Showing posts with label New York City. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York City. Show all posts

05 December 2021

 Debby Applegate

Excerpt from Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age (Doubleday, 2021)  

From Chapter 6 - "Thumbs Up With The Mob"

Polly Adler wearing her first, fabulous mink coat, strolling the boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1924 with a pal. Photo from the Polly Adler Collection courtesy of Eleanor Vera.

 After three years of Prohibition, by the summer of 1923, New York City’s underworld was booming.  “It was becoming increasingly fashionable to make money any way you could – except by working for it,” remembered Polly Adler. “It wasn’t only angle-shooters and corner-cutters and big-city sharpies who were on the ‘get-rich-quick’ kick.”[1]

Nobody was raking in the chips like the bootleggers, grifters, gamblers who orbited around Arnold Rothstein, aka the Big Bankroll, the Big Jew Uptown, or the Brain.   Some were primarily bookmakers and game runners, others had been thieves, drug dealers and strong-arms for hire before he took them under his wing.  But in the last three years, Rothstein’s proteges had become New York’s “hoodlum aristocracy.”[2]   

Polly was always cryptic about how she met Arnold Rothstein, saying only that he was “a man whom I was one day to know well.”[3]   But that winter of 1923 her brothel became a favorite hangout of the Brain’s criminal cabinet. “My clientele consisted mostly of gangsters and hoodlums,” she remembered, “some of whom were to become the big shots of the day.”[4]


Arnold Rothstein, c. 1920-1928. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Collection (Library of Congress).

It was as gamblers that Polly became intimate with the bullet boys.  Rothstein’s informal syndicate of law-breakers ran private high-stakes poker games and floating craps games, immortalized in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.  To elude cops and stick-up men the games shifted every night through empty garages, hotels, warehouses, and the back rooms of speakeasies.

The most important of these early patrons – her “benefactor,” as one of Polly’s well-informed friends put it – was the rising “King of the Bootleggers,” William V. Dwyer.[5] “Big Bill” Dwyer was a roly-poly man, with a disarming smile and expressive blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses. Rothstein had financed Dwyer when he began expanding his operation from robbing industrial alcohol from government warehouses into international smuggling.   Big Bill had, in one gangland lawyer’s description, “an easy way about him and a fine sense of humor.”[6]  He was a glad-hander, who loved the theater and saloon life and preferred grease to violence.  

William Vincent “Big Bill” Dwyer when he was known as “The King of the Bootleggers.” Photo in the public domain.

Dwyer had recently joined forces with another of Rothstein’s proteges, Francesco Castiglia, who went by the moniker of Frank Costello. (It never hurt to have an Irish name when conversing with cops).  They were joined that fall of 1923 by Owney Madden, recently released from Sing Sing, who enjoyed a reputation as one of the most vicious of the city’s Irish gang leaders.

Big Bill and Owney were partners with another of Rothstein’s proteges, “Smiling George McManus,” in a number of lucrative gambling schemes.   George McManus was a brawny, barrel-chested fellow, with a lantern jaw and a wide crooked grin that lit up when he was in good spirits.  His family had deep ties to the NYPD, which frequently came in handy.

Big Bill and Owney were partners with another of Rothstein’s proteges, “Smiling George McManus,” in a number of lucrative gambling schemes.   George McManus was a brawny, barrel-chested fellow, with a lantern jaw and a wide crooked grin that lit up when he was in good spirits.  His family had deep ties to the NYPD, which frequently came in handy.

Both were extroverted Irishman -- Dwyer from Hell’s Kitchen, McManus from Harlem -- who relished the limelight and the role of lavish host.  They also shared that most valued of traits in a madam’s estimation: a total disregard for the value of money.  Dwyer was famous for never allowing anyone to pick up a check, no matter high the bill, and McManus was beloved by waiters, entertainers and gold diggers up and down the Avenue for dropping $20 tips without blinking an eye.  


George McManus in 1929, when he was on trial for murdering Arnold Rothstein. Author’s collection.

That fall McManus and Dwyer, along with Owney Madden’s brother Marty, were running the hottest regular crap game in New York, with action running as high as $700,000 some nights.   There was nothing like shooting craps to stoke the appetite for a prostitute, Polly soon discovered. “Money meant nothing to these fellows,” she remembered with pleasure; “they sometimes spent five hundred or more in an evening. Whoever won the crap game paid the bill.”[7]

The games didn’t start till nearly midnight and ran till four or five in the morning.  Winners looking to celebrate their good luck had to worry about muggings and kidnappings, so providing a place that was safe, secret and always open into the wee hours quickly made her joint the preferred after-hours clubhouse of the late night dice-tossers.  

“It had not occurred to me to sell drinks until one of the bunch remarked that I was a sap to let them buy their booze from a bootlegger and cart it up to my apartment,” recalled Polly. “Why didn’t I get smart and sell them drinks at a buck a throw?  I took his advice, and, in his own words, cut myself in for a nice piece of change.”[8] 

She encouraged the johns to buy drinks for the girls, padding the bills further.  Of course, a tipsy girl was an uninhibited playmate, but a sloppy drunk was no use to anyone.  So she employed an old trick of brothels, serving the girls cold tea brewed to match the golden color of rye and whiskey.  On a good night, her bar bills dwarfed her profits on the bedrooms.

