A Little Coke Please

A Little Coke Please

Two youths, victims of the cocaine habit, were brought before Magistrate Kernochan, in the West Side Court, yesterday morning. One was a mere boy of 16, anxious to have his mother send him away where he couldn’t get the drug. The other was a confirmed user of cocaine, and when sentenced to six months on the Island, begged for “just a little ‘coke,’ please.”

The New York Times, September 3, 1907

Bernard Mulroy, age 23, the older of the two young men in court that day, “writhed as he begged the court to give him some of the drug before sending him away” to the New York Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. The prison, now gone, was located on what is currently called Roosevelt Island, a strip of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The Jersey City-born son of Irish immigrants told the magistrate that he’d been a cocaine user since the age of 18.

He’d been arrested the previous Sunday near the Hudson River and 59th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough neighborhood known for violence and disorder. He was warming his hands at a small fire he’d built when he was taken into custody. It’s possible that building a fire outdoors was illegal by then in New York City and that was why Bernard was hauled in to court. Or maybe the cops figured he was a vagrant and they wanted him off the streets.

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It couldn’t have been his cocaine habit that brought him into court. Cocaine was legal then in America, though by the time Bernard was arrested in 1907 there was increasing recognition of cocaine’s tendency to turn its users into desperate addicts. If he had the money Bernard could have purchased coke at the corner drug store without a prescription. It was getting the money that was the crux of his problem.

Bernard’s Bertillon photos, measurements and personal details were recorded six months before his September arrest, after he was hauled in for burglarizing an apartment in the city.

Bernard Mulroy_back_marked

A year later, on November 21, 1908, with winter about to descend on New York City, Bernard again found himself on a boat headed to the prison on Blackwell’s Island. This time he’d been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to six months incarceration. It must have been comforting to know he’d be warmer in prison than he would have been on the streets. However there was a downside — Bernard got addicted to heroin during his second stay in the island’s prison.

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The penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, c. 1910, New York City Municipal Archives

heroinThe German drug company, Bayer, developed diacetylmorphine in the late nineteenth century. Between 1898 and 1910 diacetylmorphine was marketed under the trade name “Heroin” as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant, supposedly without morphine’s addictive side effects. Its sale wasn’t regulated in the United States until 1914, when it became available only by prescription. In 1924, with better understanding of its addictive properties and the tolerance that develops in users, Congress banned the sale, importation and manufacture of heroin. These laws came too late to help Bernard.

After he was arrested in midtown Manhattan on April 15, 1915 for trying to sell heroin to passersby, Bernard was quoted in an article for The Evening World newspaper titled “Sing Sing is Popular Summer Resort Now.” He claimed he wanted to be convicted and sent to Sing Sing Penitentiary.

“Movies and baseball for mine,” said Bernard Mulroy at Police Headquarters to-day. “I’m a sick bum in New York, but in Sing Sing I’ll be a person of some consequence, get my meals and recreation regularly and regain my health…New York is no place for a drug fiend these days. I want to get cured and go to Sing Sing and learn to be a telegraph operator.” Bernard was not alone — the news report noted that ten young men who’d been arrested within the previous three days had also asked to be sent to Sing Sing, supposedly because they wanted to play baseball in the prison yard.

Bernard’s wish to sojourn in the notorious prison in Ossining, New York wasn’t granted. Instead he was sent to a prison on Hart’s Island in the Bronx that was used to house overflow prisoners from the city jails.

On August 24, 1916, Bernard died in Manhattan at the age 29. Details of his death are not known, but his final resting place may be on Hart’s Island, where he spent time as a prisoner. The island is now uninhabited and it’s the site of a massive potter’s field cemetery. More than a million people who died penniless in New York have been buried there over the years. Bernard might easily be one of them.

Featured photos: Bertillon photos of Bernard Mulroy taken March 5, 1907, collection of the author.

Trenton Al

Trenton Al

He was known as “Trenton Al”, “French Al” and “Albert St. Claire.” His real name was Francis Alphonse Voullaire. His crimes were mostly of the white-collar variety — embezzlement, bribery, forgery, passing worthless checks — Al didn’t like to get his hands dirty. Held as prisoner #209 by the Jersey City Police, his measurements and mugshots were taken on October 5, 1901. Though he was five feet eight inches tall, his derby hat, worn high on his head, made him look taller.

