The following is an exclusive book excerpt from Neil Clark’s Dock Boss: Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront, which was released this month and is available at stores everywhere. The book chronicles Irish mob boss Eddie McGrath’s rise to power as a racketeer on the Manhattan waterfront, offering readers a rogue’s gallery of hitmen, robbers, loan sharks, and bookies. Make sure you get it and enjoy the excerpt below!
ON A COLD February day in 1941, John Whitton, or “Mutt” as he was known around the West Side of New York City, unloaded the hatch of a docked cargo liner on Pier 14. A distinct odor, which was unique to the bustling waterfront, permeated the air. The sun had disappeared early, as a light snow covered the dock and a hard wind blew in off the water. The men on the pier pushed to complete their day’s job and rushed to unpack the last of the ship’s goods.
After the cargo had been unloaded, the longshoremen dispersed into the night. Some would head to the nearest dimly lit bar to drink and gamble away their free time. Others would march home to their nearby West Side tenement apartments, which were usually crowded with an abundance of children who relied on the day’s wages.
For Mutt, the work wasn’t easy, but it was still honest. Like a good number of men who worked on the piers, Mutt had been in trouble with the law before; however, since his release from prison, he had been trying to change his reputation. He still kept company with a number of unsavory childhood acquaintances, and he wasn’t against making a quick buck with a small theft here and there, but he didn’t intend on ever going back up north. Mutt had given enough of his life to the state, and he had made a promise to his elderly mother, Nora, that he would change his ways.
Mutt was born in 1905, now thirty-six years of age, and had a criminal record that dated back to 1913. His first arrest was as a juvenile, at the tender age of eight, and he had spent the bulk of his formative years in some of the state’s most brutal reformatories. Back then, when he wasn’t serving time, he was on the streets of his native West Side doing drugs and running with street gangs. Mutt got his nickname because he stood only 4ʹ0ʺ tall and weighed less than 120 pounds as a youth. The name stuck as, even as an adult, Mutt would grow to be less than 5ʹ5ʺ in height.
Mutt would rack up regular convictions for petty crimes until one eventful week in 1923. On March 30, Mutt and a lanky friend, Patrick Ahearn, needed a quick score, as the week prior Mutt had broken out of East View Penitentiary. At 9:00 pm that night, the duo donned blue workmen’s garb, grabbed pistols, and headed toward the United Cigar Store on Lexington Avenue between 69th and 70th Street. The attempted robbery would alter the course of Mutt’s life in a way he could never have imagined.
Both Mutt and Ahearn entered the store with guns drawn. The tiny shop consisted only of a small storage room, a cash register on a desk, and two glass display cases. The lone clerk in the shop knew what was taking place and complied with Mutt’s request to put his hands up. Mutt popped open the cash register and grabbed $16.98 from the till. He then forced the clerk to the floor and demanded that he open the safe underneath the desk.
As luck would have it, an off-duty police officer named John Cordes, who had averaged nearly three hundred arrests in 1922 alone, had popped into the shop. Cordes had planned to buy a pack of cigars for his brother Freddie, who was waiting outside in the car. Cordes recognized something was amiss as, instead of the usual clerk behind the desk, he could only see two wild looking youths staring at him in surprise. As he got closer, he noticed a gun in the taller Ahearn’s hand. Cordes recognized that he needed to get help, and he slowly backed to the door telling Mutt and Ahearn that “the store didn’t carry his brand.”
Mutt squealed, “You’ll get your smokes!” and fired a shot directly at Cordes. Instinctively, Cordes raised his right hand to shield himself. The bullet slowed down as it passed through the area near his right thumb and, what likely would have been a fatal bullet, lodged shallowly in his chest.
Cordes crouched to the ground as Mutt yelled to Ahearn, “Give it to that son of a bitch!” Ahearn ran up to the prone Cordes and leveled the pistol at his head. Before Ahearn could pull the trigger, Cordes sprang up, grabbed at Ahearn’s weapon, and began to wrestle him for the gun. Cordes managed to turn it toward the lanky youth, and he fired a shot. Ahearn grasped at his stomach and slumped against the wall of the shop.
The injured Cordes turned Ahearn’s gun toward Mutt. Mutt leveled his own pistol, and he and Cordes exchanged wild gunfire across the small store. Cordes’ bullets did not strike their target, but Mutt’s shots found their mark in Cordes’ right shoulder and left thigh. Mutt ran out from behind the counter to finish off the downed police officer, but Cordes leaped forward and tackled the much smaller Mutt. Cordes gained control of Mutt’s gun, but Mutt quickly sprang up from the ground and shut himself in the stockroom behind the cash register. The bleeding Cordes stumbled out of the shop just as his brother Freddie, who had heard the gunfire, came sprinting toward it. Cordes advised Freddie to run to the nearest police station to get help.
In a scene straight out of a dark comedy, an off-duty police sergeant happened to be walking down the street. The off-duty officer, who was carrying his service revolver, heard the shots and noticed the bleeding Cordes, gun in hand, stumbling in front of the store. Assuming Cordes was a robber, the off-duty cop opened fire without warning and shot Cordes in the back of his right shoulder.
Cordes’ body spun to the ground as the off-duty officer continued to shoot wildly, striking the window of the cigar store, and also a neighboring business. Cordes fumbled for his police shield to identify himself to the approaching officer, but the off-duty officer fired another shot from close range that went through Cordes’ right cheek and embedded in his jawbone. Cordes’ brother Freddie, who had run back to the scene after hearing more gunfire, arrived just in time to see the downed Cordes kick the off-duty officer in the groin. The blow caused the off-duty officer to accidentally discharge his gun into the ground. The stray bullet ricocheted off the pavement and struck Freddie in the left elbow.
Cordes stumbled to his feet and, upon seeing the now bleeding Freddie, realized that no backup was coming. Suffering from five bullet wounds, he took matters into his own hands and marched back into the store with Mutt’s gun. Cordes kicked down the storage room door and arrested the still-hiding Mutt. After sorting out the situation with the off-duty officer, the bleeding Cordes, his injured brother Freddie, and the belligerent Mutt marched down the street to the nearby Presbyterian Hospital.
Cordes arrived through the hospital’s front door and was a fearful sight to everyone inside. Mutt was arrested by arriving policemen and Ahearn, who everyone assumed was dead, was found by ambulance workers still slumped in the cigar shop. He was taken to Bellevue hospital where surgeons managed to stabilize him.
Amazingly, Cordes was discharged from the hospital only six days later. Ahearn, who recovered from his injuries, and did not have a long rap sheet, was sentenced to serve an indefinite term in the Elmira Reformatory. The troublesome Mutt received no leniency and was sentenced to fifteen years in state prison. The malnourished-looking youth was sent to Sing Sing and later Dannemora (otherwise known as Clinton or “New York’s Siberia”), where he would be housed with the most hardcore convicts in the state. He was now a little fish amongst a sea of gangsters, sexual predators and murderers.
Mutt Whitton served all of his fifteen years, and when he was released in 1938, he was no longer a boy. He had lost his youthful ambition, and he did not have the drive to live a life of crime. Mutt was burned out. Like many ex-convicts, Mutt sought work on the West Side piers after his release. Due to the casual nature of the employment, a man could blend in with the group and not stand out as a criminal. The dock workers didn’t have to know how to read or write, and, as long as they weren’t afraid of a hard day’s work, they might be able to find employment.
Mutt had managed to stay off the cops’ radar, but he was unable to change his past on one spring day in 1940. While Mutt was working as a longshoreman on Pier 45 he heard a familiar voice calling him. As he turned, he saw a face he could never forget — the face of John Cordes. The ambitious cop was now a detective in a unit that investigated waterfront crime. Cordes warned Mutt that he better be working an honest job and that he would be watching him closely.
