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

16 July 2019

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



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One hundred years ago this month, New York City gangster Johnny Spanish was dramatically gunned down in front of a Second Avenue restaurant in Lower Manhattan. The shooting, witnessed by at least a hundred people, was the final act of a criminal career that wound through the mean streets of the Lower East Side and the foreboding cells of Sing Sing Prison. Although not a household name, Spanish's name is familiar to most crime buffs mainly because of Herbert Asbury's 1927 gangster classic Gangs of New York. Known primarily for his violent feud with fellow gangster Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, Johnny Spanish's life is little known outside of what Asbury sketched of him. It has been variously said that he was a Spanish Jew; that he was related to the notorious "Butcher" Weyler, the Spanish general who ruled over Cuba with an iron fist; that he shot a pregnant ex-girlfriend in the stomach, among other things. In addition to examining his violent demise, the author hopes to separate fact from fiction and provide a more accurate picture of who Johnny Spanish really was.

He was born Giovanni Mistretta in 1889, most probably in Lower Manhattan, to an Italian father and a Spanish mother. Giovanni had at least two older siblings (Antonietta and Antonio) and a younger brother (Giuseppe). Virtually nothing else is known of his childhood, about how he progressed through adolescence and found his way into the street gangs of the neighborhood. Giovanni seems to have been relatively intelligent,  able to read and write well. As an adult, it was noted that he spoke fluent Italian, Spanish, and English. Sometime during Giovanni's youth, his family anglicized their surname to Mestrett. Thus, Giovanni Mistretta became John Mestrett. While young John may have naturally bright, he showed little inclination for academics and soon found his way into the streets. Almost certainly fueled by the hair-trigger temper that would plague him all his life, John quickly began getting into street fights. Sometime in his teens, if the standard accounts are accurate, John Mestrett found his way into the lower rungs of the notorious Five Points Gang.

One of the more storied street gangs in New York City's history, the Five Points bunch got their name from the convergence of four Lower East Side streets; Anthony (present-day Worth), Cross (present-day Mosco), Orange (present-day Baxter), and Little Water (defunct). The five points of this intersection were home to a large gang consisting mostly of Irish immigrants around the mid-nineteenth century. By the turn of the century, the Five Points Gang had grown so much that satellite branch gangs had popped up in other areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. As the demographics changed on the old Five Points turf, so did the ethnic make-up of its ranks; by 1900, the Five Pointers were now composed mostly of Italians, with quite a few Jews and Irish sprinkled into the mob. They were led by Paul Kelly (Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli), a former boxer turned refined gang boss. The brilliant Kelly was able to forge an alliance with the corrupt Tammany Hall city government. In exchange for committing numerous instances of Election Day political terrorism and voter fraud on Tammany's behalf, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye while the Five Pointers made their living stealing and operating brothels and dance halls.

Members of the Five Points Gang around the turn of the twentieth century.

The Five Points Gang's chief rival was a giant mob of mostly Jewish hoodlums led by a former dance-hall sheriff (bouncer) named Edward "Monk" Eastman. A legend in his own lifetime, Eastman was a ferocious street fighter who led his men into action against the hated Five Points mob regularly.  On one occasion in September 1903, they staged a pitched gun battle on Rivington Street that left three men dead and a score of others wounded. At one point, Eastman and Kelly agreed to face off against each other in bare-knuckled combat in an abandoned barn in neutral Bronx territory; the two gang bosses battered each other to a draw. After Monk Eastman was sentenced to prison in 1904 for a botched robbery, his gang began to splinter. As a result, Kelly's Five Pointers were then noted as the most powerful gang in the city.

It was most probably around 1905-1906 that the teenaged John Mestrett began moving within the Five Points Gang. He most probably started small, picking pockets on crowded streets and trolleys before moving up to burglary and armed robbery. Due to his Latin heritage, Mestrett soon became known as "Spanish John" amongst the Five Points crowd. Before long, it was inevitably transposed into "Johnny Spanish." His brother Giuseppe (Joseph) soon joined him on the streets; he would be appropriately nicknamed "Joey Spanish." Despite an undersized build, Johnny attacked an opponent with the ferocity of a wolverine. Sometime during his Five Points apprenticeship, Johnny sustained a bullet wound to the face that knocked out three teeth and left an ugly scar on his cheek near his mouth. By the mid-1900s, the monolithic Five Points Gang followed the Eastman Gang's led and began to fragment into independent crews. Two former Five Pointers, Biff Ellison and Razor Riley, attempted to kill Paul Kelly at the New Brighton hall in November 1905. Kelly was wounded in the gunplay, his life saved when bodyguard Bill Harrington took a fatal bullet meant for his boss. While Kelly survived his wounds, he began easing himself out of the day-to-day business of running the Five Points mob.

Virtually no precise information about Johnny Spanish's early criminal career has survived; he was basically one of the many faceless Five Points thugs who wreaked havoc amongst the slums of the Lower East Side. However, subsequent events show that Spanish was a cut above the usual East Side thug. Intelligent and industrious, he appears to have broken away from the Five Points mob sometime around the age of twenty. Despite his Italian/Spanish heritage, most of the hoods he attracted under his banner were Jewish. As a result, many accounts have labeled John Mestrett as a Spanish Jew. In fact, like Monk Eastman before him, Johnny Spanish was a Gentile who merely moved within the Jewish-American underworld. When he was subsequently sent to prison in 1911, Spanish declared his religion as "Protestant." Upon his 1919 murder, John Mestrett was given a Catholic burial in Queens' Calvary Cemetery. Despite his ability to captain a crew of young thugs, Spanish remained temperamental and something of a loner. Herbert Asbury described him this way; "Spanish was very taciturn and morose, and was inclined to brood over his troubles, real or imagined...Spanish never stirred abroad without two revolvers stuck in his belt, and when he was on important errands he carried two more stuffed into his coat pockets, besides the regulation equipment of blackjack and brass knuckles."

By the year 1909, Johnny Spanish was a twenty-year-old crook that bossed a group of mostly Jewish thieves on the Lower East Side. As his criminal career progressed, Johnny and his brother Joey began using the alias of Weiler (also spelled Wheiler in some contemporary sources). Like most criminals of the era, they appear to have modified their names to shield their families from shame. Herbert Asbury wrote that Johnny claimed to be related to Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish general and colonial administrator of Cuba and the Philippines whose brutal tactics in crushing the Cuban Rebellion earned him the nickname of "Butcher Weyler." No contemporary source confirms Johnny Spanish making such a claim, and while it is uncertain if it has any merit, his mother Rose was noted as using the name "Weiler" in the 1920 Census. It's possible that this may have been a variation of her maiden name. Regardless of the Weyler connection's veracity, it is easy to imagine Johnny letting the hoods of the Lower East Side think he was kin to Butcher Weyler, as such a claim would merely add to his growing mystique. Indeed, quite a few young Jewish hoodlums hitched their wagon to Johnny Spanish Train as the decade came to a close. Some of those who rolled with him were his younger brother Joey, Hyman Benjamin, and "Lefty" Kantor. Johnny's most gifted recruit would turn out to be his eventual nemesis.

