Gambling brought tough times for 'Tiger'
by Archibald McKinlay

Publication: The Times [Hammond, Indiana]
Section: e Page: 2
Publication Date: 06/16/96

Today we have a tale by the Tiger, if not a tiger by the tail.

Maybe folks called Harold Layer "Tiger" because he was relentless when he sold Hupmobiles on Chicago Avenue in the 1920s. Maybe because he perservered in finishing a LaSalle correspondence course that landed him a bookkeeping job at American Steel Foundries. Maybe because he could be fierce and belligerent. Or maybe it simply alluded to the volume of his voice - "tiger" in those days being a loud yell (often the word tiger) at the end of a round of cheers. In 1929, Tiger Layer's sister, Frieda, kept steady company with Harry "Kid" Hyames, legendary gambler of Chicago, Cavanaugh (Cudahy) and Burnham.

Through Hyames, she introduced Tiger to Sonny Sheetz, Hyames' partner in a Burnham gambling joint next door to the notorious Arrowhead Inn, which rented monosyllables by the quarter hour. The gambling joint sat opportunely along the South Shore tracks, between the tracks and what is now an area of grass. In those days, however, "Cabaret Town" generated so much traffic that the South Shore put in a stop there.

Tiger went to work for Sonny shortly after the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, and for a terrifying moment he thought he was part of a reprise. That was the night a Chicago gang entered the gambling joint with machine guns at the ready. Tiger reflexively fell to the floor, frozen in place by absolute fear. But the gang was not into statements, as their Clark Street counterparts had been. The gunmen just took the money and ran.

Tiger was relieved, therefore, when later in 1929, Sonny and Kid Hyames switched venues from Burnham to Indiana Harbor. The Chicago Outfit's man in the Twin City changed that year when one of the Johnson brothers, Mayor Raleigh P. Hale's bagman, was erased in Chicago and, with the mayor himself under siege by the feds, Phil Collender took over. So, Sonny and Kid Hyames, with Peck Gardner, opened the Big House, Greater Chicago's biggest gambling casino, a place that Twin City police repeatedly insisted did not exist. Tiger worked at the Big House for 20 years. He also kept books, for a time, for Midwest Liquors, a side enterprise Sonny co-partnered with several other men who had gone legit with the end of Prohibition.

If Tiger Layer left a legacy it was a contradiction. Although exemplary when husbanding the Big House's funds, Tiger was happily irresponsible when handling his own. During The Great Depression, the Big House paid him $37 a day, which was big money then, plus a $500 a month bonus, but Tiger's wife, two sons, and two daughters had nothing. The Big House paid its men every day before they went to work, but, after work, Tiger would spend the night betting himself and blowing his daily wages. He never had a dime. Come Christmas he'd visit Sonny and say he needed money for presents.

"Damn it, Harold, what do you do with your money?" Sonny would shout. "I spend it. People like me should have the money, not a guy like you walking around with horse manure on your boots," an allusion to Sonny's Adelot cattle range in Benton County, to which he frequently repaired. "OK, whadya want, Tiger." "Give me three hunnert.” Tiger's wife would then go out about 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve and buy presents for the kids from thoroughly picked over merchandise.

Tiger was something of a hail fellow who always wanted to treat. "I'm going to take you kids out to dinner with your wives," he'd say to family members when they had grown up and married. His favorite place was Joe's in Thornton, where, after a sumptuous repast, he'd go in the kitchen and tip the cooks, tip the dishwashers, tip the waiters, tip the bus boys, tip everyone. When the bill came he'd say to the people he had treated, "You guys holdin'?" Inevitably, the guests wound up paying the bill.

Tiger shamelessly borrowed money from his in-laws. "Ya holdin'? I need a little walkin' around money," he said to a son-in-law one day. The son-in-law, who was making $22 a week working six days a week and paying $37 a month rent, loaned Tiger $20. One night the son-in-law and Tiger were dining at Gudapeeps on Indianapolis Boulevard, so named because Joe Armani, an Italian bootlegger turned restauranteur, always referred to his customers as "good-a-peep," or good people. "I need my money; rent's coming due next week," the son-in-law said. "What's the matter with you," Tiger said huffily, "can't you manage your money?"

The next day, the son-in-law recounted the story to Peck Gardner, who took a kindly interest in the family lives of all Big House employees. "Peck, what can we do with Tiger?" “I'll tell you what," Peck said. "You come over every Saturday and I'll give you his paycheck." "That won't help," the son-in-law said, "He owes money to everyone in the place." "OK, I'll fix him. I'm going to give him a raise but not tell him. I'll put it away for him. One day, Tiger, who had a talent for irritation, made Peck mad. By then, the Big House bonus had risen from $500 to $750 a month, which was like several thousand dollars today, but that didn't pacify the profligate bookkeeper.

"Tiger, you don't appreciate anything anybody does for you," Peck said with final exasperation. "Look here. I've got $5,000 saved for you." And with that, Peck left Tiger to his own devices. Tiger, a walking institution, died in 1950, the same year the Big House closed.

Archibald McKinlay (1927--2015) was an expert on Calumet Region history.
His column appeared in The Times [Hammond, Indiana] and he was author of
the monumental "TWIN CITY--A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF EAST CHICAGO, INDIANA," 1988.

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