WIDE OPEN CITY: Gambling, prostitution flourish in Tony Moran era
By EDWARD A. TAGGERT
Years before Max Hassel was murdered in 1933, the rackets were firmly established in the City of Reading. Hassel, the millionaire bootlegger, was the most formidable figure in the city’s underworld, but others were quietly gaining power. Abe Minker, having served a prison term for perjury, didn’t have much luck during the Depression in his hometown Reading. He tried legal and illegal ventures in Allentown, Philadelphia and New York, but never made it big. Tony Moran, by staying close to home, was much more successful. By the mid-30s, everybody in the local rackets looked up to Tony as “the man”.
Unlike Hassel, Moran did not burst onto the rackets scene after a few short years. Two years older than Tony, the beer baron was planning his Prohibition strategy as a teenager. By the time he was 22, Max was already wheeling and dealing with major Philadelphia bootleggers. Moran matured slower, but he showed the same management skills that made him Hassel’s heir apparent -if in different venues.
Moran was born Anthony Mirenna. His parents were Italian, living in Tunisia under French rule when Tony was born in 1902. The family returned to Italy were Tony received an elementary school education. He migrated to Reading in 1920, according to his U.S. naturalization papers in 1927. However, friends of Tony claim he lived here for a few years before that. In one way, Tony was smarter than the other Reading immigrant racket kingpins, Hassel and Minker. He applied for citizenship before gaining a criminal record. The other two never became citizens because of their several arrests.
If drinking illegal alcoholic beverages was regarded as the No.1 vice during Prohibition, gambling was not far behind. The Roarin’ Twenties popularized slot machines, pinball machines, the numbers game and other lotteries, and horse betting parlors. It was in these areas of gambling that Moran won his spurs in the rackets.
In the late 1920s illegal gambling in Reading wasn’t under any central control. According to gambling historians, the numbers game was introduced in Philadelphia by a fellow named Jamaica Johnny in 1923. It wasn’t long after that that numbers writers were peddling their sport in Reading at 700-to-1 odds. when greedy writers talked about lowering the odds to 600-to-1, Max Hassel stepped in. He felt the numbers game belonged to the small bettor, the fellow who could risk only a penny or nickel, hoping to hit the jackpot. Max threatened to open his own numbers bank, using the longer odds, if the other writers went ahead with their plans. They decided not to buck him. After he was murdered, the shorter odds were introduced.
OId-timers do not recall that Max Hassel and Tony Moran ever collaborated. By 1929, Tony Moran had set up a gambling room at 529 Penn Street. Visitors descended steps from the sidewalk to reach the subterranean card and dice rooms, beneath the St. Lawrence Luncheonette. Steps also led down to Cole Watson’s poolroom at 533 Penn. If the heat was on, there would be a doorman to screen gamblers who wanted to risk more than a few pennies on the numbers at Tony’s place.
The spot was known to almost everybody in town, but the Reading police never raided it. Even when the state police closed down several other central city bookie and numbers joints, Tony’s place went untouched.
Unlike Abe Minker, who would gain control of the rackets in the late 1940s, Tony Moran did not try to dominate every facet of gambling. During the Depression, as the popularity of the numbers racket grew, Moran established the biggest number banks, but other independent banks were also drawing plenty of players.
Literally hundreds of men and women wrote numbers in Reading. Moran’s A&A bank at 529 Cherry Street was the biggest in Reading. His B&B bank performed well, too. The manager of an A&A substation admitted in court that he alone had 180 people working for him. It was hard to find a corner grocery or a bar or a restaurant that didn’t have punchboards on the counter, and a slate in the window displaying the winning daily number.
Ralph Kreitz was not cut from the same cloth as Reading’s typical racketeer. Jewish and Italian immigrants had pretty much dominated the rackets over the years. Ralph was a homegrown, suspender-wearing Pennsylvania Dutchman who made and spent a fortune distributing and selling gambling machines for almost 30 years.