McManus and Dwyer were two of the most popular men on Broadway, and with their seal of approval her house quickly gained a reputation among underworldlings as, in her words, “a sort of combination club and speakeasy with a harem conveniently handy.”[9]   

But the gangsters came at a high price.   “They were a wild bunch all right,” she mused. Like most of the male half of Broadway, they all adored practical jokes and pranks, the more elaborate the better.  “They liked a joke all right -- when it was on someone else,” especially George McManus.[10] “The kids with him played the jokes and he would get a hell of a kick out of it at my expense.”[11]

Polly could tolerate the pranks, the chiseling and small cons. Unpaid loans and bad checks – stiffs -- were regular thorns. “I have enough stiffs to paper my garage,” she groused while going through a box of old papers years later.  She was freshly annoyed by one dated October 22, 1923.[12]  “It was given to me by one of the McManus gang telling me that he was president of the bank. I was gullible enough to believe that,” she remembered. “It probably was the bastards [sic] way to teach me not to believe everything told to me.”[13]  

But it was the ever-looming threat of violence that really wore on her nerves. The brass knuckle boys were notoriously unpredictable, especially when they were on a losing streak or a drunken, coked-up spree.  To prevent friendly arguments from turning fatal, she requested the boys check their guns at the door, along with their felt fedoras and bulky overcoats.  “I usually hid them in the stove,” she remembered, “figuring it wasn’t likely anyone would get a yen to bake a cake.”[14]

While that cut down on random gunplay, it didn't do much to improve their manners. George McManus, in particular, was a dangerous wildcard. “McManus was always quiet, and a gentleman when sober,” said Polly.[15]  But when liquored up, his mood could suddenly turn mean, and his jokes became cruel and dangerous.

Nonetheless, it was a price she was willing to pay.  The gamblers and bootleggers were spending like mad and her reputation was spreading fast.  She bought herself some swell clothes and showy jewelry.  “I had a big important project those days,” said Polly. “I was saving up to buy a mink coat.”[16] On Broadway, a full-length mink was the sin qua non of the fashionable flapper, just as monogrammed silk-shirts and spotless white spats marked the new status of the bootlegger.  “I talked about it so much that when a guy was trying to make a point at craps, he’d holler, ‘Come on, little Joe! This is for Polly’s mink coat,’” Polly recalled. “They told me it brought them luck.”[17] 

Business was so brisk that it wasn’t long before she had the cash in hand.   The night she brought the coat home the fellows passed it around, while Polly chuckled gamely, playing the good sport and watching nervously in fear they would spill cigar ashes or drinks on the precious mink before she could safely stow it away. 

Later that evening, as she’d returned from the kitchen, one of the gang called out, “Put your coat on, Polly.  We’d like to see it again.”

But when she opened the closet, it had disappeared.  Polly began to panic. The fellows made a show of helping her search, clowning around as they bustled about the apartment. Suddenly, one of them cried out, “You little dope, why did you put it out on the fire escape?” The boys roared with laughter. 

“I laughed loudest and longest of all – with relief,” remembered Polly.[18] 

But not every joke was so funny.   Between answering the phones, keeping an eye on the bedrooms, and serving drinks – “whiskey for the guys, tea in highball glasses for the girls”  -- it was inevitable that there would be screw-ups.  One night, McManus picked up a glass, took a deep gulp, and began gagging and sputtering.  “I knew what had happened even before he swiveled around and hurled the glass again the wall, splattering tea far and wide,” remembered Polly. “Of course he knew he had got the drink meant for his girl of the evening, and at the rate he was paying, each drink cost more than several pounds of tea.” 

Everyone in the room froze, awaiting his response.

“Okay, Polly,” McManus said evenly, “so you got to make a living…Well, fix me another drink.”

But McManus “couldn’t stand being played for a sucker,” Polly remembered. “He had to get even.” [19]  The next evening he doctored a tray of drinks with Mickey Finns, a mild poison or emetic, usually a horse laxative mixed with crushed ice that induced vomiting or diarrhea.  Several of the johns spent the rest of the night vomiting in the alley, and the girls were so sick they couldn't work for three days. It could have been worse though; he could’ve used choral hydrate, better known as knock-out drops, employed in clip joints to rob customers.            

It was a devil’s bargain, courting them as customers.  But as she put it, “there was nothing I could do about it.  I had chosen running a house as my profession and whatever the customers did, I had to take it and keep smiling.”[20]

 

 

References 

1. Polly Adler, A House is Not a Home (Rinehart, 1953), 144.

2. Art Cohn, The Joker is Wild: The Story of Joe E. Lewis (Bantam Books, 1957), 113. 

3. Adler, House, 32.

4. Adler, House, 55.

5. “Special Adler Supplement,” 4, Virginia Faulkner’s Notes for A House is Not a Home;  New York Times, February 2, 1934, 9.

6. Leonard Katz, Uncle Frank: The Biography of Frank Costello (Drake, 1973), 63.  

7. Adler, House, 56.

8. Adler, House, 56.

9. Adler, House, 96.

10. Adler, House, 56.

11. Polly Adler to Virginia Faulkner, Dec. 10, 1951, Faulkner Notebook, 13, Faulkner’s Notes for A House is Not a Home.

12. Adler to Faulkner, Oct. 13, 1951, Faulkner Notebook, 17, Faulkner’s Notes for A House is Not a Home.

13. Adler to Faulkner, Oct. 13, 1951, Faulkner Notebook, 13, Faulkner’s Notes for A House is Not a Home.

14. Adler, House, 56.

15. Adler to Faulkner, Dec. 10, 1951, Faulkner Notebook, 13, Virginia Faulkner’s Notes for A House is Not a Home.

16. Adler, House, 57.

17. Adler, House, 57.

18. Adler, House, 58.

19. Adler, House, 56.

20. Adler, House, 58.

 

DEBBY APPLEGATE is a historian based in New Haven, CT. Her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Her second book Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age was published by Doubleday in November, 2021.

https://debby-applegate.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Polly-Adler-Madam-The-Biography-of-Polly-Adler-Icon-of-the-Jazz-Age-105313019559817


01 September 2021

NYC revolutions in policing and in crime

Press release:

Chilling and thought-provoking, John Oller's Rogues' Gallery (available September 21, 2021, in hardcover and ebook formats) is an epic saga of two revolutions playing out on the streets of New York City during the Gilded Age, each one dependent on the other.

