The best way to learn about history is to ask an elder. Sure you can consult the internet or the library, but there is not a more authentic and traditional way than to simply listen and breathe in the story from someone who was there. Especially over a drink or two.
In the book Over P.J. Clarke’s Bar: Tales from New York City’s Famous Saloon by Helen Marie Clarke, you get just that. Written in a conversational tone with an eye for history and the impact on family through the lens, or behind the bar of one of the oldest continuously running bar in New York, Clarke has spun an ancestral yarn on an establishment that has witnessed, within the fray, New York’s history from 1884 to the present.
Mrs. Clarke, who is the grandniece of Patrick “Paddy” Clarke, who took over the saloon in 1912, calmly describes how times changed around the old saloon on 3rd Avenue and 55th Street as if she’s waiting for your Guinness to settle. With the gentle nature of an Irish storyteller, she hands you the ugly truths and the good ol’ times in the same sweet tone.
The saloon originally opened in 1884. Paddy Clarke emigrated from County Leitrim, Ireland in 1902 and eventually saved up enough money (possibly with the help of a beer sponsor) and opened as P.J. Clarke’s in 1912.
Paddy was a typical Irish immigrant of the era and believed sincerely in Irish freedom back home. He hung photos of Ireland’s dead patriots on his walls alongside Abraham Lincoln in a time when Ireland was still under the thumb of the British Empire. Mrs. Clarke goes on to explain conversations she had with Paddy when she was a child and speaks with a tone of pride how he hung a picture of Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence from the 1916 Easter Rising.
These are the seeds of the traditional New York City Irish pub. The seeds that we so often forget about and the seeds that so many of the young have never heard about. Mrs. Clarke does a great service to describe her grand uncle’s connection to the old country. She also describes how her father and uncles had a very hard time talking about Ireland. Another very important trait of the immigrant Irish as the history of Ireland and its people was seen and felt as the greatest of tragedies. From hundreds of years of oppression, forced emigration and starvation, in her grand uncle’s and her father’s generation, it was just too emotional to speak of.
My own great-grandfather owned a similar saloon on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village on the other side of Manhattan. It opened in 1906 and was also a supporter of Irish freedom. So, as Mrs. Clarke reminisces about Paddy’s pride in Irish freedom, it brings this reader back to the stories told in my own childhood of the Irish in New York.
Throughout the history of New York, from two world wars, the Great Depression, the unrest of the 1960s, the city’s recession in the 1970s, PJ Clarke’s stood strong and served up good times.
Famous visitors regularly have come to PJ Clarke’s, from Rocky Marciano, to Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Harris, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe to Ernest Borgnine and, according to some recent reading of my own, Malachy McCourt (A Monk Swimming) was a famous drinker at PJ Clarke’s as well.
Today, there is some angst toward the treatment of women in the New York saloons of the old days. And it was true that most women and girls were not allowed inside them. And if they were, they were required to enter through a back entrance. Mrs. Clarke, realizing this treatment, describes the reasons.
“Uncle Paddy’s ‘no women at the bar’ was simply reflective of the culture at the time.”
Since women almost never walked the streets of New York without a male accompanying her, walking into a saloon was just not traditionally acceptable at the time. Mostly because women who did actually patron saloons were prostitutes, as some New York establishments had back rooms and upstairs accommodations for sexual transactions, which the house benefited. In truth, most New Yorkers would have seen a woman sitting in PJ Clarke’s as a “lady of the night.”
But Mrs. Clarke’s tone becomes sorrowful when she mentions that PJ Clarke’s had a policy of ‘no women’ longer than most other New York bars. And in the 1960s, PJ Clarke’s was visited by feminists and protestors that forced it to change.
However, Mrs. Clarke always had access to it from the time she was a young child. Her father and brothers, in New York fashion, lived above the bar with their uncle Paddy for many years.
