The Rise and Fall of Jack aka "Jackpot" Riley in Shanghai's Gambling World (1941)

This piece appeared in Time Magazine soon after the Jack Riley trial ended in 1941. It gives a nice brief summary account of the rise and fall of "Jackpot Riley" in the gambling world of Shanghai in the 1930s. Of course you have to read Paul French's book City of Devils for a more detailed, if somewhat speculative historical account of his rise and his relationship with dance impresario Joe Farren. The article claims that Riley's story reads like a potboiler by crime novelist W. R. Burnett. Hear that, Paul? You're the W. R. Burnett of Old Shanghai!

CHINA: Tough Taipan

(Time Magazine, 28 April 1941)

 Jack Riley in 1930s Shanghai 

Jack Riley in 1930s Shanghai 

Not all of Shanghai’s plutocratic big bosses, the taipans, do their drinking at the Shanghai Club, or their business in air-conditioned offices along The Bund. Back of the skyscraper skyline along the Whangpoo River, where the Occident meshes with China, is the biggest, toughest, richest big-city badlands in the world. Kidnappings, bombings, murders are the small change of its life, and a holdup man can rent a gun from a policeman for $2.50. This Shanghai has its own polyglot dynasty of gangsters, gamblers, pimps, racketeers.

Last week, as it does with most mugs, the law had caught up with one of the tough taipans of the Shanghai underworld. On his way to the U.S. and a Federal penitentiary was Edward Thomas Riley, otherwise known as “Jackpot Riley” and “Slot Machine Riley,” who had ridden high for a decade, for four years had been the Mr. Big of Shanghai gambling.

The rise of Jackpot Riley reads like a W. R. Burnett novel. He saw Shanghai first in the ’20s, a sailor off a U.S. Yangtze Patrol sloop, drinking in the dives along “Blood Alley.” When he finished his hitch in the Navy he went back to the U.S., soon landed in the Oklahoma State penitentiary under the name of Johnny Becker, with a 25-year sentence for attempted highjacking. Two years later he escaped from jail, headed again for Shanghai.

He arrived in Shanghai in overalls and a pair of broken shoes and got himself a bouncer’s job in a cabaret. A diligent muscle man, he soon saved enough to buy a share in a sailors' bar on Blood Alley. With the receipts from this he began buying slot machines, soon had the monopoly of all the machines in the French Concession.

What the take from the slot machines was can only be guessed, but upwards of 80% of the money that went into them never came out. Riley got most of it. It was enough for Riley to buy a chain of restaurants which he called the D.D.s. These were completely respectable, but the pretty Russian waitresses would go home with any customer who had spent enough money.

Riley’s big chance came when the Japanese took Shanghai in 1937. The New Order in East Asia has been the biggest bonanza for criminals that China has ever seen. With stringent wartime blue laws at home, every out-of-work prostitute, gambler and dope peddler in Japan headed for Occupied China, where their enterprises found Army protection.* Local talent, too, found the Japanese Army and puppet Government amenable to bribes.

With the connivance of Chinese municipal authorities, Riley went in for really big-time gambling, joined forces with an Austrian refugee named Joe Farren to open a big, expensive roulette room in Farren’s nightclub on the edge of the French Concession. Shanghai had not had an open roulette game since 1927, and the taipans and their wives and ladies jostled puppet Government officials and their concubines in their eagerness to drop money on Riley’s table.

In the money, Riley followed the pattern of a big-shot movie gangster. He draped his lanky frame in the best clothes money could buy, lived in a swank apartment house. Almost unique among Shanghai criminals, he never smoked, drank or doped. He built himself a reputation for great openhandedness, particularly to women. According to legend, he paid off one girl friend with $25,000 in Shanghai Power Co. shares.

But Riley was still a U.S. citizen, still according to treaty, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court for China. This court, which seldom handles criminal cases, got interested in Jackpot, quietly investigated him, looked up his record. In November he was arrested on gambling charges, released on $25,000 bail. 

Until the day of his trial, Riley went about his business, then jumped bail and went to ground in the Japanese-occupied Hongkew section of Shanghai. But the Japanese would not protect him. At the end of March they joined with the Shanghai Municipal Police to raid his hide-out. This time there was no bail and the trial was short. His sentence was light enough, only 18 months, but Shanghai remembered the Oklahoma jail break, thought it had probably seen the last of Jackpot Riley.

* Typical are Ping-yang in Shansi, whose most conspicuous business is a 300-girl “Nippon National Brothel”; Peiping, where, out of 2,026 new Japanese businesses, 500 are brothels, 1,000 dope shops.