Asbury’s chapter on river pirates (Chapter IV, Section 3) concludes with a brief mention of a waterfront gang that was active until just a few years before The Gangs of New York was published in 1928: the White Hands of Brooklyn. Asbury mentions the three successive leaders of the gang: Dinny Meehan, Wild Bill Lovett, and Pegleg Lonergan, with very little expostulation. In doing so he overlooked one of the great gangland sagas of New York City, and the supplanting of the last great Irish waterfront gang by the Italian mafia families. Fortunately, Asbury was not the only newspaperman of the 1920s who wrote about gangster legends. In late 1929, writer Nelson Robins began a series of columns called “Famous Crime Mysteries of Brooklyn” for the Brooklyn Standard Union. The first five installments tell the story of these three gang leaders, with a focus on Wild Bill Lovett. As with Asbury, there are likely errors in Robins’ features; the gang was popularly known as the White Hand Gang from before WWI, but Robins names its post-WWI existence under Lovett as the White Horse Gang. Robins also neglected to mention that Pegleg Lonergan’s final party included insults he hurled at Italians on the premises.
Both Asbury and Robins also missed the fact that Mary Lonergan, who was Lovett’s mother-in-law and mother of Pegleg Lonergan, had also been the sister of John Brady, leader of the Yakey Yakes.
Even so, Robins’ columns present a great gangster saga, published here in its entirety for the first time:
The saga of Wild Bill Lovett, the bloodiest killer Brooklyn ever knew, is an epic of implacable ambition, cold blooded, calculated murder and the courage to “bump off” any man who stood in the way to gang leadership. Possessed of the intelligence which knew when to strike, which more than made up for the handicap of puny physical equipment, he proved that there is no faith between gunmen, no friendship in crime and that to shoot in the dark, from behind, is the quintessence of gang leadership.
So Wild Bill Lovett, as gay a murderer as ever shot an enemy or stabbed a rival between the shoulder blades, was harried like a weasel during his brief period of gang leadership in Brooklyn and died like a rat, bludgeoned from behind while he lay sodden with the vile bootleg which he purveyed. He died as he lived, by treacherous violence, and what glamour and romance that may be gleaned from his life comes from the spirit of the man himself and not from the victories he won nor the death he died.
Spirit he had, spirit to overcome every obstacle between himself and the goal he sought. That the goal itself was pitched in the slime of Brooklyn’s underworld was no fault of Lovett’s-that was all he knew. The manner in which he laid his course straight to his goal and let nothing -ill health, physical weakness, or police-turn him from the course he set, is what makes his spirit gleam.
All in all there are seven murders credited to “Wild Bill” Lovett by the police who watched and failed to pin a single one of them upon him. Five of these men who died with bullets in their backs stood between Lovett and leadership of the gang he longed to rule. One by one they dropped out of the contest, dropped with the look of surprise in their eyes which is typical of men who arc mortally and unexpectedly shot. In not a single case of the seven was there a clue which might connect the slight, tubercular, sharp featured little man of the twisted smile with the bullets which brought death. Police declared the seven were Lovett’s victims, but stopped short with the declaration. Lovett was arrested as a matter of form, held as long as the law allows, and then, when habeas corpus proceedings appeared imminent, turned loose to return to 25 Bridge street where he was the lord of all he surveyed.
During his life Lovett was arrested and locked up some fifteen or sixteen times, most of these in connection with murders. When he died there was but a single blot against his name on the police records. In 1912 he served six months in jail-for disorderly conduct. And that, it may be remarked, was at the beginning of his career, before he had learned the technique of crime which made him so tremendously successful in the last three years of his life.
As a matter of fact, Lovett’s whole career was crowded into less than three short years. That is, the career of which the Brooklyn police still talk and which forms the basis for long-winded and interesting reminiscences in the detective’s room at the Poplar street station, particularly. All that career was packed in between July 26, 1920, when he was discharged from the American Expeditionary force proudly wearing a Distinguished Service Cross for valor in France, and November 1, 1923, when he was found, his head crushed from behind and three steel jacketed bullets in him, in the rear room of his headquarters at 25 Bridge Street, Brooklyn. During those years, though, “Wild Bill” Lovett wrote Brooklyn’s criminal history with a broad-nibbed pen in the blood of slaughtered enemies and ruled the toughest gang of dock-wallopers that any city has ever known. And every move he made was lighted by a cold, calculating courage that would have carried him to the top in any profession for which he had been prepared.
To begin with, William Lovett was born of a respectable family in the Red Hook district in Brooklyn. The boy Bill played with “alley-rats” who came into his neighborhood; stole fruit from the vendor’s cart, cut lead pipes from vacant houses and sold them to grimy, furtive-eyed junkmen, and learned the elementary facts of crime as a basis for his future career. Like most of those with whom he roamed the streets, almost deserted in that section after the six o’clock whistle blew in the evening, he was arrested for minor little crimes. His respectable parentage got him off with lectures from the police or the magistrates before whom he was brought and he always promised not to do it again. By the time he was eighteen, in 1912 it was, his reputation was pretty well established and the police were on the lookout for him. He was educated in crime by that time, knew’ how to “roll” a drunk, pick a lock, rifle an unwatched till and, best of all, had learned where stolen goods might be disposed of without embarrassing questions as to the manner in which they were acquired. Then it was after a particularly devilish bit of skylarking in which blood was spilt, that Lovett got his first and only taste of jail after conviction. He was hauled before a magistrate and sent to jail for six months on the charge of disorderly conduct.