Nathan Caplin was a muscular Jewish youth the same age as Johnny Spanish. Accounts are mixed as to how Caplin came upon his nickname of "Kid Dropper." The most widely told story was that Nathan worked a scam as a Lower East Side youth where he would perform the "drop swindle," which featured Nathan dropping a wallet filled with counterfeit cash near an unsuspecting mark. As the pigeon reached to pick up the wallet, Caplin would swoop in and snatch up the billfold. Nathan would then tell the target that he was in a hurry and offer to let them have the wallet of "cash" in exchange for some slight compensation. Then, the victim could take the wallet to its rightful owner and collect an even bigger reward of their own. The second origin story for the nickname was much more coarse, stemming from Caplin's ability to "drop" his opponents with just one blow of his fist or knife. Like Johnny Spanish, Caplan came from the impoverished neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, stealing from pushcarts and unsuspecting passerby. Also, like Spanish, Caplin sought to shield his family and confuse the cops by modifying his name, to Kaplan. The Dropper presented a daunting mix of brains and brawn and was much more gregarious than the mysterious Spanish. Despite their personality differences, the two hit it off and began to cut a swath through the Lower East Side.
   
Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan around the age of twenty.

In 1909, the Lower East Side gang scene was in something of a state of flux. Monk Eastman's successor, Max "Kid Twist" Zweifach, had been gunned down at Coney Island with his bodyguard Samuel Pristrich aka Cyclone Louie a year earlier by a Five Points gangster named Louie "The Lump" Pioggi. After an extended period, the Eastmans had been taken over by Abe Lewis, a first cousin of  Cyclone Louie. Ex-Five Pointers like Jack Sirocco and Chick Tricker ran their sections of the neighborhood, but Johnny Spanish set his sights on carving out his own slice of the pie. After Abe Lewis was convicted of a grocery store robbery in the autumn of 1909 and sent off to Sing Sing Prison for nineteen years, Johnny Spanish seems to have moved in to attempt to exploit his absence by going into the "labor slugging" business. As labor unions began forming in the newly industrialized America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, companies started hiring thugs to act as strikebreakers and to discourage union activity. In response, the newly forming unions hired muscle of their own to protect striking workers and to recruit new members, sometimes by force. Both sides would often face off on the picket line, verbally and physically attacking their opponents, often with the connivance of local law enforcement. Into this tumultuous breach came Johnny Spanish and his crew, who was hired by the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the autumn of 1909 to break a strike.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, located at the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The factory employed about 500 workers, most of them immigrant women, who worked long hours sewing women's blouses (called 'shirtwaists' in the vernacular of the era) under crowded and unsafe conditions; the plant's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, regularly locked and chained the doors of their business in order to prevent worker theft and unexcused absences. By the beginning of November 1909, the Triangle's workers began protesting the inhumane working conditions and talked of unionizing. As a result, management locked out the bulk of the plant's workforce, roughly 500 workers. Each day on the picket line, the seamstresses were picketing in front of the Asch Building. Members of the Women's Trade Union League appeared on the scene to show solidarity with the workers and to attempt to organize them. Police friendly to Triangle management menaced them at every turn. One officer growled to a young union organizer named Helen Marot, "You uptown scum, keep out of this or you'll find yourselves in jail!" Indeed, a total of ninety-eight women were hauled off to jail for protesting.

Some of the labor organizers who picketed in favor of the Triangle Shirtwaist strikers.

While the police posed a hazard to the strikers, a more direct threat came in the form of Johnny Spanish and his gang, who verbally abused and occasionally physically assaulted the strikers. A picketer named Annie Pardwin filed a complaint against Morris Goldfarb, one of Spanish's goons. Pardwin charged that Goldfarb had, "rushed up to her, slammed her against a wall near the shop and struck her with his fist, at the same time exercising his vocabulary to its limit." Johnny Spanish himself was accused by the picketers of assaulting Joe Zeinfeld, one of the locked out workers. Spanish beat Zeinfeld so severely he had to be hospitalized. Several female picketers cried out to policemen as Spanish ran from the scene. It was reported that an officer caught up with Spanish, calmly spoke with him, and watched as the young gangster casually walked away from the scene unmolested. Eventually, the strike was settled and business as usual resumed at the factory, due in no small part to the labor slugging done by Johnny Spanish and his men. It wasn't until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire sixteen months later - and 146 workers were killed - that the world at large finally recognized the inhumane employment practices of the plant's owners.

"All the horse shows in the world, it seems, they never try so hard to keep up interest in horseflesh, are unavailing - the last straw - night riders and bold bandits come galloping into town to shoot up folks and places mounted on taxicabs." So began the New York Sun's November 13, 1909 article that introduced New Yorkers at large to Johnny Spanish and his crew. Fresh from their successful labor slugging mission, the Spanish crew decided to go on a bit of a rampage. It seems the trouble started on the evening of Wednesday, November 10, when bandits held up the Jefferson Coterie Club on Henry Street. Whether or not Johnny and his bunch were victimized here, they decided on a grand gesture of retaliation the very next night. Automobiles were still the province of the upper crust in the autumn of 1909, as horse-drawn vehicles still significantly outnumbered cars on New York streets. For those that did not own them, there were garages around the city that would rent autos to trustworthy individuals for short periods. It's not sure if this is how Johnny Spanish and his crew procured three taxicab automobiles, but somehow or another, the young gangsters were mobile and looking for revenge. Their actions that night suggest their behavior may have been artificially induced by alcohol or cocaine.

Around 8:30 that Thursday evening, three taxicabs were noted as cruising along Broome Street until they came to a stop. Johnny Spanish and about a dozen of his crew exited the three vehicles and began visiting saloons as if looking for someone. At Pitt and Grand streets, they happened across Assemblyman Aaron Levy, who was speaking to a judge. Bullets began flying in his direction, sending the assemblyman and judge running for cover. The gunmen proceeded to shoot up windows and streetlamps in the immediate vicinity. After this attack, the Spanish crew retreated to the waiting taxicabs. Around midnight, they showed up at Max Schnur's basement saloon and shot the place up. Customers were thoroughly terrorized, and all the mirrors behind the bar were smashed by bullets. Mike Kulisky and Sam Klein, sarcastically described as "innocent bystanders" by the Sun, received minor wounds in the attack. Police were thoroughly roused and rounded up hoods from all over Lower Manhattan that night, including Jake Siegel aka Kid Jigger and a William Albert, soon to become notorious as Big Jack Zelig.

