TAIL-CONSCIOUS. That’s what the FBI called Uncle Arthur.
Intent on catching the man who provided sports and race results to bookmakers all over the city, the Boston Police Department vice squad once assigned 12 detectives and a deputy to follow my uncle.
They lost him. Uncle Arthur was like a ghost.
Arthur Marcus was a “line man,” identified in a 1957 state crime commission report as a source of gambling information to almost every major bookie in the city. That’s why the authorities wanted him so badly. He had “peeks” who watched the races through binoculars outside tracks, including Suffolk Downs, and he sold the results to barbershops and bars and restaurants and clubs that were gambling haunts. He bribed newspapermen to feed him sports results. “Here,” he told a mole in the wire room at the Globe one Christmas, stuffing 25 bucks into his pocket. “Buy yourself a pair of pants and a shirt.” Tall, slim, and meticulously turned out, he was a big tipper who drove expensive cars, patted children on their heads, and once helped save a man’s life. In an era when public corruption ran rife, he had a state representative for a lawyer; another obliging state rep served as a character witness. He paid protection to the mob.
As the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger revives scrutiny of the Boston FBI office, its long but far less well-known pursuit of Uncle Arthur from the 1950s to the 1970s serves as an example of how the feds are often the ones at a disadvantage when they go up against even comparatively small-time but smart and well-connected wrongdoers who operate just out of sight of all the rest of us.
Uncle Arthur “dry-cleaned” himself every day. He moved his operations around the city, right under the noses of the people watching him. He worked for a while in the heart of Roxbury, but also out of Newton and Brookline, Watertown and Quincy. He took bets on water-soluble paper that could be dissolved instantly. He led buzz-cut Joe Fridays the right way down one-way streets in his midnight-blue 1967 Lincoln Continental, then spun around to the wrong way, knowing that the G-men wouldn’t follow.
They tapped his phones but never got anything good off the surveillance. It seems he had better informants than they did, including his childhood friends from the North End, telephone company employees, and the pals he hung out with every day at Jack and Marion’s in Coolidge Corner and Gordon’s Deli on West Roxbury Parkway.
It took 14 years for the FBI to finally catch Uncle Arthur in the act, and even then they barely made it stick. When they raided his soundproofed 9-by-16 office above a coffee shop in Newton — they had stumbled onto it by accident; he was careful to park the Lincoln five blocks away — he had a phone in one hand and, with the other, was submerging betting slips in a Pyrex bowl of water on a Westinghouse hot plate. They found a list of his customers’ phone numbers in his sock, but they were in code.
When Uncle Arthur went to prison, it was not for gambling. It was because he wouldn’t give up his associates and clients to a federal grand jury, in spite of a promise of immunity. He was convicted of contempt of court.
And while the FBI couldn’t get Uncle Arthur for his gambling business, they did accomplish one thing:
His eventual imprisonment, they reported in the final pages of the long and exasperated narrative that comprises his 2-inch-thick FBI file, “greatly impaired all bookmaking of off-track betting of horses in the Greater Boston area.”
UNCLE ARTHUR flitted into and out of my childhood. I saw him at anniversaries and on other family occasions, but such appearances were rare. In my big, gregarious clan of relatives who loved to talk, nobody said much about him.
Then I was contacted by a college student doing research on a street of tenements in the North End and the people who had lived there in 1910. One family of Polish immigrants had the same last name as mine. Did I know who they were?
The family, it turned out, was headed by a great-grandfather I’d never known, who eked out a living working in a tailor shop to support his wife and many children in a crowded tenement on Wiget Street, off Salem Street. When I learned that one of those offspring had become an underworld operator, not to mention one who led federal agents in a cat-and-mouse game for a decade and a half, the journalist in me was intrigued, even as the rest of my family appeared self-conscious.
When he was born in 1916, Arthur was the seventh child to be squeezed into that rickety apartment at 8 Wiget Street. The monthly rent was $12.41. It was a dirty, poor, and tightly packed neighborhood, in a ward that was Boston’s third most densely populated; 20 percent of the apartments housed three or more families, with four to six people to a room. Arthur’s world was raucous and crime-ridden. When he was born, there were 128 bars, saloons, and taverns within a few square blocks. By the time he got to high school, the Depression had descended, making matters worse. He and two of his brothers started their careers as penny ante bookmakers, collecting 50-cent bets on street corners and keeping track of them in the ledger books that were the industry’s trademarks.Continued...