When he came out he had learned what the jail birds of the Raymond street jail had to teach and he was ready for his life’s work. He was alone in the world then and remained alone. From that time on, no matter how. many fawned upon him for fear or favor, he played a lone hand and there was none to squeal to the police about a shot in the back.
The best graft in that day-it was before prohibition had opened a fertile and lucrative field for men such as “Wild Bill”-was down at the docks. The dock-wallopers- stevedores on payrolls but dock-wallopers when one’s profession is proudly spoken of-had a headquarters office at 25 Bridge street. Dennis Meehan, fondly known as “Dinny,” was boss of that outfit. No man worked on the Brooklyn waterfront without Dinny’s permission and every man who rolled a hand truck paid tribute to Dinny. He got them jobs and they paid him for that service. To the docks Bill Lovett naturally gravitated and, because his build was too slight to make the hand truck job comfortable, he began at once to scheme a way to easy money and light work. Whether the bales and packages which were lost from the docks came into his hands is not known at this date, but certainly much was lost and Bill Lovett lived pretty comfortably without straining himself.
Dinny Meehan looked with growing suspicion upon the slight little man who spoke so authoritatively and there were clashes. Dinny, a big, husky Irishman who fought with fists until he was knocked cold or won his fight, could not quite make out the cold-blooded Lovett who looked him in the eye and talked like a boss, but he feared him and when they quarreled kept his eye on the bale hook which Lovett carried. He saw the gleam of the killer in Lovett’s eyes and the big two-fisted stevedore could not quite understand it. Lovett measured the big Irishman with his eye as if for his shroud, but his time had not yet come. He had too few supporters to risk an open break-and then the war came and the war fever seeped down to the Brooklyn water front. When it was at its height, with his place on the docks still unmade, Lovett for some reason enlisted and went to war.
When he enlisted for service In France, Bill Lovett selected no safe and easy job on which to expend his patriotism. He picked what was then called “the suicide squad,” a machine gun company. He wanted no sutler’s job nor easy billet behind the lines. He wanted action and his officers spotted him as a cool and skillful machine gunner as soon as they saw him in action.
One of them, in describing Lovett afterward said: “He was one of the coolest, most courageous men that-ever lived. He was callous in the face of danger and went about the business of killing the enemy as calculatingly as if he wore in a room all by himself with a job of work to do. I believe he enjoyed spraying lead into the German lines and certainly he did his work efficiently.” That officer was not alone in his opinion because when Bill Lovett was finally discharged from the army, with a sliver of shrapnel in his hip and a load of gas in his lungs, he was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in action. He didn’t care particularly for the honor. But he was careful that those with whom he came in contact after his return to Brooklyn should know about it. It gave him a halo of heroism which, combined with his cough and the slight limp earned by the shrapnel sliver, made him a figure in the Red Hook neighborhood.
Once discharged he looked the scene over as a general might and planned his campaign. He was twenty-four years old and his ambition sat heavily upon him, but the coldly calculating spirit which had carried him through a campaign in France and through battles for leadership in early youth was still with him. The doctors had told him that one lung was tubercular, due to the gas he had breathed in France. He was told that six months in a hospital might cure him. He decided that the lung was too much of a handicap and that he must wait until it was well and without protest he entered a hospital and remained there from July, shortly after he was discharged, until the first of January. Then he was told that he was still uncured. He snarled at the physician who told him. “You said I would be well in six months,” he sneered. “I know,” the doctor answered, “but we sometimes make mistakes. You are not fit for discharge yet. Six months more perhaps.” The sneer changed to a twisted snarl: “T’hell with you,” he said. “You said six months and I stuck the limit. Now you say six months more. T’hell with you. I’m going out.” And out he went. Lung or no lung he couldn’t keep down his ambition longer. He wanted action, power, leadership, and dreaming in the hospital for six months more wasn’t to his taste.
“If you go out now,” the physician said, “you won’t live six months.” The Brooklyn waterfront in January is no place, the physician thought, for a man with a bad lung. Bill Lovett smiled his twisted, crooked smile that was half a sneer. “Maybe I won’t live six months anyhow,” he answered.
He was thinking of Dinny Meehan then and of Dinny’s place that he was determined to get and wondering whether he would get Dinny or Dinny would get him. At any rate, he demanded his clothes and an hour after his defiance of health and hospital laws he left the hospital to start on the road which led straight to the dirty little back room, cluttered up with old chairs, a broken table, buckets, brooms, worn out overalls and filth, where he was found less than three years later with his head crushed in from a blow from behind.
