Since Kindle bestselling historical novel Divide the Dawn has come out, which features the White Hand Gang, there has been rising interest in the 1910s ruffian brawlers and brutal gals that wreaked havoc in Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront era.
The White Hand Gang was a real, Irish-American street and dock gang composed of wild teens and men in their 20s based along the waterfront area of North Brooklyn from about 1905 to the early 1930s. Its name was inspired by the Italian “Black Hand” of South Brooklyn. The White Hand’s traditional headquarters was a saloon on Bridge Street called the Dock Loaders’ Club in an area known as Irishtown, which was settled by Irish refugees from the Great Hunger (widely known as the Irish potato famine) of 1845-1852. The gang famously forced Al Capone to leave Brooklyn for Chicago in 1919.
There has been some confusion about the gang that is featured in Divide the Dawn. And rightfully so as there is a lot of misinformation available on the internet. So let’s get real about the real history.
Willie Sutton was born in Irishtown in 1901. He grew up to be the world’s most famous bank robber. In the opening chapter of his memoir Where the Money Was, he said “Irishtown Made Me. . . I was born (and raised there).”
Sutton said growing up in Irishtown, the leaders of the White Hand Gang were the local boys’ heroes and that, quote: “Scarface Al Capone was a member of the (rival) Italian mob, and it was common knowledge in later years that he had gone to Chicago because the Irish mob played too rough.”
There were a number of gangs along the waterfront in Brooklyn during the early 1900s. The Swamp Angels, who were based on the Lower East Side and were mostly eradicated by the year 1900, often operated as East River pirates on the Brooklyn side. The Frankie Byrne Gang, a little known outfit based in the neighborhoods where the two bridge approaches reached into Brooklyn. The Red Onion Gang hung out around Warren Street and the Atlantic and Baltic terminals (Dinny Meehan was an original member of this collection of fist-fighting youths). The Jay Street Gang were based, obviously, on Jay Street underneath the Manhattan Bridge (Bill Lovett’s original gang). Then there were Italian gangs too, like the Sicilian Black Hand, based along the Gowanus Canal and the Navy Street Gang close to the Navy Yard, who were known as Camorra Italians by the Navy Yard.
This loose collection of gangs that often fought against each other and the many other nameless gangs of the time are the origins of the White Hand Gang (not the Italian gangs though, of course).
In real life, the White Hand Gang existed as did many street and dock gangs of the time, for multiple reasons. What made them different was their ability to continue to exist as a street gang long after the era of street gangs had ended. The only way this could have occurred is due to a few factors.
- They had a very strict Code of Silence, way more powerful than the Italian Omerta, according to some.They never gave information to the police and kept disputes among themselves to be settled outside of the law. They lived in Brooklyn, not Manhattan, which means essentially that because Manhattan was considered the real New York City (to some) where international investors and the owning class lived, the police and laws were more strictly enforced, whereas the Brooklyn waterfront was much more of a working class, factory town.
- Many of the White Hand Gang members came from Manhattan originally because they sought to continue living in the “old way,” instead of pretending to be legitimate while running illegal operations undercover. So, many of them already knew how to run a street gang due to their experiences and traditions in old Manhattan.
One of the earliest mentions I ever found of the White Hand Gang was from 1905,
where four teenagers (17 & 18 years of age) with Irish-American surnames, were arrested for “beating up badly” three other boys on the corner of Hoyt and Warren
streets. One of the boys, John Gibney, was arrested for tearing a gas pipe from a saloon wall and lighting it with a match inside a Sands Street saloon, which caused a great fireball. Another was arrested earlier in the week for being drunk and disorderly. In 1906, Dinny Meehan and a few others were arrested for setting off firecrackers under a bench where a bum had passed out on the platform of an elevated track, causing general havoc. One member of the White Hand Gang was arrested in 1908 for stealing through a “coal hole” in the sidewalk, gaining access to the basement of a tenement, then breaking into rooms and taking objects of limited value and selling them at a local pawn shop. He was caught because he was covered in coal soot, but was dubbed “The Coal Hole Robber” by the newspapers for months ahead of time.
By most accounts, they were just a collection of jobless, restless Irish-American teens during the years before 1910, although they had much higher aspirations. The reason they named the gang the “White Hand,” was to counter the Italian “Black Hand” rise. Black Hand, of course, was only a description of the methods Italians used, such as kidnapping for ransom, but the many newspapers of the time thought it was an actual gang. In any case, the Irish-Americans in the dock neighborhood and slums from the Navy Yard all the way down to Red Hook, which were traditionally Irish-held areas since The Great Hunger (known as the “Potato Famine”) of the 1840s and 1850s, didn’t want the Italians to move north from their strongholds of Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Coney Island and take over the rackets.
