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

16 March 2020

Bogus Blackhand bombing in Buffalo

Marital blowup nearly causes building blowup

In mid-March of 1918...

Buffalo Commercial
Claiming to be targets of "Black Hand" extortion, father and son Diego and Calogero "Charles" Alessi sought help from the Buffalo, New York, Police Department on Friday, March 15, 1918.

The Alessis, originally from Marianopoli, Sicily, had been in the United States for a couple of decades. Sixty-seven-year-old Diego worked as a laborer and grocer. Calogero, thirty-five, one of Diego's five sons, was employed as a motorman with the International Railway Company. The two men and their families lived at 122 Trenton Avenue in Buffalo.

That address had been Diego's home for at least ten years. Calogero, his wife and their two children, formerly residents of 32 Baker Street (where some other Alessi family members lived), had recently moved into a downstairs apartment in the Trenton Avenue home.

Calogero brought an unexploded bomb into police headquarters that Friday. He said he found it on the steps outside of the family home at about five o'clock that morning. His father instructed him to take it to the police. Eight family members had been inside the home when the bomb was placed. Calogero said his father had previously received and ignored mailed threats demanding hundreds of dollars.


Zimmerman and Miller (l to r) of the Buffalo Police
Black Hand terrorism, consisting of mailed extortion letters, was becoming a common story, as successful Italian-Americans were increasingly targeted by extortion gangs. The front of Dr. A.J. Cetola's home at 65 Front Avenue recently had been torn off in an explosion following his refusal to pay extortion demands.

Police took custody of the bomb from Calogero Alessi and turned it over to City Chemist Herbert Hill for examination. Hill determined that the device contained sufficient explosives to destroy the entire building. He noted that some distinctive fabric was used inside the device and in its outer covering.

The incident earned attention from the press, but not nearly as much attention as what occurred a few days later.

Buffalo Evening News
Following a brief but apparently thorough investigation by Detective Sergeant Edward J. Newton, Detective Sergeant Charles F. Zimmerman, Detective Ralph Guastaferro and Inspector Charles N. Miller, two men were placed under arrest on Monday, March 18. The suspects were Diego and Calogero Alessi. They were charged with placing explosives at their own home. (At that time, Newton and Zimmerman were in charge of investigating cases in Buffalo's Italian community, and Miller was chief of the Buffalo Police Detective Bureau.)

The investigation revealed that there had been domestic trouble between Calogero and his wife of fifteen years, Mary. Calogero had been trying to convince Mary to leave and to take their two children with her. A search of the Alessi home turned up a pair of Calogero's pants that had been cut up. The fabric was a match for that contained in the bomb.

When interviewed by police, Mary Alessi said that her husband and in-laws had been working to push her out of the house. On the morning of March 15, she said, Calogero returned home from work at about two o'clock in the morning. She and Calogero had an argument, after which he left the home, locking her and the children inside. The bomb was found shortly after that. The discovery did cause Mary and the children to leave the home and return to 32 Baker Street. Mary quickly took a factory job for income.

The case against Diego and Calogero Alessi was dismissed in Buffalo City Court for lack of evidence. However, Calogero was then prosecuted for abandoning his family responsibilities. That case came before Judge William P. Brennan on May 13, 1918. Brennan questioned Mary Alessi about the relationship with her husband. She testified that she believed Calogero had grown tired of her and planned to scare her off through the use of the bomb.

Calogero Alessi was convicted. Judge Brennan sentenced him to probation and ordered him to provide support of $7 a week to his wife and children.


