Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com.
The History of the Race Wire Service
Mont Tennes and the Birth of the Race Wire
By Allan May
After an investigation of Mont Tennes, the Illinois Crime Survey Commission reported, “If the complete life history of Mont Tennes were known in every detail, it would disclose practically all there is to know about syndicated gambling as a phase of organized crime in Chicago in the last quarter century.”
Born in Chicago on January 16, 1874, Jacob “Mont” Tennes was the son of German immigrants. Legend has it that one day in the late 1890s he walked into a State Street crap game and walked out with $3,800. Two days later, he was back and doubled his winnings. In 1898, Tennes then used this money to open a saloon and billiard room. His customers were the “scions of the old gambler combine, the safe blowers, and confidence men.”
In the first decade of the 20th Century, gambling ran wide open in Chicago and was controlled by three syndicates. Mont Tennes and his two brothers, William and Edward ran the North Side. James O’Leary (whose mother owned the cow that started the Chicago Fire) ruled the South Side, and the Loop district was under control of the infamous Michael Kenna and John J. Coughlin, better known as “Hinky Dink” and “Bath House John.” Of the three, Tennes would become the dominant force.
By 1904, when he and his brother Peter were indicted by a grand jury, Tennes was working with a West Side operation in addition to backing hundreds of betting parlors. Tennes pled guilty to bookmaking and was fined $200. He would not be found guilty of another crime until 1922.
When Carter Harrison II was elected mayor of Chicago in 1904, he put an end to handbook activities at the horse rack tracks stating, “It is my intention to witness the sport of kings without the vice of kings.” Starting with Washington Park, the betting was eliminated; unfortunately, so were the fans. When the Washington Park results were repeated at the Hawthorne and Harvard tracks, horse racing became a dead issue. For the next eighteen years there would be no thoroughbred racing in Illinois. However, there was racing in other parts of the country to bet on and the telephone and telegraph gave the gamblers the means to continue betting with the creation of the race wire.
The idea for the race wire service came from John Payne, a former telegraph operator from Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1900s. Payne had worked for the Western Union Telegraph Company, which had recently decided to stop reporting racing results at the urging of one of its principal stockholders. Payne developed a sound procedure for dispensing horse race results. He would have someone stationed at the racetrack, and using a mirror, flash back a coded race result to a telegrapher in a nearby building. The results were relayed immediately by the telegrapher to handbooks (also called bookies) all over the city. The Payne Telegraph Service of Cincinnati was soon established.
One of the benefits of this service was that it allowed bookies to take bets on races where they already knew the results. If they knew the horse being bet on had lost, they would accept the wager. If the horse had won, they would tell the bettor it was too late to place his bet.
In 1907, Tennes purchased the “Payne System” exclusively for Illinois for $300 dollars a day. He received the race results at the Forest Park train station using a switchboard consisting of a trunk line with 45 wires. He distributed coded results to several hundred poolrooms and handbooks. The information, which came from tracks around the country, like Latonia (Kentucky) and Gravesend and Saratoga (New York), was then relayed to the handbook joints. In Chicago, no gambling house could receive horse race results by telephone or telegraph unless Tennes received compensation. Local bookies had to pay him 50 percent of the daily net receipts for the service. As Tennes worked to secure his monopoly with the racing wire, his adversaries initiated a bombing campaign against him. Between July 1 and September 26, 1907, six bombs were detonated at either his home or his businesses. After the last incident, Tennes was tracked down at his home by a reporter and informed of the attack.
“Too bad, too bad,” Tennes responded. “So they have attacked me again, have they?”
“Do you suspect who the guilty persons are?” the reporter asked.
“Yes, of course I do,” he replied, “but I’m not going to tell anyone about it, am I?” That would be poor business.”
By 1909, the race wire service made Tennes, “the absolute dictator of race track gambling and handbooks in Chicago.” He maintained control over the handbooks through violence, and those who opposed him could expect sluggings and bombings.
In 1911, the “Tennes General News Bureau” was in the process of eliminating the “Payne News Service” from national control of the racing news service. Tennes had reportedly “risen from the King of Chicago gamblers to the Czar of all race track gambling in the United States and Canada. From 90 poolrooms in Chicago and 70 in New York City, he received tremendous profits.”
The poolrooms at the turn of the century should not be confused with what we know as poolrooms today. Places where people went to “shoot” or play pool back then were called “billiard parlors.” People went to a poolroom to place illegal bets. A person would use a poolroom to place a bet on a horse race much like they would use a bookmaker today. Poolrooms drew a shady group of people and usually served alcohol illegally. While there, men would pass the time gambling, playing cards, shooting dice and playing billiards. The association of shady activities and billiards playing would leave a stigma on poolrooms for decades until they evolved into legitimate establishments.