By most accounts, they were just a collection of jobless, restless Irish-American teens during the years before 1910, although they had much higher aspirations. The reason they named the gang the “White Hand,” was to counter the Italian “Black Hand” rise. Black Hand, of course, was only a description of the methods Italians used, such as kidnapping for ransom, but the many newspapers of the time thought it was an actual
gang. In any case, the Irish-Americans in the dock neighborhood and slums from the Navy Yard all the way down to Red Hook, which were traditionally Irish-held areas since The Great Hunger (known as the “Potato Famine”) of the 1840s and 1850s, didn’t want the Italians to move north from their strongholds of Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Coney Island and take over the rackets.
This is where Dinny Meehan’s legend is made. None of the plethora of Irish-American gangs in the area wanted to work with another gang from another street. No matter if the majority of all gang members were Irish-American, each gang defended their street like tribal and communal warriors. It would take a great communicator to bring all the Irish-American gangs together to fight against the rise of Italian influence. Dinny Meehan was such a man. Originally from the Warren Street Red Onion Gang, Meehan eventually became known as the leader of the White Hand Gang and in 1912 when he was 23 years old, his status as leader was cemented when he was exonerated in a sensational trial against him and three of his minions for killing one Christie Maroney, a yegg, bartender and safe cracker who refused to pay tribute to the White Hand Gang before being shot between the eyes in a Sands Street saloon where he was working. At the trial’s
conclusion when the verdict was to be read “a large squad of policemen and many detectives and reserves” were summoned as the judge and police felt that if Meehan were to be convicted, a riot would break out at the Kings County Court. The courtroom was packed with young, experienced Irish-American thugs and their girlfriends.
Italian leaders like Frankie Yale and Johnny Torrio would have been watching from a far as well, hoping Meehan would be convicted. When the jury decided there wasn’t enough proof or witnesses and Meehan was released, the courtroom and the street outside erupted in cheers and Dinny Meehan was made into a legend, for it is bucking and flaunting the system that has always transformed an Irish-American into a legend in the slums of Brooklyn and beyond. From that point forward, the White Hand Gang ruled with an iron fist and with extraordinary unity, which as mentioned was so rare for Irish-American gangs of the era. Their power was so fierce and all encompassing in Brooklyn that a young Al Capone was sent to Chicago, as many sources confirm, because the White Hand Gang had him on a short list of those that needed to be killed. In reality, it was one of a few reasons for Capone’s moving to Chicago, but it was certainly true that the White Hand Gang was as powerful, if not more powerful, than the Mafia in Brooklyn at the time and Capone was too hot of a prospect for the Italians to risk. So, to Chicago went Al.
Under Meehan, the dockboss at each terminal paid tribute to him at 25 Bridge Street (which was a saloon called The Dock Loaders’ Club, though the gang’s headquarters was right above it). Every laborer that was used to unload or load a ship or truck or freight rail had to first report to Dinny Meehan under the Manhattan Bridge. If a factory or warehouse in the neighborhood (like the Empire Stores warehousing units) refused to pay tribute, Meehan and the boys would steal from it. If a ship captain didn’t pay tribute, people like “Cinders” Connolly, one of Meehan’s men, would set it ablaze and loosen its ties to the pier bollards, letting it burn in the East River where all would watch.
If a gang member talked too much, he’d be found in his bed with a gunshot to his face or with his hands tied behind his back in the New York Harbor. The gang was also hired as “starkers,” a term that is basically outdated today, which meant that, for example, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) might hire the White Hand Gang to kill or maim a New York Dock Company employee who refused to pay their union dues. Or, by contrast, the New York Dock Company might hire the gang to kill a particularly obnoxious ILA man. In any case, with Meehan as the leader, things were organized. Everyone knew who to go to when they needed a job or needed someone killed or maimed. Everyone knew what the rules were and the penalty for breaking them. But, as Irish lore tells us, a leader of men will always be taken down from within, by his own followers.
“Wild Bill” Lovett was five years younger than Dinny Meehan, and at the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, he started spreading ideas about getting in on the up-and-coming bootlegging and illegal distillery boom (an Irishtown tradition). He was a talented gangster with a wild temper when drunk, very intelligent sober. On top of that, he was a decorated veteran of the First World War. Something that gave him a powerful status of his own among the longshoremen gangsters, laborers and factory workers along the Brooklyn waterfront.
