Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cigars, Pool and Sports Betting

            As long as people have played sports there has been sports betting. For many years the corner of SW 4th and Washington was the center of bookmaking in Portland. In the 1880s it was a saloon called the White Elephant. Portland sports fans gathered there to drink and bet on prizefights, baseball games, cockfights and horse races. In the 1890s the saloon closed and Ed Schiller opened a cigar store in its place, with a cigar factory upstairs. Sports fans kept coming and soon Schiller’s was the place to be. When the Portland Nationals began to play baseball out at Vaughn Street Stadium in 1901, the players liked to hang out at Schiller’s smoking and talking with their fans.
Orator and baseball fan Julius Caesar was a regular customer at Schiller's Cigar Store. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            It was not just the inside dope on the baseball team and the nickel slot-machines that kept the customers coming to Portland’s own “rope factory.”  There was a very colorful cast of characters that were regulars there. Jack Grim, the National’s coach, and “Talkative Jack” Marshal, the team’s secretary were often there. W.C. “Jerry” Powers worked behind the counter, selling cigars, taking bets and keeping the odds and scores updated on a huge blackboard. Julius Caesar, one of Portland’s famous African-American orators, stopped by regularly in his plug hat and bright red vest. If the Nationals were doing well, or someone was buying drinks or cigars, Julius would regale the crowd with a scene from Shakespeare or an ode on the prowess of the Nationals’ players.  If the Nationals were not doing well he was known to shake his head sadly and wander away. Joe Day, Portland’s most famous detective, was another regular customer at Schiller’s. Detective Day, who should go down in history for telling tall tales about his career as much as his actual exploits as a policeman and detective, was not a man to cross. In 1908 he nearly came to blows with C.J. Sweet, a member of the jury which had just convicted Edward Martin of manslaughter, rather than first degree murder, in the controversial Nathan Wolff murder case. Ed Schiller broke it up before anybody got hurt.
            In 1906 the party moved two blocks west to 6th & Washington, when the old building that had started out as Wagner’s General Store, was slated for destruction. Ed Schiller continued to roll and sell cigars and take bets at the new location, but Jerry Powers moved to the basement of the Perkins Hotel, a block away, to his own poolroom. There was a falling out between the two old friends around that time and Schiller’s fortunes began to decline.  Powers, who was starting to become the dominant figure in Portland betting, may have brought some pressure on his old boss after Schiller opened a competing pool room in the basement of his building in 1911. Portland passed its first anti-gambling ordinance in 1851, but the laws were rarely enforced. They were most often enforced when a gambler who made regular payments to the police wanted competition out of the way. The city started enforcing the gambling laws against Ed Schiller in 1913 and it was not long before he retired. Jerry Powers was the dominant bookmaker in Portland after that.
            There is no evidence that Jerry Powers was involved with any illegal activity beyond gambling. He was not a man to back down from a fight, though. In 1896, when Powers worked as a conductor on the Eastside Railway Company’s South Mount Tabor line, he took a bullet in the shoulder protecting his change-belt from armed robbers in the lonely waiting room at the east end of the line.  If you weren’t trying to rob him, Jerry Powers was an affable man, very popular with the regular crowd that hung out at Schiller’s and at Powers’ Poolroom. Powers used a telegraph wire and a telephone to keep scores and odds up to date on his blackboard. He pitched for the Fat Men’s Baseball team when they played charity games and he was known to hustle the occasional game of pool. Powers may have confined his illegal activities to breaking the gambling laws, but not all bookmakers are that scrupulous.