For centuries, New York had been a haven of crime. A thief or murderer not caught in the act nearly always got away. But in the early 1870s, an Irish cop by the name of Thomas Byrnes developed new ways to catch criminals. Mug shots and daily line-ups helped witnesses point out culprits; the fames rogues' gallery allowed police to track repeat offenders; and the third-degree interrogation method induced recalcitrant cooks to confess. Byrnes worked cases methodically, interviewing witnesses, analyzing crime scenes, and developing theories that helped close the books on previously unsolvable crimes.

Yet as policing became ever more specialized and efficient, criminals found new ways to ply their trade. Robberies became bolder and more elaborate, murders grew more ruthless and macabre, and the street gangs of old transformed into hierarchical criminal enterprises, giving birth to organized crime, including the Mafia. As the decades unfolded, corrupt cops and clever criminals at times blurred together, giving way to waves of police reform at the hands of leaders like Theodore Roosevelt.

Rogues Gallery encompasses unforgettable characters such as:

  • Marm Mendelbaum, a matronly German-immigrant woman who paid off cops and politicians to protect her empire of fencing stolen goods.
  • "Clubber" Williams, a sadistic policeman who wielded a twenty-six-inch club against suspects, whether they were guilty or not.
  • Danny Driscoll, the murderous leader of the Irish Whyos Gang and perhaps the first crime boss of New York.
  • Big Tim Sullivan, the corrupt Tammany Hall politician who shielded the Whyos from the law.
  • The suave Italian Paul Kelly and the thuggish Jewish gang leader Monk Eastman, whose rival crews engaged in brawls and gunfights all over the Lower East Side.
  • Joe Petrosino, a Sicilian-born detective who brilliantly pursued early Mafioso and Black Hand extortionists until a fateful trup back to his native Italy.

With impeccable research that leaves no stone unturned, Oller dispels the many myths that have survived with these stories, while proving that truth is often stranger than fiction. Rogues Gallery is a colorful and captivating history in the bustling streets of Old New York, from the beginnings of big-city police work to the rise of the Mafia. With its extremes of plutocratic wealth, tenement property, and rising social unrest, the story of crime and punishment in New York's Gilded Age echoes for our own time.

John Oller is a retired Wall Street attorney, and author of critically acclaimed biographies of figures such as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, Hollywood actress Jean Arthur, and Civil War socialite Kate Chase Sprague. He lives on New York's Upper West Side.

The principle text, maps and images of Rogue's Gallery consume about 400 pages. An additional 80-plus pages is used for endnotes and bibliography. The index runs 19 more pages. The book is being released through the Dutton imprint of Penguin Random House. As of this writing, preorder price on Amazon.com is $27.99 for hardcover and $16.99 for Kindle-compatible ebook.

08 April 2020

Going out for 'a few minutes'

Hasn't been seen since 1962

New York Daily News
On this date in 1962...

Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo, sixty-two-year-old leader in the New York-area Genovese Crime Family, disappeared on Sunday evening, April 8, 1962.

Strollo's wife Edna filed a missing person report with the local police on Thursday, April 12. She indicated that Strollo was last seen at 10 p.m. Sunday, when he left their Fort Lee, New Jersey, home with an unknown associate in a borrowed black 1961 Cadillac.

Background

Strollo
Strollo was born in Manhattan on June 14, 1899, to Italian immigrants Leon and Jennie Strollo. He grew up on Thompson Street near West Houston Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, an early base for what later became known as the Genovese Crime Family.

He worked as a truck driver but found his greatest success as a racketeer. As the modern New York crime families were formed in 1931, Strollo was designated a lieutenant within the organization commanded by boss Salvatore "Charlie Luciano" Lucania and his underboss Vito Genovese. Joseph Valachi, who decades later became an important underworld informant, was one of the Mafia "soldiers" assigned to Strollo's crew. Valachi instantly disliked his underworld leader. "He was conceited and a miserable person," Valachi later wrote.

Strollo married Edna Goldenberg in New York City in spring of 1932. The newlyweds lived at 12 Perry Street in Greenwich Village before moving a few blocks away to 45 Christopher Street. By the 1940s, Strollo was a powerful underworld leader in Greenwich Village. His loansharking, gambling and bookmaking rackets territory extended throughout the village and onto the Hudson River docks. He is believed to have held financial interests in cafes and night clubs in the area. In this period, Strollo and his wife moved across the river to Fort Lee, New Jersey.

New Jersey Teamsters Local 560 came under Strollo's control when he arranged for the election of Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano as local president. (Provenzano was later suspected of involvement in the disappearance of former Teamsters International President Jimmy Hoffa.)

In 1952, Strollo was in newspaper headlines when a midnight meeting he had with Jersey City Mayor John Kenny came to light. Strollo refused to testify at a New York State Crime Commission hearing about the meeting.

Strollo reportedly gained power and influence when a failed 1957 assassination attempt against crime family boss Frank Costello convinced Costello to retire and permitted Strollo's close ally Vito Genovese to take over the crime family. Genovese ran into his own troubles, however. In spring 1959, he was convicted of narcotics offenses. He was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison.

Anthony Carfano, Janice Drake
Later that year, Strollo was suspected of involvement in the Genovese-ordered murder of Anthony "Little Augie Pisano" Carfano. Strollo and Carfano had been close friends for many years.

Carfano and a companion, Mrs. Janice Drake, dined with Strollo and others at Marino's Italian Restaurant, 716 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, on the evening of September 25, 1959. Carfano and Mrs. Drake were later found shot to death in an automobile in Queens. (When Valachi became an informant, he revealed that Carfano had been killed on instructions from Genovese. Carfano had reportedly been insubordinate following the attempt on his friend Frank Costello's life. According to Valachi, Strollo had no idea that Carfano was to be killed.)