Through good times and bad, PJ Clarke’s has stood. And oh by the way, if you happen to be in the city, come by for a drink.
I, for one, can’t wait. When the time longs into my soul and the creak in my knees cause gentle steps, I’ll grow long my eyebrows. I’ll let them loose on my face as I chase away the last days of my living.
Now I stand though. I have son and daughters rearing up on me. Smiling as they gain to overtake me.
Today is the day a great poet died. And nothing’s warmer in the throat than the poet that you have long smiled with in word. From the long life he gently stepped and with such great care. So thoughtful that it was oft he was for granted taken.
The sound of the subway sizzling in a whoosh through the long tunnels brings me back to my grandfather too. Another man of the gentle hand who so gives me the light of hope for my long eyebrowed salute to this life. He held my hand in the traincar for he knew the surroundings were new on me. Dark colors around, spray paint clicking sounds splayed upon each wall and passing train, ca-click-ca-click-ca-click went swooshing through my cotton-wool brain.
My grandfather rarely talked. By trade, he was a listener. And there had been in this life nothing that once he had not heard sung by the throats of men whetted with liquor in the old west of Manhattan saloon in our family.
“Who are the Mets playing today?” asked I.
He nodded in smile at me, tapped the top of my hand on my knee.
“Jose Cruz is on the Astros. I like his stance.”
“Really? How so?”
“Uh, he just has a, uh, it looks cool.”
“Yeah, like it’s a fluid motion.”
“A fluid motion? That’s a wonderful way of explaining it.”
“Yeah, it’s just a fluid way of swinging. Like he has an artistic way of swinging and I can imagine him hitting the ball square while, um, before he has even swung yet. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do, I do. Much better now, I understand.”
The lights flick on and off and we speed through the click of the black tunnels as he smiles from above. His dear hands and the touch which became so familiar to me, I couldn’t see then, but was the touch of a poet who’d never once been named so. He’d not written much words in his long years and his work was that of hearing the spirits sway in his mind like the Latin prayers of his own youth, sweeping in Mass along the echo of another era long since left.
I have a picture of him when he was yet a young soul. It’s dated 1919.
I look upon it now and remember that train ride in 1979, when I was that age.
“Haven’t you ever seen him play before?” I asked.
“I suppose I have, but never quite saw him as I do now.”
It was an afternoon game, warm on the skin. We sat in the sun and I looked over the expanse of the place and with the smell of the wind and the green of the grass on my nose, my mind was set on a pace. The grass now so welcome a smell with the clickety-clack of rust out of the way, yet the Met fans did not see it in such a way.
“Ya’re a friggin’ louse! Go back to da minors!”
And when Jose Cruz hit a long shot that swooped across my eyes in the sky, headed down with a reaching carry, I stood up with the rest of the crowd but for another reason. I was taken by the swing of him while the color of the blue and white uniforms, the yellow and orange uniforms, the green of the grass, the colorado of the infield left the place, overcome with a whooshing, resounding “BOOOOO!”
Darkening my thoughts, he stood by me and looked down, seeing too the color of my face leaving it. The sadness of the whole world rising in the chant of disgust and blasting down into me like a wave smacking my eyes and face.
“What a beautiful swing!” he yelled in my ears above the mad crowd.
I kept my mouth closed and looked up at him with the smile of a child once understood. He who was a lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fan turned New York Mets fan found my little thoughts truer than any loyalty to his team.
I had never heard him raise his voice before. And I never heard him raise his voice again. The only time worth doing so, was then, I suppose.
“In the gloom you cannot trace a wrinkle on their beeswax brow,” he said, after the crowd laid down their insults and we all sat back in our stadium pews.
I listened, then looked away. A few pitches later when the urgency of the words left us, I asked what he meant by them.
He smiled, “Could mean anything. That’s the beauty of poetry and of religion. It means what you make of it.”
“Can you say it again, I don’t remember it perfectly.”
“In the gloom you cannot trace a wrinkle on their beeswax brow.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“Poor women in a city church.”
“You can think about it long, but it only means what you make of it.”
The distant thud of ball in catcher’s mitt fell far away. The anger of the crowd too, many years away. Here I sit writing as I may of the death of a great poet that in my childhood found a way to open my thoughts to the many, many things they can possibly convey.
“What is the name of that person who wrote that?” I asked my grandfather.
He smiled and looked down at me again, tapping his familiar hand on the top of my own, “Seamus Heaney.”
Well, the trial has been going on for quite a while now, but finally a verdict is in. Whitey Bulger has been convicted in his hometown of South Boston.
During the days of his gangsterism, Boston Globe journalists Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy covered the story. It took them all over the country, but what they uncovered was not only gruesome and nefarious, but amazing in the fact that a man could live the life of an Irish-American gangster in the late 20th Century. How did he do it? Come check out this book review. But I’ll give you a hint: The FBI helped him.
What I’m looking forward to is feedback from Whitey himself. I found that he has an opinion of almost every book and article written about himself. I don’t know if he still has access to such things, but hey Whitey, let me know what you think.
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” Lovettwas 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.
Earlier this year, I tried to take a wider view of the book and ask some important questions. One of the questions I asked, and what has always weighed on my mind… Why were there gangs anyway? Why do they still exist today?
After many years of research, my conclusion is really no different than any sociologist or anthropologist or any other person with a sense of awareness: Poverty.
This has always fascinated me, and I think it fascinates a lot of people too. When the social safety net is non-existent, law is not evenly distributed, rampant alcoholism and drug, over-population and a lack of education persist while there is a general shortage of resources as compared to an over abundance of labor available, groups of people will band together to feed their families. And they will do whatever it takes to feed their mothers, brothers, sisters and the families of their closest, most trusted gang members.
In 1917, during a physical, Monk Eastman was asked what wars he had already served in since he had so many knife and gun wounds on his body, “Oh! A lot of little wars around New York.”
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Divide the Dawn
There were literally wars happening everywhere in New York and other major cities. Gangs were such a nuisance at the time that there were specific police units that were created to combat against them, like the Strong Arm Squad.
But the police were no match for the gangs of the 1890s and early 1900s Manhattan and Brooklyn. The problem was much bigger than any cop with a blackjack could handle.
Territories were bordered by street names and any gang or gang member that dared cross into a neighborhood that wasn’t their own risked violence.
In Manhattan, street gangs flourished from all the symptoms that creates gangs. There were so many gangs and gangsters that any small business owner didn’t dare open a
shop without first paying respect to the local gang.
Paolo Vaccarelli an Italian immigrant also known as Paul Kelly (used this moniker to get into boxing matches when he was young since the incumbent Irish dominated the prize fight racket) paid homage to the Civil War era when he ran a gang called The Five Points Gang. They ruled the area that once was the Five Points in the Lower-mid Manhattan area around what we know now as the Restaurant district “Little Italy” and into Chinatown.
If you were to walk through the incredibly over-populated Lower East Side of the era, you would run across a few members of the Yake Brady Gang, based on the northern end of Cherry Street. Yake Brady himself was probably the brother of Mary Brady, who married a boxer named John Lonergan. Together they had, according to most accounts, fifteen children. Within that brood was the famous one-legged White Hand Gang member of Brooklyn, Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan and the queen of the Brooklyn waterfront, Anna Lonergan.
Also on the Lower East Side were the Swamp Angels, who were known as river pirates along the docks and piers of East Manhattan and Brooklyn. They were based in a horrible set of rowhouses called Gotham Court that dated back to the Civil War. Utilizing the New York sewage system that ran from below Gotham Court to the waterfront, they would steal through them in the middle of the night, take valuable goods of ships tied to the piers and sell them inland.
Sometimes the gangs were named after the factories in their neighborhoods, like the Gas House Gang, named for the humungous gas house tanks on 20th Street and 1st Avenue. The Potashes, which were led by Red Shay Meehan (relation to Dinny Meehan? Who knows), were named after the Babbitt soap factory on Washington and Rector streets.
On the West End of Manhattan were a plethora of low-going gangs, including the ever popular Hudson Dusters. They were known as cocaine sniffing wild boys who fought with other gangs for dominance. Members include Goo-Goo Knox, Honey Stewart and Kid Yorke. So tough, they were employed by Tammany Hall as muscle during elections.
The Boodle Gang was another survivor of earlier days. In the 1850s, they raided butcher carts and food wagons that ran through their neighborhood, among other rogue forays.
The Gopher Gang, which fought the Hudson Dusters for supremacy of Hell’s Kitchen and the West Side Manhattan, was led by Owney Madden. Working with Tanner Smith’s gang The Marginals and the Pearl Buttons and the Fashion Plates, they eventually took over the area after Monk Eastman all but disappeared and the Five Points Gang leader Paul Kelly tried a more legitimate lifestyle as a labor leader in the International Longshoreman’s Association (hardly legitimate, but a step above street gangs at least).
Another phenomena was the New York Jewish gangs. Though they weren’t considered gangs like the Irish gangs. They were a little less organized. If the Italians stuck to family loyalties and moral codes like Camorra or the Cosa Nostra, and the Irish were fist-fighting, street-level racketeers, Jewish thugs were out for themselves in the organized crime racket.
The Labor Slugger Wars, a little known yet wildly interesting collection of tit-for-tat battles among barely legitimate groups of Jewish gangsters is a perfect platform to analyze their lifestyles. Young men with great monikers like “Dopey” Benny Fein, Joe “The Greaser” Rosensweig, Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen and “Kid Dropper” Nathan Kaplan fought for the right to be hired by the unions or companies to kill or maim employees, labor organizers or anyone that presented a problem.
These wars also determined who would provide scabs, or replacement workers when a union strike took place in the Garment District for instance, or a bunch of longshoremen on the docks. It was a duplicitous lifestyle, to say the least, as they were often hired by both sides of competing organizations to get back at the other. They literally benefited from wars, which is still common today, though somehow considered legitimate (see Halliburton and other war mongering companies).
In summary, gangs were rampant during the Gay Nineties and the early 1900s, and the decline of gangs in the nineteen-teens was due, in part, by the Progressive Era politicians, humanitarians and organizers in New York many years earlier. People like Jacob Riis, the famous photographer and, of course, Al Smith.
Smith grew up working as a youngster in the Lower East Side Fulton Fish Market. Mostly uneducated as a youth, he learned the value of a good work ethic from his father, who died on his way to a polling station to vote. His thick New York City accent didn’t bode well in Albany after he was elected to represent his district there, but through hard work and an extreme amount of charm, he worked his way (almost) to the top. Eventually becoming governor of the state of New York, but failing in his bid to represent the Democrats in the 1928 Presidential Election.
Smith represented a new politician. One that wanted to provide for the poor. Give them the chance to succeed too. In Albany, he passed many laws and in my estimation, he and those that followed his lead are more responsible for doing away with gangs than any Strong Arm police squad could ever have done.
Although Prohibition (which Smith was against, of course) allowed organized crime to flourish in the 1920s, by the 1930s and 1940s, street gangs had all but been eradicated due to a social safety net to help the poor get on their feet, feed their children even if they didn’t have a job yet and cast a caring eye toward the downtrodden, particularly after the passing of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Here is a photo of the Sands Street Elevated Train Station in Brooklyn during the White Hand Gang’s era. It was built around 1908 and torn down in 1944. As you can see, it had many tentacles of tracks coming out from it as it was literally the central station for all Brooklyn travel.
Since it was connected to the approach of the Brooklyn Bridge, it allowed Brooklynites to travel to Manhattan by train or trolley and Manhattanites to make a quick stop in Brooklyn, if need be. The station was three levels high and had adjoining tracks on each level that connected to the Fulton Street Elevated track or the Myrtle Avenue Elevated. Before doing so, however, there was a loop that the trains had to go round in order to double back to Brooklyn instead of going over the bridge. From there, you could travel all the way down to Coney Island or various places in Queens or to Prospect Park, if you like.
The White Hand Gang‘s newest members, Richie Lonergan and his crew (Petey Behan, Abe Harms, Matty Martin and Timothy Quilty), all around ages 14 and 15, previously pick-pocketed and cut-pursed at the station during the day. Since there
were so many travelers and not a huge police presence, the Sands Street Stations was a popular place for muggers.
This humungous, three-level station with elevated tracks running through the tenement neighborhoods and along the waterfront was literally a few blocks away from 25 Bridge Street, a longshoremen’s saloon which was the White Hand Gang’s headquarters.
Eventually, the station and the elevated tracks were torn down and Cadman Plaza was built in this area in a very similar shape.
Like the Manhattan Bridge (built in 1909), it was not around when the area was called Irishtown, but became a permanent fixture when the Brooklyn waterfront became the industrial and manufacturing center of the United States in the busiest port harbor in the world.
I was at first made aware of an “Irishtown” in Brooklyn by an elder through word of mouth, which of course is the ancient form of Irish storytelling. My grandmother, who was born in Brooklyn in 1917, first made mention in passing when telling of stories from her childhood in the humble tenement neighborhoods. Because her family was forced to move often due to their financial state, she got to know many of the old Brooklyn neighborhoods.
My grandfather James Lynch (b. 1915), who was a much better listener than a talker (of course, that made him a great bartender) agreed. “Yes, yes, there was once an Irishtown in Brooklyn,” he said. “Certainly was.”
The earliest mention of an Irishtown in Brooklyn was actually further south than our destination of Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill. In the book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 the original Irishtown was “Below the Heights of Gowanus” where “Brooklyn rolled south to the sea. Here the landscape of scattered farms and villages was largely untouched by the 1830s boom, with one exception.” Fort Hamilton where “wharves rose along the shore for landing supplies. Fort Hamilton village, also known as Irishtown… its shacks housed construction workers, many of them recent immigrants, and the Irish women who did laundry and opened small stores.”
Of course, this was some years before the Great Hunger (commonly known as the Irish potato famine), but already we see the makings of the slums where Irish immigrants live in “shacks” along the waterfront where the ships load and unload goods. A theme we will find all the way through the Marlon Brando film “On the Waterfront” of 20th Century fame and later even.
In A History of the City of Brooklyn by Henry Reed Stiles, by April of 1844 the Irish immigrant neighborhoods have moved north to Cobble Hill. That Spring found great tension between the nativists and the Irish, “when a riot between the native Americans and the Irish in the neighborhood of Dean and Court and Wykoff streets.” It took two companies of uniformed militia to quell the riot.
Of course, it wasn’t until 1845 that the great blight of the potato in Ireland, worsened by the British attitude toward the Irish tenant farmers would force more than one million into coffin ships bound for Canada, Boston, Australia and the pier neighborhoods of the New York harbor.
After that, we have many sightings of Irish living in the same neighborhoods where the ships had unloaded them close to the Fulton Ferry slip. Still in a terrible state after their journeys, we see Stiles describe the area.
“In January of 1847, the ship fever broke out in Hudson Avenue, near Tillary, having been imported by a ship load of Irish emigrants, and continued to rage in that and other localities in the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th wards, during 1847 and ’48.”
These were the “Famine Irish,” as they were derogatorily named. The most destitute people on earth at the time. Literally showing up in Five Points and Brooklyn’s Irishtown shoeless and wearing rags after a grueling journey across the Atlantic. Running from the hunger for any shore that would have them. Many of them, their numbers still undocumented today, died on the way. If you can imagine wearing nothing but worn, stitched rags during a winter crossing, either stuck in the hold of a clipper with the pigs or on the deck with the driving wind, rain and sleet, then maybe you can begin to understand the horror of their realities. These were the people that would make the Irishtown of Brooklyn. The survivors of a horrific predicament.
For 1849, Stiles describes a certain part of every year in Irishtown as “the cholera season.”
Racism against the Irish was always present, and in 1854 in the neighborhoods of Irishtown, “riots had broken out between the Irish and parties affiliated with the Know-Nothing party.”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, an Irishman from Brooklyn, Captain William Hogan of the Tandy Light Artillery, “commenced among his countrymen the organization of an artillery company, which eventually did good service with the Irish Brigade (The Fighting 69th).”
In Brooklyn By Name, a book by Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn’s Irish neighborhood is established. “By the middle of the (19th) century, nearly half of Vinegar Hill’s residents were Irish, many of them dockworkers at the Navy Yard, and the neighborhood was informally called “Irish Town.”
In different articles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other newspapers and books, Brooklyn’s Irishtown is described as a slum along the waterfront where clapboard houses of two stories reside amongst the alleys and the myriad of winding streets by the water. These shacks sway with the wind and often crumble into the dirt roads. When earlier the Erie Canal became fully operational, the ports and piers, wharfs and docks of New York became the busiest in the world. Brooklyn played a heavy role in importing and exporting of goods and for the Irish working class immigrants in the dock neighborhoods, there was plenty of labor work to done.
Of course, the Irish are not known simply as workers. They played very hard too. They are characterized as being heavy drinkers, but also as being deeply suspicious of the law. In fact, one of the biggest features of the people of Irishtown is their blatant disregard for law. Mixed with their old-country tradition of making “poteen” or “mountain dew,” caused a war in Brooklyn.
By the end of the Civil War, there were illegal whiskey distilleries all over Irishtown and for many, it was a boom era. Why were they illegal? Well, not a one ever paid a red penny in taxes to Uncle Sam. It was a black market economy, and for those who had their own distilleries with plenty of taverns and saloons to supply a very thirsty Irish population, it created a lavish few new-rich Irish that even they couldn’t have foreseen.
In a comical feature article in the New York Times of March 18, 1894 called KINGS OF THE MOONSHINERS: Illicit Distillers who ruled in Irishtown, the author and an “old-timer” recall the suddenly rich Irish as being overtly gaudy in their wild spending sprees.
Men like “Ginger” Farrell, “Ned” Brady and John Devlin (Irish surnames, of course) were “men of robust physique, bluff manners and iron determination” and “had wild, barbaric notions of what constituted real luxury.”
In fact a man named Grady was, “the chief purveyor of ornaments for the gang.” A rogue jeweler in Irishtown, Grady supplied the new-rich rascals with “headlight diamond studs” and half-pound gold watches and other jewels that were “dazzling in their luminous intensity.”
They also organized huge balls and dances in the pier neighborhood, “a lavish display of jewelry did not limit their extravagances. Most of them kept fast horses and played high games of poker. The festivities of Irishtown were held mainly… on Adams Street.”
The power of these illegal distillers and their ilk had reached into politics so deeply that many of the Brooklyn Democrats of the 1890s started out with connections to the spend-thrift illegal distilleries in the 1860s and ‘70s.
The cops too, they were dealt with firmly and quickly so that the black market could continue. When a police officer “made himself obnoxious, his transfer to some other district was easily secured” by request from the illegal distillery owners to their connections in downtown Brooklyn.
“The extent of the moonshine traffic was never fully known to outsiders. The whole neighborhood was a unit in defense of the stills,” the article goes on to describe.
But the party would have to end and in Brooklyn’s Irishtown it would not come without a brawl. Uncle Sam wanted his share, but the “bhoys” of Brooklyn wouldn’t budge. Thus began the Whiskey Wars of 1869-1871. And where else could you have a “Whiskey War” than in good old Irishtown?
