In Brooklyn Rumble (page 315-317), I delved into the history between the Mau Maus and one of the many gangs they fought – the Suicides, a gang from the Farragut Houses. While researching and writing Brooklyn Rumble, I happened to find some court records on an August 1960 assault between the Mau Maus and Suicides. For those who don’t have a copy of the book, here is an excerpt of what I wrote:
It happened on Gold and Sands Streets, the heart of Suicide turf, and three teenagers from Fort Greene were involved: Jose (Blindman) Blanche, a definite member of the Mau Maus, and Angelo Rivera and Albertus Rivera (no relation). There was a Mau Mau with the first name Angelo, but Angelo and Albertus both denied being in the gang. It was likely a self-serving statement as the arresting detective testified to the grand jury that he was told by one of the Suicides involved in this case that Angelo and Albertus were in the Mau Maus. Alberto and Angelo did hang out with the Mau Maus and if they weren’t officially members of the gang, the Suicides would not know this. All they saw were two people hanging out with the Mau Maus, so to them Alberto and Angelo were the enemy. The adage you are who you hang out with had an unpleasant consequence for Angelo.
The events on August 18 were tied to an altercation from the previous night. Jesus Donis, a member of the Suicides, had a fight with Carlos (probably Carlos Gago) from the Mau Maus in the Fort Greene Houses. Donis won the fight, but Carlos threatened that they would be back the next day for another fight. The next day Jose, Albert and Angelo went into Farragut Houses (according to Angelo to look for a job) and were stopped by four members of the Suicides, Victor Nieves, Fernando Morales, Herman Torres and Jesus Donis who were armed with car antennas and a knife. The Suicides asked them what they were doing there and where they were from. The trio replied they were from Fort Greene and the Suicides replied, “We don’t like guys from Fort Greene.” Angelo testified that he cried out, “we are Christians, don’t do that!” The Suicides attacked them anyway, beating them with their fists and antennas. Then Donis snatched the knife and thrust the blade into Angelo’s stomach who reeled backwards from the force.
Angelo was taken to Cumberland Hospital in critical condition and stayed there for three days recovering from his injuries…
Although I take the stance that Alberto and Angelo were members of the Mau Maus, I am not 100% on this. It is entirely possible they weren’t actually members of the gang. However, supposing they were “just” friends with the Mau Maus – and not members – the main point still stands: you are who you hang out with.
I bring this episode up is because the other day I was reading over the details of an East Harlem homicide that reminded me of the assault between the Mau Maus and Suicides.
Let’s take a look at particulars of this homicide…
On December 30, 1957, Feliciano Sanchez and some friends – all members of the Viceroys gang – saw 16 year-old Robert Crossland, a Benjamin Franklin High School student along with some friends enter a bodega at 1720 Park Avenue. It was a typical NYC 1950s bodega with the usual advertising on the front windows: Krueger 12 ounce cans of beer only 6 for 99 cents! Rheingold beer, too, and White Rose Tea. And of course, ice cold Coca Cola.
Feliciano and his Viceroy posse were looking for members of the Enchanters, an enemy gang with a notorious history. They were a powerful black gang who had been in the newspapers in 1955 for shooting a 14-year-old boy in a playground in one of the city projects in Harlem. The mortally wounded boy staggered into a community center and collapsed onto a bathroom floor, where he died in a pool of blood.
The bodega Robert and his friends entered was cramped and crowded. It was the worst spot for Robert and his friends because the Viceroys had followed them into the grocer. There was nowhere for Robert to run. It makes me think of the saying, “a knife fight in a telephone booth.” The problem for Robert though was he didn’t have a knife, but the Viceroys did. Feliciano and his pals accused Robert and his friends of being in the Enchanters. One of the Viceroys, playing out a tough-guy act said, “what are you looking at me for?”
The Viceroys struck with barely a pause when one of them smashed a bottle on Robert’s head and another tried to stab him. Robert’s heavy coat stopped the blade from slicing through, but then the knife was turned over to Feliciano. He was more successful and stabbed Robert with the blade biting into Robert’s liver and aorta; three hours later, he was dead.
I have two Amsterdam News articles on Robert’s death, one of which extolled Robert’s virtues noting how he was a victim of a mistaken identity. Robert was a member of the Boys Club, a counselor in a camp and an assistant manager of a basketball team. The coach of the team said that Robert “was a very fine kid and had a great love of the game.” One of the articles quoted the police who said that Crossland was “a clean cut kid with no record.”
His mother wrote a heart-wrenching letter to the Judge asking for a severe sentence to be imposed on Feliciano Sanchez. She said her son was innocent and was not involved in youth gangs.
Many of the District Attorney case files that I have for gang homicides from the 1950s contain long, foolscap pages with hand-written notes on it. These pages are always yellow, and if you can decipher the chicken scratch, it can sometimes yield interesting facts that didn’t make it into other court records like statements to police or grand jury minutes. As I scanned over one of these yellow sheets, I noticed something written down about Robert himself that I hadn’t noticed before. It said:
According to Det. Marino – dec (deceased) Crossland was an “Enchanter” and… treated as a youthful offender in Spec. Sessions for possession of gun and a knife in April 1957.”
This is interesting because Marino, who was the detective assigned to the case, said that Robert was a member of the Enchanters. But the newspaper quoted police as saying that Crossland was “clean-cut.” And yet… Robert was caught for possession of a gun and a knife earlier that year.
It appears that Robert really was in the Enchanters, or if he had quit the gang, maybe he was trying to turn his life around by getting involved in positive activities. Either way, who he was hanging out with seemed to have a direct correlation with his tragic death. What he really needed to do was also make a new set of friends. But then again, I couldn’t find anything to say either way whether the people he was with were Enchanters or not. Perhaps he did make a new set of friends. What then? If he did make a new set of friends, what more could he have done? What does one do if they live at ground zero of fighting gangs in NYC in the 1950s? (East Harlem was one of the worst areas for gang violence). It seems to me that the only thing that could have been done is for the Crossland family to have moved out of Harlem. Or maybe Robert could have moved in with relatives in another part of this city if his family couldn’t move. But there is only so much a 16-year-old can do in a situation like that. And so we come full circle, and while it is many years after Robert’s death, if you were in his situation, what would you do?
It was a senseless murder, and Feliciano was later found guilty and sentenced to prison.
Robert left behind a mother, father, two sisters and four brothers.