Up until the early 1990s—even after the infamous Westies had been annihilated by federal prosecutors—Hell’s Kitchen was a decaying slum, teeming with prostitutes, drunks, dope fiends, and petty criminals. The Guardian Angels still patrolled the dodgy streets at night, their red berets like beacons in the dark. Today the neighborhood, rechristened Clinton decades ago in a bid to distance it from its lurid past, thrives in a New York City that borders on a plutocracy. Gleaming postmodern glass towers, luxury high-rises, and renovated brownstones dominate a landscape once so desolate it was infamous nationwide during the mid to late nineteenth century. The Gilded Age never rubbed off on this dangerous patch of railroad apartments, rookeries, and tenements that ranged from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, from roughly 34th Street up to 59th.
Under the (still) gas-lit lamps of fin de siècle Manhattan, flagstone, macadam, cobblestone, and Belgian block ran with blood from corner to corner. That grisly era, immortalized by Herbert Asbury in Gangs of New York, produced savage crews such as The Marginals, The Gorillas, The Parlor Mob, and, most infamously, The Gophers, an assortment of hoodlums so disorderly that they often warred among themselves and regularly split into different factions. From out of this West Side nightmare would arise the most fearsome Gopher of them all: Owney “The Killer” Madden.
Although Madden was a member of an Irish gang, he was born in Leeds, England, in 1891, to immigrant parents from Ireland. A few years later, Mary Madden, freshly widowed according to some accounts, arrived in New York City alone and found herself working as a scrub maid, living in a rattletrap on 10th Avenue. In 1896, she saved up enough money to emancipate her children—Owney, Mary, and Martin—from an orphanage and provide them with tickets across the Atlantic.
As a child, Madden began to run the cracked and crooked streets with unusual playthings for one so young. Slingshots, blackjacks, knuckledusters, brickbats, lead pipes, stilettoes—all the paraphernalia of the everyday New York ruffian. But Madden took it further, with a Smith & Wesson he was never hesitant to use. By the time he was twenty-one years old, Madden was already the leader of a Gopher set and had earned his blunt but evocative nickname, “The Killer,” with a pair of brazen murders. On September 6, 1911, Madden shot and killed a member of the rival Hudson Dusters gang, Luigi Mollinucci (or Molineci), on 30th Street, in Dusters territory. He avoided charges when witnesses to the crime vanished into the gloomy night.
Just a few months later, in February 1912, Madden argued with a store clerk named William Henshaw over a woman. Incensed, Madden caught up to Henshaw on a crowded street trolley, where he shot him in the head at close range. A civilian, Henshaw did not adhere to the code of the streets: on his deathbed, he named Owney Madden, as his murderer. In addition to a trolley car full of bystanders, the police now had a positive identification from the victim. None of it would matter. Once again, witnesses disappeared, and the uncorroborated word of a dead man was not enough evidence to bring Madden to trial.
With his second freeroll murder, Madden became the most feared gangster on the West Side. But when he showed up alone at a dance hall (outside of Gopher territory, no less) on November 6, 1912, Madden left himself vulnerable. Soon, he was surrounded by Hudson Dusters, the quirky street gang known for bohemianism and for a love of cocaine. They may have been wired most of the time, but the Dusters had not forgotten what Madden had done to their cohort a year earlier. In an eyeblink, the Dusters rattled off a series of shots at Madden, leaving him in a pool of blood, gunsmoke swirling in the air. Madden, hit by eleven bullets, was rushed to Flower Hospital, where he not only declined to name his assailants but somehow managed to survive. Surgeons pulled six shells out of him; the other five remained in his wiry body for the rest of his life.
Although Madden had spent some time in the Tombs awaiting arraignment on various charges over the years, he had avoided a prison sentence for his entire run as an outlaw—until a deranged ex-Gopher appeared on the scene.
While convalescing, Madden saw his leadership of the gang challenged by William “Little Patsy Doyle” Moore, who pursued a guerilla war of sorts against The Gophers, spurred by jealousy. Moore had lost his girl, Freda Horner, to Madden, and pledged himself to a lone-wolf vendetta curious in its waging but predictable in its outcome. After nearly three years of watching Moore singlehandedly terrorize his gang, Madden, through intermediaries, finally acted. Moore was shot to death in a bar, lured there by Horner and ambushed by Gophers. On June 15, 1915, a jury found Madden guilty of first-degree manslaughter for ordering the hit on Moore and sentenced to ten to twenty years in Sing Sing.
When Madden exited prison in 1923—with his sentence cut short for good behavior—he entered a whole new criminal world, one that converged with the riotous Jazz Age, then in full swing in Manhattan.
Prohibition had unofficially kicked off The Roaring Twenties, that era of Wonderful Nonsense, when an askew moral order transformed millions of everyday Americans into scofflaws overnight and drove them into spittoon distance of the underworld. New York City was that shot-glass Xanadu and part of its bottom(s)-up appeal to the fresh middle-class felon was hobnobbing with standout racketeers. Under this cutting-edge modernist sensibility, Owney Madden would become a spotlit star apart from the Rockettes, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, the Charleston Champions, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
After a brief stint as a taxi stand enforcer for Larry Fay and as a hijacker of rum-running trucks, Madden joined forces with Bill Dwyer and Frank Costello to form one of the biggest bootlegging syndicates in America. In an early nod to vertical integration, Madden began investing in speakeasies and nightspots as outlets for his beer. Along with Frenchy DeMange and a few other shady investors, Madden purchased the Club Deluxe from ex-heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and transformed it into the Cotton Club.
In the time it took for the average marathon dance to play out, Madden, along with Dwyer and Costello, had become the most profitable bootlegger in New York. And the most celebrated. He was now “The Duke of the West Side.” Madden glided up and down Broadway in a bulletproof Dusenberg (ostentatious maroon), sometimes in the company of Walter Winchell, Texas Guinan, Mae West, or Damon Runyon. He became a backer of several nightclubs (the Silver Slipper, El Fey, the Stork), invested in lavish theater productions, and cultivated relationships with corrupt politicians who were then as common as speakeasies were. He was like George Bancroft in the Josef Von Sternberg silent film Underworld, mesmerized by a billboard sign that reads “THE CITY IS YOURS.” At the peak of his bootlegging career, Madden made millions of dollars and became a mainstay of society pages. He also brought his keen eye for the main chance to boxing, a booming pursuit since the Walker Law had legalized it in New York a few years earlier.
Because boxing was essentially an extension of the underworld, Madden had been steeped in its traditions since childhood. Even before he arrived in America, Madden had an interest in prizefighting. His uncle took part in boxing booth scraps and participated in informal fights throughout Liverpool. In New York, Madden haunted the gyms of the city, where sharpers and footpads congregated as often as fighters or trainers, and attended local clubs overrun by riffraff.
After his release from prison, and his rise to high-society gangster, Madden strengthened his ties in boxing. Madden had a cut of, or controlled, dozens of fighters, including Johnny Wilson, Maxie Rosenbloom, Kid Francis, Gene Tunney, Bob Olin, Jim Braddock, Charley “Phil” Rosenberg, Ace Hudkins, Max Baer, Leo Lomski, Marty Goldman, and Max Baer. Two of his managerial fronts were Joe Jacobs (most famous for handling Max Schmeling in the US) and Joe Gould (pilot of “The Cinderella Man,” Jim Braddock).
Just as Madden prefigured the new gangster—the ruthless technocrat who made the dimwitted bruiser with his knuckledusters obsolete—he also set the blueprint for mob control of the fight game. No longer would boxing be a pastime for sporting mobsters looking for the occasional score to go along with celebrity cachet; now boxing would be a remunerative staple going forward. Madden laid the groundwork for Frankie Carbo, whose complete takeover of fighters was modeled on the pitiful case of Primo Carnera, a tragedy who wound up heavyweight champion of the world.
Born in Sequals, Italy, in 1906, Carnera was an impoverished circus performer in France when he was discovered by ex-heavyweight pratfall artist Paul Journee. Billed variously as “Juan the Unbeatable Spaniard” and “Giovanni the Terrible,” Carnera earned a subsistence living as a strongman and a booth wrestler after years of navigating the cratered wastelands of World War I Europe as an itinerant stonemason. At roughly six feet five and 250 pounds, Carnera intrigued Journee, who signed the shock future heavyweight champion to a contract. When Journee introduced Carnera to French sports impresario Leon See, it set off one of the most famous hoaxes in boxing history. With a keen eye for flimflam, See immediately recognized the sideshow appeal of Carnera, whose towering height and menacing look were sure to keep the turnstiles spinning—as long as he could win.
