“Big Jim” Elkins | Gangsters, Unions and Pinball

 


By Jeffrey Stone ::


 

James “Big Jim” Elkins. Photo by Al Monner. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Research Library 

This week marks the birthday of one of Portland’s most notorious gangsters: James Butler “Big Jim” Elkins. Born in Texas on March 13, 1901, Jim Elkins spent the first 30 years of his life as a bootlegger and drug smuggler. In the late 1930s he moved to Oregon. From 1940 until 1956, Elkins was in control of Portland’s vice industry.

Not content with drugs, booze, and prostitution alone, Big Jim and his brother Fred Elkins decided to get into the gambling business. Slot machines had been declared illegal in most establishments and states, but they were soon replaced in clubs and taverns by pinball machines. The game was kept legal due to the amount of skill involved in pinball versus gambling devices like slot machines. By 1957, the game accounted for a $3 billion industry nationally.

James “Big Jim” Elkins as he appeared in the late 1950s.

The money made from the vice ventures gave Elkins the ability to pay off police, politicians, and city officials. Harry King, one of his long-time employees said: “We had all the gambling joints, all the bootleg joints in the downtown area, and nobody could open a place without an OK from Jim…We could double park our car out in the middle of the street and let it sit there. The cops wouldn’t dare touch it because we worked for Jim.”

By the 1950s, the Teamsters Union had built a reputation for being connected to organized crime. In Seattle, they were being utilized by an organized crime syndicate as cover for their operations, and as enforcers in racketeering schemes. The Seattle racketeers noticed James “Big Jim” Elkin’s control over Portland politicians and law enforcement. Having recently moved the union to Portland, Teamster bosses approached Elkins about a three-way partnership between the Seattle group, the Teamsters, and Big Jim himself. Elkins had little choice in the matter. Despite having Portland in his pocket, the Seattle racketeers were a larger operation.

The partnership went well for several years, until Elkins was asked by Seattle bosses and the Teamsters to find a site for the Memorial Coliseum. Both the Teamsters and the Seattle group wanted to gain a control of developing property around the Coliseum to force the city and local businesses to use only Teamster labor and delivery. Elkins was expected to front the money, but instead of buying the selected Steel Bridge site he only purchased the real estate option, and let it expire. The Seattle racketeers had recently brought in a new middle man to possibly replace Elkins, though he was still expected to front cash, utilize his connections with police and political authorities, and send a cut of his profits to Seattle.

Racketeering trial of Jim Elkins and other alleged conspirators Oregon Historical Society Oregon Journal Collection
Racketeering trial of Jim Elkins and other alleged conspirators Oregon Historical Society Oregon Journal Collection

Seeing a threat to his power and financial stability, Elkins ended his relationship with the Teamsters and the Seattle group. Teamster boss Frank Brewster gave him this warning: “I make chiefs of police and I break chiefs of police. I’ve been in and out of jail. Nothing scares me…If you embarrass my…boys you’ll find yourself walking across Lake Washington with concrete boots on.”

In 1956, Big Jim went public to protect himself and his Portland investments. Placing wiretaps in apartments rented out to Teamsters allowed Elkins to get several union officials and Seattle racketeers on tape admitting to various labor crimes. These tapes were shared with the FBI and the Oregonian, prompting a special Senate hearing by the McClellan committee, who sent Robert F. Kennedy to Portland to investigate. The hearings lasted for two years, and when two men showed up at Elkins’ home to intimidate his family, Big Jim recalled: “I talked to them. I hit one in the head with a shotgun and put him in his car.”

Big Jim Elkins could not be intimidated or run out of his own town. In the end, over 100 indictments were given to Teamsters officials, Seattle racketeers, and Elkins, himself. Though it took two appeals, Jim Elkins was acquitted of all charges only a few years later.


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Music used

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
Postmodern Jukebox (Ft. Robyn Adele Anderson), “Gangster’s Paradise”
The Who, “Pinball Wizard”

Credits

Jeffrey Stone –  Project Manager, Host
Mike Mata – Voice of Harry King, Fact Checker
Ian Westmorland – Voice of Frank Brewster
Will Schneider –  Voice of Jim Elkins, Fact Checker
Taylor Bailey – Fact Checker
Jeannette Butts – Contributor