Showing posts with label Daniel Waugh. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Daniel Waugh. Show all posts

02 October 2019

The Assassination of Sam Giannola

Detroit Mafia boss Sam Giannola

One hundred years ago today, Detroit Mafia boss Salvatore (Sam) Giannola was assassinated as he stepped from the American State Bank branch at the corner of Monroe and Russell streets in Detroit, Michigan. Giannola and his two brothers, Vito and Antonino (Tony), were natives of Terrasini, Sicily and had led the city's Mafia family since the spring of 1914, when they seized control of the burgàta after winning a gang war against incumbent boss Pietro Mirabile. 

Based in the southern Detroit suburb of Ford City, the Giannolas had gained untold wealth and power from their newfound positions at the head of the city's Mafia family. Unfortunately, they had also accumulated a host of enemies both inside and outside of their organization. Sam's brother Tony had been murdered in January 1919 and Sam led his faction in a blood feud against his enemies, a faction headed by Giovanni (John) Vitale. After a peace treaty had been enacted in late May, things seemed to have calmed on the surface, but the bad blood between Giannola and Vitale seemed set to erupt at any time.

On October 2, 1919, Sam spent a good chunk of the day at his Little Sicily headquarters, the Viviano Macaroni Manufacturing Company, at 277 Monroe Street. Around 2 o'clock that afternoon. Giannola went to the American State Bank to cash a $200 check (Sam was looking to place a bet on the upcoming Game 2 of the ongoing baseball World Series). After finishing his business, Giannola was confronted by three assassins who shot him multiple times. Sam staggered back inside the bank and collapsed to the floor, quickly dying of his wounds. His three assassins ran in opposite directions on Russell Street. Sam's funeral in Wyandotte four days later was a elegant and well-attended affair. His widow Rosa swore an oath of vengeance against his killers at his gravesite.

Detroit Free Press


One of Sam Giannola's accused killers, Calogero Arena, was actually found guilty of the crime in March 1920 and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, Arena's conviction was reversed on appeal, and he was acquitted at his second trial.

If you'd like to read more about Sam Giannola's life and career, I invite you to check out my book Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia


Sources:

The October 3-6, 1919 issues of the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, and Detroit Times

Sam Giannola, Michigan Department of Health, Certificate of Death, No. 9756 (1919).

Recorder's Court of the City of Detroit, The People of the State of Michigan vs. Cologero Arena for murder, 1919, Case # 30216.

Daniel Waugh. Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia. Lulu Publishing Services, 2019. ISBN 9781483496276.


20 September 2019

The Mother Of All Drive-By Shootings


Al Capone (left) and his bodyguard Frank Rio.

On this day ninety-three years ago, members of Chicago's North Side Gang led an extraordinarily violent raid against their archrival Al Capone near his headquarters in the suburb of Cicero, Illinois. A procession of automobiles raked an entire city block with submachine gun fire to avenge the murder of their boss, Dean O'Banion, two years earlier. This attack was unlike anything seen in the American underworld at the time, and it has become one of the canonical stories of Al Capone's rise to power. Many myths have sprung around it over the years, namely around the number of vehicles involved and Capone's bodyguard Frank Rio saving his boss from certain death at the hands of his enemies. It was a scene tailor-made for the silver screen, where it would indeed end up just six years later. The purpose of this article is to give the various accounts of the Hawthorne attack a fresh examination and create an accurate depiction of this seminal event.

Background

By the summer of 1926, twenty-seven-year-old Alphonse Capone had been at the head of an ever-expanding vice empire that raked in multiple millions of dollars from the manufacturing, smuggling, and sale of illegal alcohol for over a year. Other rackets that fed Capone's coffers included illegal gambling, labor racketeering, prostitution, and protection racketeering. Due to the election of reform mayor William Dever in 1923, Capone headquartered his mob just across the Chicago city line in Cicero. Al and his crew installed themselves at the three-story Hawthorne Hotel at 4823 West Twenty-Second Street (modern-day Cermak Road). The gangsters commandeered the entire third floor for their use; Capone installed solid steel shutters on the windows as a security measure. Al was right to take such precautions as he had plenty of rivals who were eager to see him dead. Capone's former boss, Johnny Torrio, had been shot and nearly killed in January 1925 by North Side gangsters Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran, both of whom were eager to avenge the assassination of their friend and leader Dean O'Banion two months earlier.

Earlier in the spring of 1926, Capone had begun a brief move against a West Side gang headed by the O'Donnell brothers. One foray against them on the evening of April 27 resulted in gangsters Jim Doherty and Thomas "Red" Duffy being shot to death outside of the Pony Inn on Roosevelt Road (police later determined that Capone, eager to try out the newfangled Thompson submachine gun, personally did the shooting). Also killed in the assault was Assistant State's Attorney William H. McSwiggin, known around Chicago as the "hanging prosecutor." McSwiggin had merely gone out to have a few harmless drinks with his pals in the O'Donnell Gang when he found himself caught in the crossfire of gangland warfare. Capone was forced to lay low for a good chunk of the summer while the case against him was fixed. Despite the intense uproar over the killing, the Cicero gang boss not only managed to beat the rap but also to neutralize the threat that the O'Donnell mob posed to him.  


North Side Gang boss Earl "Hymie" Weiss



The so-called North Side Gang posed the greatest challenge to Al Capone in the summer of 1926. They controlled lucrative bootlegging and vice rackets on the city's North Side. After their previous leader, Dean O'Banion, was assassinated at the Schofield flower shop at 738 North State Street by men believed to have been sent by Johnny Torrio and Capone, the gang was taken over by Earl "Hymie" Weiss. Twenty-eight years old, Weiss was an intelligent, industrious gangster who had long been regarded as the "brains" behind the North Side mob; police believed that he was the one who had steered the crew into large-scale bootlegging. Weiss was noted for intensity that practically oozed from his pores and a hair-trigger temper. When photographers tried to snap his picture, he'd stare at them and say, "If you take a picture of me, I'll kill you." In one interview, Fred Weiss said he had seen his brother Earl only once in twenty years, "That was when he shot me, six years ago." According to his descendants, Weiss suffered from frequent migraine headaches, and in the mid-1920s was diagnosed with arterial cancer. These health ailments, along with the knowledge that he probably did not have long to live as a result, are said to have contributed to Weiss's fearlessness in the underworld. Despite his fearsome reputation, Weiss was known to secretly pick up the grocery tabs of less fortunate denizens of his North Side neighborhood.

Vincent "Schemer" Drucci

Backing up Hymie Weiss in the ranks of the North Side Gang was an equally colorful cast of characters. Vincent Drucci was a Sicilian-American gangster who got his nickname of "Schemer" because of his wild criminal schemes and madcap personality. While being chased by police through downtown Chicago in 1922 after trying to dynamite a safe, Drucci came upon the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which was raising to allow a river-going freighter to pass through. The Schemer's response was to floor his car's accelerator and gun his ride Bluesmobile-style up and over the bridge's increasing gap. Unfortunately for Drucci, the cops also managed to make the jump and caught up with him a couple of blocks later. Another top echelon member of the North Side Gang was George Moran, who was often incorrectly said to have been of either Irish or Polish extraction; he was, in fact, French-Canadian. Born Adelard Cunin in St. Paul, Minnesota, Moran was known as being a tough and shrewd criminal who had been moving in North Side gang circles since at least 1917, when the crew was primarily a safe-cracking outfit led by Charles "The Ox" Reiser. Due to his occasional fits of temper, Moran was nicknamed "Bugs."

George "Bugs" Moran
By the summer of 1926, Hymie Weiss had managed to forge an alliance with the South Side-based Soltis-McErlane mob. Their territory encompassed what is known as the New City area of the Southwest Side. As gang boss Joe Soltis explained to Chicago police captain John Stege, "My district extends from Thirty-Ninth to Fifty-[F]ifth sts., and from the city limits to Loomis st. And I'll kill any [expletive] who cut in on my business." A tough and often murderous saloonkeeper who had branched into bootlegging, Soltis was a fierce fighter who managed to generate immense profits while navigating the violent, rapidly shifting gangland ecosystem of Chicago's South Side. Soltis's partner was Frank McErlane, one of the most feared men in the entire city. An alcoholic psychopath who made even his own gang mates nervous, McErlane was credited with being the first Chicago gangster to use a Thompson submachine gun on his enemies in the late summer of 1925. Although McErlane was currently in Indiana fighting a murder charge, Joe Soltis secretly made a pact with Weiss to move in on Capone around mid-summer.


Prelude

On the warm summer day of Tuesday, August 3, thirteen-year-old John Novak was horseback riding with his eleven-year-old brother Joseph in a forest preserve in Palos Township in southwestern Cook County. In the early afternoon, with the temperature climbing, the Novak boys sought to water their horses at a cistern. When their mounts shied away from drinking, the brothers investigated and were shocked to find the body of a dead man submerged in the water. The corpse had been bound hand and foot before being weighted down with stones and bricks from a nearby house that had burned down months before. The deceased was soon identified as thirty-six-year-old Anthony Cirringione, aka Tommy Ross, known as Al Capone's chauffeur. Cirringione (his name is usually misspelled as Curingione or Cuiringione) had been abducted over a month earlier, while Capone was still in hiding over the McSwiggin case. The chauffeur had been beaten and tortured severely (one account says his corpse was covered with cigar and match burns) before his skull was crushed by a blunt instrument (some contemporary news accounts mistakenly say he was shot). What Cirringione's killers hoped to get out of him would not become clear for another month or so. While this murder is usually attributed to the North Side mob, the location of the killing (rural southwest Cook County) and the use of torture indicates that the Soltis-McErlane crew was at the very least involved, if not solely culpable, in the slaughter of Capone's driver.

Capone was convinced that one way or another, the North Siders were responsible for the murder of his friend, and thus began planning accordingly. On the morning of Tuesday, August 10, Hymie Weiss went to the Congress Hotel at 500 South Michigan Avenue to meet Vincent Drucci, who lived in a suite on one of the upper floors. After they finished breakfast around ten o'clock, both men began walking south on Michigan. At East Ninth Street, the gangsters crossed the street and headed towards the Standard Oil Building. The exact business of Weiss and Drucci that morning is still unclear to this day, but the latter had a total of $13,200 cash in his pocket, money that he would later claim was earmarked for a real estate deal. Police would later note that the Standard Oil Building contained the office of the Chicago Sanitary District, known as perhaps the most corrupt pork barrel in the entire city (an impressive feat in and of itself). At that moment Morris Eller, a Sanitary District trustee and alderman of the Twentieth Ward, was in the office talking with Assistant State's Attorney John Sbarbaro.

As the North Side gangsters neared the Standard Oil Building's entrance, the busy morning calm was shattered by the loud sounds of gunfire emanating from two gunmen who were firing at them from a nearby sedan. Pedestrians screamed and yelled, and Weiss joined most of them in ducking for cover. Drucci knelt behind a mailbox, pulled his own gun, and returned fire. Over thirty shots were fired in the adrenalized melee, with stray shots breaking nearby plate glass windows and hitting parked cars. Despite the bad intentions, the only casualty was an innocent bystander named James Cardan, who was grazed in the leg.

The two triggermen jumped from their car and rushed forward to get a clearer shot at Drucci's defilade position. Just then a squad of police hurried into the block. At the sight of the blue uniforms, the attackers' getaway driver evidently panicked, as he hit the gas and left his comrades behind. Weiss and one of the assailants managed to vanish into the gathering crowd. Drucci ran into the street, jumped on the running board of a stopped automobile, and jammed the barrel of his still-warm revolver against the head of motorist C.C. Bassett. "Take me away, and make it snappy," he yelled. Police yanked him away before Bassett could comply with that command.

The cops also managed to catch the second gunman, an Italian man of about thirty who was dressed in a gray summer suit and straw boater. The suspect had smartly ditched his weapon as he ran away and claimed that he had only fled the scene so he wouldn't be hit by a stray bullet. The man gave his name as Paul Valerie and his address as 3533 Walnut Street, both of which would turn out to be false. Police eventually released him from custody when Vincent Drucci claimed to have never seen the man before. For his part, Drucci denied that the gunfight was gang-related, claiming that it was merely a stick-up gone bad. The gangster was charged with carrying concealed weapons and assault with intent to kill. Mary Weiss, Hymie's mother, signed bonds totaling $5,000 for the release of her son's associate.

A Chicago Tribune rendition of the Standard Oil Building gunfight.

While the cops may have been in the dark about what the Michigan Avenue gunplay was about, Hymie Weiss and his men had no doubt who his would-be killers worked for. While the sheer number of adversaries and the steel window shutters made Capone's Hawthorne Hotel headquarters virtually impervious to an armed assault, one of the facts that had been tortured out of chauffeur Tony Cirringione was that Capone frequently ate lunch at the Hawthorne Restaurant, located just east of the hotel. In this eatery, on the ground floor and out from behind the steel shutters, Weiss knew his enemy would be vulnerable. After contacting their South Side allies, the North Side gang boss planned a spectacular attack that would not only get rid of Al Capone but strike fear into the hearts of every member of Chicago's underworld.


September 20, 1926

That Monday began fair and cool in the Chicagoland area, with the temperatures peaking in the sixties. Local newspapers were filled with stories about the horrific carnage recently wreaked on South Florida by a large Category 4 hurricane that was presently thrashing Alabama and Mississippi; the so-called Miami Hurricane remains the costliest storm in American history.

Twenty-Second Street was Cicero's main thoroughfare. One hundred feet wide with streetcar tracks running down the center, the streets fairly teemed with pedestrians and vehicles. The Hawthorne Hotel was located on the south side of the street, with the Anton Hotel one door to the west. Also on that block were a barbershop, a delicatessen, and a laundry shop. Another notable business was the Hawthorne Smoke Shop, an ostensible tobacco shop that served as a front for one of Al Capone's lucrative gambling joints.

Capone himself had just returned to town the previous week from a trip to the eastern United States. Two days earlier, he had proudly reopened his gambling joints that had been padlocked during the law enforcement crackdown in the wake of the McSwiggin killing. Today Capone had his eye on the horse races at Hawthorne Park, as the autumn racing season had just begun a week earlier. About noon, Capone left the Hawthorne Hotel and headed next door to the restaurant for a bite to eat before he departed for the racetrack.

Clyde Freeman had just arrived in town from rural Louisiana with his wife and their five-year-old son Clyde, Junior. Freeman was a racehorse owner, and like many of the people on the block today, he and his family looked forward to attending the races. Although the street was extremely crowded, Freeman was lucky enough to maneuver his car into a parking space at the curb in front of the Hawthorne Hotel. Pre-occupied with his family, the Louisianian paid little attention to the muscular, well-dressed gentleman who stepped into the restaurant. In contrast to the Freemans, an anonymous face in the mass of people did indeed notice when Capone entered the greasy spoon for lunch. This individual quickly yet stealthily made their way to the nearest pay telephone, dropped a nickel in the slot, and said that the time had come.

The Hawthorne Restaurant featured about fifteen tables and a lunch counter. Although relatively small, the café was jam-packed with racing fans today. Sometime around one o’clock, Capone was sipping coffee at his table located in the back of the dining room. The gang boss sat facing the door so he could see everyone who entered the place. As the first race did not begin until two-thirty, he was in no hurry. The loud din of conversation hung in the air as patrons ate, drank, or perused their racing forms.

At this moment, twenty-nine-year-old Paul Ricca was walking towards the door of the Hawthorne Restaurant. Born Felice De Lucia, he had illegally immigrated to America from his native Italy with at least two murders on his hands. After arriving in Chicago in 1920 and anglicizing his name to Ricca, he found work in Diamond Joe Esposito's Bella Napoli restaurant as a maître d (his underworld nickname was ‘The Waiter'). Esposito was the Nineteenth Ward political boss and a Chicago underworld figure. By the summer of 1926, Ricca had shifted to Al Capone's crew and was now known as one of his rising stars. Ricca was now on his way to the restaurant to join his boss Capone. As Paul put his hand on the door, his finely-honed survival instincts seem to have been aroused. The young gangster looked down the block and saw something straight out of a bad dream heading right for the hotel.

Then it happened. 

The vast majority of Chicagoans in September 1926 did not know what a Thompson submachine gun sounded like. They were living in an era where television did not exist, movies were still silent, and only a fraction of them owned radio sets. Some may well have heard of the weapon, but unless they were a member of the military, law enforcement, or the underworld, the staccato drumming of that gun would have been alien enough that they may have honestly mistaken it for something else. Paul Ricca was another matter completely, as he recognized the song of the Thompson at once. Paul darted into the doorway of the restaurant and shouted a warning to Al Capone, who hit the deck just as all hell broke loose.

Several slow-moving sedans filled with men armed with three or more submachine guns and an unknown number of shotguns began firing into the buildings as they reached the Anton. Passerby screamed and yelled while breaking for cover. Bullets and buckshot strafed both hotels and the five businesses in between. Parked cars were peppered with shots. Trapped and terrified beyond belief, Clyde Freeman and his family screamed in terror as at least thirty slugs raked their car hard enough to make it rock on its axle. The caravan pulled to a stop outside the restaurant, their shots vaporizing the plate glass windows. Straight lines of waist-high and chest-high bullet holes dotted the walls and gouged out chunks of plaster. Dishes, glasses, and coffee cups jumped or outright shattered as they were struck. Patrons in the restaurant hugged the floor and plugged their ears against the loud cacophony of gunfire. Broken glass, porcelain fragments, various liquids, wood paneling, and even ceiling plaster showered down on the cowering diners. Capone remained frozen on the floor.

A man dressed in a khaki shirt and brown overalls stepped out of the second-to-last sedan, a Thompson in his hands. While the others held their fire and kept him covered with pointed weapons, the submachine gunner calmly walked to the front door of the restaurant, knelt in the doorway, and opened fire. The sight of this Angel of Death-like figure seems to have finally broken Capone's inertia, as he peeled himself off the floor and ran for his life. Bullets followed Al every step way until he made it out the café's back door. With his target now out of sight, the overall-clad submachine gunner proceeded to empty the remainder of his one hundred round capacity drum magazine into the already demolished dining room. After this final eff-you salute finished a few seconds later, the gangster walked back to his waiting automobile. A klaxon horn tooted three times and the caravan began to accelerate towards the Chicago city line two blocks to the east. As they went, witnesses noted that the final car was outfitted to look like a Chicago Police detective bureau sedan.

The scene of the crime not long after it happened. The restaurant in the left center of the photo was the focal point of the attack. Photo courtesy of www.myalcaponemuseum.com

Slowly but surely, the diners of the Hawthorne Restaurant and the other bystanders in the area emerged from their hiding places. Some women still may have been screaming, but most people were wide-eyed and panting, adrenaline still whipping through their systems. They were in a mild state of shock and still trying to mentally process what had just happened. Some accounts say Al Capone was discovered in a shop next door to the restaurant, while others state that he had re-entered the restaurant after the shooters had left; contemporary accounts make no mention of Frank Rio at all. Wherever he was, Capone was soon jerked out of his reverie by the screams of a woman coming from a nearby parked car. It was Clyde Freeman's wife. Capone instantly ran outside to see what he could do to help.

The police later claimed that the gunmen had fired about one thousand rounds (this seems to have been a bit of exaggeration; a careful review of the available evidence suggests that a total in the mid-to-upper hundreds range is more accurate). A slew of parked cars (thirty-five, by one reckoning) had been hit by gunfire. To this day, it is uncertain exactly how many cars were in the attacking caravan. Witnesses told differing accounts. The first reports filed later that night varied by newspaper, some saying that there were three or five vehicles, with the most reliable witness accounts settling on the neutral "several." As time went on, journalists and authors eventually added more cars to the tally; eight, ten, twelve, a baker's dozen; most modern renderings of the attack are divided between eight and ten vehicles.

Similarly, the number of shots fired in the drive-by gradually grew in retellings; one thousand, fifteen hundred, and so on. One recent venture was that a whopping two thousand rounds were fired that day; to show how logistically unfeasible that particular claim is, the raiders would have had to (at minimum) man a total of twenty submachine guns, each fitted with a one hundred round capacity drum magazine that would empty once. That is, of course, if not one of those drums jammed or misfed during operation.

Another oft-told detail of the Hawthorne drive-by involves a Chicago Police detective sedan rolling a block in front of the caravan featuring a submachine gunner firing blanks, a noisy ruse calculated to disperse bystanders and draw a curious Capone either to the street or the front of the café for easy elimination. The problem with this statement is that the Model 1921 Thompson is a friction-delayed blowback firearm. As such, its basic operation depends on high chamber pressure generated by a propellant to push the breech block to the rear, thus enabling the weapon to chamber and fire a new .45 caliber round. If a blank cartridge is used, there is no bullet traveling through the barrel, and the combustion gases will escape through the muzzle without building up enough pressure to chamber and fire the next round. Thus, the submachine gun will not fire blanks unless a constricting device is attached to the muzzle in order to build up enough chamber pressure to facilitate the blowback action. If the gents in this detective sedan were only looking to make some noise, a far easier solution would have been to just fire standard live rounds straight up into the air. Even more importantly, none of the original witness accounts taken at the scene mention such a vehicle. It appears that the blank-firing point car is one of more than a few canards that would pop up in the wake of the attack.

All outlandish claims aside, the drive-by shooting was indeed a savage event, and it was truly miraculous that no one was killed that day. Three of those injured were the unlucky Freeman family, whose car was turned into Swiss cheese by the assailants. Clyde Freeman's knee was grazed by a bullet, as was the scalp of five-year-old Clyde, Junior. Missus Freeman was hit the worst, as a submachine gun bullet passed cleanly through her arm. Despite their injuries, all three Freemans were given a "clean bill of health" by a doctor later that evening.

Many latter-day accounts claim that a sliver of glass from the car's windshield was driven into Mrs. Freeman's eye by the gunfire, with Capone later generously paying $5,000 for the surgery to save her eyesight. Contemporary news reports filed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting make no mention of Mrs. Freeman having such an injury, and it seems unlikely that she would have been given a "clean bill of health" had she been writhing in pain from a shard of glass lodged in her eye. Additionally, the entire Freeman family had recovered enough to view and dismiss two suspects (Bugs Moran and Frank Gusenberg) that police brought before them just a few hours after the shooting. It seems unlikely that Mrs. Freeman would have been in any condition to visually identify a suspect had she sustained such a grave injury to her eye. All in all, it appears that the Mrs. Freeman eye injury/Capone-financed surgery story is yet another tall tale.

The only other casualty that day was Paul Ricca, who took a bullet in his left shoulder just after he had shouted his warning to Capone. As soon as Chicago police Chief of Detectives Bill Shoemaker laid eyes on Ricca, he identified him as the "Paul Valerie" who was busted while running away from the Standard Oil Building gunfight a month earlier. Despite being in considerable pain from his wound, Ricca was alert enough to give police the new alias of "Louis Barko" and claimed that he was "only a lone wolf gambler" or a "bookmaker," depending on which paper you read. The wounded gangster admitted to seeing the attack from start to finish but claimed he could not identify any of the perpetrators.

Paul Ricca as he appeared at the time of the shooting.
For decades it has been assumed that faithful bodyguard Frank Rio had saved Al Capone's life by yanking him to the floor of the café once the fireworks began. Judging by contemporary news accounts and modern revelations, it is uncertain that Rio was even there to begin with. Recent research by Chicago organized crime expert John Binder indicates that it was actually Paul Ricca who was responsible for keeping Capone out of harm's way that day. In 2009, Binder interviewed a confidential source close to the Ricca family who confirmed Paul's role in the Hawthorne drive-by episode. Ricca himself vividly remembered the incident in his later years. As he recounted, "One of the men got out of the car and trained a machine gun on Capone in the restaurant, but Capone fled out the back way." The grateful gang boss certainly knew how to repay the favor to Ricca, who was almost immediately moved off the street and put to work directly under Frank Nitto in the upper echelon of the Capone mob's chain of command. Capone would even act as best man at Ricca's wedding the following spring, something he reportedly never did for any of his other associates.

In warning Al Capone just as the bullets began flying, Paul Ricca not only showed a bold disregard for his own safety but also loyalty, coolness under pressure, and decisiveness. These qualities would serve Ricca well enough to see him eventually ascend to the leadership of the mammoth criminal organization Capone had built.


Aftermath

North Side gangsters Frank Foster (left) and Frank (upper right) & Pete Gusenberg were suspected of taking part in the raid. 

Even before the gun smoke had fully drifted away from the 4800 block of West Twenty-Second Street, police suspected that the North Side Gang was responsible for the Hawthorne drive-by shooting. After questioning witnesses and getting license plate numbers of the cars used in the attack, police sent out the call to arrest Hymie Weiss, Vincent Drucci, Bugs Moran, Pete and Frank Gusenberg, Frank Foster, Michael "Puggy" White, and another pair of brothers named Ben and Ernest Applequist. Also suspected of participating were South Side gangsters like John "Dingbat" O'Berta, Vincent McErlane, and George Darrow, known as the torture expert of the Soltis-McErlane mob. Gangster John Touhy was also questioned after police traced one of the caravan car's tags to him. While no one in law enforcement doubted their guilt, none of these men were prosecuted. Paul Ricca repaid the favor that Vincent Drucci had done him a month earlier and refused to identify him or any of the other suspects.

South Side gangsters John "Dingbat" Oberta (left), Vincent McErlane (upper right) and George Darrow were suspected of taking part in the raid. All three were members of the Soltis-McErlane crew.

Throughout the city, the Hawthorne raid caused shock and indignation. One newspaper headline blared, "THIS IS WAR!" While Chicago newspapers gave the shooting front-page coverage, editors felt it didn't quite rate banner headline status (such treatment indicates that the attack was indeed embellished by subsequent accounts). A modern examination of contemporary news reports shows that despite the considerable power that Al Capone wielded in September 1926, he had yet to become the iconic crime overlord he is currently remembered as. Most news stories somewhat vaguely referred to him as "Caponi" or "Al Brown," his usual alias. Most of the Chicagoland public still considered him to be a Cicero gangster, even though his influence was increasingly felt throughout the entire city.

Just about all the gambling joints that Capone had recently reopened were closed yet again by a new crime crackdown necessitated by the attack. Capone himself paid for the repairs to all the businesses and automobiles damaged in the raid. As one of his underlings said, "The Big Fellow never wants bystanders hurt." About three weeks later, Capone himself discussed the Hawthorne assault with reporters, "It has shown the authorities that I have no corner on the machine gun market. A machine gun was used to shoot up the Hawthorne Hotel a few days ago, and they can't blame that on me. Why, I'm still paying the owners of automobiles parked in front for the damage done to their cars in that raid, and I am trying to save the eye of the poor innocent woman they wounded sitting in a car in front." In trying to gain some good press for himself, Capone may have inadvertently been responsible for the start of the myth of Mrs. Freeman's injured eye.

In the nine decades since the Hawthorne drive-by shooting, it has been portrayed numerous times in film and television, ranging from the 1932 feature Scarface (where George Raft, presumably in the Paul Ricca role, manages to bag one of the passing raiders with a single shot from a revolver before running out of the café and appropriating the fallen gunman's submachine gun) to the 2016 AMC series The Making of the Mob. Each depiction is a bit different in its make-up, much like the accounts of the witnesses themselves.

This still is of a scene in the 1967 film The St. Valentine's Day Massacre that depicts the Hawthorne raid.

In summation, the Hawthorne attack is indeed one of the key events of Al Capone's rise to power, despite the routine exaggerations of the press and the handful of myths that have built up around it (the point car shooting blanks, Mrs. Freeman's eye injury, the bullet and car counts, Frank Rio’s heroism, etc.) The raid showed that Capone was in grave danger as long as both the North Siders and Soltis-McErlane crew were simultaneously gunning for him. It is often said that Hymie Weiss was the only man that Capone was ever truly afraid of, and the Hawthorne attack is Exhibit A for that statement. Despite Capone's immense personal courage, it is obvious that this unprecedented drive-by unnerved him. In an attempt to emulate the tendency of his mentor Johnny Torrio to deal with his enemies peacefully, Capone got word to Weiss that he wanted to talk peace.


Sources

Binder, John J. Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017.  

Burns, Walter Noble. The One-Way Ride: The Red Trail of Chicago Gangland from Prohibition to Jake Lingle. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1931.

Chinn, George M. The Machine Gun, Volume IV: Design Analysis of Automatic Firing Mechanisms and Related Components. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Ordinance, Department of Navy, 1955.

Helmer William J. & Bilek, Arthur J. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: The Untold Story of the Gangland Bloodbath That Brought Down Al Capone. Nashville, Cumberland House, 2004.

Keefe, Rose. The Man Who Got Away: The Bugs Moran Story. Nashville, Cumberland House, 2005.

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: Putnam’s, 1971.

Pasley, Fred D. Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man. Pub. 1930. Reprint 1971; Salem, NH: Ayer, 1987.

Schoenberg, Robert J. Mr. Capone. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1992.

Anthony Cirringione Death Certificate. State of Illinois, Cook County, Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics, Registration #1115, 1926.

Chicago Daily News, September 20, 1926

Chicago Herald & Examiner, September 21, 1926.

Chicago Journal, October 13, 1926.

Chicago Tribune, August 4, 11-12 and September 21-23, 1926.

The Hawthorne Hotel at Mario Gomes's myalcaponemuseum.com

Hymie Weiss at Mario Gomes's myalcaponemuseum.com

Vincent Drucci at Mario Gomes's myalcaponemuseum.com

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

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Around dusk on Friday, September 23, 1910, Kid Dropper was walking through the teeming slums of the Lower East Side. Perhaps he knew that his boss had learned about him and Beatrice. Maybe not. Either way, the Dropper didn't see Johnny Spanish coming that day. As the unsuspecting gangster approached the corner of Jefferson and Monroe streets, Spanish darted out of nowhere and opened fire. His bullet struck Kid Dropper in the neck, ranged upwards through the mouth, and took the remains of four upper teeth with it as it exited his cheek. As he collapsed to the pavement and passerby panicked, Spanish sprinted to safety, most probably thinking that he had killed his rival. A beat cop soon broke through the crowd that had gathered around the bloodied Kid Dropper. The bullet hadn't severed any vital arteries and veins and looked more severe than it actually was. The officer asked Dropper who shot him. "Johnny Spanish," he gargled through his bullet-damaged mouth. The call went out to find the young gang boss who, as it turned out, was just getting started that evening.

