Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

29 June 2017

Eddie McGrath and West Side's waterfront racketeers

In his first book-length project, Neil Clark  takes aim at the mobsters of New York's West Side waterfront. This selection of subject puts Clark in the footsteps of giants. 

An early journalistic account of waterfront corruption and racketeering by Malcolm Johnson of the New York Sun won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. On the Waterfont, a fictional film handling of gangster rule along the wharves, won a trunkload of 1954 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Writing. More recently, historian Nathan Ward revisited the Hudson River docks for his 2010 book, Dark Harbor, examining Malcolm Johnson's groundbreaking effort to bring waterfront organized crime to light.

While much of the material in Dock Boss is familiar, Clark expands on previous coverage with information drawn from court and prison files, FBI archives and other state and federal agency records. He delivers an informative and intriguing history. The Greater Toronto Area resident strays just a bit from the beaten path and approaches the subject through the life and career of a real-world "Johnny Friendly," Eddie McGrath.

An altar boy in his youth, McGrath became a clever, charming and resourceful criminal on his way to the leadership of an influential and largely Irish-American underworld organization. McGrath attained official recognition from the International Longshoremen's Association and the American Federation of Labor and proved himself useful to corrupt union officials and national racketeering networks.

McGrath's life story is a virtual Who's Who of Gotham outlaws. On his way to boss status, he benefited from alliances with such figures as "Big Joe" Butler, "Peck" Hughes, "Red" McCrossin, "Farmer" Sullivan, Andrew "Squint" Sheridan, John "Cockeye" Dunn and James "Ding-Dong" Bell. The résumés of his associates and his underworld rivals featured service with some of New York's most notorious gang chieftains, including Dutch Schultz, "Legs" Diamond, "Mag Dog" Coll and Owney Madden. Working relationships with Joey Rao, Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo and Giuseppe "Joe Adonis" Doto, eventually brought McGrath into contact with syndicate bosses like Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello.

Due to a (perhaps fortunate) stay in Sing Sing Prison, McGrath played a relatively minor role in the most exciting portion of Dock Boss, the mid-1930s conflict between the Butler and Yanowsky gangs for control of the West Side dock rackets. It was a true gangland war. Clark's description of the bloody one-and-a-half-year conflict, from late December 1934 to summer of 1936, moves rapidly from one shooting to the next and still manages to consume about forty pages of the book.

The war set the stage perfectly for McGrath. With allies and rivals eliminated through bullets or courtroom convictions, McGrath and his partners, John Dunn and Georgie Daggett, assumed control of the former rackets of the Butler Gang and quickly established control along the docks.

Clark takes the time to explain the atypical workings and the special economic and historic value of New York City's docks, as well as the rackets used by gangsters, union leaders and politicians to profit from them. He notes and explains the strong Irish influence on the West Side piers and the surrounding neighborhoods. He explores the corruption-encouraging "public loader" system unique to the Big Apple, which significantly increased the cost of goods moved off of ships in New York harbor. The "shape-up" method of rewarding cooperative longshoremen with work - illustrated in the movie On the Waterfront - is also detailed. The author even describes the competitive pressures on labor leaders that drove them to support the McGrath outfit. Clark is well-versed in this field, proof of his extensive research.

This reviewer can manage only a few minor complaints about Clark's work (in addition to his insistence on using the "Oxford comma"):

  •  Chapters are unusually short. With about 270 pages of text divided up into forty chapters, the average chapter length is less than seven pages. Some chapters are only about three pages long. It is likely that many readers will view this as a positive thing. But I found the chapter interruptions annoying, as they often occurred where there was no logical break in the story. The Butler-Yanowsky War, for example, is a single logical event occurring over a fairly short period of time. However, it is broken up among five or six chapters. 
  •  While the text is generally well written, it would have benefited from an editor's attention. There are occasional misspellings, a bit of indecision over whether to use U.S.- or Canada-preferred spellings for terms ("cheque," "offense"/"offence," for example) and some incorrect dates and figures (passage of Volstead Act, percentage of alcohol in beverages permitted by the Harrison Act, date of the police raid of Tully house...). 
  •  There is also a frequent and annoying use of the name "Greenwich" to refer to the Manhattan neighborhood of "Greenwich Village." In this reviewer's experience, the name "Greenwich" on its own refers to a district in London, the base for worldwide timekeeping, a town in southwestern Connecticut and a town and village in upstate New York. When a shortened name for "Greenwich Village" is needed, it generally takes the form of "The Village."
  •  The author may have been overly accepting of earlier histories, including the Pulitzer-winning articles by Malcolm Johnson. Some small Dock Boss flaws (these turned up when this reviewer closely examined newspaper records of early McGrath arrests) can be traced to Johnson's work and reports based on Johnson's articles. 
  •  Dock Boss provides a bibliography and an index - useful tools for researchers - but does not include notes. The absence of source citations for statements of fact in the text appears to have been the result of publisher policy. This may be mildly frustrating for some researchers, but it should not be interpreted as a lack of documentary support. Clark has proved to this reviewer's satisfaction that he has command of the available sources in this subject area. 

Nitpicking aside, Neil Clark has produced a solid history and an enjoyable read. With luck, he will soon set to work on additional crime-history projects.

Dock Boss; Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront (Barricade) by Neil G. Clark is scheduled for a July 1 release. An excerpt from Dock Boss can be found in the summer 2017 issue of Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement.


13 December 2016

Book Spotlight: Organized Crime in Miami by Avi Bash


A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, the latest release from Arcadia Publishing's 'Images of America' series showcases such photographic storytelling - this time the focus is Miami and Mobsters.


Where did all the gangsters go when it was cold and blustery?  Where it was warm of course, and Avi Bash's new book Organized Crime in Miami covers everything from the 'land boom' of the Roaring Twenties to the flow of both liquor and mobsters that drenched 'Magic City.'
Bash, a lifelong resident of Miami and longtime collector/researcher of organized crime history and relics, filled the 127 page book with rare photographs and documents culled from his own collection, all detailed and accompanied by fascinating anecdotal information.  The narrative takes readers through the who, what, why and when of the underworld's foray into the tropical paradise.

  
Interestingly, Bash points out that although it was Al Capone's vacation presence that garnered much of the world's attention on an underworld presence in the region - in reality, vice lords had been there for quite some time.  Not only did Big Al bring on a hurricane of media attention, but he also often brought in his cronies from Chicago, New York and beyond.  This wasn't all rest and relaxation of course, and as Bash demonstrates through mugshots and arrest reports - most of these guys were operating the gambling empire both in Miami and nearby Cuba.

Among the 191 amazing photographs in Organized Crime in Miami, readers will see a very rare Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel mugshot, family photos of various mob associates (Meyer Lansky's brother Jake for example), and stunning examples of the architecture from Capone's Palm Island estate to the majestic Biltmore Hotel where Thomas 'Fatty' Walsh was gunned down.
Organized Crime in Miami is available from Amazon, Arcadia Publishing, and Avi Bash's author site