In 2006 I corresponded with someone who asked me about a gang from Queens called the Corona Dukes. Even though Queens is part of New York City, I have virtually no knowledge on her gangs, so I couldn’t help him. For a reason that I cannot adequately explain, I am not interested in gangs from Queens.
Then, recently, I received an email from another friend and he too asked me if I knew anything about the Corona Dukes. All this got me to thinking more about youth gangs from Queens.
This page is about a member of a gang called the English Lords who were from a Queen’s neighborhood called South Jamaica. I have been sitting on this information for quite awhile and now is the perfect time to unwrap it in light of my renewed private discussion of the Corona Dukes.
Even though this isn’t about the Corona Dukes, or even from their neighborhood, this is for you R & R. I hope you enjoy reading this.
This story begins in Brooklyn, on December 15, 1935, when a baby boy named Sydney was born. He was a full term baby (although the birth was assisted with the aid of “instruments”) and by all appearances, he was a healthy boy at 7 pounds and 2 ounces. His early childhood years were normal; he walked at a year old (average) and talked at about 18 months (early). He had the typical childhood illnesses, including bouts of pneumonia on three different occasions in-between the ages of 6-7.
Other health blips happened when he fell from a school window and was unconscious for a short time and when he was struck by a vehicle at 10 years old but “escaped injury,” which must have meant the injuries weren’t serious enough. Then he got hit by another car when he was 12 years old, but again he “escaped injury.”
In the dry, sterile parlance of a social worker, he “made a good social adjustment” in the home.
The major social development for Sydney happened when he was 9 years old and his mom and dad separated. The marriage was never a good one for several reasons. First of all, Sydney’s grandma constantly interfered with her daughter and husband’s marriage (insert mother-in-law joke here). The mother was also unfaithful to Sydney’s father and spent all his earnings on expensive clothing which was encouraged by the mother-in-law, who disliked her son-in-law from the very beginning because he was 8 years older than his wife. Then, one day, Sydney’s mother left her husband suddenly, taking Sydney with her. Sydney’s dad had no idea where his wife and young son went.
Sydney’s mother was a born-and-bred NYC resident and got over the separation with her husband who she said had passed away. She remarried, providing Sydney with a stepfather, who he liked. She worked as an attendant at the Tri-Boro Hospital in Rockaway Beach and her new husband was an engineer employed by the U.S. government. Together they earned $5,520 a year in wages which was above the average median family income in 1953 of roughly $4,200 (United States Census Bureau).
Sydney grew to 5 feet 9 ½ inches tall and had a slender build. In April 1952, when he was 16 years old, his mother and stepfather moved into a residential neighborhood in Queens called South Jamaica. South Jamaica was within the boundaries of Van Wyck Expressway, Baisley Boulevard, Merrick Boulevard and the Long Island Railroad and was populated by middle-income families.
The family moved into a two family house and were able to do renovations and repairs to the property. They had beautiful landscaping in the back yard of the home and the lawn was well groomed and “properly terraced.”
When it was time for high school, Sydney first attended Far Rockaway High. One of the people who I made this page for casually mentioned some things to me about Far Rockaway and another high school named Woodrow Wilson – facts that provide more depth to the story. For the students that got out of line at Far Rockaway High School, the school administrators would threaten them with the scary notion of transferring to Woodrow Wilson High which was a vocational school with an emphasis on mechanics, woodworking, sheetmetal forming etc. It was not an academic school and nobody wanted to attend Woodrow Wilson.
Sydney’s grades at Far Rockaway High were poor except for music class. Maybe it was because of that he was transferred to Woodrow Wilson High School; I wonder if he was filled with dread on the transfer. Perhaps not surprisingly, when he turned 16, Sydney quit school and got his Employment Certificate.
There is mixed information as to whether recreational facilities in South Jamaica for youth were adequate; I heard they weren’t – example: there was no pool in South Jamaica, at least in 1953 – but Sydney seemed to do okay because he used a recreational center at the Brooks Memorial Church which wasn’t too far from his home.
As for religion, Sydney’s parents were described by the pastor of the Baptist church they attended as “among his best workers,” and that they were a “very religious family.” Sydney wasn’t as enamored with church and was irregular in his attendance.
Sydney was doing okay despite the separation of his parents; his life wasn’t too bad and he wasn’t a dangerous or troublesome boy. However, it is here that a brief sidebar on the social conditions of South Jamaica must be taken.
Although South Jamaica was a middle-income neighborhood, it had two undignified warts: congestion and a high delinquency rate. A vivid anecdote about the latter comes from one of my friends’ whose father was a bus driver in South Jamaica in the 1950s:
… The area where the majority of the black folks lived was South Jamaica and my Dad’s bus route took him through there every day. One of the driver’s tasks was to “clean-up” the bus at the end of the route; such as dispose of old newspapers, trash, etc… My Dad would also check the seat seams for coins that dropped out of riders pockets and other valuables. Often he would discover a knife wedged into those seats and he always brought it home and dropped it into one of his dresser drawers. Over the years he acquired quite a collection and that’s where I got the German Paratrooper knife I carried in high school. The blade was a spear point style, emerged from the front by gravity, was very strong — Solingen Steel — and I sharpened both sides to razor sharpness. They are very rare now; but, you can still acquire one on internet auction sites for between $400 and $1,000, depending upon the shape it’s in. I also served as the source for virtually all the blades my friends carried.
Gang warfare was part of the criminal fabric of South Jamaica. A newspaper article from as far back as 1949 described in great detail a shootout in the neighborhood between the local “Angels,” and an invading gang from East New York called the “Gents.” The battle erupted at night in front of a school on a dimly lit street. Shouting and gunshots cut through the air and panicked housewives scrambled to call the Jamaica police station and reported that a riot was in progress. Every police radio car raced pell-mell to the rumble, but by the time they got there, the battle was over.
One Queens cop explained the challenges they had with youth: “Some of these young monsters know their rights. They know we’re not supposed to lay a hand on them. If you tell them to move, they take your badge number and tell you they’re going to turn you in for hitting a kid. What can you do?”
“What can you do” was a great rhetorical question. But one cop in South Jamaica worked out a plan on what to do after a member of a gang called the English Lords murdered a member of a gang called the Counts in the spring of 1953. Whenever the police were tipped off about an impending gang fight, they would nab the boys and bring them to the police station along with their parents.
Once the police had everyone assembled, they showed them guns, clubs, knives and brass knuckles – some of them were stained with the dried blood of victims – that they had confiscated in past gang fights. Many parents were deeply unsettled by this ghoulish display. Then the police would show them pictures of the victims of past gang fights, some of them pictures of the deceased and others who were maimed. “Many young toughs have some sense whaled into them when they get home after one of those sessions,” one policeman said.
South Jamaica was at war, not with another country, but between their youth and youth from other boroughs. Skulls were broken, faces slashed with razors and knives. Innocent people – even children – were attacked. Many of the boys joined a gang at 13 years old.
So how did gangs even begin in South Jamaica? According to one youth worker, after World War 2, a swell of people moved to Queens from other boroughs. Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn all had youth gangs set up, so when members of these gangs moved to Queens, they brought their gang attitudes with them. Many kids who moved into Queens had to travel back to other boroughs to attend school. South Jamaica in particular was congested while other boroughs had adequate classroom space. This moving into Queens and movement out for school created a frothing gang atmosphere just like other boroughs were afflicted with.
The New York City Youth Board, which was an organization that worked with youth to help them stay out of anti-social fighting gangs, said that South Jamaica was one of two neighborhoods in Queens that was a “trouble” spot. South Jamaica had some slum areas, ill-lighted streets, and a shortage of recreational facilities, all elements that also helped spawn gangs (in addition to gang members from other boroughs moving into Queens).