Straight to 25 Bridge street Bill Lovett went, to where Dinny Meehan ruled the toughest, roughest gang of dock-wallopers that the world can boast. He weighed one hundred pounds on the hospital scales when he left that institution, and, wrapped in a trench coat, salvaged from his overseas service, he looked even more emaciated. His face was white and he limped a little, but his mouth was a straight slit across his face and his eyes blazed with determination. Dinny Meehan looked as big as a house when he faced Bill Lovett across the little table which he called his desk in 25 Bridge street, but it was the big man’s eyes which lowered first before he asked: ”Whatdya want?” Meehan knew Bill Lovett.
He had worked with him on the docks and there was no friendship between them. But Bill had a following; some ten or fifteen of the stevedores were ready to fight for him at any time and Meehan realized that the thin, drawn little man must be humored. “I want a gang of loaders.” Bill answered. “I’ll drive ’em. I got ’em already picked.” Meehan considered the matter. His graft came from the men he placed in jobs and to let Lovett have a gang meant that the men who worked for Lovett would be a total loss to him. Lovett, He knew, wouldn’t split his graft. On the other hand, Lovett had friends: he was a war hero and to turn him down would mean trouble and dissatisfaction with Meehan’s rule. He wasn’t afraid of trouble; Dinny Meehan loved it, but he had to think of things like that. “I’ll see about it,” he growled, and Lovett, smiling that cold, calculating smile that made big men jump out of his way later, nodded his head. “I’ll be there in the morning,” he said shortly and turning on his heel walked out.
Lovett waited for no word from Meehan, but when the whistles blew on the docks next morning he appeared with a dozen men and reported for work. He selected the job of loading freight on freight cars, the easiest of stevedoring jobs, and himself did nothing but watch his henchmen labor.
Meehan observed the invasion of his rule grimly, with tight lips, but forbore to turn Lovett down. The men whom he had picked were selected scrappers and the pick of his lot. “Wild Bill” had made no mistake in his selections. From then on they were his men. With his place on the docks established Lovett became ostensibly Meehan’s lieutenant, but he must have chuckled to himself when he thought of holding that position. He had marked Meehan’s job and place for his own. It was not long before the chance to take it came.
Lovett’s gang had been working perhaps a month when Meehan came to Lovett. “Say,” he said, “I’m not getting anything out of this gang at all. Put me on the payroll for three or four days a week and it’ll be all right.” “Yeah?” Lovett answered as the big Irishman left. When payday came around Meehan found no envelope with his name on it in Lovett’s distribution. His brow darkened. He knew his rule was being defied. He called Lovett to a corner of the dock shed where they would be concealed by the freight cases. “How about my pay envelope for last week?” he asked. Lovett sneered openly as he answered: “There ain’t any.” Meehan blustered and made as if to smash the little man with his fist. “You —— – ————-,” he thundered. “Think you can buck me, eh?” Show up on this dock to-morrow and I’ll kick you into the East River.” Lovett turned on his heel as if Meehan were not worthy of attention. “Yeah?” he questioned as he walked away.
That night Meehan was shot to death as he lay in bed beside his wife.
Nobody had to tell Bill Lovett that Dinny Meehan had been shot. The stevedores who gathered in the boss’s room at 25 Bridge street were talking about Dinny’s murder and speculating, with fairly accurate results, as to who the murderer was, when Lovett strode into the little room.
His face was white, the stevedores said, and his eyes were blazing with a cold light. He didn’t hesitate when he walked in, and the husky men, any one of whom could have lifted up the slight form and broken it across his knee, parted as he entered. Lovett nodded curtly to those who stood aside and walked straight to Meehan’s chair and sat down. Then looking straight into their eyes he told the big men, most of them holding bale hooks in their hands: “From now on I’m boss in here. I’ll be detained up at the police station for a day or two but when I come back I’m going to be boss.” Before the police arrived to get him, as he knew they would, he had assigned the men to their jobs and promoted lieutenants to take charge of them while he was away.
There was no evidence that Lovett had anything to do with Meehan’s death. The detectives assigned to the case did their best, but theirs was a fruitless quest. Whoever had murdered Meehan had quietly placed a chair in front of his bedroom door-he lived at 432 Warren street, by-the-way-shoved a gun through the transom while he stood on the chair and blazed away. Mrs. Meehan, sleeping beside her husband, was suddenly awakened by the agony of a searing bullet and shrieked out in the dark for her husband’s aid. For a while she could not understand or realize what had happened. The agony of her wound was terrible and she was dazed and weak from shock. Finally she realized that the mighty fumbling, heaving beside her were the death struggles of her husband, who died without knowing what had happened. By the time neighbors arrived in answer to her screams of pain and terror, Meehan was dead and Mrs. Meehan so incoherent that it was some time before she could tell what had happened. Whoever had slain the stevedore boss had gone without leaving any clue by which he could be traced.