Strollo is believed to have played a key role in convincing Joseph Valachi to surrender to the authorities after Valachi jumped bail early in 1960 to flee narcotics charges.

Thin ice

Understandably upset at his fifteen-year narcotics sentence, Genovese took an interest in determining how federal authorities were able to assemble their case against him. He may have had reason to blame Strollo.

Strollo was known to be a sponsor of Vincent Mauro, who was captured by federal agents in Spain and provided information on international drug smuggling operations. Strollo also was the longtime superior of Valachi, suspected by underworld leaders of giving information to the authorities.

While Strollo was said to have brokered a recent and momentary peace in the rebellion of the Brooklyn Gallo gangsters against Profaci Crime Family leaders, it was suspected that he had a role in inciting the Gallos.

The New York Daily News reported that Strollo had been in trouble with his underworld colleagues because of "several injudicious moves in the past eighteen months."

'A few minutes'

Strollo
As Strollo prepared to leave his home, 1015 Palisade Avenue, on the evening of April 8, his wife warned him about the weather: "You'd better put on your coat."

His response, which turned out to his final words to his wife of thirty years, was, "I'm only going to be a few minutes. Besides, I'm wearing my thermal underwear."

Edna Strollo gradually became concerned that "something awful" happened to her husband. It was not unusual for Strollo to remain out all night, but when his absence stretched into days, she consulted with his attorney and then called the police.

She could not say who her husband went off with, who had provided the Cadillac or what Strollo was wearing when he left.

Investigation

New York Police discovered that one day after Strollo's disappearance, his mistress left her Sixth Avenue Greenwich Village apartment and had not been seen for more than a week. There was some speculation that she and Strollo left the country together. But police sources told the New York Daily News that there was a "more than 50-50 chance that Tony and the lady... are dead by now."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation learned that Strollo's rackets were quickly taken over by Pasquale "Patsy Ryan" Eboli. Pasquale was the brother of Thomas Eboli, part of a ruling council over the crime family following Genovese's conviction. The council also included Gerardo Catena and Michele Miranda

A year after Strollo went missing, the FBI was secretly listening in on a conversation between two mobsters when the subject of Strollo came up. Anthony "Little Pussy" Russo told Genovese Mafioso Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo that Ruggiero "Richie the Boot" Boiardo of New Jersey had boasted that he killed Strollo.

Conflicting information was provided to the FBI in the summer of 1965. At that time, New Jersey racketeer Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg revealed that Tommy Eboli and Gerardo Catena ordered Strollo's murder after obtaining the approval of the imprisoned Genovese. According to Konigsberg, Eboli had been trying for years to eliminate Strollo.

On the night of April 8, Konigsberg stated, "'Pepe' Sabato called Tony Bender and drove him to the parking lot of the Milestone Restaurant in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where Tommy Ryan [Eboli] and Dom 'The Sailor' [De Quarto] were waiting in a panel truck. Tommy and Dom killed Bender in the parking lot."

Konigsberg did not know where Strollo's remains were taken but expressed the belief that Strollo was buried at an upstate New York farm.

Sources:

  • "F.B.I.-taped conversation sheds light on 1962 gangland slaying of Strollo," New York Times, Jan. 8, 1970, p. 33.
  • "Pisano hurried to his death after mysterious phone call," New York Times, Oct. 2, 1959, p. 16.
  • "Sketches of gangland figures named by Valachi in Senate testimony," New York Times, Sept. 28, 1963, p. 6.
  • Andrews, Leon F. Jr., "La Causa Nostra Buffalo Division," FBI report 92-6054-296, NARA no. 124-10200-10453, June 14, 1963, p. 24-27.
  • Donnelly, Frank H., "Anthony Provenzano aka Tony Pro," FBI report 92-7195-2, NARA no. 124-10221-10186, Dec. 20, 1963, p. 6-7.
  • Durkin, Paul G., and Charles G. Donnelly, Harold Konisberg statement at Federal Correctional Institute, Danbury, CT, June 10, 1965, dictated June 15, 1965, "Harold Konigsberg," FBI report 92-1893, file no. 92-5177-161, NARA no. 124-10348-10067, Aug. 16, 1965, p. 135-137.
  • Evans, C.A., "La Cosa Nostra," FBI memorandum to Mr. Belmont, file no. 92-6054-406, NARA no. 124-10220-10111, Aug. 13, 1963, p. 9.
  • Federici, William, and Henry Lee, "Tony's mistress missing; cops: both may be dead," New York Daily News, April 17, 1962, p. 2.
  • Flynn, James P., "Crime conditions in the New York division," FBI report CR 62-9-34-692, NARA no. 124-10348-10068, Dec. 3, 1962, p. 21-22.
  • Grutzner, Charles, "Kenny admitted lie to jury on talk with pier gangster; police got $108,000 bribe bid," New York Times, Dec. 18, 1952.
  • Grutzner, Charles, "Pisano witnesses changing stories," New York Times, Aug. 24, 1963.
  • Hindes, Eugene J., "Salvatore Granello...," FBI report 92-3960-30, NARA no. 124-90066-10093, June 27, 1962, p. 44.
  • Kanter, Nathan, "Hood Tony Bender missing since Sunday, wife reports," New York Daily News, April 13, 1962, p. 5.
  • Mallon, John, and Joseph McNamara, "Valachi murder song turned over to DAs," New York Daily News, Aug. 12, 1963, p. 3.
  • New York City Birth Records, Certificate no. 22743, June 14, 1899
  • New York City Marriage Index, Certificate no. 7134, March 30, 1932.
  • New York Census of 1905, New York County, Assembly District 3, Election District 11.
  • New York State Census of 1925, Kings County, Assembly District 7, Election District 22.
  • Perlmutter, Emanuel, "New lead on Pisano slaying provided by racketeer friend," New York Times, Oct. 1, 1959, p. 30.
  • Trow's General Directory of the Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, City of New York, Vol. CXXIII, for the Year Ending August 1, 1910, New York: Trow Directory, Printing and Bookbinding, 1909, p. 1435.
  • United States Census of 1900, New York State, New York County, Enumeration District 1062.
  • United States Census of 1920, New York State, New York County, Ward 8, Assembly District 2, Enumeration District 204.
  • United States Census of 1930, New York State, New York County, Assembly District 2, Enumeration District 31-68.
  • United States Census of 1940, New York State, New York County, Assembly District 10, Enumeration District 31-884.
  • Valachi, Joseph, "The Real Thing: Second Government: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra," Joseph Valachi Personal Papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 1964, p. 370.

