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).