Sources:
  • "Bomb causes aged Italian to report," Buffalo Commercial, March 15, 1918, p. 11.
  • "Cleared on bomb charge; now must support family," Buffalo Courier, May 14, 1918, p. 2.
  • "Hold two for bomb probe," Buffalo Enquirer, March 19, 1918, p. 14.
  • "Men put bomb in front of own house, police say," Buffalo Evening News, March 19, 1918, p. 9.
  • "Must support family," Buffalo Enquirer, May 13, 1918, p. 12.
  • "That bomb was to scare wife," Buffalo Evening Times, March 19, 1918, p. 4.
  • "Told to pay for support of his wife and children," Buffalo Evening News, May 14, 1918, p. 15.
  • "Two planted bomb, say police," Buffalo Courier, March 19, 1918, p. 4.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Victoria, departed Naples on Sept. 29, 1899, arrived New York on Oct. 18, 1899.
  • Regan, J.E., "Chief Girvin's Buffalo Police," The National Police Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 1918, New York: National Police Journal, 1918.
  • Regan, John E., "The efficient police force of Buffalo, N.Y.," The Police Journal, Vol. IX, No. 4, April 1922, New York: Journal Publishing Company, 1922.
  • The Buffalo Courier 1916-1917 Classified Directory, Buffalo: Paul Goering & Co., 1916, p. 105.
  • The Buffalo Directory 1908, Buffalo: Courier Company of Buffalo, 1908, p. 129.
  • The Buffalo Directory 1918, Buffalo: J.W. Clement Co., 1918, p. 102.

24 February 2020

Centenarian mobster 'Sonny' Franzese passes

Colombo Crime Family big shot John "Sonny" Franzese died Sunday, February 23, 2020, at the age of 103, according to published reports. Family sources indicated that Franzese, a longtime resident of the Long Island Village of Roslyn, died following a brief illness.

(While it appears he was at least 100 at the time of his death, Franzese's age has been inconsistently reported over the years. He was widely reported to be forty-seven when indicted in March 1966, placing his birth in 1918-1919. Some government files point to February 1919 as the date of his birth. That birth timing was confirmed when he was arrested as a parole violator in spring 1986 at the stated age of 67. However, more recent reports have added a couple of years. The age of 103 noted in his obits puts his birth in 1916-1917. Other government files support that timing.)

The Neapolitan Franzese reportedly began his underworld career as an enforcer and hit man. Federal authorities believe he was introduced to organized crime through his father, Carmine. "Sonny" Franzese's power and influence were greatest in the 1960s, when as crime family lieutenant, he supervised Colombo rackets on Long Island and invested in "adult" night spots, Times Square peep shows and massage parlors, recording companies and pornographic movies.

Law enforcement began catching up with Franzese in the middle of that decade. He was indicted in March 1966 for acting as an enforcer for a lucrative Manhattan bookmaking ring, in the following month for leading a gang responsible for bank robberies across the U.S. and in October of the same year in connection with the 1964 murder of Ernest "the Hawk" Rupolo. Franzese once told Newsday that he felt the collection of charges in that period were due to a "conspiracy to get me."

Prosecutors got him only on the bank robbery conspiracy charge. For that federal offense, in April 1967 he was sentenced to up to fifty years in prison and fined $20,000. Franzese always insisted that he was innocent. He viewed the cases against him and the long prison sentence as government attempts to convince him to provide evidence against his underworld associates. He boasted of his commitment to the Mafia code of silence.

"They wanted me to roll all the time," Franzese recalled for an interview with Newsday. "I couldn't do that, because it's my principle. Jesus suffered; He didn't squeal on nobody."

Franzese remained free on $150,000 bail as his legal appeals in the bank robbery case were processed. (His attorneys argued that evidence against him had been obtained through the use of illegal electronic surveillance in the kitchen of his Roslyn home.) The appeals were unsuccessful, and he began serving his sentence on March 26, 1970, just three days before the Easter holiday. He was released on parole for the first time in 1978, but was sent back to prison on five different occasions for violating parole.

Franzese, then in his nineties, was convicted in 2010 of extorting New York businesses. He was sentenced to serve eight years in prison. He was last released from prison in June 2017.

In recent years, Franzese lived in a nursing home, needed a wheelchair to get around due to a broken hip and reportedly was fitted with a heart pacemaker and hearing aids.


Sources:

  • Brown, Lee, "102-year-old mobster: 'I never hurt nobody that was innocent," New York Post, nypost.com, March 27, 2019.
  • Burke, Cathy, "Colombo underboss Sonny Franzese looks back on 102 years with no regrets, and a boast that he's never been a rat," New York Post, nypost.com, March 27, 2019.
  • "Cosa Nostran held as robberies brain," Plainfield NJ Courier-News, April 13, 1966, p. 7.
  • "Crime figure seized on L.I.; Parole violations are cited," New York Times, April 29, 1986, p. 36.
  • Everett, Arthur, "Mob tightening grip on pornography," Vineland NJ Times Journal, Dec. 14, 1972, p. 21.
  • Failla, Zak, "Man who led Colombo Family's Long Island rackets dies," Suffolk Daily Voice, dailyvoice.com, Feb. 24, 2020.
  • "Franzese loses bid to upset verdict," New York Times, March 27, 1970, p. 37.
  • Kirkman, Edward, and Arthur Mulligan, "Put halter on big bookie 'muscle man," New York Daily News, March 25, 1966, p. 2.
  • Peddie, Sandra, "John 'Sonny" Franzese dead: Longtime Colombo underboss was 103, family says," Newsday, newsday.com, Feb. 24, 2020.
  • Pugh, Thomas, William Federici and Richard Henry, "Indict 5 Cosa hoods in killing of 6th," New York Daily News, Oct. 4, 1966, p. 3.
  • Sherman, William, "Mafia declares war, but porn king survives," New York Daily News, Dec. 13, 1972, p. 5. 
  • Walsh, Robert, "Franzese gets new suit; it's a jailstriper," New York Daily News, March 27, 1970, p. 24. 
  • Walsh, Robert, and Henry Lee, "Tag 9 guys & a gal in bank holdups, Inc.," New York Daily News, April 13, 1966, p. 3.

02 February 2020

'Lucky' out of prison, held at Ellis Island

Authorities prepare to deport NY Mafia boss

On this date in 1946:

New York Mafia boss Salvatore "Charlie Lucky Luciano" Lucania, age forty-eight, was removed from temporary custody at Sing Sing Prison on February 2, 1946, and placed in a holding area at Ellis Island, as authorities prepared to deport him to his native Italy.

Lucania
Lucania, leader of a powerful crime family (later known as the Genovese Family) and one of the architects of the Mafia's national Commission, was convicted about nine and a half years earlier on sixty-two counts of compulsory prostitution. On June 18, 1936, he was sentenced to a prison term of thirty to fifty years.

The case that put Lucania behind bars was handled by then-Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey also was responsible for Lucania's release. Entering the final year of his first term as New York governor, Dewey on January 3, 1946, commuted the remainder of Lucania's sentence on the condition that he be deported to Italy.

The governor issued a statement relating to the commutation, which revealed that the imprisoned Lucania rendered some sort of assistance to the U.S. military during World War II:

Luciano is deportable to Italy. He was a leader of a syndicate which supervised and gave orders relating to the operation of a vice combine which "booked" women for houses of prostitution and provided other service incidental to the operation of houses of prostitution. He has previously been convicted of the possession of drugs. Upon the entry of the United States into the war, Luciano's aid was sought by the armed services in inducing others to provide information concerning possible enemy attack. It appears that he cooperated in such effort, though the actual value of the information provided is not clear. His record in prison is reported as wholly satisfactory.

Wild stories quickly grew out of the news of Lucania's aid to the military. Just a few days after Dewey's statement, a New York Daily News entertainment page featured an article that claimed Lucania was single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of countless American servicemen. The article, by Robert Sylvester, quoted an unnamed underworld source:

Remember the Sicily campaign was one of the easiest of the war? Well, Charley made it that way. He turned over a whole Cloak & Dagger Crew which worked before and during the invasion. You can thank Charley Lucky for saving thousands and thousands of American lives.

Dewey
Some questioned Dewey's motivation for commuting Lucania's sentence. (The state administration conducted an investigation of its own decision-making.) Some years later, it was suggested that Lucania had obtained damaging information against Dewey. An autobiography of narcotics agent Sal Vizzini claimed that, while in exile, Lucania boasted about that: "I had a whole damned battery of lawyers. I told them I didn't care what it cost but I wanted them to dig into Dewey's background. They came up with a pile of information on him that might have put his ass in the can..."

SIx days after Governor Dewey's sentence commutation, Lucania was transfered from Great Meadow State Prison in the upstate New York hamlet of Comstock (just east of Lake George) to Sing Sing Prison at Ossining, about thirty miles from New York City.

The Board of Parole approved Lucania's release for the purpose of deportation on February 2. Immigration and Naturalization agents took custody of him on that date and brought him to the federal immigration facility at Ellis Island. While at Ellis Island, he was permitted to visit briefly with underworld associates Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Michael Lascari and with attorney Moses Polakoff.