Prohibition was passed in 1920, but the first war against federal officials over liquor happened along the Brooklyn waterfront.
Raids began in the neighborhood from local and federal agents. And here and there a few barrels were turned over in the street. But soon the connections set in and patrolmen were paid well to give information to the distillers for information concerning an upcoming raid.
Always though, there was a commotion. A fight with officers, women parading their children in the streets feigning fear of authorities and doctors summoned when the usual victim got clapped on the noggin. It was a calamitous affair, entering the neighborhoods, officers would remember. And not much whiskey was ever detained to boot.
“Raids by revenue officers… were always warmly received,” an old-timer remembered in the NY Times article. “As the minions of Uncle Sam’s authority moved through… the dangerous thoroughfares, showers of stones and like missiles saluted them. Men, women, and children would cluster on the roofs armed with anything they could throw. Sometimes they would tear down the chimneys of their habitations to fling the bricks streetward.”
The message was simple. “Stay out of our neighborhoods.”
But when an officer was (inevitably) killed on an “Irishtown thoroughfare,” the marines stationed at the Navy Yard were summoned. “Armed sentries surrounded the lawless section.”
The book Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corp.confirms the role of the marines when it says, “Between 1867 and 1871, Marines from the Brooklyn barracks sortied into Brooklyn’s ‘Irishtown’ on nine separate occasions to help federal revenue officers break up illegal distilleries.”
Blockaded cellars were broken into by the authorities and “hogsheads of illicit fluid were smashed and emptied into the gutters… When the bluecoats had completed their labors, not an illicit distillery remained in Irishtown.” And finally, the war was over in Brooklyn.
The late 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s sees Brooklyn overcome with industrialization and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge provides the Irishtown men plenty of work.
“The erection of factories and warehouses,” was changing the character of Irishtown, the old timer in the NY Times said.
The economy of the Brooklyn waterfront was dependent on the shipping companies. Trucking companies, stevedoring companies, ship building, warehousing, coffee companies, corrugated box-making companies and even bomb making companies called Irishtown their home now.
The immigration of Italian, German, Jewish and every other nationality changed the environment as well. Never again were the Irish to dominant the neighborhood. It would forever be known as a working class neighborhood where the ships let off, but not as “Irishtown.”
Even with all the industrialization that took over Brooklyn, still some of the old wood-framed, pre-Civil War buildings remained as evidenced by a blog (Artists Without Walls) post from 2011 refers, “in a neighborhood that was called Irish Town… The neighborhood was populated by poor Irish immigrants who lived in over-crowded, wood framed houses that were, more often than not, firetraps. My family experienced the consequences of these living conditions when… my great great grandfather… died in a house fire on August 31, 1884.”
By the early 1900s, the Irishtown families had settled in stable jobs along the waterfront businesses and the building of the Manhattan Bridge in 1909 again provides work. But the lowliest of the Irishtown poor became members of the gangs. These gangs were intertwined with the stevedoring companies and the unions and often were hired by one to kill or maim a rival of another.
The “Shape Up” practice of forcing hopeful longshoreman to “prove” their worth by running faster than the others was entrenched as it had been established many years earlier. Most “fellas” in Irishtown had to pay up front to work unloading or loading a ship, unless they were “in.” That usually meant you were from an original Irish family or were friends with the Irish-American gangs that dominated the waterfront rackets. Those rackets included collecting “tribute” from pierhouses, shipping companies, trucking companies and, most importantly, from immigrant longshoreman.
There were many Irish-American gangs in Irishtown then. Most notably was the White Hand Gang whose headquarters was a two-story shack and saloon under the Manhattan Bridge at 25 Bridge Street.
