The first criminal bands that emerged from the gritty slums of areas like Five Points were the Irish. Although many Irish became civil servants, there were a few who chose the underworld road to success. While the Sicilians were going by the moniker Black Hand, the Irish were using White Hand.
Based out of the Brooklyn docks, these groups made most of their money by extorting the longshoremen, hijacking loads of merchandise off the boats, and running gambling operations open to the dockworkers.
The leader of the White Hand gang was a young, wide-eyed upstart who rose to the top in the usual gangland way, by murdering his former boss. Wild Bill Lovett saw the Italian gangs across the river as his biggest challenge, rather than other Irish mobsters.
But his reign over the underworld scene on the docks was short-lived. Less than five years after becoming the boss of the White Hand he was shot and had a meat cleaver sunk into his skull. Needless to say that took care of Wild Bill, and the White Hand soon followed.
Philadelphia had its own Irish mob group. The K&A Gang, headquartered in northeast Philly, were a loose-knit gang of Irish-American mobsters who dealt drugs and ran sophisticated burglary rings through the 1990s.
The Killer Irishman
Born to Irish parents in Leeds, England, the most successful and ruthless of the New York Irish gangsters in the 1930s was a tough mug called Owney “the Killer” Madden. He was a dapper man who partied in the high society of the day. He had interests in the bootleg racket and was the owner of the legendary Harlem nightclub called the Cotton Club. Lucky Luciano treated him with respect, and they did business amicably.
Owney Madden, left, suspected but unconvicted racketeering boss, is escorted by detective Thomas Horan shortly after Madden was ordered on Febuary 13, 1932, to report to Sing Sing as a possible parole violator. He was en route to the Tombs Prison in New York pending a hearing two days later.
Madden did a year in the slammer and then retired to Hot Springs, Arkansas. This was a Mafia resort town discovered by Al Capone, and it is famed for its natural and restorative mineral baths. Gangsters put it on the map, and now ordinary citizens still flock there to “take in the waters” and gamble at the world-famous racetrack, Oaklawn Park.
The Irish mob's last stand in New York took place in Hell's Kitchen, a working-class neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. The longtime boss Mickey Spillane (no relation to the writer) was killed on March 13, 1977. Jimmy Coonan replaced him.
Jimmy's tenure as head of the Westies was one of violence and brutality. He lacked the finesse of his elders. His gang was more like a crew of out-of-control street punks than a sophisticated organized crime family. They drank too much and also indulged in the drugs they pushed.
Coonan and his cronies had a penchant for chopping the hands off those they murdered. There were no fingerprints to identify the body that way. One assumes he was too brazen to consider that the cops might use dental records to get the deceased's identity. He was certainly on the right track, however.
The Westies rarely ventured from their tight-knit neighborhood, preferring to run their operations out of Irish pubs and back alley clubs. Coonan, however, led the suburban life in New Jersey, commuting into New York City each morning.
There were more than 30 unsolved murders in Hell's Kitchen in the 1970s through the mid-1980s that had the mark of the Westies. Coonan was ultimately convicted under the RICO Act and sentenced to 75 years.