Before you get to the article…
On February 23, 2018, my book on the Mau Maus and Sand Street Angels, who were two Brooklyn youth gangs from the 1950s, has been completed. It took 15 years of research and writing to complete Brooklyn Rumble: Mau Maus, Sand Street Angels, and the End of an Era. This book is roughly 6″x9″ and has 370 pages and includes a look at the characters in the Mau Maus and the details of a gang killing that happened in February 1959 in front of the iconic Brooklyn Paramount Theater (now Long Island University). If you want to buy a copy, click here and this link will take you to an online ordering page.
The following is a typical event that was common in NYC during the 1950s and 1960s with youth gangs.
On September 15, 1961, at 10:45 p.m., 17-year-old Henry E. Pontoon was walking to his home at 295 Jackson Street, returning from work. At Maspeth and Kingsland Avenues he was stopped by a certain “JM.” This was very near to the Cooper Park Houses, a housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that had been installed by the City in 1953. A black youth, JM was 5’7′ tall, with a scar over his right eye and forehead. He was agitated and had been drinking wine, later admitting he was “a little high.” JM stopped Pontoon and asked him if he knew him. Pontoon had no idea who JM was and said “I don’t know.” JM then demanded to know where Pontoon lived. Pontoon was visiting relatives in Brooklyn for a short time and didn’t have a clue about fighting gangs in New York City, something which he was very soon to become familiar with. When corresponding with a former Jackson Jent, he told me that:
In reading this account I realized or maybe guessed is more accurate, that Pontoon must have been a very naive and innocent kid. That’s probably the reason JM chose him. He was an easy mark. Any streetwise guy from my neighborhood would have clocked him the minute he started asking questions. A kid who grew up on the streets would have seen it coming a mile away.
JM was from “the bottom”, a nickname for a more southern part of Williamsburg. The bottom had a boundary of Union Ave on the west, Flushing Ave on the south, Morgan Ave on the east and Montrose Ave on the north. As a Jackson Jent explained to me, it was called the bottom because it was an even seedier area than their part of Williamsburg.
JM was upset because the police had caught and arrested some boys from his gang involved in a fight. At first he told the police he was in the El Quintos, but after that he denied it over and over again. This particular fight he referred to was a gang fight involving the El Quintos who had their turf in an area in Williamsburg called “the bottom.” Their turf covered the area of Graham Ave at Broadway to JHS 49 and back to Morgan Ave. They were brother clubs with the Puerto Rican “Outlaws” a gang that hung out in the Lindsey Park Area. In April 2020 I received an email from a former member of the El Quintos and he said that he did not recognize JM and that he was not a member of the El Quintos.
JM said to Pontoon, “Do you belong to the Jackson Project Gang”? Again, Pontoon had no idea what was going on and said he had only been in NYC for a couple of months. JM continued and remarked “That’s a boy,” patting him on the shoulder. Then, without warning, he plunged a pen knife into Henry’s chest and ran. The blade narrowly missed Henry’s heart, but it did find his lung, puncturing it. JM fled the scene, ditching his knife in a sewer. Thankfully Pontoon wasn’t far from a hospital and was taken there, where he stayed for 20 days. Even when he got out, the doctor said he would need continued medical care for some time to come. The police did not know Pontoon as a gang member. He was an innocent victim of a senseless, unprovoked attack.
So who exactly was JM and why did he stray so far from Williamsburg? It could be that JM was looking for a member of the Italian Jackson Jents. He was on their turf and although the Jents did not have their turf in the Cooper Park Houses, it was most likely a Jackson Jent he was looking for even though he asked about the “Jackson Project Gang.” Perhaps he wasn’t familiar with the area.
The Cooper Park Houses were home to a few gangs, most notably the Puerto Rican El Saints, run by Alex and Hector Cordero with a war counsellor by the name of Freddy. The Saints weren’t a large gang, with about 15 members, but they were active, and they started causing trouble with the Jents, even taking a shot at them. The Jents took matters into their own hands and terrorized them for a long time after that, finally grinding them into oblivion (at one point the Jents had so thoroughly devastated the Saints, that their parents came to the street corner to plead for their sons). Perhaps JM was a member of, or friendly with the El Saints. The Jents after all fought against Puerto Rican and black gang members (JM was black) from Williamsburg.
One of the detectives working the case involving the gang fight with the El Quintos, heard about Pontoon being in the hospital from a stabbing. He looked into it and found out from Pontoon about what happened. Doing what detectives do, he found out where JM lived and arrested him at his house at 3 in the morning on September 16, 1961.
When questioned by the detective, JM told him that he stopped Pontoon because he thought he was in a rival gang and wanted to avenge an attack made on a member of his gang earlier in the day, no doubt the fight the detective was investigating. As mentioned already, at first JM admitted that he was a member of the El Quintos, although later he denied this repeatedly. His attitude about the entire event showed he didn’t care about what he did or about Pontoon’s health. Investigators said he only expressed “superficial remorse.” Other than admitting what he did, JM was very reluctant to give any further information or answer more questions. He was cold, sullen and unresponsive. He hated authority.
This was not JM’s first brush with the law. In 1958, a month before his 14th birthday, he assaulted a 12 year old and stole 12 cents from him. Later that year he stole a bicycle worth $50.
From a young age, JM was always unstable, an unpredictable youth. At age 5 he was put in a hospital due to “nervousness.” Perhaps this was similar to what his mother suffered from when she went to King’s Hospital for mental illness for over four years in the 1950s. His father was a shiftless individual, abandoning his family several times over the years. JM was raised by an elderly relative who could not cope with him during his wild pre-teen and teenage years. He attended JHS 49 where his conduct was poor and his academic record was mediocre. He never even got to attending high school, although he was enrolled at George Westinghouse Vocational High School in Fort Greene. At the time of his arrest he lived in the Bronx (in a congested area known for its high rate of delinquency), but most of his life he lived in Brooklyn.
On November 20, 1961, JM plead guilty to assault in the second degree. When his sentencing came up on January 12, 1962, Judge Leibowitz sentenced him to Elmira Correctional Facility where he would be examined and then sent to a prison that they felt would be the best fit for JM. In the sentencing, Leibowitz tore into JM:
“…This was a horrible, vicious crime. Here was a youngster from the South, walking along the street on his way to visit relatives, minding his own business, and he was stopped by the defendant, and without the slightest provocation, was stabbed in the chest. The complainant’s heart was missed but his lung was punctured, and it was necessary for him to remain in the hospital for 20 days, and when he was discharged from the hospital, the physician said that he would require medical attention for some time to come. For no reason at all, not even an argument….I would suggest that my remarks be sent to the authorities of Elmira Reception Center.
And like so many other instances in my research on youth gangs, that is the last I hear of JM as well as Pontoon, who eventually returned home to the South.