Irishtown had always been a place of great ruckuses and wild rumpuses, but it was the dock gangs that gained it the reputation of being a dangerous place. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Meyer Berger, in his book The Eight Million, wrote that “Records in the Medical Examiner’s office show that in the ten years from 1922 and 1932, there were 78 unsolved murders in the section of Brooklyn called Irishtown–the rough cobbled area between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Fulton Ferry, under and around the approaches to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.”
The article was about an aged Anna Lonergan who, in her younger years, was known as “Queen of Brooklyn’s Irishtown Docks,” as she was the sister of Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan and widow of two of the White Hand Gang’s most notorious leaders “Wild” Bill Lovett and Matty Martin. All of whom died by the bullet in dock gang wars.
Some other evidence that justifies the naming rights of the area as once called Irishtown is the opening sentence of the book Where the Money Was whose author was quite possibly the world’s most famous bank robber, Willie Sutton. In the opening chapter named, “Irishtown Made Me,” Sutton describes his birth like this, “I was born on June 30, 1901, on the corner of Nassau and Gold in a section along the Brooklyn docks known as Irishtown.”
Sutton said that in Irishtown, men like Dinny Meehan and Bill Lovett, leaders of the White Hand Gang, were the local boys’ heroes and that “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.”
The White Hand Gang at that time was brought together in order to fend off the rise of the Italians, whose practice of kidnapping and ransom was generally described as “Blackhanded.” But the main business of the gangsters of Irishtown was the dock labor racket and the loading and unloading of ships and trucks, and 25 Bridge Street was the saloon where they were headquartered.
Here is a description from the November 21, 1923 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (p. 2), which was in the very long obituary of the recently murdered Bill Lovett, “They assemble in the morning and wait for a call to work on the docks. The system under which they work is about like this: Brown or Smith gets a consignment of goods and wants somebody to help his truckman. He goes to 25 Bridge St., sees the boss of the local, and men are sent to load the consignment on the truck. For this, they get so much a package. That part of old Brooklyn is a wilderness of weather-beaten houses what is known as the bridge district.”
So, by 1923, even a local is no longer calling the area Irishtown. Instead, it is the Bridge District. Again, the old neighborhood is remembered by the locals and the old-timers. So popular were these stories, that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle kept regular space in their pages for old-timers to talk about the old times.
In this July 13, 1941 edition, one old-timer wrote in to say he was “born in Irish town, Bridge and Prospect streets over Redman’s Saloon, back in 1892.” Later he moved to Concord Street where his family, “lived on the third level with the El.” Meaning the Elevated train used to pass by his window burning coal and making a big racket. He was also proud that he used to sell the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on the street as a youth and remembers hocking the paper to interested readers when President McKinley was shot.
Another old-timer was Patrick Larney, who spent 57 years in Irishtown when he decided to write in 1940 to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s “Old-Timer’s” Section. He knew the area well since he represented it in the State Assembly and the Board of Alderman. He spoke of the Christmas tradition in Irishtown and sent in this poem:
“Well I do remember that cold day in November I left the old home I love so well and moved to a place decorated with lace and then became a swell. I cannot forget that old home I left In that town of great renown I long to go back to that old-fashioned shack in dear old Irishtown… Where I spent my boyhood days and where I wore a crown. I moved to a place where I don’t know a face and now I wear a frown. I long to go back to that old-fashioned shack in dear old Irishtown.”
On All Saints Day, November 2, 2012, my family laid to rest my grandmother after she lived a long and prosperous 95 years. In the months before her passing, I made a promise to her that since she kept the stories alive, I would dedicate my next book to her and that I was out to prove, by hook or by crook, that the Irishtown of her childhood would be made real from the clutches of rumor.
Humbly, she thanked me. Yet I could tell it made her a bit uncomfortable to receive that kind of attention. I reminded her, however, that if it weren’t for her and others like her, the old-timers, that the memories of “Auld Irishtown” could not have been passed to me.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An 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 bookWhere 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.
After 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.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.