Lit­tle-Flower Power

How LaGuardia fought war vs. killers


MUR­DER WAS boom­ing in New York, and the Lit­tle Flower was wilt­ing with rage. It was the fall of 1945 — a joy­ful time in Amer­ica, in the­ory. The war abroad had fi­nally ended, and U.S. sol­diers and sailors — the sur­vivors — were slowly mak­ing their way back home for tear­ful re­unions. But amid the ticker tape pa­rades and Times Square smooching, mugs in the city were feed­ing a last-hur­rah crime wave be­fore the war-de­pleted NYPD, down 4,000 men, was re­stored to its full com­ple­ment.

Am­a­teur stickup gangs with itchy trig­ger fin­gers rushed from one job to the next. Many ended with blood, and these mur­der sto­ries were splashed on the front pages for days on end.

The pa­pers started tal­ly­ing the body count as though it were war: 24 mur­ders in Septem­ber, 29 in Oc­to­ber. By the end of 1945, the grim list had grown to just short of 300, up 20% from the year be­fore — on av­er­age, an ex­tra body ev­ery sin­gle week. Crime scribes wrote the li­bretto for this tragedy, and the Greek cho­rus on the ed­i­to­rial pages lev­eled an ac­cusatory fin­ger at Hiz­zoner, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, in the clos­ing months of his decade in of­fice.

LaGuardia used his Sun­day ra­dio broad­cast that fall to preach that the crime wave was be­ing nour­ished by “lush work­ers” in the city’s sin­ful gin mills.

“I have or­dered the li­cense com­mis­sion to give ‘the works’ to all the cons do­ing their dirty busi­ness in dance halls, pool­rooms and cabarets,” LaGuardia said. “We’ll close them all down if we have to!”

A mur­der in Brook­lyn dur­ing Thanks­giv­ing week be­came Ex­hibit A of the crime wave.

The morgue toe tag iden­ti­fied the vic­tim as Al­bert Abra­ham David­off, 25. But few knew him by that name.

He was bet­ter known as Al (Bummy) Davis, a light­weight boxer of note.

He grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Brownsville, Brook­lyn, de­liv­er­ing knuckle sand­wiches to his fam­ily’s pushcart com­peti­tors along Blake Ave.

David­off’s dukes led him to the sweat-stained can­vas of box­ing clubs, where he learned the craft of prize­fight­ing — once he “fixed” his Jewish name.

He posed as an Ital­ian in his early fights, then snipped David­off into Davis. To his mother, he was Avromy, the diminu­tive Yid­dish ver­sion of his mid­dle name, Abra­ham. In the fight racket, that mor­phed into Bummy — wrong but close enough.

Davis was bet­ter than a jour­ney­man, win­ning more fights than he lost. His nose, which took a left turn at its mid­way point, was a tip-off to his fight strat­egy, which leaned on of­fense, not de­fense.

“He was a banger with a fe­ro­cious left hook,” Red Smith, the bard of sportswrit­ing, once said of Davis. “When he fought, his face flushed darkly, his lips peeled back in a snarl, his eyes be­came slits.”

Davis whipped an ag­ing Tony Can­zoneri, a for­mer world champ from Staten Is­land, in 1939, and he earned a fight at Madi­son Square Gar­den in 1940 against Fritzie (The Croat Comet) Zivic, a wel­ter­weight cham­pion. The Zivic fight went bad. Davis de­liv­ered two knee-buck­ling low blows — in re­tal­i­a­tion for the Croat’s el­bows and knees dur­ing clinches, he said. But Davis was dis­qual­i­fied and banned from box­ing.

He en­listed in the Army and was re­in­stated to the sport af­ter dis­charge, but Smith walked away from the ring af­ter a few more fights, fol­low­ing the birth of a son in 1942. He bought a saloon, Dudy’s, on Rem­sen Ave. in Ca­nar­sie, which brought Bummy Davis into the mid­dle of Mayor LaGuardia’s crime wave rum­pus.

Dur­ing Thanks­giv­ing week in 1945, a gang of young hood­lums — the Flat­bush Cowboys, they branded them­selves — pulled armed holdups at a half-dozen tav­erns, rak­ing in nearly $1,000. Dudy’s was their last job. Four perps rushed in at 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 21. Davis was in the process of selling the joint, and the rob­bers in­ter­rupted a sit-down be­tween the old owner and the new.

One of the gun­men went to the till and grabbed the night’s re­ceipts, $151.

Davis took ex­cep­tion and cracked the fel­low’s jaw with his cel­e­brated left hook. The rob­bers replied with lead, and the ex­prize­fighter dropped dead. An off-duty cop fired at the flee­ing men, gravely wound­ing one of them.

Po­lice rounded up the gang, which in­cluded John Ro­mano and Vin­cent Giar­raffa, a cou­ple of 23-year-olds who had spent years sup­ply­ing fresh con­tent to their rap sheets, and broth­ers Rus­sell Don­a­hoe, 23, and David Don­a­hoe, 17.

The younger Don­a­hoe, par­a­lyzed by the cop’s gun­shot, died six months later. The oth­ers were con­victed in 1946, based on their con­fes­sions.

The jury rec­om­mended mercy. Judge Sa­muel Lei­bowitz wasn’t feel­ing mer­ci­ful, but he al­lowed Bummy’s widow, Bar­bara David­off, 23, to de­cide the killers’ fate — life or death.

Cry­ing softly, David­off said, “I am op­posed to cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. But what­ever you do, your honor, will be all right with me.”

Lei­bowitz grudg­ingly sent the three away for life.

Five days af­ter Bummy Davis was mur­dered, LaGuardia flew to Washington to plead with mil­i­tary of­fi­cials to fast-track the dis­charge of 750 NYPD of­fi­cers who were still GIs. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment com­plied, and the blue­coat brother­hood grad­u­ally grew back to its au­tho­rized level of 18,000.

The crime wave passed and peace was re­stored — or what passes for peace in the Big Ap­ple.

Boxer Al (Bummy) Davis was killed in his bar dur­ing a spree of vi­o­lence in the late 1940s. At right, thugs were con­victed but spared death. John Ro­mano (l.) was con­victed of killing in Brook­lyn bar (right).

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