His VVV (Vim, Vigor and Vitality) Athletic Club, 1239 Moss Street, was home base for a business soon extending into many fire companies, civic organizations, bars, hotels, stores, gasoline stations, and political and athletic clubs throughout Berks County. Mechanical slot machines, pinball machines and punchboards were his speciality. The electronic machines came later.
The down-to-earth Ralph was quiet and friendly, but a stern businessman. A standing joke was that Kreitz redecorated half the clubs in Reading. If a club needed a loan for refurbishing – or for some other reason – Ralph was always ready to make a loan. It was not unusual for him to bring $25,000 in a paper bag to the borrowing club. There were stipulations, of course. The club had to put in his machines. The deal: Ralph received 50 percent of the machine’s profit, plus 25 percent toward payment on the loan. If the weekly take on a machine was $1,000, not uncommon on a quarter machine, Kreitz collected $750 until the loan was paid.
The membership were happy that Ralph helped them spruce up the club, plus adding substantially to its treasury. When he’d pick up his weekly payment Ralph would treat the customers to drinks and leave $20 for a barrel of beer.
It was not uncommon for the bartender in a county fire company’s social quarters to receive a phone call: “The staties are on the way.” Ralph had his paid informants at the state police barracks. The tip would send club members scrambling to load the machines in their cars and store them for the time being at home. This was seldom necessary in Reading because Ralph frequently entertained elected officials, judges, professional men, and policeman in his house at 920 Douglass Street. He entertained District Attorney John Ruth and city councilmen, and dozens of others in an evening. It was often party time in the Kreitz home where Ralph lived with his aging mother.
For many years Kreitz operate Dreamland Park, a second-rate picnic grove with a few amusements for youngsters near Pricetown. More important to gambling dads on a Sunday afternoon were the card games and gambling devices set up in a family atmosphere. This was just good old Ralphie giving the masses what they wanted.
Some clubs purchased their own gambling machines. This cut out the middleman – either Kreitz or Moran – but it meant the club had to buy its own political protection or risk being raided. Those who took the chance usually ended up in court.
Although Tony Moran was No.1 in numbers, bookmaking and prostitution, he had to share the gambling machine business with Ralph Kreitz. This gave the clubs and bars the opportunity of striking a bargain with whichever camp offered the best deal. The rackets fraternity was a friendlier one during the Moran era than it would become later under Abe Minker’s reign.
One Berks County district attorney during the 1930s who took a stand against racketeers was John A. Rieser. In January l938 he wrote a letter to Reading Mayor J. Henry Stump and to officials of 30 boroughs requesting their support to suppress the racketeers and protect the citizens of Berks County. He received promises of cooperation from Stump and most burgesses – but no action followed.
Rieser refused to use the shopworn excuse offered by most Berks D.A.s of that period: Their office lacked the personnel to wage a war against the racketeers; their duty was to prosecute not investigate. Since nobody on the city payroll was investigating organized vice, the D.A. was not overworked prosecuting the established racketeers.
When Rieser saw that Reading law enforcement and the boroughs weren’t going to help him, he turned to the Pennsylvania State Police. Two months after his plea for help, Rieser’s office won a conviction against Ralph Kreitz and 20 others arrested on gambling charges. Ralph served four months of a six-month sentence in Berks County Prison. Ralph’s longtime partner, John Matz, was also arrested but died before going to trial.
Then D.A. Rieser targeted Moran’s organization, scoring the most damaging blows ever against the rackets by a local prosecutor. Helping him was a veteran crime buster with whom the racketeers were all too familiar. State Police Corporal Mike Reilly of the West Reading barracks had made many arrests in the city dating back to Prohibition.
Early in December 1938 Reilly led a team of troopers who seized slips and money in the headquarters of a numbers outfit headquartered on Tulpehocken Street near Elm.
