Frankie Yale – Divide the Dawn

Frankie Yale

Frankie Yale is a minor character in the historical novel Divide the Dawn (Fall, 2019). As are most of the characters in the book, he is based on a real, historical person: The Brooklyn, Italian Mafia “Capo.”

Francesco Ioele moved from Italy to Southern Brooklyn in 1901 as an eight-year old and quickly became known as a strong fighter in the streets. Among the many Italians that emigrated to New York at the time, he was groomed for greatness. Underground greatness, that is.

At some point, probably when he arrived in Brooklyn, he changed his very ethnic-sounding last name to Uale, only later to again change it to Yale.

There isn’t a whole lot that is known about him before 1917 when he was charged under the Sullivan Law and sent to the penitentiary for having a loaded revolver without a permit. Also that year he opened a club on Coney Island called The Harvard Inn.

At the Harvard Inn, his friend Johnny Torrio talked him into hiring a young man with even more potential than Yale. That youngster was Al Capone who would later move with Torrio and take over the Chicago bootlegging rackets after Prohibition in 1920. As a young bouncer at The Harvard Inn, however, Capone met a girl named Lena Galluccio who, as a brash meathead from the slums of Brooklyn, spoke to her in a tone that apparently did not make her older brother Frank (a seasoned gangster) very happy and slashed Capone across the face with a knife, and it was there that the moniker “Scarface Al” was born.

As a Brooklyn crime boss, Yale’s territories expanded in Brooklyn after the Mafia-Camorra War and his influence gained followers as he was known as the “Prince of Pals.” He was known as being a good storyteller and prone to giving large handouts with advice attached like when he gave an older gentleman money and told him to “get a horse, you’re too old to walk.” He got rich as a business man over the next few years by way of extortion, a gaggle of brothels and the “protection” racket (the New York style of business insurance at the time). He also owned a funeral home and when he was hospitalized in 1921 for a gunshot wound he sustained during a shootout in Park Row, Manhattan, he threateningly told his shooters through the newspapers that he was “an undertaker.”

black hand
A 1910 newspaper article describing the Black Hand methods

La Mano Nera was an ancient Italian form of kidnapping and extortion that found its way onto the streets of Brooklyn during the era. In English, it’s called The Black Hand, which was a form of crime, not a gang. As the media and journalists were not savvy of the street-wise gangsters or the intricacies of the Italian families and their territories and were often given bad or misleading information, the term “Black Hand” eventually changed and became a description for what was believed by reporters/editors/police to be a specific gang that was of Italian ethnicity.

Whatever they were called, the Italians were gaining big ground in Southern Brooklyn. And they were trying to move north too. Where the dock rackets were most plentiful and provided a stable income too, as the Brooklyn docks were very much at the heart of New York’s shipping ports and piers, the main port of entry/exit of manufactured goods into/out of the United States.

But the incumbent Irish (who had mostly arrived a generation or two ahead of the Italians) was around this time nothing more than a collection of wild gangs that fought each other, pier-for-pier, from the Navy Yard all the way down to Red Hook. Under the leadership of Dinny Meehan, who called his headquarters a saloon under the Manhattan Bridge on the waterfront, he gathered these “wild bhoys” together, however loosely, and called this umbrella group of Irish-Americans the White Hand Gang. A term that was inspired by the Italian Blackhanders to their south.

So there you have it. The Whitehanders (Irish-Americans) versus The Blackhanders (Italian-Americans). Sounds like you have the making of an easy book to write about, doesn’t it? The Irish versus the Italians for dominance of the sweet dock rackets? Well, no. Actually. They rarely fought at all, although some rogue authors (that at first threw me plenty of curves when I was researching) would have you believe otherwise.

There were a few spats here and there, but most of the tension was behind the scenes. For example, the New York Dock Company owned a lot of property along the waterfront at the time. World War I government contracts were being handed out back then, and the NY Dock Co. owned much of the Piers, industrial rails and traincars, acres of warehousing units, storage space and stevedoring companies in the area that reaped the benefits of those handouts. The Irish and Italian gangs often fought only to get the rights to extract tribute from the holdings of the NY Dock Co.

Another good example of the Irish and Italians fighting behind the scenes were the unions, such as the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and the International Workers of the World (IWW). The two groups of gangs fought for control within the ranks of the unions in order to be involved in the financial benefits of the general strikes and the big money negotiations with shipping companies like the Cunard Line and White Star Line (RMS Titanic). Instead of confronting each other on the docks or the streets with sticks and shovels and revolvers, the Irish and Italians of Brooklyn fought for prominence or “sway” in the heavily industrialized waterfront business.

1911 brooklyn docks
Looking north from Red Hook along the Irish-held docks and the tenement neighborhoods to the east (color sketch, 1911).

