I just finished reading a great book, the Balsamo brothers’ “Young Al Capone, The Untold Story of Scarface in New York. It describes in detail how Capone and the Black Hand, also known as the Sicilian Mafia, took on and destroyed the irish mob in north Brooklyn, The White Hand Gang. The White Hand were based in Vinegar Hill and “Irishtown” the area around the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Al Capone was born. Their name was chosen in response to the Sicilian Black Hand gangs and carried the implication that the Irish gang was the “white” counter to the growing presence of what they considered “non-white” Italian gangsters and Italian immigrants. They were known to be virulently anti-Italian and particularly violent, with members killing each other, contributing to the unstable leadership which led to the gang’s demise.
Eamon Loingsigh, an Irish American historian and writer has written a trilogy about the White Hand called, “Auld Irishtown” and the rest of the post comes courtesy of his website.Loinsigh takes issue with much of what the Balsamo brothers state in their book. He writes about the legendary irsh gangster Dinny Meehan.
None of the plethora of Irish-American gangs in the area wanted to work with another gang from another street. No matter if the majority of all gang members were Irish-American, each gang defended their street like tribal and communal warriors. It would take a great communicator to bring all the Irish-American gangs together to fight against the rise of Siclian mafia influence.
Dinny Meehan was such a man. Originally from the Warren Street Red Onion Gang, Meehan eventually became known as the leader of the White Hand Gang and in 1912 when he was 23 years old, his status as leader was cemented when he was exonerated in a sensational trial against him and three of his minions for killing one Christie Maroney, a yegg, bartender and safe cracker who refused to pay tribute to the White Hand Gang before being shot between the eyes in a Sands Street saloon where he was working.
At the trial’s conclusion when the verdict was to be read “a large squad of policemen and many detectives and reserves” were summoned as the judge and police felt that if Meehan were to be convicted, a riot would break out at the Kings County Court. The courtroom was packed with young Irish-American thugs and their girlfriends. Italian mobsters like Frankie Yale and Johnny Torrio would have been watching from a far as well, hoping Meehan would be convicted.
When the jury decided there wasn’t enough proof or witnesses and Meehan was released, the courtroom and the street outside erupted in cheers and Dinny Meehan was made into a legend, for it is bucking and flaunting the system that has always transformed an Irish-American into a legend in the slums of Brooklyn and beyond.
From that point forward, the White Hand Gang ruled with an iron fist and with extraordinary unity, which as mentioned was so rare for Irish-American gangs of the era. Their power was so fierce and all encompassing in Brooklyn that a young Al Capone was sent to Chicago, as many sources confirm, because the White Hand Gang had him on a short list of those that needed to be killed. In reality, it was one of a few reasons for Capone’s moving to Chicago, but it was certainly true that the White Hand Gang was as powerful, if not more powerful, than the Mafia in Brooklyn at the time and Capone was too hot of a prospect for the Italians to risk.
Under Meehan, the dockboss at each terminal paid tribute to him at 25 Bridge Street (which was a saloon called The Dock Loaders’ Club, though the gang’s headquarters was right above it). Every laborer that was used to unload or load a ship or truck or freight rail had to first report to Dinny Meehan under the Manhattan Bridge. If a factory or warehouse in the neighborhood (like the Empire Stores warehousing units) refused to pay tribute, Meehan and the boys would steal from it. If a ship captain didn’t pay tribute, people like “Cinders” Connolly, one of Meehan’s men, would set it ablaze and loosen its ties to the pier bollards, letting it burn in the East River where all would watch. If a gang member talked too much, he’d be found in his bed with a gunshot to his face or with his hands tied behind his back in the New York Harbor. The gang was also hired as “starkers,” a term that is basically outdated today, which meant that, for example, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) might hire the White Hand Gang to kill or maim a New York Dock Company employee who refused to pay their union dues. Or, by contrast, the New York Dock Company might hire the gang to kill a particularly obnoxious ILA man.
In any case, with Meehan as the leader, things were organized. Everyone knew who to go to when they needed a job or needed someone killed or maimed. Everyone knew what the rules were and the penalty for breaking them.
“Wild” Bill Lovett was five years younger than Dinny Meehan, and at the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, he started spreading ideas about getting in on the up-and-coming bootlegging and illegal distillery boom (an Irishtown tradition). He was a talented gangster with a wild temper when drunk, very intelligent sober. On top of that, he was a decorated veteran of the First World War. Something that gave him a powerful status of his own among the longshoremen gangsters, laborers and factory workers along the Brooklyn waterfront.
Suddenly, the White Hand Gang that had enjoyed so much success and underground notoriety under Dinny Meehan from 1912 to early 1920 had two heads.
In the afternoon of March 31, 1920, among great changes in the underworld’s environment where many older-generation gangsters and organized criminals were being murdered and replaced with new, young turks, Dinny Meehan was shot multiple times while in bed with his wife Sadie (who was wounded in the shoulder). No one was charged for Meehan’s murder, but most everyone knew it was Wild Bill Lovett that either carried it out, or ordered it. However, the Balsamo brothers claim it was the Italian Mob that got him. In any event power soon passed to Lovett and I will do another post on Lovett.