For anyone who knows about the “Westies”, New York’s old West Side Mob, they think of a brutal gang of loose cannons roaming the streets and barrooms of Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s and 80s led by Jimmy Coonan and Mickey Featherstone that met its demise when one betrayed the other. But the Westies’s lineage as the West Side’s dominant underworld organization dates back to the 1890s and the rise of the Gopher Gang in Hell’s Kitchen. The Gophers were formed from an amalgam of West Side street gangs that would soon control the area’s bordellos and gambling houses and got their name from reportedly using the cellars of Hell’s Kitchen’s tenements as hideouts. In addition to control of vice activities, the Gophers also held a monopoly on robbing the lucrative West Side rail yards. As the Gophers’ power grew, some leaders like “One Lung” Curran became notable figures in the city. Curran was infamous for, among other things, blackjacking police officers and stealing their uniforms which soon became the fashion in the neighborhood. But of all the Gopher leaders over the years, one man would emerge who would become the quintessential icon and founding father of the West Side Irish Mob.
By the time 1910s started the gang was under the leadership of an immigrant from England of Liverpudlian birth and Irish blood by the name of Owney Madden. Known as “Owney the Killer,” he ruled over the saloons and dance halls of the West Side, and took down anyone in his way. Making significant money off the gang’s gambling, fencing and protection rackets, he was one of the first true “dapper dons” in American gangland, wearing the finest suits and spending freely. But at the same time, Madden was the first Hell’s Kitchen gangster who’s weapon of choice was a pistol, even though he was known to use a lead pipe wrapped in newspaper. He wasn’t called ‘the Killer’ for nothing. Once he was shot 11 times by three rival Hudson Dusters and somehow survived but refused to testify. Within weeks his assailants were dead. He was finally sent away in 1914 for the murder of Patsy Doyle, but his legacy lived on during his incarceration. New York Times articles from the period he was in jail referred the remaining Gophers as the “Owney Madden Gang.”
Upon his release in 1923, he took over the city’s taxis in a brutal war for control of a developing and fruitful new business. As a result, he came to the attention of Manhattan’s beer baron Big Bill Dwyer. Dwyer needed an enforcer to protect his liquor shipments and no one in New York had a more fearsome reputation than Owney Madden. Soon they became partners and as a result Madden would grow to become the most powerful underworld figure in New York. In addition to these rackets he invested heavily in the most famous clubs of the day like the Cotton Club and the Stork Club and was allegedly part of the mysterious “Seven Group” who controlled all of the alcohol distribution in the Eastern US. By 1927 the Dwyer-Madden combine wielded unprecedented influence in New York City. With Dwyer’s business acumen, ward boss Jimmy Hines’ political influence and Madden’s muscle, the Irish Mob was the most powerful of all the criminal organizations in New York. One important aspect of the organization was that, unlike the Italian Mafia, you didn’t need to be Irish to be a part of this Irish Mob. Jews, Italians and African-Americans worked hand in hand with the Irish combine bosses. The ranks of the Combine were swelled with up and coming gangsters from various backgrouds like Salvatore Lucania, Francisco Castiglia and Arthur Flegenheimer, better known to history as Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Frank Costello and Dutch Schultz, who would help to extend its power throughout New York and the Eastern U.S.
When Dwyer went to jail, Madden began to slowly fade out of bootlegging to concentrate on his club and gambling rackets in New York and Hot Springs, Ark. Most of his interest in the bootlegging went to an up and coming Frank Costello who worked also worked for Dwyer. In 1929 he was one of only two Irish gangsters at the famed Atlantic City Conference of 1929 that saw Luciano, Lansky and Johnny Torrio lay out the future of the American underworld. The Irish were on their way out of the top of the underworld power structure throughout the United States, put into the upper world rackets of dirty politics and legitimate business while maintaining Italian and Jewish connections to the underworld, but Madden had enough respect in the underworld to remain and become a founding member of the National Crime Commission. As the Mafia and Jewish Mobs carved up the city, Owney remained Duke of the West Side. Hell’s Kitchen remained in the hands of the Irish Mob and would for decades. As pressure on him grew from police, he began fading out of the New York rackets by his own design. He got into the fight game, fixing it so his man Primo Carnera would become world heavyweight champion. But the actions of one Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll forced his hand.
Coll was what you could call a loose cannon, the archetype of the wild Irish gangster that became almost a stereotype from the post-Prohibition era right down to Coonan and Featherstone. Coll and his small gang were wreaking havoc on the rackets throughout the city. When it came down to it settling the issue, to the other bosses it was an Irish problem and it was Madden who had to deal with it. In February 1932, Coll was gunned down in a phone booth while allegedly on the phone with Madden.
After Coll’s murder, he did a quiet year in prison and began to spend more time in Hot Springs. He gave up all his interests in New York and settled full time in Hot Springs, creating a resort for gangsters on the lam. In fact, his friend Charlie Luciano was arrested there. Madden married and spent the rest of his days there. He was the point man for the New York and Chicago Mobs in what was called the largest illegal casino operation in the country. In his later years, he allegedly used to pay a young local kid named Billy Blythe to run errands for him. He’d get him cigars, racing forms, whatever he needed. Billy eventually changed his last name to that of his stepfather and grew up to be Governor of Arkansas and President of the United States named Bill Clinton. Madden died peacefully in 1965. Soon after the illegal casinos in Hot Springs all but disappeared.
Madden is an important link in the evolution of organized crime in America. He started out in the days where the gangs were powerful but at the service of their political sponsors through to Prohibition where the gangsters owned the politicians and the creation of a nationwide criminal network. The West Side Mob remained for more than 50 years after Madden retired to Hot Springs under the leadership of Eddie McGrath and then Mickey Spillane before unraveling under Jimmy Coonan in the 1980s. By that time, Coonan had already pledged himself to the Gambino Family, but his incarceration led them and the Genovese Family, who’s influence Mickey Spillane fought doggedly in the 60s and 70s, to take over the Hell’s Kitchen rackets. At least what was left after the gentrification of what was once one of America’s most notorious slums. Now, the Irish Mob in New York is only a memory. Or is it?