Eddie McGrath: By the Beautiful Sea

By Clarence George on November 28, 2017
Eddie McGrath: By the Beautiful Sea
"How did you get all these men to give you so much money for so long a period of time?"

McGrath appeared before the New York State Crime Commission where he took the Fifth 115 times, including when asked who his mother was…

“They are fireproofing the dago for tomorrow.”—Andrew “Squint” Sheridan on mobster Santo Bretagna meeting with a priest on the eve of his execution

Eddie McGrath isn’t exactly a household name, even among crime buffs. Or movie buffs, for that matter, despite being one of the inspirations for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) in On the Waterfront.

“The Big Guy” and brother-in-law John “Cockeye” Dunn were allied with Joseph P. Ryan, aka Boss Joe, president-for-life of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and held positions of authority with both the ILA and the American Federation of Labor. They were also leading lights of New York City’s Irish mob and controlled much of Manhattan’s waterfront.

Lucrative indeed, as the docks were absolutely essential to the economic well-being of the city. There were more than 100 of them, “stretching along the Hudson River from West Greenwich (between Houston and 14th Street), to Chelsea (14th Street to 34th Street), to Hell’s Kitchen (34th Street to 42nd Street), and all the way to the Upper West Side (59th Street to 110th Street),” writes Neil G. Clark in Dock Boss: Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront. “The world’s largest and busiest port” boasted annual revenues of well over $2 billion in today’s money. Hardly surprising, given that “out of the more than seven hundred miles of New York City waterfront, over three hundred had been developed into piers. The port had roughly nine hundred piers operating in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island; over one hundred ferry landings and tens of thousands of associated businesses, shipbuilding plants, and warehouses.” And the Dunn-McGrath mob had their spatulate fingers wrapped around all of it (anyway, Piers 14 to 59), going all boys-gone-wild with loan-sharking, gambling, smuggling, and hijacking, among other rackets.

Dunn-McGrath employed a large number of former boxers as mob muscle. One of their chief lieutenants, in fact, was George Daggett, a welterweight who fought out of New York City from 1927 to 1931, winding up with an impressive record of 30 wins, 14 by knockout, and two losses, one by knockout.

Not too many names on his résumé, though he did fight the inexcusably forgotten Ben Jeby. Indeed, the southpaw handed the outstanding Jewish middleweight his first defeat, outpointing him at New York’s St. Nicholas Arena on October 4, 1927. (In the main event, Corporal Izzy Schwartz outpointed Blas Rodriguez, thus winning a semi-final of the NYSAC flyweight elimination tournament to determine retired Flyweight Champion of the World Fidel LaBarba’s successor. “The Ghetto Midget” won the vacant title by beating Newsboy Brown via unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden that December 16.)

Winning his first seven bouts, two by KO and one by TKO, Daggett’s first loss came by way of Joe Kelly, who won on points at St. Nicholas Arena on March 19, 1928. He then won 23 fights in a row, 11 by KO or TKO, before Harry Wallach (another ridiculously neglected fighter) knocked him out in the eighth at St. Nicholas Arena on March 2, 1931. Daggett then retired from the ring, putting his fists to more lucrative pursuits.

“According to law enforcement,” writes Clark, “Daggett was tied to the criminal element on the West Side docks and used his position of influence [with the ILA] to help other criminals gain access to the valuable piers.” By 1937, he was “essentially the third part of the [Dunn-McGrath] gang’s leadership.”

On the night of July 13, 1940, George and wife Helen had dinner with Eddie and his girlfriend, Lillian Ganley. Decades before the idea, never mind practice, of a “designated driver,” the foursome drank heavily throughout the evening, Eddie eventually getting behind the wheel. According to a broken-ribbed Lillian, her minor-injured boyfriend “had been driving down the highway when he struck a curb, which caused the car to veer into a stone wall,” relates Clark. George and Helen, who had been sitting in the back, were killed, and Eddie was arrested.

Lillian later recanted her testimony, claiming that George had in fact been the driver. All charges against Eddie were subsequently dropped.

(George’s nephew, Harold, is today president of the ILA. He apparently sometimes sports an ankle holster.)