15 December 2019

Extortion victim turns tables on 'The Gimp'

New York Sun
On this date in 1912...

Aniello Prisco, leader of a Neapolitan "Black Hand" extortion band based in East Harlem, was killed by gunshots to the head on the evening of December 15, 1912.

The thirty-two-year-old Prisco was known in the Little Italy community around East 108th Street between First and Second Avenues as "Zoppo" (Italian for "lame") or "the Gimp." These nicknames resulted from a 1909 gunshot wound that shattered a bone in his left leg. When Prisco recovered from the shooting, his healed left leg was inches shorter than his right, causing a pronounced limp.

Threatening Italian business owners into making regular protection payments had been Prisco's primary occupation. The local press referred to him as "Zoppo the Terrible" and "the Terror of East Harlem."

Prisco death certificate

A meeting with Gallucci

Gallucci
In mid-December of 1912, he boldly and unwisely targeted Giosue Gallucci, a wealthy bakery and coffeehouse owner who had strong underworld and political connections.

Prisco had a fearsome reputation. He was believed responsible for numerous acts of violence, including the killing of Gallucci's brother Gennaro several years earlier and the March 1912 murder of Pasquarella Spinelli, owner of the infamous Murder Stable. But apparently he lacked cunning.

Prisco demanded that Gallucci bring payment to a Sunday, December 15, meeting at the DelGaudio barbershop on East 108th Street. When the time came for the meeting, Gallucci sent an apologetic message, claiming that he was ill and could not go out as planned. Gallucci invited Prisco to come to his coffeehouse and residence at 318 East 109th Street to collect his payment.

When Zoppo arrived, he was escorted into a back room with Gallucci and some of his aides. The only reports of what occurred next came from Gallucci's side, as Prisco did not survive the meeting. Police, summoned by Gallucci, arrived near midnight to find the notorious gang leader dead in the coffeehouse with two bullet wounds in his head.

Self-defense

Prisco
The following day, Gallucci's nephew John Russomano walked into the office of New York County Coroner Herman Hellenstein and confessed to fatally shooting Prisco. He claimed that Prisco had drawn a firearm, pointed it at Gallucci and demanded a hundred dollars. Russomano pulled a handgun from a desk drawer. When Prisco turned his weapon toward Russomano and warned him, "Keep out of this, or I'll kill you," Russomano fired. Prisco hit the floor before he could get a shot off.

(Early reports in the New York Evening World and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle told a substantially different story, though their source was not made clear. Those newspapers said that someone in the coffeehouse grabbed Prisco's shooting hand or arm as he entered the back room, leaving him helpless as Russomano pointed a handgun at his forehead and fired.)

Russomano was charged with homicide and placed in the Tombs Prison. He was later released in bail of $5,000.

Prisco's funeral arrangements were handled by D. Scocozza of 2074 First Avenue in East Harlem. He was buried on December 18 at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York.

On December 20, Russomano was discharged by Hellenstein, after a coroner's jury was convinced that the killing of Prisco was done in self-defense.

As far as law enforcement was concerned, the matter was closed. But a bloody feud continued in East Harlem's underworld for years.

Read more about Aniello Prisco and the 1910s Italian underworld of East Harlem:
"Owner's killing is start of Murder Stable legend," Mafiahistory.us.

Sources:
  • "35 are caught in Black Hand bomb round-up," New York Evening Telegram, July 26, 1913, p. 3.
  • "Blackhand king shot dead when he demanded $100," Bridgeport CT Evening Farmer, Dec. 16, 1912, p. 3.
  • "Blackmailer killed as he made threat," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 16, 1912, p. 4.
  • "Man is found dead with bullet holes in his head," New York Press, Dec. 16, 1912, p. 3.
  • "Notorious gunman arrested," New York Call, Oct. 4, 1912, p. 3.
  • "Prisco, lame gunman, meets death at last," New York Sun, Dec. 17, 1912, p. 16.
  • "Record of deaths in murder stable," Niagara Falls Gazette, April 12, 1916.
  • "Silencer is used on rifle to kill Harlem gunman," New York Evening World, Feb. 18, 1913, p. 9.
  • "Slayer of 'Zopo' freed," New York Evening World, Dec. 20, 1912, p. 9.
  • "Slayer of 'Zopo' freed," New York Tribune, Dec. 20, 1912, p. 16.
  • "'Zopo the Gimp,' king of the Black Hand, slain," New York Tribune, Dec. 17, 1912, p. 16.
  • "'Zopo the Terror' dies as he draws weapon to kill," New York Evening World, Dec. 16, 1912, p. 6.
  • Aniello Prisco Certificate of Death, registered no. 35154, Department of Health of the City of New York, date of death Dec. 15, 1912.
  • Critchley, David, The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931, New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Thomas, Rowland, "The rise and fall of Little Italy's king," Fort Wayne IN Journal-Gazette, Dec. 12, 1915, p. 33, Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 12, 1915, Sunday Magazine p. 4.