On December 13 he led another raiding party that broke down a metal door on the second floor of a bookie joint at 506 Penn Street. Six gamblers were arrested in the recently renovated horse-betting parlor that had been set up only two weeks before. Among the better-known names among the suspects were Harold “Tiny” Hoffner and Jacob “Jack” Bassing.
Hoffner, ten years earlier, had a trifling career as a professional boxer, twice losing to Bill Peters in bouts for the so-called heavyweight championship of Reading. Tiny outweighed Bill by 35 pounds but ended up bloodied and out pointed in both of their four-rounders. Hoffner later was arrested for liquor violations at roadhouses he operated near the end of Prohibition. Bassing was the New Yorker who had managed Reading’s first bookie joint at the rear of lsaac Mark’s cigar store, 511 Court Street. Hoffner, Bassing and four others took the fall in the December raid, but it was no secret that the Penn Street betting parlor was a Moran operation.
The smoke had hardly cleared a week later when Mike Reilly and his raiders smashed down two doors to enter the headquarters of the A & A numbers bank at 529 Cherry Street. For the first time names like Benny Bonnano, Joe Bonnano, Ben Albert and Joe Albert, who was Moran’s brother-in-law, were published in the daily newspapers as being among the eight men arrested that day. Practically every numbers player in town knew the A&A bank was run by Tony Moran. Investigators estimated the bank was handling between $10,000 and $20,000 in bets a day – a huge sum in those days.
On January 28, 1939, District Attorney Rieser and his state police allies got lucky. Tony Moran was in the gaming parlor he operated on the first floor of an apartment house on the southeast corner of South 6th and Cherry Street. When Mike Reilly and his state cops entered the place in mid-afternoon, Tony claimed he was there just to play pinochle with his buddies. But the glass-enclosed counter, recently installed woodwork, and stylish tables had the unmistakable looks of a gambling house. But more important, the police found thousands of books of lottery tickets under the title “Elks Crippled Kiddies Benefit Dance.”
That afternoon marked the first time Tony Moran had been arrested!
Moran had built a reputation of being a generous man, always willing to help the poor and unfortunate. He sponsored youth athletic teams and didn’t get rough if a foolish husband or father endangered his marriage by over-extending his credit. So it must have been embarrassing to Moran when he had to stand trial for running a crooked lottery that was supposed to help crippled children.
George Ravel and Joe Piano, a hulking Moran henchman, were the central figures in the Elks scam which ran for 12 weeks. There was supposed to be a $1,000 winner each week, but only six could be located. One of those was a fictitious winner whose address was the same as Joe Piano’s. At the March trial, Joe claimed the phantom winner loaned him the $1,000 prize. Elks officials testified that of the $25,264 profit from the lottery, the fraternal organization received only $22 after expenses.
Justice was swift in the pre-World War II Reading; D.A. Rieser scheduled the trial before moving against those seized in the earlier raid on the A&A numbers bank. He had a case against his number one target – Tony Moran – and didn’t want to lose him.
Thus, Moran and seven of the nine people originally charged were convicted two months later. Moran and Piano received one-year sentences in Berks County Prison and fined $500. Ravel and Benny Bonnano received six-month terms and $200 fines.
Assistant D.A. Mark C. McQuillen prosecuted the case before Judge Fred S. Reese of Carlisle. District Attorney Rieser, knowing that several of the defendants were friendly with local judges, had requested the State Attorney General to appoint a visiting judge to try the case.
Soon after the hierarchy of Moran’s organization was idling its days in BCP, reports circulated that the chief was having his meals shipped in from The Crystal, the popular center-city restaurant, just a few doors up Penn Street from his gaming rooms at 529. So, even in confinement, Tony Moran added to his legend.
Once Moran himself was in jail, District Attorney Rieser now scheduled a May 1939 hearing for those suspects arrested in the earlier A&A numbers bank raid. And the prosecution turned up with a surprise witness. He was identified as Dewey Houck, the former manager of an A&A substation in his cafe at 691 South 9th Street.
