Here is a gangster that virtually most people today will have never heard of. Yet, he rose to become one of the powerfulest gangsters in America, having friends like Luciano, Lansky, Schultz, Siegel, Costello. A role call of the might of New York`s underworld. But what is remarkable about him is that he came from Leeds!! A Yorkshireman who went to New York and rose to the top of the criminal world. Despite his elder brother gaining a New York accent, he carried on speaking in his native accent until his death. He even opened one of the most famous nightclubs in America, that had the cream of the Jazz age playing there.
This New York Mr Big was born Owen Vincent Madden on December 18th 1891 in Somerset Street, Leeds. His family consisted of mother and father, Mary & Francis, elder brother, Martin and younger sister, Mary. The family moved from Leeds to Wigan and then onto Liverpool, where the father toiled in textile mills until his death shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The family later emigrated to the United States, settling in an area of Manhattan, Hell's Kitchen - which certainly lived up to it`s name. His mother worked to keep the family home going but Madden soon gravitated to a local gang known as The Gophers, one of the many gangs spread around the city. As to be expected, an outsider, and one with a particular English accent, had to prove himself, and prove it he certainly did. His reputation for using a pipe or gun became well known. He clashed with a man from an Italian gang, and shot him dead. He then was supposed to have shouted "Owney Madden, Tenth Avenue!" No witnesses came forward, so there were no charges. This is led to the nickname "The Killer." He was suspected of at least five murders by 1910, and became one of the leaders of The Gophers, specialising in various rackets, but mostly extortion.
One subject that Madden refused to bend on and that was women. No matter how many women he saw, it was suicidal to ask any one of them out for a date. A man named William Henshaw found out the hard way. Madden simply shot him. But before he died, he identified to Police that Madden was the gunman. When he died, Police arrested Madden, but again, there were "no witnesses" so again, he walked. Over the years, the Gophers had clashed with rival gangs, most notably The Hudson Dusters. They ambushed Madden outside the Arbor Dance Hall in November 1912, shooting him nearly a dozen times. He survived, refused to talk to cops, and within a week, three Dusters had been killed. One member, a former Gopher, Patsy Doyle, clashed with Madden over a girl named Freda Horner, so in retaliation, Doyle informed cops about the activities of the Gophers. Then he badly hurt a close friend of Madden`s named Tony Romanello. It was decided that Doyle had to go. Another woman, Margaret Everdeane, lured Doyle into an ambush where Madden shot him dead. Trouble arose when Police arrested the two women who confessed. Madden was arrested, charged, and convicted of Manslaughter, and sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing. He served nine year, being released in 1923.
He came out of jail whilst Prohibition was in full swing, and he joined a gang of an old friend who had become more powerful, Larry Fay. Fay lacked the muscle to protect his operations but Madden was perfect, and grew in stature within Fay`s gang. Soon he branched out on his own into bootlegging and employed a man to be his driver. This man went on to become a Hollywood star, George Raft. Madden helped Raft and screen siren Mae West with financial help throughout their careers. Madden was hijacking liquor convoys belonging to Big Bill Dwyer, but Dwyer decided to avoid a costly and bloody war, by taking on Madden as a partner. They started an empire of speakeasies and clubs. Madden, Dwyer & Big Frenchy De Mange gotten a foothold in the Stork Club, and then an ailing club in Harlem, the Cotton Club. Soon, all the big names of jazz played there, showing Madden, like Capone, was not racist. They saw these people as musicians, not as blacks. In the film "The Cotton Club" Madden was portrayed by Bob Hoskins.
By 1931, Madden was foreseeing the end of prohibition, so he moved into other ventures, such as boxing. He was involved with max baer and Primo Carnera. Carnera was said to have had many fights fixed for him to win, to get a contenders spot for the heavyweight title, which he did win in 1933, knocking out Jack Sharkey in six rounds. But the stench of "fix" proved too much for him and he withdrew from Carnera. Carnera was then given a famous beating by Max Baer. One problem Madden faced was the contract killer Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, who was kidnapping members of various gangs and ransoming them. He snatched a few of Madden`s men. In the film, Fred "Herman Munster" Gwynne was one such person, echoing what Coll had been doing. Coll had to go and Madden made sure he eliminated him. A serious problem arose when he was arrested over a parole violation and now he found himself being targeted by Police. Also, the 1931 formation of a national crime syndicate, with New York having five families, and them making inroads on his empire, led him to leave The Big Apple and move to Hot Springs, Arkansas. That did not slow him down,where he immersed himself in various rackets, particularly gambling. His New York friends did not desert him and over the tears he played host to the big names of organised crime. Luciano was arrested there, which eventually led to a trial and his deportation.
He took US citizenship in 1943, and gave up his British passport in the 1950`s. He married the daughter of the Postmaster, and they remained together until his death on April 24th 1965. Strange that whenever people or documentary makers go on about British villains, this man who dwarfed anything that has come out since, and personally took care of matters, is never mentioned. A man who was treated as an equal by the biggest criminals ever to come out of the States. This is not to praise him but to redress the balance, as I am sick of hearing about the Krays and the Richardsons. They would never have had the power this man held. To me, he was the biggest villain this country has ever produced.