Escape up the… Dumbwaiter Shaft?

For those who read this website, there is an area of gang history I am weak on.  Information on Bronx youth gangs is lacking, the main reason being that primary source information is very hard to come by.  Because of this I don’t have much on this website about Bronx gangs.  It’s something I wish wasn’t the case, but I don’t see much changing on this until the borough of Bronx is more open with their primary source information.  So this page will be a bit of a surprise for those who wish there was more information on Bronx gangs.  Not only will this page be about Bronx gangs, it will also be from a much earlier era than I am used to writing which is from about 1955-1962.  This page comes from near the beginning of juvenile delinquency and gang warfare in New York City: the mid to late 1940s.  Set in the spring of 1949, I hope you find this page as interesting as I found writing it.

Morrisania, a neighborhood in the South Bronx was one of the problem areas in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s for gang warfare.  Like other places in the city, Morrisania experienced an upheaval and change in ethnic composition.  Irish, Italian and Jewish families that had fled from other tenements in the city felt threatened by Puerto Rican and black families that began to move there en masse in the 1940s and 1950s.  It’s the age-old story of what many New York families went through.  One priest from Saint Jerome’s Church remarked that he was astounded at the animosity between the Irish and Puerto Ricans and the hatred that they had for each other.  This rancor erupted in gang fights.  An example of one of these fights was in the spring of 1945 between the Jackson Knights (white gang) and the Slicksters (black gang).  One of the Slicksters stole a pair of glasses from the Knights.  The Knights, furious over this affront, seethed and plotted revenge.  When some Slicksters made the mistake of approaching the corner candy store that they used as a clubhouse, the Knights fired on them, killing a Slickster.  When police swooped down on the Knights, they confiscated two Springfield rifles, a Savage rifle, a bayonet and 200 rounds of ammunition.

Four years later, the gang fighting in the Bronx was still going strong.  Although no racial undertones were detected in the following, the violence shows the degree these gangs were willing to go to protect their turf and each other.

The “Comets” and “Happy Gents” were two gangs in Morrisania that we will be focusing on.  These names do not point to anything particularly ferocious or violent, but don’t let their names fool you.  Before jumping into the details, it might be helpful to have who’s who list in order to keep the cast of characters straight as you read along.

Leroy Thompson – Comet
Kenneth Green – Comet
Alfred Washington – Comet
Roosevelt Pollack – Comet
Louis Cox – Comet
Belton Hall – Comet
Gilbert Garcia – Comet

Gladstone Shaw – Happy Gent
Carl Butler – Happy Gent
Melvin Samuels – Happy Gent
Arthur Shaw – Happy Gent
Herbert Roper – Happy Gent
Clifford Hawkins – Happy Gent

The friction between the Comets and Happy Gents began in 1948 when a Happy Gent was shot by Alfred Washington and an accomplice.  Many problems stemmed from Alfred Washington and his insatiable desire to be a gang leader of the Comets.  The police considered him to be a menace to the community.  His record reflected that.  In April 1945 he and an accomplice stole $1.20 from a younger boy; three weeks after this he was caught with a loaded home-made pistol.  In December 1946 he and four other boys snatched a pocket book from a lady in Yonkers.  In January 1947, he was caught again with a home-made pistol hidden in the lining of his coat.  In May 1948, Washington was arrested yet again for possession of a zip gun.  Washington’s penchant for weapons would not end there.

It appears that Washington was the leader of the Comets or had aspirations for leadership when the Happy Gent was shot in 1948.  His mother sent him to New Jersey to cool off, but Washington returned to the neighborhood in December 1948.  The Happy Gents didn’t forget him or the other Comets, and things heated up again between the two gangs.  One day, the Comets caught Washington and Belton Hall, and pushed them around.  The gang code called for the Comets to retaliate over this shoving incident.  They couldn’t let the Happy Gents get away with this.  It was time to meet and discuss their options.

