Fiorello’s Finest Hour

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It was only when La Guardia opened up on the Arnold Rothstein murder case that Walker and the Tammany administration really became worried. Rothstein had been a thoroughly mean loan shark, a gambler extraordinary, and a Broadway rounder. Some of his clients and protectors occupied high positions in the city administration—particularly in its police department—and in Tammany Hall, whose powerful and disreputable leader, James J. Hines, subsequently went to jail for protecting gangsters. Rothstein had gotten away with nearly everything but murder for fifteen years. He ran grandiose gaming establishments, helped fix the 1919 World Series baseball games, and was heavily involved with the underworld’s worst traffic, the narcotics trade. Then on Sunday night, November 4, 1928, this companion of criminals was shot to death in a Seventh Avenue hotel. Many guesses and explanations have since been offered, the most common being that Rothstein had this time “welched” on gambling debts larger than his fellow gamblers could ignore.

Rothstein’s books and records, containing the names of prominent people who were his clients and associates in gambling, fixing, and crime, were now in the hands of Tammany’s complacent district attorney, Joab H. Banton. Nobody has ever been convicted for Rothstein’s murder, in good part because it was the intention of the politicians who then ran New York that nobody should ever be caught for killing a man so few people regretted. By the time something could have been done to punish the guilty, all the evidence had effectively been destroyed and all potential witnesses “dissuaded” from testifying.

It was ten months after the murder that La Guardia, then running in the primary, made his assault:

Rothstein was murdered on November 4, 1928, a little before eleven o’clock. It so happens that at that time the neighborhood was mysteriously clear of police officers. He died on November 6. Before he died he made several communications. He also made statements to detectives. After his death there was an immediate scramble for Rothstein’s private papers.

La Guardia went on to sum up the course of Tammany “justice” in the case, specifically in the indictment of George McManus, a bookmaker and gambler who was granted bail—an unusual step in a murder indictment—after he had given himself up in the Bronx, where he had been put in hiding for three weeks by Tammany leader Jimmy Hines. A hotel maid was held for several months as a material witness to Rothstein’s murder, but she could not get out on bail. La Guardia charged that she was held in jail “until the police and the District Attorney’s office and the administration were sure that she would not talk.” He continued:

Since her release this woman’s picture has appeared with an automobile given to her. She is now, according to new items, out of the scrub business and doing well. How about that? What facts has she got that she has not revealed? What information did the police obtain during all the time that she was held as a material witness?

In another of his campaign speeches La Guardia told the story of “Nicky” Arnstein, big-time gambler and friend of Rothstein’s. Several months before Rothstein was murdered, Arnstein came back to New York from a place in hiding. He was broke. In order to make some money, he sold his memoirs to a tabloid newspaper. In those memoirs Arnstein, according to La Guardia, described Rothstein as the graft collector for Tammany Hall. After the Rothstein murder the tabloid began printing the Arnstein story. A few installments had come out, La Guardia said, and then Arnstein appeared in the newspaper office, went down on his knees before the editor, and begged to be permitted to buy back his memoirs, claiming that he would be killed if the story were not suppressed. “Why?” La Guardia asked his audiences. “Who gave Nicky the money to buy back these stories? Who was Arnstein seeking to shield?” Neither he nor anyone else ever received answers to those questions, but Nicky Arnstein was not murdered, and his story was not published.

Night after night La Guardia charged that the police and the district attorney’s office, both dominated by Tammany politicians, had concealed the Rothstein facts and protected crooks and murderers instead of discovering and prosecuting them. The prosecution of the Rothstein case, he charged, would have revealed the city officials’ “intimate, close, personal, and pecuniary connections with the criminal element of this city.” He told his audiences that Rothstein’s connections with the police department were so close that he had been permitted “to shoot and wound two police officers without fear of arrest.” He also pointed out that while the police department and the district attorney’s office had repeatedly gone out of their way to create the impression that Rothstein was killed in a gamblers’ quarrel, they had never produced any killer or revealed who might have hired one.

Then La Guardia began to write embarrassing letters to Tammany’s loyal District Attorney Banton. In one of them he demanded that Banton state publicly: “Who did Rothstein cheat?” Banton told the press that he would adopt the policy of President Herbert Hoover and refuse to answer letters made public before he received them. La Guardia sent Banton a second letter, which he did not make public until he was sure the District Attorney had received it. Still he got no answer.