25 November 2019

Bringing Joe Valachi's memoirs to the Web

The 1000-plus page memoirs of Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi are valuable source material for organized crime historians. The manuscript, entitled "The Real Thing - Second Government: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra," is one of just three authoritative inside sources on the Mafia during the period of the 1930-31 Castellammarese War (the others are published autobiographies, Vita di Capomafia by Nick Gentile and A Man of Honor by Joseph Bonanno). The Valachi memoirs were consulted and quoted by author Peter Maas for his 1968 book, The Valachi Papers, which grew into a 1972 Charles Bronson motion picture. Until now, these Joseph Valachi papers could only be accessed through the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. I have been working to change that.

I first published a couple hundred pages of the manuscript on the mafiahistory.us website some years ago. The pages were acquired through the assistance of another Mafia historian, who requested anonymity. In summer 2019, I visited the JFK Library to access the remaining thousand or so pages. Since that time, I have been processing and formatting the pages for the web in small batches. At this moment, visitors to mafiahistory.us can access the first 500-plus consecutive pages of The Real Thing and an additional 80-plus scattered pages of the rest of the manuscript.

Copyright of the Valachi memoirs has been a concern. While the papers have been in the custody of the United States government and accessible to the public for decades since their official 1980 donation, the JFK Library has provided no clear guidance on any possible copyright holder. Following my summer 2019 visit to the library, I submitted a Freedom of Information request for access to the internal library paperwork relating to the memoirs. After some initial hesitation, the National Archives agreed to publicly release the "Deed of Gift" and "Donor File" relating to the memoirs. Transcriptions of these documents also have been added to the mafiahistory.us website.

The documents establish that the papers were donated to the library by Peter Maas on Christmas Eve of 1980. Maas stated his wish that they "be made available for research as soon as possible, and to the fullest extent possible." A New Year's Eve, 1980, memorandum indicates that Valachi intended at one time to publish his manuscript. Instead, the memoirs were used as source material for Maas's book, and Valachi received a payment of $75,000 for his story. Following Valachi's death in 1971, his estate went through normal probate procedures. "According to Maas' attorney, no question from Valachi's heirs about the rights to the manuscript or copyright arose during the settlement of the estate," the memorandum states. "Maas, therefore, has had the manuscript and accompanying transcript since 1965 without anyone questioning his right to the material."

This history and Maas' donation appear to place ownership of the memoirs clearly in the hands of the National Archives and the American people. In doing the work of bringing the memoirs to the Web, it is my hope to achieve Maas' goal of making them available for research "to the fullest entent possible."

Visit the Entrance Page for "The Real Thing: The Autobiography of Joseph Valachi" on Mafiahistory.us.

26 October 2019

The Jersey Kid


“Are you hurt buddy? Are you hurt?”
George Lee, twenty-six-year-old over-night cashier for the Public Service Coordinated Transport, was indeed hurt, mortally.  A .32 caliber bullet had just ripped into his side and the man who fired it, Frank McBrien, stood over him, panicking. Miller didn’t answer, so McBrien tore the wounded man’s shirt open and tried to staunch the flow of blood. McBrien’s confederates, momentarily stunned, continued with the task at hand, looting the garage of its money. One entered the cashier’s cage where McBrien and Lee were and asked about the pillow cases that were brought along to carry out the loot.
“To hell with the money,” McBrien told his confederate, “this poor guy is dying. I’m going to call the cops,” turning again to the prostrate figure on the floor, he pleaded again, “Gee Buddy, are you hurt?”
     The job wasn’t supposed to go down like this. They planned it for three weeks. McBrien was a careful bandit, he liked to rehearse the robbery repeatedly so each man in the gang knew what to do and they could be in and out without trouble. The mob’s previous job went much smoother. On September 24, 1928, they hit the Alderney Dairy Corporation, also located in Newark. In this caper they managed to herd around twenty employees into a vault, another ten or so were covered while the gunmen collected five thousand dollars. McBrien fired his gun here as well, but not to hurt anyone. Only one employee was slightly injured, a woman, who was smacked across the head with a pistol butt because she wasn’t moving as fast as the bandits wished.
    After the Alderney job, the gang rendezvoused back at the rooming house where McBrien, the only tenant, lived to divvy up the loot. High on success and swimming in greenbacks, they decided the next target would be Newark’s, Public Service Coordinated Transport garage. The location where the city bus drivers, after finishing their shifts, came to deposit the day’s fares. It was decided that the time, around 2 a.m. Monday morning, would be the most lucrative because the weekend receipts would still be on hand. The gang consisted of six men: Frank McBrien, known in the underworld as the “Jersey Kid”, Frank “the Wop” Orlando, Victor Giampietro, Louis “Lefty” Malanga, Andy “Red” Silesia and Joe Rado. The idea to rob the Public Service garage probably came from Giampietro, a former bus driver.
        In preparation for the robbery Giampietro and Orlando stole a car on October 12 and parked it in a garage. On Sunday afternoon, Giampietro also gave his old bus driver outfit to Orlando, who would wear it during the heist. Around midnight of the Fifteenth, the gang gathered at McBrien’s room where the land lady made them all breakfast. After eating, the men left the house individually so as not to cause suspicion. Giampietro and Lefty Malanga went to retrieve the stolen car. Orlando left followed by McBrien and Rado, who were all picked up by Giampietro and Malanga at different spots. For some reason Red Silesia stayed behind in McBrien’s room. A decision that would save his life.
     Arriving at the garage, Orlando, dressed as a bus driver, went in to case the place. After a few minutes he returned to the street and told his confederates that two men were in the drivers’ room and six in the garage.
                “Let’s wait until later when the last bus has pulled in,” said Giampietro.
                “The hell with it,” McBrien retorted, “let’s get in and get it over with.”
The five men, all wearing gloves, exited the car and approached the garage. Lefty Malanga stayed at the door to keep guard. Orlando and Rado went down stairs and approached the cashier while Giampietro and McBrien went into the drivers’ room, which had since been vacated. After a moment they heard a shot. In an attempt to intimidate George Lee, the cashier, Orlando had fired through his screen. Entering the room, Giampietro saw Lee, peeking out from a rear room.
                “Put your hands up!” Giampietro barked.
Lee complied. Taking command, McBrien ran up to Lee and, wanting to get the cashier over to the safe, thrust his gun into his side and snarled, “Get over there.” As the last word was leaving McBrien’s lips, he accidentally pulled the trigger to his gun.
Hearing the shooting, Lefty Malanga ran down and met Giampietro who told him, “Mac shot that fellow.” The bandits quickly filled the pillowcases with cash boxes and coins. Too many coins in fact, as one of the cases ripped and spilled money across the floor. While this was taking place, McBrien picked up the phone and dialed the company operator. “There’s a robbery at the Lake Street garage, a man was shot, call the cops or send an ambulance.”
     Dropping the phone, McBrien ran from the garage and joined his confederates who were already in the car. Orlando took off the bus drivers hat and puttees and tossed them from the window. “I hope the cashier doesn’t die,” McBrien said. Afterwards the car was ditched, and the men split up.
     Returning to McBrien’s room by twos, the men gathered to divvy up the proceeds from the robbery, which amounted to about eight hundred dollars per man. After a while, McBrien went out and bought a paper, returning to the group he said, “Well, the man is dead, you know what that means.” 

