The Italian mafia and the Irish mob have existed in America for well over a century. They have fought bloody wars for supremacy and at many times even worked together. The Italians have always had the upper hand in New York with their deeper ranks and influence. There have been times when the Irish got the advantage though. The initial battles were waged during prohibition and have occurred often ever since the 1920s.
White Hand vs Black Hand
The first big mob war to break out between the Irish and Italian mobsters took place in the 1910s and early 1920s. The Irish mobsters under their leader Dinny Meehan had early control on the New York waterfront. The gang had a severe hatred for the influx of young Italians that were starting to flood into the country. The Irish were going to defend their territory until the death, and sure enough the Italians quickly moved in on the rackets.
The Italian mobs back at this time were often referred to as the “Black Hand” gangs. In response, Meehan and the Irish crew became the “White Hand Gang”. Things got violent quickly between the two groups and Meehan was murdered in 1920. He was replaced by the notorious “Wild Bill” Lovett who had wars going with the Italians and even against fellow Irish gangs.
Wild Bill only lasted until October 1923 when he was beaten and then shot to death. The killings of both Lovett and Meehan went unsolved. Frankie Yale was suspected in both cases but police also pointed to the possibility of fellow Irish gangsters being involved. The White Hand Gang was now hurt but not ready to give up. They rallied behind their ambitious and ruthless new leader Richard “Peg Leg” Lonergan.
Peg Leg immediately declared war against the Italians. He was up against the likes of Yale, Joe Adonis, Albert Anastasia, Vincent Mangano and dozens of other dangerous killers. Lonergan was up to the challenge and upped the ante by muscling in on more waterfront territory. He was brash, daring and downright foolish but strongly felt that he could take on and defeat this massive force.
It all came to a bloody end for the White Hand on December 26, 1925. Peg Leg and five of his lieutenants showed up at Joe Adonis’s social club causing trouble. They were ambushed and Peg Leg and two others died. The other members were shaken and refused to cooperate with authorities. They did not regroup however, and the White Hand Gang soon went extinct.
Winter Hill vs The Office
This was one where the Irish truly got over on the Italians, but not without some serious outside help. The mainly Irish crew known as the Winter Hill Gang was created in the 1950s, a couple decades after the Gustin Gang disbanded. The Italians had been in charge in the years since, but the Winter Hill crew were about to push the Irish back to the top of organized crime in Boston.
“The Office” is based in Providence, Rhode Island and was ran by the longtime boss Raymond Patriarca Sr. They had a working relationship with the Winter Hill Gang, often using them for jobs. Patriarca also got a cut of what the Winter Hill members were making for many years. In turn, Winter Hill was basically able to expand throughout Boston most unchallenged.
When Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi took over Winter Hill in the 1970s, they continued the association. What the Office.didn’t know was that Whitey and Flemmi were FBI informants. The FBI wanted the Italians and were unconcerned about the Irish mob. A dirty deal was struck between Bulger and an FBI agent who was once just a young neighborhood kid that Whitey protected.
FBI agent John Connoly looked the other way as Bulger and Flemmi bludgeoned their way around New England. The Angiulo brothers were running the office at the time and they soon felt the heat. Because of the info provided to Connoly, the Boston FBI was able to place bugs in one of Angiulo hangouts and catch boss Jerry Angiulo with a racketeering charge.
Angiulo went to prison and was out of the picture. The informants kept feeding Connoly and slowly tore apart the entire hierarchy of the Office. With the protection of the FBI, Bulger was able to become the mob king of New England and the most powerful Irish mob boss in the country. The Irish mob usually got the worst of it when they collided with the Italian mafia, but not so much so in Boston.
This wasn’t the first time a Winter Hill member used the FBI to get over on the Office. Years earlier, Winter Hill hitman Joe “The Animal” Barboza testified against Patriarca and several other Italians. He put many of them away for life. This was another burn for the Boston FBI because years later it was revealed that Barboza had lied many times on the stand, convicting other men in murders he committed.
McBratney aka “Jimmy from Queens”
Jimmy McBratney led a crew of Irish gangsters who were involved in a rather bold and dangerous racket. They would kidnap high level mafia members and hold them for a ransom. The scheme worked many times and they were able to make a couple hundred thousand dollars off of it. They had an inside source with the Italians who gave them leads and then took a percentage of what the gang made.