His stay on the island lasted less than a week. He was taken to Brooklyn and put aboard the S.S. Laura Keene at Pier 7 of the Bush Terminal on February 8. The ship's departure was delayed by bad weather, but she sailed for Italy on February 10, reaching Naples seventeen days later.

Read the details of Lucania's imprisonment and release:
"When 'Lucky' was locked up," The American Mafia, mafiahistory.us

Sources:
  • Abrams, Norma, "Poor Italy: Defeat and now, Luciano!" New York Daily News, Feb. 9, 1946, p. 3.
  • "Charles Luciano, Anti-Racketeering," translations of Italian language articles appearing in the Jan. 11, Jan. 18 and Jan. 25, 1959, issues of L'Europeo magazine, FBI memo, Feb. 18, 1959.
  • Conroy, E.E., FBI teletype, file no. 39-2141-5, Feb. 26, 1946.
  • Conroy, E.E., FBI teletype, file no. 39-2141-6, Feb. 27, 1946.
  • Conroy, E.E., Letter to Mr. Hoover, Charles Luciano FBI file, no. 39-2141-8, March 1, 1946.
  • "Dewey commutes Luciano sentence," New York Times, Jan. 4, 1946, p. 25.
  • "A French payment," editorial, Brooklyn Citizen, Jan. 5, 1942, p. 4.
  • Herlands, William B., Report of the Commissioner of Investigation to Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Sept. 17, 1954.
  • Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (Kefauver Committee), U.S. Senate, 81st Congress 2nd Session and 82nd Congress 1st Session, Part 7, Meyer Lansky testimony of Feb. 14, 1951, p. 606-607.
  • "'Lucky' Luciano to be paroled and deported," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan. 3, 1946, p. 1.
  • Rosen, A., "Charles 'Lucky' Luciano," FBI memorandum to E.A. Tamm, file no. 39-2141-39, May 17, 1946.
  • "Salvatore Lucania...," FBI report NY 62-8768, file no. 39-2141-9, May 5, 1946.
  • Sylvester, Robert, "A B'way hoodlum lives a melodrama nobody would write," New York Daily News, Jan. 8, 1946, p. 27.
  • Vizzini, Sal, with Oscar Fraley and Marshall Smith, Vizzini: The Story of America's No, 1 Undercover Narcotics Agent, New York: Pinnacle, 1972, p. 77.

22 December 2019

Jury convicts six Outfit leaders, associate

Found guilty of extorting money from movie executives

On this date in 1943...


Six members of the Chicago Outfit and one associate were convicted December 22, 1943, of conspiring to extort more than a million dollars from the movie industry.

Concluding ten hours of deliberations, a federal jury in New York City returned guilty verdicts against Chicago racketeers Louis "Little New York" Campagna, Paul "the Waiter" Ricca (Felice DeLucia), Johnny Rosselli (Filippo Sacco), Philip D'Andrea, Charles Gioe and Francis Maritote, and Newark, New Jersey, union business agent Louis Kaufman. Judge John Bright scheduled a sentencing hearing for December 30.

The trial, which began October 5, established that the defendants were behind the extortion activities of Willie Bioff and George Browne. Bioff and Browne, convicted in 1941 of using their influence over the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) to force payments from movie studios, were prosecution witnesses in the 1943 case. (Bioff's betrayal of the Outfit apparently resulted in his car-bombing murder in 1955.) The witness list also included Hollywood executives.

Nine men were originally indicted in March 1943, including Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti and Ralph Pierce. Nitti, the Outfit leader believed to have been Bioff's strongest supporter, committed suicide upon learning of the indictments. Nitti is believed to have given assurances to other underworld bosses when they feared Bioff would betray them. Pierce was acquitted during the trial due to insufficient evidence against him.

On December 30, Judge Bright sentenced Campagna, DeLucia, Rosselli, D'Andrea, Gioe and Maritote to ten years in prison and sentenced Kaufman to seven years in prison. He fined each of the defendants $10,000.

See also:

08 December 2019

Vitale dinner holdup sparks investigations

Incident leads to city magistrate's removal,
mayor's resignation, Tammany Hall's defeat

New York Times
On this date in 1929...
 
