This is about as grim a gangster story as one can find in or out of print, in many places requiring a strong stomach. ''The Westies'' chronicles the last incarnation of the Hell's Kitchen gang, a force on Manhattan's West Side long predating the popular 1930's shoot-'em-up racketeer films starring James Cagney.
As T. J. English writes, the neighborhood was well suited for its criminal reputation. Long an Irish-American enclave, Hell's Kitchen sat between the rough margin of Times Square, with its drugs and prostitution, and the pier-studded Hudson River, lucrative for squeezing money from shippers and the unions. For all those years most law-abiding citizens kept their silence, looked the other way, refused to cooperate with authorities in a clannishness characteristic of poor immigrant communities. Meanwhile, successive Irish gangs thrived on a power base built on extortion, loan sharking, gambling, kickbacks and patronage. Periodically a threat, a beating or a murder reinforced a gang's position.
This tenuous equilibrium was disturbed in the 1970's, beginning with the ascendancy of James (Jimmy) Coonan and Francis (Mickey) Featherstone, whose stories are this book's primary focus. These two vicious young men formed a partnership in 1976 that was to rule Hell's Kitchen until the mid-80's, forging ties with the Mafia and leaving a trail of bodies in that violent neighborhood.
Mr. Coonan was a backslider from the middle class who from his youth dreamed of racketeering, aiming to replace the gangster chief Michael Spillane. Mr. Featherstone, who became James Coonan's bodyguard and enforcer, had traded his lackluster, impoverished youth for the United States Army and service in Vietnam. Although Mr. Featherstone saw no combat, his war duty behind the lines did nothing for his mental stability, nor for his violent propensities, according to the author. Once back in the United States he lived in a drug- and alcohol-induced fog and was in and out of psychiatric wards and prisons, with, as he later admitted, several homicides to his credit. When Mr. Coonan's enforcer was murdered, Mr. Featherstone agreed to replace him. Primarily he was motivated by gratitude for James Coonan's attention, secondarily by the easy money, the author tells us. It was inevitable that such a bond would unravel.
Until it did, Jimmy Coonan and Mickey Featherstone ruled with frightening effectiveness. Consequently, their story contains a murder on an average of every few days, most portrayed in gruesome detail. Moreover, as the author shows, Mr. Coonan had arrived at a formula for escaping not only the law but revenge from his rivals: ''No corpus delicti,'' he would often say, ''no investigation.'' He learned how to dismember murder victims from a cohort prison-trained as a butcher, and he disposed of the results in the swift currents of the East River. Even Mr. Featherstone, who sadistically enjoyed terrorizing people and who, according to the author, killed many if not most of the gang's victims, was uncomfortable with the dismemberment and with Mr. Coonan's grisly delight in it.
The triborough sewage disposal facility next to Randalls Island is where the bodies got dumped at high tide. With the tide dropping the trip current took the punctured corpses twenty miles out to sea in six hours.
"No corpus, no habeas corpus"
Another name for the stretch of water between Randals Island and Long Island Sound is not the East River, but the Hells Gate were numerous ships have run aground because of the treacherous tidal rip currents.
A Royal Navy ship, frigate HMS Hussar foundered during the American Revolution with the loss of all hands, and a huge amount of gold. Nov. 20, 1780 (google: wiki HMS Hussar 1763)
On June 15, 1904 the paddle wheeler ship PS General Slocum sank in the nearby East River, and an estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died.
By T. J. English.
384 pp. New York:
G. P. Putnam's Sons. $21.95.
Randalls Island, largest Sewage disposal plant in USA:
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