El Kovans Youth Gang, Red Hook, 1950s

In his book The Shook-Up Generation, Harrison Salisbury described one of his trips to gang-ridden neighborhoods in New York City.  One of the areas that drew his attention was Red hook where he found himself at the lofty, elevated Smith-Ninth subway station that towers over and looks upon the neighborhood.

Smith & Ninth Subway Station Brooklyn

Smith & Ninth Subway Station Brooklyn

When the train stopped at Smith-Ninth, Salisbury got off and began his descent down the staircase and narrow, oak escalators.  This was his second trip to Red Hook and he wanted to catch up on the news.  Instead of reading a newspaper though, he carefully examined the platform and stair walls of the station.  They were covered with what he called an “embroidery of white chalk, red paint and black crayon…a living newspaper of the streets.”  It was here where he caught up on the latest goings-on.  Events like who had a crush on whom, threats from rival gangs, challenges, and bids for leadership.  What Salisbury saw is the subject of this web page:

On one wall I read these scrawling: Joan & Atlas, Joan and the Boy who works in Spilmans, Gogi, Sal and Annie, China, Quo Vadis, Ditmas Dukes, Bull and the El Vilows, Bull & Peaches, Bull & Pat, Bull.  Bull was new to me.  It appeared that he was making an impact in the neighborhood.

It is important to note that close to the Smith-Ninth station was the huge and sprawling Red Hook Houses, one of the first housing projects built in New York City.  The close proximity between the Red Hook Houses and the Smith-Ninth subway station is important to note.  Built in 1939, the Red Hook Projects were home base for the Elkovans (or El Kovans or El Kovons) gang in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Over the years I have come across information on the gang including info about six members from the period of 1955-1960. They were involved in many different crimes: loitering, subway fare beats, causing disturbances, disorderly conduct, theft, break and enter.  They also partook in various beatings and stabbings.  One of the assaults involved a 14-year-old victim named Jerry.  He was kicked and punched, hit on the head with a lead pipe and whipped on the body with car aerials.  Jerry lost consciousness and suffered a fractured skull.

I didn’t go into the details of each of the above-mentioned crimes, but in my opinion the El Kovans were an active gang.  So with this information in hand, we return back to Salisbury’s tour of Red Hook.

When Salisbury saw the graffiti outlined above, he also noted more of it on another stairway that said:

China of the El Kovan Ladies, Shorty of the El Kovan Ladies, Home of El Kovans, Obey His Holy Law, Red Hook Boys, Support Mental Health, Vici of the Dark Doves was Here, Dee Dee of the Imperial Queens was Here (Brother club of Imperial Nites), Rico, Nefo, Jolly Boy, Sharkey – El Kovans, Syntheea was Here.

This is all interesting sensu stricto, but recently I came upon a case of an El Kovan by the first name of Auston who, along with two accomplices, robbed and assaulted a boy on the subway.  I will go into details on this robbery below.  But first, let’s see if you, the reader, can see any connection in the information discussed above (hint: pay close attention to the names listed in the graffiti) to the recounting of the robbery below.

On February 25, 1957, James O’Keefe climbed aboard a Queens-bound train at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street station.  Seated close to him was Auston and another youth who was never identified.  As the train lurched forward, Auston pestered O’Keefe several times for a nickel.  O’Keefe refused to give him any money.

As the train pulled out of the Bedford-Nostrand station, Auston called out to another accomplice, a 15-year-old named Donald who was standing at the other end of the train.  He told Donald – whose nickname was “Bull” – that O’Keefe was refusing to give him any money.

The three youths stood around James O’Keefe and Auston put his hand in his white jacket pocket and removed 35 cents.  James tried to get the money back, but Bull slapped him on the face with the flat of his hand.  The accomplice who was never apprehended put his hand in James’ back pocket (where he kept his wallet), but James pushed his hand away.  Auston then reached into O’Keefe’s shirt pocket and stole a package of cigarettes and a ball point pen.

While all of this was happening, Bull had his hand in his pocket the entire time, insinuating that he had a weapon.

Auston grabbed at James’ watch, but couldn’t remove it, but did break the band.  Eventually O’Keefe got the trainman’s attention who blew the warning whistle as the train nosed into the Myrtle-Willoughby station.

A Transit Patrolman who was waiting on the platform managed to arrest Bull, who then gave up Auston.  After questioning, Auston made a full admission of his guilt and had sincere remorse over his role in the robbery.  It turns out that Bull was only 15 years old and thus a juvenile.  Despite his young age, he was very well built which seemed to be one of the things that had earned him his nickname.

As the investigation unfolded, it was found that it was Bull’s idea to rob O’Keefe.  The Transit Police noted that this type of robbery had happened “with a fair amount of frequency on the subway lines.”  In fact, when they picked up Bull for his role in this robbery, they found property from another victim in his possession from a previous robbery two weeks before.  The modus operandi had been for two or three of the gang to rob the victim, and if resistance was met, to call in Bull who was used as a “strong-arm” man.

If you haven’t seen the connection, no worry: is the name “Bull” written in one of the batches of graffiti that Salisbury saw the same Bull as the one in the robbery recounted above?  Although Bull and the unidentified accomplice lived in or near the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (and not Red Hook), Auston had actually met them at the community center in the Red Hook Housing Projects.  Both the unnamed accomplice and Bull frequented the center, which appeared to be a regular meeting-place for the El Kovans. Although the report I have didn’t explicitly say that Bull was an El Kovan, it did say that Auston was – common sense says that gang members would have hung out together and committed crimes together.  Therefore, in my opinion, the Bull in the robbery is the same Bull as the one written in graffiti on the Smith-Ninth subway station wall.

Perhaps this tie-in might seem unremarkable, but after reading these excerpts from The Shook-Up Generation several times in the past, it was interesting to see a proper name attached to the nickname of Bull, and get a glimpse of his character through his role in the robbery.  No doubt his nickname came from his aggressive nature as well as his solid build.

The time that Salisbury researched and wrote his book was also around the same time of the robbery.  This means that Salisbury was right:  Bull was trying to make a name for himself.

When asked what type of punishment he would have liked to see inflicted on Bull and Auston, James expressed a sympathetic attitude.  It was his opinion that he was robbed because they had strength in numbers and that if he was alone, Auston would likely not have tried to rob him.  James recommended leniency.  This showed a compassionate (and possibly naïve) side of James.

Auston was found guilty and sent to serve a sentence at Woodbourne Prison. Bull’s case was still pending at the time Auston was sent to Woodbourne, but most likely he would have been sent to a reformatory for juveniles like the New York State Training School for Boys or Otisville.