Houck had an axe to grind, having been edged out of the numbers business more than a year earlier when Moran had caught him writing slips for a rival numbers outfit while still working for the A&A. Dewey testified at the preliminary hearing that Moran definitely was the boss of the A&A. He also named Johnny Wittig and Paul Jaslow as principal operators of the big numbers bank.
Jaslow was a failed businessman who joined up with Moran for a few years, then quit the rackets about the same time Dewey Houck was pushed out. Wittig had been a close friend of Moran’s for years and was considered to be his right-hand man. Johnny, a square-jawed tough guy, was fortunate during the December-January raids to avoid arrest because he didn’t happen to be on the premises when Reilly’s raiders moved in. Now, he, too, was caught in Rieser’s net.
Based on the Houck preliminary testimony, Moran, Wittig, Jaslow and others were now scheduled for trial in June on gaming charges. Even so, the threat of another gambling conviction didn’t prevent Moran’s people from setting up still another horse parlor over the Crystal Bakery at 539 Penn Street; Tony liked to keep his operations centralized. On June 4, 1939, Mike Reilly, now a sergeant, and his state troopers broke in even before the place was supplied with rundown sheets and wire service equipment. Five men were arrested on suspicion of running a gambling operation.
Refused a postponement of their scheduled June 14 trial, Moran (still in jail), Wittig and Jaslow entered guilty pleas on the A&A numbers bank bust before Judge Paul N. Schaeffer. The next day the judge sentenced Moran to an additional nine-months term and fined him $1,000. Johnny Wittig, the Moran lieutenant, received an identical sentence. Jaslow received two years probation and a $500 fine.
In March 1940, Moran applied for parole, claiming the stress of prison life was causing stomach pains and affecting his heart. He pleaded that his confinement was causing a financial hardship for his wife and baby daughter. Judge Schaeffer was not impressed. Finally, Tony was released on September 25, 1940, promising he would stick to the legitimate business he had operated along with his rackets ventures. His florist shop on Franklin Street was a thriving operation when he went to jail.
It was not business as usual when Tony Moran hit the streets again after nearly a year-and-a-half away. Abe Minker was back in town and building an organization. In addition to Minker’s growing power, Moran was now at odds with his former buddy, Johnny Wittig. One scenario that was suggested by Moran watchers of the pre-war years had Minker trying to recruit Wittig during the spring of 1939 when Moran was jailed on the Elks lottery charge. Whether something of that nature caused the break between Tony and Johnny was argued for years by insiders. Others felt Wittig was angry because Moran caved in to Minker’s pressure.
When Moran was released from BCP in the fall of 1940, Wittig said he was broke and unable to pay his $1,000 fine. Moran refused to pay the fine, blocking an early release for his longtime friend. Things were never the same again between the two racketeers.
However, Moran did keep Wittig on the payroll, but with limited authority. Minker, meanwhile, using the threat of his New York and Philadelphia mob connections to enhance his bargaining power, worked out an accommodation with Tony during the World War II years. Gambling and prostitution prospered as GIs from Indiantown Gap quickly learned where the action was. Reading’s racket men and women did their bit to entertain the homefront troops.
Few people realized just how bitter the Moran-Wittig feud had grown until a month before the war ended in Europe. News reports that Johnny Wittig shot and killed Tony Moran on March 22,1945, struck Reading with the impact of the D-Day story. Gamblers, housewives, bankers, and businessmen debated the racket kingpin’s murder for days.
Wittig was drinking heavily with a friend, Charlie Marsen, in the Embassy Bar on Penn Street on a cold Saturday night (March 21). Then they went to the Crystal Restaurant for something to eat. Wittig had been telling Marsen about his problems with Moran. Suddenly Johnny left to go home and change his clothes. He returned to the restaurant, dapper as usual. The pair then went down to Moran’s gambling joint a few doors away. Wittig had been a dealer there only a few weeks before.
