In honor of the recent release of Paul French's book, City of Devils (I posted an interview with Paul about his book on my blog site recently) I will be publishing some pieces on Jack Riley and Joe Farren, the two "stars" of this riveting tale about 1930s Shanghai. Riley and Farren both pop up in my first book Shanghai's Dancing World. Farren was an Austrian ballroom dancer and manager, who later ran the nightclub in the "badlands" called Farren's. Riley was an ex-con who had escaped prison in Oklahoma and made his way to Shanghai where he became a racketeer. He also instigated a fight with jazz bandleader Buck Clayton at the Canidrome Ballroom in 1934, which got the band fired (this episode appears in my book and also in Andrew Jones, Yellow Music and in many accounts from the era. I will eventually get round to posting some memoirs and news clippings from that event as well.) This article below published in the American newspaper China Weekly Review gives an overview of Riley's background and his involvement in the city's gambling rackets leading to his arrest and deportation to serve time back in the USA. Spoiler alert: for those who haven't read Paul French's book yet, I suggest doing so before you read this news article!
Inside Story of “The Riley Case”—Detailing Life, Downfall of Colorful Shanghai Figure
(China Weekly Review, April 12 1941)
Editor’s Note: This amazing revelation of the life of Riley and the events leading to his deportation to McNeil Island was written a special correspondent who was intimately connected with “The Riley Case.”
BY A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
When the S. S. President Cleveland of the American President Lines weighed anchor in the Whangpoo River last Tuesday night, and made for the open sea, it carried with it from Shanghai the eighteenth or twentieth batch of evacuating Americans, homeward bound. They all went at the request of the United States Department of State, which had, in effect, advised American Nationals in the Far East that America’s patience with Japan was wearing pretty thin. Anything might happen. Many old “China Hands,” who had spent years representing American corporations in China or who had headed their own American companies, were aboard the Cleveland. A large group of missionaries, Americans who had given the best years of their lives to the Chinese, were on the ship and a great many Chinese and foreign members of the missions were on the tender in the river wishing them Bon Voyage.
As the moving strain of “God be with you till we meet again” rose from the many voices on both ship-side and tender, it wafted upward to the top deck of the big liner, where in a first-class cabin, stretched out on his bunk, a man lay listening, intently. The one incongruous note in the cabin came not from the many throats wafting their hymns to to each other down below, but came from the slender, steel hoops, joined together by a chain, that encircled the man’s ankles as he lay on the bed.
Not at the request of the State Department, but at the insistence of the United States Department of Justice, Jack Riley, alias Becker, alias Edward Thomas Riley, erstwhile slot-machine and crap-shooting magnate of Shanghai is going home.
On Borrowed Time
Riley, too, may be listed among the old China Hands going home. For fifteen years or more of borrowed time he has lived in Shanghai; fifteen years during which he built his fortune on the click of a pair of “craps” and on the clatter of the one-armed bandit type of slot-machine; fifteen years that he “borrowed” from the penitentiary of the State of Oklahoma where he had been sentenced for twenty-five years for robbery; time that he borrowed when he had built up enough confidence on the part of his guards to be allowed to join the prison baseball team, and then violated his trusty-ship by “taking a train going in the opposite direction” when the team started back to the prison after a game.
But Riley is going home now, not primarily to repay the State of Oklahoma for the twenty-two or twenty-three years he borrowed from them. He is on his way home as a Federal prisoner, and although Oklahoma will probably be waiting for him at the gates of the Federal penitentiary to collect from him the time he owes them, he must first pay Uncle Sam for his new misdemeanors against the peace and dignity of the United States. He is going home to serve eighteen months at McNeil’s Island Federal Penitentiary, because, (to quote Federal Judge Milton J. Helmick, when he pronounced sentence on Riley for his numerous counts of owning and operating gambling set-ups) : “It is unfortunate that you could not apply your talents and intelligence to more legitimate pursuits.”
Once having made his get-away, had he applied ’his talents and intelligence to more legitimate pursuits,” Riley could have been a respected and respectable citizen of Shanghai as long as he lived; because it is a pretty well established policy of the State of Oklahoma that they will send for an escaped prisoner only within the continental limits of the United States. But Riley had the strange quirk that goes into the the make-up of all racketeers: they will work two or three times as hard as they would on a legitimate enterprise to make the so-called easy money that comes from a racket. In Riley’s case, he would spend all day servicing and rebuilding his slot- machines and all night banking a crap table, when he could have made a very decent living at the trade he was trained for, practical electrical engineering.
Riley’s racketeer complex, and the firm belief that he could do anything or have anything in the world if he had enough money were two off the main contributing causes for his downfall. The first is part of his nature; and until he bucked up against the officers and officials of the United States Government he had no reason to doubt the second. Like all racketeers, he found that it was good insuiance and believed that it was ‘good luck’ to be lavish with his easy money among the people with whom he came in contact who were not so financially fortunate as he was.
A Lone Hand
Jack Riley worked strictly alone, sharing his profits with no one, except for definite emoluments and percentages he paid out to the various places from which he operated, and except for the crumbs he handed out to the hangers-on who always parasitically gather around such men. And by working strictly alone he could muster only such loyalty and support as his money could buy for him.
