It began one evening in a smoke-filled room in back of a New Jersey barber shop. The ceiling fan swirled the cigar smoke around the bright light hanging over the round, green felt table. The drinks were poured and the players were seated and ready for their monthly poker game. It was a select group of men: they all worked for Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City.
Hague was the mayor from 1917 until 1947. He was the symbol of bossism and political favoritism. He reportedly made a fortune while in office by taking paybacks from real estate deals, a percentage of the city’s gaming operations, the numbers racket, card games and off-track betting. He also purportedly collected a 3 percent kickback on salaries of city employees called “rice pudding” and received a mandatory 30 percent from all raises for municipal employees. He traveled in chauffeured, bullet-proof cars and was surrounded by armed body guards.
The names of a few players were familiar to most of gangland. John “Needle Nose” Malone and Jack DeMarco were there, along with Elmer Henry and Spats Morgan. Ten years later, “Needle Nose” would become the vice mayor of Jersey City.
DeMarco reportedly ran the numbers racket on the East Coast ranging from Poughkeepsie, NY to Miami Beach, Fla. He later moved to Miami and owned a night club on Seventh Street. The club was an alleged front for laundering money and importing prostitutes from Cuba. In the mid-‘50s, it was a meeting place for diplomats and others interested in replacing Batista with another U.S.-appointed dictator: Fidel Castro.
Elmer Henry reportedly had the largest take for off-track betting in central New Jersey. Spats Morgan’s claim to fame was his shiny patent-leather shoes half-covered with grey spats, black suits, a well-blocked fedora and, of course, brass knuckles.
The last man to enter the room was “Bike.” He was a well-built, soft-spoken man who was one of Hague’s chauffeurs and the poker dealer. This was Bike’s last night to deal the game and his last week working for the “Boss.” Bike was about to become a father.
Back in 1926, Bike chauffeured members of the political machine to and from the overnight guest houses tucked away in the farm country of northern New Jersey. The large farm houses were converted into bordellos and the barns were remodeled to house the chauffeurs, body guards and hit men working for the privileged guests.
On one of these trips, Bike met and fell in love with one of the girls working as a cook. He married her and they lived in a modest house close to Jersey City.
They never had any children of their own, so after 10 years they decided to adopt a child.
The poker game was going well. Bike, a well-known and respected dealer, had his own style of dealing. After each hand, he shuffled the deck, had a player cut it into three stacks, folded the stacks together and never held the deck in his hand. The deck was always flat on the table and he dealt each card off the top slowly, carefully and with great precision. He always dealt an honest hand.
Suddenly, the room had unexpected company. Three armed men crashed through the back door and yelled, “The game is over.”
They made everyone put their hands against the wall and spread eagle. One of them picked up the money from the table, while the other two emptied the pockets of the gamblers. In less than two minutes, they were gone.
Bike was heart broken. He had a large sum of money in his pocket that he would spend in the morning to cover the expenses of adopting a new child. He reached deep into his pocket and felt for his money clip. Instead of his pocket being empty, it was filled with wads of paper.
He went to the men’s room and emptied his pockets. His money clip was still there and the wads of paper were hundred dollar bills.
At first, he thought it was a set-up. If the others found out he had money, they might think he was the tip-off man and responsible for the hijack.
The grumbling, angry gamblers rushed out of the room. They headed for their sedans, screamed, yelled, cursed and ordered their drivers to get to the nearest phone.
Bike couldn’t believe what happened. How could three armed men get around the body guards outside the barber shop? Why would someone put money in his pocket instead of stealing what he had?
Later he realized the whole thing was a set-up. Bike was a proud man. He was leaving the rackets to support his wife and new son with honest money. Hague and everyone else knew he wouldn’t accept help from anyone. They knew he couldn’t say anything about having the money in his pocket.
The next day, Bike and Ruth drove to Hopewell, New Jersey and parked in front of St. Michael’s Orphanage. They left with a 9-month-old baby boy.
Every Christmas, there was an envelope placed under their door containing hundred-dollar bills. They say that the man delivering the money wore a black fedora, black suit and shiny shoes with spats.
Thanks to the honor among thieves, and a few prankster gangsters in 1937, I had the best mother and father that a son could ever hope for.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.