Francesco Ioele moved from Italy to Southern Brooklyn in 1901 as an eight-year old and quickly became known as a strong fighter in the streets. Among the many Italians that emigrated to New York at the time, he was groomed for greatness. Underground greatness, that is.
At some point, probably when he arrived in Brooklyn, he changed his very ethnic-sounding last name to Uale, only later to again change it to Yale.
There isn’t a whole lot that is known about him before 1917 when he was charged under the Sullivan Law and sent to the penitentiary for having a loaded revolver without a permit. Also that year he opened a club on Coney Island called The Harvard Inn.
At the Harvard Inn, his friend Johnny Torrio talked him into hiring a young man with even more potential than Yale. That youngster was Al Capone who would later move with Torrio and take over the Chicago bootlegging rackets after Prohibition in 1920. As a young bouncer at The Harvard Inn, however, Capone met a girl named Lena Galluccio who, as a brash meathead from the slums of Brooklyn, spoke to her in a tone that apparently did not make her older brother Frank (a seasoned gangster) very happy and slashed Capone across the face with a knife, and it was there that the moniker “Scarface Al” was born.
As a Brooklyn crime boss, Yale’s territories expanded in Brooklyn after the Mafia-Camorra War and his influence gained followers as he was known as the “Prince of Pals.” He was known as being a good storyteller and prone to giving large handouts with advice attached like when he gave an older gentleman money and told him to “get a horse, you’re too old to walk.” He got rich as a business man over the next few years by way of extortion, a gaggle of brothels and the “protection” racket (the New York style of business insurance at the time). He also owned a funeral home and when he was hospitalized in 1921 for a gunshot wound he sustained during a shootout in Park Row, Manhattan, he threateningly told his shooters through the newspapers that he was “an undertaker.”
La Mano Nera was an ancient Italian form of kidnapping and extortion that found its way onto the streets of Brooklyn during the era. In English, it’s called The Black Hand, which was a form of crime, not a gang. As the media and journalists were not savvy of the street-wise gangsters or the intricacies of the Italian families and their territories and were often given bad or misleading information, the term “Black Hand” eventually changed and became a description for what was believed by reporters/editors/police to be a specific gang that was of Italian ethnicity.
Whatever they were called, the Italians were gaining big ground in Southern Brooklyn. And they were trying to move north too. Where the dock rackets were most plentiful and provided a stable income too, as the Brooklyn docks were very much at the heart of New York’s shipping ports and piers, the main port of entry/exit of manufactured goods into/out of the United States.
But the incumbent Irish (who had mostly arrived a generation or two ahead of the Italians) was around this time nothing more than a collection of wild gangs that fought each other, pier-for-pier, from the Navy Yard all the way down to Red Hook. Under the leadership of Dinny Meehan, who called his headquarters a saloon under the Manhattan Bridge on the waterfront, he gathered these “wild bhoys” together, however loosely, and called this umbrella group of Irish-Americans the White Hand Gang. A term that was inspired by the Italian Blackhanders to their south.
So there you have it. The Whitehanders (Irish-Americans) versus The Blackhanders (Italian-Americans). Sounds like you have the making of an easy book to write about, doesn’t it? The Irish versus the Italians for dominance of the sweet dock rackets? Well, no. Actually. They rarely fought at all, although some rogue authors (that at first threw me plenty of curves when I was researching) would have you believe otherwise.
There were a few spats here and there, but most of the tension was behind the scenes. For example, the New York Dock Company owned a lot of property along the waterfront at the time. World War I government contracts were being handed out back then, and the NY Dock Co. owned much of the Piers, industrial rails and traincars, acres of warehousing units, storage space and stevedoring companies in the area that reaped the benefits of those handouts. The Irish and Italian gangs often fought only to get the rights to extract tribute from the holdings of the NY Dock Co.
Another good example of the Irish and Italians fighting behind the scenes were the unions, such as the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and the International Workers of the World (IWW). The two groups of gangs fought for control within the ranks of the unions in order to be involved in the financial benefits of the general strikes and the big money negotiations with shipping companies like the Cunard Line and White Star Line (RMS Titanic). Instead of confronting each other on the docks or the streets with sticks and shovels and revolvers, the Irish and Italians of Brooklyn fought for prominence or “sway” in the heavily industrialized waterfront business.
In Light of the Diddicoy, the first book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, 14-year old Liam Garrity goes with Dinny Meehan and a couple bodyguards to see an executive (Jonathan Wolcott) at the NY Dock Co. The gang is often hired to protect the company’s property, although the White Hand Gang demands large payments under the threat of trashing or burning the company’s valuable holdings.
After Wolcott complains about the White Hand Gang being out of control and violent and compares them to a bunch of thieving monkeys, Meehan asks who gave Wolcott the box of fine cigars that sat on his desk. It is revealed then that Wolcott is being courted by Frankie Yale and the rival Italians in the south. This is a powerful threat to the White Hand Gang’s stronghold of the dock rackets. Wolcott then hires the gang to kill an ILA recruiter that is gaining ground on their property (no bigger threat to a company’s power than the unions). But Meehan doesn’t forget being slighted by Wolcott and in the end, he gets his revenge not only on the Italians, but puts a powerful foot down on the NY Dock Co.’s property and the unions all at once when a donnybrook breaks out in Red Hook.
So if you’re looking for some tabloid trash about Irish Micks versus Italians dagos, you’ll not find it here. The reality of life in the Brooklyn neighborhoods along waterfront is, to me, much more important than a sensationalized, untrue depiction. Life was tough enough. No need to embellish the truth. My grandparents (and great-grandparents through other family members) told me many stories from the era that described a devastatingly tough lifestyle. The gangs were a reality that existed because the conditions were so bad that by sticking together (often by ethnicity), they could support each other and their families. And for me, this “need” to survive in bad conditions is the art in this trilogy. As this blog is called, it’s an artofneed. So, we’ll stick more to truth than fabrication here.
It was true, however, that Frankie Yale was no friend of the old Irish-American gangs of the north. And the Whitehanders were very explicit in their disgust of the “wops and guineas” in the south, but the Blackhanders were just one of many enemies the White Hand Gang had in the Irishtown section of Brooklyn under the bridges.
Although, things between the Brooklyn rivals did come to a head on Christmas night in 1925, when Al Capone came back to Brooklyn for his son’s surgery and happened upon a dive where Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan and a few other Irish “fellers” drank themselves into a stupor.
But that’s a story for another day.