After a while, Wittig left by himself. It was after midnight (and now Sunday) when he returned, carrying a topcoat over his arm. He went through the first two sections of the place, past the four card tables occupied by gamblers with the Runyonesque names of Patsy, Fats, Chicken, Sweet Louie, Duke, Curley, Mose, and Slim. In the rear section, furnished with a dice table, Tony Moran sat on a high stool talking with Tiny Hoffner.
Wittig, approaching the pair, said he wanted to speak to Moran alone. Hoffner moved toward the poker players, taking a leaning position on a rail separating the cards and dice rooms. Tiny’s back was to Moran and Wittig. The 20 or so men in the place heard shots. Witnesses would later testify they saw Moran slump to the floor. Wittig, they said, was holding a hand gun only three feet from the fallen victim. There were four shots, three to the body and a fourth that hit Moran’s arm.
Several of the gamblers scrambled for the front door even as Wittig calmly came toward them with the warning, “Don’t any of you move!” Johnny left. Nobody followed him. Hoffner quickly picked up the wounded Moran and, in Sweet Louie Armao’s car, took him to St. Joseph Hospital. The shooting was at 12:40 am. The 42-year-old Tony died at 2:07 am with his wife, Fannie, at his side.
Their six-year-old daughter was also at the hospital, but “Peaches” did not understand what all the excitement was about.
Tony Moran’s last reported words were: “I am dying. Don’t accuse nobody. I done it myself” Whether this was an expression of some kind of a mobster’s code, or just delirium, we shall never know.
Wittig turned himself in the next morning, claiming he did not remember being in Moran’s place the night before. At his trial three months later, Johnny still denied he shot Moran. He testified that some unidentified Italian-looking strangers in town might have killed him. Police said .38-caliber slugs were recovered from the victim’s body. No weapon was ever found. Wittig admitted owning a .38 but didn’t know what happened to it.
Johnny Wittig, convicted of second degree murder, received a 10-to-20 year sentence in the Eastern State Penitentiary. On December 20, 1951, he was paroled after serving only six-and-a-half years; later Pennsylvania Governor John S. Fine commuted Wittig’s sentence. Johnny went from a jail cell to employment with the Minker mob. There would be other arrests over the years but he died of “natural causes” in Community General Hospital on April 23,1973.
The post-war years saw little change in the attitude of the voters who continued to elect city officials who were willing accomplices in allowing Reading to remain a wide-open town. The biggest event on the rackets front was the conviction of Ralph Kreitz for income tax evasion in 1948. Again it was the federal government, not local enforcement, that moved on a Reading racketeer.
Even though the IRS said Kreitz owed $42,953 in unpaid taxes for 1944 and 1945, the judge who heard the cases in June of ’48 almost apologized for sentencing Ralph to 60 days in prison. “I feel as though I am sending Santa Claus to jail,” said U.S. District Judge J. Cullen Ganey. “This man has really been a philanthropist. Most of his profits have been put back into places where they will do a lot of good.”
The IRS investigators, had, indeed, learned of many charities and civic activities that good old Raiphie supported. So Kreitz served his short term in Berks County Prison, resumed his profitable slot machine business, and continued not to pay income taxes. He would graphically detail his activities to a national audience a few years later.
In 1951 the U.S. Senate created the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Soon known as the Kefauver Committee, the Senate probers targeted New York City, Chicago, and other metropolitan areas as Mafia centers. But they also selected a few small cities to illustrate how far organized crime’s tentacles stretched.
Reading, Scranton, Atlantic City and two Kentucky cities, Covington and Newport, were towns with unsavory reputations selected in the Senate probe. The special committee sent its investigators to snoop around Reading for a few weeks in May, then subpoenaed known racketeers to appear at a hearing in Washington. Certain city officials also received orders to attend.
