Kentucky Gangsters

Newport, Kentucky

Just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati is a little town called Newport, Kentucky. It’s actually growing these days, but it may never be as big as it was in its heyday, when gangsters owned the town and the casinos made millions by the hour. In fact, Newport was the prototype for the casinos of Las Vegas. Hard to believe this little Kentucky town was the epicenter of gambling, bootlegging, and organized crime, but it was.

My husband and I learned all about Newport’s history during American Legacy Tours ‘Newport Gangsters’ tour.

Newport Kentucky-Gangster-American-Legacy-Tour

The tour guides dress like gangsters. Gotta love that!

The Newport Gangsters Tour

The tour meets at the Dueling Pianos Bar which is housed in a building that used to be a gambling establishment. There, we watched a powerpoint presentation and heard an entertaining lecture before we headed out on our tour. It seems a little odd to call sitting in a back room and getting a history lesson a tour, but there so many layers of information intertwined in Newport’s notorious history that it was necessary. And fascinating. And, as luck would have it, it was raining the night of our tour, so we were happy to be inside out of the rain.

Syndicate-Gangster-Nightclub-Newport Kentucky-Gangster-American-Legacy-Tour

The Syndicate Nightclub

Prohibition and Gangsters

I’ve already written about Cincinnati’s beer history. The city could have gone bust during Prohibition if it weren’t for the criminal mastermind of George Remus, who looked for loopholes in the system and discovered that alcohol could be used for medicinal purposes. So he figured out how to make that work for Newport.

During and after Prohibition, speakeasies popped up all over Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. Newport became a town run by gangsters from Chicago, New York and Cleveland. They quickly established gambling storefronts, bookmakers, and bust out joints — a term used to describe the illegal backroom gaming parlors that gamblers could quickly escape from. There were slot machines everywhere, even at the schools and chili parlors. There were “day houses” and “night houses” full of women offering services to visiting men. Bar girls started dancing in clubs, asking patrons to buy them expensive drinks. It’s not surprising that Newport earned the nickname of “Sin City.”


We did not go inside this museum. “Admition” is by appointment.

Newport, Kentucky Now

We did walk around Newport after the initial presentation, though there are few buildings left to see. The large Primrose and Beverly Hills Country Clubs are gone. The brothels that lined Monmouth and York Streets are now cafes and thrift shops. It used to be that 1,000,000 out-of-town visitors arrived in Newport every year until the start of WWII. Now it’s a town of 15,000 people that looks across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, who just opened its first casino in 2012.

Newport tried to clean up its act. The casinos closed and the gangsters moved out to a little desert town in Nevada to set up shop there. In its heyday, the streets of Newport, Kentucky, not Las Vegas, were graced by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. It was the place to be if you had any type of vice. Few remnants remain. But if you’re in the area, stop by and learn a little more about its fascinating history. If you want to gamble, though, you’ll have to head across the river to Ohio. Lots of good beer there now, too.

Did you know anything about the gangsters of Kentucky?


16 responses to “Kentucky Gangsters

  1. Great bit of social history Juliann, though a pity that the town has extinguished all physical signs. I wonder was that deliberate or just economic progress?
    Here in the Channel Islands the islanders spent the post war years dumping all signs of German hardware over the cliffs, and in more recent years trying to fish them out again 🙂

    • Great question, Roy. Some of the larger building burned down — more than once. In fact, I believe one story goes that a member of the Syndicate stood at the bottom of the driveway with a can of gasoline at his feet while he and the fire dept. watched the casino burn.

      As far as the Channel Islands and the rest of Europe trying to eliminate any reminder of the Germans after the war, I’m not surprised. Nor am I surprised that now they wish they had some of those pieces of history back.

  2. Wow, who knew Vegas had such humble roots? It sounds weird but I always had this weird sympathy for people during the Prohibition era. Not that I’m much of a drinker myself, but it seemed like a very restrictive time then.

    • I hadn’t realized how much bootlegging was going on in this area during that time. Especially with so many breweries and distilleries in Cincinnati. The whole town might have gone bankrupt!

  3. I am looking for history about the name of some of the gangsters in Newport. I believe my paternal grandfather was one of them and associated frequently at the Lookout House. I have picture of him and a man named Blanton (only have 1st name) left to me by my father after his death. My grandfather changed his name sometime between 1900 and 1924 and have many pictures also. My father would never give me any other information other than what his real last name was and as he aged he would get furious to even bring up the topic. My first cousin and I are trying to obtain genealogy informatioin and hope this may turn out to be a valuable asset. Would love to chat or even visit, to try and obtain more information. Thanks in advance for anything you may be able to steer me to.

    • This is fascinating, Sally. I would suggest you get in touch with American Legacy Tours. The guys there have done a lot of research on the gangster period in Cincinnati/northern Kentucky’s history and are experts in it. Good luck!

  4. Oh I certainly remember those days. I was 19 years old and hung out with Screw. We would go to an after hours bar on Pike Street off of Madison Avenue to collect and gamble. I worked as a dancer at the Spotted Calf in Newport. I knew all of them. My favorite place of all times was THE DOWNSTAIRS CLUB in Laconia owned by Bobby Combs. I could tell you some stories but then again, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Screw Andrews was good to the people he cared about. I was too nieve to understand what was happening. I loved the attention, money and excitement. Screw was very charismatic and people liked him but also feared him. It was an incredible time to be alive!!

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