, and reauthorized investigations of police corruption and Tammany-related gambling. A major catch was Lieutenant Patrick Fitzgibbons, head of the Police Glee Club, caught when he sold 50,000 tickets to a Glee Club concert held in a hall seating 200.

When A. R. died in November 1928, the public demanded arrestsbut George McManus wasn't about to surrender until Jimmy Hines and Nathan Burkan had done their work. Almost instantly, Walker saw he could use Rothstein's death to rid himself of Warren and his damned Confidential Squad. He issued Warren an ultimatum: Find the killer in four days! When the deadline passed, as Walker knew it would, he demanded and received Warren's grudging resignation.

The mayor's new, more pliable commissioner was $100,000-a- year Wanamaker Department Store executive and Red Mike Hylan's former personal secretary, dapper, mustachioed Grover Whelan. Whelan made a great show of raiding hapless bootleggers and speakeasies, but his real job was to root out and demoralize honest cops. He restored the crooked Lieutenant Fitzgibbons to rank. He abolished the Confidential Squad, demoted Lewis Valentine and his associates, and scattered them to the remotest precincts still within the city limits.

Walker's plan worked like a dream.

Now the police cover-up-and the question: "Who done it?"

Certain answers exclude themselves. In January 1929, an unlikely source, The New Republic, analyzed the murder or, more accurately, analyzed who the murderer would not be. Their thinking:

A. R.'s murder was not a premeditated shooting by gamblers.

Gamblers do not normally shoot people, they hire gunmen. Bald Jack Rose and company hated Herman Rosenthal enough to kill him several times over-but didn't. They engaged professionals. The underworld has its own divisions of labor.

Hired killers did not murder Arnold Rothstein.

Hired killers do not lure victims to hotel rooms registered in their own hand, where they have ordered bootleg hooch and ginger ale, where they've boozily propositioned blondes from down the hall. Hired killers do not kill a man where they have paid for an extra night's rent just a few hours before. No. They rub him out on the street, as happened to Beansy Rosenthal or Kid Dropper or Augie Orgen. Or at a Newark chophouse, as to Dutch Schultz. No rent to pay there. Or in a cheap apartment upstate, as to Legs Diamond. Let the victims pay the rent. After all, they had it coming.

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 assassination plot. Just George McManus in a room with Arnold's overcoat.

Which is actually the best place to begin-because from the circumstances of that topcoat, we know many things. We know Rothstein made it to Room 349, and we know that George McManus 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 McManus? Yes. McManus 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 McManus 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 crap game.

It was because George McManus had had a fight with his wife.

That was it, plain and simple.

And why the Park Central? It was a gambling hangout. Titanic Thompson and Nigger 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 McManus'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 McManus were with George McManus 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 passage.

That cop was former Detective Sergeant Thomas J. McManus, 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 crap 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. McManus 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 assailant 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 McManuses and Biller had all been drinking heavily. The gun may even have discharged accidentally. We will never know.

The McManuses 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 nobody else.

Al Flosso's sister-in-law had married bookmaker Hawk McGee, a George McManus 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 McManus 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 McManus 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 McManus told him.

McManus also talked to his old associates, confiding details of how he shot A. R. He either told Titanic Thompson directly, or Thompson heard it from people McManus had spoken with. Years later Thompson provided this account to writer, Oscar Fraley, best known as author of The Untouchables.

Frank McManus and Hyman Biller were definitely in the room. "I'm getting a lotta static from some of the boys you owe money to," McManus 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 bastards 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. Hell, 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 McManus 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."

McManus 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. Goddamn 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," McManus spat back. "Time's up. Come up with the money. Now."

And with that, George McManus shot Arnold Rothstein. Titanic Thompson's version of events had the two gamblers struggling and McManus'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, McManus, who had shot another powerful friend, A.R: McManus 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 McManus 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 McManus:

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 McManus 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 whorehouse 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 McManus. In her autobiographical A House Is Not a Home, Polly recounted just how drunk and violent Hump McManus 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 McManus's acquittal.

Frank and Tom McManus 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. Hell, 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 McManus was the most famous member of his family, an irony because the McManuses 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 McManus, 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 McManuses-Big 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 McManuses had been involved in the Rothstein shooting, and not just George but Tom and Frank, well ...

Cover-up Number Two.

Park Central staff discovered the wounded Rothstein at 10:47 P.M. Around midnight, off-duty police officer Thomas Aulbach ran into Tom McManus 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?

And stretching the realm of happenstance was this: As Aulbach and Tom McManus stood talking, who should arrive but Gillie Biller? Ostentatious in his air of innocence, he remarked for Aulbach's benefit, "What do you think of that? Rothstein was shot in the hotel and I am living in the hotel and I just heard of it?"

Early in the case, Detective Paddy Flood told reporters something that at face value seemed to betray a basic ignorance of what really happened-i.e., that George McManus was "Richards": "We know the identity of those who were in the room, although we have as yet been unable to locate them. One was `Humpty' McManus and the other was `Richards.' " In reality, he may have been saying something far more significant. Tom McManus was also known as "Hump." Flood revealed more than he wanted to, but everyone ignored his slip.

Circumstances surrounding the McManus family became even more suspicious. At roughly 1:00 A.M. investigator Flood and fellow detective Joseph A. Daly learned of the call from Room 349-hearing about it while at Lindy's. On reaching the Park Central, they first stopped to pick up a key for that room from house detective Burdette N. Divers. However, they didn't go to the third floor. Instead, they visited Room 252-Frank McManus's quarters. He wasn't in, but Flood and Daly found his wife in bed and interrogated her concerning Big George's address. She couldn't-or wouldn't-provide it, but gave them his unlisted number: Endicott 2649. Despite their presumed interest in George McManus's whereabouts, they made no further effort to find him until 9:00 the next morning.