The November 1909 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike and the subsequent taxicab rampage gave Johnny Spanish and his crew a modicum of notoriety in the Lower Manhattan underworld. Brimming with confidence and audacity, Spanish began looking to expand into other rackets. Spanish let it be known that he and his men were available for freelance muscle work. In addition to the usual pickpocketing, burglaries, armed robberies, and labor slugging, Spanish began muscling into underground stuss games. Stuss, known outside the neighborhood as Jewish faro, was favored in the underworld as the house won all the money when two money when equal cards were drawn, as opposed to just half in standard faro. Such an action greatly increased profits for those hoodlums who ran the game. Johnny Spanish would often approach stuss operators and demand a substantial percentage of their daily earnings under the penalty of death. Spanish's gangland spoils had enabled him to buy a new house for his family members at 31 Lexington Avenue in the up-and-coming Maspeth section of Queens. The quiet, suburban setting provided an excellent escape for members of the Mistretta family. Soon Johnny's older sister Antonietta (Kate) had moved into the house with her husband Paul Ciccarelli and their growing family. Their mother Rose and Johnny's brother Joey also called the Maspeth house home.

Around the time that he was spreading his wings in early 1910, Johnny Spanish fell in love. Like many other Lower Manhattan gangsters, Spanish had a roving eye when it came to women and picked them up wherever he could; the dance halls, the theaters, the Coney Island boardwalk during summer months. Johnny had fallen hard for an attractive nineteen-year-old girl named Beatrice Konstant (or Kaplan - no relation to Kid Dropper). Herbert Asbury wrote that Spanish, "...was seized with a burning desire to ornament his adored one with silks and precious stones." In falling in love with Beatrice, Johnny Spanish (without even realizing it) had set in motion a chain of events that would eventually seal his fate.

Like any worthy New York gang boss, Johnny Spanish ruthlessly enforced his will within his own crew and was sometimes called upon to meet out some intra-gang discipline. In early May 1910, two of his men got into a deadly feud; Charles Manheimer stabbed a fellow gangster known as "The Kid" (believed to be Kid Dropper) several times. As The Kid recovered from his wounds, Manheimer avoided his usual haunts. On the evening of May 25, Spanish and Kid Dropper caught up with their wayward comrade at the corner of Norfolk and Hester streets. Manheimer got a bullet in his back that shattered his spine. Rushed to the hospital, the severely wounded gangster growled, "If I don't get a wooden overcoat I'll get the man who shot me without help from you 'bulls.'" Twenty-three-year-old Charles Manheimer died of his wound on June 12.

Buffalo Enquirer

The fatal shooting of his former underling was all in a day's work for Johnny Spanish, who immediately decided to move in on one of the more profitable stuss games in Lower Manhattan. Jacob Siegel, better known in the underworld as "Jigger" or "Kid Jigger," ran the game in question on Forsyth Street. Herbert Asbury gave a dramatic version of the Kid Jigger/Johnny Spanish confrontation, complete with invented old-timey dialogue, in Gangs of New York. Contemporary accounts indicate that there was nothing cinematic about their brief and brutal encounter. Around ten o'clock on the warm evening of May 29, Spanish showed up at Kid Jigger's game with Hyman Benjamin. Spanish bluntly informed Jigger that he was now entitled to half of his stuss profits. While he may not have been the cold-blooded killer that Spanish was, Jigger was still a product of the mean streets of the Lower East Side. As such, he refused Spanish's extortion demand. The gang boss then informed him that he would have to fight it out in the street. After Spanish and Benjamin left, Kid Jigger prepared himself as well as he could by arming himself with a cheap .32 caliber revolver. Jigger then exited his game into the warm spring night and headed north to the intersection of Forsyth and Grand streets. 

According to eyewitness accounts, Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were waiting for Kid Jigger at the corner; there may have been three other men standing just beyond them. After a brief conversation with the gang boss, Jigger stepped back and reached for his pistol. The frantic stuss game operator managed to get one harmless shot off before his flight instinct overwhelmed its fight counterpart and he sprinted for cover while one of his adversaries emptied a pistol at him. One of these bullets, unfortunately, struck a thirteen-year-old girl named Rachael Rooten in the abdomen as she passed through the corner. As she went down screaming, Spanish and his compadres made their escape. Police immediately swarmed the scene and began investigating while Miss Rooten was rushed to the hospital. The cops collared a man who gave his name as Max Hess and who had seemed to have sustained a minor wound to his thumb in the fray. Kid Jigger eventually fell into police hands and claimed that Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were behind the trouble at the corner that evening, explicitly saying that it was Benjamin who had tried to kill him and accidentally shot the young girl. After much suffering, young Rachael Rooten succumbed to her wound on June 11.

With two very public murders now credited to him, Johnny Spanish was subjected to a citywide manhunt. While Hyman Benjamin was arrested and charged with Rachael Rooten's killing, Spanish fled the city to let the heat die down a bit. Leaving behind his gangland kingdom and girlfriend Beatrice Konstant, the twenty-one-year-old gangster reportedly cooled his heels in Detroit for the duration of the summer of 1910. When Spanish returned to New York in September, he received a considerable shock when he discovered that his beloved Beatrice had cuckolded him with one of his chief underlings, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan. His youthful passions and temper aroused, Johnny Spanish's hurt honor demanded immediate vengeance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Athens, Lonnie. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Champaign, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1992.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1927.
Fried, Albert. The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America. New York, Columbia
University Press, 1993.
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.

24 June 2019

Peers salute Genovese after murder acquittal

On this date in 1946...

Leaders of Mafia crime families based in the eastern U.S.  assembled at Midtown Manhattan's Hotel Diplomat, 108-116 West 43rd Street, on June 24, 1946, for a welcome home banquet in honor of Vito Genovese, according to Dom Frasca's book King of Crime (New York: Crown Publishers, 1959). Pittson, Pennsylvania, boss Santo Volpe was the first to greet the guest of honor, Frasca wrote. Reportedly the most senior of the crime bosses in attendance, Volpe led "Don Vitone" to a leather chair at the head of table. The remaining twenty-seven Mafiosi, standing around the table, offered their greetings and congratulations.

Genovese actually had been home in the United States for a few weeks by then. He returned from Italy June 1 in the custody of the U.S. Army Provost Marshal's Office and was turned over to New York prosecutors to stand trial for ordering "hits" on Ferdinand "the Shadow" Boccia and William Gallo in 1934. Boccia was murdered, but Gallo survived. (Genovese also was suspected of calling for the 1943 murder of anti-Fascist editor Carlo Tresca.)