Maspeth was still an up-and-coming neighborhood of Queens in September 1910, with new houses sprinkled amongst large swathes of vacant lots that were still waiting for developers to build dwellings for those fleeing the sardine-can crowding of Manhattan or Upper Brooklyn. As a result, Maspeth had a very suburban, almost rural feel to it at the time. Eleven-year-old George Schlegmiller was running late in getting to his Maspeth home in the early evening of September 23. The young boy had no idea that a gangster named Kid Dropper had been shot through the head over an hour earlier on the Lower East Side. All young George knew was that it was rapidly getting dark and that he needed to get home. The young boy turned onto Monteverde Avenue (present-day 69th Place), a brand-new street where no houses had yet been erected.

As he did, a young couple stepped off a streetcar on Grand Avenue near the intersection. They turned the corner into Monteverde, proceeding up the street opposite of the Schlegmiller boy. Young George could tell the couple was having a heated argument, but he purposely was not paying too much attention to what they were saying as he walked along. As George watched, the young man suddenly grabbed the wrists of the young woman, jabbed the barrel of a gun against her abdomen, and pulled the trigger twice. The woman let out a loud scream as her assailant quickly looked around the nearly deserted street. The Schlegmiller boy locked eyes with Johnny Spanish for the briefest of moments before the gangster hopped over a nearby fence and began sprinting across the barren fields of Maspeth. Young George rushed back to Grand Avenue and hailed a passing beat cop. Beatrice Konstant was still alive but severely wounded. When asked who had shot her, she murmured, "I would rather die." A short time later in the hospital, when told she was dying, Beatrice gasped a name that sounded like "John Wheeler." It was soon realized that she had said Johnny Spanish's usual alias of Weiler.

A New York Sun rendition of Johnny Spanish's shooting of Beatrice Konstant.

Johnny Spanish's shooting of Beatrice Konstant is perhaps the most notorious incident of his career. As well as one of the more confusing. Some later newspaper accounts claimed that Beatrice had died as a result of the shooting, though there is no official record of her succumbing to her wounds. Journalist/author Alfred Henry Lewis claimed in a 1912 New York Sun article (that was subsequently picked up by Herbert Asbury and others) that Beatrice had not only survived the shooting but had been pregnant at the time of the attack, and soon after gave birth to a baby that had two of its fingers shot off by Spanish's bullets. Contemporary news accounts of the shooting make no mention of Beatrice being pregnant, however.

Regardless, Johnny Spanish escaped immediate punishment for the dual attacks on Kid Dropper Kaplan and Beatrice Konstant. Later that year in December, when Hyman Benjamin went on trial for killing Rachael Rooten the previous spring, Johnny Spanish's presence loomed over the courtroom. Kid Jigger had been thoroughly intimidated by this point, as he admitted on the stand that he was afraid for his life. Jigger now claimed that it was now-absent Johnny Spanish who fired the shot that hit the Rooten girl, and that was only when Benjamin had grabbed his arm in an attempt to wrest his aim. Hyman Benjamin eventually walked away from the courtroom a free man. As 1911 began, Johnny Spanish was seemingly at the height of his power as a Lower East Side gang boss. Only the nagging presence of the now-recovered Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan seemed to present a problem.

Max Miller was as tough as they come. A large, powerful Jewish saloonkeeper, he ran a popular basement tavern at 170 Norfolk Street. Known in the Jewish underworld as Moishe the Strong Arm (this name is often incorrectly transliterated as Mersher), Miller's tough-guy status made him a target for Johnny Spanish. Despite his notoriety and the increasing attention that he was getting from law enforcement, Spanish put the word out that he would be at Moishe the Strong Arm's Norfolk Street joint at midnight on Sunday, March 19 to clean the place out. Either by legitimate rental or forcible removal, Johnny and two of his men got their hands on a taxicab for the Norfolk Street raid. Just a few minutes after his appointed midnight deadline, Johnny Spanish entered Moishe the Strong Arm's joint with a pistol blazing in each hand. The nine patrons in the place dove for cover as bullets shattered the mirrors and crystal chandeliers of the place. As his two goons kept him covered, Spanish lined up the saloon's patrons and took from them about $200 worth of valuables. Johnny then walked behind the now wrecked bar and relieved the enraged Moishe the Strong Arm of his prized gold watch before snatching sixty-eight dollars from the cash register. Spanish and his two men then made their getaway in the commandeered taxicab.

As audacious as Johnny Spanish's raid of Moishe the Strong Arm's saloon was, it proved to be his undoing. The New York police knew immediately who was responsible and promptly put the screws to their informants and snitches. On the afternoon of March 21, Johnny and one of his underlings, Sam Greenberg, boarded a Graham Avenue streetcar at the Brooklyn Bridge, bound for the Maspeth home of Spanish's family. As they disembarked the trolley at Grand and Columbia avenues, the pair was arrested. Detectives accused Spanish of shooting both Kid Dropper and Beatrice Konstant, to which the gangster snarled, "You'll have to prove it."

Booked back in Manhattan, Spanish was also accused of the death of Rachael Rooten in May 1910 and made to stand in numerous line-ups while various robbery victims viewed him. From the beginning, it seems that the cops wanted Johnny bad and that it would be quite tricky for him to wriggle off of this particular hook. Unable to make bail, Spanish was remanded to the Tombs and marched across the infamous Bridge of Sighs to his new horrid accommodations. Back in 1911, The Tombs was little better than a dungeon, with airless cells that had wooden buckets for sanitation and abusive, underpaid guards overseeing the inmates. As he awaited trial for robbing Moishe the Strong Arm's saloon, Johnny may have gotten word that his old adversary Kid Dropper Kaplan had been sentenced to seven to ten years for robbing a West Thirty-Eight Street brothel in January.

