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The hunt for Uncle Arthur, king of Boston bookies

When Jon Marcus learned of a mysterious and dapper uncle of his whom the FBI had chased for 20 years because of his illegal gambling racket, he went on a hunt of his own to piece to together an amazing, untold chapter in Boston lore.

Photo-Illustrations by Ryan Huddle/Globe staff

TAIL-CONSCIOUS. That’s what the FBI called Uncle Arthur.

Intent on catching the man who provided sports and race results to bookmakers all over the city, the Boston Police Department vice squad once assigned 12 detectives and a deputy to follow my uncle.

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They lost him. Uncle Arthur was like a ghost.

Arthur Marcus was a “line man,” identified in a 1957 state crime commission report as a source of gambling information to almost every major bookie in the city. That’s why the authorities wanted him so badly. He had “peeks” who watched the races through binoculars outside tracks, including Suffolk Downs, and he sold the results to barbershops and bars and restaurants and clubs that were gambling haunts. He bribed newspapermen to feed him sports results. “Here,” he told a mole in the wire room at the Globe one Christmas, stuffing 25 bucks into his pocket. “Buy yourself a pair of pants and a shirt.” Tall, slim, and meticulously turned out, he was a big tipper who drove expensive cars, patted children on their heads, and once helped save a man’s life. In an era when public corruption ran rife, he had a state representative for a lawyer; another obliging state rep served as a character witness. He paid protection to the mob.

Photo-Illustrations by Ryan Huddle/Globe staff

As the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger revives scrutiny of the Boston FBI office, its long but far less well-known pursuit of Uncle Arthur from the 1950s to the 1970s serves as an example of how the feds are often the ones at a disadvantage when they go up against even comparatively small-time but smart and well-connected wrongdoers who operate just out of sight of all the rest of us.

Uncle Arthur “dry-cleaned” himself every day. He moved his operations around the city, right under the noses of the people watching him. He worked for a while in the heart of Roxbury, but also out of Newton and Brookline, Watertown and Quincy. He took bets on water-soluble paper that could be dissolved instantly. He led buzz-cut Joe Fridays the right way down one-way streets in his midnight-blue 1967 Lincoln Continental, then spun around to the wrong way, knowing that the G-men wouldn’t follow.

They tapped his phones but never got anything good off the surveillance. It seems he had better informants than they did, including his childhood friends from the North End, telephone company employees, and the pals he hung out with every day at Jack and Marion’s in Coolidge Corner and Gordon’s Deli on West Roxbury Parkway.

It took 14 years for the FBI to finally catch Uncle Arthur in the act, and even then they barely made it stick. When they raided his soundproofed 9-by-16 office above a coffee shop in Newton — they had stumbled onto it by accident; he was careful to park the Lincoln five blocks away — he had a phone in one hand and, with the other, was submerging betting slips in a Pyrex bowl of water on a Westinghouse hot plate. They found a list of his customers’ phone numbers in his sock, but they were in code.

When Uncle Arthur went to prison, it was not for gambling. It was because he wouldn’t give up his associates and clients to a federal grand jury, in spite of a promise of immunity. He was convicted of contempt of court.

And while the FBI couldn’t get Uncle Arthur for his gambling business, they did accomplish one thing:

His eventual imprisonment, they reported in the final pages of the long and exasperated narrative that comprises his 2-inch-thick FBI file, “greatly impaired all bookmaking of off-track betting of horses in the Greater Boston area.”

***

UNCLE ARTHUR flitted into and out of my childhood. I saw him at anniversaries and on other family occasions, but such appearances were rare. In my big, gregarious clan of relatives who loved to talk, nobody said much about him.

Then I was contacted by a college student doing research on a street of tenements in the North End and the people who had lived there in 1910. One family of Polish immigrants had the same last name as mine. Did I know who they were?

The family, it turned out, was headed by a great-grandfather I’d never known, who eked out a living working in a tailor shop to support his wife and many children in a crowded tenement on Wiget Street, off Salem Street. When I learned that one of those offspring had become an underworld operator, not to mention one who led federal agents in a cat-and-mouse game for a decade and a half, the journalist in me was intrigued, even as the rest of my family appeared self-conscious.

