That was just the start of it. There had been an unbroken chain of Irish gangs in New York right up to the late 1980s.
The last great Irish gang in the city was the Westies, based in Hell’s Kitchen, notorious in their own time and made infamous by T.J. English’s book “The Westies.”
In Scorsese’s movie, based in part on another account of Irish gangs, Herbert Ashbury’s 1925 book “The Gangs of New York,” violent groups of Irish immigrants clash with other ethnic groups around the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan.
By the time of the Westies, Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s West Side was their turf.
As “The Gangs of New York” ends, Scorsese’s re-created lower Manhattan of 1863 suddenly morphs in a time-lapse reel through to an image of the island with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center still intact, seemingly suggesting a parallel of violence between our day and the past.
But the chain of Irish gang violence ended abruptly in 1989 when the Westies were finally busted. It is a classic New York story.
The Westies were notorious for several reasons, not least that they carried out killings for hire, usually for the mafia. They were largely Irish Americans, as much part of the Irish history in America as the success stories, of immigrants climbing to the top of society, active in the body politic.
Disposing of bodies was the Westies’ specialty. On at least one occasion they kept a murder victim’s hands so that his fingerprints could be planted on a weapon to deceive the cops.
Ultimately, the cops, using old-school detective work, would not be deceived.
For one of the police officers that helped bring the Westies to an end, it all started in a bar.
“We were sitting in a Second Avenue bar,” remembered Frank McDarby. “Joe Coffey, Jack Cahill and myself.”
A man came up to the three police officers and recounted a story about an unsolved murder, far to the west of Second Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen.
“He said, ‘Nothing has been done about it,’ ” McDarby said.
The officers got to talking about the Westies and decided to take a further look.
“We went to look at one homicide case,” said McDarby, “and we saw about a dozen with nothing being done about them. So we started.”
It would be a decade before the Westies finally went to jail — those who had not been murdered by infighting — and it was thanks to one of the most notorious gang members, Mickey Featherstone, turning against his old friends, family and neighborhood, a move that landed him in the witness protection program. By then, the FBI was on the case, and McDarby had retired.
McDarby said that he had heard rumors that Featherstone had been seen back in Hell’s Kitchen occasionally, with a changed appearance and new identity. He said that criminals often found it hard to stay away from their old turf, no matter how dangerous it would be.
T.J. English, who made the Westies famous with his account of the gang, disagreed.
“I have heard a lot of rumors like that, but it’s all speculation and legend,” English said.
What is not legend is the Westies’ violence.
At 736 Tenth Ave. is Druids Bar, an Irish watering hole near the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street with artsy patrons and a reputation today for having an excellent kitchen. Fifteen years ago, its kitchen was where the Westies hacked the bodies of murder victims to pieces for disposal.
On one occasion, perhaps apocryphally, one of the Westies rolled a human head down the bar to give the drinkers at the bar a fright.
“You know how many people were killed in that bar?” McDarby said. “A lot.”
Back then it was called the Sunbrite Saloon.
“Eddie Cummiskey owned the Sunbrite Saloon and brought the whole dismemberment thing to the neighborhood,” remembered English.
“They would bleed bodies,” said McDarby. It was one of the aspects of breaking the case open.
“We were really puzzled,” McDarby said. “What’s with this bleeding of bodies? What’s the similarity with the West Side guys and [an Italian gang in Brooklyn]?”
The light dawned when McDarby and his colleagues realized that the Hell’s Kitchen guys had all worked in slaughterhouses and had also served time in prison with some Italian gang members.
“We never stopped,” he said. “I knew these guys were bad, but they were full of bullshit. I was never afraid of them.”
Featherstone was eventually arrested and was serving time in Riker’s Island. McDarby said that this was helpful, because it got Featherstone away from his cronies, like Jimmy Coonan. Once in Rikers, Featherstone was rearrested by McDarby, based on new evidence. “We had him by the balls,” recounted McDarby.
Featherstone cut a deal, and turned into a federal witness.
McDarby works as a private investigator today. He refuses to take credit for breaking the Westies.
“English’s book, I think, calls me ‘one of the catalysts’; that’s about right,” he said. “Police work is the same whether you’re in Beijing, New York or London: people rape, they rob, they steal, they murder.”
Today, Hell’s Kitchen, now called Clinton, is a neighborhood on the move. Rents are rising, colorful bodegas and bars line Ninth Avenue from 42nd Street through to Columbus Circle at 59th Street. Cheaper rents have drawn artists and gentrification is on everyone’s lips. Gays have moved in, escaping higher rents in Chelsea to the south. Long gone are the bloody tracks of the Westies.
“The Westies were a kind of strange historical throwback,” English said. “They only survived because of the unique features of that particular neighborhood. The rackets got passed on, generation to generation.”
In the final 1989 court case, English said, “most key members were hit by multiple sentences and will be in jail for the rest of their lives.”
And so, the Westies are gone.
Well, not quite. Mary Brendle is the historian for Community Board 4, Hell’s Kitchen.
“I know them and who they are,” she said. “There’s a couple of them still around.
“Most moved to New Jersey, after the trials, Long Branch sort of area. There’s one still around here who is on all sorts of church committees,” she added, laughing.
English said that two family names, Spillane and McManus, are still present in Hell’s Kitchen, both associated with Irish gangs in the past.
A relative of Jimmy Coonan, arguably the most vicious Westie of them all, Brendle said, “has just bought a condominium in the area.” She did not say which relative.
But today, the criminality and violence that went hand in hand with the name Hell’s Kitchen has gone. The Five Points also, where the first great Irish gangs fought over territory, has been obliterated by the great square of courthouses in lower Manhattan.
Mary Brendle said she thinks that Hell’s Kitchen has gotten a bad rap. She has lived in the area for more than 40 years.
“It has gotten such a bad reputation when [the Westies were] such a minor part of such a great community,” she said. “It’s family-oriented, working-class theater service people.”
She paused and thought for a long time.
“It’s . . . a step above earthy,” she said.