By the time he came to trial for armed robbery in mid-July 1911, some of the sand seemed to have been taken out of the twenty-two-year-old gangster Johnny Spanish. After spending four months in the hell that was the Tombs, and with no guns, liquor, or cocaine for courage, the young man was now looking down the barrel of a hefty prison sentence. While the police were not able to specifically pin the shootings of Rachael Rooten, Kid Dropper, or Beatrice Konstant on him, a few of Moishe the Strong Arm's patrons were willing to testify against him. Spanish's elderly mother Rose was present in the courtroom each day, as was his new girlfriend Mildred. Perhaps it was their presence that finally broke him. On Friday, July 14, Johnny Spanish got on the stand and confessed to robbing the Norfolk Street saloon on the night in question. Judge Mulqueen promptly sentenced him to seven to ten years in Sing Sing Prison. Johnny's mother and girlfriend loudly cried out at the announcement of the sentence. In the blink of an eye, the bill for Johnny Spanish's life of crime had suddenly come due.

While no authentic photograph of Johnny Spanish is currently in public circulation, a portrait of him can be drawn from the notes of the admission clerk at Sing Sing. Recorded as "John Wheeler," Spanish was described as being 5'4 3/4" inches tall and weighing 132 pounds; his build was so slim that his warders mistakenly thought he may have been tubercular. Johnny was described as having a dark complexion with dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. Address: 322 E. 11th Street. Occupation: Kept a pool room. Size hat: 6 7/8. Size shoe: 6. Forehead: Normal. Ears: Small, irregular. Eyebrows: Arched & Medium. Nose: Short & Small. Mouth: Medium. Lips: Medium. Teeth: 3 Absent. General Features: Regular.

Little specific information survives about Johnny Spanish's subsequent sentence in Sing Sing Prison. His arch-rival Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan joined him there by the end of 1911, but it is unknown what, if any, contact they had with each other. It must have especially galled Johnny when the Dropper's lawyer managed to finagle his release within a year of his original sentence. While on the outside, the now ascendant Dropper ingratiated himself with a rapidly changing Jewish underworld that rocked and swayed with the nationwide furor over the Becker/Rosenthal murder case and the subsequent Labor Sluggers War. Even after Kid Dropper was re-incarcerated at Sing Sing in March 1914 on a charge of bigamy, it seemed like the Dropper was beginning to exceed him in gang circles. Johnny could only watch with envy.

One can only imagine the culture shock that twenty-eight-year-old Johnny Spanish experienced upon his return to the Lower East Side in the spring of 1917. Automobile traffic would have increased considerably since his departure six years earlier. The Queens suburb of Maspeth where his family lived had become increasingly built up. Spanish appears to have begun making the rounds of his old haunts and to put his reputation to good use on the streets. At his side was his brother Joey Spanish, who had avoided attention from the police and media. Johnny would have encountered Arnold Rothstein, a powerful gambler and underworld power broker who had probably paid little attention to Spanish before he went away to prison. Another was Jacob Orgen, who was known as "Little Augie" due to his small stature. Orgen had followed the now imprisoned "Dopey Benny" Fein as general overlord of the Lower East Side underworld. Johnny Spanish seemed to have made a deal with Little Augie to operate independently and not infringe on his territory.

Standard accounts have Spanish going back into the labor slugging business. Since Johnny had been locked up, the Harrison Narcotics Act had outlawed the sale of hard drugs. Both experienced users and sellers of cocaine, the Spanish brothers became perhaps the biggest dealers of the drug on the Lower East Side during World War I. Johnny's new program was complicated significantly by the return of Kid Dropper to the Lower East Side in December 1917. By now, it was the Dropper who had a higher standing in the underworld. In the interest of diplomacy, both Spanish and Dropper agreed to peaceably co-exist in the underworld. Arnold Rothstein may have even been brought in to mediate their dispute.

With the end of World War I and the attendant parades of victorious American servicemen around New York, the city's gangsters began anticipating the coming Prohibition of alcohol. After the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919, the sale and manufacture of beer, wine, and liquor was due to be outlawed. Gangsters around the city anticipated the financial windfall that was about to befall them. At this late date, no one can say what thoughts Johnny Spanish had on the impending booze racket that was about to open wide up. On the surface, it seems as if the fast-moving New York underworld had bypassed Johnny during his time in prison, that he was now surrounded by gangsters were far more sophisticated and dangerous than the mentors (Paul Kelly and Monk Eastman) of his youth. If Spanish was going to survive in this brave new world, he needed to adapt. And there was Kid Dropper to worry about. Despite their non-aggression pact, the bad blood between them simmered just under the surface. All the Dropper had to do was slide the tip of his tongue around the gap in his upper jaw where the four teeth that had been knocked out by Spanish's bullet formerly resided. As for Johnny, all he had to do was close his eyes and think of Beatrice Konstant's face. The woman he had loved like no other. And how her eyes had sparkled for him no more after Kid Dropper had his way with her.     
 
The summer of 1919 began, and it seemed that the longtime hatred between Johnny Spanish was Kid Dropper Kaplan was on the verge of bubbling over. Spanish was noted as getting $100 a week for his labor slugging activity, and Dropper was trying to get his hands on a large percentage of it. Johnny had even had himself elected as a shirtwaist labor delegate, to better control illegal activity both for and against the union. With the beginning of the Wartime Prohibition Act on June 30, it was now illegal to sell liquor, wine, or beer stronger than 2.75 ABV. Whether or not Johnny began to make any inroads in the budding booze business is unknown. In retrospect, it seems a moot point, as Prohibition was part of a future that Johnny Spanish would have no part in.

Tuesday, July 29 was yet another hot and humid day in New York City; the temperature peaking at ninety-one degrees. The city regularly turned into an oven during the summer months and those who could often fled to the beach at Coney Island for heat relief or out to the broader expanses of the country. The precise movements of Johnny Spanish throughout that Tuesday are uncertain, but it is known that he agreed to meet his wife at Levitt's Restaurant at 19 Second Avenue at 4 o'clock that afternoon. Johnny stepped from a northbound taxicab across the street from the restaurant a little after four that day. Dressed in an expensive summer suit and straw boater, Spanish navigated his way across Second towards Levitt's. Johnny would have noticed the expensive touring car of his valet, Philip Rotkin, parked at the curb, which meant his wife was waiting for him inside.

