It is my opinion that the spread and use of hard drugs in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s was a major factor in the demise of the youth gangs from that time. I express this in more detail in Brooklyn Rumble, and specifically traced the descent into heroin addiction for “Carlos Dragon,” a member of the Mau Maus.
Today I would like to write about “Ronald H,” and his own battle with heroin in the summer of 1959.
Before jumping right away into Ronald’s struggle with drug addiction, I would like to tether that to his history with gangs first.
Born in 1940, Ronald lived in the Bronx in a 4-story apartment building at 784 Beck Street that had a dry cleaning business on the ground floor. The building was kept in a very neat and clean condition. The block was mostly old, 3-story private homes in various grades of deterioration.
As most readers of this website will know, I don’t have near as much information on Bronx youth gangs as I do on Manhattan and Brooklyn gangs. Because of this and with Ronald being a member of a Bronx gang (more on that later), it gave me an extra reason to write about him. That way I can improve upon the paucity of Bronx gang info I have on this website.
In the 1950s, Beck Street in the Bronx was a highly delinquent area. Not only was this an area where youth gangs roamed, it was also a hot zone for drug dealing.
It was around the age of 14 when Ronald first began his career in breaking the law with a series of arrests for minor crimes. This included run-ins with the Juvenile Aid Bureau and happened between the years 1954-1957, when he was between the ages of 14-17. Some of the things he was picked up for were opening a fire hydrant, carrying a lighted cigarette on the subway and using false ID to purchase a bottle of wine at a liquor store. When he was 16 years old, Ronald also began smoking marijuana and drinking wine excessively on the streets.
In 1957, Ronald joined a Bronx gang called the Collegiate Crowns. I still have yet to figure out where the turf of the Collegiate Crowns was, but they were a mostly black gang and were part of “Crown nation,” several Bronx gangs with the word “Crowns” in their name. The two main Crown gangs were the Egyptian Crowns and the Valiant Crowns. Other smaller gangs that also put Crown in their name were the Bohemian Crowns, Mafia Crowns, Seven Crowns and Royal Crowns. Supposedly the Crown alliance had 800 members in it, but when large numbers like that are thrown around I am suspicious as gangs rarely – if ever – reached numbers like that. But seeing as it is a conglomeration, I suppose it could be possible they would reach 800 members, although I remain doubtful.
I found two news articles mentioning the Collegiate Crowns; one from 1957 and the other from 1960. Seeing as this story doesn’t go into 1960, I will only mention the 1957 article. The 1957 article is entitled “2 Teeners Wounded as Feud Flares.” It described two shootings in which a member of the Sportsmen and a member of the Collegiate Crowns were wounded by an automatic pistol.
The surprising thing is how late Ronald joined the Collegiate Crowns. Many gang members joined their respective gangs around 13-15 years of age, so when it came to jitterbugging (gang fighting), Ronald was a late bloomer when he joined at 17 years of age.. Interestingly, his report states he sustained a stab wound of the left chest in 1956. Seeing as this was before him joining the Collegiate Crowns, and with nothing else to go on, I can only guess it was a “regular” fight, or perhaps he got stabbed by a gang and decided to get protection and joined the Collegiate Crowns.
Whatever the details were behind Ronald’s stab wound in 1956 and his tardy foray into the gang world, he made up for it and became an active and enthusiastic member of the gang. Five times he was caught by the police for violent acts which are outlined below. More than likely there were more crimes that police were not able to catch Ronald doing. Here is what they did find:
At 11:00 p.m. on May 16, 1957, in the hallway of 939 Longwood Avenue in the Bronx, Ronald and several others beat Joseph Yates with their fists and an iron bed post. He was charged with 3rd degree assault, possession of a weapon and put on probation.
On June 2, 1957 at 12:15 in the morning, Ronald was out on the streets with six others. It was at 163rd Street and Southern Boulevard when Ronald and his six companions followed Augustin Matos and his wife and kicked and punched Augustin when they surrounded him in a circle (circle beating).
On June 27, 1957, Ronald was up even later than the June 2 incident. At 2:45 a.m. he was caught in a grocery store at 878 East 163rd Street where he had smashed in the glass door. Two cutters were found in his pocket.
On December 7, 1957, at around 6:00 p.m. in the hallway of 822 Hewitt Place in the Bronx, Ronald and three companions assaulted Alfred Ingram Jr. with their fists and feet when he refused to join the Collegiate Crowns. Ronald was charged with 3rd degree assault, but the charged was reduced to disorderly conduct. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served.
At 9:00 a.m. on January 31, 1958, in the basement of 839 Kelly Street, Ronald and a companion pointed a gun at a 14-year-old boy named Hector Bermudez. They also punched him in the face, head and body with their fists.
Because of all these arrests, Ronald was hit with a Violation of Probation, but his punishment didn’t amount to much when his probation was merely resumed. Somehow he stayed out of trouble (or more likely wasn’t caught in criminal acts) and five and a half months later he was discharged from probation with a favourable report on December 31, 1958.
Even though Ronald had stayed out of trouble for the last 5 and a half months and got discharged from probation, he had everyone fooled. He harbored a secret that nobody knew: he had become a heroin addict. His addiction began around July 1958 and amazingly he was able to hide it from everyone, even his own mother (although she found out much later).
Drugs weren’t exactly a new revelation to youth gangs from that time, even heroin. But once heroin got someone in its grip, they were ruined. But heroin wasn’t the only temptation out there. I had the opportunity to ask a member of the Egyptian Crowns about drugs and he said:
All gang members drank, or smoked pot, or pills, or even glue. At 16 we all drank wine in the park, hallway, roof, and corners as we sang do-wops. The wines we drank back then were Ripple, Thunderbird, Hombre, Arriba, white port, and sometimes Chianti (the wine bottle in a straw basket). Wine was cheap and got us drunk.
Part of the problem was his mother didn’t have any controls over Ronald and living in a delinquent area the negative influences got the best of the young teen. In a way it’s somewhat of a surprise that Ronald’s mother didn’t wise up to his addiction. Her own brother had his own history with drug use and was in a state prison on drug charges. The family was devastated when they found out.
Ronald’s mother denied knowing about her son’s drug addiction. However, Ronald privately felt that his mother and grandparents suspected him of drug use, but they were so hurt over his uncle’s own battle with drugs that they chose to ignore his problems by closing their eyes and pretending it didn’t happen.
Whether his mother knew about his drug addiction or not, in a way she couldn’t be blamed for not knowing. Ronald never stole money from the home (stealing money from home was a tell-tale sign of addiction). Not only that, he was also able to keep jobs throughout his addiction and was generally an excellent employee at each of his three work places. At one of his jobs, he was so good that his boss trusted Ronald with company funds. These two points lulled his mother into a false sense of security even though their well-kept basement apartment was in the heart of an area notorious for narcotic distribution.
At first Ronald began skin popping the heroin, but then shortly after that he began mainlining the drug directly into his veins. His habit grew and it got to be so bad he was using six to seven bags of heroin every day. The cost got as high as $14 a day. He claimed that he did not have to steal to support his habit and that the money he earned from his jobs provided for some of his habit. The rest of the money was raised by selling drugs himself.
Ronald claimed he had his habit under control, but this was said unconvincingly. The one time he tried to stop, he only lasted three days. Ronald could not hide his drug use from his mother forever, though. Around August 1959, his mother finally clued in that her son was addicted to heroin. By that time his habit had being going on for over a year. She noted his strange behavior and saw needle marks on both his arms where he was mainlining the drug. When she confronted Ronald about his drug habit he actually admitted it to her and they talked about it. They talked about checking him into Riverside Hospital which specialized in helping addicts get better, but a solid plan never got past the discussion stage and nothing was done.
Although Ronald’s mother found out about his addiction in August 1959, law enforcement had an eye on him already in July. As already mentioned above, Ronald was able to pay for his addiction to heroin by dealing drugs. This is what the police had observed, specifically on July 16, 1959. That was the day he came under their radar and was the beginning of the end for him.
It was at 2:35 in the afternoon on July 16, 1959 when Ronald was selling narcotics at Longwood Avenue and Kelly Street. A police undercover agent approached Ronald and asked to purchase drugs. Ronald directed him to the hallway of 811 Kelly Street where he sold one package of heroin to the undercover agent for $3.00. After the sale, the police took the package of heroin to a laboratory for examination. According to the police, the package contained two grains of heroin powder.
Now that they knew Ronald was dealing the drugs, the police kept him under observation and over the next seven weeks they saw him in other drug transactions with numerous drug addicts. Finally, on September 8, 1959, at 3:45 p.m., they arrested him in the hallway of 791 Dawson Street for the July 16 sale. They searched him and found two glassine bags in his left shoe that contained heroin. He admitted to the police that he was a heroin user and had paid $3.00 for each bag.
Ronald was taken to the 41st Precinct where he was officially arrested and detained for the drug sale. During the ensuing investigation, more details came out about Ronald’s case.