Paradoxically, the third contributing cause to the downfall of Jack Riley was the very thing that made it possible for him to live peaceably and carry on the numerous ramifications of his businesses as long as he did, unmolested: The complex international set-up of Shanghai.
Briefly, because readers ofThe China Weekly Review are well acquainted with these facts, Shanghai is a city of many governments, the nationals of each government subject only to the laws of their own country, and punishable in the Consular Courts set up by their own country. The only people subject to Chinese law are the Chinese themselves, and people without nationality, such as the White Russians who fled with the Communist Revolution and expatriated refugees from other lands. Shanghai is a port and a city of world trade, and as such, in addition to the extra-territoriality, is certain to be a city where vice, gambling and general dissipation constitutes an important civic problem. The national policy of each nation which maintains Consuls and Consular Courts in Shanghai and in China must be that they are in China for two reasons. First, to cement and maintain a high degree of mutual respect and friendship between China and their own country. And secondly, to promote and facilitate as much trade and commerce as is possible between China and their own country. For these reasons it has become the accepted policy of all the nations, including America, not to pay too close attention to the individual morals of their nationals except where they become flagrant or are the subject of complaint from Chinese or other nationals, or even their own compatriots.
However, when the nationals of any country, including the United States, become flagrantly involved as the ring-leaders of large-scale rackets which inspire complaints from the joint governing bodies as well as the Chinese and other nationals, then such operations void the two purposes for the presence of that country’s nationals in China, and are not only violations of the laws of China and of the nation involved, but are also a violation of the treaty rights by which that nation is represented in China.
Not long after his escape from the Oklahoma Penitentiary Jack Riley, or Becker, as he was known, took another man’s papers and identity and arrived in Shanghai. His adept handling of the “rolling bones” in the penny-ante games along the Bund soon gave him sufficient stake to get into a real game, and in this game he won the Manhattan Bar in the French Concession. This led to the importation of some slot machines and their placement all over Shanghai, and Jack Riley was on the way to his racket fortune.
The individual peccadilloes of Americans in a place like Shanghai cannot be the subject of the Courts. There is no law against gambling as a customer or against playing a slot-machine. And it must be obvious that the United States has no interest in how many Russians, or Britains, or Chinese, or Spaniards, or any other nationality operate gambling houses, run joints, or even commit crimes, so long as the crimes are not against Americans.
But whenever the subject of vice or gambling was brought up, invariably the name of Jack Riley and the fact that he was an American came into the conversation, and when this was climaxed by a formal letter of complaint from the Shanghai Municipal Council to the American Consul-General, it became a subject for investigation, and prosecution if necessary, by the United States Court.
To Charles Richardson, Jr., Special Assistant to the District Attorney of the United States Court for China fell this task; and it developed that with it came some of the most interesting and difficult problems that have ever beset a prosecutor in an American Court.
Richardson Goes to Work
Mr. Richardson, a graduate of Princeton, with some additional work at Harvard and the University of California, a captain in the United States Army in France during the first World War, a man who has been untieing the legal knots for large corporations during the past twenty-two years of law practice but without any experience in criminal law, took the letter of complaint which the Municipal Council had sent to the American Consul-General and went to work.
Just to prove that Mr. Riley was guilty of numerous gambling charges was not difficult. His slot machines were all over town, even in the U.S. Marines Club, which paid its rent and most of the club expense from a cut in the machines. And night after night Mr. Riley banked his own crap table at Farren’s Night Club in which he had an interest. There was no question that Mr. Riley was guilty of violating the laws against gambling as set forth by the District of Columbia Code by which Americans live in China. Mr. Riley was duly arrested.
From the first moment of the arrest, the case was intensely unpopular. It was a serious charge, to be sure, but the general public, American or otherwise, who knew Mr. Riley only as a hail-fellow-well-met, and knew nothing about his being an escaped twenty-five- year convict, felt that he was being persecuted.
Perhaps, at first, Charles Richardson felt the same way. Berhaps he felt that Riley was being used by the people who made the complaints against him as an example. But only at first. Because as soon as Riley was arrested a most interesting problem presented itself. Mr. Riley’s fingers had all been scored and burnt in what was evidently an effort to obliterate finger prints. Had Mr. Riley consulted with a finger-print expert before burning his fingers, he would have learned that the only way to get rid of those tell-tale prints was to cut off the fingers. They can never be completely obliterated. But when Mr. Riley was arrested, as a matter of routine he was taken for finger-printing, and when it was discovered that his fingers were burnt, it could mean only one thing, and it meant only one thing to Charles Richardson, Jr., and that is, that Mr. Riley was badly wanted somewhere for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Armed with this, Mr. Richardson went before the United States Court for China and requested the largest bail that has ever been asked by any Court in China, US$25,000, or about 500,000 Chinese dollars. The bail was set at that figure, and after only two days in jail, Mr. Riley put up the cash with the Clerk of the Court, and was released.