Seven gunmen entered a Bronx, New York, testimonial dinner for city Magistrate Albert H. Vitale early in the morning of December 8, 1929, and robbed the guests, including political leaders, well known hoodlums and one off-duty NYPD detective.

The testimonial, begun Saturday night, December 7, was drawing to a close at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, when Vitale rose to make some remarks. At that moment, the seven men, who had quietly entered and positioned themselves at the rear of the second floor banquet room of Roman Gardens, 2401 Southern Boulevard near 187th Street, drew handguns and politely instructed the fifty attendees to turn over their valuables. One of the seven had a handkerchief wrapped around the lower half of his face. The others were not masked. Some accounts indicated that the partly masked gunman was the leader of the group. Working at a leisurely pace, they gathered several thousand dollars' worth of cash and jewelry and departed the restaurant at one o'clock.

Vitale
Little is known of what occurred at the restaurant immediately after the robbery. The incident was not officially reported to police until about 2 a.m. The delay in reporting raised numerous questions and eventually cost Detective Johnson his job.

Hours later, the service revolver taken by the robbers from Johnson was returned through Vitale at Vitale's office in the Tepecano Democratic Club, 187th Street, in the Bronx. Published reports indicated that much of the rest of the loot taken in the robbery also was returned. Rumors suggested that the influence of organized criminals, in league with Vitale, forced the robbers to send back the stolen items.

The robbery occurred just a month and a half after the Black Tuesday stock market collapse, when the U.S. was beginning to sink into the Great Depression and Americans were beginning to blame rampant lawlessness and official corruption for their economic woes.

After the robbery and related oddities were reported in the press, investigations were launched into Vitale's associations with crime figures. Special attention was given to the testimonial dinner and to reports that underworld boss Ciro Terranova and several of his men were in attendance. The situation also sparked a New York State Senate investigation (known as the Hofstadter Committee and as the Seabury Investigation) into corruption within the Tammany Hall-aligned administration of Mayor James Walker.

Suggestions of Vitale wrongdoing in connection with that event were unproven. Vitale's explanations for the presence of gangsters in the Roman Gardens restaurant hosting his dinner and for the return of the service revolver were accepted as plausible. But other examples of faulty judgment came to light.

Roman Gardens
The Bar Association found that Magistrate Vitale had acted improperly in accepting a large 1928 loan from underworld financier Arnold Rothstein (a charge first leveled by mayoral candidate Fiorello La Guardia late in his unsuccessful 1929 campaign) and in discharging a thief represented by a Rothstein-retained attorney. It recommended Vitale's removal from the bench.

In March 1930, the five justices of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division agreed that the Rothstein loan brought "the court into public disrepute and suspicion." The justices made Vitale an ex-magistrate but stopped short of disbarring him.

Vitale returned to a private law practice, while investigations led to the removal of a number of corrupt officials, to a reform of the city courts and to an end of Tammany Hall's domination of city government. Mayor Walker resigned in late summer 1932. He was immediately succeeded by Tammany nominee John P. O'Brien. After a year, La Guardia and a reform administration was brought in through the 1933 municipal election.

29 October 2019

Intimate family portrait, detailed Mafia history

[Disclaimer: The author provided me with several revisions of Colorado's Carlino Brothers before publication. I contributed edit suggestions and provided a foreword to the book.  - TH.]
 A decade ago, Mountain Mafia: Organized Crime in the Rockies by Alt and Wells first put the Colorado underworld on the map. Now, author Sam Carlino has provided the map with important connections between Denver and Pueblo Italian-American racketeers and national organized crime leaders.

https://amzn.to/2WmNdKR
His just-released book, Colorado's Carlino Brothers: A Bootlegging Empire (The History Press), is at once an intimate family portrait and a detailed Mafia history. The author deftly tracks the development of the regional crime family before and through the Prohibition Era, revealing its proper place in the national scene, while providing personal insight into his ancestors, who were members and leaders of the organization. The author's unique perspective helps to fully develop and humanize the book's primary subjects, brothers Pete (the author's grandfather) and Sam, and reveals the often painful impact of their career choices on their extended families.