And the next morning Bill Lovett had claimed leadership over Meehan’s gang. Whether Lovett was the killer or not the stevedores over whom he ruled now believed him to be Meehan’s slayer and he held his position by bloody succession. They looked on him now with new reverence and when he gave an order there was no slackening of discipline. They obeyed him. His authority from that time until he died was never questioned although attempts were made to remove him from his leadership. And Bill Lovett was no easy boss. He imposed a new scale. Stevedores were making too much money, he thought, so when wages were $6 a day he took $2 from each man who worked under him. When wages dropped to $4 he took $1. No man could get a job on the Brooklyn docks without his aid and woe to the man who held out on the boss. For the first offense the one who held out was given a beating. And a Brooklyn waterfront beating is something to be remembered. For the second hold-out the offender was sent to the hospital, with perhaps a broken bone or two. One or two such offenders were found with a bullet in the back. It was supposed that this was the penalty for a third offense. No rule book was ever issued but there was very little difficulty in collecting tribute.
All this time Dinny Meehan’s friends sat by, saw his place taken by the usurper and planned to avenge his death. One of these was Tim Montague, a husky, two-fisted Irishman who spoke too openly. He and Frank Byrnes were the only two men who, according to the police and members of the gang, were marked for death and still live. Montague had the temerity to speak his mind about the death of Dinny Meehan, and at first he got away with it. Then it was observed that others, emboldened by his immunity, began to talk, too. Lovett watched them between half closed lids that hid the killer gleam in his eyes, and smiled crookedly at their bravado. He spoke sharply to Montague and got a hot reply as Montague left the office of the stevedore boss. That night Montague, in a speakeasy beneath the bridge, boasted of his defiance of the boss. He wasn’t afraid of any Lovett that ever lived, and, with the fog of whiskey on him, wasn’t afraid to meet him right now and have it out. Finally Montague left the speakeasy, unsteady on his feet and careless of the shadow in the rear of the hallway as he came down the steps. As he walked through the narrow hall to the street his figure was outlined clearly against the dim light of the entrance.
From behind him an automatic blazed once, twice, three times and Montague slumped down to the floor with three bullets in his back. Those who were crowded in the same speakeasy upstairs heard the shots but were chary of investigating. Outside the sound must have been less loud because the first to find Montague were those who came carefully downstairs seeking news of what had happened. Montague was carted off to a hospital where his wounds were found to be serious but not fatal. Something had gone wrong with the killer’s aim and the bullets which had been intended for vital organs lodged in solid flesh and muscle. No one had seen the killer emerge from the hallway. No one had heard anything to indicate his identity. But before morning Wild Bill Lovett was safely locked in a cell at the police station where he remained while detectives made strenuous efforts to pin the crime upon him. With nothing to show that Lovett was anywhere near the speakeasy that night, with Montague absolutely ignorant as to who shot him and not a soul among the gang, whether they were friends of Meehan’s or not, to swear even to a battle of words between the two, the police finally gave up in despair and turned Lovett loose. They had no evidence.
The luck that deflected the bullets from Montague’s vitals came also to Lovett when he was freed from the police cell. Both Meehan and Montague still had friends. And friends with money enough to do their killing in approved style. The rich pickings from bootlegging were being enjoyed. Lovett was up to his neck in that racket now and his henchmen-and some of them, remember, were still friends of Meehan-had their pockets filled with money. As he left the police station Lovett looked for a taxicab to take him back to Bridge street. Pegleg Lonergan had suggested coming for him but the time of his release was uncertain and Bill had rejected the offer. “I’ll come by myself,” he told Pegleg. “Wait for me at the office.” So he sauntered unguarded down the street to the corner and turned. As he turned an automobile which had followed him turned also. The blinds were drawn, but the window was down.
As the automobile came abreast of Lovett, stepping rapidly down the street, the muzzle of a pistol was shoved through the open window and two shots spat out. Lovett leaped into the air as the automobile passed on and then fell in a crumpled heap. A crowd gathered and an ambulance came clattering up. Police chased in the direction of the cloaked and curtained automobile and came back empty-handed. At the hospital Lovett was found to be only slightly wounded and within a week or two he was out again. When police questioned him as to who had shot him, Lovett’s lips closed in a thin line and he turned his back to them. He would tell nothing. He had told nothing when he left the hospital. Then, six months later, he told who shot him.
Garry Barry, Meehan’s right-hand lieutenant, was found shot in the back, stone dead, without a clue to the murderer. As a matter of course, Wild Bill Lovett was arrested. He laughed at the police who took him to the station house. His alibi was as airtight as a can of peaches. Again detectives, as certain that Lovett had killed Barry as they were of their own names, racked their brains and wore out good shoe leather trying to prove who killed him, without getting a clue that would hold water. Then they released Bill. As he started from the police station he grinned crookedly at the detectives who had used him none too kindly. “You guys are all off,” he said. “I didn’t kill Garry. I’d liked to have killed him. The ———— was the guy who shot me when I left the police station after being held for shooting Tim Montague.”
And, having no clues on which to work, the detectives just had to sit there and take his gibes.
For more than a year after the death of Garry Barry, Bill Lovett ruled his small world with a rod of iron, or, in the vernacular of the underworld, with a rod that blazed. The deaths of Meehan and Barry, the cold-blooded ambush of Tim Montague and the razor edge escape of Frank Byrnes brought the leader that respect that an absolute monarch gained from those whose lives depended upon his humor.