As underboss to Salvatore "Charlie Luciano" Lucania in the summer of 1936, Genovese was poised to take control of a sprawling and highly profitable crime family when Lucania was convicted of compulsory prostitution and given a lengthy prison sentence.

Genovese was naturalized a U.S. citizen in November 1936, but almost immediately obtained a passport to leave the country, as he feared prosecution for the Boccia murder. He served the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini during World War II but then worked as an interpreter for the occupying American forces beginning in January 1944.

Murder suspects: Genovese, Mike Miranda, George Smurra, Gus Frasca.
(Brooklyn Eagle)

While he was away, Brooklyn prosecutors built the murder case against Genovese and other crime family leaders, largely through the confession of Ernest "the Hawk" Rupolo, who took part in the attacks on Boccia and Gallo, and corroborating testimony of witness Peter LaTempa. On August 7, 1944, a Kings County grand jury indicted Genovese for homicide. That news was transmitted to military officials, and Genovese was arrested in Italy by the end of the month.

It took months for the extradition process to begin. During that process, prosecutors' only corroborating witness, LaTempa, died in a prison holding cell of a mysterious drug overdose. Corroborating testimony was essential to the case, as state law would not permit conviction based solely on the testimony of an accomplice in the crime.

Prosecutors went ahead with the case following Genovese's return. Genovese was arraigned for the Boccia murder in Kings County Court on June 2, 1946. Trial began on June 6. Rupolo stepped to the witness stand the next day and testified that he was hired by Genovese to eliminate Boccia and Gallo. William Gallo also testified. The state rested its case that day, and the defense immediately moved that the charge against Genovese be dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Hotel Diplomat
(Museum of City of New York)
Judge Samuel Leibowitz (a former criminal defense attorney) dismissed the indictment and directed a verdict of not guilty. But he clearly wasn't happy about the situation. "I am constrained by law to dismiss the indictment and direct the jury to acquit you," the judge stated. "...You and your criminal henchmen thwarted justice time and again by devious means, among which were the terrorizing of witnesses, kidnaping them, yes, even murdering those who could give evidence against you. I cannot speak for the jury, but I believe that if there were even a shred of corroborating evidence, you would have been condemned to the chair."

Genovese was freed on June 10, two weeks before the Hotel Diplomat gathering reported by Dom Frasca.

Years of "government" work - first with Fascists and later with occupiers - apparently left Genovese with a large nest egg (or perhaps his colleagues gave him more than just greetings and food at the banquet). One month after the welcome home party, Genovese purchased a $40,000 seaside home at 130 Ocean Boulevard, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. The deal was reportedly made in cash.

Genovese once again became a key figure in the former Lucania Crime Family.

A decade later, following a 1957 botched murder attempt that left a lasting impression on boss Frank Costello's mind as well as his scalp, Genovese finally moved into the top spot of an organization that would from that time on be associated with his name.

Sources:

  • "'Hawk' tips off police to 4 slayings," Brooklyn Eagle, Aug. 9, 1944, p. 1.
  • "Arrest in Italy in Tresca slaying," New York Post, Nov. 24, 1944.
  • "Chronological history of La Cosa Nostra in the United States," Organized Crime: 25 Years After Valachi,Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Washington D.C, 1988.
  • "Court weighs motion to acquit Genovese," New York Times, June 8, 1946.
  • "Death of four is laid to gang," New York Sun, Aug. 9, 1944, p. 6.
  • "Genovese, cleared of murder, buys $40,000 manse in Jersey," New York Sun, Aug. 16, 1946, p. 5.
  • "Genovese denies guilt," New York Times, June 3, 1945.
  • "Genovese free in murder case," New York Sun, June 10, 1946, p. 1.
  • "Murder trade's jargon explained in court," New York Sun, June 7, 1946, p. 1.
  • "Warrants out for 6 in 1934 gang murder," New York Daily News, Aug. 8, 1944, p. 28.
  • Frasca, Dom, King of Crime, New York: Crown Publishers, 1959.
  • Manifest of S.S. James Lykes, departed Bari, Italy, on May 17, 1945, arrived NYC June 1, 1945.
  • People v. Vito Genovese, Ind. #921/44, Brooklyn District Attorney.
  • Vito Genovese naturalization record, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, petition mo. 256403, filed Dec. 19, 1935, certificate no. 4129975, Nov. 25, 1936, canceled Sept. 1, 1955.

02 May 2019

Frank Costello: 'Somebody tried to get me'

NYC underworld leader survives assassination attempt

On this date in 1957...


New York City crime boss Frank Costello suffered only a superficial wound late on the evening of May 2, 1957, when a tall, hulking gunman fired a bullet at the back of his head.

The assassination attempt, along with legal battles relating to a tax evasion conviction and government attempts to revoke his citizenship, convinced Costello to retire from crime family leadership. Vito Genovese stepped in as boss of the organization that has since been known as the Genovese Crime Family.

May 2, 1957

Earlier on the night of May 2, Costello, the sixty-six-year-old leader of Salvatore "Lucky Luciano" Lucania's former organization, had dinner with his wife at the Monsignore Restaurant, 61 East 55th Street in Manhattan. They were joined by a number of friends, including New York Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope, Jr. (who, with loans from Costello, would build his newspaper into the National Enquirer), and modeling agent Philip Kennedy. Costello decided to leave the party "early."

New York Times
Leaving Mrs. Costello at the restaurant with their friends, Costello and Kennedy took a taxi for the one and a half mile trip to the Majestic Apartments, 115 Central Park West, near 72nd Street. The taxi pulled up to the building shortly before 11 p.m. Costello and Kennedy spoke briefly, and Costello exited the vehicle.

The Mafia leader passed through an exterior door, descended two stairs and was opening an interior door to the building lobby when the large man in a dark suit and dark hat ran up behind him, said, "This is for you, Frank," and fired a single shot.

Kennedy heard the gunshot as his taxi pulled away from the curb. He told the driver to stop, and he jumped out and rushed to Costello.

The underworld boss had staggered to a lobby bench. Blood was oozing from a wound that stretched across the back of his scalp. Red blotches stained his jacket and shirt collar. He told Kennedy, "Somebody tried to get me."

A taxi was summoned to take Costello to Roosevelt Hospital, where it was found that the bullet had not penetrated his skull. Mrs. Costello joined her husband at the hospital at 11:50 p.m.

Investigation

About an hour later, police escorted a bandaged Costello to the West 54th Street Police Station, where he was questioned.

Though one Roosevelt Hospital doctor believed the nature of the scalp wound indicated that Costello turned toward the gunman at the moment the shot was fired, Costello insisted that he did not see who shot him and had no enemies in the world. "I didn't see nothing," he said. "I feel fine."