Over the next few months, Cordes kept close tabs on Mutt, but all he found was that he was showing up for work every day and slinging cargo like the rest of the crew. Cordes visited Mutt regularly on the pier and gradually grew fond of him. He couldn’t help but admire the way that Mutt seemed to genuinely want to turn his life around.
One day, Cordes heard through another longshoreman that Mutt had been fired by a shipping boss on Pier 45 after he learned of Mutt’s criminal record. Cordes went to the shipping boss and tried to arrange for the pier to take Mutt back. When they would not rehire Mutt, Cordes left angrily, went and found Mutt, and drove him to Pier 14 on the Lower West Side. Cordes called in a favor with the boss there and had Mutt back at work by the next day. Mutt was grateful. The work was good, and he was able to carve out a living.
Although Mutt was no longer committing crimes himself, he was still friendly with a number of the neighborhood’s rougher characters, and he regularly overheard the latest gossip. One of the plans that Mutt had heard about involved the theft of a crate of machine guns off Pier 54 in February of 1941. A couple of workers had found that a hundred cases of unassembled Thompson machine guns, which had been purchased by the British Army for the war effort, had been stored on the pier. Two of the workers managed to swipe a case of ten unassembled guns, and they were now shopping them around to potential buyers. Word on the street was that the main dock mob on the Lower West Side was interested in purchasing them. Mutt had heard that the now-assembled machine guns were being stashed in a vacant lot, behind Tony’s Barber Shop, near Pier 54. He also picked up that Edward Hooper, a longshoreman on Pier 54, had been responsible for the theft.
Cordes and his team of detectives maintained a phone at Pier 57, which was where their squad had an office. At 6:10 pm on February 22, 1941, one of Cordes’ detectives received a call. “Any of Cordes’ squad there?” asked the voice on the phone. Cordes was not around, but the caller said, “I heard Cordes was looking for something. He should head to Tony’s Barbershop.” The detectives, who had been frantically searching for the missing machine guns, knew exactly what the caller was insinuating. The detective asked who was on the other line, but the caller responded with a simple “Never mind,” and the line went dead.
The police raced to the lot and found all ten guns concealed in a number of burlap sacks. The caller’s tip was right on. Edward Hooper, who a watchman had earlier seen loitering around the guns, was arrested the following day. He blamed the crime on drunkenness and was convicted in April of that year. Buzz spread up and down the waterfront that Cordes’ waterfront squad had a rat in their pocket. Although thousands of men worked on the piers, it was still a small world that was built on its own laws and rules, the main one being a strict code of silence. Along the waterfront, the longshoremen took care of their own problems, and they never squealed to cops.
The majority of longshoremen were honest and hardworking men, but if they couldn’t get work for a week it was the neighborhood loan shark who would spot them the money, not a cop. Everyone knew the gangsters controlled things and, to most, it was an accepted part of life on the docks. The criminals lived on their streets, drank in their bars, and knew their families. For all the harm the criminals may have caused, many felt that they would rather deal with the devil they knew, than the outsiders on the police force.
Whether Mutt was the anonymous tipster didn’t matter. Everyone knew about his history with Cordes and that Cordes had obtained a good job for him. Mutt had the most reason to provide the tip, and therefore he was the most likely culprit. Such is the danger of being friendly with cops on the waterfront. Every longshoreman along the Lower West Side knew that someone would have to answer for ratting. The powerful gangsters who controlled the docks relied on fear. If people got away with speaking to the police, it would send the wrong message and could lead to others tipping off the cops. Examples would have to be made.
