Gotham Logo Gotham Logo  
 

THE BIG CROWD

From “the lit world’s sharpest chronicler of New York’s past” (Rolling Stone), a novel of two Irish brothers who travel from the gangland waterfront to the halls of power . Based on one of the great unsolved murders in mob history, and the rise and fall of a real life hero, The Big Crowd tells the sweeping story of Charlie O’Kane. He is the American dream come to life, a poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York at the city’s dazzling, post-war zenith. Famous, powerful, and married to a glamorous fashion model, he is looked up to by millions, including his younger brother, Tom. So when Charlie is accused of abetting a shocking mob murder, Tom sets out to clear his brother’s name while hiding a secret of his own. The charges against Charlie stem from his days as a crusading Brooklyn DA, when he sent the notorious killers of Murder, Inc., to the chair–only to let a vital witness go flying out a window while under police guard. Now, out of office, Charlie lives in a shoddy, Mexico City tourist hotel, eaten up with regrets and afraid he will be indicted for murder if he returns to the U.S. To uncover what really happened, Tom must confront stunning truths about his brother, himself, and the secret workings of the great city he loves.

Moving from the Brooklyn waterfront to city hall, from the battlefields of World War II to the beaches of Acapulco, to the glamorous nightclubs of postwar New York, The Big Crowd is filled with historical powerbrokers and gangsters, celebrities and socialites, scheming cardinals and battling, dockside priests. But ultimately it is a brilliantly imagined, distinctly American story of the bonds and betrayals of brotherhood.

* Kevin Baker is a novelist, historian, and journalist, who has written extensively about New York’s past.  This is an excerpt from his latest novel .

Here is Peter Panto, the rebel longshoreman and union organizer who dared to challenge mob control of the Brooklyn waterfront in the 1930s. Lured to a meeting with person or persons unknown, he got into a car outside of his boardinghouse on July 14, 1939, and was never seen alive again. Other rebel union factions covered the waterfront with graffitti and pamphlets asking, “Dov e Panto?”—”Where is Panto?”—but his body was not recovered until January, 1941, at a chicken farm in New Jersey that the mob used to dump bodies. Later mob confessions revealed that he was murdered by Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss after a tough fight, and on the orders of Albert Anastasia—William McCormack’s enforcer on the waterfront.

 

Excerpt from THE BIG CROWD:

“My first post, they put me a-way out in the Seventy-Deuce, over in Brooklyn.  Sunset Park, at Forty-t’ird Street an’ the Fourth Avenue,” Charlie was talking.  “What a place for a rookie cop.  You don’t know how raw it was out there.  There were still little dirt farms, an squatters’ shacks.  And the graveyard, of course.  And the docks.”

“Tough, was it?”

“Tough!” snorted Henry Fink.

“I walked my beat at night, between the water and the dead.”

“Gives me chills,” Fink chimed in again.

“Believe me, the dead was the least of my concerns.  I don’t know how I woulda made it out of there without the Old Man.”

“That’s where you met?”  Tom asked.

“Sure, an’ thank God.  It was Jack McGrath, the Old Man, who helped me survive.  He was a legend out there.  They were already tellin’ the story about how he drove the child molestors out of Brooklyn.  He’d go around to t’other station houses on his days off, an’ get the names of all the known perverts in the neighborhood.  Then he’d go to their homes and give them a beating, tell ’em they had twenty-four hours to leave the borough.  Cleared every last child molestor out of Brooklyn, like St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland!

“The Old Man got me through down there,” Charlie went on, shaking his head.  “There were some hard men on the waterfront then.  The Kilduffs.  The Kid Cheese gang.  They used to terrorize the night watchmen, cut their throats an’ throw their bodies in the water, just for the fun of it.

“They wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to a cop.  Early on, they got it in for me because I had the effrontery to arrest a couple of ’em for cleanin’ out a boxcar.  They lured me into an apartment hallway with the oldest trick in the book, pretendin’ there was a mugging goin’ on.

“I walked right into it.  They’d smashed the hall light bulb, it was pitch black inside.  Before I even knew what it was about, they had me down on the floor.  It was a narrow space and I was helpless.  I woulda taken a terrible beating, been stamped an’ kicked an’ punched senseless at the very least, an’ maybe even thrown in the harbor to drown.  There was other cops down there, went out on their beat an’ never came back, an’ nobody ever found what happened to them.”

Charlie spoke calmly, with a gentle smile on his face, but Tom could imagine what it must have been like:  The terrifying feeling of being trapped, unable even to extend his arms.  Flailing about helplessly, while blow after blow rained down on him.

