The Gophers, once the undisputed kings and queens of Hell’s Kitchen

The environment in which you are born and reared can have a dramatic impact on your personality and life chances. The men who became the most notorious Irish American gangsters were no different. They had the intelligence and determination to have become model and successful citizens if they had been born in different circumstances. It was this very intelligence and drive that allowed them to drag themselves out of the poverty they experienced and to reach what they perceived as success, albeit for a very short time in many instances.

Loners like Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll are rare in the annals of Irish American gangsters who mostly achieved notoriety as part of the many gangs that sprung up almost from the first moments Irish immigrants came off the Famine boats in New York or settled in Boston and Chicago. Gangs like The Gophers, The White Hand Gang, The Northside Gang, The Winter Hill Gang and The Westies.

No story of Irish American gangsters would be complete without a look at each of these gangs, who were the steppingstone for so many in their rise up the world of crime.

One such gang were the Gophers who were acknowledged as the undisputed kings of crime in Hell’s Kitchen for many years. Their domain ran from Seventh Avenue to Eleventh Avenue and from Fourteenth Street to Forty-Second Street.

The place is hell itself

Hell’s Kitchen had a reputation for poverty and crime which was endemic given its proximity to the Hudson River docks, where the first German and Irish immigrants found work and eventually formed gangs in the 19th century.

Geographically Hell’s Kitchen was an area in Mid-Manhattan, running from 34th street to 57th Street, west of Eighth Avenue running down to the Hudson River.

The first settlers — mostly Irish and free African Americans — lived in a network of shambolic and filthy shanty towns, where crime, sex and violence were an everyday occurrence and for many, an occupation.

With gangs such as the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, The Gorillas, The Parlour Mob, and The Gophers, the neighbourhood soon became known for its violence.

There are numerous stories of how the area got its name. The first time the name was mentioned in print was on the September 22, 1881. A New York Times reporter covering a story on a particularly gruesome multiple murder referred to an infamous tenement at 39th Street

and 10th Avenue as being in:

‘Hell’s kitchen’ and that the area was ‘probably the lowest and filthiest in the city’.

Another story goes that a veteran New York policeman was sagely watching a riot between rival gangs on west 39th Street near 10th Avenue with a young partner. The rookie, appalled by the carnage, turned and said:

 ‘This place is hell itself’.

The cop, who went by the name of Dutch Fred, calmly responded:

“Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.”

The rise of Irish Gangs

The extreme poverty in the area gave rise to the birth of street gangs, organised crime syndicates during Prohibition and the evolution of many who would go down in gangster folklore.

The area witnessed four distinct waves of immigration — the first was escaped slaves from the south; then free African Americans who worked on the Croton Aqueduct in the 1840s; third came the German settlers who soon moved on to the more agriculturally suitable mid-west; and finally came the coffin ships from the Irish Famine. The area soon became an Irish enclave.

This was the case until the 1950s when Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in great numbers. Their clashes with their Irish and Italian neighbours inspired Arthur Laurents’ West Side Story.

It was in Hell’s Kitchen that The Gophers got their nickname which came from their fondness for hiding out in the maze-like basements and cellars of the slum tenements of old New York. The main area of criminal activity of The Gophers was the New York Central rail- road yards which ran through their territory up to the far west side.

The Gopher Gang evolved from various local street gangs in the 1890s, into what later became a committee which met semi-regularly at their headquarters known as Battle Row, a saloon owned by a minor criminal called ‘Mallet Murphy’. They met there to plan future criminal activity, sort out feuds and divide profits from their various criminal activities which included robbery, prostitution and numerous gambling dens.

At their peak The Gophers had as many as 500 members. They also had younger apprentice gang members, imaginatively called the ‘Baby Gophers’. These young men would eventually evolve into vicious gang members ready to take their place in The Gophers’ ranks.

Their power was so strong that they also had client gangs who would pay tribute to them, such as The Parlour Boys, The Gorillas and The Rhodes Gang.

There was a high turnover in the leadership of The Gophers gang. It was rare for a gang leader to last more than a few months. The Gophers did not produce many outstanding leaders. Instead, there was a long list of short-lived characters with catchy names like ‘New- burgh Gallagher’, ‘Stumpy’ Malarkey, ‘One Lung’ Cur- ran and ‘Goo Goo’ Knox, the last of whom helped create another gang, The Hudson Dusters.

An early leader was Malarkey ‘One Lung’ Curran, who during his tenure as leader had a bizarre claim to fame in his choice of attire, he even started a fashion trend.

Curran was notorious for his brazen attacks on lone police patrolmen. During one such assault he knocked the police officer out and stole his jacket.

He asked his girlfriend to alter it into a ‘smart military style’ which she did, and this helped create a fashion fad. Over the next few weeks several police officers found themselves beaten up and relieved of their jackets and The Gophers strutted around proudly in their new coats.

The police decided this was a step too far and to avoid future humiliation, they abandoned solo patrols and began entering Gopher territory in groups of four or five ending the short-lived craze and protecting their dignity.

The Lady Gophers

The Gophers even had a female gang, the ‘Lady Gophers’ or the ‘Battle Row Ladies Social and Athletic Club’, as they were more formally known. They were led by a Hell’s Kitchen legend. Battle Annie, known as the queen of Hell’s Kitchen. Many thought she was the most feared brawler of her time.

Born Annie Walsh but forever known as Battle Annie, she was the founder and long-time leader of the gang’s female auxiliary, who proved to be as ruthless and vicious as their male counterparts.

When called upon, Battle Annie was able to assemble a fighting force of between 50 and 100 women within hours, all armed with clubs, bricks and knives. These women acted as reserve backup in fights over territorial disputes with other gangs. They often worked as paid strike-breakers by businesses and labour unions throughout a number of violent disputes during the 1870s.

The Lady Gophers did not discriminate. There were few strikes around the early 1900s in New York that Battle Annie didn’t provide female muscle for “biting and scratching” either pickets or strike-breakers. It didn’t matter to Annie and The Gophers who they attacked as long as they were paid.

Another well-known Gopher was ‘Happy Jack’ Mulraney. He was called ‘Happy Jack’ because he always appeared to be smiling. However, he actually suffered from a partial paralysis of the facial muscles. He hated anyone slagging off his facial features and as a well- known psychopath, this was unfortunate for the offenders if they were caught.

Many rival gang members lost their lives for making disparaging remarks about his seemingly benign perpetual grin.

A Hell’s Kitchen legend goes that, when a close friend of his, ‘Paddy the Priest’ once asked ‘Happy Jack’ why he didn’t laugh out the other side of his face, Mulraney responded by shooting him dead.

It is more likely he murdered his friend over a woman or a dispute about money. Whatever the reason for this, ‘Happy Jack’ was sentenced to life in prison.

In the early 1910s the New York Central Railroad company organised a special police force to stop the pillage and plundering that The Gophers had wreaked upon them. A number of these officers were ex-policemen who had “suffered grievously” at the hands of Gopher gang members. Perhaps some had even lost their coats. They were motivated by a desire to destroy The Gophers and were well paid to do so.

The end of the Gophers

The tide was now ebbing fast away from The Gophers and subjected to increased police attention and brutality, their power waned. They also lost whatever protection they had from the corrupt Democratic politicians who decided The Gophers were yesterday’s men and women with no use for them in modern politics.

Within a few short months The Gophers were a spent force. Their leader Newburgh Gallagher was soon convicted of numerous crimes and sent to Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, leaving The Gophers in total disarray. The gang soon split into three factions with Owney Victor Madden heading the largest group.

Madden was born in Leeds, England in 1891. He was described as “slick, slim and dapper, with the gentle smile of a cherub and the cunning and cruelty of a devil”. He arrived in America when he was just a boy and by the time, he was seventeen he had already been a suspect in two murders and earned the nickname ‘Owney the Kill- er’. And he slowly began to stabilise what was left of The Gophers gang.

However, in 1914 he fell out with a member of the rival Duster gang ‘Little Patsy Doyle’, over a woman by the name of Freda Horner. Doyle made the fatal mistake of informing the police about Madden’s operations. As a rival suitor, Madden might have beaten him up, but as an informer Madden decided Doyle had to die.

Madden was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing prison. He was released on bail after nine years and quickly saw the landscape had changed dramatically.

His old gang The Gophers no longer existed, its members were either dead, in jail or had joined other crime gangs growing as a result of Prohibition. Prohibition and organised crime was becoming increasingly sophisticated. The days of the rough and ready street gangs was over, as was the era of The Gophers. You can read all about the Gophers and other Irish gangs in Irish Wise Guys