Bobby Evans right before his fall in 1932. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            Augustine Ardiss was a young immigrant who grew up in poverty in South Portland. Fighting his way up from the streets, Ardiss was booked for his first professional boxing match, under the name Bobby Evans, in 1909. “Fighting Bobby” became his nickname and he got a reputation as a heavy hitter in the lightweight class.  At one memorable bout in Marshfield (as they used to call Coos Bay) in 1911, Evans broke both wrists pummeling his opponent, “Roughhouse” Burns, before throwing in the towel in the fourteenth round. Billy fought his way back from that injury to a shot at the Northwest Lightweight Championship title in 1915 in a match against Seattle’s Billy Farrell in Pendleton, OR. Lawrence Duff, a retired Portland professional wrestler, refereed the brutal fifteen-round battle. He awarded the decision to Farrell and “Fighting Bobby” lost his temper, punching Duff in the jaw. Duff used an old wrestling trick to disable the boxer and Pendleton Police Chief Kearney, who was in the audience, arrested him and quelled the near riot that the punch had started among the rowdy spectators.
            Bobby Evan’s misplaced punch ended his career as a boxer. He returned to Portland in 1917 with a young boxer he had discovered and began his career as a coach and fight promoter.  In 1920 he was appointed matchmaker by the Portland Boxing Commission, giving him his new nickname. “Matchmaker Bobby” Evans began a long career in the public eye in Portland. He would end up in the 1970s as a TV commentator giving his colorful opinion on occasional boxing matches. By then most Portlanders had forgotten about the dark rumors and frequent criminal charges that surrounded one of Portland’s earliest organized crime bosses. Rumors that he was connected to the East Coast mob were frequent. When he was asked about them he would usually laugh and say, “You must have me confused with somebody else.”
Bobby Evans in 1971. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.
             Bobby opened a combination cigar store and boxing gym, The Shamrock Athletic Club on SW Second Ave. The police were never able, or willing to, prove the allegations that you could get illegal liquor at the Shamrock, but Bobby faced gambling charges more than once. Police found cards and dice with gambling chips on the table when they raided the place. Prohibition was in full swing by then and the price of booze in Portland was higher than anywhere else on the Pacific Coast. The city government was taking in about $100,000 a month in protection money from the few bootleggers who were allowed to operate. Anyone else who tried to sell liquor, whether backwoods still operators from Molalla or freelance smugglers from Canada, they faced strict enforcement of existing laws. The Portland Police Bureau often raced with Federal agents to grab the liquor first. There was even one near shoot-out between Portland police and Federal prohibition agents. Most of the liquor seized by the Portland police made it into the well-guarded storeroom in the basement of the Central Police Station. The “evidence” often disappeared, either at parties put on by cronies of Mayor George Baker or into the hands of “approved” bootleggers.
            Matchmaker Bobby coached young boxers, most of them immigrant children who participated in programs at South Portland’s Neighborhood House. A project of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Neighborhood House provided services for immigrant families suffering poverty and trying to assimilate into their new country. The children attended Portland Public Schools and after school programs at Neighborhood House. Evans recruited some of his most important employees from the Neighborhood House boxing team. Young men like Mike DePinto, Abe Wienstein and Jack Minsky boxed for Matchmaker Bobby. They all ended up in careers in organized crime. Abe Weinstein’s family business was junk dealing and he was a natural leader. He opened a second hand store on the eastside and recruited a gang of young burglars to keep it stocked. Mike DePinto and his two brothers Ray and Nick were muscle. They were especially good at coercing young women into prostitution. Jack Minsky was a cab driver and pimp. He was pretty good in a fight too. By 1932 these young men would become the largest and most dangerous criminal gang in the city.
Jerry Powers' death in 1921 came at a very good time for Matchmaker Bobby. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            They were just getting started in 1921. Matchmaker Bobby, who was accused of fixing at least one fight, intended to control bookmaking in Portland. Jerry Powers was his only serious rival. On the night of October 23, 1921 someone walked into Power’s poolroom and shot Jerry once in the belly. The attacker walked out without taking any money and about an hour later Joe Heil, an immigrant from Austria, was found wandering in a daze with a pistol in his hand. He confessed to shooting the poolroom proprietor, saying he wanted to rob him. He couldn’t explain why he hadn’t taken any money and he didn’t speak very much English. Powers’ died of peritonitis several days after the shooting. The jury convicted Heil of first degree murder, but recommended leniency. He was sentenced to life in prison. Four years later he was pardoned and deported to Austria. There was no evidence that Powers’ death was anything but a robbery gone wrong. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Matchmaker Bobby controlled sports betting in Portland with an iron hand until his downfall in 1932.
