John J. "Bald Jack" Ryan
Original Text By Joe Ryan
The War Years
Jack’s chain of mid-western theaters had collapsed with the death of Big Tim, and, by the close of 1914, gone, too, was the Smith & Ryan Boat & Engine Co. The collapse left Chris Smith down and out for a time, but, catching the coat-tails of Gar Wood, he came back strong, in the Twenties, with Miss Detroit and was back in the big time with Chris-Craft, which produced the Chevrolet of motor boats from the 1920s to the 70s, when his grand-sons ran the business into the ground. Jack came back, too, but was never as strong again as he was in the decade: 1903-1913.
Still connected to the Irish mob which, in the next decade, would dissolve in the chaos of gangland warfare between the Italians and the Jews, Jack managed to operate gambling clubs in Detroit, Toledo, and Indianapolis, as well as roadhouses on the outskirts of Cincinnati and Louisville, and when Prohibition became law, in 1919, he participated in the distribution of liquor brought in from Cuba in the early years and, later, from Canada. Mingled in with his illegal activities were a number of legitimate businesses such as a chicken farm, cattle farm, hotels and boardinghouses.
After the Pelican Club closed, Jack abandoned his wife, Annie, and, with a 23 year old woman named Florence Reynolds his companion, he returned to the East Coast which became his base of operations for the war years, though he maintained business interests in Cincinnati, Toledo, St. Louis and Detroit.
The record finds him in the company of Oscar Deppler again. (Deppler was Jack’s office manager in St. Louis, in 1903.) With Deppler, Jack operated a “creamery” near Farmingdale, a village in northern New Jersey. According to Deppler, the farm of two acres had originally been owned by his father who built a house upon it. Deppler sold it to Ryan and the two lived on the farm for a time, raising Plymouth Rock chickens for sale. Jack also occupied a house in Asbury Park, a block from the ocean. Later, with other cronies, he would live in various locations in Manhattan, including an apartment at 131 Riverside Drive.
It was apparently in the purchase of the Farmingdale property that Jack came in contact with Cornelius D. Curnen through an introduction by Deppler. As Curnen told it, Deppler asked him for help in the foreclosure of the property which Jack’s story seems to corroborate.
Taking advantage of the patent for the design of the Baby Reliance that he held with Chris Smith, Jack hooked up with Curnen, to promote the idea of manufacturing patrol boats for the British and Canadian navies. During 1916, Ryan, with Curnen’s financial backing, went to Canada and Britain, and met with potential investors as well as Government officials in both places.
When Jack returned to America toward the end of 1916, he and Curnen executed a contract that provided that each would “share and share alike” in all profits derived from the sale and manufacturing of the boats, the building of which Ryan would manage and which Curnen would finance.
Exactly who this fellow Curnen was is difficult to determine as little beyond the record of the resulting law suit between the two men exists to flesh out his credentials. What is known is that Curnen was a contractor, real estate developer and broker, connected somehow to a Brooklyn-based company that controlled the water meters for a section of Brooklyn and other places. It appears that he was a legitimate businessman.
In early 1917, at Curnen’s expense, Jack returned to Detroit and Algonac, where he attempted to purchase a boat yard on Lake St. Clair. But when the deal fell through, he settled for a dockyard at the foot of Dubois Street on the Detroit River waterfront, owned by the Oades family. At the same time, he set up a corporation with the name, Imperial Shipbuilding Co., and he obtained a contract from the Navy Department to build “light tenders”─basically a small floating dock that is used as a loading platform alongside a ship. The company appears to have actually built five of them, but the welding of seams was poor and one of them sank. He also traveled frequently to Toronto during this time, establishing relationships with investors, one of which was a man named E.G. Tanguay.
Who’s Who in Canada, 1917
Manufacturers’ Record, July 1916
Image of “freighter” non-self-propelled barge
Construction Record of Imperial Shipbuilding Co. 1917-1919
While this activity was going on, Ryan made a stab at worming into the U.S. Navy Department which he had learned was about invite bids to build submarine chasers.
