Part twelve of 14
Benny Aronoff and Benny Harris, two of Toledo's largest number banks, came real close to bankruptcy in early 1938 when the number 915 came up a winner on February 1st.
The winning number in the Toledo area was determined from the New York closing stock market totals. According to The Blade, who did a very good job of educating the nave gamblers, it was the custom of the Toledo numbers gamblers to base the winning three digit number on the second, third, and fourth number of the New York Exchange's total stock and bond sales.
January 31st total on the New York Stock Exchange was 691,590 which resulted in a winning number of 915.
In trying to determine why so many people bet the number 915 The Blade's reporters referred to the "Dream Books" which were so popular in the late 1930s. According to the dream books, the number 915 would be the logical choice, if the night before you had a dream about a kidnapping or a buffalo. With tongue in cheek, the reporters said that there must have been a lot of dreams about kidnapped buffalos.
The two Benny's who controlled almost all of the number's racket in Toledo at first refused to pay off all the big money winners. Initially, because of the 500 to 1 payoff, the two Benny's were only going to honor tickets from those gamblers who bet one quarter or less until they determined if the big-money winners were on the level.
Reasoning that the big-money players must have had an inside tip, they paid only those ticket holders whose payouts were below $125. According to insiders those gamblers who had the big tickets had to go downtown for their money.
At the meeting between the two Bennys, the consensus was that 915 was a hot number and that there was an advance tip-off which had enabled some Toledoans to really cash in. Through a careful accounting of the numbers slips it was determined that between a $100 and $125 had been bet on the number 915 before the 3 P.M. closing of the New York Stock Market.
One of the big betters on the number 915 had placed an $8 bet, because the night before his son told him that when he woke up it was exactly 9:15. When he went downtown to collect his $4,000 he was taken into a back room with the Benny's and was questioned for over two hours and still left without his money.
Rumors were quickly spreading that the two Bennys weren't paying off, and the players were starting to stay away.
Aronoff and Harris determined that it would almost be impossible to "fix" the closing numbers of the stock exchange, and paid everyone including the large winners.
A person close to the two Bennys said that six men were the big winners in the 915 fiasco. One of the men won $6,000 on a $12 bet. If you were working, the average weekly wage in 1938 was $21.86, or about 50 cents per hour. A $12 bet would represent almost three days of wages in 1938, and would translate into a bet of almost $450 in today's dollars. The loss to the bookies would be over $225,000.
Taking no chances, the gamblers formulated a new way of determining the winning number. Taken from the combined mutual sales at the third, fifth, and seventh races at Hialeah, the "number" would represent the last two figures on the dollar's side and the first place in cents.
Using the figure for the combined races of $476,258.13, the winning number would be 581.
The most important item to come out of the meeting between the gamblers was that all the gamblers who held winning tickets would be paid. It was determined that failure to pay off would result in a loss of public confidence and ruin the numbers game in Toledo.
Insiders said that the numbers business had fallen off over 40% in the last 60 days because of the depression. And to make matters worse, all the publicity from the initial failure to pay off were causing the police to raid all the known numbers houses in the city.
Only three months later, on May 13th to be exact, at least 10,000 everyday players of the numbers game thought that Friday the 13th of the fifth month of the year would be lucky. They bet heavily on the number 513, won, and the estimated payout by Toledo's gamblers was thought to be over $200,000 dollars. Learning from their past mistake with the number 915, the number's banks paid out over $200,000 to the winners.
A master at self promotion, Harris was brilliant in promoting a new numbers scheme that publicly raised the attendance at movie theaters and privately boosted Benny Harris' bottom line.
To boost attendance at the movies, the Paramount and Rivoli theaters started Bank Nite. All that the patrons of the cinema had to do was fill out the registration form and be present in the theater when their name was drawn to collect the $600 grand prize.
The problem perceived by Harris was that the cash strapped patrons couldn't afford to attend the movies on bank night.
"Chances of getting something for nothing worry a lot of people," said Benny Harris, "and for just 15 cents I'm offering the Superior Bank Nite Service. For just 15 cents if your name is drawn for the theater's Grand Prize and you're not there to collect, we'll give you the $600 plus an extra hundred to soothe your disappointment."
To promote his Superior Bank Nite Service, Harris used a rather unique approach. When band leader Paul Spor would call out the name of someone who wasn't present to collect the $600 Grand Prize, Benny Harris would call the person on the telephone to break the bad news to them.
When Alberta Hendrickson received Harris's call the other night, Alberta said that Mr. Harris was very polite when he said: "Your name has just been called for the $600 Grand Prize at the Paramount and you weren't there were you? Were you registered with the Superior Bank Nite Service?"
"When I answered that I wasn't, he told me all about his service and the $1300 dollars that I'd lost, I was devastated," Mrs. Hendrickson said.
"Three or four people in Toledo have gone coo-coo because they worried about the money which they lost by not going to the movies, and I don't want that to happen to anyone," Harris said.
Word quickly spread through Toledo and the surrounding area, because of the 110,000 customers registered at the Paramount and the 84,000 registered at the Rivoli, over 7,000 Toledoans signed up for peace of mind offered by Benny's 15-cent Superior Bank Nite Service.
Five of the 15 cents goes to Benny Harris's agent for selling the insurance, and all the rest of those 7,000 dimes go to Harris.
Harris's chance that your name will be drawn is less that 1 in 194,000 or 193,999 chances that your name won't be drawn. And the 7,000 dimes, well that's $700 that Benny has just put into his pocket. And if he has to pay out, Harris gives you the $700 and doesn't lose any of his own money.
Seven hundred dollars in 1934 would be equivalent to $22,260 today.
TOMORROW: The rise of the Club Devon.