Gang members always had to be ready to fight; mobilization for scheduled rumbles was quick and usually happened within the hour. Gangs structured themselves with hierarchies that included “Presidents” at the helm who would lead the gang into fights and settle disputes within the gang.
Each gang had a turf to protect. If their territory was invaded by an enemy gang, there would be hell to pay and somebody would end up beaten or humiliated. Anything could trigger a gang war: an insult, a beating, even a lost hat. Nobody ever bothered asking questions and retaliation was swift and brutal. This only led to reprisals and revenge. A gang fight never settled anything, it only created more fights.
The gangs in South Jamaica were extremely proficient at collecting weapons for their arsenals. It got so bad that on July 14, 1953, Judge Irwin Shapiro gave a warning to Queens’s gangs to surrender the rest of their weapons by 3 p.m. the next day or there would be “consequences.” Up to that point, boys had turned in eight rifles, five pistols and a switchblade knife. This did not include a Walter P38 automatic pistol confiscated from a gang leader (his father threw it into a lake, but the police recovered it), a 30-30 rifle seized at this leader’s girlfriend’s house, a German Luger pistol used in a downtown Manhattan robbery and a .25 calibre pistol taken from the leader of another gang. Nor did it include another switchblade and dagger that was supposedly floating around somewhere on the streets. It was noteworthy when the Judge said that “those are just a few samples [and] we know there are plenty more weapons still out.” The Judge said that if boys voluntarily turned the weapons in they would be not prosecuted. However, if they weren’t surrendered by the next day, he would sic the police on them to find the weapons. No sympathy would be given to those caught. The bulk of the confiscated weapons were from the following gangs: the Counts, Lords, Seagrams and Chaplains (it was spelled “Chapmans” but most likely means Chaplains).
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this boiling gang zeitgeist had an effect on Sydney.
When Sydney’s family moved to Queens, at first he was naïve to the gang situation in South Jamaica. He barely knew anybody, but in short order two boys came to his home and threatened him. To protect himself, he joined a gang called the English Lords. He also joined for the excitement of dances and picnics.
Not only did Sydney become a member of the English Lords, he worked his way up to become President of the gang. At first he claimed that it was a “social club,” and that later it got into trouble and fights with another club. This dubious statement is surely a lie, and it is likely the English Lords were already a full-blown fighting gang when he joined.
Sydney carried a knife to protect himself from enemy clubs who were looking to avenge the death of the Count at the hands of the English Lords (already mentioned). He became respected and feared as head of the English Lords. He walked with a swagger, but later a probation officer said it was only a mask to create an illusion of importance and “toughness.” Matching his bluster was a black homburg hat which Sydney didn’t wear to protect his head from the elements, but had for “identification.” In other words, it was part of English Lords’ fashion.
A look at the specific gangs that lived in South Jamaica around the spring of 1953 is helpful to understand the bees’ nest that Sydney found himself in. In South Jamaica there were at least nine gangs.
First there were the Lucky Lords. They were a large organization which had several sub-gangs under its umbrella, namely:
- English Lords
- Artisan Lords
- Cimarron Lords
- Noble Lords
- Scorpion Lords
- Oriental Lords
These divisions of the Lucky Lords were highly organized and the leadership of each had its own President and War Counsellor (the War Counselor’s job was to meet with other gangs to arrange gang fights). One godfather-type President presided over the Lucky Lords as well as its divisions.
The enemy of the Lucky Lords was the Counts, a gang that also had its own divisions as follows:
- Aces (who were affiliated with the Chaplains and with an unnamed Brooklyn gang)
- The Vipers (who were affiliated with an unnamed Bronx gang)
Besides the Lucky Lords and the Counts here were the following additional gangs of South Jamaica:
- The Barons
- The Seagrams
- The McGowan Brothers
- The 164th Street Boys
- The Black Angels
- The Parsons Boulevard Boys
- The Hillside Avenue Boys
Technically, if you include the divisions, there weren’t 9 gangs in South Jamaica, but rather 19 gangs.