Soon after Jack wrote the Admiral, he got news that the U.S. Navy Department was about to invite bids for the construction of ten patrol boats. Though Jack got a meeting set up with the big wigs at Washington, he enlisted Curnen to carry the bid to the Capital. Jack’s problem may have been illness, or the fact that John W. Folk, the St. Louis District Attorney, who had prosecuted him for fraud, in 1903, was now in Washington having been appointed as chief counsel to the Commerce Department. But, when Curnen’s meeting went well, he rushed to Washington and processed the application personally. Originally he had expected to build the Navy’s boats at the Imperial Shipbuilding Co. yard on the Detroit River, but when he saw that the specifications required he deliver the boats to the Navy on the East Coast, he began looking for boat yard in New York State.
What happened next is typical Bald Jack Ryan. In contracting with the Navy to build the boats, Jack proposed to Curnen that they use a dba “International Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Co;” i.e., Ryan & Curnen doing business as International Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Co. Curnen accepted this idea and the name was inserted in the form bid the Navy required to be filled out and submitted by the bidder─the signature line reading: “Per John J. Ryan, Gen’l Mgr.”
With the contract now in hand, Jack proceeded without Curnen’s knowledge to open negotiation with one Felix Isman, an acquaintance from his theater business days. On April 17, 1917, Isman gave Jack $1,500 cash in exchange for Jack’s promise that he would turn over the Navy boat contract to a corporation to be formed by Isman under the same name as the contracting “company,” which Ryan represented to be himself. The corporation was to have a capital stock of $3 million, of which Ryan was to have 49% and be employed by the new company at a salary of $100 per week.
On April 21, 1917, still without Curnen’s knowledge, Jack entered into an agreement with one Clarence Pope, a Wall Street stock broker who was involved with Ryan in the St. Clair shipyard deal, and with certain Canadian investors, including Tanguay. He agreed to turn over the Navy contract to the investors, or to a corporation to be formed by them with a capital stock of $1.5 million, of which Jack was to receive 25%. He would then split 12% of his share of the stock with Isman and Pope, in exchange for Pope’s option to buy a Nyack boatyard and Isman’s release from the earlier deal. The Canadians thereupon obtained articles of incorporation from the State of New York for the “International Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Corporation.” (In his dealings with the Canadians, who appear to have been legitimate businessmen, Jack represented to them that he was the sole owner of the Navy contract and no one had an interest in it other than Isman and Pope.)
Felix Isman (Oades owned the Dubois St. Dockyard)
The Canadians then obtained the surety bond required to finalize the Navy boat contract which guaranteed performance by the “company,” not the “corporation,” and they purchased the Nyack boatyard for $50,000 cash and at once commenced the construction of the ten submarine chasers, with Ryan employed as manager.
Nyack, N.Y. Boat yard
International Submariner chasers
Jack told the story under oath this way:
The gist of Jack’s story was that he asked Curnen to go to Washington, to meet with the Navy people, because he was sick and that Curnen did this as a favor to him, having no personal interest in the potential boat building contract. The trial court’s view of the thing was different, finding that the agreement between Ryan and Isman, and the subsequent transfer of the contract to the Canadian investors and to the corporation they formed, were in fraud of Curnen’s rights, as reflected in the December 1916 agreement he had executed with Ryan, and, therefore, that the Navy contract the Canadians held was subject to Curnen’s equitable interest in it. The trial court awarded judgment on this basis to Curnen for one half the profits the Canadians might obtain as the result of performing the contract successfully. Curnen made out like a bandit in the case, as today the courts would rule that the Canadians were “bona fide purchasers for value without notice” and, therefore, Curnen’s only recourse would be against Jack, not them, for his recovery of “1/2 the profits.”
