The name Julius Salsbury might not ring any bells for most Baltimoreans in 2021, but there was a time when he was the talk of the town. His myth grew larger with each retelling of his story — a story that inspired books and movies.
The dapper bookie nicknamed “The Lord” ran a citywide gambling operation from the Oasis Cabaret on The Block, until, facing a 15-year federal prison sentence, he skipped bail in 1970 and fled without a trace.
For decades, Salsbury’s fate was a mystery that dogged FBI investigators and journalists alike. In 2006, a Baltimore police sergeant said: “What happened to Julius Salsbury 36 years ago continues to be one of the great mysteries of our town.”
Some speculated that he absconded to Israel.
This week, more than 50 years after her father’s flight, one of Julius Salsbury’s daughters, Rochelle Salsbury, broke her silence for The Sun, confirming at last what became of “The Lord,” and when he died.
Rochelle is 68 now and lives in White Marsh with a friendly black lab who barks at any sound in the hallway. But the dog needn’t worry; FBI agents have long since stopped trailing Rochelle.
For as long as she can remember, the FBI was regularly locking up her father. Rochelle, her mom and sisters came to visit him in prison.
“I broke my last baby bottle at Jessup,” she said.
The family lived in Northwest Baltimore, “near the racetrack,” Rochelle said. At home, her father didn’t talk about his gambling operation.
“The less we knew, the better off we were,” she said. But she read all the papers. “I could hear him on the phone. I wasn’t sure that it was illegal.”
It was. In an era long before sports betting received state sanction, law enforcement raided his office at the Oasis multiple times for tax and gambling offenses, confiscating tens of thousands of dollars.
Stephen Sachs, then U.S. attorney for Maryland, called Salsbury’s operation part of “an elaborate underworld that did $60 million business in gambling across the nation.”
Julius Salsbury came from humble origins. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he dropped out of high school. But “The Lord” had “aristocratic ways about him,” according to a Sun Magazine profile of him that ran after he fled Baltimore.
“Men liked his company and women found him attractive,” read the Sun profile. “There was a toughness about him, too, a tenacity. ... But Salsbury was no eye-gouger, not that kind of battler.”
He loved horse racing, even owned a few horses, and eschewed the violence that was common in the underworld.
He wore tailor-made suits, and insisted his daughters wear dresses to school. Some of the other kids’ parents didn’t want them hanging out with the Salsbury girls. Others felt sorry for the daughters and tried to help.
“They knew I had two crazy parents,” Rochelle said.
Her mother Susan was “a nice gentile girl from Pennsylvania” who faced years of trouble around her husband’s deals. “He put my mother through hell,” she said.
In 1970, Salsbury faced another conviction on gambling charges, and was released on an $80,000 bail. He was looking at 15 years in federal prison.
That summer, FBI agents raided the apartment he kept at the Horizon House, a swanky building in the 1100 block of North Calvert St, but Salsbury had vanished; his apartment empty.
Some accounts have him leaving Baltimore in a horse van, hiding beneath the hay. Rochelle said that really happened.
“A lot of stuff was common knowledge around town,” she said.
After he left, she remembers driving to Pennsylvania to call him from a pay phone. Later they would meet in Montreal, where he lived temporarily under an assumed identity.
“My father was very family oriented,” she said. “Even though he wasn’t around he still liked to keep in touch.”
He sent money when he could, as did Salsbury’s ex-girlfriend Pam Gail, a former burlesque dancer who took over the Oasis after “The Lord” left. Rochelle called her a “charming firecracker.”
“Pam did a lot for us,” Rochelle said.
“The Lord” had introduced his then-teenaged daughter to his girlfriend before he fled the country; Rochelle thinks he “foresaw that he wasn’t going to be around here” for long.
In the early 1970s, Julius Salsbury moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, and for years, Rochelle made annual trips to see him. At first, “I always was looking over my shoulder.” But she was never stopped by the FBI or anyone else, and eventually figured they had stopped pursuing the case.
In Israel, few of even his closest friends knew of the life he’d left behind. For a time, he kept a gift shop at a hotel, and lived a block from the beach. “He lived a happy life,” she said.
He never returned to Baltimore, and after dying March 30, 1994, of bone cancer, was buried in Israel. Within 48 hours, her mom, too, had died.
Stateside, “The Lord’s” legend grew after his death. Salsbury’s story inspired Barry Levinson’s 1999 film “Liberty Heights.” Author Laura Lippman penned a novel about the case called “After I’m Gone,” a fictionalized account of what happened to Salsbury’s family and girlfriend after he left. Rochelle said she has yet to read the book, but owns a copy.
Perhaps, she thinks, she’ll write a book of her own.