The English Lords were a busy group (read: not a helping your neighbor-type-of group) with colorful nicknames like “Saint,” “King,” “Flame,” “Chink,” “Fury,” “Weasel,” “Duke,” “China” and “Maestro.” Their leader had no less than six nicknames: “Hap,” “Happy,” “Socrates,” “Aristotle,” “Professor” and “Cherry Pie.” (Quirky side note: the leader’s girlfriend’s nickname was “Pork Chop Mary”).
Some of the Lucky and English Lords were in trouble with the law. In May 1953, their war counselor was on probation along with another member who had the title of “Assistant Secretary.” Both were arrested for Unlawful Assembly for a gang fight with the Counts. Another who had the title of “Grand Advisor” was awaiting action of the Grand Jury, and one was awaiting trial for the murder of the Count. Their Vice President was already incarcerated. These were the cases where they were caught; who knows how many crimes were committed where the police could not crack the case.
As leader of the English Lords, Sydney was intelligent in at least one way. He did not use drugs of any kind, and although he drank, it was always in moderation. He didn’t get drunk because if he became “tight,” he would be vulnerable to surprise attack. Because of his position in the gang, he always had to keep his wits about him. Or in his words, “I must always keep my cool.”
I’m not sure if he truly meant this, or if it was typical teenage bravado, but Sydney said that “if I have to die I have to die.” Perhaps he wasn’t too far from the truth, because after all it was one of the members of his gang who had killed the Count, at the tender age of 15.
While Sydney constantly watched his back and tried to stay alive, he wasn’t careful enough to escape a different type of threat.
May 7, 1953, started innocently enough for Sydney. He had left home to watch a movie in Manhattan, but when he got there he realized he didn’t have enough money to buy a movie ticket. Instead, he and his friend Allen, who had accompanied him, ate some hamburgers. When they returned back to South Jamaica, they stopped at Jamaica High School and bought a soda at a nearby candy store. At 3:00 p.m., while Sydney and Allen sat on a bench in front of the school, they were asked by a teacher to leave the area. The teacher must have smelled trouble. The two boys walked over to George Tilly Park at 164th Street and Gothic Drive and there met five other boys. Up to this point, their day was typical of the aimless wandering all teenagers seem to do (I see it in my son who is 15 and he and his friends meander around from place to place with no real aim in mind).
At 3:20 p.m. while Sydney and Allen were hanging out with the other boys in the park, a nearby police officer of the 107th Precinct who was directing traffic, asked the boys why they were there. His suspicions were aroused and he searched them and found a hunting knife with a 5 inch blade under Sydney’s coat, stashed in his belt. His friend Allen – who was also a member of the English Lords – had a .38 calibre pistol. Their day had now gone from bland to hot. Possession of dangerous weapons was a serious offense.
Sydney said he had the knife “in the event that anything happened.” There had been some trouble and he didn’t want to be caught unprepared.
Sydney was questioned by a probation officer who included questions about the murder of the Count, which he had known about, but was not actually involved in. He was a material witness. At first Sydney was uncooperative and tried to impress the probation officer about his leadership. He even said he was the President of the Lucky Lords, the parent organization of the other gangs, but that was a lie, because he was actually President of the English Lords, a division of the main gang. As the questioning continued, he began to reverse himself, eventually becoming extremely cooperative.
In regards to the murder, Sydney resented one of the leaders of the gang who he felt he was “taking the rap” for. It didn’t help that this leader laughed at Sydney’s predicament of being a material witness and getting caught up with a murder investigation. Embittered, Sydney decided to co-operate with the police and became an informer. He provided information about where the gang hid rifles which were stashed in someone’s basement. He also admitted that he owned a pistol which he had hidden in a drawer in his own mother’s room. Another gang member had a gun hidden somewhere in Manhattan.