Costello claimed that he did not hear the gunman approach and did not even hear the shot that hit him. He merely felt a stinging sensation behind one ear and, when he touched the spot, felt the wetness of his blood.



The doorman of the Majestic Apartments told police that he saw the large gunman get out of a Cadillac double-parked behind the taxi that brought Costello home. He recalled that the man seemed to waddle as he rushed toward Costello. The gunman returned to the Cadillac after firing the single shot, and the vehicle sped away south on Central Park West. The Cadillac had curtains in its rear windows and no light on its license plate, according to the doorman.

(At some point that night, police acquired a slip of paper that had been in Costello's possession. After a fair amount of study, it was determined that numbers written on the paper - 651,284 - matched the gross gambling earnings of the Las Vegas Tropicana Hotel for the period April 3 to April 26. The opening of the Tropicana's casino had been delayed due to reported links to Costello associate Phil Kastel. The State of Nevada granted a license to the casino only after being assured that it had severed its connections with the underworld. Costello's slip of paper strongly suggested a continuing relationship.)

The Chin

For months, dozens of NYPD detectives struggled to identify the shooter. (They even picked up Carl Lucania, cousin of former boss Salvatore Lucania, for questioning, holding him on a vagrancy charge until June 25.) In July, they heard from sources that the gunman was former prizefighter Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. It took until late August to find and arrest Gigante.

Later in the year, resolving the attempted assassination of Costello was shoved to a back-burner, as authorities were busied with the assassination of Albert Anastasia and with a large-scale gathering of known underworld figures at Joseph Barbara's Apalachin, New York, home.

Gigante was tried in May 1958 for the shooting of Costello. On May 27, a jury found him not guilty, and he went free.

Gigante's connection with Vito Genovese - Costello's rival and his successor as crime family boss - became apparent weeks later, when Genovese, Gigante and several dozen others were charged with narcotics conspiracy. Authorities learned that Gigante had been assigned to eliminate Costello, so Genovese could take over the criminal organization.

Sources:
  • "Carl Lucania is freed by court," New York Daily News, June 26, 1957, p. 16.
  • "Costello gunman is sought in vain by 66 detectives," New York Times, May 4, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Costello is shot entering home; gunman escapes," New York Times, May 3, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Costello notation represents 'take' at Las Vegas Inn," Nyack NY Journal-News, June 12, 1957, p. B1.
  • "Gambler Costello shot in 'murder' attempt," Rochester NY Democrat and Chronicle, May 3, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Genovese freed in bail of $50,000," New York Times, July 9, 1958.
  • "Gigante beats rap in Costello case," Nyack NY Journal-News, May 29, 1958, p. 9.
  • "Hunt ex-boxer in shooting of Frank Costello," New York Daily News, July 17, 1957, p. 5.
  • "Jury frees Gigante in Costello shooting," New York Times, May 28, 1958, p. 1.
  • "U.S. jury indicts Genovese, Gigante in narcotics plot," New York Times, July 8, 1958, p. 1.
  • Federici, William, "Hogan links Costello's 'notes' to Vegas casino," New York Daily News, June 12, 1957, p. 4.
  • Katz, Leonard, Uncle Frank: The Biography of Frank Costello, New York: Drake Publishers, 1973, p. 203-209.
  • Machirella, Henry, and Henry Lee, "Jail ex-boxer for trying to kill Costello," New York Daily News, Aug. 20, 1957, p. 2.
  • McCarthy, Robert, Joseph Donnelly and Jack Smee, "Costello shot in ambush at door of home," New York Daily News, May 3, 1957, p. 2.

17 October 2018

Charlie Lucky's painful visit to Staten Island

On this date in 1929...

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Charles "Lucky" Lucania (later known as Charlie Luciano) was staggering along Hylan Boulevard at Prince's Bay just outside Tottenville, Staten Island, on the morning of October 17, 1929. Patrolman Blanke of the Tottenville Police Station took notice. Blanke saw that Lucania, a known Manhattan racketeer, had a badly bruised and swollen face and several knife wounds in his back.

Lucania told the police officer that he had been "taken for a ride" but provided no additional information. The wounded gangster was driven to Richmond Memorial Hospital for treatment.

While at the hospital, he was interrogated by Detective Gustave Schley. During the questioning, Lucania stated that he was standing at the corner of Fiftieth Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan the previous evening when several men forced him into an automobile and drove him away. According to Lucania's statement, his mouth was sealed with adhesive tape, his hands were cuffed together and he was forced to the floor of the vehicle. He was beaten and stabbed by his captors, and he eventually lost consciousness. When he regained his senses, he found himself on a roadside in Staten Island.

Lucania offered police no clue to the motivation of those who abducted and beat him.

NY Daily News

Later on October 17, Lucania was arraigned on a charge of grand larceny. He was released twelve days later, and the grand larceny charge was subsequently dropped. Lucania recovered from his wounds, but was left with visible damage to his face.

One of the persistent legends related to Lucania's "ride" states that his survival caused him to acquire his "Lucky" nickname. In fact, the press coverage of the incident proves that Lucania was already known by that nickname when the incident occurred.

The reason for Lucania's abduction remains a mystery.

The authorities and the press immediately speculated that underworld rivals intended to kill him and believed him to be mortally wounded when they tossed him from the automobile on Staten Island.

Burton Turkus, prosecutor of Murder Inc. cases, later asserted that Lucania was kidnaped and beaten by a rival gang trying to locate a cache of narcotics. Biographer Sid Feder also thought drugs were involved. He suggested that federal agents, trying to track a narcotics shipment from overseas, attempted to beat information out of Lucania. The authors of The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano dramatically but clumsily attributed the beating to a Mafia insurrection - an uprising that only began months after Lucania's beating.*

Sal Vizzini, a former undercover narcotics agent, said he was told by Lucania that New York police officers were responsible for his beating. Lucania told him the police were trying to locate Jack "Legs" Diamond and knew that Lucania at that time was part of Diamond's gang. Diamond went into hiding after being indicted in the summer of 1929 for murders at the Hotsy Totsy Club.


* It is generally accepted that the Castellammarese War erupted after Lucania's Mafia superior, Giuseppe Masseria, ordered the killings of underworld leaders Gaetano Reina and Gaspare Milazzo. Those killings occurred in February 1930 and May 1930. Salvatore Maranzano, leader of anti-Masseria forces in New York City during the Castellammarese War and the man Last Testament claims was responsible for Lucania's beating, was not in a position to command Masseria opponents until summer of 1930.