The book deals in depth with the career and murder of early Pueblo Mafia leader Pellegrino Scaglia, the long and violent Carlino-D'Anna rivalry, the successful infiltration of the Carlino operation by an undercover federal agent and the Denver police raid that exposed a budding regional bootlegging syndicate. It explores Pete Carlino's travels to Mafia home cities in the Midwest and the East in a seemingly desperate effort to strengthen his position at home. And it chronicles the tragic and bloody ends of the Carlino faction leaders.

But its most momentous revelation concerns a link between Pete Carlino and the powerful but short-lived New York City-based Mafia boss of bosses, Salvatore Maranzano.

The author uses some circumstantial evidence and a long-forgotten ("missing link") news source to build a convincing case for a connection between the two old-school "Mustache Pete" Mafiosi. For researchers of underworld history, this heightens the importance of the often overlooked Colorado underworld. It also adds greatly to the significance of the nearly simultaneous murders of Maranzano and Carlino, occurring 1,800 miles apart on September 10, 1931, and may be viewed as supportive of the legendary "Night of Sicilian Vespers" purge of Maranzano loyalists.

From Colorado's Carlino Brothers
Carlino Bros. contains a wealth of photographs supporting its history text. These include family photos, gangland group shots, mug shots, news photos, scenics, document images and newspaper clippings.

The author's deep affection for the subjects of the work and his joy at having discovered their true stories - long-closeted skeletons and all - are evident in his selection of family images, in his commentary in the "Introduction," "Conclusion" and "Special Thanks" sections of the book, and certainly in his decision to share with the reader the often praised Carlino family recipe for spaghetti sauce.

Colorado's Carlino Brothers was released October 28, 2019, in 160-page paperback and Kindle editions.

25 October 2019

Anastasia delayed, did not escape death in 'chair'

On this date in 1957...

Perhaps Albert Anastasia was fated to die in "the chair."

The longtime New York-area underworld figure, who maneuvered his way out of an appointment with the Sing Sing Prison electric chair in 1922, met his end in the barber's chair thirty-five years later on October 25, 1957.


Anastasia, born Umberto Anastasio in the Calabrian village of Tropea back in 1902, reached America in 1917. He was serving as a deck hand on a tramp steamer when he jumped ship at New York harbor. He and brothers Giuseppe and Antonio settled in Brooklyn, and all went to work at the docks. (Brother Salvatore moved from Italy to New York and entered the priesthood.) Anastasia entered into a waterfront rackets partnership with Giuseppe Florino, who sometimes used the alias "Speranza."

Broken appointment

In spring of 1921, Anastasia and Florino both were convicted of the May 17, 1920, shooting murder of George Turello. Brooklyn Supreme County Justice Van Siclen sentenced the two to be executed in Sing Sing's electric chair on the week of July 3, 1921. They were placed in the prison's "death house" on May 25, 1921.

Anastasia (left) and Florino. New York Daily News.

Legal appeals succeeded in winning a new trial for Anastasia and Florino and, after a period of six and a half months in Sing Sing's "death house," they were transferred to the custody of the Kings County sheriff on December 10, 1921. (Newspapers of the time reported incorrectly that their death house stay was between seven months and eight and a half months.) Due to missing and suddenly uncertain witnesses, the state's murder case against the two men fell apart and they were set free.

Anastasia and Florino immediately went back to work, intimidating longshoremen and eliminating rivals. They were routinely suspected in gangland killings during the Prohibition Era. While Florino gradually faded into the background, Anastasia emerged as a top Brooklyn underworld figure. He was brought into a sprawling Brooklyn and Bronx Mafia organization commanded at the time by Al Mineo - it later became known as the Gambino Crime Family - and led its strong non-Sicilian faction. After a couple of decades, he attained the top spot in the organization after eliminating its Sicilian leaders, brothers Vincent and Philip Mangano, in 1951.

However, it seems Anastasia's date with "the chair" was not canceled but merely postponed.

Barbershop diagram. New York Times.

Chair No. 4

At seven o'clock on the morning of October 25, 1957, Anastasia left his home, 75 Bluff Road in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in a blue 1957 Oldsmobile registered to his chauffeur and bodyguard Anthony Coppola. Coppola was apparently not with him. Anastasia's movements that morning are not entirely known. The car was parked at Corvan Garage, 124 West Fifty-Fourth Street in Manhattan at twenty-eight minutes after nine. Anastasia entered Arthur Grasso's barbershop in the Park Sheraton Hotel, Seventh Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street, at about ten-fifteen.