As Spanish reached the sidewalk in front of the restaurant's door, he stopped dead in his tracks. Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan stood by the restaurant's door flanked by two goons, Herman "Hymie" Kalman and Billy "The Kid" Lustig. Witnesses saw the two rivals speaking to each other briefly, but no one was able to catch what was being said. Suddenly the man in the center, almost certainly Kid Dropper himself, pulled a revolver. Johnny Spanish neither tried to run or draw a gun of his own, as if he was frozen at the moment that nine years of hatred finally reached its climax. The first bullet struck him in the heart and caused him to stagger before falling face-forward onto the sidewalk. The Dropper fired a second bullet into the back of his rival's head as passerby began yelling and scattering. The Dropper and his two men were seen casually walking around the corner into First Street and disappearing into the crowd. Meanwhile, Johnny's wife ran screaming out of the restaurant, with Philip Rotkin close on her heels. The two lifted the bleeding gangster into Rotkin's touring car and made for the hospital. Johnny Spanish was still showing faint signs of life after his arrival at Bellevue Hospital, but he soon expired in the examining room.

After a wake at his family's home at 31 Lexington Avenue in Maspeth, Queens, the thirty-year-old gangster was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery under the name John Mestrett. Police announced that they were looking for Nathan Kaplan, Herman Kalman, and Billy Lustig. The latter later admitted that he had been at the scene of the crime but denied knowing who had fired the fatal shots. Charges against all three men were eventually dismissed. In the absence of his brother Johnny, Joey Spanish was not quite skilled enough to hold their various criminal enterprises together. Nevertheless, Joey was still determined to avenge his brother and began lurking near Kid Dropper's home at 195 Madison Street in the hopes of catching him off guard. On the evening of December 3, 1919, Joey Spanish mistook Adolph Caplin for his brother Nathan and opened fire on him as he walked down Madison Street with a young girl named Martha Janoff. Joey's bullets missed the intended target and struck Miss Janoff in the abdomen. The younger Spanish was captured by police after a brief foot chase and charged with assault with intent to kill.

One of Johnny Spanish's killers did eventually met a violent end when Herman "Hymie" Kalman was shot and killed on September 20, 1921 while exiting an East Broadway movie theatre. The prime suspect turned out to be Lefty Kantor, a longtime member of the old Spanish crew. Kantor was never convicted of the crime, and became a victim of gangland himself in 1925. With the murder of Johnny Spanish and the imprisonment, not long after, of Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan became the undisputed leader of the Lower East Side underworld. The Dropper attained power and wealth beyond his wildest imaginings, but Little Augie Orgen was soon back on the street and had his own designs on the seat of power. On August 28, 1923, Kaplan was arraigned on a concealed weapons charge at the Essex Court Building. After being remanded to another court, Kid Dropper was transported outside to a waiting vehicle. A crowd of at least one hundred police officials and newsmen observed the move. After Kid Dropper and his wife had entered the car a low-level Little Augie henchman named Louis Cohen, hopped up on cocaine and false promises, darted through the crowd, put a gun to the vehicle's rear window, and blew Kid Dropper's brains out.

A New York Daily News headline describing the assassination of Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan.

In retrospect, the career of Johnny Spanish was somewhat unremarkable when compared to New York gangsters of old like Arnold Rothstein, Lepke Buchalter, or Meyer Lansky. Even his nemesis, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, made more of an overall splash in the underworld. Nevertheless, Spanish had qualities of resourcefulness and daring that made a name for himself amongst underworld denizens who could not be fooled on matters of personal courage. Johnny's hair-trigger temper and lack of caution in certain situations proved to be his undoing in more ways than one. Had Johnny Spanish survived his Second Avenue encounter with Kid Dropper, he probably would not have lasted very long in the rapidly changing New York underworld. With the coming of Prohibition and the tremendous profits that turned street gangsters into millionaires, Spanish's fiercely independent streak and famous temper would have almost certainly resulted in a violent demise at some point during the 1920s.

Probably the main reason we know the name of Johnny Spanish today is because of Herbert Asbury. The hood of Gangs of New York is a violent, mysterious thug with noble Spanish origins who carried out several daring crimes of the era. The far-less poetic reality of Johnny Spanish featured a bright yet temperamental Italian/Spanish hood who blazed a short, self-destructive trail through Gotham gangland, occasionally retreating to his family's suburban Maspeth house when he needed an escape from the pressure cooker of the Lower East Side. Like many gangsters of the era, Johnny Spanish (once known as Giovanni Mistretta) survives today as a footnote in the violent underworld history of our nation's largest city.

Sources:

Athens, Lonnie. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Champaign, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1992.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1927.
Fried, Albert. The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America. New York, Columbia
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Keefe, Rose. The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, The Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the advent of the Jewish Gangster. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2008.
Lewis, Alfred Henry. The Apaches of New York. New York: M.A. Donohue & Company, 1911.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: May 26 and 30, 1910; March 22, 1911; August 6, 1919; September 21, 1921.
Brooklyn Standard Union: March 22, 1911.
Brooklyn Times Union: July 14, 1911.
New York Daily News: July 29, August 4, December 4 -5, 1919; August 29 and November 11, 1923.
New York Evening World: March 22, June 30 and July 12, 1911; July 30-31, August 26 and December 4, 1919.
New York Herald: July 30-31, August 27 and December 4, 1919; September 21, 1921.
New York Sun: November 5-6, 12-13, 1909; March 19 and July 14, 1911; October 6, 1912.
New York Times: September 24-25 and December 14, 1910; March 19 and 22, July 1 and 15, 1911; July 30, 1919.
New York Tribune: May 26, September 24 and 26, 1910; February 7, 1916; July 31, August 27 and December 4, 1919.
1920 and 1930 U.S. Census.
New York, Queens Probate Administration, 1919, Case No. 1010.
New York, Queens Probate Administration, 1927, Case No. 2116/27.