The youngest son of a wealthy family, Al was born in 1863 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Seymour Voullaire, was a successful criminal attorney. However wealth does not necessarily buy happiness and his parents’ marriage was extraordinarily stormy. His mother, Ann Catherine — known as “Kitty” — was said to be very appealing to the opposite sex; at any rate she took a lot of lovers. After trying to kill one of Kitty’s lovers in a pistol duel — in which he was injured — Seymour had enough. Despite being Catholic, in 1867 he and Kitty divorced. While Al was still a child, another of his mother’s lovers murdered her second husband in an effort to secure the lady for himself. (The man was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death).

One would think that was enough drama for a lifetime, but no! In 1883 another lover of Kitty’s, Horace Shepard, suffering from depression and remorse over his relationship with Kitty, murdered her and then turned the gun on himself. It was quite a scandal — the two lovers were found in dead in bed in their fashionable New York City rooms. He left a note saying they would be “happier in death.”

Al married young and, unlike his parents, he stayed married. His wife, Annie, raised their six children while he cheated on her with a series of floozies, some of whom were involved in his illegal exploits.

Voullaire Sing Sing

Sing Sing Prison Admission Register for Alphonse Voullaire. New York State Archives.

He was well educated and had honest employment, often as a bookkeeper or clerk, but Al’s penchant for criminal activities inevitably got him into trouble. A forgery conviction in 1892 landed him in Sing Sing Prison for two years. Following his release from prison, he was arrested for writing bad checks. Then he compounded the problem by trying to bribe officials to get out of jail.

Alphonse Voullaire_back_marked

Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (back). Collection of the author.

In 1902, claiming to be a major player in New York City criminal circles, Al persuaded a New York Herald newspaper reporter to help him to pull off some robberies and sell the proceeds to fences. The idea was that they would bribe NYPD detectives to look the other way, proving the detectives’ complicity in the crimes. The reporter would get a great story and Al would get some of the loot. The plan backfired when detectives (possibly tipped-off by the paper) arrested Al and his reporter colleague instead of taking bribes. The absence of listings for him in city directories between 1902 and 1908 may indicate Al served another stint in prison for the Herald debacle.

After 1908 Al went by his given name — Francis — and worked as a self-employed “traffic expert” in New Jersey, where he lived with his long-suffering wife and children. It’s hard to say what a traffic expert did back then and it’s impossible to know if “Trenton Al,” whose life certainly started out badly, left the bad life completely behind.

Featured image: Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (front). Collection of the author.

Rival Burning

Rival Burning

Jacob Kowalsky was in the grips of the green-eyed monster in July 1908. An Austrian immigrant who worked as a carpenter, Jacob was upset with John Smith, a young man who once boarded in his Bayside home. When John lived with the Kowalskys, he made the mistake of flirting with Jacob’s wife.

Bayside, a community in Queens, is now a crowded, heavily residential borough of New York City, but back in the early 1900s it was still semi-rural. Farms were scattered here and there, along with large summer residences owned by the wealthy wanting to escape the heat, smell and clamor of nearby Manhattan.

It was a scalding hot day when John, carrying a load of freshly harvested hay, came riding along in his wagon, pulled by a team of horses. He was bound for his barn and it was so hot that he didn’t notice at first that his hay was on fire. Suddenly he realized the heat was increasing and it was on the side of the wagon away from the sun, which made no sense. By the time he turned around to check, his load was entirely ablaze.

He jumped down from the wagon and began to unharness the horses in an effort to and keep them from being burned alive. He managed to get the animals unhitched, however in the process his hands and arms were seriously burned and the horses were badly burned in their hindquarters. John recognized Jacob, who was running away from the blazing wagon. No one else was in sight except for a farmer coming along behind with another wagonload of hay.

The Bayside and Little Neck fire brigades managed to put out the blaze before it spread beyond the wagon. Jacob was arrested and charged with arson.

Jacob, who spoke no English, had to testify through an interpreter at his trial. He admitted he was present when the fire broke out, but claimed he saw two boys set the fire and then run off. The boys were never located. The farmer driving behind John testified, damningly, that Jacob appeared on the roadway and asked him for a ride home! He declined, fearing the man might set his wagon on fire too.

Jacob complained that when John was his boarder he tried to “boss everybody around, including my wife.” John’s attentions to his “young and buxom” wife were apparently the real crux of the problem. He accused John (unjustly, according to John) of trying to steal her affections. He didn’t ask John to leave but literally threw him out of the house.

