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Our Rich History: The ‘Sin City’ reformers (and there were plenty) met obstacles but finally found success

By Richard Challis
Special to NKyTribune

Part 54 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

Known as “Little Mexico” and later as the “Sin City of the South,” Newport, Kentucky has had many pejorative monikers that described its widespread criminal activity. Concerned reformers tried to rid Newport of its open vice image. There had been reform movements in Newport and Campbell County dating back to the early 1900s, but all had failed. This was mainly caused by the years of distrust and animosity between the Protestant and Catholic communities, which prohibited the cohesion needed to reform the prevailing vices successfully.

The Yorkshire Club, at 518 York Street in Newport, was one of the many casino clubs featuring gambling. (Postcard courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

For three decades before 1961, no Campbell County Jury convicted a gambling establishment, except when the Jewish Syndicate needed to acquire more casinos from rival competitors. The “Jewish-Cleveland Syndicate” and the “Mayfield Road Mob,” by the way, are the accepted designations used by scholars to refer to two separate organized crime organizations that were based in Cleveland, Ohio, and operated enterprises in Newport, Kentucky.

Since the 1930s, various groups and even a few local elected officials had made attempts to shut down illegal activities. However, there was not much support from the general populace, because these activities brought money to the region. Local Protestant clergymen attempted to organize several times, but there was not much support from Catholic leaders. The Catholic church was not against moderate forms of gambling, such as bingo. Gambling, prostitution and other forms of vice flourished, but not because organized crime forced them on the community. Rather, the casinos and the brothels provided economic and social opportunities. It was only when the benefits started to wane that any type of reform became possible.

The vision of reform was not raised in Newport but in Washington, D.C., by Senator Estes Kefauver’s “Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce” in 1951. Newport came to the attention of the Kefauver Committee during hearings in Cleveland, Ohio, when it revealed that the Jewish Cleveland Syndicate had acquired Northern Kentucky casino interests.

Newport was nationally criticized for its law enforcement’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach. While testifying under oath at the nationally televised hearings, Newport Police Chief Edward Gugel stated that he neither visited a gambling house in the city nor read the Cincinnati newspapers which advertised gambling places in Newport. When Chief Gugel was asked if he was “the only man in the entire vicinity who did not know that any taxi driver could take you to a selection of five or six gambling joints,” he answered, “I never ride in a taxi.”

The Kefauver Report showed that public officials knew about gambling and that something had to be done after the national exposure.

The Syndicate was highly successful in using subterfuge to create a phony reform group in Newport that operated during the Kefauver Committee investigations. The Cleveland Four gave Red Matterson, a Syndicate enforcer and hit-man, the task of discreetly financing contributions and covertly coaxing on the political level. A group of gullible but sincere businessmen formed the Newport Civic Association (NCA) and they fielded candidates, who campaigned on a platform of moderation “Clean up, not Close up.”

The NCA ran successful candidates, who closed many bust-out joints and brothels, with the idea that these establishments gave the area a bad reputation and frightened affluent patrons, on which the economy was allegedly based. Actually, the Syndicate manipulated the NCA to stifle unwanted competition. Toward the end of 1951, the NCA had served its purpose, and the Syndicate no longer needed it. In the upcoming election, the reformers were defeated.

The Syndicate was not able to blunt the ministers’ revolt that closed organized crime’s gambling enterprise in neighboring Kenton County. In early 1952, Kenton County’s Protestant clergymen hired Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Jesse Lewis to investigate political corruption in Kenton County. Lewis was able to have the Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney, Ulie Howard, disbarred for malfeasance in regard to gambling laws.

The state police raided the posh entertainment supper club, the Lookout House in Kenton County, on March 7, 1952. They seized $20,000 in gambling equipment, and patrons and employees were arrested. The Jewish Syndicate, run by The Cleveland Four — Morris Kleinman, Moe Dalitz, Sam Tucker, and Louis Rothkopf — decided to allow a victory to the reform groups and permanently close the Lookout House.

This Louisville Courier-Journal editorial cartoon, by Hugh Hayne, satirized Newport’s wide-open vices. It appeared on February 19, 1961. Source: Hank Messick, Razzle Dazzle, opposite p. 80.

For the Syndicate, it was better to close a gambling establishment in Kenton County, to protect others in Newport, where state police interference would not likely be accepted by the populace. The owner, Jimmy Brink, was not at the Lookout House when the raid was happening. Later, although he was an accomplished pilot, Brink died when his personal airplane crashed.

Real reform in Newport did not come until the latter part of the 1950s. An article in the May 1957 Esquire Magazine, entitled “Sin City,” highlighted the vices in Newport, and it upset some of the local ministers. A postman, Christian Seifried, who was exposed on his mail route to many brothels, and casinos, was given the approval by his own minister to form a “Social Action Committee” (SAC), composed of ministers and laymen of various Protestant churches. The SAC’s goal was to clean up Newport and to demand that city officials take action against prostitutes and gamblers.

The SAC had only limited success, despite their persistence after almost four years of trying to involve local officials in promoting reforms. This was because most of the elected officials and law enforcement officers were either on the Syndicate’s payroll or amicable to the gambling industry. The Protestant SAC members, like the reformers of the past, left the necessary Newport Catholic community out of their reform movement.

With the election of the reform Kentucky Governor Bert T. Combs in 1960, the SAC had the governor’s promise to remove corrupt Newport officials by using Kentucky’s impeachment laws. By the laws, the governor would appoint a committee to investigate the allegedly corrupt officials. If the evidence was strong enough against them, the governor could then remove the officials. However, when the SAC gave Governor Combs many affidavits in early 1961, asking for the removal of Campbell County officials, he hesitated and declined to act at that time.

Watching the undertakings of the Social Action Committee reformers, a group of Northern Kentucky business owners decided to finance the SAC, and they formed a political group called the “Committee of 500.” This committee saw that the vice and corruption in Newport was obstructing Northern Kentucky’s growth. The Committee of 500 had advantages over past reformer groups. It was religiously nonsectarian, which opened the participation of the Catholic community. In addition, the committee was nonpartisan, circumventing the political divisions of Campbell County, Finally, they were well financed.

In order to succeed politically, and to obtain the assistance of the Catholic community, the Committee of 500 chose a Catholic sports icon, George Ratterman, to run independently for Campbell County sheriff. They knew that office had broad powers to enforce the antigambling laws of Kentucky. Because of a botched frame-up, orchestrated by Tito Carinci and the Syndicate, Ratterman won a landslide victory for sheriff. With the help of Governor Combs and later of US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Newport expelled its organized crime element.

Next week: George Ratterman

For more information, see:

Richard Challis, “Northern Kentucky, The State’s Stepchild. Origins and Effects of Organized Crime,” The Journal of Kentucky Studies 29 (Sept. 2012): 149-181.

Robin Caraway, Newport: The Sin City Years (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2009).

Robert Gioielli, “Newport Reform Groups,” in Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, eds., The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2009): 660-661.

Hank Messick, Razzle Dazzle (Covington, KY: For the Love of Books Publishing, 1995).

Hank Messick, Syndicate Wife: The Story of Ann Drahmann Coppola (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1968).

Richard  Challis,  at age 17, was one of the youngest members of the reform “Committee of 500.” George Ratterman sent him a membership in 1961. In 2012, after a career in advertising and with Comair Airlines, Challis earned a Master’s degree in Public History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He and his wife Emily currently live in Erlanger, Kentucky. 
We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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One Comment

  1. PAUL carl says:

    PAUL, great article like always. Dad told a few stories. He would do some stone and concrete masonry work for jimmy brink who always paid in cash.

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