16 July 2019

New York gangster Johnny Spanish: A Retrospective (1 of 2)



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One hundred years ago this month, New York City gangster Johnny Spanish was dramatically gunned down in front of a Second Avenue restaurant in Lower Manhattan. The shooting, witnessed by at least a hundred people, was the final act of a criminal career that wound through the mean streets of the Lower East Side and the foreboding cells of Sing Sing Prison. Although not a household name, Spanish's name is familiar to most crime buffs mainly because of Herbert Asbury's 1927 gangster classic Gangs of New York. Known primarily for his violent feud with fellow gangster Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, Johnny Spanish's life is little known outside of what Asbury sketched of him. It has been variously said that he was a Spanish Jew; that he was related to the notorious "Butcher" Weyler, the Spanish general who ruled over Cuba with an iron fist; that he shot a pregnant ex-girlfriend in the stomach, among other things. In addition to examining his violent demise, the author hopes to separate fact from fiction and provide a more accurate picture of who Johnny Spanish really was.

He was born Giovanni Mistretta in 1889, most probably in Lower Manhattan, to an Italian father and a Spanish mother. Giovanni had at least two older siblings (Antonietta and Antonio) and a younger brother (Giuseppe). Virtually nothing else is known of his childhood, about how he progressed through adolescence and found his way into the street gangs of the neighborhood. Giovanni seems to have been relatively intelligent,  able to read and write well. As an adult, it was noted that he spoke fluent Italian, Spanish, and English. Sometime during Giovanni's youth, his family anglicized their surname to Mestrett. Thus, Giovanni Mistretta became John Mestrett. While young John may have naturally bright, he showed little inclination for academics and soon found his way into the streets. Almost certainly fueled by the hair-trigger temper that would plague him all his life, John quickly began getting into street fights. Sometime in his teens, if the standard accounts are accurate, John Mestrett found his way into the lower rungs of the notorious Five Points Gang.

One of the more storied street gangs in New York City's history, the Five Points bunch got their name from the convergence of four Lower East Side streets; Anthony (present-day Worth), Cross (present-day Mosco), Orange (present-day Baxter), and Little Water (defunct). The five points of this intersection were home to a large gang consisting mostly of Irish immigrants around the mid-nineteenth century. By the turn of the century, the Five Points Gang had grown so much that satellite branch gangs had popped up in other areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. As the demographics changed on the old Five Points turf, so did the ethnic make-up of its ranks; by 1900, the Five Pointers were now composed mostly of Italians, with quite a few Jews and Irish sprinkled into the mob. They were led by Paul Kelly (Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli), a former boxer turned refined gang boss. The brilliant Kelly was able to forge an alliance with the corrupt Tammany Hall city government. In exchange for committing numerous instances of Election Day political terrorism and voter fraud on Tammany's behalf, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye while the Five Pointers made their living stealing and operating brothels and dance halls.

Members of the Five Points Gang around the turn of the twentieth century.

The Five Points Gang's chief rival was a giant mob of mostly Jewish hoodlums led by a former dance-hall sheriff (bouncer) named Edward "Monk" Eastman. A legend in his own lifetime, Eastman was a ferocious street fighter who led his men into action against the hated Five Points mob regularly.  On one occasion in September 1903, they staged a pitched gun battle on Rivington Street that left three men dead and a score of others wounded. At one point, Eastman and Kelly agreed to face off against each other in bare-knuckled combat in an abandoned barn in neutral Bronx territory; the two gang bosses battered each other to a draw. After Monk Eastman was sentenced to prison in 1904 for a botched robbery, his gang began to splinter. As a result, Kelly's Five Pointers were then noted as the most powerful gang in the city.

It was most probably around 1905-1906 that the teenaged John Mestrett began moving within the Five Points Gang. He most probably started small, picking pockets on crowded streets and trolleys before moving up to burglary and armed robbery. Due to his Latin heritage, Mestrett soon became known as "Spanish John" amongst the Five Points crowd. Before long, it was inevitably transposed into "Johnny Spanish." His brother Giuseppe (Joseph) soon joined him on the streets; he would be appropriately nicknamed "Joey Spanish." Despite an undersized build, Johnny attacked an opponent with the ferocity of a wolverine. Sometime during his Five Points apprenticeship, Johnny sustained a bullet wound to the face that knocked out three teeth and left an ugly scar on his cheek near his mouth. By the mid-1900s, the monolithic Five Points Gang followed the Eastman Gang's led and began to fragment into independent crews. Two former Five Pointers, Biff Ellison and Razor Riley, attempted to kill Paul Kelly at the New Brighton hall in November 1905. Kelly was wounded in the gunplay, his life saved when bodyguard Bill Harrington took a fatal bullet meant for his boss. While Kelly survived his wounds, he began easing himself out of the day-to-day business of running the Five Points mob.

