"What man was ever content with one crime?"
Owney Madden came to New York from Liverpool, England, and enrolled himself in the Gophers, the gang that ruled the theft-ridden West Side docks. He ran up 44 arrests during his young manhood but didn't have to do time until Little Patsy Doyle got killed shortly after he and his playmates in the Hudson Dusters had put five bullets in Madden during a dancehall quarrel. Owney languished in Sing Sing from 1915 to 1923 and came out a mature, peace-abiding citizen of 31 ready for the refinements of the Prohibition-time underworld.
Once called "that little banty rooster out of hell" and later known as "Owney the Killer," now he attained a measure of respectability. Staked by Larry Fay, he went into rum-running, moved into the laundry and coal rackets with such true-blue pals as Tammany Leader Jimmy Hines standing behind him, and
rose to a directorship in the Big Seven. In this combination, the hierarchy atop all organized Eastern crime, the now peace-abiding Madden stood alongside such rising powers as Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Waxey Gordon, Longy Zwillman of Newark,
and the Lepke & Gurrah and Bug & Meyer mobs.
In the fashion of the day's mobsters, Madden also moved into the night clubs, starting The Cotton Club in 1923. He derived the name from the light-brown color of raw cotton. Madden knew that an upscale white audience would flock to the club due to the growing Harlem music scene, featuring "Negro" entertainment. Madden made sure the girls on his chorus line were "cotton colored," or light-skinned Negroes. The house band was led by Duke Ellington and the line-up of entertainers included Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers among others. Few Harlem citizens could afford the Cotton Club but it allowed a generation of Negro entertainers to flourish.
Madden also dabbled in the ever-tarnished fight game, joining Big Bill Duffy in piloting Primo Carnera to the heavyweight title. Jailed briefly for parole violation in 1932, Owney soured on the bad life (57 arrests by then) and retired to the quieter environs of Hot Springs, Ark.
Lucky Luciano, his star rising in the Twenties, was one of the "Syndicate," the "Big Seven"the "combination" controlling all vice, gambling and crime in the east. By 1936, when Tom Dewey got him put away for compulsory prostitution, he was the man to see about any kind of crime around New York.
Deported to Italy after serving nine years of a thirty-to-fifty year sentence, he prospered in the international narcotics trade.
Frank Costello came onward and ever-upward from Prohibition-time through the fifties, attaining such affluence that in 1951 the U.S. Senate Investigating Committee called him the prime minister of the underworld. Before then Costello was known as the Slot Machine King, but that label hardly defined his true eminence. He stood at the very heights in the nationwide crime cartel when the government started to bring him down on assorted perjury and income tax
charges, not to mention deportation proceedings. They never did deport him.
Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro came out of the Twenties intact, moved on into New York's labor and industrial rackets and the ruling board of Murder, Inc. The law didn't catch up with Lepke until 1944, when he wentto the electric chair for a killing growing out of the Garment Center wars. Gurrah, doing life for extortion, died in prison in 1947.
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was just an apprentice mobster in the Twenties. But in later years he worked his way nearly to the top. He had Las Vegas staked out as his private preserve until an unfriendly but quite accurate bullet marked Bugsy's spot.