Sources:

  • "'Ride' victim wakes up on Staten Island," New York Times, Oct. 18, 1929.
  • "Charles Lucania told police how he lived up to his name 'Lucky,'" Lebanon PA Daily News, Oct. 17, 1929, p. 7.
  • "Charles Luciana, with aliases," FBI memorandum, file no. 39-2141-X, Aug. 28, 1935, p. 4.
  • "Chuck Lucania stabbed twice but survives," Miami FL News, Oct. 18, 1929, p. 22.
  • "Gangster 'taken for ride' lives to tell about it," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 17, 1929, p. 1.
  • "Gangster lives after 'taking ride,'" Syracuse Journal, Oct. 17, 1929, p. 1.
  • "Lucania is called shallow parasite," New York Times, June 19, 1936.
  • "Ride victim found with throat cut," New York Daily News, Oct. 17, 1929, p. 4.
  • "Ride victim who escaped locked up to save life," New York Daily News, Oct. 18, 1929, p. 4.
  • "Taken for ride and left 'dead,' gangster lives," Rochester NY Democrat and Chronicle, Oct. 18, 1929, p. 9.
  • Feder, Sid, and Joachim Joesten, The Luciano Story, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994 (originally published in 1954), p. 66-72.
  • Gosch, Martin A., and Richard Hammer, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1975, p. 115-120.
  • Turkus, Burton B., and Sid Feder, Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate, New York: Da Capo Press, 1992 (originally published in 1951), p. 82.
  • Vizzini, Sal, with Oscar Fraley and Marshall Smith, Vizzini: The Story of America's No, 1 Undercover Narcotics Agent, New York: Pinnacle, 1972, p. 158-159.

18 July 2018

Mafia infiltrates Federal Bureau of Investigation

On this date in 1975...

Camden Courier-Post
Former FBI office clerk Irene Kuczynski on July 18, 1975, admitted in federal court to photocopying secret Bureau investigation files and providing the copies to New Jersey underworld figure John DiGilio.

Mrs. Kuczynski, twenty-two, and her husband George, twenty-four, testified as the first prosecution witnesses in the Newark, New Jersey, federal trial of DiGilio and three other men. (The case initially involved several other co-defendants.)

DiGilio
Mr. Kuczynski testified that he was approached in 1971 by defendant Peter Szwandrak of Bayonne, New Jersey, who worked with him at Western Electric in the Newark suburb of Kearny. Szwandrak knew that Mrs. Kuczynski, then eighteen, was a member of the stenographic pool at the FBI's Newark offices and asked if she could obtain copies of information the FBI had assembled on DiGilio's criminal activities. Szwandrak promised "there'd be money in it" for the young married couple if they assisted DiGilio.

Refusing at first to take part in the plot, Mrs. Kuczynski only agreed after suffering several beatings at the hands of her husband. She then made photocopies of parts of DiGilio's file several times between fall of 1971 and spring of 1972. She hid the copies and smuggled them out of the office.

"I would put them in my purse and sometimes I would put them in a knitting bad and other times I would put them in my girdle to take them out," she stated.

Asked her reason for participating in the scheme, Mrs. Kuczynski first responded, "Because I loved my husband very much and I didn't want to lose him in any way." She then recalled her initial hesitation and revealed, "George beat me up black and blue numerous times."

After receiving the copied pages, Mr. Kuczynski delivered them to DiGilio or to DiGilio's co-defendants. He stated that he met with DiGilio in a back room of the Italian American Civil Rights Club in Bayonne. DiGilio provided payments between $20 and $200 for the papers. "Some of them were good, and some of them he didn't like and he wanted better stuff," Mr. Kuczynski explained when questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Robertson.

Mr. Kuczynski found it profitable to turn the documents over a few pages at a time. He told the court that DiGilio provided him "an extra $200 as a Christmas bonus."

At the time the reports were stolen, the FBI was investigating DiGilio's role in loan sharking and extortion rackets in New Jersey and New York City. Federal authorities identified DiGilio as an important member of the Genovese Crime Family. Some of the stolen documents were transcriptions from FBI electronic surveillance. In addition, documents included the names of four underworld informants.

The Kuczynskis were charged for their part in the document theft in 1974, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against DiGilio. The government held them in protective custody.

DiGilio, a forty-two-year-old resident of Paramus, was brought to trial for aiding and abetting the document theft. His co-defendants were Bayonne residents Szwandrak, Harry Lupo and John Grillo.

Before the trial began, the defense team argued that DiGilio was not mentally competent to stand trial due to brain damage suffered during a twelve-year boxing career. After hearing competing testimony from expert witnesses, federal Judge H. Curtis Meanor pronounced DiGilio competent in June. Just as trial was scheduled to open, DiGilio won a short postponement because of injuries he claimed he suffered in an automobile accident. The only witnesses to the accident were three DiGilio associates who had only hazy recollections of it. (DiGilio had a history of conveniently timed but unverifiable health problems. Once he collapsed during a trial and claimed to be suffering from a heart ailment. Doctors found his heart to be healthy. For an earlier trial, DiGilio appeared at the defense table in a wheelchair.)

A few days after the Kuczynskis testified, DiGilio defense counsel called witnesses who stated that George Kuczynski came up with the document theft plan on his own as a money-making scheme and offered documents to a number of Bayonne-area individuals investigated by the FBI.

During the trial, a large number of "burly supporters of DiGilio" took seats in the courtroom gallery. During recesses, these spectators lined up in the hallway to give DiGilio a friendly slap on the back and wish him luck. One of the well-wishers, according to New Jersey press reports, was former Middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano. (Graziano and other boxers attended a DiGilio trial in 1987 as well.)

Asbury Park Press
A number of DiGilio's boxing pals came out to show 

support during a 1987 trial. They included Rocco 
Graziano, Joe Frazier and Jake LaMotta.


The trial jury deliberated for nine hours on July 30 before finding DiGilio, Lupo and Szwandrak guilty. Defendant Grillo was acquitted.

In September, Judge Meanor sentenced DiGilio to nine years in prison (one year less than the maximum sentence) and a $10,000 fine. Szwandrak and Lupo were sentenced to six months behind bars.

For their part in the document theft, the Kuczynskis were given five-year suspended sentences in mid-February of 1976. They were assigned new identities and relocated through the witness protection program.

DiGilio remained free pending his appeal. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia the following summer trimmed about eight years from his sentence.

DiGilio's troubles with the law continued for about another decade. Through that time, he became a liability to Mafia higher-ups. In late May of 1988, his lifeless body was found floating in the Hackensack River near Carlstadt, New Jersey.

The final years of John DiGilio's life are discussed in "Death of 'Benny Eggs' severs link to Genovese Family's foundation," on The American Mafia history website.