The Canadians appealed the trial court judgment to the New York appellate court which sustained it, holding that the trial court was correct in ruling that Ryan could not transfer a greater interest in the Navy contract than he himself possessed. But a split between the judges developed over the question whether, by his actions, Curnen had contributed to the trick Ryan pulled on the Canadians and was thus estopped to claim a share of the profits. In discussing this point, the judges viewed the evidence as showing that, at the outset, Ryan intended to carry out his agreement with Curnen, but this attitude changed when he became short on cash and came in contact with the financial gentlemen, Isman and Pope, and the Canadian investors.
Then, as the Court put it, Jack “suffered himself to be led astray.” Half of his 25% of the corporate stock immediately went to Isman and Pope. The remaining 12 & 1/2 % he gave to his old friend from the vaudeville circuit days, John W. Considine, who used it to recover the $5,000 he had given Ryan by selling it back to the Canadians.
Judge Mills dissented from the majority’s view, writing: “The Navy contract was awarded really in the name of Ryan, viz: `International Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Company, John J. Ryan, by John J. Ryan, Manager.’ There was no such corporation. The bid, therefore, was really in form by Ryan, and the award was really to him. If Curnen was, as the trial court found, a half owner of it with Ryan, then, he, Curnen, allowed the Canadians to deal with Ryan as sole owner and, therefore, should be held estopped from disputing as to them Ryan’s authority to deal with them as such.”
“It is evident,” Judge Mills went on to say, “that the two, Curnen and Ryan, were co-adventurers; that neither had the capital to carry out the proposed work, and that their real purpose was to dispose of the award, either outright or for a part of the stock of the corporation which capitalists might form to do the work under the award. Hence Ryan had real authority from Curnen to dispose of the award. That Curnen understood this is clear from the fact that, when he learned of Ryan’s transfer of the contract to the Canadians, he did not immediately repudiate Ryan’s action but merely complained that he was not getting his share. In sum, the two co-adventurers (using the term in its dubious sense) entered into a scheme to exploit the government, and to that end taken an award which they were utterly incapable of carrying out, did by one of them sell it for profit to the Canadians and then quarreled among themselves as to the division of that profit.”
Knowing Jack as we do, Justice Mills’ view of the matter seems more on the mark than the majority’s view. It may have been the case, as Mills apparently thought it was, that Curnen and Ryan planned the whole thing─grab a stock percentage in the Canadians’ corporation and leverage it into cash at the Canadians’ expense, then stick the Canadians for one half the profit they might create; the Canadians having no recourse against Ryan as he is ostensibly judgment proof at all times. But this seems unlikely, given the fact that, upon gaining the judicial decision against Ryan in New York, Curnen immediately filed suit in Detroit to get one half of the value of the Imperial Shipbuilding Co. that Ryan had formed, in May 1917. Though this suit could go nowhere, since the Navy submarine chaser contract had nothing to do with Ryan’s contract to build freighters.
Stuck with the majority’s judgment that they owed Curnen one half of their net profits, the Canadians appealed to the New York Court of Appeal. Which got them nowhere, as the Court of Appeal sustained the decision of the courts below, on the ground that, contrary to Judge Mills’ view, Curnen was not estopped by his conduct from claiming an interest in the profits realized from the Canadians’ performance of the Navy contract.
The Canadians continued in the boat building business until about 1932 when the International shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Corp. went out of business.
While Jack was embroiled in Curnen’s lawsuit, his wife, Anna V. Ryan divorced him.
It was a wild ride for Anna. She first met Jack when he came to St. Louis from Cincinnati, probably in the early 1880s at about the age of twenty. As the story is told, the two rode horseback into Oklahoma in 1889, to grab land. As you would expect Jack crossed the line early. In the 1890s, they were in Elkton, Maryland, with Jack managing an outlaw race track for Big Tim Sullivan's New York crowd. During this decade they had five children. By 1900, they had three daughters surviving, and, by 1907, two of the daughters, Marie, the oldest, and Helen, along with Anna, went around the world with Jack. In about 1911, their youngest daughter, Francis, died and was buried somewhere in McComb County, MI. By 1918, when Anna filed for divorce, Helen was married to George “St. Louis Dutch” Weinbrenner, a fellow who came to Detroit from St. Louis, with Danny Sullivan and Lincoln Fitzgerald, and slipped into the gambling business, probably with Jack’s help. All three men in later years became name gamblers in their own right, owning and operating several famous gambling clubs and resorts in Michigan, Florida, Nevada and Idaho.
