From the late 1960s and into the 1990s, the conflict in Northern Ireland was a regular feature in the world media. Euphemistically known as The Troubles, the struggle was characterized through the imagery of 20th century urban warfare and occupation: car bombings; the black balaclavas … Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
A once-in-a-lifetime Mob Tour of Havana February 14-18, 2019 Over the years, on numerous occasions, I’ve been asked if I wanted to play a role in hosting a “Mob tour” of Havana, Cuba. These overtures were based on my having published the book HAVANA NOCTURNE: … Continue reading EXCLUSIVE: Havana Nocturne Mob Tour
ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES
Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption
A few years ago, a friend of mine informed me that a young activist and writer had struck up a relationship with James McElroy, a feared hit man for the Westies. Having devoted a number of years to researching and writing a book about the Westies, I was curious.
McElroy was one of the most notorious members of that violent crew. He was not known for his brains; he was the gang’s muscle. Jimmy Mac, as he was known to his friends and criminal associates, probably had administered more beatings and killed more people than he could remember. In the universe of would-be, could-be and wanna-be gangsters, McElroy was OG through and through.
For those who might not know, the Westies were a hyper-violent Irish American gang that existed in Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side of Manhattan, from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s, until they were put out of business in a big federal racketeering trial. While writing the book The Westies, which was published in 1990, I had attempted to interview Jimmy Mac. I knew it was highly unlikely that he or his lawyer would give their consent. McElroy was incarcerated at the time and in the midst of the Westies trial, which lasted six months from September 1988 and into 1989. Eventually, McElroy, along with eight other defendants, was convicted. He was given a sentence of 75 years to life in prison, with no opportunity of parole.
Much of what I knew about Jimmy Mac came from courtroom testimony (gang member Billy Beattie, in particular, had a lot to say about McElroy on the witness stand, as did an old-time neighborhood loanshark turned witness named Tony Lucich). But most of what I knew came from extensive interviews with Mickey Featherstone, the No. 2 man in the gang, who admired Jimmy Mac but also realized that he was a very dangerous and capable killer.
Most of what I knew about McElroy was second hand, which is why I was so intrigued to hear that a writer had spent time visiting him in prison and was planning to write about it. And there were a couple other things that added to the intrigue – the writer in question was a woman, and she was African American.
From what I knew of McElroy, he was likely an old school misogynist and possibly a racist as well.
Walidah Imarisha is the writer’s name, and the project she was working on is now a book called Angels With Dirty Faces, published last month by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies (the title of the book comes from the iconic Jimmy Cagney movie, first released in 1938).
I met Walidah about a year and a half before the book was officially published. In October 2014, we were both invited to speak at the Howard Zinn Book Fair held in San Francisco and organized by the esteemed activist and author James Tracy.
When Walidah first walked into the bookstore where the Zinn event organizers were holding an opening-day reception, I did a double take. She had a prodigious Angela Davis-style Afro and a big warm smile, and she was wearing a dress patterned with Star Wars characters. The idea of this woman sitting down with McElroy of the Westies was causing the synapses in the brain to snap, crackle and pop.
That night, Walidah gave me a copy of her collected poems, published as a book entitled Scars/Stars. I read the poems. They were very good, filled with pain, passion and insight.
A few months later, Walidah sent me a rough copy of her unfinished manuscript for Angels With Dirty Faces. I read about her relationship with McElroy, someone I thought I knew a fair amount about. But there was so much more about the man that Walidah was able to get not only by spending time with Jimmy Mac, but also by placing his life of crime in a larger context of incarceration, the street, and the vicious cycle at the heart of criminal justice in the U.S.A.
Over numerous prison visits, Walidah was able to get things out of this hardened criminal that I likely never would have. Her being a woman and African American no doubt cast their encounters in a particular light. I’m not saying this gave Walidah any particular advantage or disadvantage, but it would have altered McElroy’s need to size up his inquisitor according to the dictates of male competitiveness, or male insecurity, and perhaps let down his guard. Walidah was able to get beneath the hitman’s misogyny and racial tribalism. After all, it was Sundiata Acoli, a former member of The Black Liberation Army, who first introduced Walidah to Jimmy Mac in the prison visiting room. While incarcerated, the veteran black liberationist and the Irish American gangster had become close friends.