A regular at the shop, Anastasia exchanged greetings with the owner, who manned a cashier's stand near the entrance. Anastasia then moved toward Chair No. 4, where his barber Joseph Bocchino worked. Anastasia hung up his topcoat, brown suit jacket and hat and took a seat in Chair No. 4, requesting a haircut.

Bocchino set to work. He was clipping the hair on the left side of Anastasia's head, when two men, faces partly covered with scarves, entered the barbershop from a doorway connected to the Park Sheraton lobby. One of the men quietly instructed  Grasso, "Keep your mouth shut if you don't want your head blown off." Grasso made no sound.

The men advanced with drawn handguns to positions behind Anastasia and opened fire. With the first shots, Anastasia jumped up from the chair, breaking through its footrest. He stumbled forward, crashing into glass shelving in front of a mirror, and then fell to the side, landing and expiring between Chairs 2 and 3. Of ten bullets fired in the attack, five hit their target. Two entered Anastasia's left hand and wrist, which apparently had been raised in an effort at self-defense. One slug penetrated his right hip. One entered his back. The last cracked through the back of his head.

AP photo.

The gunmen silently strode from the shop. Two handguns were later recovered from the area - one a .32-caliber and the other a .38-caliber. One was found in a vestibule of the Park Sheraton. The other turned up in a trash receptacle in a nearby subway station.

Press accounts of the underworld assassination noted that, about three decades earlier, underworld financier Arnold Rothstein had been killed within the same hotel, though it was known at that time as the Park Central.


Investigation

Investigators questioned known underworld figures, including Anthony "Augie Pisano" Carfano, Mike Miranda, Pete DeFeo and Aniello Ercole, as well as Anastasia business partner Harry Stasser.

In the evening of October 25, Anthony Coppola surrendered himself for questioning. Coppola admitted being in the area of the Park Sheraton about forty minutes after his boss and friend was murdered. Without much explanation, Coppola said he intended to meet Anastasia at the barbershop but learned of the shooting on his way there and retreated. He picked up the blue Oldsmobile where Anastasia left it and drove it home to 450 Park Avenue, Fair View, New Jersey. He later had another person drive it back to Manhattan and leave it in a Centre Street parking lot across from the Criminal Courts Building, where it was taken for examination by police.

New York Times
Early press reports suggested that Anastasia was killed in revenge for a recent unsuccessful attempt on the life of Manhattan-based boss Frank Costello. It was noted that Anastasia increased his force of bodyguards immediately after a shot fired at Costello's head resulted in just a superficial wound. These reports misinterpreted the evidence, as it later became clear that Anastasia and Costello were closely allied.

Anastasia's killers could not be identified. There were strong indications that Carlo Gambino, who later became boss of Anastasia's crime family, had been involved in setting up the assassination. Some reports claimed that Joseph Profaci, boss of his own Brooklyn-based crime family, and enforcer Joe "Jelly" Giorelli were also involved.

Anastasia
Investigators learned that Anastasia was planning to establish a private gambling empire in Cuba, effectively invading established underworld territory controlled by Meyer Lansky and Tampa Mafia boss Santo Trafficante and financially supported by Mafia leaders across the U.S. Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan learned that Anastasia met with Lansky and allied gangster Joseph "Joe Rivers" Silesi shortly before he was killed and was warned at that time to stay out of Cuba. That put Lansky, Silesi and Trafficante on the list of suspects.

Early in 1958, the FBI received information indicating that Anastasia had been put on the spot by an Irish criminal organization feuding with him over control over the New York waterfront rackets.

In 1963, authorities heard that Anastasia's killers were gangsters "Joe Jelly" Giorelli and Ralph Mafrici. Giorelli, a top man in the Gallo faction of the Profaci Crime Family, had been missing and presumed dead since the Gallos openly broke with their boss in 1961. This information likely grew out of barroom bragging by "Crazy Joe" Gallo, in which he claimed that his crew was responsible for the Anastasia assassination. Additional reports pointed to Costello rival Vito Genovese as the prime mover of the Anastasia killing and the attempt to kill Costello.