Marie, by 1918, was about twenty-three years of age and well capable of supporting herself. Eventually she landed a job with the Foreign Service and spent most of her adult life as secretary to a secession of ambassadors to various countries. At retirement she joined her sister, Helen, and the two of them lived in a house in Fort Lauderdale into their late eighties; at which point, Helen’s youngest son, Paul Worth Weinbrenner, brought them to Reno, where since the early Sixties he was running his father’s mob-connected business, B.C. Wills & Co. The two sisters lived into their middle nineties and upon their deaths in 2004 or so were cremated like their father. Both Helen’s sons, Paul Worth and George Ryan Weinbrenner are dead. Paul was a graduate of Dartmouth; George a graduate of M.I.T. Marie never married.
Danny Sullivan and Lincoln Fitzgerald
(operators of the Chesterfield Club, in Detroit, and the Nevada Club, in Reno)
George Weinbrenner (center) co-owner of the Chesterfield Club
And, later, owner of the Christiania Club, Squaw Valley, IA
Chesterfield Club, East Detroit, circa 1923
Chesterfield Club Chip
Virginia Street, Reno NV
Nevada Club Chip
Christiania Club, Squaw Valley
It is clear from the divorce record that, as early as 1914, Jack was part of a national syndicate of gamblers who were connected in a business enterprise that managed road houses, clubs, and casinos almost everywhere in America and offshore in Cuba and the Bahamas. The Pelican Club that Jack opened in Detroit, for example, probably was underwritten by syndicate money and had it stayed open each of its games, faro, chuck-a-luck, roulette, poker, and black jack, would have been operated on a concession basis, with different gamblers managing the game and passing a percentage of the profit to the club manager, which was Jack, and to his backers, with Jack paying off the loans his backers had made to him, to open the place.
Here is Jack’s side of the story.
The objective truth is a bit different from Jack’s version. According to other witnesses who filed affidavits in the divorce action, Jack employed a handyman and a servant at the farm, he drove a Pathfinder automobile, and, in addition to the cows and chickens on the place, there were two thoroughbred horses. Jack’s reference to George Sadlo reveals his connection to the national syndicate. In 1918, Arnold Rothstein was at the top, sitting in Sullivan’s place, financially supporting and taking a percentage from every gambler operating in the country and George Sadlo was one of them: born in Texas, in about 1889, by 1918 he was a successful gambler in El Paso, with control of the Latin-American Club which operated in Jaurez. By the middle Twenties, with Rothstein gone from the scene, Sadlo became a close associate of Meyer Lanksy who took Rothstein’s place. The fact Sadlo held the mortgage on the Farmingdale property probably reflects the fact that he was a strawman for Rothstein. Sadlo played the role many times in his career, especially standing in for Lansky in making loans to local people who ostensibly were the owners of the gambling business, but who were bankrolled in the business by Lanksy. Sadlo’s role came to light in the early Fifties, when it became known a construction loan of $160,000, Sadlo gave to Marion Hicks to build the Thunderbird casino in Las Vegas, actually came from Lansky.
The interweaving of the web of connections between Jack and the syndicate is illustrated by the fact that Sadlo and Jack’s son-in-law, George Weinbrenner, were later in business together.
Jack’s 1915 Pathfinder (German) automobile
Anna’s affidavit states her belief that Jack was “distantly” related to George and John H Considine as well as John W. Considine. The relation probably explains how, in the 1890s, Jack became connected to Big Tim Sullivan. Jack’s relationship with John W. Considine would continue strong right up to the moment of his death, in 1930.