Anyone who has read The Westies, or taken an interest in the crazy, self-destructive trajectory of the gang’s legend needs to pick up a copy of Angels With Dirty Faces. Walidah’s portrait of McElroy fills in a lot of blanks and fleshes out aspects of the gang’s psychosis in ways that will deepen your general understanding of crime and punishment in America.
The sections of Walidah’s book that deal with Jimmy Mac are fascinating, but I would be doing the book a disservice if I left it there. Angels With Dirty Faces actually intertwines three separate narratives that all relate to the subject of incarceration and criminal justice. There is the story of Walidah’s own adopted brother, Kakamia, who is serving an extended sentence on murder charges. And then there’s Walidah’s own highly personal story of her experiences with sexual assault by someone she knew and trusted. In various ways, all three of these narratives reflect aspects of compulsive criminality, personal responsibility, societal accountability, and the concept of redemption.
- To learn more about the remarkable career of Walidah Imarisha and her tireless efforts as an educator, activist, poet, author, Afro-futurist, and all-around badass, visit her website at: www.walidah.com
- For an account of the death and Hell’s Kitchen funeral service for Jimmy McElroy, who passed away before Angels With Dirty Faces was published, read this evocative New York Times piece by the great Jim Dwyer: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/nyregion/a-farewell-to-jimmy-mcelroy-gangster-of-a-lost-era.html
Where the Bodies Were Buried nominated in the category of Best Fact Crime 2016
For the fourth time in his career, author T.J. English has been nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best Fact Crime. Where the Bodies Were Buried, the latest of English’s non-fiction books to be nominated, joins previous nods for:
The Savage City — 2011
Havana Nocturne — 2009
Born to Kill – 1996
The Edgar Awards are given out each year by the Mystery Writers of America, an organization first established in 1945. Over the years, through the Edgar Awards, the MWA has honored writers such as Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Mary Higgins Clark, Elmore Leonard, Joseph Wambaugh, and many others. In the field of mystery and crime writing, the Edgar Award is considered the gold standard. The winners for 2016 will be announced at a banquet and award ceremony on the night of April 16th in Manhattan.
In the spring of 1987, I was a young reporter in Chicago covering the city’s race for mayor for a national magazine called Irish America. At the time, Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, was running for a second term. Also running that year was Jane Byrne, who had served as mayor before Washington and was now seeking to reclaim her old job. There were a couple other candidates as well. One person who was not running was Richard M. Daley. He had run four years earlier and not performed well, so he was sitting this one out.
As with all Chicago’s mayoral campaigns, this one was rambunctious. Washington was favored to repeat, but Jane Byrne was a fiery, slash-and-burn competitor who seemed to always be in attack mode.
Even though Richard M. Daley was not running, I wanted to interview him – for many reasons, but mostly because of his father. Richard J. Daley had ruled over the city of Chicago for twenty-one years as mayor and twenty-three years as Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, holding both positions until he died in office in 1976. He was a legendary figure, larger than life; his blunt repudiation of anti-Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, at which he unleashed Chicago police to brutalize everyone in sight – all of it captured live on TV – was a seminal event in U.S domestic politics. Daley the senior had presided over incredible economic and physical growth in the city of Chicago and done many positive things, but because of the ’68 convention he would be remembered, nationally, as the epitome of a political thug and would-be dictator.
I arrived to interview Richard M. Daley on the 22nd Floor of the Daley Center, a building named after his father. At the time, “Richie,” as he preferred to be known, was serving as Cook County State’s Attorney. Already, I had interviewed Jane Byrne, who made some dismissive remarks about Richie Daley. I was curious about that. As a young, up and coming political figure, Jane Byrne had been a protégé of daddy Daley. Presumably, Richie Daley and Byrne had known each other for along time. I arrived at the Daley Center determined to get at the root of this bad blood between Byrne and the Daley family.
