Showing posts with label Johnny Spanish. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Johnny Spanish. Show all posts

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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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.