John Scarne

John Scarne
John Scarne

An internationally recognized authority on gambling, John Scarne was perhaps closer than he ever admitted to the forces in the national crime syndicate. That he met many of them in the capacity of gambling expert and helped them set up casinos that were cheat-proof—by the customers—was readily understandable.

Scarne had great value to the gambling interests. His oft-proclaimed statement—that because of his skills he was barred from gambling in Las Vegas—made him the perfect shill, inferring to the public that the casinos could be beaten. But above all, Scarne clearly was himself fascinated by his contacts with mobsters—a fascination that has befallen many others.

Through the years, Scarne was acquainted with the likes of Arnold Rothstein, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Joe Adonis, Bugsy Siegel, Frank Erickson, Albert Anastasia, Willie Moretti, Jake Lansky, Abe Reles, Santo Trafficante and countless others. And he was forever denying there was anything called the Mafia and the national crime syndicate.

In a curious book he wrote in 1976, The Mafia Conspiracy, Scarne expounded his thesis that attacks on any Italian organized crime figure were nothing more than anti–Italian-American Mafia frameups by the federal government, determined to deprive the ethnic group of its civil rights.

Despite his track record as a best-selling author with some 18 books to his credit, Scarne could get no publisher to handle The Mafia Conspiracy, in which crime family boss Joseph Colombo was characterized as "the great Italian-American Civil Rights leader." Scarne claimed he had put up $50,000 of his own money to publish the book, but there were those who saw it as a mob apology, something the mob would gladly have financed.

The book is a bizarre document, clearly demonstrating Scarne's respect for—or awe of—Meyer Lansky, yet at the same time revealing a certain ethnic frustration, recognition of the fact that the Jewish elements within organized crime constituted the dominant factor in bigtime gambling, whether in Las Vegas, Cuba, Florida or upstate New York.

Scarne noted that Tampa, Florida, crime boss Santo Trafficante was merely a part owner in some gambling enterprises in Cuba and that the Hotel Capri Casino was "the only one of the nineteen Havana casinos operated by an Italian-American group." In his desire to clear the Mafia of importance in Cuba, Scarne ignored the fact that Meyer Lansky allowed many Mafia families to have pieces of his many enterprises.

In his book Scarne defended Lansky from charges made by the government, especially those made by informer Vinnie Teresa that Lansky was involved in gambling casinos in England and the paymaster to various mafiosi running lucrative gambling junkets. A cynic might suspect that Lansky may well have aided in the book's publication.

Lansky was a realist who understood the value of denouncing harassment of the mobs in terms of bigotry. Men like Lansky and Moe Dalitz could claim they were victims of antiSemitism, so why not offer the Mafia the same sort of defense? And Lansky would have been shrewd enough to tolerate even an outburst or two from Scarne.

Thus Scarne identified Ohio's ruling gambling syndicate as the "Jewish Mob," headed by the likes of "Morris Kleinman, Moe Dalitz, Louis Rothkopf, Samuel Tucker and Thomas J. McGinty—all nonItalians." Scarne carried his conspiracy theory further, declaring: "It's my judgment that Senator McClellan and Senator Lausche introduced the Senate bill to outlaw the mythical Mafia simply as a diversionary tactic to protect the non-Italian mobsters operating in their home states of Arkansas and Ohio."

Scarne's book is not without value as a sociological document. Scarne would not have written it in the 1940s or 1950s or even the 1960s; by the mid1970s he could because of the ethnic succession taking place in organized crime (although it is not the ethnic succession spoken of by such observers as Daniel Bell).

When the national crime syndicate was formed in the early 1930s it was predominantly a mixture of two ethnic groups (and of course remains so to some extent today), the Italians and Jews, and the Jewish gangsters may have been more dominant than the Mafia.

The ethnic succession that arose was simply an aging process, as the Jewish gangsters accumulated wealth but saw no need for establishing a succession to their empire. Of Moe Dalitz it was said by crime expert Hank Messick, "Moe thinks you can never get enough." Lansky also believed in the "more" philosophy, actively raking in crime profits into his late 70s.

However, the Jewish mobsters neither established nor wanted a structured empire. As Jewish ranks thinned—by the ravages of age rather than bullets— the Mafia, with its structured organization, with positions to be filled, simply moved into the vacuum, so that the Mafia influence in organized crime expanded. As the mafioso influence grew, Scarne was even safer expounding his "there ain't no Mafia" line and citing what was now rapidly becoming the ghost of Jewish gansterism.