I was ushered into the office of the state’s attorney, and there he was – Richie Daley. This was two years before Daley would himself be elected mayor in 1989 (in a special election). Daley would go on to serve for twenty-two years, one year longer than his father. He was re-elected five times. In 2011, they wanted him to run for a seventh term, but he decided to retire.
Back in 1987, the attribute Richie Daley exuded most was humility. His challenge to Jane Byrne in 1983 had been something of an embarrassment. Not known as verbally dexterous or as a quick-silver intellect, he floundered during interviews and in televised debates. He crawled away from that campaign with his head between his legs, but it was largely thought that he would regroup, re-strategize and one day make another run.
In Daley’s office, the dominant feature was a massive, framed oil painting portrait of his father, on the wall hovering over the room. It was one of those portraits that, no matter what era in which it was painted, it made it’s subject look like a 17th Century lord of the manor. The father, of course, was a forbidding figure, portly, jowly, and salt-of-the-earth. Throughout the interview, I felt the gaze from that portrait; Richard J. Daley was looking down at us, listening to every word.
The first thing Richie Daley did was offer me a cigar. And so we sat underneath the massive portrait of Chicago’s most notorious potentate, and Daley the son said, “Go ahead, ask me whatever you want.”
He was a very likable guy, down-to-earth, earnest and humble. He did not strike me as the brightest guy in the world; his thought process was slow, and his manner of speaking was round-about, but you could tell he was a man with a good heart, and that his concerns and cares were genuine. He was a good listener and a ‘people person.’ You could tell that he was a doer, not necessarily a thinker, and I was not surprised at all that he would go on to became a highly popular mayor known for getting things done.
Anyway, we sat there and chatted, and I waited till our cigars were nearly down to the nub when I asked Richie about Jane Byrne.
I knew that it was a loaded question: there had always been rumors, never proven, that daddy Daley had became so enamored with his young female protégé that they had an affair. After Daley died in office, and Byrne and Richie Daley sought to run for the office that Boss Daley had held so indelibly for so long, it was seen as though they were vying for control of his legacy.
I asked Richie about that, whether the tussle between his family and Byrne had been over who was the rightful heir to the Daley legacy. He paused for a beat, and then said, “No. The media commented a lot about that. But that wasn’t it.”
“So what was it,” I asked.
Daley thought about it for a second, puffed on the stogie, took it out, rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, and said, “She moved the Christmas tree.”
I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. Richie let it stew for a few seconds, then added, “The Christmas tree. It was always right here in front of the Daley Center. Every year. It meant a lot to my dad to have it there. And when she got into office, one of the first things she did was move the Christmas tree to another location.”
Daley was seated on the edge of his desk. He looked sad. The pettiness of that action on Jane Byrne’s part had cut deeply. It was an unforgivable slight. In my heart, I wanted to give him a hug, but instead I glanced up at the portrait of his father. When I’d first taken in the painting, the expression on Richard J. Daley’s face struck me as neutral, but now he was glowering. Boss Daley was listening to us, and he was pissed off at what Jane Byrne had done.
And that’s when it hit me: they take their politics very personal here in Chicago. Slights and recriminations are swallowed, digested, and then kept buried deep inside, to be avenged at a later date.
Well, that was nearly thirty years ago, and I’m happy to say that I’m returning to Chi-town on January 22, 2016 for two very special appearances. They are as follows:
- The Irish American Heritage Center (4626 N. Knox Ave.): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 6pm.
I’m pleased to be appearing at this great facility to discuss The Irish Mob Trilogy and read from Where the Bodies Were Buried. Please drop by!
- City Winery (1200 W. Randolph): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 8 pm.
This is truly going to be a blast. I will be the opening act for the Westies, a Chicago-based folk rock band led by esteemed singer-songwriter Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton. The band was created and partly inspired by the book The Westies, and this event is to celebrate the release of the band’s second CD, entitled Six on the Out. I’ll be reading from the Irish Mob Trilogy, including selections from Paddy Whacked and The Westies.
To all my Chicago homies, I hope you can make it! I’m pretty sure the ghost of Richard J. Daley will be there.