When we think of mobsters, gambling, and prostitution, we think of Las Vegas. However, Las Vegas stole the title from somewhere else: Newport, Kentucky. This little known town is across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. By looking at it now, you wouldn’t know that the family friendly aquarium, restaurants, and homes were once home to speakeasies, gambling, and mob-run hotels.
Let’s travel back to the early 1900s, to the time of Prohibition. Kentucky was known for its liquor and the people of Kentucky had no interest in stopping their production and sales. Newport became the home to the Cleveland Syndicate, Jimmy Brink, Peter Schmidt, and George Remus.
Newport was already the place for Cincinnati workers, and Ohio River travelers, to stop and enjoy themselves. Due to the military base, prostitution was already in place as well as many alcohol businesses. So when Prohibition came, and crime elements wanted to move in, the area was ripe for the taking, and no one minded.
George Remus would cultivate one of the largest bootlegging operations, making millions. He would also establish the tradition of corruption among law enforcement, spending 20 million in bribes, which would protect the illegal gambling and prostitution establishments.
Lawlessness was rampant. Aside from law enforcement, the judicial system had also been corrupted. Everyone was profiting and no one minded, with the exception of the town’s ministers who held very little sway with anyone. Everyone was profiting so much that by the 1940s the gaming industry controlled all social, economic, and cultural life.
The Cleveland Syndicate would eventually control all of this gaming. The city had seven casinos, eight gambling clubs, several bust out joints, a good number of off-the-books operations and 12 brothels just within the area by the police department.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club was the pinnacle of the casinos. Aside from gambling, it offered elegant dining, New York entertainment, big bands, and dancing. This Supper Club would instigate a fierce battle between Peter Schmidt and the Cleveland Syndicate that would end with the place burning down. To this day, there are rumors about what really happened the night the place went ablaze.
In the 1950s, a group of Protestants started collecting evidence of illegal activity in the hopes of finding someone to start prosecuting and cleaning up Newport. The Committee of 500, another group trying to clean up the city, also started gathering evidence.
However, it took a scandal in the Sheriff’s race to bring about the start of the downfall. The gaming industry tried to set up the underdog candidate, who was a reformer, by drugging him and taking pictures of him with prostitutes. The plan backfired. Instead of bringing the man down, it gave him the notoriety he needed. When the courts dismissed the case against him because he tested positive for drugs in his system, the Governor sent in the State Police, who were not on the payroll of the criminals.
This was the start of the end. Organized crime started finding other places to operate; places like Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Florida, and others. This was the end of the sin city era in Kentucky.