For a series of 'Then & Now' interactive looks at Newport during its "Sin City" era, go to the bottom of the article.
NEWPORT, Ky. – From its beginnings as a military outpost in 1803, Newport had an aura of sin.
Sitting at the edge of civilization in what was then the American West, the Northern Kentucky city developed into a lawless slip on the Ohio River – where drinking, prostitution, gambling and gunplay were the natural order.
The area we know now as home to an aquarium, an IMAX theater and a family entertainment center was a pocket of lust and crime for almost two centuries – and that way of life persisted into the 1960s, 70s and even 80s.
“You could pretty much do what you wanted – and the guys with some money really did what they wanted,” retired Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky reporter Terry Flynn said. “Across the river, you still had a much stronger political machine. But in Newport, nobody cared. They just gambled.”
At a time when Las Vegas was merely a crossroads in the Nevada desert, Newport became “Sin City” – a place where if you could dream it, and pay for it, you could do it.
This nationally recognized identity came from a variety of socio-economic factors.
Perched near the joining of the Ohio and Licking rivers, Newport was populated by waves of immigrants. This melting pot of culture brought a love for beer, lotteries and sporting traditions that would pave the way for illegal indulgences.
But it was the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 – and the subsequent outlawing of alcohol in the United States – that helped criminal entrepreneurs blossom in the city.
It was during this time that Newport and the rest of Northern Kentucky were parceled out to one of the most powerful crime organizations in the country: The Cleveland Four.
Its leaders were Moe Dalitz, Morris Kleinman, Louis Rothkopf and Sam Tucker. The four distributed liquor to Newport, and later purchased the Coney Island Racetrack, renaming it River Downs. Soon they acquired Latonia Park, a dog track in Florence they turned into a horse track.
But the syndicate wasn’t alone in its conquest of Newport’s underworld.
A man named Frank 'Screw' Andrews soon opened several businesses in the city that dealt with gambling, alcohol and everything in between.
Competition between the factions became fierce. Andrews' business, Sportsman's Club, grossed about $1.6 million a year – well above $7 million today.
"You had several elements running gambling in Newport in those days – and they were always trying to kill each other," retired Kentucky Post carrier Ken Fields told the Post in a 2004 interview. Fields moved from Mount Adams to a house at Fifth and Isabella in Newport's west end in 1945. He grew up in Newport when it truly was America's Sin City.
Fields said Andrews was one of the more trigger-happy old-time Newport gangsters.
He took over the Alibi Club on Central Avenue after its owner was gunned down – a crime he was a prime suspect in. Andrews was also a leading suspect in the shooting death of an employee he claimed had stolen from him. He admitted to killing another rival club owner, but was acquitted of murder when a judge ruled self-defense.
Andrews would meet his end in 1973 when he "fell" from a sixth-story window at St. Luke Hospital. Fields said the “real” story that still circulates to this day is three large men in suits showed up at the sixth-floor nurses' station and told them to “take a break.”
By the time the nurses returned to their station, the three men were gone and Andrews' crushed body was lying twisted on the pavement below.
The Cleveland Four and Andrews weren’t the only sources of trouble in Newport during its heyday.
The Farley brothers -- Rip and Taylor Farley – came from the hills of Eastern Kentucky to work in the bootlegging syndicate during the Prohibition.
On Feb. 18, 1946, Rip walked into the Yorkshire Club – run by gambler Martin Berman and the Cleveland Four – and robbed a dealer of $2,500 at pistol point.
Four days later, as Rip and Taylor were leaving the Flamingo Club at 633 York Street, a man in a large black car shot them both with a sawed-off shotgun.
Rip died almost immediately, but Taylor survived.
"The mob ran the Flamingo, so maybe they shouldn't have gone around there at 4 a.m.,” Fields said. “That morning, the newspaper rounded up a bunch of us newsboys and took us in a truck to Newport to sell a special edition: ‘Farley Boy Wiped out in Newport' – that was the headline."
Prostitution was also a major player in the battle between the city’s crime syndicates.
As early as the Civil War, troops stationed in Cincinnati would cross the Ohio River into Newport to make use of a wide selection of brothels. But it wasn't until the 1930s and beyond that prostitution became highly organized.