The Jersey Kid

     Deciding that Newark would be too hot for them, the gang headed to Detroit where they hid out for a short time. Deciding that it would be better if they split up, Giampietro, Lefty Malanga and Red Silesia headed for upstate New York; Giampietro, carrying the gun McBrien used to kill the cashier. The remaining three men, McBrien, Orlando and Rado headed to Chicago.

     After the operator at the Public Service received the phone message from McBrien, a man was sent to the basement to see what it was all about. There he found Lee dead and the police were called. After sunrise there was a search of the neighborhood and detectives found the hat and puttees that Orlando had jettisoned from the car. All bus drivers working for the company were investigated and none were missing the items that the police had found. Next there was a check on former employees and Victor Giampietro’s name came up, working on a hunch, investigators also looked up former employees of the Alderney Dairy Company and there too was Giampietro’s name. They rushed to his house only to learn that he hadn’t been seen there since the day after the robbery.
     Detectives visited the haunts in Giampietro’s neighborhood and learned that he hung around with Red Silesia and Lefty Malanga. Follow up investigations proved that both men were also missing since the robbery. Wanted posters of the three men were produced and sent around the country. At the homes of the wanted men the mail was watched, and the phones were tapped but nothing came of it.
    On November 10, 1928, Newark detectives received a break. In the upstate town of Lackawanna, New York, Giampietro, Silesia and Malanga had gone into a roadhouse and, while there, they got into a fight with another patron. The police were called. When they arrived, Silesia was still there so they took him into custody. Back at the station Silesia remained silent, but one of the cops recognized him from one of the recent wanted circular the station had received. They also found a slip of paper with the address where he had been staying. The officers went to the house and managed to capture Giampietro and Malanga as they were leaving with their suitcases in hand. All three were returned to New Jersey where, in hopes of leniency, Giampietro turn states evidence and spilled the story on the robbery and murder.
     Seven weeks after the capture of their confederates, McBrien, Rado and Orlando were lunching in a restaurant in Chicago. They finished their meal and stepped to the counter to pay. Perhaps it was planned or a spur the moment decision since two cashiers were counting up receipts. Anyhow, one of the bandits punched one of the cashiers in the face while another grabbed the money. Orlando drew a pistol and held the crowd at bay while his cohorts ran out.
     When they hit the streets, McBrien and Rado ran in one direction and Orlando in the opposite. Orlando was pointed out to two nearby cops who saw him run into a furniture store. As they entered, the officers saw Orlando speaking to a salesman, pretending to be interested in a radio. As they neared him, Orlando spun around and, using the salesman as a human shield, opened fire on the police, hitting one in the groin. The clerk managed to pull away from Orlando and then the police opened fire. With bullets in his stomach, chest and forehead, Orlando crumbled to the floor mortally wounded.

     The following summer found McBrien back in New Jersey with a new gang. Taking part with McBrien was a former seaman named Robert Tully, a hardened gunman named James Sargert, who went by the nick name “California Eddie”, and Frank “Lefty” Long. There was a successful robbery in Philadelphia on June 17, but things started to go awry after that job. A robbery of a Philadelphia shoe factory was planned for August 2 and a payroll heist planned for Neptune, New Jersey to take place the following day. Philadelphia police learned about the shoe factory robbery and set a trap but at the last moment the bandits became aware of the ploy and fled the scene, returning to New Jersey. Though they were unable to arrest the gang police got a look at the getaway car and license plate. The gang’s driver, Robert Tully, had used his brother’s car and never bothered to change the plates.
     The very next day the gang was in New Jersey executing a payroll robbery that had been in the works for ten days. Tully was friendly with Russell Baxter, an employee of Steiner and Sons, Company; a pajama factory located in Neptune City. Through him the gang learned that the company’s $7000 payroll was delivered by sixty-five-year old George Danielson who transferred the money from the bank by himself, armed only with a revolver. At approximately 9 a.m. on Saturday August 3, Danielson was approaching the Steiner and Sons factory. Some witnesses claims say that two of the bandits were loitering in front of the factory prior to Danielson’s arrival, others have them pulling up in a sedan as Danielson approached. What is known as that the sixty-five-year old messenger found himself surrounded. The bandits demanded the payroll and Danielson went for this gun; two shots rang out in quick succession and Danielson dropped to the pavement as one of the bandits grabbed the payroll. The gunmen jumped back into their sedan and drove off.


