Popular culture has unfairly characterized Italian-Americans as the archetypal kingpins of organized crime. However, the foundation for organized crime in America was constructed long before any mass immigration of Italians. It was built by the Irish, said T. J. English in his book, “Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster.”
In his book, English sets out to prove the Irish”not the Italians”were the first immigrants to organize criminal gangs and protect them through civic corruption.
English will be coming to Centuries & Sleuths, on March 9th, at 7:00 p.m., to sign copies of his groundbreaking history of Irish-American crime.
In his previous book, “The Westies,” English chronicled an Irish mob that dominated the West Side of Manhattan. His new history, however, is a sprawling saga that traces the Irish-American mob from the 1840’s to the present and details its rise and fall in cities such as New York, New Orleans, Kansas City, Boston and, of course, Chicago.
English maintains that the Irish had all the ingredients to become successful criminals in America. They spoke the language, were filled with festering anger from centuries of British oppression and were fiercely loyal. Over the course of a century, though, the Irish would turn away from criminal careers and would eventually turn on each other.
English was inspired to write the book by his late-father, who embodied the Irish-American spirit.
“My father was born in East St. Louis and grew up in a family of 11. After playing football at Notre Dame for Knute Rockne, he moved to Seattle,” English said.
English’s said his father “adored Jimmy Cagney and the Irish-American street-tough character he played.”
Inspired, English set out to write the definitive book on the subject.
“I left no stone unturned,” he said. “I wanted to write the Bible on Irish-American gangsters, the Old Testament and the New Testament.”
“Paddy Whacked,” his Bible, is an unprecedented account that traces the Irish mob from men like “Old Smoke” Morrissey to “Whitey” Bulger; from the swamps of Louisiana to the nightclubs of Kansas City.
“It’s never been done,” English said, “To follow the historical thread and connect the regional histories
of the Irish.”
English spent two years researching the book in the cities where the Irish mob had taken hold.
“I followed the path of Irish immigration from the potato famine to the growth of political machines, like Tammany Hall,” he said.
Political organizations in New York and Chicago made those cities “the Rome and Athens of the Irish-American underworld,” English said, “The political system became part and parcel of the criminal underworld.”
Indeed, Irish-American politics became the “foundation of democracy in the big cities,” English said.
At the time, politicians were more powerful than gangsters and criminals made most of their money from illegal gambling. The Irish eschewed prostitution on moral grounds, but Prohibition brought a great infusion of money to the mobsters.
The riches from rum running not only afforded them police protection but also allowed them to influence the highest levels of city government.
“Chicago was the pioneer in intertwining gangsters
and city government,” English said.
In a way, the Irish-American mobsters were doing what all immigrant groups have done to gain a foothold in America.
“It was very clear that the W.A.S.P. economic playing field was not level,” English said, “Ethnic groups like the Irish banded together for daily survival.” The famine Irish had been “faced with extinction” in their native country. They saw that seizing the levers of local government was their only chance at survival in America. But, before they became politicians and policemen, the Irish dominated the criminal classes in gang-havens like New York’s Five Points neighborhood.
The earliest gangs descended from political resistance groups from the old country and had waged guerrilla warfare against English authorities. They had names like Plug Uglies and White Rabbits and engaged in bloody street warfare against native gangs.
At this time, there was powerful anti-Irish prejudice in the U.S., typified by political groups like the Know-Nothings. But the American establishment had never contended with ruthless gang leaders like “Old Smoke” Morrisey.
Morrissey, like other Irish-American leaders to follow, was never accepted into polite W.A.S.P. society. Instead Irish outsiders used brute political power to take over city governments in New York, Boston and Chicago. They controlled city life at every level: street crime, the police force and civic government. It was an unholy trinity that allowed Irish-American political machines to survive well into the 20th Century.
Not that the power-grab always went smoothly. The only way up for many of the Irish was to join the police force.
David Hennessy, for example, reached the highest rung of the law enforcement ladder when he became New Orleans Chief of Police. When Hennessy was gunned down in a street ambush, he triggered the first shots in what became a running war between Irish and Italian mobsters.
Calling his assailants “dagos,” Hennessy unleashed mob fury on the Italians being held in connection with his
murder. A crowd of twenty thousand broke into the jail and ended up executing eleven Italians to avenge
Chicago, though, became the bloodiest backdrop for the Irish-Italian gang wars. The Irish had formed street gangs, masquerading as “athletic clubs.”
These gangs branched out into illegal gambling and formed political organizations. However, the giddy profits generated during Prohibition pitched the city into violent turf wars. The Irish essentially controlled the sale of illegal alcohol on the North Side, while Al Capone and his henchmen oversaw the
Italians and Sicilians saw the Irish as being dangerously headstrong and temperamental and decided to eliminate the competition. After gunning down Dean O’Banion in his flower shop, the Capone gang attempted to wipe-out Bugs Moran’s gang in one ambush. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it came to be known, claimed the lives of seven members of the Moran gang and set off such a public furor that it signaled the end of the
In “Paddy Whacked,” the scene shifts from Chicago to New York, where English chronicles the rise and fall of Legs Diamond, the stylish Irish gangster, who was later romanticized in film. He also describes the final shootout between Francis “Two Gun” Crowley and the New York Police.
Growing up in the notorious Irish slum called the Gas House District, young Jimmy Cagney was well acquainted with
gangsters like “Two Gun.” Cagney was also introduced to legendary gang leader Owney Madden, who served as a
prototype for Cagney’s screen persona.
Owney’s manner of speech was a “talking-from-the-side-of the-mouth sarcasm” and a cop described his physical demeanor as “that little banty rooster from hell.” Cagney later electrified the screen by copying the tough banter and the cocky strut. His portrayal of Irish-American gangsters was so convincing that he didn’t attract protests from Irish-American audiences.
On the screen and in real life, the Irish-American gangster remained an outcast in American society: never fully accepted by the W.A.S.P. establishment and viewed with mistrust by Italian and Jewish mobsters.
One Irish ex-bootlegger single-handedly tried to end this prejudice against Irish Catholics by having one of his sons become President of the United States. English devotes considerable space to the story of Joseph P. Kennedy and his grasp for America’s ultimate political plum. Kennedy reportedly used his mob connections to sway the election for his son, John. However, younger brother Bobby, as Attorney General, only deepened the dislike between Italian and Irish factions of the underworld.
As Irish-Americans became more prosperous, they abandoned the cities for the suburbs and the old political machines died. Irish gangsters also found themselves squeezed out by the Italian Mafia, which had taken leadership of the crime
By the end of the 20th Century, the Irish mob was confined to its two original strongholds: Boston and New York. Here is where English’s narrative truly becomes depressing, as the last of the Irish gangsters become self-destructive.
The Irish-Americans began gunning each other down at an alarming rate, as other ethnic gangs looked on in approval. The Irish finally lost their grip on the New York waterfront and construction industry. They also began to lose their influence in
As English relates, though, one South Boston gang leader is still at large. James “Whitey” Bulger reportedly was involved in narcotics, gambling, loan sharking and extortion. He was also linked to several murders. But Bulger enjoyed immunity as an FBI informant. That was as low as an Irishman can go: to become an informer on his own associates. To this day, Bulger remains a step ahead of his old enemies.