How one ruth­less NYC kid made long­shore biz his own

New York Post - - NEWS - By NICK POPPY

F OR much of the 20th cen­tury, Man­hat­tan’s West Side was a gritty, bustling cen­tral artery of the ship­ping trade, home to the East Coast’s busiest and most prof­itable port.

Bil­lions of dol­lars passed each year through the West Side docks, span­ning from Hous­ton Street up to 110th Street, and thou­sands of peo­ple worked there, load­ing and un­load­ing trucks and cargo ships from around the world.

And one man was at the cen­ter of it all: Ed­die McGrath, an Ir­ish mob chief and mas­ter­mind of dirty money. McGrath might not be as well known as some of his Cosa Nos­tra peers, but he was ev­ery bit as pow­er­ful and deadly.

The crooked life of this wa­ter­front shot-caller is told in Neil G. Clark’s new book “Dock Boss: Ed­die McGrath and the West Side Wa­ter­front” (Bar­ri­cade Books).

“Ed­die McGrath’s back­ground was in­ter­est­ing com­pared to all these other mob­sters, like Dutch Schultz,” Clark tells The Post. Your typ­i­cal gang­ster had a child­hood marked by “ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion, pen­i­ten­tiary stays, street gangs, whereas Ed­die McGrath grew up ‘nor­mal.’ ” B ORN in 1906 to Ir­ish im­mi­grants, McGrath came of age in New York’s East 20s, then a roug­hand-tum­ble area known as the Gashouse District. Through­out his youth, he kept his nose clean. He got good grades and served as an al­tar boy and sang in the choir at St. Stephen’s Ro­man Catholic Church on East 29th Street. He dropped out of school af­ter the 10th grade to work as an of­fice clerk, which was not un­usual for the time.

But a clerk’s salary wasn’t go­ing to pay for his ex­pen­sive tastes in clothes, women and night­clubs, and McGrath grad­u­ally fell in with the wrong crowd. Still, for a man who would ul­ti­mately lead a life of crime, his first ar­rest hap­pened rel­a­tively late in life. McGrath was 21 years old when he was busted for bur­glar­iz­ing an ice­cream shop; he got off with a warn­ing. The warn­ing didn’t stick. McGrath be­came a low-level crook, work­ing as a driver and sales­per­son for an East Har­lem boot­leg­ger named Joey Rao. The Ir­ish­man ex­celled at his job, in part be­cause he was smarter than your av­er­age gang­ster, and friend­lier, too. Clark says McGrath

was per­son­able, “so­cia­ble, kind of a master of con­nec­tions,” used to op­er­at­ing “be­tween worlds.”

He might have been mis­taken for a le­git­i­mate busi­ness­man, if not for the com­pany he kept — men with names like “Squint” Sheridan, “Ben­nie the Bum” McMahon and James “Ding Dong” Bell.

Ev­ery­thing changed for McGrath in 1930, when he got sent up to Sing Sing for five years on a bur­glary rap. “There’s a rea­son they call [Sing Sing] ‘col­lege,’ ” Clark says. “By the time he came out, he was a hard­ened crim­i­nal.” McGrath knew he wanted to be a rack­e­teer, “and he came out with a game plan.”

That plan in­cluded team­ing up with two of his big-house bud­dies, John “Cock­eye” Dunn and John “Red” McCrossin, and tak­ing over the load­ing racket on the West Side docks. (The trio quickly be­came a duo when word got to McGrath and Dunn that McCrossin had been skim­ming money from their shared prof­its. They took Red out drink­ing, and at the end of the night, de­posited two bul­lets in his skull.)

McGrath and Dunn started plac- ing their gang­ster bud­dies as boss load­ers on the piers. Boss load­ers over­saw load­ing gangs, which Clark de­scribes as “groups of men who, through what was es­sen­tially squat­ters’ rights, con­trolled the load­ing and un­load­ing of trucks at the piers.” The po­ten­tial for cor­rupt prof­its from this flawed sys­tem was tremen­dous.

To en­force this scheme, Dunn and McGrath set a prece­dent: “Cross us and we will kill you.” And they meant it. The gang was re­spon­si­ble for at least 30 mur­ders.