Despite Daggett’s death, all went pretty well through much of the 1940s, until Dunn and hit man Andrew “Squint” Sheridan botched the killing of Anthony “Andy” Hintz, recalcitrant hiring boss of rebellious Pier 51. Though shot six times on January 8, 1947, Hintz survived for several weeks, ultimately identifying Dunn, Sheridan, and a third man, Daniel Gentile, as the shooters. Following Hintz’s death, on January 29, the men were put on trial for murder. All three were convicted and sentenced to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair, aka Old Sparky. On the day before the executions, Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Gentile’s sentence to life in prison. Dunn and Sheridan, however, kept their appointment with “State Electrician” Joseph Francel (better known, perhaps, for having executed mob boss Lepke Buchalter in 1944, unspeakable “Lonely Hearts Killers” Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez in 1951, and atomic spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953) and were put to death on July 7, 1949.

The resultant publicity was a pain in the ass for McGrath, aggravated by investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson’s 24-part series on wharf waywardness that appeared in the New York Sun from November 8 to December 8, 1948 (which resulted in Johnson winning 1949’s Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting). None of this was at all helped by the extremely popular televised Kefauver hearings of 1950-1951 (though Estes’ disapproval of Bettie Page and other pulchritudinous pin-ups, whom he saw as saucy strumpets, was probably less popular). Ratings would have been even more stratospheric had mob moll Virginia Hill’s answer to Kefauver’s “How did you possibly get all these men to give you so much money for so long a period of time?” been beamed into America’s living rooms. “Because nobody gives better blow jobs than I do,” said the inaptly named Virginia. “That’s why.”

Yet another bugaboo, the New York State Crime Commission, held its first hearing on December 3, 1952. McGrath, who’d been basking in a blaze of Florida floozies, appeared before the commission on January 26, 1953, where he took the Fifth 115 times, including when asked who his mother was. “After being dismissed, McGrath walked calmly out of the courthouse and again disappeared from New York City.”

The creation of the Waterfront Commission was another problem, as it prohibited criminals from working on the docks. In addition, McGrath’s once-powerful gang was becoming increasingly aged and decrepit, as well as disgruntled over the West Side’s changing neighborhoods (they should see it today, what with condos and parks replacing all that quaint seediness). As for McGrath himself, though still involved in certain money-making ventures, such as bookmaking, he was more and more living the life of a well-to-do retiree.

True, an aging McGrath did indeed serve a 90-day term for contempt, but that was the full extent of more than 40 years of police investigation (in his salad days, however, he’d been convicted of burglary, winding up in Sing Sing. He’d also been arrested on several occasions for all sorts of indecorousness, including murder). As for Hoover’s boys, they didn’t come up with diddly.

If you spotted him playing cards at Miami Beach’s Normandy Shores Golf Club, “you would not have been able to guess which elderly card player was the former stockbroker, which was the retired dentist, and which was the gangster suspected in over thirty murders.”

Like so many mobsters (also true of Nazis), McGrath lived a long life, dying in Florida on (rather ironically) Tax Day 1994, April 15, at the age of 88.

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  1. Klaus Kinski 11:53am, 11/28/2017

    In the photo above it looks like the dock workersare getting ready for “shape up” in On The Waterfront.

  2. Clarence George 10:00am, 11/28/2017

    Too kind, Mr. Kinski.

    Virginia Hill has always been considered the ultimate in mob molls; the “Queen,” in fact.  I’m sure that a huge part of the reason was this particular talent of hers.  A talent shared, incidentally, by a couple of Barbaras—actress Payton and murderess Graham.


    Philip Coolidge

  3. Klaus Kinski 09:37am, 11/28/2017

    Clarence George-You keep raising raising the bar! Of course Virginia Hill set a pretty high standard in her time as well….i’m thinkin’ she could give a humdinger of a hummer!

  4. Clarence George 07:05am, 11/28/2017

    Thanks very much, TWOO.

    I appreciate your Brooklyn accent (which has pretty much disappeared, unfortunately).  It was Albert Anastasia, by the way, who controlled the Brooklyn docks.  This October 25 marked the 60th anniversary of his, ahem, passing.

  5. The Wizard Of Odds 06:32am, 11/28/2017

    Nice piece of woik, Mr. George.

  6. Clarence George 05:00am, 11/28/2017

    Glad you enjoyed it, Mr. Westerfield.

    All the best,

    Arthur Batanides

  7. James Westerfield 03:59am, 11/28/2017

    A great piece of New York and fistic lore, the perfect early morning read. Not surprising that the old influences survive on the waterfront. Educational and entertaining piece by the always illuminating Mr. George. Great photo to go with the story.

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