As Sydney spilled the beans on the activities of the gang, he was reduced from a “swaggering braggart” to a boy with a deflated ego. He had lost status in his neighborhood. He was afraid.
It was an open-and-shut case and Sydney was sentenced on July 15, 1953, by the very same judge who had warned the gang members to return their weapons. He got a three year sentence and was sent to Elmira Reception Center where they examined him to figure out what reformatory to send him to (there were several in New York State where inmates could be sent). They chose a place called Coxsackie and on October 29, 1953, Sydney began serving his time there.
Although he was a gang leader on the outside, he was well-behaved on the inside. He was a good participant in physical education; basketball, bag punching and ping pong were his main interests. He also played softball and borrowed seven fiction and four non-fiction books from the prison library. He enrolled in the choir and the glee club.
Sydney had no discipline reports while serving his time (the closest he got was a verbal warning) and was a clean and orderly inmate with an excellent conduct record. He didn’t mix with the other black inmates but neither did he have any trouble with them. In group-sanctioned situations in the reformatory, Sydney was a “quiet and conforming person [who] appears to be one of those pleasant, easygoing persons who gets along in most any sort of situation. At present does not appear to be truly anti-social.” The worst they could say about him was that he was somewhat immature, but that would go away with age. Sydney would make a satisfactory adjustment.
Between the time he was arrested and when he arrived at Coxsackie, a startling development unfolded on Sydney’s family front. Seeing Sydney’s name in the newspapers and being associated with the murder of the Count in the spring of 1953, a man approached the probation department asking them about Sydney. He claimed he was Sydney’s father – the one that his mother said she thought was dead. He was far from dead. In fact, he owned a profitable trucking business and wanted to know all about his son. The authorities tested him by asking him questions about Sydney and he answered them confidently. This was no crackpot; he was Sydney’s real father. Daddy was back.
Most likely what happened was that Sydney’s mother – who had absquatulated with Sydney without telling her husband – didn’t want the authorities to know her husband was alive. She never actually divorced him and when she married Sydney’s stepfather, she would have been committing polygamy, which interestingly enough I have come across on a few occasions in my research on the family lives of youth gang members from the 1950s.
Not only did Sydney’s Dad surface after all those years, but he wanted to give his son all the help that was needed in order for him to make a great parole adjustment. So he offered his son a job, which was a risk on his part, but also a requirement for Sydney to get out on parole. Not only would he work for his Dad, but he would live in his father’s home. It was perfect because his Dad’s business and home was in Brooklyn. This would keep Sydney away from the temptation of continuing his career as a chieftain in the English Lords.
To make parole, Sydney would have to face a three-member parole review board. This happened on December 9, 1954, and I thought it would be interesting for you, the reader, to see the minutes of this review. Not only do we get to see the questions from the members of the parole board, but we can hear Sydney’s actual answers verbatim:
Q: Sydney, you are in as a Wayward Minor?
A: Yes Sir.
Q: You had a five inch hunting knife in your possession?
A: Yes Sir.
Q: You were carrying that for?
A: There was a little gang warfare back there about a year and a half ago.
Q: A little gang?
A: It wasn’t very big.
Q: You were the President of them?
A: They said I was. I was President of the Division.
Q: Which Division?
A: The English Lords.
Q: That was a section of the Lucky Lords?
A: Yes sir.
Q: What were you doing, feuding with the Counts, and Vipers?
A: The way it happened, another fellow told me to go over there, and we went over, and that is when it happened.
Q: In this Park?
Q: You mean the time that Benton was shot?
Q: Were you in on that?
A: No sir.
Q: What was the idea of this gang business?
A: I didn’t realize at the time the way it was. I was younger then, I just didn’t know.
Q: You are certainly lucky you didn’t get a stiffer sentence than what you got.
A: Yes sir.
