The Path to Public Service at SEAS


Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits? That ‘Would Be Fine,’ Breyer Says at Harvard IOP Forum


Harvard Right to Life Hosts Anti-Abortion Event With Students For Life President


Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study


Journalists Discuss Trump’s Effect on the GOP at Harvard IOP Forum

Bookies, Racketeers Thrive in Square

Police Seek Link With Syndicates


It's easier to place a bet on a horse or number in Harvard Square than it is to get a shine, hair-cut, or newspaper.

The reason is simple: local barber shops, shoe-shine parlors, and newsstands operate as pick-up joints for a well-organized bookmaking syndicate. Bets are placed either with employees of these places, or with "walking agents" who make a point of being there at a certain time every day, to the tune of at least $1000 daily.

So openly are bets being taken and numbers slips "written," that a complete stranger can walk up to almost any cab driver and be directed to an "agent." If it is too early for the agent to make his rounds and pick up the cabbie's numbers, the driver will deliver it to him. He will in turn make the pay-off, if it isn't so large that it is worth his while to skip town and keep it for himself.

Cambridge police are not permitting this illegal betting to continue because they want it. They are, rather, exceedingly desirous of making this city one of Greater Boston's cleanest. But legal loopholes, lack of sufficient evidence, and public apathy cripple them almost fatally.

Police Chief John King organized a special Crime Prevention Bureau two years ago to deal specifically with the gambling problem. Consisting of three men under the captaincy of Thomas J. Stokes, this squad has made over a hundred arrests in the last 23 months, tracked down and removed six teletype machines from betting centers in Cambridge, and built up a master file of suspects worth investigating in case of "trouble."

Never Carry Evidence

In Harvard Square, as the result of some 20 arrests in the last year, the bookies have wised up. They seldom write down a number or horse's name, or keep any other scrap of evidence which might be used against them. To make an arrest the police need only find a slip of paper in a suspect's pocket bearing at least a dozen numbers. Depending on the judge and the number of previous arrests, the defendant may get probation, a suspended sentence, a stiff fine ($50-$1000), or a jail sentence--sometimes coupled with another fine.

While Harvard Square is one of Greater Boston's cleanest, it nevertheless sustains a handful of punks who make their living exclusively on bookmaking. Police assert that a certain "gentleman" operates openly from a table in a large cafeteria on Massachusetts Avenue. Plainclothesmen have kept an eye on him for a long time, but they can't touch this pimply-faced operator because he uses the prevalent "telephone" system. This means that he either stands outside or sits inside the cafeteria with a pocketfull of nickels, and phones in bets as soon as they are given to him. The mere passing of money from a student or cab driver to him is not sufficient evidence for arrest; since he phones in the bets immediately, he need take no written record of the wager.

This system makes it almost impossible for the police to pin anything on Square bookies. Nevertheless they go on making arrests on the chance that they can occasionally nab somebody carrying evidence. An investigation of city ordinances against loitering and sauntering is currently in progress. Application of such laws may soon make it easier for police to prevent this type of operator from contacting his clients.

Successful Raid

A little over a year ago, Captain Stokes' special squad raided a fourth floor room in Fairfax Hall, at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Linden Street, and arrested Arthur Marcus for operating a "telephone room." After the last race was over at the local tracks, about 6:30 p.m., Marcus would go out and pay off to those who had phoned in bets to him during the day. Police placed several $100 bets with Marcus. That they were accepted without hesitation leads police to estimate that he was handling well over $1000 a day. But because this was his first offense, the stiffest fine that could be imposed on him was $500.

Marcus no longer operates here, so far as police know. However, since he grossed at least $1000 daily, police are sure local bookmaking can be no lower than that figure.

If you have never "invested," you know Harvard Square's bookies and pick-up men as "solid citizens" who work in or run certain shocshine parlors, liquor stores, dry-cleaning establishments, newsstands, and bars.

If you are one of the many College men, local citizens, or high school students who has a bet on the third race at Suffolk, you know them as the men who can give you something for nothing.

Bigshots Pay Well

If you are their friend, you know how they figure "it's tough to make an honest living." You know how they have been approached by agents of the big Boston syndicate. You know how they are being paid a certain percentage of their rent to allow a pick-up man to meet his bettors in their shops at certain times. You know how some of them clear between 10 and 15 percent of all the money bet with them, if they phone in the bets and work "on the up-and-up" with the bigger agents.

The numbers pools--otherwise known as the policy racket and nigger pool--probably involve more people in the Square than any other form of bookmaking. Almost every Boston paper publishes the payoff numbers for the day.

If you are a psychologist, you understand why bettors are such suckers. It takes little mathematics to see that they are getting thoroughly milked by the odds in the numbers racket. One three-figure number, which has a one out of 999 chance of appearing, pays off only 600 to one. And as if a sure 40 percent weren't enough for the pool operators, they have instituted "half-numbers:" numbers which are bet more frequently than others, and on which for various reasons a significantly higher number of bets are placed than simple odds would predict. These numbers--there are close to 100 of them now--pay off only 300 to one. They are numbers such as 711, 777, 999, 713, etc., or a figure connected with some local favorite. (Before half-numbers were organized, 1776 once paid off on July 4 in a Chicago four-number pool; the bookies were practically wiped out.)