     After the heist the gang rendezvoused at the Verdgemere hotel in Asbury Park to divide the loot. The men had some drinks during the split and sent Tully out for some gin. When he returned McBrien, California Eddy and Lefty Long were gone. He had been double crossed. Tully grabbed his bag and headed out of town. While fleeing he pulled over and tossed his grip into the Shark River. Unbeknownst to him, somebody saw him do it and had the wherewithal to remember part of his license number. The following morning the witness returned to the river and retrieved the bag and turned it over to the police along with the license number.
     Since Tully foolishly used his brother’s car in both the botched Philadelphia robbery and the Neptune City job, authorities quickly arrested his sibling, who in turn informed them that he had lent his car to his brother. Detectives managed to trace Tully to his boarding house located at 116 North Fourth Street in Camden, New Jersey.  They surrounded the place at 2 a.m. August 9 and arrested him without any resistance.

Robert Tully 

    After Tully’s arrest, Baxter turned himself in and admitted to being the tipster. Through testimony police learned that the McBrien, James “California Eddie” Sargert, and Frank “Lefty” Long were the other participants in the Danielson killing. By this time however, all had successfully escaped.
    Police got their next break on August 28 when New Jersey State Trooper David Reed entered a roadhouse in the New Jersey hamlet of Iona near Vineland. Wearing civilian clothes, his presence caused no alarm. After a bit, Reed’s attention was drawn to a table of men and, having worked in Newark the previous year, he recognized Joseph Rado at the table. Drawing his gun, Reed approached the table and announced that he was arresting Rado, who surrendered without a fight, while his companions fled. Back at the station it was determine that one of the men who had been with Rado was the Jersey Kid, whom Reed failed to recognize.
    With Rado in custody police began combing the Vineland area for McBrien but their search was in vain as he managed to allude capture again. As 1929 was winding up, in regard to the Public Service Co-Ordinated Transport job in Newark, authorities had Giampietro, Silesia, Malanga and Rado under arrest but for the Danielson murder, Tully was the only major participant in custody. That changed on November 20, when Lefty Long attempted to single handedly rob a bank in East Orange. The gunman handed a teller a note demanding money then fled empty handed when the clerk pressed an alarm. Police were able to trace him to a speakeasy a short time later and arrest him without trouble.
     After the arrest of Long, it was only two weeks before the law caught up with the Jersey Kid. In the end it was Philadelphia detectives that got him. They learned that the Kid’s paramour had moved from Philadelphia to 196th Street in New York City. They began a stakeout of the apartment and learned that the Kid was indeed inside. At 4:30 a.m. on December 4, both New York City and Philadelphia detectives surrounded the building. The element of surprise was lost when the Kid noticed two detectives in the court yard and took  a couple of shots at them. They returned the fire. After that a truce was called so that the Kid’s girlfriend could surrender and leave via the rear fire escape. The Kid used that time to barricade the front door and prepare for a battle. Intent on killing himself before allowing capture he penned a quick goodbye note to his mother. Detectives at the door informed him that they were getting ready to open fire with tear gas. Realizing that there was no escape and losing the nerve to commit suicide. The Kid surrendered.
The Kid is Captured

     Newark, Neptune City and Philadelphia all wanted the kid, but in the end Newark won out, so the Kid, along with Giampietro, Malanga and Rado went on trial for the murder of transportation clerk George Lee. Hoping to save himself from the electric chair, Giampietro turned States ‘evidence and testified against his codefendants. All were found guilty of murder and all, including Giampietro, were sentenced to death.
     All four men were scheduled to be executed on July 22, 1930. When the time came Giampietro was the first to go, which suited the Kid just fine since Giampietro implicated all of them in the murder in an attempt to get out with his skin intact. Hoping against a last-minute reprieve that might save the man who helped put him in the chair the Kid told the warden he wanted Giampietro to go first saying, “ He’s not going to get out of this, the rat.”    
     Giampietro entered the death chamber at 8:08 p.m. three minutes later he was declared dead. A trio of guards removed the body to the autopsy room and hoisted it onto a large marble slab and forced it to the far side in order to make room for his former confederates who would be joining him.  After Giampietro they came for the Kid. “Take it easy, Mac,” Rado and Malanga shouted to their one time leader. “O.k. boys, so long,” he replied. Entering the death chamber at 8:21 p.m., the Kid bit off the end of a cigar and threw it at the witnesses. Taking a seat in the electric chair, the wet helmet was placed on his head and a strap to his right knee. After a moment he relaxed and then the wheel was turned. The Kid shot out of the seat as two thousand volts went through his body. The executioner turned the wheel to off and the Kid slumped back into the chair unconscious. Another sixteen hundred volts were sent through the body and this was followed by another two thousand. In all it a took only a minute. The Kid then took his spot next to Giampietro on the slab. Next came Malanga who went calmly. Rado was the only one of the condemned men to speak out. Claiming he was innocent until the end he addressed the witnesses. “Spectators to the fact,” he announced, “Look at the gate crashers. Well before I go I want you newspaper guys to tell the world I’m innocent as God himself. I was framed. I hope you all enjoy the show.” As they strapped him into the chair, he continued his diatribe but it was cut short as the electricity coursed through his body. Smoke rose from his skull and leg as the executioner turned the wheel off. A second charge sent him from his chair like it did the Kid. The doctor checked his heart, the two jolts were enough.

21 October 2019

NYC Barrel Murder suspect killed in Pennsylvania

On this date in 1905...


A recent arrival to the mining community of Browntown, in Pennsylvania's Pittston Township, Luciano Parrino quickly became a successful business owner. Immediately following his October 21, 1905, shooting death, authorities discovered that he was a well connected underworld figure and had been the prime suspect in the spring 1903 Barrel Murder in New York City...


16 July 2019

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



Go To Part 2

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.

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.

Go To Part 2