Going Coastal

The Heist, the Getaway and the Sawed-Off Leg

In Brooklyn, Go Coastal on August 29, 2007 at 6:19 pm

BERNARD McMAHON, a k a Bennie the Bum, a former bootlegger and onetime crony of the dapper gangster Legs Diamond, bent down to untangle a rope from a sawed-off shotgun. His speedboat, laden with stolen loot, was racing across Gravesend Bay. Suddenly, a blast punctuated the motor’s hum. The shotgun had accidentally gone off, leaving McMahon’s left knee a bloody mess.

It was 1934, and the Rubel Ice Corporation job — called the nation’s biggest cash heist at the time — had suffered its first complication.

McMahon’s fellow holdup men took him to a seedy rooming house on the Upper West Side, where an underworld surgeon amputated the leg. But McMahon had lost so much blood, he died the next morning. The gang promptly procured a steamer trunk to dispose of the body, but it was not big enough. So the surgeon helped saw off the other leg.

Today, the former rooming house is one of a row of elegantly tailored Beaux-Arts town houses — Nos. 330 to 337 — that sit along Riverside Drive between West 105th and 106th Streets in a stately line of wrought-iron balconies, fluted columns and delicate architectural ornaments. Though not the work of celebrated architects, all fall within a historic district.

One of them, No. 335, a slender, red-brick Georgian-style town house owned by a Columbia University professor, was recently on the market, with the owner hoping for a sale price of $10 million, although it has since been removed. The facade, now covered by a sidewalk bridge, is adorned with garlands, Ionic columns and a Juliet balcony topped by a scallop shell; inside the 8,000-square-foot home are 10 fireplaces and lavish amounts of bleached mahogany paneling.

Ever since the 1960s and 1970s, when I grew up around the corner from those buildings, they have tugged at my imagination. After recently moving back to the area, I began scratching at their stories, and fell into a rabbit warren leading to the heart of Old New York.

Each has a tale.

No. 330 was the home of Robert Benson Davis, founder of the Davis Baking Powder company, still sold in its yellow and red container. In a bitter divorce, Davis accused his wife of plotting to have him declared insane and of holding him in the house as a virtual prisoner.

No. 331, just to the north, was owned by William Ahnelt, a pioneer in the field of women’s fashion magazines, whose Pictorial Review had a circulation of three million — before 1915. The building’s next occupant was Marion Davies, the mistress of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst spent a fortune remodeling the place, which his paramour shared with her mother, two sisters and a fleet of servants. A marble fountain adorned with Cupids was placed in Davies’s sitting room, and one room was transformed into a library, with wood paneling and calfbound rare editions.

No. 332 had by the early 1920s been divided into apartments occupied largely by immigrants with jobs like salesman, schoolteacher and rug merchant.

Members of Duke Ellington’s family, including his son, Mercer, and his sister, Ruth, and her family, lived in No. 333 (and No. 334) in the 1950s and 1960s. For years afterward, Ruth Ellington maintained an office in No. 333 for the Duke’s music publishing company, and Ellington himself used to drop by and compose there.

The stories go on. No. 335, the building recently for sale, was occupied for 35 years by the family of Lothar Faber, president of the Eberhard Faber pencil company. No. 336 was the home for nearly half a century of the family of Raymond Penfield, a president of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and the brother-in-law of its founder, Frank Seiberling. No. 337, known as River Mansion, was bought by Julia Marlowe, a leading Shakespearean actress in the years before World War I, with the fruits of her first big Broadway success.

The town houses were built between 1899 and 1902, as the Upper West Side as we know it was taking shape. The developers agreed to a covenant requiring the buildings to be a “benefit to the neighborhood,” hence their uniform elegance.

Though all are five stories, each has its own character. The corner buildings are larger — No. 330, at 105th Street, is the most Parisian-looking, and River Mansion, on 106th Street, with its red brick facade and tall metal fences, has a Victorian air; Miss Havisham could have lived there. No. 336 is the most stolid; No. 335 is squeezed between it and No. 334, the scene of the amputation and the most imposing of the row.

Nos. 333 and 331, which are twins, flank a small structure that is part of the New York Buddhist Church, now housed mainly in No. 331. A 15-foot bronze statue of a 13th-century Buddhist teacher stands guard between them. The original No. 332 was long ago torn down.

Although all the town houses can tell memorable stories, it is No. 334, the setting for the denouement of the big heist, that offers up the most unforgettable tale.

In 1909, the building was bought by Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, who with his wife spent a fortune remodeling the interior according to Japanese fashion. Décor included panels depicting festivals, carved teak furniture, a huge handmade bronze temple lamp, an inlaid dining table and gilded grillwork on the walls.

Takamine, a remarkable figure, was the first scientist to identify and isolate the hormone adrenaline, and he helped arrange the first major donation of cherry trees from Japan to Washington. (He also provided the cherry trees in Sakura Park near Grant’s Tomb.)

In 1921, Takamine sold the house to Richard Forhan, a dentist-turned-toothpaste manufacturer whose main product, Forhan’s Toothpaste, was promoted with one of the decade’s most popular advertising slogans: “Four out of five have it” — “it” being gum disease.