In Boston several years ago, 123 paid off. So heavily was it bet, there being no half-numbers at the time, that most of the small bookies were bankrupted. The larger, more widely organized and heavily financed groups bought up their debts and, in turn, their clientele. That's the way it remains at present.

Woo Harvard Market

There can be little doubt that Harvard Square is considered a lucrative market by the higher-ups in local booking. The operator of a highly-legitimate pool and billiard hall on Holyoke Street was approached by five men "with propositions" in the scant three months that his place operated this winter. Three of these men offered to help him pay his rent every month if he would let them meet bettors there from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every afternoon. The other "businessmen" wanted to buy out the place and use it as a front. They offered $8000, which, although not enough even to pay for the pool tables, shows more than academic interest in cornering the Harvard Square bookmaking business.

On November 5, 1949, the Citizen's Committee of Massachusetts received a confidential survey covering the gambling problem in the state. A progress report on a more extensive survey being conducted for the committee, its main purpose is to determine if nationally notorious gambling-racketeering elements do, in fact, carry on or control organized gambling activities in Massachusetts, comparable to the known operations in the New York metropolitan area, the greater Miami area, Chicago and environs, and in California. The evidence seems to point in this direction.

Wires Are the Key

Several well-known public officials estimate that there are more than 10,000 bookies operating in Massachusetts, according to the Citizen's Committee report.

Whether or not local off-track horse betting is tied in with national syndicates depends on whether or not local bookies have access to the Capone-controlled "wire services," vital to the continued operations of gambling syndicates on an interstate, regional, or national basis. In the Citizens Committee report it is stated as axiomatic that, "without control of 'wire services' or other related telegraph and telephone service, syndicated gambling would break down into local 'small business'" which could be dealt with by local police if the police were so inclined to act. Before a Senate Investigating Committee last week, magnate Frank Costello admitted that outlawing of the "wire service" would halve bookmaking business.

In sports pool betting, recent investigators named the most active gambling centers as being New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. "There is also betting at ball parks in Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston, the difference here being that local syndicates control the gambling in these latter three cities. The betting in the rest of the leagues is largely dominated by the Frank Erickson-Frank Costello group and its associates."

Syndicates in Operation

In sports-pool betting, therefore, there is reason to believe that national syndicates do exercise some control over Boston operations. Further proofs that at least some of Boston's sports pools are operated by a separate eastern syndicate were brought to light last summer. Two men were arrested on August 23, 1949, by Boston police in a raid which uncovered equipment indicating a tie-up with baseball pool syndicate activities then under scrutiny by New York investigators. They had previously ascertained that underworld-controlled "wire services," once devoted to horse racing, are now used to communicate baseball odds to bookmaking establishments throughout the country. The investigators also referred to Ralph Capone, reputed present head of the Capone syndicate, as "relentlessly muscling in on the baseball racket from coast-to-coast." Commenting on the Boston raid, the New York investigators declared it knocked off a $4,000,000 branch office of a syndicate.

Information as to whether the Chicago-Ralph Capone syndicate is concerned with organized gambling activities in Massachusetts is conflicting. According to the Citizen's Committee report, groups of operators often active in connection with off-track betting, numbers pools, and sports pools have been reported in Massachusetts in recent years. Several of these groups are said to have operated from the Greater Boston area, one in a mid-state area, and one in the southern part of the state, but with headquarters in Rhode Island. Whether any of these groups is linked with another or with a national organization, or whether they have operated autonomously is not yet known.

$400,000,000 for Bookies?

Just for the books: over $130,000,000 was wagered through pari-mutuel machines at Massachusetts tracks in 1948. Informed estimates indicate that between $100,000,000 and $400,000,000 was involved in off-track, numbers, and sports pool betting. As outlined in the report:

The situation as it now exists in Massachusetts has developed in part by default on the part of individuals and the community at large to recognize the scope of the problem in all its implications; e.g.; the fact that an important percentage of the overall income is being diverted to organized syndicated gambling activities which might otherwise be used for a variety of constructive and, in many instances, necessary purposes, and the fact that a substantial part of the amounts bet contributes to the enrichment of anti-social and dangerous criminal groups. General attitudes toward the problem of gambling on the part of important religious, social, and fraternal groups are seemingly based on lack of information, misinformation, misdirected tolerance, or unwillingness or fearfulness to face up with an unpleasant subject. For whatever reasons, these attitudes makes enforcement of Massachusetts laws relating to gambling a disheartening task where there is a will to enforcement.

A long range program of "mass-type" education, with intermediate activities in the nature of cooperation with the proper enforcement authorities: resort to the "expose" type of publicity and the development of organized services for community civic groups and large industrial employers, faced with current organized gambling problems, appear to be the steps necessary for ultimate correction of the existing situation.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.