The name of gangster and gambler Arnold Rothstein is probably most familiar to Americans as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. F Scott Fitzgerald – who had met Rothstein – fictionalized him as Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gambler from New York, who fixed the World Series – in The Great Gatsby. Damon Runyon – who had also met Rothstein – fictionalized him as Nathan Detroit. Runyon’s stories about the colorful, dapper proprietor of the “oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York” eventually became the basis for the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls.” What most Americans don’t realize about the man known as “The Big Bankroll” and “The Big Brain” is that Arnold Rothstein is the one man most responsible for the beginnings of the drug trade in America. The story of Arnold Rothstein and drugs is tied to how the Mafia gained great power in New York.
To be sure, there were illegal drugs in America long before Arnold Rothstein. But he is the man who most accurately recognized the potential for untold wealth to be gained by the importation and sale of narcotics.
Arnold Rothstein and Drugs – An Understanding
Arnold Rothstein had bankrolled a large part of the illegal liquor business in New York during Prohibition. Rothstein mostly chose to stay on the sideline and leave the operation of bootlegging to violent and legendary gangsters, including his protégés, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. While rival gangs massacred each other in the streets of New York, “The Big Bankroll” made an immense fortune by financing every aspect of bootlegging for every criminal organization and then playing all sides against one another. He would dispense advice, offer financing, take percentages, and sell out any of his “friends” if a better financial deal came along. Arnold Rothstein believed that everyone was responsible for their own decisions and that public and private morality was simply none of his business. While he had many working acquaintances among the early New York Mafia, there was no one in particular he wouldn’t have sold out for the right price.
Arnold Rothstein and Drugs – The Business of the Future
In “The Godfather,” the central basis for the feud between the Corleone family and the Tartaligia/Barzini families was over the question of whether organized crime should be in the business of selling drugs. That dispute did take place among some of the five families. The violent Castellammarese War of 1930 – 31 eventually opened the door to full involvement by the Mafia in drugs. But before that, Arnold Rothstein had foreseen the future. He had correctly predicted that Prohibition would not last long. Arnold Rothstein took great pains to make as much money from Prohibition as possible. Liquor is difficult to sell illegally. It takes a large processing facility to create enough alcohol to be profitable. Then it needs a complicated transportation infrastructure to move it from its point of origin to the point of sale. Boats, trucks, docks, warehouses all cost a lot of money. Each of those physical locations needs protection from the police and corrupt judges. Buying off the cops and the judicial system called for a lot of cash up front. As local gangs began consolidating themselves into the Mafia, Arnold Rothstein was one of the few people who could envision what the organization needed to make it all work. And he was one of the few men with enough cash on hand to finance such a huge undertaking. He loaned the money to the mobsters who took the physical risk. While they were daily threatened with murder or arrest, Rothstein made money. However, the whole operation was so expensive that most bootleggers had a small profit margin. “The Big Brain” wanted more.
Arnold Rothstein and Drugs – America’s First Drug Lord
Anticipating America’s demand for drugs, Rothstein began setting up a businesslike, efficient, and profitable model for a major narcotic importations/sales business. He ignored the old “Mustache Pete” mafia style in which only members of the same ethnic group could work together. Rothstein saw money as the common denominator and worked with Italian, Sicilian, Irish and Jewish criminals. The only thing “The Big Bankroll” cared about was money. Personally, he neither drank nor smoked, drank lots of milk and ate lots of fruit and he despised being around people using drugs. Nonetheless, he had no reservations about capitalizing on the drugs ruining the lives of the users. That was their choice, not his. By the mid-1920s, his buyers had set up deals with heroin factories across Europe. Rothstein financed the purchase, transportation, and sale of drugs throughout the eastern United States. Profit margins were staggering and yet he managed to keep his personal risk low.
“The Brain” spent time working out a deal with Captain Alfred Lowenstein, one of the richest men in Europe, to completely monopolize the drug trade. His partner died in a bizarre, mysterious “accident” that actually threatened the stability of several major European stock markets!
Another time, Arnold Rothstein shot and killed several policemen who had tried to raid his operation. He was so powerful that he was acquitted despite overwhelming evidence. Eventually the odds caught up with Rothstein. He was murdered by a fellow gambler who was never convicted. Arnold Rothstein never named who shot him.
Organized crime eventually and quickly outgrew Arnold Rothstein. The untold fortune made by gangs from the early 1920s through today through the sale of drugs is staggering. And it all stems from one source – Arnold Rothstein.