Q: You know, I think you should have learned here that you have to lead a decent life and behave, not be mixed up in gangs. You were living with your mother at the time?
A: Yes sir.
Q: I understand now, you want to live with your father?
A: Yes sir.
Q: He also deals in used furniture?
A: Yes sir.
Q: He wants you to work for him and live with him?
A: Yes sir.
Q: Do you want to do that?
A: Yes sir.
Q: Do you think you would appreciate a chance if I recommend that we allow you to go out and live with your father, and work for him?
A: Yes sir.
Q: What are you doing in the Institution?
A: I was doing automobile mechanics. I was in the drafting class, but I was asked if I wanted to learn typing, and I was in the typing class awhile.
Q: I understand that your father wants you to work in the office. Have you learned enough here to be able to work in an office?
A: To tell you the truth, I would like to start from the bottom. I wouldn’t like to start in the office.
Q: You have got to work that out with your father?
A: Yes sir.
Q: You know that you will be under the supervision of the Board until July 8, 1956?
A: Yes sir.
Q: And you will be acquainted with the rules of the Board, and you will also have to do as your Parole Officer tells you.
A: Yes Sir.
Q: One thing, there will be no connection with any gangs whatsoever. You are not to do any drinking, or get in any drug business, or bad associations. Work with your father, and do as he tells you. You are not to leave his employment without the permission of your Parole Officer. Do you understand that?
A: Yes sir.
Q: And, you are to try to make a man of yourself.
A: Yes sir.
Q: You are a pretty decent young man. There is no reason that you cannot grow up to be a decent person. I think this will teach you a lesson that a lot worse could happen to you.
A: Yes sir.
Q: All right, is there anything else that you would like to say to the Board today?
A: No sir.
Q: All right, good luck.
A: Thank you, sir
And with that the Parole board review was finished. It couldn’t have taken all of five minutes. It was obvious Sydney was trying hard to give answers the board would want to hear. When it came to his gang activities, you can see that he minimized his involvement as best as he could. To be fair, I would have probably done the same thing. His “best” answer was a spectacular piece of gobbledygook that said virtually nothing at all, but had the distinction of the words still making individual sense : “The way it happened, another fellow told me to go over there, and we went over, and that is when it happened.”
The three members conferred among themselves and decided that Sydney was a good risk and so on December 9, 1954, parole was granted to the young man.
Luckily, I have the parole officer’s reports on his visits with Sydney on the outside. For the most part, Sydney did well. His father’s business suffered from a slow period and so Sydney had to find a job elsewhere. He was successful with this, but a couple of times he was chastised for being late for work and lost one of his jobs for not working quickly enough. However, he was always able to find another job. His relationship with his father soured though, and eventually he moved out of the house and into a furnished room. Sydney’s parole officer approved of his progress:
It is felt that Parolee is getting along excellently on Parole…Parolee continues to be a slow-moving Negro youth, but who is very pleasant in appearance, and however a likeable youth. He appears sincere when presenting his problems to p.o. and listens attentively, and most of the time goes along with p.o.’s suggestions.
One of his final comments on Sydney was:
The p continued his interest in group singing and was a member of the Crescent Quintet. This group had planned to do some recordings, especially at the Andre Record Co., located at 1615 Bway, NYC.
Finally, on July 8, 1956, Sydney completed his parole and he was free from the legal system.
Sydney was a good kid and it goes to show how a good apple can be ruined by bad ones. If the delinquency wasn’t so bad in South Jamaica, I doubt that Sydney would have got in trouble. He was in over his head and didn’t have the resolve to say no to being involved in the gang.
From what I can tell, Sydney didn’t get involved with the prison system after he was released and if I were to make a guess, he probably turned his life around. I think Sydney might still be alive, but I’m not sure where he lives or how he is doing.
* A reader sent an email to me and shared some information about Jamaica High School that needs to be included as an addendum here:
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