The escape of Frank Byrnes from the death that lurked behind the door of the vestibule of his home was something to make those who live down near the docks think twice. Byrnes was another of the gang who would have fought to the death for Dinny Meehan. Meehan had been his friend for years and the two had faced cops and rival gangsters together, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Byrnes lost a good friend when Meehan was slain.
The legend regarding the escape of Byrnes is somewhat hazy but it is fairly certain that Byrnes had failed to knuckle under to the new leader and resented his authority. Such an attitude will not do in gangland and Lovett’s cold eyes gleamed again with the lust to kill. There was no altercation, no threats: that was not the way of the leader of what was now known as the “White Horse Gang.” The name “White Horse,” by the way, was selected because the Scotch whisky which bore the White Horse label was now the chief product of the gang. They brought it into the Red Hook district, over the Brooklyn waterfront, in consignments so large that it flowed like water on off nights.
While Byrnes sulked. Lovett pondered with the cold gleam in his eyes and bided his time. He made no motion to show Byrnes that he was especially out of favor, but Byrnes had that chill foreboding that something was in the air and he walked warily.
One night Byrnes, too careful now to drink overly much, came to his home after midnight. The street was deserted and there was an eerie appearance over the night. His footsteps sounded loudly as his husky feet hit the pavement. There was no soul in sight and there was light enough from the street lamps to see everything pretty distinctly. Byrnes walked more slowly as he neared his home. He glanced behind each tree and into each areaway. There was nothing to disturb him. He began to whistle, probably to keep his courage up, as he neared his front door. Maybe he was glad to get home. Then he noticed something and the hair on the back of his neck began to crawl upward. The door to the vestibule of his home was open. Just a crack, but open just the same. Byrnes, no coward under any condition but a man who loved life, stopped dead in his tracks. His whistle faded into nothingness. What was behind that door?
He did not wait to answer that question but started backward, taking long careful steps until he wan out of the range of a gun pointed from behind that cracked door. Then he turned and, again in the vernacular, “beat it.” There was a killer behind that door. Whether it was Wild Bill Lovett never will be ascertained, but a word dropped here, a phrase caught there told the gang that Frank Byrnes was as near death that night as he ever would be and return to tell the tale. Some time after the last echo of Byrnes’ flying feet bounded in the quiet street, a slim figure, with one hand dug deep into a bulge in his coat pocket, slipped out of the vestibule and with glances up and down the street faded into the shadows of the side street and was gone.
Dan Gillen was not so fortunate. He believed that if ever a man was safe it was in a crowd. He won the disfavor of Bill Lovett and was under the death sign that descended upon Lovett’s enemies. Gillen knew that the shadow was upon him and never went alone anywhere. Even when running liquor in, when all members of the gang were guaranteed safety by the leader, he always made it a point to have others near him. When left alone on the dock, it was said afterward, Gillen would scramble around until he found somebody to be near.
He was sticking to this program one night when a consignment of White Horse had been safely brought in. The speakeasy where the gang made merry was pretty well crowded with longshoremen, drinking their liquor and now and again singing a stave of a deep sea chantey. It was getting pretty late and the liquor had warmed them well when the thing happened. The chantey was led by a young Irishman with a hairy chest and a round full voice, and the whole company came in strong on the chorus. Everybody was singing when something sounded like a smack-but nobody paid any attention until suddenly Dan Gillen gave a sort of a cough and a cry combined and fell in a heap on the floor. “He got me-He got me.” Gillen cried. “Right in the crowd he got me.”
Examination showed that Gillen had been neatly plugged with a steel-jacketed bullet and the cry he gave as he fell was his last. When the ambulance physician arrived he was dead. Immediately there was a charge that Bill Lovett, slipping up the steps to the door, had opened it wide enough to get his pistol muzzle through and, when the chorus was at its height, had put Dan Gillen where he would trouble his leadership no longer. But again there was no evidence.
So with Sammy di Angelo, who incurred the leader’s displeasure. His body, mysteriously shot, was found where the killer had potted him. Police went after Lovett again and again without evidence. Bill didn’t even take the trouble to protest much. He merely asked in a tone of injured innocence: “Can’t anybody be murdered in this district by somebody else? I can’t kill ’em all.”
A little while afterward he was freed and walked into a trap that might have been set by himself for some of the recalcitrants of his own gang.
Members of Lovett’s gang declared this trap was set by another gang, but they failed to specify the gang. As a matter of fact, the White Horse Gang was so strong under Lovett’s leadership that no other gangsters dared challenge them and the police never for an instant believed that it was other than friends of Dinny Meehan and Garry Barry who almost sent Bill Lovett to join that pair.
It was on the cold clear morning of January 3, 1923, that a policeman, keeping an eye open for signs of trouble, always plentiful in that neighborhood, saw the door to the shanty at 289 Front street open. He peered inside and jumped with the shock of it. Inside the room into which he looked were hundreds of bottles of home brewed beer. The floor was literally covered with them, stacked up like regiments of soldiers.
