An early journalistic account of waterfront corruption and racketeering by Malcolm Johnson of the New York Sun won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. On the Waterfont, a fictional film handling of gangster rule along the wharves, won a trunkload of 1954 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Writing. More recently, historian Nathan Ward revisited the Hudson River docks for his 2010 book, Dark Harbor, examining Malcolm Johnson's groundbreaking effort to bring waterfront organized crime to light.
An altar boy in his youth, McGrath became a clever, charming and resourceful criminal on his way to the leadership of an influential and largely Irish-American underworld organization. McGrath attained official recognition from the International Longshoremen's Association and the American Federation of Labor and proved himself useful to corrupt union officials and national racketeering networks.
McGrath's life story is a virtual Who's Who of Gotham outlaws. On his way to boss status, he benefited from alliances with such figures as "Big Joe" Butler, "Peck" Hughes, "Red" McCrossin, "Farmer" Sullivan, Andrew "Squint" Sheridan, John "Cockeye" Dunn and James "Ding-Dong" Bell. The résumés of his associates and his underworld rivals featured service with some of New York's most notorious gang chieftains, including Dutch Schultz, "Legs" Diamond, "Mag Dog" Coll and Owney Madden. Working relationships with Joey Rao, Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo and Giuseppe "Joe Adonis" Doto, eventually brought McGrath into contact with syndicate bosses like Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello.
Due to a (perhaps fortunate) stay in Sing Sing Prison, McGrath played a relatively minor role in the most exciting portion of Dock Boss, the mid-1930s conflict between the Butler and Yanowsky gangs for control of the West Side dock rackets. It was a true gangland war. Clark's description of the bloody one-and-a-half-year conflict, from late December 1934 to summer of 1936, moves rapidly from one shooting to the next and still manages to consume about forty pages of the book.
The war set the stage perfectly for McGrath. With allies and rivals eliminated through bullets or courtroom convictions, McGrath and his partners, John Dunn and Georgie Daggett, assumed control of the former rackets of the Butler Gang and quickly established control along the docks.
Clark takes the time to explain the atypical workings and the special economic and historic value of New York City's docks, as well as the rackets used by gangsters, union leaders and politicians to profit from them. He notes and explains the strong Irish influence on the West Side piers and the surrounding neighborhoods. He explores the corruption-encouraging "public loader" system unique to the Big Apple, which significantly increased the cost of goods moved off of ships in New York harbor. The "shape-up" method of rewarding cooperative longshoremen with work - illustrated in the movie On the Waterfront - is also detailed. The author even describes the competitive pressures on labor leaders that drove them to support the McGrath outfit. Clark is well-versed in this field, proof of his extensive research.
This reviewer can manage only a few minor complaints about Clark's work (in addition to his insistence on using the "Oxford comma"):
- Chapters are unusually short. With about 270 pages of text divided up into forty chapters, the average chapter length is less than seven pages. Some chapters are only about three pages long. It is likely that many readers will view this as a positive thing. But I found the chapter interruptions annoying, as they often occurred where there was no logical break in the story. The Butler-Yanowsky War, for example, is a single logical event occurring over a fairly short period of time. However, it is broken up among five or six chapters.
- While the text is generally well written, it would have benefited from an editor's attention. There are occasional misspellings, a bit of indecision over whether to use U.S.- or Canada-preferred spellings for terms ("cheque," "offense"/"offence," for example) and some incorrect dates and figures (passage of Volstead Act, percentage of alcohol in beverages permitted by the Harrison Act, date of the police raid of Tully house...).
- There is also a frequent and annoying use of the name "Greenwich" to refer to the Manhattan neighborhood of "Greenwich Village." In this reviewer's experience, the name "Greenwich" on its own refers to a district in London, the base for worldwide timekeeping, a town in southwestern Connecticut and a town and village in upstate New York. When a shortened name for "Greenwich Village" is needed, it generally takes the form of "The Village."
- The author may have been overly accepting of earlier histories, including the Pulitzer-winning articles by Malcolm Johnson. Some small Dock Boss flaws (these turned up when this reviewer closely examined newspaper records of early McGrath arrests) can be traced to Johnson's work and reports based on Johnson's articles.
- Dock Boss provides a bibliography and an index - useful tools for researchers - but does not include notes. The absence of source citations for statements of fact in the text appears to have been the result of publisher policy. This may be mildly frustrating for some researchers, but it should not be interpreted as a lack of documentary support. Clark has proved to this reviewer's satisfaction that he has command of the available sources in this subject area.
Nitpicking aside, Neil Clark has produced a solid history and an enjoyable read. With luck, he will soon set to work on additional crime-history projects.
Dock Boss; Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront (Barricade) by Neil G. Clark is scheduled for a July 1 release. An excerpt from Dock Boss can be found in the summer 2017 issue of Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement.