Mayor Fiorello Laguardia smashes confiscated slot machines about to be dumped into Long Island Sound

The history of the slot machine industry in the United States, like many activities operated by organized crime syndicates, is a story of shrewd entrepreneurism and opportunism functioning amidst a weak and corrupt state. While organized crime in America has made its mark most memorably on industries like alcohol, drugs, sanitation and construction, the slot machine industry also embodies the fundamental nature of mafia racketeering. Not only was the supply side dominated by a monopoly, but the demand side was also rigged, targeting populations least able to afford such vices. All the major figures of mafia operation were involved–Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese–enabling the slot machine industry to develop into a national activity that relied on interstate commerce and local support.

With slot machines–more than 25,000 of them in New York City alone in the early 1930’s–placed in prosaic locations, the general populace was both knowingly and unknowingly touched by the mafia. The eventual regulation of slot machines focused on a containment strategy thereby removing slots from the collective memory of everyday urban life. However, the rise of electronic slot machines in the 1990s, with links again to organized crime, and the 2004 opening of the Resorts World Casino in Queens, New York, featuring the controversial “VLT’s” or Video Lottery Terminals, reintroduced gambling into the urban fabric of New York City, making this historical inquiry timely.

The Slot Machine: An American Invention

The first slot machine was invented in Brooklyn in 1891 by Sittman & Pitt as an added novelty to the typical bar amusements. The machines were rigged from the beginning, garnering the name “drop-card machines” because cards were strategically removed from the deck, usually a ten of spades and jack of hearts, to reduce the probability of getting a royal flush.  The machines accepted the nickel to start the game but could not provide cash payouts so bartenders would offer beer or cigars to winners.  The machines also did not allow for players to discard cards and draw new ones yet due to technological limitations. According to Jack Harper, author of King of Slots: William “Si” Redd,  the game was enormously popular in spite of the technical drawbacks of Sittman & Pitt’s machine and that “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.”  The trend would not remain contained on the East Coast for long.

West coast entrepreneurs like Charles Fey in San Francisco would shore up the technical and aesthetic ends, creating a more lifelike experience with real cards (as opposed to drawings of the cards on the reels) and automatic payout on slot machines. San Francisco was ripe for the proliferation of slot machines due to a particularly feral environment of corrupt politics amidst a proliferation of alcohol establishments. Fey’s grandson, Marshall Fey wrote that “the sheer number of business selling spirits combined with disreputable city politics made the wide open city a natural locus for nickel-in-the-slot machines.”

Fey would go on to create the more popular Liberty Bell in 1895, also known as the “one armed bandit,” and slot machines would migrate to the mining towns in Nevada with unparalleled success. A movement to ban slot machines followed shortly thereafter starting in San Francisco, then making its way through California and Nevada, and the creative response by bar owners, slot machine operators and distributors would have a lasting effect on the gambling industry, still apparent today. According to Daniels Antiques, which sells vintage slot machines made by firms in Chicago:

It didn’t take long for the slot machines to get  banned somewhere around the turn of the century in fact, but 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.  

This type of visual “disguise” enabled the machines to be placed out in the public where children also played them. Sometimes the opposite would occur–machines built as children’s toys, like The Erie Digger,  a penny candy vendor, would be retrofitted as a gambling device.  The mass inculcation of slot machines had thus reached the youth population–a moral concern that continues to surfaces regularly, the most recent incarnation in the slot machines for children  at Trump Taj Mahal and Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City that dispense tickets that are exchanged for toys and candy. In 1998, Virginia representative Frank R. Wolf raised concern over family-oriented casinos and cited a New York Times article that revealed, “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.”

The proliferation of slot machine producers was inevitable given their financial and popular success, but it would be something Charles Fey would desperately try to fight. He refused to license his proprietary technology or give up the monopolistic control his company had over the production of slot machines. Nonetheless, enterprising new companies joined the market. The successful Mills Novelty Company, which put out the Mills Liberty Bell slot machine in 1906, used assembly line production techniques 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.

Daniels Antiques claims that “the greatest energy in the design of slot machines was between the great wars in the period 1920-1940. It was in this time period that the most significant design improvements came about.” Such improvements were not only technical–including “skill-stop buttons” for a player to stop the reel instantly, gold coins for luxury gifts and mystery payouts–but also aesthetic. This further enabled the concurrent growth of the slot machine supply industry with the voracious popular consumption of gambling entertainment. The development of the Bakers Races and Paces Races slot machines in the 1930s introduced the connection between horse racing and slots–the machines were also some of the first machines to be powered by electricity.

What Daniels Antiques does not mention are the creative mechanical manipulations that were invented during this time period to evade the authorities and ensure greater payout for distributors. Not coincidentally, organized crime also became involved in the production of slot machines in the 1920s and 1930s (in addition to distribution), as exemplified by the business activities of Joseph Aiuppa, a member of Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit. As reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Aiuppa was a partner in Taylor & Co., a furniture company that served as a front for the production and distribution of slot machines.  The company most notably altered one-armed bandit machines to circumvent the Federal statute that prohibited interstate trafficking of gambling devices.  The machine, marked The Trade Booster, changed the standard coin-operated slot to an electrical slot operated via cable by the bartender.  Aiuppa was convicted in 1960 for “failing to register as a dealer in gambling devices.”

Frank Costello, known as the “King of Slots” and a member of Lucky Luciano’s gang, also made some creative alterations to evade the authorities in New York City:

Costello added a gimmick to avoid legal problems. When the player dropped a nickel and pulled the handle, a candy mint dropped out, turning the slot machine into a sort of vending machine. If three identical objects showed on the machine, fake coins called slugs would be ejected. These could then be exchanged or cash. [Jerry Capeci]

With control over the production and distribution of slot machines, rigged payouts made the entire business a no-brainer. According to John Scarne, an author on gaming and gambling:

Slot machines built during the thirties usually had a payback of about 50% when they weren’t bugged. When half the money you feed in its retained, it doesn’t take long before the machine had it all. And when the bug was used, you lost even faster. It was this type of machine that was called the one-armed bandit. [John Scarne]

In the next installment, we will explore the inter-state operations of Costello, who reportedly operated the largest, network of slot machines in New York, if not the United States, and New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s mission to run him out of town.

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.

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