And in the midst of the home brew, apparently dead, lay Wild Bill Lovett.
The policeman shrilled his whistle and before long a wagon-load of policemen and an ambulance from Greenpoint Hospital were racing to that shack. The policemen were not needed. Lovett was unconscious with three bullet wounds through his left breast. The ambulance surgeon shook his head and considered whether to take him to the accident ward or the morgue. He thought the trip to the ward unnecessary.
But none of the bullets had pierced Lovett’s heart, although all were near, and there was life enough in him to get the credit for killing three more men before his time came. Miraculously he regained consciousness and more miraculously he began to mend. Before he began to mend, when the doctors believed this frail little consumptive would “kick off” at any minute, the police asked him who shot him. He shook his head saying: “It’s give and take in this game. When I get it I take it and say nothing.”
And then he recovered to have the most successful murder year of his career.
The physicians who cared for Lovett said afterward that nothing in the world kept him alive but indomitable courage. He was a sullen patient, brooding over his thoughts, mapping out his revenge for the attempt to blot him out of existence. He never hinted at who it might be who shot him. He did tell the detectives who questioned him that he was shot at the corner of Front and Gold streets, a short distance from the shanty where he was found, but never a suggestion of who shot him.
His frailty did not appear to influence his determination to live, although it did make his recovery slow. It was getting on toward spring before he was strong enough to leave the hospital. It had been nearly two years since he had been given six months to live before he died of tuberculosis and he had been shot twice during that time. So he had some right to take his time about getting well.
Once on his feet, however, no time was lost. In May James Martin died very suddenly by reason of a couple of bullets from an automatic passing through his heart. No one saw Wild Bill Lovett fire the pistol. No one saw the shooting, as a mater of fact, but there was no need to publish in the newspapers that Martin had a hand in the shooting of Bill Lovett on Jan. 3. The members of the White Horse Gang nodded sagely and said: “Just what we expected.” Then a little later Lovett, after scouring his district in search of someone, asked a group of gangsters: “Where’n hell is Tom Quilty? I haven’t seen him lately.” Up spoke Jim Healy. “He’s up in the speakeasy at Jay and York streets.” Nothing more was said. Quilty was in the speakeasy with twelve other men, taking their ease and enjoying their liquor, as has been the privilege of longshoremen since ships were invented.
Suddenly there was the sound of a shot. Every manjack in the room swore to the detectives who questioned them later that he had neither heard the shot nor seen the killer. But there was poor Tom Quilty dead on the floor. The longshoremen shrugged their broad shoulders and that was all there was to it. Lovett got full credit for the killing. Then Eddie Hughes got his. Eddie was an excellent and dependable gunman and it was the belief of the detectives who worked on the mysterious shooting of Bill Lovett on Jan. 3 that Eddie had a hand in it. Lovett never mentioned his name but when the time came Hughes paid his reckoning with his life blood and no one could be found to say Bill had murdered him. There was a tremendous hue and cry for a while. It was summer when the thing happened and news was slack.
Newspaper editors demanded that police stop the gang killings and the victims attributed to Lovett’s gun were tabulated but there was no more evidence that Wild Bill Lovett had killed Eddie Hughes than that he had killed President Garfield. Police, of course, said there was no doubt of it. Gangsters whispered out of the sides of their mouths that of course Bill “had done Eddie in,” and why not? But so far as getting a case against the gang leader in court-It just couldn’t be done.
Then a funny thing happened. Police entering a restaurant one night saw Lovett throw something away. They grabbed him and looked to see what had been thrown away and it was a pistol-a little blue steel automatic. They whooped with joy and locked him up on the charge of violating the Sullivan act. It was the first thing they had gotten on him since 1912, when he served six months for calling a policeman a blankety-blanked so-and-so. The Grand Jury brought in an indictment and the district attorney mapped out his case.
There wasn’t much to it. The police testified that they had found the gun which Lovett threw away. Lovett swore with equal fervor that it was a frame-up. That he never had a gun and if he had had one he would have used it instead of throwing it away. That was a telling argument.
The jury, having heard of his alleged crimes, was divided. Some believed he would have used it had he had the gun. Others would have jailed him on his reputation. The result was a disagreement and a mistrial. Pegleg Lonergan appeared with $5,000 bail money and Wild Bill Lovett was free again.
That was the time when another jury had decided that Pegleg Lonergan’s mother, who was also the mother of thirteen other children, had not killed his father, who had been shot in front of his bicycle store some weeks before, and Pegleg, his mother and his sister Anna were celebrating that event. Wild Bill had fallen in love with Anna some time before. Her frail beauty, and she was a beauty, captured his imagination and she was the only girl he ever really loved. Unfortunately for romance, she was too young for marriage when he first loved her, being only fourteen years old. Now, however, she was fifteen and a beauty and she worshipped Bill Lovett. At the dinner celebrating the freedom of Anna’s mother and sweetheart Bill turned to ber suddenly and said: “I’m washed upon the whole business now-let’s get married.” Anna squealed with delight, as girls will do under such stress, and nodded happily.
Ten minutes later the whole company, more than a dozen, piled into taxicabs and sped down to the marriage license bureau. That bureau had just closed for the day but the clerk was persuaded, without gunplay, to open it and issue just one more license, and they were married then and there. There was a group of reporters at the ceremony and when it was over Lovett turned to them saying: “Now, if there are any more murders in the next two weeks they ain’t mine; I’m honeymooning at Long Beach.”
By the time the two weeks *were over Anna had persuaded Bill that the gang leadership was all bunk and that a cottage over in Jersey with a job attached was the real thing. He finally agreed and she took enough of his money to make her dream come true. She purchased a little white cottage near Little Ferry, N.J., with green blinds and a porch. She filled it with furniture and they started housekeeping.
Sometimes Bill would get nervous and fidgety, and she knew the signs. Then she would pack up a lunch and they would go on long hikes along the Palisades. Bill began to fill out. His ribs disappeared under a covering of flesh and the lean face that held so much terror for his enemies became round and smooth. He declared he never enjoyed himself so much. Ho was in love, had married the girl and was living like a human being. He gained weight until he weighed 150 pounds, and most of the extra poundage was due to happiness. Then late in October he told Anna that he had to go to New York on business. Important business. She made him promise not to go to Brooklyn and he crossed his heart-he would go only to Manhattan and come right back. She never saw him alive again.
Two days later a policeman kicked in the door of the back room at 25 Bridge street and found all that was mortal of Wild Bill Lovett. The back of his head had been crushed in with a heavy piece of iron. So crushed that the splintered bone penetrated the brain and death must have been instantaneous. In addition his murderers had shot him three times in the head after he was dead-just to make sure he would not stage another comeback. Pegleg Lonergan and Joe Byrne, both devoted friends and lieutenants, were the last of his friends to see him alive. They told police that they had been drunk, all three of them, for two days. Finally Bill “pawed out” and they took him to 25 Bridge street to sleep it off. Both stayed to finish the bottle they brought with them and then, early in the morning, left him sleeping.
Police detectives believed their story. The friendship between the three was well-known-but there was no clue to the killers. They had done their work efficiently and without display. It was believed that the murderers were friends of Dinny Meehan and the police were content to let it go at that. Privately the detectives who had worked themselves thin over the various murders attributed to Lovett believed that his murderers should have been given the thanks of the city-but they would like to have caught them and made a clean job of the whole gang business.
Anna came all the way from Little Ferry in a taxicab, with the display of hundred dollar bills that gang leaders widows must have, and wept heart-brokenly over Bill’s body. She swore that a woman was at the bottom of it, but detectives knew that Bill had never mixed up with women and they let her have her cry out. Bill was given a military funeral adequate to a winner of the Distinguished Service Medal and a battalion of his overseas comrades of the Thirteenth Machine Gun Battalion, Company C, of which Bill had been a member, fired a salute and blew taps over his grave.
Then Pegleg Lonergan, Bill’s brother-in-law and most trusted lieutenant, took over his leadership of the White Horse gang and for more than two years tried to persuade himself and the other members of the gang, that he was a real leader. That leadership ended on Christmas morning in 1926.
The mantle of Wild Bill Lovett was somewhat ample for the abilities of Pegleg Lonergan. The ends trailed on the ground and Pegleg was so busy gathering up the folds that he lost much time which might have been used in leadership. By that time, though, the gang was dealing exclusively in liquor. The old hard-headed, two-fisted longshoremen had left and in their places came sleek-haired, well-groomed youths who might come as well from Times Square as Red Hook. There was more money in the gang and less willingness to labor. Prohibition had gotten in its deadly work and instead of hard-hitting, rough-and-tumble Irishmen who would fight with their fists at the drop of a hat and have their heads battered off for a leader, there were well-dressed, wisecracking gangsters who knew their stuff- and their stuff had to do mostly with liquor and women.
Not that the later members of the gang were not deadly. They were more so. Instead of trying to knock each other’s heads off they took their enemies for rides from which they did not return. Theirs was the natural evolution of the gang under the influence of easy money during prohibition. While it is hard to ascertain what really happened to the gang, it is safe to say it was not the compact group that existed under Bill Lovett and Dinny Meehan. There was business enough for all, and concerted action was only necessary when there was a load of liquor to be landed. Later they didn’t bother about landing the liquor. That came into Sheepshead Bay and when they could get it they did so. But when real liquor was scarce they were satisfied to peddle cut alcohol and moonshine to their customers.
At any rate Pegleg was the nominal head of the gang and his influence with a certain group was strong. When there was a job to be done Pegleg issued the call, and he was content. He had no overwhelming ambition to be a leader such as that which scorched Bill Lovett’s brain.
He was content to let things rock along if there was enough liquor, sufficient attention from the girls who frequented the speakeasies where he held court, and a man or two at hand to give orders to. Under his easy leadership discipline became slack and the gang became more or less a number of scattered units rather than a cohesive group. This led to what happened as directly as water seeks its level.
The section of Brooklyn which was supplied with liquor by the White Horse gang was rich territory for bootleggers and there were other gang leaders who looked with glistening eyes at the loot to be gathered. The district was organized by Bill Lovett and the speakeasy owners knew to whom to look for liquor. They too were satisfied. It was the yearn for easy money that other leaders had which brought Pegleg Lonergan low.
Things had been quiet on the surface for a year or more when the final blow-off came.
Pegleg, in his genial, rumbling, bluffing manner had warned off the gangsters who wished to cut in on his territory. A man or two had been killed in battles that made citizens hop to one side and policemen curse, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Those who were not in the inner circle of the gang believed that all was well with the world, that Christmas liquor was coming in plentifully, of good grade and reasonable in price, and that Pegleg Lonergan was sitting on the top of the world. Pegleg thought so, too.
Then came Christmas Eve of 1926. And Pegleg decided to “throw a party.” Accompanied by four of his most faithful henchmen Pegleg chose the speakeasy of Jack Stabile, otherwise known as The Adonis Club, as the scene of his Christmas Eve party. The five of them took possession of one of the two rooms which made up the club quarters and proceeded to make merry. The fairer and frailer sex was represented bountifully by two girls whose names do not matter. Each declared later that she had no soft spot in her heart for Pegleg but each wept as though her heart was broken- for Pegleg was quite a lad with the ladles. One of them told the story between sobs to the detectives. But that was after it all happened.
The first intimation of the foray which marked the end of Pegleg Lonergan’s leadership of the White Horse gang, and the final blow that destroyed the gang, came when Patrolman Richard Moran saw something white lying across the curb on his beat at four o’clock on Christmas morning. Moran went closer and bent over the white thing which he had seen. It was a hand, a man’s hand, and attached to it, in the shadow of the gutter, was the body of Needles Ferry, long unfavorably known to the Greenpoint police. Mr. Ferry was very and completely dead.
Moran rapped his nightstick and blew his whistle and soon there was a patrol wagon load of policemen, members of the homicide squad and a deputy chief inspector on the ground. Moran turned the whole matter over to his superiors.
A spot or two of blood led the detectives upstairs into the quarters of the Adonis Club. The detectives found the lights still on, the beer still cold, several untouched drinks on the bar, and the bodies of Pegleg Lonergan and Aaron Harms, back to back, their guns still in their hands, but emptied of all bullets-and both stone dead and laden with lead. A bar rag lay on top the mahogany, right where the bartender’s hand had guided it up to the moment of the first shot. After that first shot the rag never moved from where the bartender dropped it as he fled.
From what they observed the detectives judged that there had been a sudden descent upon the merrymakers in the club, a barrage of pistol shots, quick murder and then a wild stampede of those who were left alive. One of the frail denizens of the place explained later what happened. “Pegleg and his friends came in about midnight,” she explained, “and said they were celebrating. Pegleg was in fine spirits and was all lit up like a church at Christmas. He wanted everybody to drink with him and everybody was willing to drink. ‘Come on in and drink,’ he’d call to everyone who came in. ‘It’s my party and I want to celebrate.’
“That kept up until nearly 3 o’clock. Everybody was having a fine time, liquor was coming fast and the boys and girls were singing, The whole place had a Christmas air. “There were some other people in the other room, but we didn’t pay any attention to them. They hadn’t come into the room where we were and we judged they were celebrating, too.
“Then suddenly something happened. I don’t know what it was, but Pegleg jumped to his feet and pulled out his gun. Three of the men who came in with him made a break for the door. Pegleg didn’t run and Harms stayed with him. There were two doors between the two rooms and I saw four men, two in each door, coming in. They had their pistols leveled and began to shoot.
“One bullet caught Needles Ferry as he went out of the door and I heard him yell and fall down the stairs. One of the men called to another, ‘Get ’em out of the window,’ and that man went back into the other room. The others began shooting.
“Pegleg and Harms stood back to back shooting as fast as they could. I saw one of the men stumble over like he was hit and then Pegleg and Harms went down together, still back to back. The men kept on shooting until their pistols clicked and then ran out. I heard the fourth man shooting in the next room-and then I got away from there.”
That was the last of the White Horse gang. The organization which Dinny Meehan had gathered around him and which Bill Lovett had welded into a compact, efficient bootlegging organization was scattered by the pistol shots which wiped out the last leader of the gang and his lieutenants. A number of men were arrested in connection with the murder but not one could be connected with the shooting. They had descended upon Pegleg and his lieutenants as they made merry, shot them down, quickly and efficiently without the expenditure of any maudlin sympathy, and opened the district for more efficient distribution of liquor.
Among those who were rounded up by the police in connection with the murder of Pegleg, Harms and Needles Ferry was a suave, smooth-faced gentleman whose rosy cheek was disfigured by a livid scar. He gave his name as Alfredo Capone. Later, after he had been discharged from custody with a clean bill of criminal health, which he still maintains in Chicago, New York and everywhere else but Brooklyn, he became better known as “Scarface Al” Capone, and steered free of all criminal entanglements until last spring, when he was unfortunate enough to be caught in Philadelphia with a pistol in his pocket. He is still serving the sentence of a year and a day in the Philadelphia jail.