To a certain extent, the mafia bosses were slow to react to McBratney’s crew and other Irish mobsters like Mickey Spillane doing the same thing. They paid the ransom and often just brushed it off as the cost of doing business. Jimmy and his team had always safely delivered the mobsters back after a payment was made, but that was about to go out the window.
McBratney had some renegade mafiosi who gave them leads for a cut of the ransom. They called McBratney “Jimmy from Queens”. The group decided to go for big fish, kidnapping made Lucchese Family soldier Frank Manzo. The Luccheses paid $150,000 but now they were actively looking for revenge. McBratney had something even bigger in mind, the Gambino Family.
In May 1972, McBratney and his thugs kidnapped Manny Gambino, nephew of the boss of bosses Carlo Gambino. They grabbed him at gunpoint in front of his home and threw him into the back seat of a car. Carlo then paid a huge ransom to get Manny back but somehow this time, Manny was killed. It is likely that Manny was able to see and recognize his kidnappers, leading to his death.
One of McBratney’s Italian partners soon spilled the beans on the arrangement. Word was out among all five families that this Jimmy from Queens and his whole crew must die, per Carlo’s order. They looked for a year with no success. The death of Manny was the only time that Carlo ever expressed rage in front of his criminal underlings. It was a miracle that McBratney would live for almost another year.
The hit was assigned to the ultra well connected young associate John Gotti, also from Queens like McBratney. Gotti scoured his Irish connections and found out that McBratney liked to hang out at a pub in Staten Island. When they found him there on May 22, 1973, there was a struggle and Jimmy from Queens was murdered right in the pub. Gotti went to prison for his involvement but was later made because of the McBratney hit.
New England Mafia vs The Gustin Gang
During the first decade of bootlegging, the Irish mob controlled the profits in Boston. The premier gang was known as the Gustin Gang and their leader was Frank Wallace. They were based in South Boston, an area which has always been dominated by the Irish mob. The Gustins were a strong unit because of their ruthlessness and their vast influence with local politicians and law enforcement.
Wallace and his brother Steve created the group in the 1910s. They were involved in gambling, loansharking and robberies back in those days. Prohibition moved them into a major force as they found their earnings skyrocketing. Steve Wallace was the chief enforcer, an ex boxer with a streak for savagery. Another brother Jim Wallace also played a role. No one else in South Boston dared to challenge the notorious Wallace brothers.
Meanwhile in New York, the Italians had swiftly and forcefully taken over the waterfront and bootlegging rackets from the Irish. They had their eyes on taking over the entire country and decided that Boston was an area the Italians needed. A couple of young Italian mobsters named Philip Buccola and Joe Lombardo would be the ones selected to take on the powerful Gustin Gang.
The Italians began building their base in Boston’s North End and the rivalry began. What gave them their confidence was the backing they had from New York’s five families. Wallace and Lombardo led the charge. They began moving in on Gustin Gang territory and killing their members. Buccola became the first boss of what would later become known as the Patriarca Family or the Office.
The Wallace brothers upped the stakes of the rivalry when they started hijacking the liquor trucks of Lombardo and Buccola. The Italians reached out saying that they wanted a meeting to set up a truce. They set up a trap and ambushed Frank Wallace and his lieutenant Bernard Walsh, killing both men. The move allowed the Italians to gain prominence but remnants of the Gustin Gang carried on and the Irish/Italian feud continued.
Mickey Spillane Overplays His Hand
Mickey Spillane was the boss of the Irish mob in the west side of Manhattan for nearly two decades. He controlled a crew of 25-30 loosely affiliated guys in the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. For most of his reign, Spillane was able to coexist with the Italians and they basically allowed him to operate freely on his turf. Spillane did poke the bear on many occasions.
He sometimes kidnapped mafia members and held them for ransom. The Italians sometimes used the west siders for jobs so they considered the occasional kidnapping just a cost of doing business. Spillane also never killed any of the hostages. But in the late 1970s, the construction of the new Jacob Javitz Convention Center on the westside changed everything.
The project was huge and it was square in Spillane territory. Mickey made the mistake of expecting the mafia to respect that. He offered them a position as “junior partners” on the project, which was going to make the mob millions. Spillane also greatly overestimated his power by making such an offer, his gang had two dozen guys while the Italians numbered in the hundreds.