Virtually no precise information about Johnny Spanish's early criminal career has survived; he was basically one of the many faceless Five Points thugs who wreaked havoc amongst the slums of the Lower East Side. However, subsequent events show that Spanish was a cut above the usual East Side thug. Intelligent and industrious, he appears to have broken away from the Five Points mob sometime around the age of twenty. Despite his Italian/Spanish heritage, most of the hoods he attracted under his banner were Jewish. As a result, many accounts have labeled John Mestrett as a Spanish Jew. In fact, like Monk Eastman before him, Johnny Spanish was a Gentile who merely moved within the Jewish-American underworld. When he was subsequently sent to prison in 1911, Spanish declared his religion as "Protestant." Upon his 1919 murder, John Mestrett was given a Catholic burial in Queens' Calvary Cemetery. Despite his ability to captain a crew of young thugs, Spanish remained temperamental and something of a loner. Herbert Asbury described him this way; "Spanish was very taciturn and morose, and was inclined to brood over his troubles, real or imagined...Spanish never stirred abroad without two revolvers stuck in his belt, and when he was on important errands he carried two more stuffed into his coat pockets, besides the regulation equipment of blackjack and brass knuckles."

By the year 1909, Johnny Spanish was a twenty-year-old crook that bossed a group of mostly Jewish thieves on the Lower East Side. As his criminal career progressed, Johnny and his brother Joey began using the alias of Weiler (also spelled Wheiler in some contemporary sources). Like most criminals of the era, they appear to have modified their names to shield their families from shame. Herbert Asbury wrote that Johnny claimed to be related to Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish general and colonial administrator of Cuba and the Philippines whose brutal tactics in crushing the Cuban Rebellion earned him the nickname of "Butcher Weyler." No contemporary source confirms Johnny Spanish making such a claim, and while it is uncertain if it has any merit, his mother Rose was noted as using the name "Weiler" in the 1920 Census. It's possible that this may have been a variation of her maiden name. Regardless of the Weyler connection's veracity, it is easy to imagine Johnny letting the hoods of the Lower East Side think he was kin to Butcher Weyler, as such a claim would merely add to his growing mystique. Indeed, quite a few young Jewish hoodlums hitched their wagon to Johnny Spanish Train as the decade came to a close. Some of those who rolled with him were his younger brother Joey, Hyman Benjamin, and "Lefty" Kantor. Johnny's most gifted recruit would turn out to be his eventual nemesis.

Nathan Caplin was a muscular Jewish youth the same age as Johnny Spanish. Accounts are mixed as to how Caplin came upon his nickname of "Kid Dropper." The most widely told story was that Nathan worked a scam as a Lower East Side youth where he would perform the "drop swindle," which featured Nathan dropping a wallet filled with counterfeit cash near an unsuspecting mark. As the pigeon reached to pick up the wallet, Caplin would swoop in and snatch up the billfold. Nathan would then tell the target that he was in a hurry and offer to let them have the wallet of "cash" in exchange for some slight compensation. Then, the victim could take the wallet to its rightful owner and collect an even bigger reward of their own. The second origin story for the nickname was much more coarse, stemming from Caplin's ability to "drop" his opponents with just one blow of his fist or knife. Like Johnny Spanish, Caplan came from the impoverished neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, stealing from pushcarts and unsuspecting passerby. Also, like Spanish, Caplin sought to shield his family and confuse the cops by modifying his name, to Kaplan. The Dropper presented a daunting mix of brains and brawn and was much more gregarious than the mysterious Spanish. Despite their personality differences, the two hit it off and began to cut a swath through the Lower East Side.
   
Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan around the age of twenty.

In 1909, the Lower East Side gang scene was in something of a state of flux. Monk Eastman's successor, Max "Kid Twist" Zweifach, had been gunned down at Coney Island with his bodyguard Samuel Pristrich aka Cyclone Louie a year earlier by a Five Points gangster named Louie "The Lump" Pioggi. After an extended period, the Eastmans had been taken over by Abe Lewis, a first cousin of  Cyclone Louie. Ex-Five Pointers like Jack Sirocco and Chick Tricker ran their sections of the neighborhood, but Johnny Spanish set his sights on carving out his own slice of the pie. After Abe Lewis was convicted of a grocery store robbery in the autumn of 1909 and sent off to Sing Sing Prison for nineteen years, Johnny Spanish seems to have moved in to attempt to exploit his absence by going into the "labor slugging" business. As labor unions began forming in the newly industrialized America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, companies started hiring thugs to act as strikebreakers and to discourage union activity. In response, the newly forming unions hired muscle of their own to protect striking workers and to recruit new members, sometimes by force. Both sides would often face off on the picket line, verbally and physically attacking their opponents, often with the connivance of local law enforcement. Into this tumultuous breach came Johnny Spanish and his crew, who was hired by the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the autumn of 1909 to break a strike.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, located at the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The factory employed about 500 workers, most of them immigrant women, who worked long hours sewing women's blouses (called 'shirtwaists' in the vernacular of the era) under crowded and unsafe conditions; the plant's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, regularly locked and chained the doors of their business in order to prevent worker theft and unexcused absences. By the beginning of November 1909, the Triangle's workers began protesting the inhumane working conditions and talked of unionizing. As a result, management locked out the bulk of the plant's workforce, roughly 500 workers. Each day on the picket line, the seamstresses were picketing in front of the Asch Building. Members of the Women's Trade Union League appeared on the scene to show solidarity with the workers and to attempt to organize them. Police friendly to Triangle management menaced them at every turn. One officer growled to a young union organizer named Helen Marot, "You uptown scum, keep out of this or you'll find yourselves in jail!" Indeed, a total of ninety-eight women were hauled off to jail for protesting.