When Flood, Daly, and Divers finally reach Room 349, the phone rings. Divers picks up the receiver, obliterating whatever fingerprints are on it-the prints of whoever called Lindy's and summoned A. R. to his death. The voice on the other end asks for "George."

At 2:30 A.M., Biller, Tom, and Frank McManus arrived in Room 349. Tom McManus and Paddy Flood were old friends, having met ten or twelve years before when Tom was still on the force. An official departmental report of police malfeasance in the Rothstein murder indicated that the trio "came to the room and, after some conversation, they left," but actually, as Paddy Flood testified, they stayed for twenty minutes.

While they remained, Detective Flood again inquired as to George McManus's home address. Flood said at the murder trial, "Tom McManus told me that he wouldn't give it to me, but that he would try to find George." Flood accepted that answer.

Police sensitivity for the McManuses' departmental connections was further revealed by the kid-glove treatment tendered the force's remaining family member. For the better part of a week, police ignored Lieutenant Stephen McManus. Not until Saturday morning, November 10, 1928, did Manhattan Chief of Detectives Inspector John J. Coughlin and Deputy Inspector Carey summon him for questioning. "It is only natural," said Coughlin, "in view of the fact that his brother was reported to have played the role of peacemaker between those who held Rothstein's $300,000 I. O. U.'s and the gambler. The lieutenant told me he has not seen his brother since several days before the shooting. He said he does not know where George McManus is now."

Of course, it also would have been perfectly natural to summon Lieutenant Steve McManus sometime earlier in the preceding week and logical to mention that George was not merely a reported "peacemaker" but actually the case's prime suspect-and that one of Steve's brothers, Tom or Frank, was believed to have fled with Hyman Biller to Havana.

Police (and Tammany) sensibilities toward the McManuses were further revealed in Commissioner Whelan's official report on his department's investigation into the murder. While the report goes into excruciating detail regarding lax paperwork and notification practices, nowhere does it identify either Frank or Thomas (identified familiarly as "Tom") McManus as having any relationship to the department.

District Attorney Joab Banton operated in the same manner as the police. On November 29 reporters noticed Lieutenant Steve McManus's presence in the Criminal Court Building and asked Banton if he had subpoenaed him. "I don't know," the district attorney responded. "He may have been here in some other case. I don't see any need for him at all in the Rothstein case." No need, save for all the obvious ones, plus the fact that investigation had determined that prior to the killing, prior to it reaching George McManus, the murder weapon had once been in the hands of the detective bureau.

One of the few observers noticing George McManus's obvious police connections was former Hylan administration official Henry H. Klein, author of a book on the Becker-Rosenthal case. In a New York Evening Post article, Klein pointed out that George McManus's father and two brothers had police department connections and asked why:

It would seem to be a simple task to have found McManus, whose movements must have been known to several persons. If the Police Commissioner gave Lieutenant [Steve] McManus an assignment to bring his brother in and kept him on that job until he did so, the chances are Lieutenant McManus would have walked into Police Headquarters with his brother in a short time.

When the New Republic ruled out George McManus as the murderer, it did so not merely on the basis of his size and temperament. It also pointed out that McManus's prosecutors "appear to have everything against him necessary for a conviction-except evidence and a motive."

There had been evidence, of course, but New York's Finest had done their best to obliterate it. There had been witnesses, but they had conveniently changed their testimony. Which leaves us with the topic of motive.

Why was George McManus so angry? Yes, he had a temper. Yes, he was intoxicated, but after all it wasn't his money. At least, that is what we are asked to believe: that Big George felt honor bound, in the unwritten but inviolable gamblers' code, to collect for Nate Raymond, a man he barely knew.

Honor bound?

Reflect upon what little honor we have seen displayed in these pages-how each gambler has looked out only for himself and upheld obligations only when in his own best interest. No, George McManus was not about to threaten New York's most powerful underworld figure just to "honor" unwritten obligations to some down-on-his-luck West Coast gambler, one who did not even seem that upset himself.

Why was George McManus so mad?

The answer, of course, lies in the famous card game at Jimmy Meehan's. It was not at all what it seemed. It was indeed fixed, but just as the 1919 World Series and the Rothstein murder investigation were fixed in multiple ways, so was this card game.

With A. R., life-and death-were never simple.

Nigger Nate won that night. So did Meyer Boston and Martin Bowe and even the kibitzer Joe Bernstein. There were but two big losers: Arnold Rothstein and George McManus.

And, as A. R. never paid any of those debts (and collected all the cash he could in the bargain, including some from Nate Raymond), Hump McManus took the only actual loss: $51,000.

Basically, the game was fixed. Arnold Rothstein suspected it, and we have indirect confirmation of his theory, from John Scarne, perhaps the finest cardplayer and manipulator of the twentieth century. A few years before his death, Rothstein hired the nineteen-year-old Scarne to stage a display of his phenomenal card-cutting abilities (in the select audience, according to Scarne was George McManus) and toyed with the idea of bankrolling Scarne in crooked card games. Scarne refused, but began to move in A. R.'s circles.

Said Scarne regarding the game at Meehan's:

I later obtained further information about that fateful card game from several of the participants, and one thing it did prove to me about most high-rolling gamblers was that if they thought they could get away with it they would double-cross or cheat anyone-suckers or smart gamblers, friends or enemies.

From the vantage point of years one thing is obvious. Titanic 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 Titanic's sworn statement.

I know differently.

If McManus 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 Nigger Nate, Nate could never repay McManus. Hump McManus 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 McManus.

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.

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