“But God’s grace, the Old Man was out, lookin’ after his pups.  Didn’t bother to whistle up reinforcements, or bang on the manhole covers to spread the word.  No, he just ran to the sound of the battle, with nothin’ but his pocket billy in those close quarters.  By the time I was back on my feet he had ’em all spread out in the snow.  Eight members of the Kid Cheese gang, lyin’ there out cold.  An’ Jack McGrath, the Old Man, lookin’ at ’em with a rare smile of satisfaction, sayin’, ‘That’ll teach ’em to respect an officer of the law!’

Albert Anastasia, “The Mad Hatter,” and “The Lord High Executioner” of the mob. Anastasia arranged the murder of labor organizer Peter Panto in 1939, and ordered or committed dozens of other mob murders. He narrowly escaped prosecution when the leading witness against him, former Murder, Inc., killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, was thrown out of the sixth-floor window of Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel. Reles’ killing later became the focal point of the Kefauver Hearings on organized crime—the first major, televised investigative hearings in U.S. history. Anastasia was the enforcer on New York Harbor docks for businessman William McCormack, the “Mr. Big” of the waterfront. Anastasia went on to become a mafia boss, before being gunned down in a famous hit in the barbershop of a midtown hotel in 1957.

The last few guests began to leave, and Henry Fink stood up to excuse himself.  Charlie sitting up straighter in his rickety chair now, and speaking to him in a low, confiding voice.

“He saved my life more than once out there in Red Hook.  I told you about the docks, Tommy:  Nothing is as it seems.

“Those days, after the Great War, men were comin’ back from the fighting, but they couldn’t leave the war behind ’em.  There were housebreakings all over the precinct.  I don’t mean cat burglars, or second-storey men.  It was gangs of veterans.  Somebody got in their way, they’d just cut their throat.  We worked hard to keep it out of the paper, how many times we found an army bayonet at the scene of the crime.

“That’s how we got Jimmy, y’know.  The poor fella, his parents gone from one war, an’ him in the next.”

“I didn’t know that,” Tom said.  “I mean, I know the story, but—”

“But not that part of it.  I know.  It was a house up along Thirty-ninth Street, by the BMT Yards.  One of those old wooden doubledeckers that used to grow like toadstools in Brooklyn.  One or t’other of us was always in there, tryna keep the man of the house from bashing his wife’s head against a wall.

“She was a sweet woman, too,” he reflected, staring out at the black nullity of the pool.  “Hair the color of Jimmy’s, that’s where he got it—that sort of ginger shade.  A little thing, always cheerful.  The mister quiet as a parson most of the time, workin’ the docks with his crew.  But he’d get into the growler on a Saturday night, and then the whiskey, an’ everything would change.

“He’d blacken her eye for her, put out a tooth.  Broke her nose until it was tilted over permanent, like some cheap pug’s.  That sweet woman!  He’d hit her until the neighbors couldn’t stand it anymore, an’ they were not a squeamish lot, believe me.  We’d get him settled with the tap of a nightstick if need be, an’ somebody would send for the priest to talk to him.  But the priest never told him anything but to mind his temper, and he never told her anything but to stay with her husband, an’ so there you were.”

Charlie put his big, red drink up on the table, and stared out at the pool.

“Jimmy come out to me of a Saturday evenin’ in the summer.  It was a hot night, but not the hottest.  That’s the worst, as the Old Man warned me it would be.  When it gets too hot, nobody has the energy to do anything.  But when it’s just hot enough to prick an’ itch at ya, when it turns the beer sour in yer stomach—that’s when it’s bad.  We’d have half the women in the neighborhood walkin’ around claimin’ they run into doors.

“This evenin’ Jimmy come out to see me, so I knew it was somethin’ very wrong.  He was about seven then, as fair a little boy as you’d want to look at.  When we had to come into his place, he’d just stay down the hall, peekin’ out at what was happenin’ with those big brown eyes of his wide as two moons, but never sayin’ a thing.

“This night he come out into the street, dressed in his pajamas, an’ asked me would I please come, his Ma was in trouble.  We tried to go into family fights at least two at a time, that’s how dangerous they were, but I knew from the look on his face there was no time for me to find a partner.”

Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss, another confederate of Murder, Inc. It was Weiss who actually killed Peter Panto at the behest of Anastasia—and, almost undoubtedly, William McCormack—out in New Jersey. A longtime killer, he is pictured above on his way to Sing Sing. After more than two years on Death Row in the Dance Hall there, he would follow Buchalter to the electric chair within minutes, dying in 1944.

 

The whole place already a hell.  He could tell from the moment he walked through the open front door, half off its hinges.  What sticks of furniture there were tumbled over and broken.

“She was in a corner of the kitchen, a mass of blood.  The long hair covered her face, it spared her son that, at least.  But she wasn’t movin’ an’ she wasn’t breathin’.  The brute standin’ over her in his undershirt an’ suspenders, an’ his army-issue pants.  The blood coating his hands, but still standin’ over her, his fists cocked like he was just darin’ her to get up again.”