Some of the labor organizers who picketed in favor of the Triangle Shirtwaist strikers.

While the police posed a hazard to the strikers, a more direct threat came in the form of Johnny Spanish and his gang, who verbally abused and occasionally physically assaulted the strikers. A picketer named Annie Pardwin filed a complaint against Morris Goldfarb, one of Spanish's goons. Pardwin charged that Goldfarb had, "rushed up to her, slammed her against a wall near the shop and struck her with his fist, at the same time exercising his vocabulary to its limit." Johnny Spanish himself was accused by the picketers of assaulting Joe Zeinfeld, one of the locked out workers. Spanish beat Zeinfeld so severely he had to be hospitalized. Several female picketers cried out to policemen as Spanish ran from the scene. It was reported that an officer caught up with Spanish, calmly spoke with him, and watched as the young gangster casually walked away from the scene unmolested. Eventually, the strike was settled and business as usual resumed at the factory, due in no small part to the labor slugging done by Johnny Spanish and his men. It wasn't until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire sixteen months later - and 146 workers were killed - that the world at large finally recognized the inhumane employment practices of the plant's owners.

"All the horse shows in the world, it seems, they never try so hard to keep up interest in horseflesh, are unavailing - the last straw - night riders and bold bandits come galloping into town to shoot up folks and places mounted on taxicabs." So began the New York Sun's November 13, 1909 article that introduced New Yorkers at large to Johnny Spanish and his crew. Fresh from their successful labor slugging mission, the Spanish crew decided to go on a bit of a rampage. It seems the trouble started on the evening of Wednesday, November 10, when bandits held up the Jefferson Coterie Club on Henry Street. Whether or not Johnny and his bunch were victimized here, they decided on a grand gesture of retaliation the very next night. Automobiles were still the province of the upper crust in the autumn of 1909, as horse-drawn vehicles still significantly outnumbered cars on New York streets. For those that did not own them, there were garages around the city that would rent autos to trustworthy individuals for short periods. It's not sure if this is how Johnny Spanish and his crew procured three taxicab automobiles, but somehow or another, the young gangsters were mobile and looking for revenge. Their actions that night suggest their behavior may have been artificially induced by alcohol or cocaine.

Around 8:30 that Thursday evening, three taxicabs were noted as cruising along Broome Street until they came to a stop. Johnny Spanish and about a dozen of his crew exited the three vehicles and began visiting saloons as if looking for someone. At Pitt and Grand streets, they happened across Assemblyman Aaron Levy, who was speaking to a judge. Bullets began flying in his direction, sending the assemblyman and judge running for cover. The gunmen proceeded to shoot up windows and streetlamps in the immediate vicinity. After this attack, the Spanish crew retreated to the waiting taxicabs. Around midnight, they showed up at Max Schnur's basement saloon and shot the place up. Customers were thoroughly terrorized, and all the mirrors behind the bar were smashed by bullets. Mike Kulisky and Sam Klein, sarcastically described as "innocent bystanders" by the Sun, received minor wounds in the attack. Police were thoroughly roused and rounded up hoods from all over Lower Manhattan that night, including Jake Siegel aka Kid Jigger and a William Albert, soon to become notorious as Big Jack Zelig.

