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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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.
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.