In Light of the Diddicoy, the first book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, 14-year old Liam Garrity goes with Dinny Meehan and a couple bodyguards to see an executive (Jonathan Wolcott) at the NY Dock Co. The gang is often hired to protect the company’s property, although the White Hand Gang demands large payments under the threat of trashing or burning the company’s valuable holdings.

After Wolcott complains about the White Hand Gang being out of control and violent and compares them to a bunch of thieving monkeys, Meehan asks who gave Wolcott the box of fine cigars that sat on his desk. It is revealed then that Wolcott is being courted by Frankie Yale and the rival Italians in the south. This is a powerful threat to the White Hand Gang’s stronghold of the dock rackets. Wolcott then hires the gang to kill an ILA recruiter that is gaining ground on their property (no bigger threat to a company’s power than the unions). But Meehan doesn’t forget being slighted by Wolcott and in the end, he gets his revenge not only on the Italians, but puts a powerful foot down on the NY Dock Co.’s property and the unions all at once when a donnybrook breaks out in Red Hook.

NY Dock Co
The New York Dock Company’s main building was/is a huge concrete structure that faced the Buttermilk Channel and New York Harbor on Imlay Street, Red Hook

So if you’re looking for some tabloid trash about Irish Micks versus Italians dagos, you’ll not find it here. The reality of life in the Brooklyn neighborhoods along waterfront is, to me, much more important than a sensationalized, untrue depiction. Life was tough enough. No need to embellish the truth. My grandparents (and great-grandparents through other family members) told me many stories from the era that described a devastatingly tough lifestyle. The gangs were a reality that existed because the conditions were so bad that by sticking together (often by ethnicity), they could support each other and their families. And for me, this “need” to survive in bad conditions is the art in this trilogy. As this blog is called, it’s an artofneed. So, we’ll stick more to truth than fabrication here.

It was true, however, that Frankie Yale was no friend of the old Irish-American gangs of the north. And the Whitehanders were very explicit in their disgust of the “wops and guineas” in the south, but the Blackhanders were just one of many enemies the White Hand Gang had in the Irishtown section of Brooklyn under the bridges.

Although, things between the Brooklyn rivals did come to a head on Christmas night in 1925, when Al Capone came back to Brooklyn for his son’s surgery and happened upon a dive where Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan and a few other Irish “fellers” drank themselves into a stupor.

But that’s a story for another day.

What’s a Diddicoy?

Cover with Blurb
Historical novel Divide the Dawn (Spring 2020) includes a gang in Brooklyn whose members are referred to as “diddicoys.”

What once are derogatory, offensive terms often change in time. “Irish” was once a terrible and oppressive thing to be called. In the ports of New York, Boston and New Orleans and in the Pennsylvania mines, the Appalachian mountains and anywhere else in the United States after the the Great Hunger, to be named such a thing was akin to spitting in your face. The Irish were clan-like, fiercely communal people who fenced themselves off from the incumbent Anglo-Saxon culture.

They worked hard, sure. But they played like animals. Bare-knuckle fist fighters that fought each other for the spirit in it and the fun. For blood and boast. Pride in the prowess of their ancient surnames. Gamblers that played a foreign card game called “faro” with words that harkened to an ancient language. The language of a nomadic Celtic past that had been banished from the mainland of Europe centuries earlier by Julius Caesar. Pushed to the Western-most islands of the continent. Now pushed passed the isle of Ireland, they took to the sea and landed in a new world. Born to soldier and brawl.

Click here to check out the cool art & bios of characters in the
AULD IRISHTOWN trilogy.

Like the Irish in the 19th and early 20th centuries, African-Americans have fenced themselves off from the Anglo-Saxon culture. Many have mixed their race with whites, whether on purpose or of rape. If there is one thing that mystifies the people of homogenous countries, it is the idea of the typical American being of mixed race. An entire country of mostly mixed-blooded people clashing together to make the most powerful culture the world has ever known. All were once desperate to leave their homogenous cultures like traveling gypsies running from war or famine, or were enslaved, only to land in a mish-mash of mixed raced people.

That is a Diddicoy. A mixed-blooded gypsy. 

In Ireland still to this very day, a group known generally as Travelers roam the boreens (country roads) in caravans challenging each other to bare-knuckle fights for the right to boast. One-on-one they fight with almost no rules between them, other than honor. Some of them are part Romani, some of them are not sure if they have any true Romani gypsy blood as they almost all carry Celtic or Norman surnames like the Joyce’s and the Doherty’s. There are many derogatory terms for them like Tinkers, Pikeys or the Pavee and of course, Diddicoys.

In Chapter 7 of Light of the Diddicoy, the first book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, an immigrant is shot at 25 Bridge Street, the saloon that the White Hand Gang calls headquarters under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, 1915. Detective William Brosnan, a 53-year old Dubliner turned New York cop investigates as the immigrant takes his last breath on the floor among the mortar hods and shovels in the corner of the saloon.