A couple of days after the weapons seizure, Mutt was on Pier 14 performing his normal day’s work. Night began to fall on the afternoon shift, and most of the longshoremen were exiting the pier, when a heavy-set man, who Mutt knew as Andy “Squint” Sheridan, calmly walked down the dock. Following close behind was Joe Powell, a young strong-arm who worked for the mob on Pier 14 as a checker. There were a few men like Powell working on every gangster-controlled pier along the North River, and regardless of their official job title, their real role was to keep everyone in line for the waterfront mobs. Only six months prior, Powell had been cleared of the murder of one of his best friends, Charles T. Brady, who was shot by Powell three times in the chest while sitting next to him in a car after a night of drinking and a petty argument. Powell and another man, who had also been in the car, testified that Brady was about to shoot Powell first. Powell’s self-defense argument worked, and he was found not guilty by a jury.
Sheridan, who strutted in front of Powell, had slicked back hair and large thick glasses. Although he was wearing an expensive suit, he still looked sloppy due to the excess weight he carried around his waist. Mutt and Sheridan had missed each other by a year or so in Clinton Penitentiary, but Mutt knew of his reputation. This was the man who only appeared when the waterfront bosses, Eddie McGrath and Johnny Dunn, needed something important handled.
Powell identified Mutt to Sheridan with a passive head nod. The two approached. “Can I have a word, Mutt?” muttered Sheridan from behind the thick eyeglasses. Mutt had dealt with gangsters like this for years, and he knew not be to be afraid in such a public place. If the man wanted Mutt dead, then it would have already happened. The pier was still scattered with a number of longshoremen who quietly pretended to not watch the exchange taking place. Mutt sighed in relief.
Sheridan motioned for Mutt to follow him into a nearby storage area that overlooked the freezing water at the end of the pier. The men, who were still working on the pier, watched as Sheridan, Mutt, and Powell entered the small the room, which contained a bathroom and a wash basin.
As Mutt turned to speak to Sheridan, he heard two loud pops. Sheridan had drawn a gun and shot Mutt twice in the chest. Mutt slumped to the ground. Sheridan then slowly approached and fired another shot directly into Mutt’s forehead. Mutt had doubted the power of those who controlled the piers. These men had the clout to commit murder at will. Sheridan put his gun back in his pocket, and he and Powell dragged Mutt’s bleeding body across the floor. The two men lifted Mutt’s small corpse and deposited it into a deep urinal drain pipe that led directly into the frigid and icy waters of the North River. After carefully brushing himself off, Sheridan, who was now speckled with Mutt’s blood, left the building. Powell remained behind to clean up.
Sheridan casually walked back to his car, in full view of all the longshoremen who still remained on the pier. He wanted them to know what had just taken place. The longshoremen kept their heads down, said nothing, and then dispersed like any other day. No one wanted to end up like Mutt.
Mutt failed to visit his loving mother that week. She went to his apartment and was told that he hadn’t been around in days. She reported him missing, but the cops did not search very hard for an ex-con like Mutt. Cordes had heard the grim talk around the docks, and he knew there was no case to be made. Everyone on the waterfront knew what had happened to Mutt, but, officially, no one had seen or heard anything.
Every year when winter turns to spring, and the waters of the Hudson turn warm, floating bodies appear in the rivers around New York City. Mostly, they are drunks or suicides, but on May 12, 1941, the police fished out the bloated and decomposed corpse of John “Mutt” Whitton from a dock south of Pier 14. He was only able to be identified by fingerprint records.
The newspapers that day carried the story of another dead criminal who was working on the West Side docks. It was nothing new, and by the next day, Mutt’s name was gone from the papers. Longshoremen spoke of his death in whispers, but it was usually just one name recited as part of a long list of others who had crossed the waterfront gangsters. Everyone knew who had killed Mutt, but why do anything about it? Who would want to end up like him?
This was a world controlled by gangsters.
This was Eddie McGrath’s world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Author Neil G. Clark is a researcher and writer who has conducted more than five years of investigation on the topic. The book is based on over a thousand previously unreleased law enforcement reports on waterfront gangsters, hundreds of rare archival records, interviews, dozens of trial transcripts, and numerous newspaper accounts.
For more on this book and its author, check out www.neilgclark.com
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