When he came into the narrow kitchen the raging man turned on him at once.  Moving across the room in two quick strides, without bothering to say a word.  He hadn’t had time to even get his nightstick up—just able to push Jimmy back behind him.

The raging man shoving him stumbling back down the hall, knocking him over.  His strength a force like nothing else Charlie had ever felt in his life.  His eyes like two pools of tar, black and impenetrable, inured to all reason and care.

He tried to get to his feet, watching as the man grabbed up a bayonet from the kitchen table, the blade as stained as his hands, and came back at him.  Fumbling for the pistol in his belt holster, knowing that if he did not get it out he was going to die—

“I shot him in the chest, dead center.  He didn’t even drop the bayonet.  So I shot him again, right over the heart this time, an’ he fell close enough for me to smell his breath, an’ damn if I didn’t shoot him again in the head, just to make sure the son of a bitch was finally dead.

“I turned around an’ there was Jimmy standin’ there, with those big eyes of his.  He’d seen the whole thing, I killed the boy’s father right in front of him.

“I walked out on the porch and the neighbors were already there, wantin’ to know what happened.  Keenin’ like idiots, an’ goin’ on about what a good man he was, an’ how could I a shot him—the same lot that heard him bangin’ his wife’s skull off the woodwork every Saturday night!  But little Jimmy, he just took me hand, an’ led me over to the porch bench, lookin’ up at me as if to see if I was all right.

Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel. A luxurious resort in the 1920s, it had fallen on hard times in the 1930s and was used by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to house four mob witnesses, 1939-41. The witnesses were held in a closed-off wing of the hotel, sealed with an impenetrable steel door, and guarded around the clock by 18 police officers—in what journalists soon christened, “The Rats Suite.” Nonetheless, sometime in the early morning hours of November 12, 1941, the most important of those witnesses, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a mob killer-turned-state’s witness who had sent seven men to the electric chair and cleared up an estimated 85 murder cases, was thrown out of the sixth-floor window of his room. No one was ever charged in the murder, which remains officially unsolved to this day. It became the focus of the Kefauver Committee hearings, the first major, televised corruption hearings in American history, and led to former New York mayor and U.S. ambassador William O’Dwyer remaining in Mexico for years after they had ended, out of fear that he might be indicted for involvement in Reles’ murder. The 14-story Half Moon was converted to a navy convalescent hospital during World War II, became a maternity hospital after the war, a senior citizens’ home in the 1970s... and was razed in 1995.

 

“The Old Man arrived, thank Christ, and told all the righteous citizens to disperse immediately if they didn’t want to get run in for public riotin’.  They moved away right quick.  Then he knelt down an’ asked me if I was all right, an’ he asked Jimmy how he was.  And I couldn’t get a word out, it was the first an’ last time I ever shot a man, and I couldn’t say a thing.  But Jimmy just turned to McGrath an’ told him, ‘He saved my life.’”

Charlie stabbed idly at the few piece of fruit remaining in the daiquiri.

“They said in the papers he’d been buried alive for ten whole minutes over there when a shell hit his trench.  They said he was always a well-tempered man before he went over, but I didn’t care.

“To me, he never seemed human.  He seemed like the wrath of God itself, Tommy.  He was all the chaos an’ bloodlust he’d brought back from the war, all that we released into this world, and have kept spewin’ out ever since.  I knew then I had to get out, that this was not the work I was cut out for.”

“I know, Charlie.”

“But the Old Man, that was just what he was built for.  Makin’ order out of chaos, like the hand of God itself.  He made sure to get the bodies out without me or Jimmy havin’ to look at them again, and he threatened the gabbling neighbors within an inch of their lives if they dared to come into court an’ make up lies, and he got me back to

“The day before I left the Seventy-deuce, he brought in Jimmy to see me, and he told me, ‘Take him and raise him as your own.’  He told me, ‘There is no next a kin, not in this world, an’ he’s already been forgotten, far as this city is concerned.  So take him home an’ give him a good life, an’ ease the pain for the both a you.’

“An’ so I did.  And so Claire took him in just like the fine mother I always knew she could be, and he was everything you’d want in a son.  But what I always remember is that day in Sunset Park.  The dear boy.  Walkin’ off with me hand-in-hand, a little packet of his things clutched to his chest.  Headin’ with me to the subway, an’ the ride back to his new home.  That was the greatest blessing of my life, Tommy.  That was the best of it, and it was the Old Man who set it up, just as he always put everything to rights.”

The second Kid Twist was one of the founders of Murder, Inc., and may have killed as many as 60 men in that capacity. After turning state’s evidence against his old friends, he sent seven of them to the electric chair and expected to walk free. Instead, he was tossed out the sixth-floor window of his room in the “Rats Suite,” leading to the crack that, “This bird could sing but he couldn’t fly!” The crime remains officially unsolved to this day.