Although the dubious buildup of heavyweights was a longstanding tradition even in the 1920s, See went beyond procuring stumblebums or set-ups for Carnera. Nearly all his early bouts in Europe were fixed, including a pair of DQ trade-offs with Young Stribling, a fighter who grew up in vaudeville and knew a cockeyed angle when he saw one. Throughout France, England, and Germany guileless crowds flocked to see Carnera inelegantly club his lethargic opposition around the ring and patch together a record of 15-2 as a dubious rookie.
In 1929, See brought Carnera to America under the auspices of Walter Friedman, who, in turn, invited a mini-consortium of gangsters to chisel in on a potential bonanza. This crew included Frenchy DeMange, Frank Churchill, Bill Duffy, and Owney Madden. A slapstick barnstorming tour followed, with one fighter after another collapsing in a round or two at the feet of this hulking klutz, by all accounts a gentle man seemingly incapable of malice. Carnera made his US debut on January 24, 1930, stopping Big Boy Peterson in Madison Square Garden. That year, Carnera fought twenty-six times, ranging from Newark to Portland. Most of these matches were arranged by the ruthless syndicate behind Carnera. Fighters unwilling to do business in the ring were threatened or, as in the case of Leon Chevalier, whose cornermen rubbed a foreign substance in his eyes and then threw in the towel to abort the contest, sabotaged from the inside.
A slew of investigations, suspensions, and license revocations trailed Carnera during his early American campaign. At one point, Carnera, who was a reliable box-office attraction, had been suspended by California, New York, and the NBA. Along the crooked way, Carnera was shortchanged at every whistle-stop. Leon See was only one of many in the Carnera camp who specialized in creative accounting. But Carnera always expressed his fondness for him, and when See was cut out of the heavyweight long con, an already appalling situation disintegrated further. “After Leon left,” Carnera said about his exploiters, “they did not even care whether I trained or not. I did the best I could myself. They did not care whether I was in condition, or what I did. They just made the matches and took the money and that was all.”
By 1933, Carnera had been maneuvered into a title shot against Jack Sharkey—despite fines, riots, suspensions, and the suspicions of a limited clutch of honest sportswriters. The erratic Sharkey had beaten Carnera easily a few years earlier, but his friendship with Boston heavyweight Ernie Schaff was the narrative bait meant to hook the masses. In his previous fight, Carnera had killed Schaff in the ring after thirteen rounds of sluggish milling. When Carnera‒Schaff was announced, it spurred writers into risking libel suits and, far more troubling, the wrath of proto-goodfellas, by plainly calling the matchup a fraud. But the shocking outcome overshadowed prefight talk of scamboogery. On February 10, 1933, Schaaf entered the ring against “The Ambling Alp” under adverse and ultimately tragic conditions. Only a few weeks removed from a hospital bed, Schaaf was still suffering from the lingering effects of the flu. An autopsy also revealed that Schaff had been recovering from spinal meningitis, a debilitating illness that likely precipitated his death in the ring. Indeed, Schaaf was in no condition to engage in even an exhibition. Six months earlier, he had been rushed to a hospital after being knocked cold by Max Baer in the last seconds of a fight in Chicago.
Sharkey‒Carnera was set for June 29, 1933, at the Long Island Bowl in Queens, New York. Like so many other Carnera fights, his first title shot inspired wonderment from some of the press. Then there were the strange currents surrounding Sharkey. How many defending heavyweight champions head into a title defense under circumstances as bizarre as the ones Sharkey faced? On June 23, 1933, less than a week before he was scheduled to defend his title, Sharkey bolted from his camp in Orangeburg, New York, and sped back to Boston for a mysterious emergency visit to his family. Eventually, newshawks revealed the truth: Sharkey had received threatening letters that had targeted his children.
Kidnapping was part of the zeitgeist in Depression-era America. In 1932, the New York Times reported that two thousand kidnappings had taken place across the country. And while the shocking Lindbergh case became worldwide news, most snatches took place in the underworld. In fact, Frenchy DeMange had been kidnapped by Vincent ‘Mad Dog” Coll and was returned safely after Owney Madden paid a $35,000 ransom. Coll, a reckless freelancer, then threatened Madden himself with the same fate. “Mad Dog” never got a chance to make good on his promise, however. He was shot to pieces in a drugstore hit. Now here was Jack Sharkey, the heavyweight champion of the world, receiving several menacing letters (as well as a few sinister phone calls) just days before defending his title against a man whose principal backer was the most prominent gangster in the city. With a police officer named Alfred W. Hammell installed to guard his family, Sharkey returned to camp.
After building up a slight lead over the first five rounds, Sharkey began to unravel. In the sixth, a haphazard Sharkey bounced off the ropes, leaned forward, hands down, within striking distance, and Carnera fired one of his unwieldy punches. The clubbing uppercut (what Nat Fleisher, who rarely acknowledged skulduggery, would later label a phantom punch) sent Sharkey crashing with an over-the-top theatricality Ed “Strangler” Lewis might have admired. So overwrought was his performance that Johnny Buckley raced across the ring and accused Carnera of belting Sharkey with loaded gloves. No one was going to accuse Buckley and Sharkey of neglecting to “sell.” When it was all over, Primo Carnera, who needed cruel intervention to beat Leon Chevalier and Riccardo Bertazzolo, who had been suspended from one end of the country to the other, who had previously been smacked around by Sharkey, George Godfrey, Larry Gaines, and Stanley Poreda, was now the heavyweight champion of the world.
Despite the overwhelming underhandedness surrounding Carnera‒Sharkey, there are many who consider it a legitimate outcome, while presumably acknowledging the chicanery that marked the Carnera phenomenon from the day the ex-strongman traded his barbells for a pair of boxing gloves.
An on-the-level title challenge meant that the mob would have built up Carnera with a farcical barnstorming tour for nearly five years without cashing in on the jackpot—the championship itself. It also meant that these rapacious opportunists, former con men, willing to murder, to defy federal statutes, to order triggermen out on the streets, were going against their nature.
As for those who believe that a heavyweight championship bout was “too big” to be rigged (often citing a secondhand quote from Carnera himself as “proof”), they only need to refer to the 1919 Black Sox scandal—when the World Series became the plaything of Broadway swindlers—as a fitting precedent for the scale and ambition of a Jazz Age gangland made nearly omnipotent by the folly of the Eighteenth Amendment.
In The Harder They Fall, Budd Schulberg based his pitiful character Toro Molina, an oversized heavyweight brutally exploited by the mob, on Primo Carnera. Nearly a decade later, when The Harder They Fall became a Hollywood smash starring Humphrey Bogart, Carnera sued Columbia Pictures (Schulberg was also named in the suit). To be clear, Carnera did not sue for defamation; no, he sued over invasion of privacy and loss of esteem from having his story told (through fictional proxies) publicly. When The Harder They Fall was first published, in 1947, Carnera did not sue Schulberg for libel. He did, however, comment on the novel and its author. “That book, yes,” Carnera told Sport a year after it was released. “I have read it. It is all true. But I wish he had come to me. I would tell him so much more.”
After two lackluster title defenses (decisions over Tommy Loughran—who weighed eighty-two pounds less than the champion—and Paolo Uzcudun in fights that were legitimate), Carnera was stopped by a taunting Max Baer after suffering anywhere from ten to twelve knockdowns in a one-sided mauling. Although Carnera was severely hampered by torn ligaments in his ankle, suffered from one of his deadfalls to the canvas, the beating he took against Baer was comprehensive and embarrassing.
How much blood money was left to tap from Carnera? A few comeback wins in South America, and Carnera was ready for his last siphoning. He was thrown into the ring against a rising Joe Louis for a final sizeable purse and emerged from it as if from a foxhole after a protracted bombardment of artillery shells. Then came two beatings at the hands of Leroy Haynes, the last of which left Carnera hospitalized with kidney damage, a concussion, and a dark and darkening sense of existential loss. “I lay in the hospital bed for five months,” Carnera said. “My whole left side was paralyzed. I was in much pain during all this time, not one of them came to see me. Nobody came to see me. I had no friend in the whole world.”
By then, Madden was already in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he would thrive, in peace, as the unofficial ambassador of an open city for racketeers. New York City, where the spiked punch bowl had been replaced by breadline fare, had become too dangerous for Madden. With Prohibition repealed and a reform-minded Thomas E. Dewey now the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Madden was a marked man. In July 1933, Madden began a year-long sentence for parole violation. He served his time at Sing Sing and fled south to avoid further entanglements with the now-uncooperative law. Whenever he returned to The Big Apple, he would be rousted by police officers. Down in Hot Springs, Madden kept earning with spas and his casino gem, The Southern Club. For the rest of his life in the “Wonder State,” Madden, who died in 1965, entertained prizefight luminaries from across the country. There was Maxie Rosenbloom, Henry Armstrong, Jack “Kid” Berg, Gene Tunney, Max Baer, and Rocky Marciano.
No one ever spotted Primo Carnera in Hot Springs.