My research on youth gangs at first focused on the years between 1955-1959. However, over the years, I have been learning outside of this time frame, mainly from the late 1940s to 1955 and from 1960-1962. In the fall of 2018, I came across some information on two East Harlem gangs from 1953 called the Copians and Dragons.
The Dragons I knew about already as they continued into the late 1950s. As far as I can tell the Copians disappeared by the late 1950s.
On November 8, 1953, four members of the Copians gang – who had been having trouble with the Dragons for some time – found a Dragon near Lexington Avenue and chased him. They caught him and beat him with their fists. As he fell to the ground, one of the Copians pulled out a .22 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver and shot the Dragon in the back three times. The Dragon died instantly and the official report said he succumbed to “multiple gun wounds of the chest, lungs, aorta, heart, stomach and intestines.” All three bullets were embedded in his body.
All four Copians were found guilty of the murder and sent to various institutions to serve their time. One of the Copians was sent to Woodbourne prison. There were conflicting reports on whether he was sorry for his role in the murder. He wasn’t the shooter, but was at the scene. One report said he was sorry and said that he knew he was equally guilty being with the shooter, but other reports said he didn’t seem to be sorry at all. Perhaps he didn’t feel guilty because he didn’t do the actual shooting. In his own words he said that he “didn’t think anything like that would happen. I tried to stop him when I saw the gun, but he was out of his mind.”
In one interview with the inmate, when a prison authority brought up the murder, “the seriousness of the offense was mentioned and the inmate smiled, most inappropriately. His smile…was believed a nervous reaction, but its inappropriateness was pointed out to him.”
This Copian behaved himself at Woodbourne, was quiet, and didn’t cause too many problems. He did okay in his work and schooling. However, he wasn’t there a year when something went terribly wrong.
The work detail he worked on in the summer of 1955 was called the farm hay squad. He had to unload and spread manure, set out onion sets, cabbage and tomatoes, repair fences, weed and do pick and shovel work. His conduct was considered good. On July 16, 1955, one of his chores was to clean an area next to the garage of the farm manager.
Both the Copian and another inmate entered the garage where they found a jug which contained a pinkish liquid. They both drank the liquid, without knowing what was in the jug. Later that night, both inmates fell ill, vomited and had stomach problems. They both claimed it was because they ate green grapes on the farm. The Copian became extremely sick and was taken to the hospital at 4 a.m. on July 16. It got so bad he fell unconscious at which point the other inmate said that it wasn’t green grapes that they ate after all – it was that jug of liquid in the garage.
It turns out the jug had anti-freeze in it. But it was too late for the Copian. The doctors treated him for methanol poising, but he died the next day at 7:55 p.m. The other inmate was listed in “critical condition,” and I have no idea if he survived.
And so, at 20 years of age, this young man died from drinking anti-freeze, likely in an attempt to get drunk. There is no note of what the reaction was of his mother and father, but his Dad appeared to be very involved with him. He visited his son at the prison, brought him packages and sent a letter to the superintendent letting him know that he would be moving to a different part of the city so that when his son did get out on parole, he would have a chance to start a new life and stay away from the gang. Of course that never happened and in a simple, yet sadly pathetic report, here is a list of this Copian’s last earthly possessions before he passed away from a totally preventable and stupid act: