John Joe McGinley
VINCENT Coll, was born on July 20, 1908 in the Irish speaking parish of Gweedore, a beautiful, but impoverished region of County Donegal. Gweedore was rich in beauty but lacking in opportunities and employment and its biggest industry in 1908 was emigration. When Vincent was less than a year old, his parents decided to do what many Irish people did in those days—they immigrated to the US to seek a better life.
With their seven children, the Colls settled in the Irish enclave of the Bronx, but found that their lives in New York were not much better than the ones that they left behind in Ireland. They still lived in dire poverty, leading Vincent’s father to eventually desert the family. His mother and all but one of his six siblings, died before he turned 12 years old.
Background to brutality
After his mother died, he and his brother Peter were placed in a number of Catholic orphanages, but were found to be uncontrollable by the clergy who ran these institutions. Eventually the Coll brothers were sent to live with an aunt named Mary Friel, another native of Gweedore. If the authorities thought that living with a close relative would turn the boys into law-abiding citizens, they were badly mistaken. The brothers used the Friel home as a base from which they organised a juvenile street game made up mainly of Italian youths who had dreams of becoming top Mafiosi, like the leading Italian gangsters who were beginning to make a name for themselves in New York City.
Vincent was a difficult child, constantly in trouble and he was expelled from several local Catholic schools before he even reached his teens. On the streets, he had swapped formal education for another form of learning, that of the art of crime, with a local gang called the Gophers, led by Owen ‘Owney’ Madden. While school books had shown no attraction, Vincent was a fast learner in the art of crime and he soon came to the attention of the established gangster Dutch Schultz, a Jewish American mob leader who had amassed power and wealth through bootlegging and the numbers racket.
In the violent poverty stricken era of 1920s New York, Vincent was not afraid to do whatever it took to rise to the top of the gangster tree. His aggressive and volatile personality made him a man to be feared and his willingness to murder to get what he wanted made him a trusted lieutenant of Schultz. He soon became one of the prohibition eras most feared enforcers. He had no qualms about using violence and was a ruthless killer.
As the body count rose, the authorities started to take a keen interest in Vincent. In 1927, at just 19, he was accused of the murder of a speakeasy owner who had refused to sell bootleg alcohol for Dutch Schultz. He was found not guilty and acquitted, which came as no surprise as Schultz used his influence to tamper with the jury. It was a matter of find him innocent or else. Vincent walked free and the jury avoided harm.
Clearly guilty, Vincent showed no remorse, in fact he now felt invincible and was soon out of control. He believed that money and intimidation made gangsters like him untouchable. Seeking money to fund his increasingly extravagant lifestyle, he became freelance and robbed the Sheffield Farms Dairy in the Bronx of $17,000 without Schultz’ authorisation or permission. When the two men next met, Schultz reminded him that he could only operate with his approval. Vincent told Schultz that it was his methods that had helped build his empire and rather than apologise he demanded to be made his partner. Shultz refused and a rift developed between the men who had once been close friends.
Former friends at war
He was now a marked and isolated figure and the final break with Schultz came in January 1931. Vincent was arrested and despite their animosity, Schultz put up the bail money. This was a surprising, but clever move. Shultz did not want Vincent giving the authorities any information on his activities and despite his loathing for him, he’d rather pay up than have him behind bars. Vincent did not attend his trial, which meant the bail money was forfeited. Shultz demanded that he pay him back but Vincent refused. This was the final breakdown in an already fractious relationship and the two men went to war.
To finance his war against Shultz, Vincent’s gang began to kidnap rival gangsters and hold them for ransom. This was a sideline that he found highly lucrative and he was very good at it. He was determined to drive Shultz out of New York. He began by hijacking Schultz’s beer trucks, he would then sell the beer at discounted rates to bar owners. What did he care? It was all profit to him.
Vincent had to be stopped and Dutch Shultz retaliated in May 1931, when he arranged for the murder of Vincent’s brother Peter. Distraught at the murder of his brother Peter, he responded with a maelstrom of violence, in the following three weeks he personally murdered four of Schultz’s men. Despite the rising body count, the war was a stalemate and finally petered out in to an uneasy truce, but both men would not forget or forgive. It was peace for now.
Kidnapping and killing again
Vincent however had no friends in the underworld due to his ongoing lucrative sideline of kidnapping other gangsters and holding them for ransom. Whilst undoubtable psychotic, he was no fool. He knew his victims would not report their kidnappings because of the underworld’s code of silence. Also any freed gangster would have a hard time explaining to the police authorities or the tax man where the ransom money that they paid had come from!
It wasn’t just gangsters he kidnapped, Vincent and his gang began to diversify and started to kidnap showbusiness stars and successful businessmen. They began with show business legend Rudy Vallee and received $100,000 for the singer’s release. Next to be taken was Sherman Billingsly, owner of the Stork Club—the most famous restaurant in New York—whose family paid Coll $25,000 for his release. Then Billy Warren, a New York banker, parted with $83,000 to gain his freedom. He then had the nerve to kidnap George De Mange, a close aide to Irish mob boss and his old friend Owney Madden and forced Madden to pay $38,500 for his release. This was a grave insult to his fellow Irish mobster and one he would never forget or forgive.
Vincent restarted the war with Dutch Shultz on July 28, 1931. He attempted to kidnap Joey Rao, a major Schultz lieutenant. The attempt failed and in the ongoing gun battle on a public street, a five-year-old child Michael Vengalli, was killed and several other children wounded. The enraged media shocked by the brutality of the incident dubbed Vincent Coll a ‘baby killer’ and filled the pages of the newspapers every day with negative coverage on him. The media called him the worst criminal in America, and the FBI named him as #1 on its famed ‘Ten Most Wanted List.’ New York Mayor Jimmy Walker—the son of an Irish emigrant—christened him a ‘Mad Dog’ and the nickname made for great headlines and stuck to this very day.
Determined to bring him to justice the New York State police captured most of the Coll gang, and a few days later Vincent himself and he was charged with capital murder of the five-year old boy in New York. Mayor Walker ever conscious of public opinion was making it clear he wanted a quick trial, a guilty verdict and an execution to quell the massive public anger at Vincent. This was not to be, because he was acquitted in a bizarre trial.
Vincent’s lawyer was the famous defence attorney Samuel Leibowitz (above), much used by the gangster fraternity and for good reason. Leibowitz was the most successful criminal lawyer of his generation and the go to man whenever a major criminal figure needed a defence attorney. He was a frustrated actor and the court room became his stage where his oratory skills and flair for the dramatic made him a formidable opponent for any prosecutor. Despite his showmanship, the real reason for Leibowitz’ successful track record was his preparation, he left nothing to chance. During the trial Leibowitz used every trick in his formidable arsenal to select a jury he felt was as sympathetic as possible to Vincent. The turning point in the trial was focused on the key prosecution witness George Brecht. Leibowitz managed to destroy his credibility and that of the prosecution’s, when it was revealed that Brecht made a covert living as a witness at criminal trials. The trial was now a farce and the court room descended into uproar at this revelation. The prosecution case had collapsed and the judge was left with no choice but to allow Vincent to walk free in December 1931.
A marked man
Despite the let off Vincent, or as he was now known ‘Mad Dog’, did not learn his lesson. During the trial, Vincent was hired by the New York ‘Godfather’ Salvatore Maranzano, who, despite being the most powerful mobster in the city, feared rival Lucky Luciano would kill him and take over. It seems paranoia was not just restricted to Dutch Schultz. Despite the risks, Vincent readily agreed to murder Luciano for $50,000—the highest amount yet offered for a single mob murder.
On September 10, 1931, Maranzano invited Luciano to a meeting at his office to discuss re-drawing the mob map of New York. The real plan was for Vincent to arrive later and kill Luciano during the meeting. Luciano who had a wide network of informers had learned of the plot against him and decided to act first. He sent his own men, who killed Maranzano before Vincent turned up. While Luciano knew his life was in danger, he did not know the identity of the man Maranzano hired to kill him. The fleeing assassins saw Vincent arriving and informed Luciano that he must be the intended hitman. This sealed Vincent’s fate.
An enraged Luciano, while flattered at the high level of the bounty on his head, arranged for Vincent’s old friend from the Gophers, Owney Madden—now boss of the Irish criminal syndicate in Hell’s Kitchen—to place a similar $50,000 bounty on Vincent Coll’s head. Two violent hitmen, Leonard Scarnici and Anthony Fabrizzo, accepted Madden’s bounty and the hunt for Vincent began. Vincent was again in hiding, but acting on a tip off Scarnici and Fabrizzo burst into a Bronx apartment where they believed he was sleeping. They found six people there. Not knowing him by sight they decided it was better to be safe than sorry and decided to shoot everyone anyway. In the ensuing blood bath, three died and three clung to life, but Vincent Coll was not among them.
Vincent was delayed elsewhere and arrived at the apartment after the shooting. The carnage was brutal and the shocked New York authorities informed the mob that this bloodshed had to end. Dutch Shultz and Madden also decided to act, this after all was getting bad for business. A few days later, Vincent received word that Madden—whom he trusted from his Gopher days—wanted to speak with him. He was informed Madden had worked out a settlement between all the gangs that would make everyone happy and save his life. Vincent had known Madden all his life and trusted him, which was to prove a fatal mistake.
A meeting was arranged in Hell’s Kitchen, where he would be safe because the neighbourhood was under Madden’s protection. To avoid any further mistakes and to ensure he would now be recognised by his assassins, Dutch Schultz arranged for an old associate of Vincent’s, Abraham ‘Bo’ Weinberg to work with the hitmen Scarnici and Fabrizzo. Weinberg and Vincent had worked together under Schultz, but Weinberg had stayed loyal to Shultz during the ensuing war between the men.
Vincent was now a desperate man. He was being hunted by every mob hitman in New York, all wanting the $50k bounty Luciano had placed on his head. On February 7, 1932, Vincent checked into the Cornish Arms Hotel on 23rd Street. The next day he entered the phone booth in the London Chemists drug store at 314 West 23rd Street at Eighth Avenue. He had been told by Owney Madden the previous day to call him to discuss the truce. Madden had set him up and Vincent had walked right into an ambush.
Weinberg identified him to the hitmen as he walked by and Scarnici and Fabrizzo stepped out to murder Vincent. Only one assassin, Scarnici, entered the drug store. Fabrizzo and Weinberg waited on the sidewalk. Police reports later detailed that, as Scarnici passed cashier George Scott, who was waiting on a customer, a Dr Leo Katz, he turned to Scott and quietly said: “Keep cool now.” Scarnici had a submachine gun hidden under his overcoat and as he approached the phone booth he drew this and fired two bursts into Vincent as he talked to Madden. Taking no chances Scarnici checked that he was dead, then calmly replaced the gun under his coat and turned to walk out of the Drug Store. Passing the two witnesses, Scott and Katz, he turned to them and raised a finger to his lips and made a ‘Shhh’ motion. He left the store and re-joined Weinberg and Fabrizzo and all three sped off into Eighth Avenue traffic. The hit on Vincent Coll had lasted less than 90 seconds.
Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll’s killers were never definitely identified. Dutch Schultz himself sent a wreath to his funeral bearing a banner with the message, ‘From the boys.’ As is normally the case all three of the men involved in Vincent’s death also met brutal ends. Fabrizzo was murdered on November 20, 1932 after a botched attempt on the life of Bugsy Siegel. The Gunman Scarnici was executed in the Electric Chair in Sing Sing prison for the 1933 murder of a police detective. Bo Weinberg didn’t receive much gratitude from Dutch Shultz for his part in the demise of Vincent Coll. Shultz arranged for him to disappear after discovering he was in league with Lucky Luciano to have him killed. Dutch Shultz continued to operate his rackets for only a few more years. On October 23, 1935, he was killed at the Palace Chophouse in Newark, New Jersey on orders from the new National Crime Syndicate headed by none other than Lucky Luciano. As for Owney Madden, well he left New York shortly after the death of Vincent Coll and his story is one we shall hear more of.
So ended the violent and notorious life of Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll at the age of just 23 years.
John Joe McGinley is the author of The Irish Wise Guys, a no-holds-barred book focusing on the most notorious Irish American Gangsters, crime bosses for whom death and destruction was a daily currency in their lives. To order a copy—priced at €20 (inclusive of postage and packaging)—visit: http://www.irishwiseguys.ie