Newport brothels soon developed an ongoing arrangement with Cincinnati taxi drivers who would funnel business in their direction.
In the coming years, more than a dozen brothels with names like Galaxie, Ray's Café and Stardust flourished with the bevy of gambling and alcohol establishments.
But Sin City didn’t last forever.
As Newport entered the 1960s, Flynn said there were clear signs the gambling boom was coming to a close.
While the major crime syndicates still had power in Newport, many of their leaders were abandoning ship for more profitable locations like Las Vegas, the Bahamas and Florida.
Those who wanted reform in the city saw this decline as a moment to strike. Soon, the Committee of 500 was born.
When the group grew to 2,500 members, a retired professional football player named George Ratterman stepped forward as their leader.
In an attempt to take control of the city and end corruption, Ratterman ran as an independent candidate for sheriff.
But before the election, Flynn said club owner Tito Carinci formed a plan to sully Ratterman’s reputation.
“Supposedly, the folks that ran the gambling in Newport didn’t want Ratterman as sheriff because he was running a ticket to do away with the gambling and prostitution,” Flynn said.
On May 8, 1961, Ratterman got a message from Carinci asking him to meet in a hotel bar. Once there, Carinci spiked Ratterman's drink with chloral hydrate and took his unconscious body to the Glenn Hotel on Monmouth Street.
There, Ratterman was stripped and placed in a bed with one of Carinci’s dancers.
At 2:45 a.m., May 4, a trio of Newport detectives found a groggy Ratterman wearing only boxer shorts and socks in bed with 27-year-old Juanita Hodges, a stripper known professionally as April Flowers.
Ratterman was arrested for soliciting prostitution, and the story made national headlines.
Flynn said Carinci told reporters that Ratterman was a frequent customer and a sexual degenerate who regularly indulged in prostitutes.
But Carinci’s plan unraveled after a blood sample taken from Ratterman proved he had been drugged.
“The whole thing blew up when he went to the FBI and they found out he had been drugged,” Flynn said. “And it ended up in federal court over in Covington.”
After Ratterman was acquitted, public opinion began to swing in his favor – and his message of reform spread like wildfire.
He was elected sheriff in November 1961. In the years that followed, crime leaders fell like Dominoes.
“By 1962 they were shutting everything down,” Flynn said. “All the real gamblers got out of Dodge and went to Las Vegas really fast.”
During the 1970s, many of the old casinos converted to "strip bars” featuring “bargirl-style” prostitution, where hostesses would also provide sexual favors.
Despite the spread of reform, Flynn said local governments during that time still struggled to eliminate an illegal system of sex trade in Campbell and Kenton counties.
“Strip clubs grew, especially into the 70s – and they were really successful,” Flynn said. “Big Red Machine drew great crowds and they all came over to Newport after the games at night. At 3 o’clock in the morning, you couldn’t drive down Monmouth Street. It was a parking lot, the traffic was so heavy.”
In the late 1970s, Flynn said community activists began reforming what they believed was a corrupt city government.
One by one, the strip clubs vanished. Today, only the Brass Ass at 613 Monmouth Street remains.
“They also did away with Cinema X, the adult theater on Monmouth,” Flynn said. “The problem was, when they started taking the strip clubs to court, club owners were paying their lawyers more than they had coming through the door. Toward the end of the 70s and early 80s, those businesses really started to slide.”
In 1982, nude dancing was banned – and what remained of the casinos was pushed out. Not long after, Newport residents began restoring the East Row's historic homes.
A key to Newport’s renaissance was the arrival of The Islands restaurant and entertainment complex on the river in 1983. In its first five months, The Islands grossed $5 million.
Later in the decade, the city convinced two developers to put up a high-rise office building that would be called Riverfront Place.
The next big wave began in 1989, when the city created the redevelopment area where the Newport Aquarium and Newport on the Levee would eventually take shape. The aquarium started in 1996 and the Levee, a new breed of commercial development known as a lifestyle center, came five years later.
Not everyone agrees with the decisions that shaped Newport, and some argue reform led to a period of economic decline.