Sources:
  • "DiGilio is ruled sane after secret hearing," New York Daily News, June 20, 1975, p. 82.
  • "DiGilio too hurt to stand trial?" Camden NJ Courier-Post, July 15, 1975, p. 24.
  • "Ex-FBI typist sold data to an alleged mobster," Camden NJ Courier-Post, July 19, 1975, p. 30.
  • "Typist admits copying FBI data on DiGilio," Asbury Park NJ Press, July 19, 1975, p. 3.
  • Wechsler, Philip, "Ex-FBI clerk tells of smuggling out reports for Mob," New York Daily News, July 19, 1975, p. 5.
  • "DiGilio lawyers vilify accuser," Asbury Park NJ Press, July 25, 1975, p. 2.
  • Wechsler, Philip, "Witness is called 'liar all his life' in FBI file trial," New York Daily News, New Jersey Edition, July 25, 1975, p. 7
  • "Rival lawyers assail DiGilio defendants, witnesses," Asbury Park NJ Press, July 30, 1975, p. 13.
  • "DiGilio, 2 men guilty," Asbury Park NJ Press, July 31, 1975, p. 3.
  • "Mobster convicted in FBI case," Camden NJ Courier-Post, July 31, 1975, p. 31.
  • "DiGilio out on bail during his appeal," Camden NJ Courier-Post, Sept. 13, 1975, p. 3.
  • "Secrecy protects thieves," Asbury Park NJ Press, Feb. 24, 1976, p. 24.
  • "Sentence sliced," Elmira NY Star-Gazette, June 12, 1976, p. 7.
  • "Body of a reputed mobster is found in a bag in river," New York Times, May 27, 1988, p. 19.

02 July 2018

July 1958: Profaci infuriates McClellan Committee

On this date in 1958...

Profaci
New York City-based Mafia boss Joseph Profaci, accompanied by attorney Samuel Paige, appeared July 2, 1958, before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (McClellan Committee). Conflict between the committee and the underworld-boss witness was evident from the opening seconds of the testimony.
Chairman John L. McClellan:   State your name, your place of residence, and your business or occupation.
Joseph Profaci:   Joseph Profaci, 8863 Fifteenth Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
Chairman:   What is your business or occupation, please?
Profaci:   I refuse to answer on the ground it might be incriminating me.
Chairman:   You what?
Profaci:   I refuse to answer on the ground...
Chairman:   I don't think you better use the word "refuse." I think that shows disrespect for your government. Do you want to place yourself in that attitude?
Profaci:   I am sorry.
Chairman:   I would use the word "decline." [1]
Senator Irving McNeil Ives, committee vice chairman, got involved in this conversation, and it was established that Profaci was reading his refusal to answer from a piece of paper provided by his attorney. Profaci said he misread the paper, on which was written, "I respectfully refuse..." Following that explanation, Ives suggested to Profaci and attorney Paige that "decline" would be a more appropriate term than "refuse."

The committee then attempted to move back to the issue of Profaci's business but instantly found itself back where it started.
Chairman: Do I understand that you are stating to this committee that if you answered the question as to what is your business or occupation, that a truthful answer to that question might tend to incriminate you?
Profaci: I refuse to answer...
Senator Ives: I wish you would stop using that word "refuse."
Profaci: I decline to answer. I am sorry.

Senator McClellan ordered Profaci to answer whether a truthful explanation of his line of work could be incriminating to Profaci. Profaci attempted to decline again. The chairman pointed out that it could not possibly be incriminating to answer whether he believed another answer would be incriminating. Profaci yielded to that logic and answered, "Yes, I believe" that stating his business would be incriminating. [2]

Though committee members made an issue of Profaci's refusal to answer this rather superficial question, it was hardly surprising. The previous day, reputed Mafiosi James V. LaDuca, Rosario Mancuso and Louis A. Larasso cited the Fifth Amendment in their refusals to answer all manner of questions.[3]

Robert Kennedy
The committee already had an idea of Profaci's business. A summary provided by Chief Counsel Robert Kennedy's investigative staff as the Mafia hearings opened described Profaci: "At Apalachin meeting. Owner of Carmela Mia Packing Co. Number of arrests in Italy and United States. An old-time, well established gangster." [4]

McClellan conferred with counsel Kennedy about whether Profaci was under indictment. "I don't believe he is," Kennedy responded. McClellan attempted to find out by asking Profaci, but received only "I decline to answer on the ground it may be incriminating to me" from the witness.

The chairman turned questioning over to the chief counsel. Kennedy attempted to open things up on a friendly basis. That didn't last long.
Chief Counsel Robert Kennedy: Mr. Profaci, we had a talk yesterday, a nice conversation; did we not? Didn't we have a little talk in the office?
Profaci: I decline to answer.
Kennedy: Mr. Profaci, your English was so much better yesterday. What has happened in the last twenty-four hours?
Profaci: I don't catch your words right.
Kennedy: You don't?
Profaci: I don't catch you.
Kennedy: You caught it awfully well yesterday, Mr. Profaci. You spoke very good and you understood everything I said.
Profaci: If you will be patient, I will catch it.
Kennedy: I don't have to be. Yesterday you spoke very freely and easily. Your accent has gotten so bad today. What happened overnight, Mr. Profaci? You understood and answered all the questions I asked you yesterday, and you spoke very easily, with very little accent. What has happened since?
Profaci: I don't catch the words right when you use big words.[5]

Profaci subsequently revealed that he was born in Palermo and became an American citizen. He hesitated to discuss his birth date, his arrival in the U.S. and his naturalization. He declined to answer questions about his early days in Chicago, visit to Joseph Barbara's home at Apalachin, family connections to the Toccos and Zerillis of Detroit, links to union officials and other associates, import/export businesses and investments in clothing manufacturing firms. When Detective Thomas O'Brien came forward to outline Profaci's arrest record in Italy and the United States, Profaci refused to confirm any aspect of the record. [6]

O'Brien and Kennedy stated that Profaci had been arrested at an apparent Mafia convention in Cleveland on December 5, 1928. Profaci would not discuss it. Vice Chairman Ives took the opportunity to ask a direct question.
Ives: May I interrupt? I would like to ask him: Are you a member of the Mafia?
Profaci: I decline to answer on the ground it might be incriminating.
Ives: ...Are you a member or aren't you?
Profaci: No; I decline to answer. No, sir.
Ives: You are not?
Profaci: No, sir.
Ives: You are under oath, you know?
Profaci: I decline to answer on the ground it may tend to incriminate me.[7]