The jury believed John Smith’s version of events. The prosecution argued for a conviction on first or second degree arson since John had been on the wagon at the time the fire was set. However Jacob got a lesser sentence of third degree arson for “setting fire to an uninhabited place.”

According to newspaper headlines, Jacob Kowalsky “smoked out a rival for his wife’s affections.” More accurately he tried to set the rival on fire. It earned him four years in Sing Sing Prison.

Featured image: Jacob Kowalsky’s Sing Sing Prison Bertillon card (front). Collection of the author.

Alias Dorsey Doyle

Alias Dorsey Doyle

When a federal census worker counted his family in 1880, George J. Doyle lived with his widowed father, John, and four siblings in the poverty-stricken Five Points section of lower Manhattan. The Doyle family’s tenement, located at 86 Mulberry Street, housed 19 families, 68 souls total, all with Irish roots. The building probably had six or seven apartments, no indoor plumbing and was less than a block from Mulberry Bend — one of the most dangerous areas in the slum-infested Five Points. George, soon to be known by the nickname “Dorsey,” was 14. He and his younger sister, Katie, were still in school while the rest of the family worked at low-paying jobs.

At the age of 14 Dorsey Doyle was likely already sharpening his skills as a pickpocket and readying himself for life as a gang member and career criminal.

Dorsey Doyle prison record

Description of George J. “Dorsey” Doyle, New York Sing Sing Prison Admission Register. New York State Archives; Albany, New York; Box 8; Vol. 23.

In 1887, when he was 21, Dorsey pleaded guilty to robbing a man of his watch and chain on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to two years and three months in Sing Sing Prison. The prison entry for him lists six scars — most of them on his face — a testament to a life of violence, despite his youth. Sing Sing was known for whippings, solitary confinement, poor rations and a requirement of total silence from inmates. Rehabilitation for prisoners was decades in the future and many tried to escape, attempted suicide or went insane. Dorsey emerged from Sing Sing a full-blown, hardened criminal.

Dorsey was a member of the Whyos, a gang of Five Points Irish mobsters that hit its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s. While earlier New York criminal gangs spent most of their time fighting each other, the Whyos had the entrepreneurial spirit. Naturally they were involved in general thuggery, but they added extortion, prostitution and murder for hire to their menu of criminal activities. They were rumored to have a price list for the criminal services they supplied, ranging from $1 (punching) to $100 and up (“doing the big job”). By 1888, four of the Whyos members had been convicted of murder and hanged at the Tombs jail in lower Manhattan.

After his release from Sing Sing, Dorsey branched out from New York City and, in 1893, earned a three-year stay for grand larceny at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (Al Capone did a year at “ESP” in 1929.) By 1895 Dorsey’s flourishing career earned him spot #521 in Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes new edition of his book, Professional Criminals of America. Byrnes described him as “well known throughout the eastern country, as he follows the races, fairs, etc.”

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Dorsey Doyle, May 1887; Professional Criminals Of America (1895) by Thomas Byrnes.

After an unsuccessful attempt, in 1898, at robbing a passenger of a gold watch and chain on a Broadway cable car in New York City (Dorsey shot at the policeman who eventually caught him) he received a second sojourn at Sing Sing. Shortly after his second release from Sing Sing, he and three other men were observed trying to pick pockets on an electric car in Manhattan. A mad chase by police ensued during which he jumped off the moving car and was the only man captured. He was convicted of attempted grand larceny and sentenced to Sing Sing for the third time!

At the turn of the twentieth century, with his Whyos pals dead or in prison and with a face that was well known to the New York police, Dorsey moved west. In 1908 he was arrested with another man for lifting a diamond stud off a man boarding a train in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When he was arrested in Pittsburgh in 1915, the newspaper described him as “John Dempsey, alias Dorsey Doyle, aged 50, of Toledo.” He was one of a “mob” of clever pickpockets, all of them younger than Dorsey.

Fifty is ancient for a pickpocket — a skill necessitating quick reactions, nimble fingers and fast feet. Dorsey was never mentioned in the news after 1915, so he may have retired from crime and led a quiet, law-abiding life in Ohio. The days of the Irish gangs of New York were, after all, long gone, and no one, even a notorious criminal, wanted to risk a fourth stretch in Sing Sing.

Featured photo: Dorsey Doyle, carte de visite mugshot, circa 1892, by John Rosch. Collection of the author.