What came next was an absolute wipeout. In the summer of 1976, Spillane’s top two enforcers Eddie “The Butcher” Cummisky and Tom Devaney were killed by mafia hired gun Joe “Mad Dog” Sullivan. A few months later, Spillane loyalist Tom “The Greek” Kapatos was killed. Spillane saw all of this and smartly moved his family out of Manhattan to Queens where he was hiding out.
On the night of May 13, 1977, someone rang the Spillane doorbell. Mickey said goodnight to his son and went downstairs, where he was shot to death by someone sitting in a car. The mafia was not about to let Spillane walk away. It was none other than Gambino hitman Roy DeMeo that killed Spillane that night. The story of the westside Irish was not over though, it was just warming up.
Over the years, Spillane’s story has echoed that of Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno in Philadelphia. They were both bosses that preferred to use violence as a last resort, preferring the art of negotiations. Both would be replaced by a polar opposite, Jimmy Coonan in Hell’s Kitchen and “Little Nicky” Scarfo in Philadelphia. These were two of the most violent men in the history of the American mo.
The Westies & Gambinos Make A Deal
Jimmy Coonan was a young ambitious gangster in the 1970s who had set out to replace his rival Mickey Spillane. Spillane had once smacked his father around and extorted his accounting business when JImmy was a kid. After Spillane left town, Coonan took over the neighborhood, and the group became known as “The Westies”. He teamed up with the ultraviolent Gambino soldier Roy DeMeo.
Coonan was reckless though. He killed a major Italian loanshark named Ruby Stein, maybe the biggest in New York. After luring Stein to his bar, Coonan and his buddies cut up Stein’s body and dumped it in the Hudson River. Stein’s torso washed ashore and Connan and company were the prime suspects. He and his top guy Mickey Featherstone were called to a meeting by Gambino boss Paul Castellano
They feared they’d be killed but somehow DeMeo was able to convince Castellano that the Westies were worth more to them alive than dead. DeMeo advised Coonan to just simply deny the murder. That’s what Jimmy did and by the time he walked out of the meeting, he had become an official associate of the Gambino Family. The deal gave the Gambinos a cut of Westies action and it gave the Westies affiliation.
For Jimmy, the meeting went better than anything he could’ve expected. Roy DeMeo realized a dream and became a made man as a result of the alliance. The Westies teaming up with the feared DeMeo Crew made for an alliance very similar to Murder Inc., the famous hit squad of the 1930s and 40s. No mob family in the country would want to go against these kinds of killers.
Coonan’s fellow Westies were much less pleased with the turn of events. They felt that Jimmy had sold out the neighborhood. This led to the demise of the crew as Featherstone and a few others actually cooperated with the FBI against Coonan and the Gambinos. They testified about how Coonan cut off the head of Stein and linked him to dozens of other murders, effectively killing the Westies for good.
Danny Greene vs The Cleveland Family
The Irish mobster who the mafia had the most fear for was Cleveland gangster Danny Greene, who battled them tooth and nail during the 1960s and 1970s. He was a very influential as a union organizer who had control of extortion on the waterfronts. Businesses would cooperate or face labor shutdowns or supply blockages.
For a time, Greene was actually affiliated with the local Italian mafia and did some work for them. His closest associate John Nardi was a one time member of the Cleveland Family but decided to team up with Greene. A battle for supremacy ensued. By the mid 1970s, dozens of car bombs were going off and Cleveland was now known as “Bomb City USA”.
For whatever reason, car bombing was the far and away number one weapon used in this particular war. Between 1975 and 1977, at least 35 of them were set off in and around Cleveland. Green and Nardi were fighting against the new boss James Licavoli and killed a number of his men. By 1976, it looked like with the help of Greene, Nardi might be able to seize the entire family.
In May 1977, Nardi was blown up, losing both his legs. His last words before dying minutes later was that it “didn’t hurt”. The Cleveland Family tried to kill Greene at least 10 times and failed during this time. Then they decided to enlist some outside help. Seasoned hitman Ray Ferritto took a more cautious and surgical approach. They put a bug on Green’s phone and waited for the right moment.
On October 6, 1977, Green went to a dentist appointment and his enemies knew he was there. Led by Ray Ferritto, they parked an explosive rigged car next to Greene and waited for Greene to come out. When he did, they detonated the bomb and killed him on the spot. Pieces of Greene’s body were scattered around the scene. Greene had waged a hell of a war but it was all over now.