In the meantime, every slot-machine disappeared from the Settlement and from any place in which an American had an interest. And the intense unpopularity of the entire action continued. Poor, fine Mr. Riley was being prosecuted!
Mr. Riley’s attorneys threw a bombshell by disclaiming American citizenship for their client. Mr. Riley was guilty of gambling contrary to American law. They conceded that and pleaded guilty, but Mr. Riley had no passport, had never been issued one, and if the American Court wanted to take jurisdiction they would have to prove that Mr. Riley was an American, and prove it while the defendant stood “mute” and without his aid.
This was something unheard of. People were always trying to prove they were Americans, and lending all possible aid, but to prove citizenship on a person without his aid was quite a task, and there were no precedents on which to base such proof.
Mr. Richardson could have stopped right there. The Court could not take jurisdiction if Riley wasnot proven an American. But firstly, Riley could take refuge behind this ruse, and escape the laws of America, and at some future date come forward and prove his citizenship and obtain the benefits of such citizenship, which was hardly good public policy; and secondly, Charles Richardson, Jr., never stopped in the middle of a particularly knotty problem while representing a Corporate client, but followed it through to a solution, and he could see no reason for quitting on the United States Government.
Riley’s finger-prints were almost completely obliterated, but not quite. With the recognizable remnants, and the facts at hand, Richardson laid the case before the Attorney General in Washington, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation went to work to prove, or definitely disprove, that E. T. Riley was an American citizen, subject to the benefits and the punishment thereunder.
F.B.I. on the Trail
The F.B.I. picked up the trail in their own fingerprint file, where a “wanted” card was on file for Mr. Riley, whose real name proved to be Becker; it led to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary from hence Mr. Riley fled after doing two years of his twenty-five years for robbery, and from there it spread out until the G-Men of nine branch offices throughout the United States were busy proving that Mr. Becker, alias Riley, was an American.
They found his birthplace, they found his mother, who has been divorced from his father for almost forty years, and whose whereabouts he did not know. They found the doctor who brought him into the world forty- five years ago. They found other relatives and navy- buddies. And from all of them they obtained affidavits. There was no doubt that E. T. Riley was an American and subject to the punishhment of an American Court.
On December 4, 1940, Riley came into Courtwith his attorney confident that he would walk out, free, to continue gathering money with his gambling enterprises and use it to finance the numerous other rackets of Shanghai. No one could look behind the date that he came to Shanghai and find anything against him, and he would be forever relieved of American justice. And when Charles Richardson Jr., presented the evidence, not to bring out his prison record and the fact that he had escaped, but to show proof of the American citizenship which he demanded, which incidentally branded him as an escaped convict, Mr. Riley broke and fled. He left the courtroom for the tiffin recess, and stayed away leaving his US$25,000 bond behind him to be forfeited.
With the flight of Riley into hiding went the animosity toward the American Court and the unpopularity of the prosecution. Once revealed in his true colors as a convicted and escaped robber Riley promptly lost the support he had enjoyed from practically all of the community. The United States Court for China in general, and Charles Richardson, Jr., Special Assistant to the District Attorney, were entirely vindicated and applauded in the public mind. Only those whom Riley has been supporting, the parasites who lived off his rackets remained loyal.
“Good Friends” Kept Him
Riley did not leave town, it is now obvious, because his “good friends” and business associates would not let him go. After his escape from the courtroom, those who did not directly shake him down managed to force him to invest into all kinds of local businesses, cafes, night clubs and deals. To one woman who hid him for two day he “loaned” $20,000 to keep her night club going. His best friend, who acted as his lieutenant and contact man between his hiding place and his businesses, has his car and his home, and is rumored to be about $40,000 short in his accounts. Five of his most loyal supporters opened a night club that must have cost a $500,000 with all of them, and not Riley, as partners. They were all broke before his escape. He told his bartender he could have his Manhattan Bar, (when he was finally caught), in case he did not get back, and the bar-tender asked him to put it in writing. Riley could have gotten away a dozen times, but he was known to have a lot of money and his “friends” would not let him go. One of his “friends” let drop the information that he spent US$50,000 on the case: $25,000 in bond forfeiture, and the other $25,000 while he was hiding safely among his friends.
Riley was reliably reported to have been armed, and would resist arrest. This report came from one of his best friends. "When Riley was finally arrested in a raid led by Chief Deputy United States Marshal Sam Titlebaum, who had spent the four months locating the hiding place, accompanied by Detective Inspector J. A. Crighton of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and other police including members of the Japanese gendarmerie and Consular police, he turned and fled for the roof like all gangsters do, and, when placed under arrest, had already disposed of his firearms enroute to the roof.
The exact details of the four month search for Mr. Riley are not available, since such reports are confidential and obviously cannot be made public, but it may be assumed that with the kind of help which Mr. Riley could inspire among his “friends” with his money, it was an intensely interesting and absorbing search and investigation.
So Mr. Riley is going home to the America that he tried so hard to disclaim. And Shanghai Americans have joined with the citizens of Chicago, New York and Kansas City in a new-found respect for Federal Law.