The November 1909 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike and the subsequent taxicab rampage gave Johnny Spanish and his crew a modicum of notoriety in the Lower Manhattan underworld. Brimming with confidence and audacity, Spanish began looking to expand into other rackets. Spanish let it be known that he and his men were available for freelance muscle work. In addition to the usual pickpocketing, burglaries, armed robberies, and labor slugging, Spanish began muscling into underground stuss games. Stuss, known outside the neighborhood as Jewish faro, was favored in the underworld as the house won all the money when two money when equal cards were drawn, as opposed to just half in standard faro. Such an action greatly increased profits for those hoodlums who ran the game. Johnny Spanish would often approach stuss operators and demand a substantial percentage of their daily earnings under the penalty of death. Spanish's gangland spoils had enabled him to buy a new house for his family members at 31 Lexington Avenue in the up-and-coming Maspeth section of Queens. The quiet, suburban setting provided an excellent escape for members of the Mistretta family. Soon Johnny's older sister Antonietta (Kate) had moved into the house with her husband Paul Ciccarelli and their growing family. Their mother Rose and Johnny's brother Joey also called the Maspeth house home.

Around the time that he was spreading his wings in early 1910, Johnny Spanish fell in love. Like many other Lower Manhattan gangsters, Spanish had a roving eye when it came to women and picked them up wherever he could; the dance halls, the theaters, the Coney Island boardwalk during summer months. Johnny had fallen hard for an attractive nineteen-year-old girl named Beatrice Konstant (or Kaplan - no relation to Kid Dropper). Herbert Asbury wrote that Spanish, "...was seized with a burning desire to ornament his adored one with silks and precious stones." In falling in love with Beatrice, Johnny Spanish (without even realizing it) had set in motion a chain of events that would eventually seal his fate.

Like any worthy New York gang boss, Johnny Spanish ruthlessly enforced his will within his own crew and was sometimes called upon to meet out some intra-gang discipline. In early May 1910, two of his men got into a deadly feud; Charles Manheimer stabbed a fellow gangster known as "The Kid" (believed to be Kid Dropper) several times. As The Kid recovered from his wounds, Manheimer avoided his usual haunts. On the evening of May 25, Spanish and Kid Dropper caught up with their wayward comrade at the corner of Norfolk and Hester streets. Manheimer got a bullet in his back that shattered his spine. Rushed to the hospital, the severely wounded gangster growled, "If I don't get a wooden overcoat I'll get the man who shot me without help from you 'bulls.'" Twenty-three-year-old Charles Manheimer died of his wound on June 12.

Buffalo Enquirer

The fatal shooting of his former underling was all in a day's work for Johnny Spanish, who immediately decided to move in on one of the more profitable stuss games in Lower Manhattan. Jacob Siegel, better known in the underworld as "Jigger" or "Kid Jigger," ran the game in question on Forsyth Street. Herbert Asbury gave a dramatic version of the Kid Jigger/Johnny Spanish confrontation, complete with invented old-timey dialogue, in Gangs of New York. Contemporary accounts indicate that there was nothing cinematic about their brief and brutal encounter. Around ten o'clock on the warm evening of May 29, Spanish showed up at Kid Jigger's game with Hyman Benjamin. Spanish bluntly informed Jigger that he was now entitled to half of his stuss profits. While he may not have been the cold-blooded killer that Spanish was, Jigger was still a product of the mean streets of the Lower East Side. As such, he refused Spanish's extortion demand. The gang boss then informed him that he would have to fight it out in the street. After Spanish and Benjamin left, Kid Jigger prepared himself as well as he could by arming himself with a cheap .32 caliber revolver. Jigger then exited his game into the warm spring night and headed north to the intersection of Forsyth and Grand streets. 

According to eyewitness accounts, Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were waiting for Kid Jigger at the corner; there may have been three other men standing just beyond them. After a brief conversation with the gang boss, Jigger stepped back and reached for his pistol. The frantic stuss game operator managed to get one harmless shot off before his flight instinct overwhelmed its fight counterpart and he sprinted for cover while one of his adversaries emptied a pistol at him. One of these bullets, unfortunately, struck a thirteen-year-old girl named Rachael Rooten in the abdomen as she passed through the corner. As she went down screaming, Spanish and his compadres made their escape. Police immediately swarmed the scene and began investigating while Miss Rooten was rushed to the hospital. The cops collared a man who gave his name as Max Hess and who had seemed to have sustained a minor wound to his thumb in the fray. Kid Jigger eventually fell into police hands and claimed that Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were behind the trouble at the corner that evening, explicitly saying that it was Benjamin who had tried to kill him and accidentally shot the young girl. After much suffering, young Rachael Rooten succumbed to her wound on June 11.

With two very public murders now credited to him, Johnny Spanish was subjected to a citywide manhunt. While Hyman Benjamin was arrested and charged with Rachael Rooten's killing, Spanish fled the city to let the heat die down a bit. Leaving behind his gangland kingdom and girlfriend Beatrice Konstant, the twenty-one-year-old gangster reportedly cooled his heels in Detroit for the duration of the summer of 1910. When Spanish returned to New York in September, he received a considerable shock when he discovered that his beloved Beatrice had cuckolded him with one of his chief underlings, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan. His youthful passions and temper aroused, Johnny Spanish's hurt honor demanded immediate vengeance.

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