It turned out it was actually in June 1959 that the police became aware of Ronald’s drug dealing around the area of Longwood Avenue and Kelly Street. With this information, the undercover agent had a neighborhood drug user introduce him to Ronald. Over the seven weeks before Ronald’s arrest, several of Ronald’s customers who bought drugs from him were arrested. However, none of them would co-operate with the police in naming Ronald as their source.
Ronald admitted that he was addicted to heroin for at least one year and also admitted to the sale he made in July 1959. However, as for selling drugs, he said it was on a limited basis. Of the sales he did make, most of them were “phoney” bags of powder. This fake powder fooled drug addicts and he was thus able to separate them from their money in order to feed his own habit.
He got his own drugs in East Harlem on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue which was an extremely active hot spot for drug activity at that time. He bought as much as he could each time and in the case of the July 1959 sale that he made to the undercover agent, he had bought a $5.00 bag, then cut it and made two $3.00 bags which he hid in the hallway of 811 Kelly Street.
Ronald admitted selling the drugs to the undercover agent in July, but when it came to his arrest in September and being caught with the two glassine envelopes in his shoe, he said they did not contain heroin. He said they actually contained a substance called “Bonita,” which resembled heroin, but was actually worthless. At the time he had the Bonita he was out of a job and needing to provide for his habit, he made up these two fake bags, hoping to sell them to a clueless addict. As for the police finding two grains of heroin in the bag he sold, he said they planted it in order to frame him for arrest.
All this small-time intrigue merely branded Ronald by the police as a “small street pusher, operating primarily to support his own habit.” He was a small fry in the vast ocean of drug trade in NYC.
As the probation officer asked questions, Ronald came to the realization that although he at first thought he could kick the habit, in reality he was woefully unprepared to beat his addiction. Admission was the first step; the next was reformatory.
Ronald was sentenced to one and a half years to three years to a reformatory and when he got there, a psychiatric report was conducted to gain understanding to his thoughts on his drug addiction. When he was interviewed, it was noted that he was “very frank and cooperative,” and that he admitted to using drugs, mainly marijuana and heroin. He said he was using about 3-7 bags per day and could not break has habit. When he was in the system with no drugs to keep him going, he had to quit cold turkey and was unable to sleep for two weeks and had severe withdrawal reactions.
Ronald was proud of himself that he never stole to keep his habit going and between working and pushing he was able to take care of himself. In his opinion, drug addiction was fine as long as if you could afford it and could take care of yourself. He said that he didn’t “dig being natural,” and that he wanted to be high all the time. When he drank alcohol he was aggressive, but when he was high on heroin he was calm. He claimed that he could better understand jazz music when he was high on drugs. Yet Ronald said he wanted to learn a new way of life, but it was clear that he wasn’t convinced himself that he really wanted to quit. The prognosis was “superficially he states that he is going to give it up entirely.”
A report on Ronald’s education in the reformatory concluded that he impressed as “dull, immature and lacking in insight. Nevertheless receptive. Feels that drug addiction is no longer a hindrance to him and that ‘I have seen the light.’ Will require considerable bolstering.” Although his future seemed shaky at the outset, he did feel remorse for the trouble he caused his family.
Ronald’s time in the reformatory had its ups and downs. Although he was a good worker in machine shop and paid attention in class, he also had a reputation to fly off the handle and hated to be told what to do. He had some disciplinary infractions, one as minor as tying the four corners of his bed sheet and another for having an extra shirt under his bed. But two serious ones involved violent altercations, one for assaulting a fellow inmate and another for attacking a guard. He was locked up for five days for both of those infractions. As he served his time, he was able to get his education and even graduated with his high school diploma. However, at the same time as his parole came up there were questions whether he could make it. A May 1, 1961 report stated in part that Ronald, “…like the others, has a driving urge to ‘be accepted’ and would tend to do anything required to become a part of some kind of organization or gang to fulfill the need unless he has some careful guidance. Up to a point he can see the wisdom of breaking away from the kind of associates he had, but I sense a lack of real will to do so.”
Ronald’s grandfather from the west coast sent him some letters and was ready to even take him in, his mother cared for him and even his father who he was estranged from, sent him two letters. He was paroled in September 1961 and my hope and belief is that he had enough support at home to help him get over from being influenced by the bad elements in his neighborhood.
After he was paroled, I know nothing else what happened to him. Hopefully he made a good life of it after getting out of reformatory and was able to stay away from drugs.