The Mafia Hit the Jackpot With the Slot-Machine

From its inception, the American Mafia included among its plethora of rackets the slot-machine.

So popular during the twentieth century's first few decades were these little games of chance, it's difficult today to truly comprehend it.

NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was hands-on.

Perhaps the most suitable image to remind us is the photograph above of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sledgehammering a machine (the scene also was captured on film footage).

All the historical Mafia bosses, especially the men who served as heads of New York's Five Families—Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Vito Genovese and, most famously of all, Frank Costello, for example—reaped fortunes from slot machine profits.

New York City alone reportedly had more than 25,000 slot machines in the early 1930s. They were placed everywhere—but primarily in places where the general public easily could access them and stuff their coins inside.

LaGuardia was not voicing platitudes nor was he conducting a political crusade to make himself popular.

Historians generally agree that the man truly loathed organized crime, especially the Mafia which perpetuated a negative stereotype of the Italian-American community (and in LaGuardia's view, brought great shame upon it).

His first order as mayor, reportedly, was for his chief of police to arrest Lucky Luciano -- for any reason.the chief could invent. (He wasn't finished with Luciano, however.)

In 1934 LaGuardia hunted down Frank Costello's slot machines, resulting in the action caught in the photograph atop this story. Mayor LaGuardia sledgehammered a slot machine as part of his larger public effort to show his distaste and zero-tolerance policy for both the New York Mafia and the citizens who used the machines.

“Let’s drive the bums out of town,” he said on radio in September 1934, the same day the photograph was snapped. He then tossed a huge batch of confiscated slot machines into the Long Island Sound. Around 12,000 machines were eventually tossed into the water.

In a Getty Images video, shot on October 15, 1934, LaGuardia tells the camera: “Let the gamblers, tinhorns, racketeers and gangsters take notice that they have to keep away from New York from now on.”

Whether the slots still exist at the bottom of the Sound, we can't say.

 In 1935 LaGuardia appeared at The Bronx Terminal Market to institute a city-wide ban on the sale, display, and possession of artichokes, whose prices were inflated by the mob. When prices feel, he lifted the ban.

In 1936, LaGuardia had special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, a future Republican presidential candidate, single out Lucky Luciano for prosecution. Most readers know what followed, we assume.

The Mayor, while able to remove the slot machines from the collective memory of everyday urbanites, didn't live long enough to see the resurgence in the Mafia's use of new slot machines with video displays in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the illegal gaming machines were once again linked to organized crime, albeit with a lower profile than the mob's pre-1930 efforts.

The video gaming machines, called “VLTs” ( Video Lottery Terminals), "reintroduced gambling into the urban fabric of New York City," as the website Untapped Cities noted in a report.

The amount of money the mob earned in the 1990s from these machines was worth killing over, as we noted.

As one example, there's the case of Bonanno mobster Antonio Tomasulo, also known as "Boots," who built up and operated a highly lucrative Joker Poker slot machine gambling operation (one establishment reportedly served up $15,000 per week).

After he died in 1990, his son Anthony assumed daily control and presumed he'd inherit the operation. But the Bonanno family claimed the racket for itself. Anthony objected -- and threatened the life of his mob superior.

Sal Vitale ordered the young man's 1990 murder.

New Invention for Amusement
The slot machine was invented in Brooklyn in 1891 by Sittman & Pitt as just another amusement  for placement in bars and taverns. It used drawings of playing cards to mimic card games.

The machines were rigged from the beginning, usually by "missing" certain important cards to reduce the probability of a player winning with, say, a royal flush.

These nickel machines could not provide cash payouts so bartenders would offer beer or cigars to winners.

The first slot machines were hugely popular despite technical drawbacks, such as the player being unable to draw new cards, for example. 

"One would be hard pressed to find a bar in New York City that didn’t have at least one poker machine besides the bar,” author Jack Harper wrote in King of Slots: William “Si” Redd, about the life and rags-to-riches story of Redd (1911-2003), who changed the casino gaming industry.'s promotional copy reads:
"Both a business book and a biography, it introduces readers to the nation's leading gaming centers, Apollo-era technology and how it changed gambling, and the race to perfect the first video poker game. It also gives them a chance to meet the characters with whom Redd rubbed shoulders, including Howard Hughes, Raymond Patriarca, Arizona cowboy and pig farmer Jimmie Hughes, gaming legend Bill Harrah, and casino visionary Jay Sarno."

Machines with a more realistic user experience--that used real playing cards, versus sketches of them--were created in San Francisco. Automatic payouts also were included in the new generation of slot machines.

San Francisco also was the perfect city to capitalize on the new machines due to widespread political corruption and theproliferation of the city's drinking establishments.

The hugely popular Liberty Bell slot machine arrived on the scene in 1895, sparking the initial use of the “one armed bandit” nickname.

Minining towns in Nevada saw an enormous uptick on the slot machine business, while in San Francisco, an effort to ban the gambling machines gained traction, which prompted a movement that quickly spread into the rest of California, as well as Nevada.

Bar owners, slot machine operators and distributors didn't watch their fortunes dissipated in the face of this new mindset--and the slot machine kings' efforts had such an impact on the gaming  industry its ripples are still scene today.

Daniels Antiques, which sells vintage slot machines made by firms in Chicago, said, "The owners were not going to take the ban sitting down and they “fired back” by changing the coin slot machines to offer candy, gum, or tokens, and so they decorated the wheels on the slot machines with pictures of gum or different fruits i.e.. cherries."

The “disguise” enabled placement of slot machines in new public venues, such as stores that children inhabited. Soon, machines seemingly designed for children appeared -- the ramifications of which were reported as recently as 1998 when the New York Times reported: “Video arcades for children along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City include reconditioned slot machines that work just like the real thing but offer prizes instead of money.”

Charles Fey desperately tried to hold onto his immense business by not licensing his technology or give up his sizable control over the production of the machines.

Still, new players entered the fray.

The successful Mills Novelty Company put out the Mills Liberty Bell slot machine in 1906, utilizing the principles of assembly line production and mass marketing.

Herbert Stephen Mills, head of the company, became known as the “Henry Ford of slot machines.” The Mills Novelty Company would become the preferred (and perhaps only) producer for Frank Costello’s slot machine racket in both New York City and New Orleans.