Donnybrook: Diamonds, Blackjacks and Shamrocks

Donnybrook: Diamonds, Blackjacks & Shamrocks
By John Myers

This month is the 75th anniversary (diamond) of one of the biggest armed robberies in Ohio history, according to Anthony Verdone, a third-generation proprietor of the La Vera Party Center on Chardon Road, in Willoughby Hills, Ohio.  His grandparents, Larry and Vera Gaudio, bought the property from Thomas J. “BlackJack” McGinty in 1950, when the property was known as the Mounds Club, the swankiest night club and gambling operation between New York and Chicago. 

Blackjack McGinty (1892-1970) was second generation Irish growing up in Cleveland’s legendary Irish, Old Angle (St. Malachi & Cuyahoga River) neighborhood.  He was a first-rate featherweight boxer and a contemporary of World Champion Boxer Johnny Kilbane. 

McGinty’s boxing career was cut short in 1911 due to injury.  He married Helen McGrew; they made West 69th Street home in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.  After his boxing career ended, he translated his fighting skills to other forms of entertainment, such as gambling. He operated a cheat spot at 2077 West 25th Street, near the West Side Market (likely the site of new Truss Event Venue). 

He had many a “visit” (i.e., raid) from Cleveland’s legendary Safety Director, Eliot Ness. Despite Ness’ work, McGinty rose in stature and became the Irish component of the Cleveland Syndicate. Eventually, he was one of the founders of modern-day Las Vegas. 

Before Las Vegas, Blackjack built relationships with other Irish notables, such as James “Shimmey” Patton and with members of Cleveland’s Jewish Community, such as Maurice Kleinman, Moe Dalitz and Lou Rothkopf.  Blackjack expanded beyond West 25th and built a nightclub around 1930, just outside of the jurisdiction of Cuyahoga County, within a short mile into much smaller Lake County. 

original china used at the Mounds Club

He was able to form more congenial relationships with the smaller group of law enforcement in the then rural Lake County.  Blackjack built the Mounds Club into a nationally known entertainment club for the silk-stocking crowd, with top notch talent of the day, such as Lena Horne, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, etc.  

The slot machines were bolted to the deck, which allowed the casino floor to be flipped on some type of pulley system to hide them in case of a law enforcement raid. Al Capone and friends were known clientele. Dean Martin, then known as Dino Crocetti from nearby Steubenville, Ohio worked as a blackjack dealer, washed dishes with some singing thrown in. 

Martin married Elizabeth McDonald, born in Ridley, PA. who was living in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood at the time of their marriage in 1941. The young couple exchanged vows at St. Anne Church in Cleveland Heights.

The Mounds Club
The Mounds Club had high security, with an electric gate, armed pill boxes and the grounds were surrounded by an electrified fence.  However, on the evening of September 29th, 1947 (75 years ago this month) The Mounds club was doing brisk business with a couple hundred elegant guests being entertained by the comedian/tv star/movie star/actor Peter Lind Hayes and his singer wife, Mary, with the house orchestra as backup
Pill Box for security

In the words of Hayes: “Our banter was interrupted by the sudden appearance of 14 masked men. Over their heads they wore dark stockings with eye slits. One was wearing a gray felt hat. A few of the men carried submachine guns. The rest held revolvers and wore Army fatigues and overseas caps. It just didn’t seem real—not in The Mounds. Was this some kind of a gag?  One of the men leaped onto the stage, grabbed the mic from Mary and snarled into it, ‘This is a stickup! We’re not kidding.’ 

“Maybe Mary thought it was a gag too. She grabbed back the mic (never, never take a mike away from a performer). The thug pointed his submachine gun at the ceiling and sprayed it. One man in the audience still thought it was a joke. He shouted, ‘Stop this nonsense. Get on with the show.’ 

“The leader rushed over to him, slammed his revolver against the man’s head. The man fell over the table, stunned. ‘Anyone else?’ the man demanded.  There was a deadly silence.  The leader snapped quick orders to the others, positioning them around the room. No one was going to leave before the gunmen were through. 

“I looked at Val, our band leader. His face was chalk white. The face of the other man at the table was just as white. Mine was probably whiter. I began mumbling, unaware at first that I was praying:  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come…”.   –  (Guideposts Magazine, October, 1968)

In all, it was estimated that the robbers netted more than a half of million dollars in cash, watches, furs, and jewelry; millions in today’s dollars. The loot was carted off in makeshift bags of tablecloths, the gang escaped in three stolen cars. Phone lines were cut.

The Lake County Sheriff’s office did not show up until the next morning. Unsurprisingly, the crime was never solved. Was it an inside job? Did McGinty use the loot to start the Desert Inn in Vegas? 

Did the rival Mayfield Gang (mostly Italian) hit the Mic McGinty?  Did the notorious Cleveland Gang seek one-night riches?  Who the culprit of this donnybrook has been lost in the shadows of time.    

Desert Inn
A few years later, McGinty was of the founders/investors in the legendary Desert Inn. Gambling was legal in parts of Nevada, but how to get folks to go to the middle of the desert?  Using the Mounds Club model of top-notch entertainment, coupled with the thrill of a full array of wagering and gambling, helped create the foundations of modern-day Las Vegas. 
the original stage from the Mounds Club is still used at La Vera Party Center Donnybrook 9 22

Virgil Peterson, the Chicago Crime Commissioner, testified before the U.S. Senate Kefauver hearings on organized crime in 1950.  Peterson stated: “Thomas Jefferson McGinty, from Cleveland, is a stockholder in the Desert Inn. McGinty, together with Moe Davis, alias Moe Dalitz, Morris Kleinman, Lou Rothkopf and others, have long operated one of the most powerful gambling syndicates in the Nation. McGinty is known as the operator of the notorious Mounds Club near Cleveland. His gambling operations have extended to Florida as well as to Ohio and Kentucky.”

Irish America’s contributions to this nation has come in all shapes and sizes. Reportedly one of McGinty’s associates said, “While they were called criminals in Ohio, they were called entrepreneurs in Las Vegas.”

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