In the autumn of 2001, journalist Jerry Capeci reported that all the earlier suspicions were off the mark. According to Capeci, Anastasia was shot by Stephen "Stevie Coogan" Grammauta and Arnold "Witty" Wittenberg, guided by gangster Stephen Armone. The group was assembled, Capeci said, by a Carlo Gambino ally named Joseph Biondo.

See also:


Sources:

  • Albert Anastasia fingerprint record, Nov. 19, 1953, Anastasia FBI file.
  • Berger, Meyer, "Anastasia slain in a hotel here' led Murder, Inc.," New York Times, Oct. 26, 1957, p. 1.
  • Capeci, Jerry, "The Men Who Hit Albert Anastasia" Gang Land column, Oct. 18, 2001.
  • Cook, Fred J., "Robin Hoods or real tough boys? Larry Gallo, Crazy Joe and Kid Blast," New York Times, Oct. 23, 1966, p. Mag 37.
  • Emrich, Elmer F., "Mafia," FBI report, file no. 100-42303-536, NARA no. 124-90110-10079, April 10, 1959, p. 43-44, 58-59.
  • Evans, C.A., "Albert Anastasia," FBI Memorandum to Mr. Rosen, Oct. 29, 1957.
  • FBI memo, Havana 94-13, March 6, 1958, Albert Anastasia FBI file.
  • Freeman, Ira Henry, "Brothers Anastasia - toughest of the toughs," New York Times, Dec. 14, 1952, p. E10.
  • Marino, Anthony, and Sidney Kline, "Anastasia slain as he feared," New York Daily News, Oct. 26, 1957, p. 3.
  • Meskil, Paul, "Yen for Cuba cash doomed Anastasia," New York World Telegram & Sun, Jan. 9, 1958, p. 1.
  • Sing Sing Prison Receiving Blotter entries for Alberto Anastasio, number 72527, May 25, 1921, and Giuseppe Florino, number 72528, May 25, 1921.
  • Van`t Riet, Lennert, David Critchley and Steve Turner, "'Lord High Executioner' of the American Mafia," Informer, June 2015, p. 5.
  • "2 held in grocer's murder," New York Tribune, Aug. 18, 1922, p. 20.
  • "3 sentenced to chair by Brooklyn judge," New York Tribune, May 26, 1921, p. 5.
  • "Albert Anastasia," FBI report, Nov. 15, 1957, p. 1, 10, Albert Anastasia FBI file.
  • "Albert Anastasia: Top Hoodlum," FBI memorandum to Mr. Rosen, Oct. 25, 1957.
  • "Another victim claimed in Degraw Street feud; two suspects in toils," Brooklyn Standard Union, Aug. 17, 1922, p. 1.
  • "Arrested for murder committed last May," New York Daily News, March 7, 1921, p. 3.
  • "Capture alleged slayer," New York Evening World, March 18, 1921, p. 4.
  • "Charged with murder," Brooklyn Citizen, March 7, 1921, p. 1.
  • "F.B.I. giving Hogan Valachi details," New York Times, Aug. 8, 1963.
  • "Found shot near home, man dies in hospital," Brooklyn Standard Union, May 17, 1920, p. 1.
  • "Held for 1920 Brooklyn murder," New York Times, March 7, 1921, p. 11.
  • "Hold Giuseppe Florina for Turello shooting," Brooklyn Standard Union, March 7, 1921, p. 4.
  • "Police hunting hired killers in murder of gangland chief," New Brunswick NJ Daily Home News, Oct. 26, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Quiz murder suspect for crime of year ago," Brooklyn Daily Times, March 7, 1921, p. 1.
  • "Two men held in murder of man shot at party," New York Daily News, Aug. 18, 1922, p. 9.
  • "Two who escaped chair are now held in Ferrara murder," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 17, 1922, p. 2.

11 August 2019

Informer special issue on Maranzano

A long lost photograph of Salvatore Maranzano is discovered. Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement marks the occasion by dedicating an entire issue to the one-time American Mafia boss of bosses.



The August 2019 special issue, with articles by Thomas Hunt, Lennert van`t Riet, David Critchley and Richard N. Warner, is available now in print and electronic editions (magazine format) and in an e-book edition (Amazon Kindle format).

Visit Informer's website for more information.


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.

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

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

Go To Part 1

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.