The Minker brothers, Abe and Isadore with their lawyer, Jacob Kossman of’ Philadelphia, leaned heavily on the 5th Amendment to dodge the committee’s questions. Abe cooperated to a point, but whenever he was asked about organized crime figures he stood on his right not to answer a question that might incriminate him. Izzy Minker took no chances. Even when Kossman told him it was safe to answer, he still took the 5th. Abe’s nephew, Alex Fudeman, also relied on the 5th Amendment to turn aside queries.
The senators and the committee’s chief counsel, Downey Rice, threw out names like Frank Costello, Ownie Madden, Nig Rosen, Willie Weisberg, Waxie Gordon, and other familiar organized crime figures, but the Minkers, Fudeman, and bail bondsman Joseph Liever denied ever meeting them. After their denials, Rice asked questions insinuating there were links between Reading’s racketeers and the big city boys.
Unlike his counterparts, Ralph Kreitz was completely open about his own activities, and partially about those of others in Reading. But he was cagey about giving bribes to elected officials or to the cops. He admitted giving money to certain policemen, or their relatives, but insisted the individuals needed it and, if he had it, he helped them out with a gift. One instance was when he gave Police Lt. Albert Hoffman $800 ‘”when the man was ready to die and needed a doctor. That was an outright gift. I got nothing,, back and didn’t expect none of it back.”
Lt. Hoffman had been subpoenaed, but arrived in Washington supposedly still recovering from a stroke a few years earlier. If he was to appear before the senate committee, said his attorney, M. Bernard Hoffman, he would have to be brought into the hearing room on a stretcher. When he was wheeled in, the senators quickly decided to avoid a possibly embarrassing incident. They excused the Reading police lieutenant from testifying.
Ralphie Kreitz was not shy about describing his career with slot machines, but he denied he had anything to do with the numbers game, and claimed he was never in a horse book. He didn’t try to hide this own criminal records nor the fact that the Minkers were pretty much running things in the city. His homespun outlook on gambling in Reading was the hit of the daylong hearing:
“You see I am trying to explain to the Senator and you people that in our city and in our county, it is liberal If you was to come to our county or our city and run on the platform that you are going to close that up [illegal gambling], you wouldn’t get elected ‘no-how that is the truth. You take our county. .. we boast the best fire equipment in the world. And that fire equipment was bought with slot-machine money.”
True or not, Ralph’s testimony stole the show and became fodder for the bemused Washington columnists. One of them, Frederick C. Othman of the United Features Syndicate, wrote: “The chummiest, biggest-hearted, most wide-eyed innocent hoodlum I ever met is Ralph Kreitz, of Reading, Pa.”
At the other end of the spectrum was the pitiful testimony offered by Reading Police Chief William P. Birney. Instead of testifying like the leader of a fairly large police force, Birney painted himself as a puppet whose strings were pulled by the mayor. Concerning vice, he explained, he acted only on complaints. Complaints from his own cops didn’t count. Any action against the rackets could be initiated only on orders from Mayor Jack Davis.
The Senate hearing exposed Reading as a city steeped in vice with definite links to organized crime. The voters reacted by electing a new mayor that fall. Abe and Isadore Minker, and Alex Fudeman received contempt citations for failing to answer questions, but their cases dragged on for several years before charges were dropped by the federal government.
The Senate Organized Crime Committee hearings were an interesting show, exposing the Mafia as a major threat to society. But in Reading and Berks County the rackets would thrive for many years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward A. Taggert is a retired managing editor of the Reading Eagle-Times.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.
Reading Eagle, 1918-1951.
Reading Times, 1918-1951.
Report by the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1951.
Administration of Justice, U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1967.
Task Force Report: Organized Crime, U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1967. Appendix B -Wincanton: The Politics of Corruption.
Asimov, Isaac. From Harding to Hiroshima. Dembner Books, 1987.
Fox, Stephen. Blood and Money. Morrow, 1989.
Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. Facts on File, 1982.
Meiser, George IX & Gloria Jean Meiser. The Passing Scene, Vol VIII. Historical Society of Berks County, 1992.
Conversations with politicians, law enforcement officials, racketeers of the Prohibition era and later.