Photo-Illustrations by Ryan Huddle/Globe staff

When he was born in 1916, Arthur was the seventh child to be squeezed into that rickety apartment at 8 Wiget Street. The monthly rent was $12.41. It was a dirty, poor, and tightly packed neighborhood, in a ward that was Boston’s third most densely populated; 20 percent of the apartments housed three or more families, with four to six people to a room. Arthur’s world was raucous and crime-ridden. When he was born, there were 128 bars, saloons, and taverns within a few square blocks. By the time he got to high school, the Depression had descended, making matters worse. He and two of his brothers started their careers as penny ante bookmakers, collecting 50-cent bets on street corners and keeping track of them in the ledger books that were the industry’s trademarks.

Uncle Arthur was smart and lucky; he was nabbed just once, in 1948, for registering bets in Cambridge, and fined $500.

He had the last laugh. He would ride to the top of the gambling racket by taking advantage of the very reforms passed to crack down on guys like him.

***

IN BOSTON, as in other cities, large-scale bookmaking started as a sideline for bootleggers who trafficked in illegal liquor during Prohibition. After 1930, when the Depression had set in, it got much, much bigger. By the 1950s, a state crime commission found that Boston was among the five top “layoff” destinations in the country, meaning bookies nationwide would lay off wagers with gambling outfits here to spread their risk. The commission estimated that, in 1954, total gross sales from illegal gambling in Massachusetts came to $2 billion. That was more than people in the state spent on food.

Essential to the business in an era when communication was interminably slow were wire services that distributed and handicapped the game and race results. Bookmakers needed up-to-the-minute information, partly to encourage lots of betting, but also to prevent past-posting — betting on races whose outcome they didn’t know but bettors did. The need for fast-paced wire services was a vulnerability on which authorities capitalized when they imposed a federal wagering tax in 1951. Gamblers would have to buy a $50 federal tax stamp and be liable for an excise tax on winnings. Hardly anyone was expected to pay it, but when bettors didn’t, they could be charged with tax evasion.

The law put the national wire services out of business. But when it became obvious that the Internal Revenue Service had nowhere near enough manpower to enforce it, local entrepreneurs popped up to fill the profitable void.

The first was a man named Harry Maltzman, who rented offices at 260 Tremont Street in 1952 and installed a bank of 17 phones, a radio receiver, a telegraph set, and a ticker tape machine that coughed up the results of races all over the country to be sold to bookies.

The second? Uncle Arthur.

***

ON MARCH 9, 1953, around the start of the New England racing season, Uncle Arthur opened a purported cleaning supplies company in Quincy as a front for his new wire service operation. He had seven phones installed and went into business providing race and game results for $20 a week apiece to what the FBI would later report were 100 bookmakers and drops: shoeshine parlors, barbershops, and other places bets were taken.

Just under 6 feet tall and 145 pounds, Uncle Arthur cut a dapper figure. In the mornings, he would make the rounds to settle up with customers. Then he’d schmooze with the fraternity of fellow bookies who hung out at Gordon’s Deli before the races got underway at noon. He always picked up the check. Neighbors questioned by the FBI called him an “extremely gentle and kind man,” but he was careful. He paid $1,000 a month to New England crime boss Raymond Patriarca for protection, signed office leases under the aliases “Arthur Gordon” and “Arthur Ronson,” and kept track of clients in a notebook not by their names, but by the cities where they lived: Chelsea, Everett, Revere. Bookies who called in identified themselves only by number.

Uncle Arthur hid in plain sight. In 1955, he applied for the installation of 12 more phone lines in an office on Harvard Street in Brookline, which he acknowledged would be used to furnish sports results to gamblers. After the police objected and the telephone company refused, the state Department of Public Utilities rejected Uncle Arthur’s audacious appeal — even though a legislator was his lawyer and another testified on his behalf.

Because the pay phones inside the tracks were locked up when racing was underway, Uncle Arthur and the other line men hired peeks to plant themselves outside the tracks and watch the tote boards through binoculars. On foggy days, they’d use runners. The schemes were eventually uncovered and resulted in a bill proposed by the Massachusetts Racing Commission to prohibit anyone from transmitting the results within a mile of a track until 30 minutes after any race. It didn’t pass.

Still, the wire services were always looking for new ways to get the race results. Uncle Arthur dropped $10 here and there on four employees at the Record American and two at the Globe to slip him race results from the Western Union and Associated Press sports tickers, with bonuses at Christmas. He spent so much time at the Globe, he got his hair cut at the barbershop there most Fridays. When the newspaper’s wire chief had a heart attack on an elevator, it was Uncle Arthur who helped rush him to the hospital, saving his life. It was good business: The wire chief was also a customer.