The Racing Form News, July 4, 1918
Jack closed out the war years by appearing in Toledo, Ohio, in July 1919, as Arnold Rothstein’s agent handling his book on the Dempsey-Willard heavyweight championship fight. After Big Tim’s death, in September 1913, Rothstein ended up in financial control of Big Tim’s gambling operations which extended to California and which Jack was a distinct part of. Jack always had two faces: he was usually engaged in legitimate businesses as well as illegal ones. It is doubtful that he was ever actually out of cash during his long career, always somewhere there was a property he owned and a business he was operating. But certainly the big money he got from the gambling part of things.
As the story goes, Jack Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, came to Ryan at the Boody Hotel in downtown Toledo where he was accepting a variety of bets on the outcome of the fight, which was to be held on July 4th in a makeshift lumber arena outside of town (Ryan had purchased several acres of woodland and a saw mill in Kentucky that he used to turn the wood into planks which were used in the construction of the arena ). Kearns asked Jack what odds he would give on the proposition that Dempsey would knock Willard out in the first round. According to Kearns (and Dempsey years later), Jack answered─”ten to one.” Kearns whipped out ten grand, half of it Dempsey’s, and handed it to Ryan. (Kearns probably got the ten grand from the Cincinnati entity that made the fight film in exchange for Dempsey’s release.)
In the event, Dempsey charged out of his corner at the sound of the bell and raced across the canvas swinging a roundhouse right into Willard’s face. The huge fellow─over 250 pounds and six feet and a half feet tall─shivered like a timber struck by a lumberman’s axe and staggered backward, with Dempsey, crouching low, springing after him. Dempsey plummeted Willard with whooshing left hooks and uppercuts, followed by right hands, into Willard’s face, alternating these blows with fists slamming Willard’s midsection like pistons.
Through the three minutes of the round, Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times; his nose smashed, chin split, an eye swollen closed, Willard kept getting up. Then, as the final seconds were ticking away, Dempsey backed Willard into a corner and knocked him to the canvas for the final time. Willard sat on the canvas, one arm thrown over the ropes, his head lolling back and forth against his chest. Then Ollie Pecord, the referee, pushed Dempsey into the center of the ring and raised his hand, the victor. When Pecord dropped his hand and walked off to the far ropes, with the crowd in the front rows pouring into the ring, Dempsey, led by Kearns, climbed through the ropes at his corner and walked toward the arena exit as men in straw hats mobbed him, clapping his back. The fight was over, Dempsey had won the bet, was now $100,000 richer. And Ryan, to Rothstein’s chagrin, would have to pay up. Or not as the case may be.
The whole set up of the fight was a curious thing. Ostensibly, a military fellow named Biddle had organized the fight under the auspices of a boxing association, though the press made it clear it was Tex Rickard moving things from behind the scenes.
Biddle chose a young marine officer, recently discharged from service, Warren Barbour, to serve as time-keeper. (Barbour would later be elected a U.S. Senator from New Jersey.)
As for the choice of who would be the referee there had been much confusion about it, right up almost to the day of the fight, when a local fight game man named Ollie Pecord was finally chosen. It was Pecord who counted Willard out and raised Dempsey’s hand as victor while Willard sat slumped on the canvas semi-conscious. Under the rules of the day, it is the referee who has the final say when the round has ended, and who has won.
The man in the white cap running toward Dempsey as Pecord lets go his hand,
is Jimmy DeForest, Dempsey’s trainer, followed by Kearns in the straw hat.
Pecord lets go
of Dempsey, glances at Willard still sitting in the corner and turns
to his left and walks to the far ropes, while DeForest says something to Dempsey,
who continues to his corner and leaves the ring.
his corner and is about to step through the ropes.
DeForest is now across the ring talking to Pecord.
Dempsey appears to be listening to a conversation going on
Between the man in a cap to his right and the man in the straw hat.
After minutes pass, with Willard still down on the canvas, all but knocked out, Dempsey returns to the ring. Willard’s handlers somehow get him back on his feet and the second round begins, with Dempsey pitching in again and Willard stumbling about. This goes on to the end of Round Three when Willard’s corner throws in the towel and the fight officially ends.
