Owney Madden was one of the standout gangsters of the Jazz Age and the Prohibition era. From his early days as just another young immigrant hoodlum to his appearance at the notorious 1929 Atlantic City crime convention, Madden rose to the top of the criminal tree. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he had the vision to know when his days were numbered and to step down before the axe fell.
Born in Northern England on December 18, 1891 (he’s often described as an Irish gangster, but was actually born and raised in Leeds) he spent much of childhood there in Leeds, Wigan and Liverpool. That he had Irish roots is true, his family were originally from the Emerald isle, but Owney Madden was as British as they come. Even at the height of his infamy in New York and Hot Springs, Arkansas, Madden still had local newspapers from Northern England delivered so he could keep up with events back home. He also retained the distinctive Northern England accent he picked up during his childhood, still sounding as though he lived in Leeds until the end of his life in April 1965.
Madden emigrated to New York in 1902 and quickly joined the notorious ‘Gophers’ street gang. The ‘Gophers’ were well-known and widely feared In New York, one of many street gangs like the Hudson Dusters, the Parlor Mob and others from which rose many of the leading gangsters of the Roaring Twenties and beyond. Madden was ambitious and keen to make a name for himself, something he lost no time in doing.
Violence, racketeering, drugs and murder were cornerstones of their existence. They regarded the Hudson River Railroad Yard as their personal preserve, robbing cargo from railroad trucks and warehouse almost at will. Their notorious ‘cocaine parties’ when, hopped up on coke and booze, they wandered the streets committing random acts of violence, didn’t hurt their fearsome reputation either. People loathed them, but also feared them. At least, most people did.
The rival ‘Hudson Dusters’ didn’t. The Dusters, who numbered among their members Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond (who would lose his long-running feud with Madden in 1931) had no problem in taking them on. Slashings, beatings and shootings were standard practice whenever the two gangs had a problem with each other, which was often. Madden wasn’t afraid to be in the thick of the action, believed to have murdered several men before he was old enough to vote. That said, he also got the worst of it at times. Particularly on November 6, 1914 when he suffered multiple gunshot wounds courtesy of the Dusters. His response when police visited him in hospital asking him to identify the shooters was typical of a bluntly-spoken Northern England lad:
“Nothing doing. The boys’ll get ‘em. It’s nobody’s business but mine who put these slugs into me.”
It certainly was Madden’s business. Business he swiftly concluded as, within a week of his leaving hospital, several Dusters were found dead. It was during this period that he earned his notorious nickname. Having murdered several people already, he sealed his vicious reputation with the fatal shooting of gangland rival Luigi Marrinetti who he shot on a street corner in front of numerous witnesses. Numerous witnesses who recalled him standing over Marrinetti’s corpse waving a pistol and bellowing the immortal words:
“I’m Owney Madden! From Tenth Avenue!”
A personal advertisement which, strangely, is remembered to this day, but was mysteriously forgotten by anybody who was there when the New York Police Department wanted witnesses to it. Perhaps for some odd reason, probably a desire to avoid being another notch on Madden’s gun, they were somewhat afraid of him.
His criminal career was seriously disrupted by the murder of Dusters member ‘Little Patsy’ Doyle. Or, to be more exact, by the nine years in Sing Sing he drew for his part in Doyle’s murder. Between 1914 and 1923 Madden served time ‘up the river’ but, when he received his parole, he walked straight out of Sing Sing and straight into a world of opportunity.
In 1919, Prohibition, one of America’s noblest and most misguided experiments, came into being. Also, while he was away, murder, life imprisonment and the electric chair had decimated the ranks of his contemporaries. There were spots ready to be filled within the burgeoning underworld of bootlegging, speakeasies, hijacking and violence that went hand-in-glove with Prohibition. Madden, from a poor background and with a nose for money and indifference to risk, eagerly jumped in with both feet.
His approach covered buying, distributing and producing his own booze. Secret ownership of a brewery gave him his signature product, a beer named (with characteristic flamboyance) ‘Madden’s Number One.’ Interests in over twenty nightclubs and untold speakeasies gave him somewhere to distribute that product. Ownership of the famed nightclubs ‘Club DeLuxe’ and the world-famous ‘Cotton Club’, combined with an interest in the legendary ‘Stork Club’ also gave Madden something else many Jazz Age gangsters craved.
Fame can be a very dangerous things for criminals. In obscurity they have much greater freedom to operate precisely because the world isn’t watching. Madden, always the flamboyant type, didn’t care. By 1929 he was rubbing shoulders with big-name performers at his clubs, people like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Bojangle Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. He was also rubbing shoulders with the very top of the American underworld, a mark of his importance being his presence at the notorious Atlantic City crime convention in 1929. The convention, organised by Meyer Lansky and ‘Lucky’ Luciano, was the foundation of modern organised crime, the genesis of the ‘National Syndicate’ combining and representing the interests of gangsters from all ethnic backgrounds. Black, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Luciano didn’t care who he did business with as long as the business was lucrative.
Bootlegging, of course, ceased to be lucrative when Prohibition was repealed. Madden, being smart enough to foresee its end, had given up his alcohol interests in favour of a less-lucrative but more discreet racket; boxing. He promoted fights, guided fighters and rigged bouts. He managed the ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera to a world heavyweight title which, when media attention to boxing’s inherent corruption at that time became too keen. When Madden deserted him in favour of managing one of his rivals Carnera ‘lost’ the title to a young Californian fighter named Max Baer. The same Max Baer who just happened to be managed by, you’ve guessed it, Owney Madden.
There were, however, a few dark clouds on Madden’s horizon. Not least old rival and former Hudson Duster Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond. Diamond was also heavily involved with bootlegging, having graduated to racketeering from the Dusters via a career as an armed robber and burglar. He also had a habit of making enemies, a habit that by 1931 would see a newspaper columnist label him the ‘Clay pigeon of the underworld’ owing to his surviving numerous assassination attempts. It was in 1931 that Madden and ‘Dutch’ Schultz decided this irritation needed dealing with. Permanently.
Diamond duly was. He’d moved his operation upstate into the Catskills, hoping to lessen police scrutiny and gangland attacks. It failed. In the early hours of December 18, 1931 Diamond stumbled drunkenly into an Albany boarding house and fell asleep. Two unidentified gunmen quietly entered the room and ensured that he wouldn’t wake up.
Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll’, another Irish gangster and having the dubious distinction of inventing the drive-by shooting, was another fly in everybody’s ointment. When he wasn’t kidnapping other gangsters for ransom, robbing them, shooting them or generally bringing mayhem and murder wherever he went, Coll was either running from the police or his gangland enemies, often from both at once. His behaviour caused a general crackdown by the authorities that was hurting everybody’s bottom line and gangland’s bigwigs decided his very existence was bad for business. With police looking to put him in the electric chair and gangland having a pair of concrete boots with his name on them, Coll reached out in desperation to the one friend he had left, Owney Madden.
Madden answered Coll’s phone call, made from a drugstore in the early hours of February 8, 1932. He also kept his old friend on the line for a while. Long enough for Syndicate triggermen to reach the drugstore, walk in and cut him to pieces in the phone booth with a Tommy gun. The phone booth came out of it looking a great deal healthier than its occupant. Coll was dead, gangland could freely go about its business again and Madden, knowing full well that the increasingly powerful Italian gangsters were well on their way to edging their ethnic rivals to the side-lines of organised crime, had probably lengthened his life expectancy.
He lengthened it further when, in 1935, he bowed to the inevitable. Gangland was changing, the days of lone-wolf gangster like Madden, Coll and Diamond were drawing to a close as gangsters became increasingly business-minded. The future lay in groups of organised criminals with clear chains of command and strict rules, not in lone-wolf heavies running round the city causing havoc and chaos wherever and whenever they pleased. With that in mind, Madden stepped aside.
He moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, becoming involved in local crime (especially corrupting public officials and gambling). He discreetly ran Hot Springs as though it were his own personal fiefdom, but always careful never to be too blatant and thus oblige even the police and politicians on his payroll to at least be seen to do something about his activities. He also provided, either as a favour or for a fee, a place where gangsters on the lam could turn up and live more or less openly without fear of either police attention or gangland retribution, which is why ‘Lucky’ Luciano was arrested there in 1935 prior to his receiving a thirty-to-sixty year sentence for coercive prostitution in 1936.
For the final 30 years of his life Owney Madden lived fairly quietly. It was certainly a change from the flamboyant days of standing beside a corpse on a New York street and loudly confessing to all and sundry. The dirt-poor immigrant boy had risen to the top of chosen occupation when prison, murder or Old Sparky had claimed so many of those who started out from similar backgrounds. He lived comfortably, content to bask in his notoriety and reminisce about old times, knowing that not only did he have the ambition and the skill to rise to the top, he’d also been a wise gambler, known when to walk away and cash in his chips.
A crook? Yes. A killer? Definitely. Ruthless, ambitious and callous? Certainly. But an unthinking lunkhead born to live and die in life’s gutter?