- Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster
- Regan Books, 468 pp.
Wrong ‘em, boyo
One of the great engines of American assimilation can be found in the urban gutter, where man’s insatiable demand for pursuits forbidden by the upper world provides opportunities for new ethnic groups to find wealth and protection in what can otherwise prove to be a cold, harsh culture. Another route for becoming American lies above ground in the field of local politics, where marginal groups can find their voice in numbers and political power. The genius of the Irish who emigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries was to fuse both political clout and criminal enterprise into vast, urban political machines that helped uplift the Irish and create a place for them at the table of American bounty.
T.J. English’s history of Irish criminals focuses in great degree on the hazy boundary between politics and crime among early Irish immigrants. Many of them were recruited into the city machines literally straight off the boat by political fixers who found them jobs, places to live and other essential favors in return for their vote. The trade-off horrified the Gilded Age’s good government advocates, but was inevitable given the animus against Roman Catholic Irish on the part of the nation’s Protestant majority.
English’s book literally covers the waterfront and brings to light portraits of Irish American political bosses and criminals who typified their people’s genius for politics and sheer hell-raising. It’s also a clever sociological survey of why so many Irish Americans of an earlier era kept a foot in both legitimate society and the underworld. In the end, the G.I. Bill and the fall of the great urban machines would push Irish Americans into the academy and the suburbs, completing their trek from unwanted lowest-of-the-low immigrants to legitimate middle-class Americans.
English also documents the end of the Irish-American criminal era. The rise of Italian-American-based organized crime doomed the unorganized Irish version of neighborhood hellions bound by almost tribal ties and enmities. Throughout much of the 20th Century, Irish gangsters became more and more the pawns of Italian-American organized crime, as the end of big city machines left them high and dry, without the means to completely assimilate.
This is where the story of the Irish-American gangster gets truly gritty and horrific. It’s no coincidence that ultra-violent Irish-American groups such as New York’s Westies came to life just as the Irish-American criminal underworld was collapsing. Trapped working for the Mafia as hit men and body disposal experts, the twilight of Irish-American gangsterism was a nightmarish one of corpses dissected in bathtubs and the parts later strewn into the East River.
English does an admirable job of resurrecting some of the most famous Irish-American gangsters: Jack “Legs” Diamond, Chicago’s Dean O’Banion and Owney Madden. These men left behind legacies to the broader American culture as the pattern for countless gangsters in Hollywood films and crime fiction, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. Irish-American actors like Jimmy Cagney could pal around with these hoodlums and learn to play them on screen with an authenticity that would be lacking in the soft-focused Mafia genre movies of the 1960s and 1970s.
The last man standing, at least as far as Irish-American criminals is concerned, is James “Whitey” Bulger, a vicious Boston mobster whose career in organized crime was aided and abetted by renegade FBI agents. The elderly Bulger is still perched atop the bureau’s Ten Most Wanted List and you can’t help but wonder if the entire history of Irish-American gangsterism will come to a close once Bulger dies or is caught.
English is on equally solid ground when examining the lives of the men who built and sustained the great urban political machines. John “Old Smoke” Morrissey typifies the kind of determination it took for the Irish to rise in the New World. Morrissey, the son of immigrants, took New York by storm in the middle of the 19th Century, first as a boxer, later as the man who developed Saratoga Springs into a bettor’s paradise.
Political leaders like Morrissey would follow a well-trodden path, usually from petty criminality and gang membership in their youth to city hall in adulthood. The best expression of Irish-American attitudes toward local politics can be found in a quote from Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast: “You can’t saw with a hammer.” Irish-American politics would always be ruthlessly pragmatic whether it came to providing jobs and housing for new immigrants or working hand-in-hand with the underworld to provide gambling, illegal liquor, loan sharking and other “services” to the huddled masses.
The ultimate fusion of Irish-American pol and criminal, at least in English’s account, is Joe Kennedy. Kennedy, a Wall Street whiz with a taste for bare-knuckle business dealings and double-dealing, comes across as a far larger than life character. Kennedy’s sons, according to English, would pay the ultimate price for their father’s complex dealings with the Mafia.
Paddy Whacked is a fun read for anyone who is interested in the history of crime in America. English sticks to a very straightforward narrative account of his subject, yet rounds it out with some careful comments about why Irish-American gangsterism would remain so intimate with the corridors of power for so long, yet remain parochial and neighborhood-based to the end. Crime was never just crime for these hard men. Instead, it served as spectacle and the glue that bound Irish immigrant communities together. And now that the Irish in America have moved on to the mainstream, the misdeeds of their forebears are becoming the stuff of legend.