The candles that light the saloon flicker when the front door is opened and the sounds of the trolleys rushing overhead along the Manhattan Bridge rail tracks breaks the silence inside. Brosnan is attempting to extract information from Paddy Keenan, himself a native of a small town outside Kilkenny, Ireland and the saloon’s tender. When Keenan, who is known as the gang’s Minister of Information, refuses to part with any knowledge of the shooting, Brosnan slams his hand on the bar and looks upstairs where the office of the gang’s leader is, Dinny Meehan. Brosnan then points his finger at Keenan and says, “This gang ain’ nuttin’ but a bunch o’ thiefs an’ diddicoys, anyhow. They’re days’re numbered, ye heard it from me right here and now!”

It takes a Dublin jackeen who knows English slang to describe the gang as Diddicoys, as the word comes from the derogatory description of a mix-blooded Romani-gypsy, particular to England. But a good description it is. You see, I spent three and a half years reading articles about the White Hand Gang and its members. When you pull police reports and death certificates and any description you can find of the lifestyle and habits of the Irish-American gangsters along the Brooklyn waterfront of the era, you find out a lot about them.

What I found in them that is most glaring is a complete lack of regard for law, as most gangsters do, of course. Actually, calling it a “lack of regard” isn’t strong enough. Not close enough. I would rather describe it as a complete distrust in law.

IMG_0171An excellent description of the mentality of the people who lived in what used to be called Irishtown in Brooklyn, which nowadays we call DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Vinegar Hill, was Willie Sutton’s book Where the Money Was. He said the people who lived where he grew up didn’t believe in even the most basic organizations such as hospitals because it was said “they’d give ye the black box.” This black box symbolized death and the reason the Irish always got it was because the hospital administrators didn’t believe the Irish were worth the bed. And when someone more upstanding arrived at the over-crowded hospital, they had to make room. So they gave the black box to the Irish to give the bed to more law-abiding, respected citizens. Sounds crazy and superstitious, but that was his description. And I found a consistency to that in my own research of the White Hand Gang members of Brooklyn’s Irishtown.

famine photoAfter reading so much about these gangsters and coming across Sutton, the greatest bank robber of his time, I began to put it all together. It suddenly made sense: These Irish-Americans were the offspring of victims of possibly the worst, most atrocious and horrific miscarriage of justice the world has chronicled. They were the Famine-Irish that settled originally along the waterfront in Brooklyn. The ones that survived the casket ships and the Great Hunger of 1845-1852, An Gorta Mor, it’s called in Irish. It was law that starved their people and their children to an emaciated death in the ditches and road-side graves back in Ireland. Over a million dead and a million more sent to places like the Five Points in Lower Manhattan and “Auld Irishtown” in Brooklyn. Their tenant farms replaced by cattle, a more suitable income for English landowners in Ireland.

It was law that sent them to foreign lands. And it would be law that instilled the greatest distrust in them.

It would not be unlikely to assume that some, if not many, of the original Famine-Irish were actual gypsies, for there is a great relation to gypsy culture and the gangsters of Irishtown in Brooklyn. Not just in the disbelief in man-made law, but the superstitions, the thieving from the established people, the tradition of bare-knuckle fighting, the powerful belief in honor and, of course, the great Code of Silence that pervaded men and women who lived underneath the bridges in Brooklyn.

Unknown-2There are countless examples of a gangster getting shot and refusing to name his perpetrator. “I got mine, I’ll make sure he gets his” was usually the answer. The Traveller community in Britain and Ireland still think this way. They do not seek law to settle their disagreements, they seek blood. Whether it be retribution or a challenge. Just as was done in Irishtown and the Diddicoys of the White Hand Gang. A challenge is a challenge. One-on-one. Man against man with no weapons and no rules. Just a pair of fists and a man’s will. That was the character of the people of Auld Irishtown.

Eamon

Glasnevin Rebelpoets

Many great novels have references within its folds that relate to the story. Oftentimes readers never notice them, and sometimes even the academics don’t catch on. The great writers use these allusions to support the story and create a feeling that helps the story move along. It’s a literary device, but I have always been a little finicky about my literary devices, particularly in new work by young authors, as it seems there are so many writers out there these days that are well versed in literary devices, form and function and are trained to always answer the “who, what, where, when, why and how” in each sentence they put together.

Maybe the most famous writers of allusions was James Joyce. I studied him in college from his early work all the way through the unintelligible Finnegan’s Wake. He had thousands of tightly packed and hidden attributions, indications and allusions to other works, or a prayer that was only used in Dublin at the time. Or to songs of his own childhood. There were so many that an English professor I had told me that if I wanted to read Ulysses by myself, I needed a reference guide, which came in the form of a second book. So, I needed two books just to read one.

