Some gangs are well-known, even now, many decades later. Gangs like the Dragons, Viceroys, Bishops and Chaplains. The Mau Maus too, of whom I wrote a book about and finished in 2018 after 15 years of research and writing. With the information I currently have, entire books could be written about the Dragons, Viceroys and Bishops.
For various reasons (size of gang, the severity of crimes it committed, how many members are alive now are examples) some gangs are barely a blip on the record; in fact, we are lucky to even know the name of some gangs, much less who they fought, where their turf was and what their exploits were. Today’s story is an example of that.
Although information about this gang is sparse, I have more information about one of the people in this gang and his story. His name is Robert. This brings me to my next point.
For me, it’s always about the story and narrative. Not to be confused with political narrative – which we see and hear every day in the media – but the narrative of the human condition which we are all afflicted by. The things we do and why we do them. This is Robert’s story…
Born in Lakeview, South Carolina in 1939, Robert’s parents found out at a very early age that he was a load to handle. As later reported by an investigator, Robert “became incorrigible and his guardians had virtually no control over him.” His parents didn’t stay together long enough for both to shoulder the burden of their son’s rebellion together. Maybe he acted out because of his parent’s separation.
His parents’ break-up happened when he was five years old when his mother left his father because of “general incompatibility” issues (whatever that means) and because he cheated on her. The year was 1944 and she moved from South Carolina to start a new life in the Big Apple. For reasons that aren’t clear, Robert didn’t move with his mother, or, for that matter, his father. Instead he was shipped to live with his Uncle Cal and Aunt Rosa.
Robert was hell on wheels with his uncle and aunt. When he was 12 years old he was taken to the Children’s Court as a Truant and Incorrigible child and put on probation. When he was 13 years old, Robert hit the bottle – whiskey was his drink – and smoked marijuana cigarettes. Robert probably learned to drink from his uncle who was known to imbibe.
Life must have been tough and dreary for the lad. His uncle owned his own home and had a store in his front yard. He farmed all his life and when Robert wasn’t attending school, he was toiling on the farm for his uncle during season. His uncle was a frightful bore: a dreadfully unintelligent man who couldn’t read.
It was around this time that Robert was arrested for breaking into a house. He was found not guilty, but he confessed that he often took the keys to his uncle’s store on the sneak and stole whatever he wanted. Even though he wasn’t guilty of the break-in, the stink of possible wrong-doing didn’t rub off of Robert, despite his innocence. The Chief of police took him to the Judge who reprimanded him and had Robert returned back to his uncle.
This was all too much for Uncle Cal and Aunt Rosa to handle. Robert had to go. So in 1953, his mother came to South Carolina and collected her son from the field in which he was working without telling him what was going on. Robert was moving to Manhattan, New York City, making the Chief of Police a happy man. It was his opinion that the community needed to be Robert-free and that he should never return. I looked up Lakeview, South Carolina, and today it is a small town with less than 1,000 residents. Most likely it was that way in the 1950s too.
When Robert got to Manhattan and enrolled in school, he immediately began failing his subjects at Junior High School 139. His conduct was barely better. Supervision at home was non-existent because his mother worked during the day to provide for her and Robert, now a teenage son. Like a ship bearing down on the proverbial iceberg, Robert became a child of the streets, adopting the bad habits of other truants and guttersnipes. When his mother gave advice or admonished him, he ignored her. His mother’s wisdom had no room in his life. He was easily influenced – by the wrong people.
When Robert’s parent’s had split up and his mother moved to NYC, his father remained in Lakeview, South Carolina, remarried and was a piccolo machinist. His mother’s job was working as a chambermaid at the Ritz-Tower Hotel making $38 a week. She didn’t pay for rent though, because she was kept as a mistress by an oddly-named man called “Woolie Huggard.” He paid for her rent.
Robert’s Mom wasn’t busy with just Woolie. I’m not sure if this happened at the same time as her relationship with Woolie, but she also had an out-of-wedlock daughter by a more normal-named man called Robert Green, who she later married.
In late 1954, she moved to the Bronx with Robert where they lived at 2789 Valentine Avenue. She had received a rent-free apartment there in exchange for janitorial work. They lived there from November 1954 to September 1955.
It was while he was living in the Bronx that Robert joined a street gang called the Ravens, who then changed their name to the Politicians. This is not to be confused with the Politicians gang from Harlem. One time he and his friends “congregated” in a Bronx housing projects and acted in a “disorderly manner,” a favorite catch-all charge that the police would use for any kind of bad behavior, even minor incidents. Robert was taken into custody and put on probation in the Bronx.
In September 1955, Robert and his mother moved back to Manhattan (they had actually lived there for a year before they had moved to the Bronx). Their new home was 112 West 134th Street in the heart of Harlem, a neighborhood known for “grinding poverty, abject living conditions and rampant crime…” Just like in the Bronx, Robert was a rebel. His mom didn’t approve of his friends and her opinion was that her son needed iron discipline to keep him straight. She wasn’t wrong. Twice she marched him into the 30th and 32nd police stations asking for help in how to deal with Robert who was staying up late, occasionally deserting the home and refusing to work.
