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Arnold Rothstein

Jewish American Mobster

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Arnold Rothstein

Arnold Rothstein in 1919

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Arnold Rothstein was a powerful New York businessman, gambler and mobster during the early to mid 1900s. Sometimes referred to as “The Brain” or “The Big Bankroll,” he was an important member of the mafia who is rumored to have fixed the 1919 World Series.

Rothstein’s Early Life

On January 17, 1882 Arnold Rothstein was born in New York City to an observant Jewish family. His father, Abraham Rothstein, was a successful businessman who was known as “Abe the Just.” He was known for being pious and interested in philanthropic work. Rothstein’s older brother was eventually ordained as a rabbi, however, Rothstein himself choose a wildly different path.

“The Big Bankroll”

While his brother pursued a more spiritual calling, from an early age Rothstein expressed an interest in illegal activities.  He dropped out of school during his late teen years and worked as a traveling salesman before he began gambling on the outcome of everything from baseball games and prize fights to elections and horse races. He made high-interest loans, opened a gambling house and purchased racetracks, all activities that made him a millionaire by the time he was 30 years old. He often carried a roll of $100 bills with him so that he could finance new deals on the spot - a habit that eventually earned him the nickname “The Big Bankroll.” During Prohibition Rothstein was also involved in bootlegging, purchasing alcohol abroad and smuggling it into the United States where it was distributed at speakeasies. Eventually he used his experience with smuggling to expand into narcotics.

Known for his power, intelligence and sense of style, Rothstein was affiliated with some of the most well known gangsters of his time. Fellow Jewish mobster Meyer Lanksy was one of his associates and Charles “Lucky” Luciano said of Rothstein: "He taught me how to dress… how to use knives and forks and things like that at the dinner table, about holdin’ a door open for a girl… If Arnold had lived a little longer, he could’ve made me pretty elegant.” Rothstein’s influence was such that F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly modeled "The Great Gatsby" character Meyer Wolfsheim after him.

Despite his involvement in illegal activities, according to the book “Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series,” Rothstein also had a generous side. He helped build synagogues, let tenants of his residential properties skip rent when they fell on hard times and bailed his father out of significant debt.

The 1919 World Series

During the 1919 World Series the Chicago White Sox were set to play against the Cincinnati Reds.  The series went down in history as The Black Sox Scandal after eight members of the Chicago team who felt they were being underpaid conspired to intentionally lose games in exchange for monetary compensation. Rothstein reportedly financed the conspiracy, agreeing to pay the players a substantial amount of money if they lost, which they did. The players were convicted of fraud and banned from baseball for life in 1921, but Rothstein’s involvement was never proven in court.

Rothstein is a major character in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” where this period of his life is portrayed by actor Michael Stuhlbarg.

Rothstein’s Murder

On November 4, 1928 at the age of 46 Rothstein was shot in the abdomen while conducting business at Manhattan’s Central Park Hotel. The attack was allegedly connected to a gambling debt that Rothstein either refused to pay or was stalling on paying. Rothstein died from his wounds on November 6, 1928 and was buried at Union Field Cemetery, which is a Jewish cemetery located in New York.

References:

  • Pietrusza, David. Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series.” Basic Books: New York, 2011.
  • Jewish Virtual Library
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