Although Joyce has kept academics searching inside his work many years for what lit teachers call “golden nuggets,” I found the practice to be elitist. Not too different from one of my most hated aspects of literature, obscurantism. In my own work though, I decided I liked allusions and would use them, but not like Joyce. Art for Art’s Sake was not my style. I wanted feeling in my writing. I wanted readers to get a charge once they figured out exactly what I was referring to when I have an allusion embedded. Like when eating pea soup and you find a nice crunchy piece of garlic in it. Suddenly your mouth bursts and your taste buds come alive. Most importantly though, I want the reader to understand the feeling and the emotion that I am trying to stir in my allusions.

It’s no secret that my family funneled money from their Greenwich Village longshoreman saloon in the early part of the 20th Century to support the rebels in Ireland that were quietly fomenting for revolt. I grew up in a typical Irish-American working class New York household that shrugged its shoulders when IRA bombs went off in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We knew deep within us the horrific deeds of the British Empire that have gone unpunished for hundreds of years. Although my family supported the IRA back when they were called Fenians or the Irish Republican Brotherhood, I believe now that the native Irish and the English/Scottish settlers in the County of Ulster must unite to make one Ireland. The Green (Catholic) and the Orange (Protestant), both brought together with White (peace) between them, just as the Irish Tri-Colour flag represents. But in October of 1915, when Light of the Diddicoy (first book of the Auld Irishtown trilogy) opens, peace was not an option. For the Irish Republicans, peace meant succumbing to the law of foreigners. Revolution was in the air. All it needed was a rallying point. Hence, the name of Chapter 1: GLASNEVIN REBELPOETS, an allusion to the speech by Padraig Pearse at the funeral of the famed Fenian rebel, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

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In Chapter 1, Liam Garrity, the 14 year old narrator of Light of the Diddicoy, is given the St. Christopher, a charm signifying the patron saint of safe travel. He doesn’t know why he is being sent to America, but the reader finds out that his father has just come back from Dublin and the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. What is not said is that Liam’s father knows a great rising against the British Empire is not far in advance. A rising to rival that of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. As a precaution, the father sends his youngest son to America in case war is to arise from the rebel rising. Liam’s older brother Timothy and his father are already members of the Irish Volunteers and his two sisters are too young yet to travel. As fathers were not known for their communication skills at the time, Liam is sent without explanation and to New York he goes, to work on the docks with his father’s brother in a place well known to the Irish, the Brooklyn waterfront.

In New York, as in Ireland and Boston, Canada, Australia and all other places where the Irish settled around the globe, passion for Irish freedom from the British law that oversaw the horrors of The Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s and so many other unjust treatments, was very high. We must remember that Ireland was nothing more than a British colony then. And although there had been land reform in the 1880s, there was very slow progress toward Irish independence in 1915. In fact, the Irish political party that supposedly represented Irish freedom, the Irish Parliamentary Party, was mostly made up of what County Clare agrarian poor would have called, “Jackeens.” Which meant Irish that were influenced by the handouts that London politicians gave out in order to bribe Irish representatives to avoid Irish independence. If Ireland wanted freedom, it was going to have to come at the price of blood. And there was no one in Ireland that talked more about blood than the poet, school teacher and Irish rebel, Padraig Pearse.

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In August of 1915 at Glasnevin Cemetery (that is Pearse above at the funeral), O’Donovan Rossa was laid to rest after dying in Staten Island, New York at the age of 83. Liam Garrity’s father in the book Light of the Diddicoy, was in attendance. Probably toward the back with some of the other men of the County Clare Volunteers. He would have heard the following from Pearse:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

Yes, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace. That accurately sums up the mentality in 1915, Ireland. And so, an allusion in Chapter 3 is an emotional one. It has feeling. It’s not Art for Art’s Sake. It is nostalgia mixed with anger and pride for all those displaced Irish in foreign lands. For all those who believe in righting what is wrong no matter the consequence (Pearse was executed by the British after the Easter Rising) and for the Irish who have lost so many of their sons and daughters to immigration and colonialism, this reference to the Glasnevin funeral of O’Donovan Rossa and the rebelpoets who spoke there, stands tall. The effect of the speech at the time was devastating. And so, the effect on Liam Garrity’s life in Light of the Diddicoy too, is devastating.

But it is not until April 1916, on Easter Monday, that Liam Garrity realizes what his father’s plans were. Realizes then and there that his only goal now was to get his mother and sisters out of Ireland, for war was in the balance and in just a few years’ time, the infamous Black and Tans would roam the Irish countryside, pillaging, burning and raping the villages of the West of Ireland without consequence. Liam had to save his mother and sisters from the atrocities headed their way, and to do that, he was willing to pay any price. And a terrible price he would pay.

 

 

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