In 1928, a fire destroyed much of the décor, although a firefighter named John McFarland earned a citation for bravery for the daring rescue of two maids trapped on the fifth floor. By 1934, the building was a rooming house run by a shady character named Madeline Tully, and ready for its supporting role in the Rubel Ice Corporation job.

The robbery — a spectacular, daring and minutely planned operation whose specifics were detailed in newspaper articles and in a 1939 article in The New Yorker — was carried out by an ad hoc gang that included former rumrunners and hooligans active on the West Side docks. The germ of the idea came in June 1934 when McMahon and a fellow truck hijacker named John Manning went to Coney Island to scout out bathhouses to rob.

Manning, nicknamed Fats, was a slim and bookish-looking 27-year-old. McMahon, 41, was also a West Side strong arm. On their reconnaissance mission, they noticed an armored car picking up money from a branch of the Brooklyn Trust Company. Shifting their target, they began to consider not bathhouses but the bank. Eventually the target evolved into the truck, owned by the United States Trucking Corporation.

By this point, additional men had joined the plot, among them John Stewart, a dapper West Sider with a prison record; Stewart Wallace, a Sing Sing graduate with one arm, hence his nickname, One Arm; two Albany men on the lam from a kidnapping charge, named Percy Geary, also known as Angel Face, and John Oley; and Francis Oley, John’s brother.

The seven men made frequent trips to Brooklyn to trail the armored car, which regularly stopped to collect cash at a Rubel loading station at Bay 19th Street and Cropsey Avenue in Bath Beach. Because the loading station was near Gravesend Bay, the gang decided to make their escape by boat. They pulled into the plot two boat owners from Manhattan, Thomas Quinn and John Hughes, along with a car thief named Joseph Kress.

The morning of Aug. 21, 1934, the men took up their positions near the loading station. Manning posed as an ice vendor, donning an apron and trundling around a three-wheeled pushcart. (At one point he had to chase away a little boy who tried to buy ice from him.) To make it harder for witnesses to identify them, gang members had not shaved for several days, and they wore white gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.

Meanwhile, Wallace and the boatmen arrived in their launches. Kress and McMahon, both driving stolen cars, staked out the bank branch.

When the armored car arrived, they followed, reaching the loading dock at 12:25 p.m. As tennis players lobbed balls on nearby courts, Manning pulled a Tommy gun from under the burlap sacks on his cart. His accomplices, wielding revolvers and a second machine gun, ordered the guards and some bystanders to lie on the ground. The bulging bags of money were transferred into the two getaway cars, and the drivers shot off.

At the water’s edge, the men jumped aboard the launches and made their way around Coney Island, ready to pose as excursionists or fishermen. Despite a citywide dragnet that had immediately been thrown up, everything had gone according to plan. Although $29,000 in coins had been left behind, the haul was an impressive $427,950, and the whole operation had taken only minutes.

Then came the accident with a shotgun.

Passing through Rockaway Inlet into Jamaica Bay, the men landed in Arverne, in the Rockaways, where they dumped the guns overboard and scuttled one of the boats. Four of the gang members headed back to Manhattan by bus and subway; two drove to a safe house in Queens, and the wounded man was transported to the building on Riverside Drive — “a hideout and house of prostitution,” as The New Yorker described it.

A shady local surgeon named Harry Gilbert was summoned and was paid $1,000 to amputate McMahon’s leg. When the patient died the next morning, the doctor was then asked to amputate the other leg, and both were stuffed into the trunk in which the body was to be disposed. While this macabre business was going on, the doorbell rang, and the gang members saw a police officer who had accidentally leaned against the button as he embraced a woman in the vestibule. They chastised him for immoral behavior and he slunk off.

When the doctor’s gruesome work was done, he was paid an additional $1,500 to make sure that McMahon received a decent burial. That did not happen. The trunk, with McMahon’s remains inside, was found four days later in a nearby alley. Meanwhile, the gang members gathered at an apartment in Queens to divide the loot into shares of $47,000 each. McMahon’s share was set aside for his family.

Thanks to informants and the recovery of the boats, it took the police only a week to figure out who was responsible for the robbery. But it took four years to collect enough evidence, including a confession by Stewart, one of the original gang members, for an indictment.

At the trial, during which the prosecutor described the heist as “the crime of the century,” Stewart was put on the stand to lay out the job in detail. On July 13, 1939, after 13 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted three of the defendants. One-Arm Wallace was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and Kress the car thief and Quinn the boatman received sentences of 10 to 30 years.

Of the other gang members, Francis Oley hanged himself in prison, Manning was mysteriously shot to death in East Harlem in 1936, and Hughes, the other boatman, disappeared. John Oley and Angel Face Geary were by then serving 77-year sentences at Alcatraz for kidnapping. Dr. Gilbert’s license was revoked, despite his argument that the bandits had forced him to treat McMahon and threatened to kill him if he talked. Stewart resumed serving a 30-year sentence for an unrelated bank robbery, but he was allowed to serve it in county jails and had six years commuted for testifying.

The trial brought together two historic figures in New York politics. The judge was William O’Dwyer, who in a few years would be elected district attorney, prosecute the crime syndicate Murder Inc. and be elected mayor, in 1946. One of the defense attorneys, Vincent Impellitteri — “Impy” to the headline writers — would succeed him as mayor.


Part I – II www.newyorker.com/
NY Times


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