They were pals

James Darby possessed a round face, a cropped hair cut and he had a four-inch scar that cut diagonally across the left side of his cheek. When you look at his side profile he looks boyish; from the front he looks more like a young man. Born in South Carolina in 1931, James was the middle child with an older brother and a younger sister. In 1945, when he was 14 years old, James, his parents and his siblings all moved to New York City.

James Darby of the Robins Gang

James Darby of the Robins Gang

Perhaps a warning should have been swiftly dispatched to the NYPD that James was coming to town because things were going to get ugly. Maybe not right away, but something would happen.

The Darby family moved into the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where they lived in a clean, 4-room, steam-heated apartment on the second floor of a brownstone home on Clifton Street. At the time Bedford-Stuyvesant was a neighborhood noted for its extremely high rate of juvenile delinquency. So maybe it should have been the other way around: perhaps the Darby family should have been warned about what awaited them.

When the Darby’s moved to New York City, the relationship between the parents heaved and buckled like pavement suffering from the summer’s heat. Mr. Darby spent a lot of his time outside the home and began to drink heavily. He also beat his wife and children and constantly threatened to abandon them. Mr. Darby was an ex-con who had served time in a penitentiary in Virginia prior to coming to New York City. He had no education and when it came to work, he was only employed sporadically. When they arrived in Brooklyn, he continued this trend and was irregular in obtaining jobs. This left Mrs. Darby as the main source of income for the family. She worked as a “pants examiner” at a clothier and earned $50 a week (I could not figure out what a “pants examiner” did).

In September 1947, Mr. Darby assaulted Mrs. Darby with a knife. She managed to obtain a court summons against him, but he didn’t bother to show up in court and nothing came of his non-appearance when the law never came after him. How despondent it must have been for the family to have their father and husband abuse them at will and with impunity!

Not surprisingly, James did not get along with his father who beat him a great deal. The two quarreled incessantly and violently. The alcoholism, abuse and constant threats of desertion created feelings of insecurity and hostility in James and almost surely in his brother and sister as well, for it wasn’t just James that had issues with Mr. Darby. All the children had lost respect for a father who had lost control of himself. James’ older brother moved out of the house because of Mr. Darby.

All of this must have been crushingly confusing to James because prior to moving to New York City, he and his dad were “pals.” Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this sub-story of James and his father’s relationship, for Mr. Darby never improved and his alcoholism drove an immovable wedge between him and his son.

James loved his mother, who was a friendly and kind woman. He would talk to her a lot, but as he got older, something inside him changed. He became quiet at home. He stopped attending Sunday school; religion meant nothing to him. School didn’t either. He attended the venerable Boys High, but skipped many of his classes: “I could have made it, but I couldn’t get along with the teachers,” he said. When he was 16 years old, James said that “the assistant principal told me to quit because I wasn’t doing so good in school.” So James quit. It was probably one of the only times he followed his teacher’s advice.

Regular employment didn’t work for James either. He had sporadic jobs doing tasks like being a helper on an ice truck, a stock boy and a delivery boy. Finding work was supposedly difficult.

While Mrs. Darby was the breadwinner for the family, she could not spend the time she wanted – and needed to – with James. As he drifted away from his mother and with a non-existent relationship with his father, James’ activities and influences really began to change him. The choices he was making were going to have serious consequences later on in his life. The storm clouds of juvenile delinquency were not going to blow over James; in fact, they settled over his head where they stayed to roost.

James began to hang out on the mean streets of Brooklyn more and more, making new friends and finding new hangouts, all people and places that his mother didn’t know about. In all fairness to Mrs. Darby, keeping an eye on her son’s activities and whereabouts would have been challenging because she had to work hard to keep the family afloat all while her husband loafed about in a drunken state and beat her and the children.

James stayed out late in the streets and would come home at 3 or 4 in the morning.  His girlfriend was convicted of stealing and was a prisoner on Welfare Island. Not that having his girlfriend incarcerated mattered, because James was a busy boy, having sex a couple of times a week with girls from the neighborhood. James picked up a smoking habit, churning through a pack of cigarettes a day. More troubling was that he was beginning to follow in his father’s footsteps when he began drinking wine frequently and heavily. He got drunk at least four times a week and would come home sloshed after his benders.  And to think, it was his father’s alcoholism that caused such rifts between them.