Senator McClellan (left), Robert Kennedy (right).
Senator Mundt drew the committee's attention to correspondence from Attorney General William P. Rogers that indicated Profaci might be subject to deportation proceedings. That was generally acknowledged as a possible motivation for Profaci's refusal to answer the questions put to him. [8] Chairman McClellan attempted to resolve the issue, but probably should have known better.
Chairman: Would you like to advise us whether deportation proceedings are now pending against you or not?
Profaci: (Conferred for a time with his attorney.) I don't get you, Senator, excuse me. I am sorry.
Chairman: Let me see if I can get it to you so you will get it. Has any action been started to deport you? You know what "deport" means, don't you?
Profaci: Yes, sir.
Chairman: You know what that means?
Profaci: Yes.
Chairman: Is the government now attempting to deport you from this country?
Profaci: I decline to answer on the ground it may incriminate me.[9]

That was all McClellan could take. In halting the questioning of Profaci, he called for a transcript of the testimony to be sent to the Department of Justice to aid in the denaturalization and deportation of Profaci: 
We should rid the country of characters who come here from other lands and take advantage of the great freedom and opportunity our country affords, who come here to exploit these advantages with criminal activities. They do not belong to our land, and they ought to be sent somewhere else. In my book, they are human parasites on society, and they violate every law of decency and humanity.... [10]
When he opened the committee's Mafia-related hearings on June 30, Chairman McClellan stated, "There exists in America today what appears to be a close-knit, clandestine, criminal syndicate. This group has made fortunes in the illegal liquor traffic during Prohibition, and later in narcotics, vice and gambling. These illicit profits present the syndicate with a financial problem, which they solve through investment in legitimate business. These legitimate businesses also provide convenient cover for their continued illegal activities...

"In these hearings, and the ones to follow, we are going to call in some of the leading figures in the national criminal hierarchy. These people are all involved in legitimate enterprises, management and labor... As a starting point for our hearings, we intend to focus on the criminal group which held a meeting at the home of Joseph Mario Barbara, Sr., in Apalachin, N.Y., on November 14, 1957. The discovery of this meeting by the New York State Police had the effect of revealing the scope of the interrelationships of some of the leaders of the national crime syndicate..."[11]

Notes:
  1.  Hearings before the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (McClellan Committee), Part 32 - "Mafia," 85th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1958, p. 12337-12338.
  2.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12338.
  3.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12231-12321.
  4.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12199.
  5.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12339
  6.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12339-12349, 12351-12353.
  7.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12346.
  8.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12353-12357.
  9.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12357.
  10.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12357.
  11.  Hearings, Part 32, p. 12192-12193.

22 June 2018

Iamascia funeral is 'glittering pageant'

On this date in 1931...

Donato "Daniel" J. Iamascia's gangland funeral on June 22, 1931, became a "glittering pageant" through the Italian neighborhood of Belmont in the Bronx. Though just 29 years old at the time of his death, Iamascia had already put together a lengthy criminal résumé, was well known in the area and well connected politically.

Iamascia
An estimated 20,000 people gathered around the Iamascia home at 2313 Belmont Avenue, the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Belmont Avenue and East 187th Street and along the few city blocks between to observe the spectacle.

Iamascia, an important member of both Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer's Bronx bootlegging and gambling gang and Ciro "Artichoke King" Terranova's Mafia organization, was killed as the indirect result of a Prohibition Era gangland conflict in New York City. He had been assisting Schultz in battling an insurrection by Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, and he, Schultz and some other gang members had holed up in a ninth floor apartment at 1212 Fifth Avenue, just east of Central Park at 102nd Street. The four-room apartment had been rented by Schultz under the name of Russell Jones.

In the early morning hours of June 18, Schultz and Iamascia stepped out of the apartment building and spotted two suspicious-looking men across the street at the park. Assuming they were Coll gangsters, Schultz and Iamascia drew pistols and charged at the men. Their targets turned out to be New York City Police Detectives Julius Salke and Stephen DiRosa. Seeing their approach, Salke shouted, "We are the law!" Schultz responded by spinning about, tossing his weapon in the street and attempting to escape. Salke fired a shot into the air, convincing Schultz to surrender. Iamascia was slower to respond, and it cost him his life. As he continued to advance, Detective DiRosa fired a shot into his midsection.

Iamascia was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital nearby, while Schultz was brought to the East 104th Street Police Station for questioning and then locked up in the West Side Jail. Police found that the gang boss was in possession of more than $18,600 in cash at the time of his arrest. Three hours after the encounter with detectives, Iamascia died from his wound.

Schultz (left), Detective DiRosa (right)
After news of his death was released, numerous and massive floral displays began showing up at the Iamascia residence, a two-story, two-family brick building that was home to Iamascia, his wife, his widowed mother, three sisters, an older brother and his family and a younger brother. (Another brother of Daniel lived with his wife nearby at 2319 Belmont Avenue.) By the night before the funeral, the house could not accommodate the flowers. Additional offerings filled a two-car garage behind the building and spilled out into the driveway.

Iamascia's underworld bosses sent impressive tributes. Terranova provided a "gates ajar" flower-covered display that was twelve feet high and bore the simple message, "Sympathy." Schultz sent a diamond-shaped wreath of flowers, eight feet long and five feet tall.

A display said to have been furnished by Iamascia's mother featured a clock of flowers within a six-foot heart. The hands of the clock showed ten minutes past six, the moment that Iamascia passed away. "The Boys" sent a broken-column display eight feet in height. And "A Pal" sent a six-foot heart of roses.

On the morning of June 22, Iamascia's remains were taken from the family home in a "German silver" coffin reportedly valued at $20,000 (probably a vastly inflated figure). A procession of nearly one hundred and fifty automobiles followed the hearse to the church. Thirty-five of the cars carried the flowers. According to one report, it took the procession thirty minutes to pass any given spot on the short route.

Iamascia's coffin is taken from the family home.

Seats within the church were reserved for the Iamascia family. About three hundred and fifty people were seated, all said to be related to the deceased. About three thousand curious neighborhood residents clustered around the building.

Neither Terranova nor Schultz appeared at the funeral. Schultz remained in custody, facing charges including felonious assault and Sullivan Law violation. A government lien was placed against the cash found on him, as it was suspected that he had been evading his taxes.

After a Requiem Mass celebrated by the Rev. John Southwick of Dobbs Ferry, New York, a family friend, the cortège proceeded to St. Raymond's Cemetery. Iamascia's coffin was placed temporarily in a receiving vault. It was reported that Iamascia had recently contracted for the construction of a $25,000 family vault  - his father had died a year earlier - that was not yet completed.

The Iamascia family announced that it was pursuing a civil lawsuit against Detective DiRosa for his conduct during the incident. The NYPD found no reason to criticize either of the involved detectives. In fact, on the morning after Daniel Iamascia's funeral, both were promoted from third grade to second grade detective.