By 1911, the Interstate Commerce Commission began an investigation into the wire service due to the attention being generated in the struggle between the Payne News Service and Tennes’ General News Bureau. The ICC determined there was nothing illegal about the transmission of horse race results. In addition to the results, Tennes service also provided racing information such as entries, odds, jockeys, and scratches. Tennes was servicing cities all over the country including San Francisco and Salt Lake City in the west, San Antonio and New Orleans in the south, New York City and Baltimore on the East Coast, and scores of cities in the Midwest.
Raids by the police, attacks by rivals (both in and out of court), and investigations all failed to put a dent in Tennes moneymaking machine. The investigations continued through the teens and only seemed to expose crooked cops or politicians after months of work. The newspapers pressed the issue of Tennes’ power and in the August 30, 1916 edition of the Chicago Daily News the question was asked, “Does Tennes control the police department?”
On October 1, 1916, Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis launched a federal investigation. Tennes appeared without a subpoena and was represented by famed defense trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, who advised him not to answer any questions. However, many others called to testify did talk including some of Tennes’ associates. A bookkeeper revealed that Tennes owned twelve to fifteen handbook operations in the city and explained how they operated. Also revealed was that the operations were taking in $25,000 a month in profit.
Intimate details of Tennes’ operation came pouring out during testimony and Tennes himself helped provide some information. On October 5, 1916, Judge Landis sought the cooperation of the Illinois Bell Telephone Company, which owned the Automatic Telephone Company system that Tennes used, to come up with a solution to stop the transmission of sporting news. The result of the inquiry was that these transmissions were not a crime, and since local gambling was not under the jurisdiction of the federal court, the inquiry came to naught.
After the investigation, police raids on Chicago handbooks were stepped up. The newspapers helped by publishing the names of the proprietors, but only patrons and office managers seemed to get arrested.
During World War I, the public’s attention was obviously diverted from the gambling problem. At the same time, patronage of the gambling public was at a minimum. When the war ended, the opposition to handbook gambling cooled a bit in Chicago. However, when Robert E. Crowe was elected States Attorney in November 1920 the handbook raids picked up again. Crowe had his men prosecute the cases under the state criminal code as opposed to the municipal ordinance because penalties were more severe. Crowe’s campaign was said to have “shook the foundation of national handbook gambling and spread panic through the Chicago gambling brotherhood.” Tennes was indicted on February 24, 1921. His trial took place in March 1922. Tennes was defended by Crowe’s predecessor. The case was nolle prossed because prosecutors failed to show that the defendant was involved in a conspiracy as they charged. This ended Crowe’s “gambling drive” which had begun with much promise.
In 1923, William E. Dever was elected mayor of Chicago. Dever was an incorruptible mayor. This was quickly realized by the Torrio-Capone mob who promptly removed themselves to the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Within the first year of Dever’s term, his new police chief closed over two hundred handbook joints. The gambling, which enjoyed its greatest success in the Loop area, was said to be “absolutely dead” a year after Dever took office. During this period Tennes avoided arrest claiming he ran a legitimate race wire service dispensing sporting news.
In 1924, Tennes was rumored to have retired from the handbook business. One of the reasons given for this was the pressure being put on him by the Capone mob. Whatever the reason, Tennes’ name was seldom seen in print during the mid-1920s. During this period two of his brothers died; William in 1925 and Edward in 1927. The majority of the gambling during these years took place in the suburbs, mainly Cicero.
In 1927, William Hale Thompson was reelected mayor replacing Dever. Under Thompson, Chicago became a wide-open town again. At this time the city was split in two with Capone controlling the South Side, and the North Side run by a combination of George “Bugs” Moran and the Aiello brothers. Tennes was selling his race wire services to both groups.
Tennes was facing competition from a new entry into the race wire service, the Empire News Company. The new service began to experience several raids and police destroyed its equipment and telephones. Empire News obtained a restraining order from further police raids. Tennes quickly cut short a vacation and rushed back to Chicago. Empire News was selling its service for $25 to $30 per week. Tennes’s General News Bureau price to its subscribers averaged $75, but went as high as $125 per week.
Capone began to muscle in on Tennes operations. Several handbooks were bombed and Jimmy Mondi, Capone’s gambling boss was demanding 25 percent of Tennes’ profits for protection. Between the competition from the Empire News Service and the Capone gang, Tennes decided it was time to retire for good. In 1927, ownership of the General News Bureau was split into 100 shares. Newspaper magnate, Moses Annenberg purchased 48 shares, current partner Jack Lynch bought 40 shares, and the remainder ended up in the hands of Tennes’ three nephews; Edward, Lionel and Mont.
After his retirement from the race wire service, Tennes led a respectable life. He was involved in several real estate ventures and purchased a business. In August 1941, he died in bed of a heart attack. In his will, he bequeathed $10,000 a year for a “character home” for wayward boys named Camp Honor.
Next Month, Part Two: The Annenbergs
Copyright A. R. May 1999