James’ associations with girls and his heavy drinking at such a young age weren’t his only problems. He had also joined a gang called the Robins, a name that belied their fearsome reputation in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The Robins were a well-organized and aggressive group that roved around the neighborhood committing crimes. In the small amount of research I have done on the Robins, I found them to be a nasty, brutal bunch, highly disturbed and thoroughly soaked with a vicious temperament. For example, one member of the Robins who participated in gang fights said that as a boy he enjoyed killing cats, “preferring” to throw them off the roof into the path of oncoming traffic. He even had feelings of killing his baby brother.

Their gang fights were vicious.

In 1944, a Robin shot and wounded a member of the Beavers’ gang with a .32 caliber gun. It was amazing the victim didn’t die because he was shot from a mere 5-10 feet away and was hit in the abdomen. The bullet pierced his lower abdomen and lodged in his left hip. He was hospitalized and underwent an operation to remove the bullet. It took him five weeks to recover with two of those weeks being in critical condition. Three days after this shooting, this same Robin, along with another member of the gang stalked a member of the Beavers who was doing some shopping on Broadway Street in Manhattan. Just after he exited a clothing store, they smashed him on the head with a hammer, and before he could fight back (if one can after being hit in the head with a hammer), carved his face with a five-inch blade which disfigured him for life.

In the summer of 1945, after the Bishops beat up a member of the Robins, the Robins struck back and a fight broke out between the two gangs that ranged over several streets in a mile-square area in Bedford-Stuyvesant. One of the battles took place on Clifton Street where James lived.  The fights took place in poolrooms, bars, stores and street corners.  The free-wheeling brawl lasted several hours and zip guns, knives, blackjacks, baseball bats and handles from garbage cans used as brass knuckles were all employed in the fight.  At the end of the free-for-all, a Bishop ended up dead, struck down from stab wounds received at the hands of two Robins.

This was the gang and its violent pedigree that James had joined.

James implied that he joined the Robins for self-protection and that enlisting was borne out of the knife wound on his cheek which he had received from another boy when he attended Boy’s High School.  Whether this is correct or not, what is true is that the gang became his life and he threw himself into their activities with unbridled zeal. James didn’t just join the gang as part of the regular rank and file. His daring and bellicose nature allowed him to rise in the hierarchy of the gang; he held a position of both war counselor and president, because, in his words, [I] “guess I got the most nerve.” Along with his fellow Robins, James was involved in many shakedowns, muggings and gang fights. Not only that, he also operated as a lone wolf, engaging in several shakedowns. For someone who had joined the gang for self-protection, James made himself awfully comfortable with their violent character.

Despite James’ threatening and combative nature, he had social skills that helped him become well-liked by his peers. And although he lived for the gang, there were still some parts of him that were the typical, run-of-the-mill characteristics of a lad of his time.  He enjoyed sports, especially basketball, and often played at P.S. 54 at night time.  He sometimes attended a recreational center at P.S. 35, would watch movies three times a week and also read – but only comic books.

As mentioned, working full-time as she was, Mrs. Darby wasn’t aware of her son’s dark descent into juvenile gangdom, where he would hang out or who his friends were.  However, the day she saw James come home with the knife slash wound on his cheek was the day her eyes began to open.   Eventually, through her oldest son, she found out that James was a member of a gang.

Up to the beginning of January 1949, James had managed to elude arrest despite the fact that he was participating in a multitude of violent crimes. Another notably troubling development was that whether he was aware of it or not, James wasn’t just following in his father’s ways in drinking bouts, but also in the fact that he owned and used a knife. According to James he had “decorated” – by cutting with a knife – “ten or eleven” people and that he was “handy” with the weapon. He was on his way to becoming a knife aficionado and artist.

James’ reputation was starting to catch up to him though, and not just within the youth gang world. He came to the attention of a detective from the 80th Youth Squad who became aware that James was a member of the Robins and deeply involved in their lawlessness. The detective even had reasonable cause to believe that James owned a .32 caliber revolver, although it must be pointed out that James was never caught with this weapon.

Despite the fact that James was a heavy-hitter in the gang and had somehow managed to get away with his crimes, his wily ways didn’t last forever. After three years as a member of the Robins, the law finally caught up with James.

The first time was on January 20, 1949…

More to follow as I compose Part 2 to James Darby’s story as a member of the Robins’ gang.