Scrutiny was constant. So was risk. Brookline police raided Uncle Arthur’s house but found no evidence of gambling. In June 1955, telephone company investigators went to his office in Quincy and discovered the doors locked and the rooms empty, except for one with six phones, which they confiscated.

Uncle Arthur simply moved his operation to different places, behind new fronts: Watertown, Brighton, Roxbury, Newton. But by 1965, investigators began to close in. They knew wire service operators such as Uncle Arthur could lead them to the big dogs in illegal gambling. Line men, the state crime commission said, were “the Achilles’ heel of organized crime, and should be a major point of attack. . . . Organized crime could not operate on the broad basis needed for success without wire services.”

Now they just had to catch him.

***

UNCLE ARTHUR had been identified in 1957 by the state crime commission as a major player in the wire service business. But he remained elusive, moving his base to Washington Street in Brighton, and then, when an informant told him that the address was being watched, to Roxbury.

That’s where the Boston vice squad caught up with him, at the Hotel Gladstone on Dudley Street. Between June 21 and July 7, 1966, they watched him arrive each day at noon and stay at the hotel until 7 p.m. — precisely during racing hours. It was enough to get a search warrant. Police found six phones, betting slips, and racing forms. They announced that they had smashed a major gambling ring.

Uncle Arthur challenged the warrant in the state Supreme Judicial Court. He lost. When a known bookie goes every day during racing hours to the same place, the court ruled, “there is a sound basis for a firm belief that he does not perform that daily routine for the purpose of playing solitaire.” Still, by the time the case worked its way through the courts, which took more than four years, all but one of the charges had been dropped. Uncle Arthur was fined $500.

Such slaps on the wrist continued to infuriate reformers. They suspected gangsters and bookmakers of corrupting police and judges. “Illegal gambling on a scale that produces huge profits would be impossible,” another crime commission had said in 1965, “without the connivance of some law enforcement officials.”

The feds leaned harder. In the summer of 1969, they started tailing Uncle Arthur, but he always lost them. “Marcus is extremely surveillance conscious and spends considerable time dry-cleaning himself,” an agent reported. Boston police took the extraordinary measure of posting 13 men at intersections near where he lived in Newton in the hope of seeing Uncle Arthur’s Lincoln pass. That didn’t work, either. Posing as garbage collectors, the feds attached a rudimentary transmitter to his car on trash day, but its battery died.

Finally, by a stroke of luck, an off-duty police officer spotted the blue sedan parked in West Newton, five blocks from what investigators finally determined was Uncle Arthur’s newest front, a company called Heritage Home Improvement that consisted of nothing more than a desk and six phones. They had the records pulled for every telephone on the block. Someone at the phone company warned a bookie, who tipped off Uncle Arthur.

At 1:15 p.m. on November 13, 1971, the FBI raided the office. When no one answered their knocks, they forced open the door. Uncle Arthur sat at a desk, immersing fast-dissolving betting slips in water. While he was being searched, a phone rang. “Number 4,” the caller said, and when there was no response, hung up.

Uncle Arthur had $618 in his pocket. More incriminating was what agents found in his right sock: 48 telephone numbers, apparently in code. They searched his house, too, where they found his tax returns and tallies of what they theorized were payoffs to police, city officials, and the mob. Hidden in a book called The Immortalist, about the science of living forever, they found a mysterious safe-deposit key.

Although the FBI believed it had cracked the code, the numbers in Uncle Arthur’s sock largely led them nowhere; much of his 377-page FBI file, which it took eight years for the agency to relinquish to me, follows those trails to dead ends. They never found the safe-deposit box, either. But they had enough on Uncle Arthur to make him testify against his friends.

When he appeared before a federal grand jury on October 3, 1973, however, he refused to answer questions. Dragged before a judge, Uncle Arthur was ordered to talk, but he would say only that the evidence against him was obtained illegally. That was the end of the judge’s patience. Arthur was ordered to the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where he served six months.

After 14 years, the feds had finally shut down Uncle Arthur.

***

NEARLY THREE DECADES LATER, a few years before he died in 2002, my retired uncle consented to a visit. I had a pretty good idea by then about his past, but when I asked him what line of work he’d been in, he gave me one of his many cover stories.

He’d been a magazine distributor, he said.

I didn’t say anything.

“Should I tell him?” he asked his wife.

She shrugged. “Tell him.”

Uncle Arthur smiled.

“I made book.”

Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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