Mike Potson: The Greek Silent Partner of Organized Crime in the United States
The Silent Partner of Organized Crime in the United States
by Steve Frangos
Published in The National Herald, January 12, 2019
I am excited that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
All that we really know about the Greek immigrant, whose name eventually became Mike Potson, was that he was an extremely active criminal. Published accounts from 1917 to his death in 1955 vary considerably on the full extent and exact natures of his daily crimes.
Curiously while none of the journalists or historians who write about crime in the United States deny Potson's dedicated “work ethic,” few have taken the trouble to incorporate more than one or two of his most publicized offenses against society. For over fifty years Potson was a very hard working pimp, gambler (including being an operator of numerous illicit gambling halls and serving as an intermediator for race track bets), bootlegger, speakeasy operator, a systematic briber of political figures and police officials, front man for the Chicago mob and an extremely inventive and dedicated income tax cheat.
Potson became the topic of front page headline news across the nation at various times during his long career. I cannot hope but offer one or two of his most notable moments on the national stage. With that being said it must be emphasized that whatever I might cite here is but a fraction of this man's total life of crime.
Potson's life began much as it did for other Greek-immigrants of his generation. On October 1, 1883, Mihali Bodoglou, an ethnic Greek, was born in Asia Minor. In 1900, Bodoglou emigrated from Greece to the United States spending time first in New York, then St. Louis and reaching Chicago by 1904. From the moment of his arrival in Chicago Bodoglou was living within the vice district of the city, initially selling pistachio nuts to fruit stores and other establishments.
For reasons undoubtedly stemming from his daily crimes over his criminal career he was known by a variety of names. Aside from Michael Bodoglou, this man was known, at various times and by any number of individuals as Michael Jordan, Michael Potson and Mike Potson. The man we will call here Mike Potson was even known among his fellow gamblers as Nick the Greek.
Two of Potson's most publicized involvements revolved around Big Jim Colosimo, Chicago’s first recognized crime boss and his special gambling sessions with Hollywood stars Bud Abbott (1897-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-1959).
By all accounts Vincenzo Colosimo (1878-1920) was Chicago’s first mafia crime boss. Colosimo emigrated from Calabria, Italy in 1895. Colosimo moved quickly to Chicago and gradually built a criminal empire based on white slavery, prostitution, gambling, and racketeering. He gained power through petty crime and by heading a chain of brothels. From about 1902 until his murder on May 12,1920, Colosimo led a gang that became known after his death as the Chicago Outfit. For his refusal to sell liquor when Prohibition began Colosimo was gunned down at 2126-28 South Wabash in the doorway of the restaurant that bore his name. Make no mistake, this restaurant featured elaborate stage acts, notable performers of the day, and was the recognized capital of Chicago’s seamy night life.
Johnny ‘The Fox’ Torrio (1882-1957) was an enforcer Colosimo had imported in 1909 from New York and who seized control after his death. Al Capone (1899-1947), a protege of Torrio’s, was allegedly directly involved in the murder. While various individuals were cited as Colosimo’s business partners, Mike Potson is always credited with owning the building in which the restaurant (and prostitution operation) was found. Accounts vary, some alluding to Potson having bought into the restaurant in 1919. Another source asserts that a deed was found in Poston's safety deposit box showing he had bought the property at 2126 S. Wabash from Colosimo for a sum of $412,000 in 1918.
Potson later claimed to have purchased the restaurant, after Colosimo’s death, from the surviving family. From Colosimo’s death until the 1940s Potson owned and operated this establishment. Without drawing too fine a line on this point, Potson was always recognized as being a superb judge of talent and equally fine manager of the restaurant's daily operations. Additionally Potson always later claimed he had made a killing selling gin shots at $1 a pop and gambling after hours in Colosimo's. Whatever the case may have been, from this moment forward Potson was widely credited as a recognized Chicago Outfit gambling boss.
It is his role as a gambler that ultimately proved to be Potson’s downfall. Big or small, Potson was drawn to nearly all forms of gambling like a moth to an open flame. In the end Potson was brought to justice by the same means Al Capone fell, taxes. The only difference is how, in Polson’s case, this first became known to law enforcement.
Potson, much like other big named gamblers then as now, found himself playing with rich celebrities. In Potson’s case it was the famous comedy team of Abbott and Costello. Internationally famous in their day, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were and remain one of the greatest American comedy teams of all time.
‘A contract with Universal turned the duo into wealthy men in the 1940s as their movies struck pay-dirt in a huge way. By 1942 they were officially number one at the box-office. As a publicity stunt they insured themselves with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 in case someone died from laughter during one of their films. As rich as they were, however, Costello always felt that Universal was cheating them out of profits from their pictures. And he was right. For several years the company had been lifting 8 mm clips from their pictures and selling them to the burgeoning home-movie market, without telling either man about it. They sued the studio and won a tidy out-of-court settlement.
Today, we watch their movies and are struck by their childish style, especially from Costello, yet from 1941 until 1952 these two guys were pretty much cemented into the Top 10 Box-Office attractions in America. They made 36 films together and the public adored them (filmstarfacts.com).’ Anything these two performers became involved in, such as the gambling charges, was immediately national and even international news.
With all their new status and wealth came womanizing and gambling. Once the huge amounts of money lost by the comedy duo to gamblers was learned of, government officials began tracking which gamblers had been the winners and if they had reported their winnings to the government. Potson never bothered with keeping an exact accounting of these or any other of his gambling winnings.
Government investigations discovered Potson never reported any accurate figures on his taxes from anything he owned, operated or received. As it turned out, Potson was careful to keep his ownership of property completely separate from his wife’s. Etta Potson did file her taxes fully and properly and so was never charged with any crime.
After a long and heavily publicized series of court cases Potson was found evading $166,000 in income taxes (which was a much disputed final figure) and given a lengthy prison sentence of which he only served just under two years due to failing health (Chicago Tribune October 10, 1950). Potson died in Piraeus Greece in late September 1955 (New York Times October 4, 1955).
The roster of Greeks in league with the Chicago Outfit has yet to be fully compiled and documented. From Gus Alex to the Capone Bible we hear much about how Greek-Americans, in Chicago as well as across the United States, have been and remain the silent partners of the Italian mafia. But what exactly is the documented historical evidence? Without question, a select number of Greek immigrants have since the 1870s been involved in all manner of crimes. But how many and who exactly were these individuals? Hollywood and television has and continues to romanticize the lives and actions of ordinary criminals. Without documented facts we remain victims of slander from all manner of profiteers.