Every famous sport-writer of the day was present at ringside as the events above described played out, and afterward, sending their copy into their papers, none of them could get the story straight.
The rope is
attached to the lever seen on the right.
When the rope is pulled downward, a lever releases the spring
which causes the clapper to strike the bell.
The bell is fixed to the side of the canvas-covered ring frame,
between the canvas tie-down clamps.
Best view of clamper mechanism on type of bell used.
Current Day Bevin Bell
Barbour leaning over Willard at end of first round.
Inserted frame in fight film illustrating bell
The New York Times
Dempsey’s trainer at Willard fight.
Washington Herald, July 3, 1919
Toledo City Code amended September 1919
Pecord’s story does not match his actions recorded on the fight film.
Toledo Times, Round by Round, July 4, 1919
The fight film, though edited to hide the true time, shows what happened.
Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1919
Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1919
Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1919
Dempsey by line, Evening Mail, July 1919
The New York Evening World, July 5, 1919
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 5, 1919
Engren, New York World, July 1919
New York Sun, July 6, 1919
So, what happened? Who knows. Jack Ryan, taking no chances, used the moment when a military band was marching up and down the aisles of the arena before the fight, to have a henchman join the crew that laid down the canvas of the ring and, in fixing the ties to the clamps on the side of the ring’s frame, wrapped a tie-rope somehow around. . . . around what?
Perhaps the man somehow tampered with the spring or the latch mechanism that releases it, when the bell rope is pulled. Why? To ensure that Barbour, or Ricketts, or Biddle, the latter two the judges along with Pecord, would be able to extend the round, if Willard was being counted out? Far-fetched? Perhaps. But what is certain, viewing the fight film with a critical eye, is that Pecord, in the moment, plainly thought he had counted Willard out within the time period of the round.
Barbour’s $500 watch was certainly not the only stop watch ticking at ring side. According to the newspaper reports Barbour was only one of three timekeepers. Each camp also had a “timekeeper” which suggests that what was happening in the moments after Pecord counted Willard out, walked with Dempsey to the center of the ring and raised Dempsey’s hand, then released him and walked to the far ropes where he stood while Jimmy De Forest came toward him, is that a conference occurred off camera with someone or some group of persons, and the word came to Pecord from DeForest that the round was officially over before his count had reached ten. Which, of course, raises the question why it would be DeForest involved in this, instead of Willard’s timekeeper.
Here’s Dempsey’s first version as told to Bob Considine in 1960.
Compare what Dempsey says to what the fight film shows he did.
In 1977, Dempsey told the story again, this time through his wife Barbara.
Dempsey’s narrative does not match DeForest’s action as seen on the film,
Nor does it make sense as to who said what when.
So what happened? It appears probable that there was a deal between the promoters behind the fight that DeForest’s stop watch was just as official as Barbour’s, and this explains how it is that we see DeForest leaping through the ropes the first man into the ring, see him take hold of Dempsey’s arms and say something, then release him and go directly to Pecord, who is standing at the far ropes looking at the scene oblivious to the notion the fight is not over; and, then, as the two men break up with Pecord heading toward Barbour’s side of the ring, DeForest appears next to Willard who remains plastered on the canvas obviously all but unconscious, checks him, and moves out of sight. There was no way the people behind Jack would let a close finish end in their financial loss. Risk they took they could not avoid, but a close finish demanded an atmosphere of confusion and they somehow supplied it. This is the year an unknown horse named Upset, against great odds, beat the unbeatable Man’ O War at Saratoga and the Chicago Black Sox threw the World Series.
The proof is in the fight film. All you need to do is start your watch ticking as the two fighters come out of their corners and stop it, when Pecord ends his ten count on Willard. Does the watch read less than three minutes, or more than three minutes? But you can’t do this, because the original film, unedited, does not exist in the world. What exists is the film as released to the public years after the event and that film was edited, with the image of the bell inserted into the frames of the boxers’ actions, and, in the process, almost 18 seconds of action is missing. On film the action lasts for 2.42 minutes.