Revealed: The incredible rise of the New York gangster from Leeds
His story reads like a script for one of the gangster movies so beloved of Hollywood in the 1930s.
Guns, bootlegging and stints in New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison. Romance with a cinema sex symbol. Stakes in two dozen nightclubs. Money – and plenty of it.
And his name? Owen Madden, born into poverty in 19th century Leeds.
Yet by the age of 40, he was New York’s top Prohibition-era mobster.
Long since demolished, the cramped terraced house stood on the site now occupied by Leeds Bus Station, a stone’s throw from Millgarth Police Station.
Madden’s parents, Francis and Mary, had ended up in Leeds after their families fled the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
Working as a cloth dresser in a local mill, Francis is said to have dreamed of starting afresh with his brood in America.
Mary eventually made the big move, crossing the Atlantic in early 1901 on the White Star Line’s RMS Oceanic – but passenger records indicate she did so without her husband. Nor was she accompanied by her soon-to-be-infamous son – the UK census of 1901 shows him living with his older brother Martin as ‘inmates’ in a children’s home at 36 Springfield Terrace, Burmantofts, near the modern day Shakespeare Primary School. The brothers did not join their mother until the summer of 1902, sailing from Liverpool to New York on the SS Teutonic.
They settled in the lawless Manhattan neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, where Madden made sporadic visits to St Michael’s Parochial School.
His path to villainy began at the age of 14, when he mugged a man for money to buy food.
Over the next eight years he became a key player in his area’s Gopher crime gang, with his exploits earning him the self-explanatory nickname of ‘The Killer’. In 1912 he shot dead a rival crook on a trolleybus in front of a dozen passengers, pausing only to ring the vehicle’s bell before pulling the trigger.
Madden was arrested yet never faced trial because of a lack of witnesses.
Two years later he was himself shot 11 times outside a dance hall but survived, winning himself another nickname – ‘Clay Pigeon’.
When police asked him to identify the shooters from his hospital bed, he reportedly replied: “Nothing doing. The boys’ll get ‘em. It’s nobody’s business but mine who put these slugs in me!” Madden’s luck temporarily ran out when he was jailed for instigating the fatal 1914 shooting of fellow underworld figure Little Patsy Doyle.
He spent eight years in Sing Sing before returning to the streets, which by now offered richer pickings for his kind than ever before. Prohibition had created an enormous public demand for illegal alcohol, a demand Madden was only too ready to help meet.
First he acted as enforcer to bootlegger extraordinaire Larry Fay, who had raked in half a million dollars in two years by selling whisky smuggled to the Big Apple from Canada. Then, when Fay decided to go straight in the mid-1920s,
Madden hooked up with Bill Dwyer, known as the King of the Rum Runners thanks to his control of New York’s harbour. An illicit brewery in Manhattan linked to the pair had equipment worth an estimated $1m and was capable of storing tens of thousands of gallons of beer.
Madden’s ruthless reputation – not to mention his political clout at City Hall – meant that even the Italian mobs stayed out of his way. Stanley Walker, city editor of the Herald Tribune paper, would later write that, during Prohibition, the softly-spoken Yorkshireman was “in many respects, the most important man in New York”.
He went on: “In many ways he had more sense than (Chicago gangster Al Capone]. “He was a better businessman. He saw what too much publicity was doing for Capone.”
Madden is said to have used a friendship with the all-powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell to keep himself out of the headlines. Winchell must have had his work cut out, thanks in part to his pal’s involvement with a string of nightspots, including Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club.
It counted the likes of Bing Crosby, Cole Porter and Jimmy Durante among its high-profile clientele. The racketeer’s closest pal, though, was the aspiring actor and future gangster movie regular George Raft, who had also grown up in Hell’s Kitchen.
Romance came in the curvaceous form of Mae West, with some crediting Madden for bankrolling her early Hollywood career. By the end of the Roaring Twenties, the lad from Somerset Street was a millionaire – and living like one.
He dressed stylishly, causing ripples of excitement simply by strolling through Manhattan; he took flying lessons and ordered his own biplane, claiming to be in the “laundry business”; he paid $35,000 to free his friend Big Frenchy De Mange following a kidnapping. He even offered his support to Charles Lindbergh following the abduction of the hero pilot’s infant son.
The good times were, however, rapidly drawing to a close. President Herbert Hoover began the new decade heading a crackdown against organised crime that claimed its first major scalp with the jailing of Al Capone.
Reporting on Capone’s downfall, Time magazine picked out five New York mobsters that the Government also had in its sights.
Madden was one of the five – and by July 1932 he had been sent back to Sing Sing for parole violation. When he was freed a year later, all he had in his pocket was the $17 he had made on the inside by growing carnations. Within months Prohibition was over and ‘The Killer’ – now in his 40s and suffering from ill health – quit New York for the resort city of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Some have claimed that Madden’s marriage in 1935 to the daughter of a former postmaster shows that his years in Hot Springs were ones of quiet retirement.
One US paper, the Lawrence Journal-World, waxed lyrical about his support of charities, especially those benefiting young people.
Selwyn Raab, author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, begs to differ, describing Madden as the city’s “illegal gambling monarch”. The Florida State Racing Commission clearly had similar ideas – in 1942, they forced him to sell his stake in Miami’s Tropical Park track after branding him an “undesirable”.
In 1961, meanwhile, he was summoned before the Senate Committee on Organised Crime, where he repeatedly avoided answering questions by invoking the Fifth Amendment.
Madden died of emphysema aged 73 in April 1965, reputedly keeping in touch to the end with events in Leeds using cuttings sent from local papers.
He had also retained his English accent, which meant his character in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film The Cotton Club was played by a fellow Brit, Bob Hoskins.
The last word, though, should perhaps go to Madden’s sometime squeeze, Mae West.
Asked in later years to describe him, she replied: “Sweet – but oh so vicious.”