One ex­am­ple was the case of a dock­worker named Mutt Whit­ton. In 1941, a crate of Tommy guns headed to Eng­land was stolen. Some­one called the po­lice with an anony­mous tip that the guns would be found near a bar­ber shop off Pier 54. And sure enough, that’s ex­actly where the po­lice found the cache. Whit­ton was an ex-con who was sus­pected of be­ing cozy with the po­lice, and co­in­ci­den­tally or not, he had landed a new job on the docks shortly af­ter the weapons were found.

A few days af­ter the bust, Sheridan and his as­so­ciate Joe Pow­ell strolled down Pier 14 to where Whit­ton was work­ing. They asked for a word. Sure, said Whit­ton. They re­paired to a stor­age area at the end of the pier, where Squint promptly shot Whit­ton twice in the chest and once in the head. Then they dumped his body down a drain pipe into the river, and, still cov­ered in his blood, they slowly walked back down the dock. They wanted to be seen, to make the point: No one snitches and lives. Months later, Whit­ton’s body was hauled up from the river, uniden­ti­fi­able save for its fin­ger­prints.

CLARK says that McGrath and his goons had to “put the fear into the long­shore­men. Be­cause it was a hard world. These were hard men who were tough guys, and to be able to put fear into them, you had to be tougher than them.”

McGrath and Dunn’s big­gest coup was in­fil­trat­ing the In­ter­na­tional Long­shore­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, the pow­er­ful union to which most dock­work­ers be­longed. In 1936, the ILA’s long­time pres­i­dent, Joe Ryan, was fac­ing dis­sen­sion from the rank-and-file mem­ber­ship. To lock down his power, Ryan made com­mon cause with the mob. He part­nered with Dunn and McGrath and gave them their own lo­cal ILA char­ter. The gang­sters as­sumed for­mal lead­er­ship roles in the union, all the while us­ing their stron­garm — and firearm — tac­tics to keep the dock­work­ers in line.

Things started to go south for the dock mob­sters in the years fol­low­ing World War II. Vet­er­ans re­turn­ing to work on the docks felt em­pow­ered; they weren’t so ea­ger to com­ply with ILA cor­rup­tion. One of these out­spo­ken steve­dores, An­thony Hintz, wouldn’t let well enough alone. To teach ev­ery­body a les­son, Dunn and two as­so­ci­ates, in­clud­ing Sheridan, plugged him.

Sur­pris­ingly, the gang­sters were ar­rested, charged and con­victed of first-de­gree mur­der. In July 1949, Dunn and Sheridan breathed their last breaths in the chair of the death house at Sing Sing. It was a black eye for Ryan and the ILA, as well as for McGrath. The mob­ster started to make him­self scarce in New York.

Nev­er­the­less, McGrath con­tin­ued to pull the strings of his dock op­er­a­tion from his lux­ury apart­ment in Florida. He also golfed a lot.

THE fi­nal de­cline of the Ir­ish dock mob came with the de­cline of the docks them­selves. Con­tainer­ized ship­ping dealt the West Side docks their big­gest blow, as con­tainer-friendly docks in Staten Is­land and New Jer­sey sup­planted the lion’s share of Man­hat­tan port op­er­a­tions.

Un­like so many of his fel­low toughs, McGrath didn’t burn out or get blown away. He es­sen­tially re­tired from the busi­ness, though not en­tirely. Clark says, “When the Mafia wanted to deal with the Ir­ish mob, they went to Ed­die McGrath.” In­ves­ti­ga­tors con­tin­ued to dog him, as well, and in 1980 he was sent to Rik­ers for three months on con­tempt-of-court charges.

Ed­die McGrath died in Florida of nat­u­ral causes at the age of 88, far from the docks that had made him rich and pow­er­ful. For all his crimes on the wa­ter­front, he’d served only 90 days in prison.

TER­ROR­IZED: New York’s West Side docks (right and above) had their boom years from the 1930s to the 1970s, while mob­ster Ed­die McGrath (far right) called the shots for the long­shore­men and mur­dered his foes.

RING: John “Cock­eye” Dunn (left) and An­drew “Squint” Sheridan (cen­ter) were ex­e­cuted at Sing Sing in 1949. Union boss Joe Ryan (right) played ball with McGrath.

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