It was on one of those late night capers that Robert got involved in an incident that had him facing very serious criminal charges: two counts of 2nd degree assault and carrying a dangerous weapon.
James Harrington, who lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, was employed as a car cleaner by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. On the evening of December 9, 1955, he met a member of the U.S. Air Force in the Pennsylvania Railroad station at 33rd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. They hit it off and they decided to spend their night together drinking. They found a bar in Harlem on West 125th Street and 7th Avenue. There they polished off several glasses of beer. When they finished drinking, it was shortly before 2:00 a.m., now December 10.
The two companions walked out of the bar down the street a ways, when James stopped at a store to buy some cigarettes. The airman hailed a taxi cab. After James paid for his purchase and was leaving the store, he saw a large group of teenagers surround the cab as the airman was about to enter it.
James approached the taxi and the teenagers turned their attention from the airman onto James. This was no friendly visit. They were angry and the group of boys rushed James, punched and kicked him and stabbed him in the back to cap things off. The time was 2:03 a.m.
Incredibly luckily for James, Patrolman Frank Carbo of the 28th Precinct happened to be passing by at the moment of the vicious beatdown. He saw Robert pummeling James who was sprawled on the ground. When he approached the scene, at least nine of the pack scattered like birds into the air, along with several girls who were with them. Carbo chased the group and overtook and caught Robert. He questioned him and when James identified him as one of his attackers, Robert was arrested.
Harrington was treated at Harlem Hospital for a stab wound and one suture was inserted into his back. He got out of the hospital the next day and given a pair of crutches. Working as a car cleaner at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, James earned $65-70 per week. He didn’t return to work until January 4, 1956, thus losing out on his salary since December 11.
The big question was of course what had precipitated the surrounding of the taxicab. If it hadn’t been for James coming out to see what was going on, it would have been the airman who would have received the drubbing. Something had happened while he was in the shop buying his cigarettes.
Robert didn’t deny he assaulted Harrington, but he did deny that he stabbed him in the back. As Carbo interrogated Robert, information came out that explained what happened. According to Robert, the airman had made some suggestive and derogatory remarks to the girls who were with Robert and his companions. They were taking the girls home after attending a party in a housing project at West 128th Street and 8th Avenue.
Harrington denied making any derogatory remarks to the girls and I believe him. He was in the tobacco store buying cigarettes and wouldn’t have had the opportunity. Certainly he wouldn’t have heard the airman say anything. When they were drinking together he did caution the airman about flashing his money. His opinion was that Robert and his friends were out to rob the airman. No money was stolen from him, but then again, the whipping was interrupted by the cop. Harrington had no idea who cut him, but he did say that all of his attackers had struck him with their fists as well as beer cans. His right side was numb and he couldn’t use his limbs adequately.
Carbo talked to the airman at the scene shortly after Robert was arrested, but he later disappeared, leaving New York City for somewhere in Texas. Carbo did notice that Harrington and the airman were both drunk, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. But Robert was sober. Robert knew that one of the guys in the group had a knife, but Carbo couldn’t recover the weapon which was obviously ditched in the chase.
When I wrote Brooklyn Rumble, the antagonism between sailors and the Sand Street Angels and Fort Greene Chaplains was well-known and documented. After being at sea for long stretches of time, the sailors came off their ships drunk on their raging hormones. Hoots, catcalls and whistles funneled to neighborhood girls was one way for them to blow off steam. This was resented by the neighborhood youth and fights between them and sailors were a common feature of the neighborhood. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if this airman did make some sexual remarks to the girls, especially considering he was drunk.
According to Robert, when the airman made some lewd remarks to the girls, the boys in the group took offense and challenged the airman who then cursed and challenged them.
As the back-and-forth continued, the airman reached into his back pocket and took out a bottle. He advanced to the group when all of a sudden he turned and jumped into a taxicab. It was at this time that Harrington came on the scene to the aid of his drinking companion. Robert and his friends, turning their fury from the airman (who was now in the cab), attacked Harrington.
After Robert was arrested, he submitted to a Psychiatric test at Bellevue Hospital. It was found that he was without psychosis and had borderline intelligence. He had a low IQ, but was stable emotionally. He had a “high frustration tolerance,” was soft-spoken and “display[ed] a pleading, explanatory manner.” In regards to the assault, he admitting participating, but denied starting the attack. He just went along with the others “to be doing something.” One of the conclusions of the psychiatrist was that Robert was “obviously suggestible and easily influenced.”
The authorities must not have thought the incident was too serious because Robert was designated as a “Youthful Offender,” which meant he was put on probation. As long as he would make his visits with his probation officer and follow the rules (get a job, not hang out with others of “ill repute,” and stay out of trouble) then he would eventually be discharged from probation and wouldn’t be charged with the assault and carrying a dangerous weapon.
Unfortunately for Robert, staying out of trouble wasn’t in his plan.
On March 20, 1956 at 9:15 p.m., he and three other Youthful Offenders and an adult, assaulted and raped a 40-year-old woman multiple times over the course of the evening. They were caught when the victim yelled loud enough for her boyfriend to hear. Everyone was arrested at the scene of the rape.
This was an extremely serious charge and this time the authorities wasted no time or gave him another chance. Robert was convicted and sent to a notorious upstate prison for teenagers.