But Flynn said he believes the city is still growing and its best days are yet to come.
“Newport is a city that has changed dramatically,” he said. “It took people who were finally fed up and willing to do something about a city that seemed to be in decline. But it didn’t happen overnight and there’s still a lot to be done.”
HOW TO USE OUR TOOL: Click and hold the white circular “slider” tool at the center of each photograph. Then move the slider left and right to see an image from Newport's Sin City years and an image of that same spot today. (This feature may not be compatible with all versions of Internet Explorer.)
The Antique Shop at 8 E 6th St. in 1972
Then known as The Antique Shop, this little business on E 6th Street was owned and operated by Sammy Eisner, a well-known figure in Newport. He had a criminal record, and police suspected him of being involved in organized crime. On July 30, 1972, Eisner was shot three times inside his shop. His homicide investigation was turned over to the Kentucky State Police on Aug. 17, 1972. It has never been solved.
The Yorkshire Club at 518 York St.
The Yorkshire was owned and operated by Joe and Martin Berman, two gangsters that took control of the club in 1944. It was a three-story brick building with a 7,500 square foot casino on the first floor and a race and sport book in the back. The Yorkshire contained one of Newport's busiest bookie joints, and several racetrack boards lined the rear wall of the casino. Race results poured in constantly from tracks around the country. In February 1953, the club was raided. Three men described as "big-shot Cleveland gamblers" were charged in U.S. tax court in Washington, D.C., with hiding $273,000 in profits from The Yorkshire Club. Today, the building is home to Bernhard's Bakery.
The Merchants Club at 15 E 4th St. in 1945
The Merchants Club was a three-story building with a dining room and casino. Red Masterson – a moonshiner, thief, gambler and killer – managed the club for the Cleveland Syndicate for more than 20 years. In 1951, Newport's police chief George Gugel was asked to list the notorious gambling houses operating in his jurisdiction. Gugel named Merchants Club as one of them. The club was near the police station and courthouse. In 1951, it was raided and its occupants were marched single file up the street to the police station. Today, a Goodyear Auto Service Center sits on the site.
‘Sin City’ lawyers at 501 York Street
Lawrence Riedinger Jr. (left) and Charles Lester (right) started their law careers by fighting vice and requesting court orders to padlock known houses of prostitution. Here, the two attorneys stand outside of their law office at 501 York Street. Lester eventually drifted toward the criminal side and began defending many of Newport's underworld figures. He became involved in shady deals with the Cleveland Syndicate and found himself on trial several times.
Glenn Schmidt's Playtorium 18 E 5th St.
Glenn Schmidt's Playtorium opened on 5th Street in 1951 and featured a casino, restaurant, cocktail bar and bowling alley. It was later moved into the neighboring Snax Bar and became one of Newport's best-known gambling dens. An underground tunnel connected the Playtorium to the Snax Bar. Detective Jack Thiem raided the building, leading to its closure in 1959. It is now the Syndicate Night Club.
Newport from the sky in 1949
An aerial image of Newport taken in 1949 compared to today.
Cinema X at 716 Monmouth St. in 1976
The State Theater opened on Monmouth Street on Nov. 10, 1939. It reopened as Cinema X on Dec. 18, 1970, and premiered with the film 'Naked Under Leather.' From that day on, the business only played adult films. It was closed on March 11, 1982, and has since been demolished for a parking lot.
The Thompson/Southgate House in 1973
Richard Southgate, a lawyer, politician and silk manufacturer, built the Southgate House in 1814. The house was reportedly built by British prisoners of the War of 1812. John T. Thompson, inventor of the Thompson Machine Gun, was born in the house in 1860. The "Tommy Gun" became famous nationwide during the Prohibition and Depression-era years and was the preferred gun for police, soldiers and gangsters. This led to the building's designation as the "Thompson House." It was purchased in 1914 by the The Knights of Columbus (K of C), a Catholic men's organization. The old photo seen here shows the building in 1973 when it was owned by the religious group. The sign on the front reads, "Adoption Not Abortion." Today, it is a music venue and entertainment space called The Southgate House Revival.