Suddenly, the White Hand Gang that had enjoyed so much success and underground notoriety under Dinny Meehan from 1912 to early 1920 had two heads. In the afternoon of March 31, 1920, among great changes in the underworld’s environment where many older-generation gangsters and organized criminals were being murdered and replaced with new, young turks, Dinny Meehan was shot multiple times while in bed with his wife Sadie (who was wounded in the shoulder). No one was charged for Meehan’s murder, but most everyone knew it was Wild Bill Lovett that either carried it out, or ordered it.
From that point forward, chaos reigned within the White Hand Gang. Factions still loyal to Meehan attempted to murder Lovett many times and lower level Whitehanders made hits against each other in a tit-for-tat civil war. When Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan
joined forces with Bill Lovett, his childhood friend from the Lower East Side of Manhattan (the Meehan-faction’s chosen successor, Garry Barry had his throat slit with a razor in 1922) Lovett finally wrested control. Although Lovett was on top, he soon wanted out after he married Anna Lonergan, Pegleg’s sister.
The Lovetts moved to Ridgefield Park, New Jersey and power was left to the volatile Pegleg Lonergan. But one night in November 1923, Lovett couldn’t resist and got drunk with his old buddies down in Brooklyn and by the end of the night, he was shot in the neck and bludgeoned/hatcheted to death and Pegleg Lonergan was now king of the dock gang. During Lovett’s reign, however, the gang’s income had greatly decreased. The ILA had made great offers to care and protect the wages of the working man, Italians had taken complete control of the bootlegging racket, the police had tightened their grip in the area and the gang had been splintering due to Lovett’s drinking habits and lack of discipline. By the time the twenty two year-old Pegleg Lonergan took it over in late 1923, the White Hand Gang was a shell of what it was during the Meehan era of the mid-late nineteen-tens. No longer did the gang have the respect of the stevedoring companies, the ship owners, the factories and manufacturing plants or the immigrant longshoremen who had traditionally gone to the gang’s headquarters at 25 Bridge Street to pay the “boss” a stipend in order to get a day’s work in. They were essentially back to the way they were before 1912.
Then, on Christmas night, 1925, Lonergan and two of his followers were shot dead in an Italian hangout called the Adonis Social Club. Two others were wounded. Al Capone was there, in fact and was arrested and questioned for the triple murder, since he was in town for his son’s surgery. The fiercest Italian criminal of all time, who was once banished from Brooklyn by the Irish-American White Hand Gang, had now exacted his revenge and essentially put the gang into the history books. After Lonergan’s murder, the gang became even less prominent and one gang leader after another took the helm only to get promptly murdered. In December of 1927, a man named Eddie Lynch, a member of the “old Lovett gang” was shot because, as the article stated, he was trying to get the old gang back together again and name himself the leader. In January of 1928, John “Non” Connors was shot and killed at a bar on Warren and Bond streets by Helen Finnegan. Connors was said to be the gang’s leader, but Ms. Finnegan exerted her own revenge as Connors had killed her brother, James “The Swede” Finnegan a year earlier.
On November 5, 1928, a man named Eddie McGuire had apparently won leadership of the gang with a roll of the dice and immediately afterward was shot and killed. Of all the White Hand Gang’s leaders, his term was the shortest: Five minutes, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. On January 28, 1930 Red Donnelly, a 50 year old man and veteran of the Meehan era took control and was then killed in a pierhouse on the Columbia Line Pier, shot in the back. Later in 1930, a man named Jimmy Murray, an old Lovett lieutenant was shot and left for dead after he named himself leader of the Whitehanders.
Finally, in 1931, Matty Martin, who had married Anna Lonergan-Lovett a few years after Bill Lovett’s murder, was killed after he thought he was owed the leadership of the gang and took control of what was by then nothing more than a collection of drunks and drug addicts. He was found slumped over a stoop off Dekalb and was killed, according to reports, due to the declining income of the gang. By the late 1930s, it was only Anna Lonergan that was still talking about the White Hand Gang’s heyday in Brooklyn, though she never spoke nicely of Dinny Meehan since he was an enemy of her first husband, Lovett. To this day, Bill Lovett is considered the most famous leader of the gang. Richie “Pegleg” Lonergan will always be known as having the coolest White Hand Gang moniker and additionally is known for being killed by Al Capone. But it was Dinny Meehan that made the White Hand Gang what it was. He was the most organized of the three main leaders (Meehan, Lovett, Lonergan) and certainly the most consistent. He did what so many other gang leaders failed in doing: Bringing the wild Irish “bhoys” to work as one. And his death in 1920 signaled the beginning of the end of the White Hand Gang.