893 Eagle Avenue Clubhouse of Comets Gang

893 Eagle Avenue Clubhouse of Comets Gang as it appears in 2014

Today 893 Eagle Avenue in the Bronx is an empty lot.  But in 1949 it was the clubhouse of the Comets who would regularly meet in the cellar of 893 Eagle Avenue.  On the evening of March 2, 1949, at about 7:30 p.m., several Comets met together in what they later said to police was a peace party, but was in actual fact a war party.  Washington was armed with a loaded zip gun and five additional cartridges in his pocket.  Leroy Thompson had a .30 caliber carbine rifle with the stock removed hidden in the leg of his trousers.  He also carried ammunition.  Kenneth Green had a loaded .38 caliber revolver in a paper bag.  Roosevelt Pollack had a hunting knife in a sheath and Louis Cox was armed with an ice pick.  Belton Hall and Gilbert Garcias were also there along with some other Comets who later could not be identified.  It wasn’t clear if Hall and Garcias were also carrying weapons.

The Comets knew that the Happy Gents would be hanging out at Public School 55, which would be open.  Most schools in New York City were open after hours serving as community centers for kids to play in and stay off the streets.  Located at 450 St. Paul’s Place in the Bronx, P.S.55 was about a 17 minute walk from the Comets’ clubhouse at 893 Eagle Avenue.  When the Comets arrived at the school, three Happy Gents were lounging on the front steps, Gladstone Shaw, Carl Butler and Melvin Samuels.  All of the Comets entered the school except for one.  Thompson stayed behind, took the sawed-off carbine from his pants and injected a cartridge into the gun.  Pointing the rifle at the trio of Happy Gents on the steps, Thompson held them at bay while the rest of his comrades in the Comets made their way to the gym inside the school.

P.S. 55 Bronx

P.S. 55 Bronx

While this was happening, the rest of the Comets found their way to the gym where they found Herbert Roper, Arthur Shaw and other members of the Happy Gents playing basketball.  Living up to his reputation as a terror and trouble-maker, Washington pulled out his zip gun and aiming, fired at Arthur Shaw.  But Roper intervened, possibly saving his friend’s life by punching Washington in the face.  The bullet missed and the zip gun fell to the floor.  Swiftly, Clifford Hawkins, a Happy Gent scooped up the gun.  At the same time, Green pointed his .38 caliber revolver at Hawkins, but Roper acted quickly again, hitting Green who dropped his gun as well.  The tables were now turned and the Comets made a mad scramble out of the gymnasium.  As they were running from the gym, Washington took the hunting knife from Pollock.  While this was happening, Thompson who was guarding the three Happy Gents outside, had heard the shot and ran away.  With the three Happy Gents outside now free, Washington and the rest of the Comets had to get past them to escape.  Taking the hunting knife he taken from Pollock, Washington stabbed Butler in the abdomen as they broke for freedom.

The Comets’ scattered in different directions to escape the Happy Gents.  Green ran down the street onto a foot bridge that crossed a set of railroad tracks.  As he turned to look over his shoulder, Green saw Arthur Shaw and other members of the Happy Gents in hot pursuit.  When Green dropped his gun in the gym he must have picked it up, because as he saw the Happy Gents chasing him, he turned and shot at them.

Bridge from where Green shot at the Happy Gents

Bridge from where Green shot at the Happy Gents

Detectives from the 48th Precinct were sent to investigate the gang fight and were able to arrest Washington fairly quickly.  Later, after having received confidential information, they approached the cellar of 893 Eagle Avenue, the club house of the Comets.  There was no light visible in the cellar, but the police could hear voices.  The detectives forced the door open and found Hall, arresting him.  Garcia and Cox tried to escape the detectives, and climbed up into a dumbwaiter that was in the building, hoping to give the police the slip.  The detectives found them in the dumbwaiter, and arrested them too.  The long arm of the law found Washington, Cox, Pollock and Thompson guilty, sentencing them to serve time in various institutions.

As I was writing this page, I came across a surprise and welcome discovery, the type of thing that makes researching so enjoyable.  There is a picture of an assortment of gang weapons taken on March 3, 1949 with the caption of “Boys’ arsenal at the Bathgate Avenue Police Station, the Bronx.”  I have seen photos like this from time to time, so the presence of this image wasn’t shocking or surprising.  However, I put two and two together and a cursory glance at the history of Precinct 48 in the Bronx shows that it was at 1925 Bathgate Avenue.  In the 1970s, this police station ceased to exist and it now fills another purpose.  So I can say with a high degree of confidence, if not 100% certainty, that the photo below is of the actual weapons the Comets took on their fierce battle with the Happy Gents at P.S. 55.  When you put the photo together with details of the story behind the weapons, the story comes alive…

Comets Confiscated Weapons Stash 1949

Comets Confiscated Weapons Stash 1949