Coming soon from the History Press

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Unfortunate Wives of George Sack

Who is JB Fisher, you ask.  He is my writing partner on the new book Portland Into the Vice Age 1934-1953 (please follow that link and support our campaign). He is also a talented writer and researcher with a strong interest in Portland crime during the mid-Twentieth Century, as he proves with this latest post.

I know you will enjoy his writing and want more from him.  I'll do my best to bring it to you. Now over to you, JB...

Near the corner of 162nd avenue and SE Stark was Jack and Jill’s Tavern. The building still stands today (Papa’s Casual Dining) but the scotch broom bushes that lined the nearby sidewalk in 1954 are long gone. At about 5 pm on February 18th of that year, Clyde Loughrey was walking past the tavern to a nearby grocery store when he noticed something yellow in the tangle of bare scotch broom branches. He took a closer look and found that it was the body of a woman, covered with a yellow coat. He hurried to the store and showed the grocer what he had found. Authorities soon arrived and eventually determined that this was the body of Goldie Sack.

Jack & Jill's Tavern about 1940. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Cummings,
In 1952, Goldie Goodrich had come to Portland from Great Falls, Montana where she had been a schoolteacher. The 52 year-old Dayton, Oregon native soon met and married George F. Sack (53). Some years earlier, Sack himself had settled in Portland and became the owner/manager of the Gordon Court Apartments on SW Montgomery St.
            When Sack went to the morgue on the 18th to identify his wife’s body after she had been missing for two days, he was frantic:  "That is my wife Goldie. Where did you find her? Where's her rings, where's her watch, where's her purse? Why don't you find them?" Immediately, police became suspicious and held Sack at the station for questioning.
             Within a day, George Sack found himself arrested by police and held on $10,000 bail. Further suspicions had been raised when residents of the area where the body was found came forward to report “strange goings-on” during the evening of February 16th and when two pictures were sent by wirephoto to the Oregonian by the Chicago Tribune. The pictures dated from 1925 and portrayed George Sack on trial for the 1924 murder of his second wife Edna, shot in the head while seated in the back seat of a cab with him during an apparent holdup. Upon seeing the first photo (a standing portrait), Sack confirmed his identity. However, when a second photo showed him at the murder trial of his second wife, he quickly reneged saying “It doesn’t look like me.”
George and Goldie Sack in 1952. The neighbors heard lots of fighting and George Sack's actions brought suspicion on him right away.
             In the 1925 trial, Sack had been defended by famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow who around the same time was gaining prominence for his work in the Scopes “Monkey” trial and the Robert “Bobby” Franks murder. Darrow convinced the jury that Sack may have indeed murdered his second wife but that he suffered from insanity at the time. He spent a short time in an asylum and then walked free, but a peculiar aspect of the case was that no police records were found when the Chicago Tribune attempted to locate these at the request of Oregon authorities in 1954. While officials had little to work with on that case, they also learned that Sack’s first wife, Julia, had died under mysterious circumstances when she burned to death at the couple’s Chicago home in 1923.
             Meanwhile, evidence had been mounting to connect George to the death of his third wife Goldie. Witness George Cary described to police how he had been walking along SE Stark Street around 9:30 pm on Tuesday February 16th. He was on his way to get stove oil at the Richfield service station on the corner of 162nd and SE Stark when he noticed a car parked on Stark near Jack and Jill’s. It was running with its lights on. As Cary walked, he watched a man get out of the car and walk to the trunk with a slight limp. Raising the trunk, the man was starting to remove something when a car turned onto the street and headed toward him. He closed the trunk and returned to the driver’s seat. After the vehicle passed by, the man got out again and returned to the trunk. Again, several passing vehicles interrupted his efforts and he returned to the driver’s seat. Cary walked slowly and watched carefully. On the third attempt, the man lifted something out of the trunk and brought it to the curb. Cary couldn’t identify what it was but explained to police that "you could tell it was something rather heavy the way the man acted when he took it out." The man disappeared from the curb with whatever it was he was carrying. As witness Cary walked past the parked vehicle, he noted the license number and repeated it in his head until he arrived at the service station. He then asked the station operator to write down 827-107. Within a few minutes, both Cary and the service station operator watched the vehicle drive past with “the motor racing.”
            Sure enough, the license plate number matched George Sack’s 1950 Chrysler. That vehicle had been parked at the Gordon Court Apartments on February 16th, 1954 and Sack explained to officials questioning him on the 18th that he had not driven the car since the morning of the 16th when he had driven to Safeway on an errand. Yet there was convincing evidence that he had driven the car later in the day on the 16th. Several residents of the apartment complex told police how Sack’s car was parked outside the furnace room (just below his own apartment) around 6 pm. Witness Vera Craig, a former manager of the apartment complex who had come to dine with a another resident, explained how Sack was always kind to park his vehicle away from the complex so that residents could park there. This was an unusual exception. Craig further described how she and the friend left the complex around 8 pm and when they returned at about 9, Sack’s vehicle was no longer parked outside the furnace room.
Information soon surfaced that two previous wives had met bad ends. In this photo George Sack is on trial for the murder of his second wife in 1925.
             In addition to testimony about the vehicle, residents were also willing to tell police (and later the jury) about the status of George and Goldie’s marriage. Maralyn K. Billie, a former tenant of the apartment complex, reported that she frequently heard the couple quarreling from her nearby unit. Once during a particularly heated exchange, she heard Goldie scream “Don’t hit me again!” Several other tenants told of similar episodes and investigators learned that Goldie had attempted to file for divorce from George in March 1953. Her efforts were unsuccessful because, according to the courts, she had not resided in Portland long enough to separate from her husband.
            When George Sack stood trial for the murder of his third wife in September of 1954, witnesses testified about seeing the car on the night of February 18th and many described the troubled relationship between the couple. Much visual evidence was exhibited including a life size photograph of the deceased victim’s back showing a large circular shaped bruise. Along side this was a life-size picture of the trunk of George Sack’s car, showing a spare tire in shape and curvature identical to the bruise on Goldie’s back. Another image showed a man confined in the same position in a similar trunk and it was revealed that one would have to be unconscious to assume such as tight and awkward position. That Goldie was put in the trunk, that she died of asphyxiation, and that moderate levels of a “hypnotic depressant drug” that could induce a deep sleep were found in her body all corroborated with the visual evidence. 
Prosecutors also provided meticulous details of the numerous savings bonds that Goldie purchased (sometimes using her maiden name) during the time that she was married to George Sack. Strikingly, these were cashed by the defendant just days after his wife’s death. Even though the trial rarely touched on the question of Sack’s previous two wives, newspaper reports had already revealed that he had profited from insurance policies taken out by both of them.
Despite his persistent plea of innocence throughout the trial (and his unsuccessful effort to appeal the case in the state Supreme Court), George Sack was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Goldie Goodrich Sack and he was sentenced September 30, 1954 to die in the Oregon lethal gas chamber. Slowed up by the appeal process and still awaiting his decided fate on September 24, 1963, George F. Sack killed himself in the Oregon penitentiary by looping a shoestring around his neck and tightening it with a toothbrush. He left a note and here is what it said:
“Let it be known that I forgive and forget all my accusers and I ask for the same forgiveness for me. Please bury me in Salem. Charge burial expenses to my account.”
Years earlier, two funeral services had been held for Goldie. One was organized and paid for by George Sack in Portland. Organ music filled the Holman mortuary as George Sack sat alone to hear the pastor, accompanied in the room only by county police detectives George Minielly and Ed Fuller. The other service, arranged by her brothers and sisters and attended by over 120 friends and family members, was held in Macy and Sons Mortuary in McMinnville. Goldie Rosa Goodrich was interred beside her mother and father in the family plot at the nearby Yamhill-Carlton Pioneer Memorial cemetery.   
--JB Fisher