Vice of the El Kovons Gang from Red Hook

Do you know what it means to get “fire-baptized” at a church?  I went to a Pentecostal-type church when I was younger, and heard of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, but never “fire baptism.”

Doing some research on a member of the El Kovons (or Elkovans) gang from the Red Hook Projects. Red Hook was a low-income neighborhood with a mixed residential and commercial area on the Brooklyn waterfront with shipyards, docks, and factories near the projects. The area was “above average” with criminal activity and there were “juvenile and gang clashes.”

The member of the El Kovons was Willie McLeod, or “Vice,” which was his street name.

Willie "Vice" McLeod of the El Kovons Gang Red Hook 1950s

Willie “Vice” McLeod of the El Kovons Gang Red Hook 1950s

Vice’s mother Tinella was a domestic in the South, and she moved to NYC “to make a living for the children.” She was a small lady, plainly dressed and had a neat appearance. When she was seen in court, she carried her Bible which she quoted from.  Tinella was a member of the St. John’s Fire-Baptized Holiness Church on 1016 Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She was a preacher at the church.

Tinella died of rheumatic heart on Jul.9, 1957, so Willie was left to the care of his Aunt Flossie. She was also from the south and after her sister died, she moved into the home to take care of Willie and his sister.  She was also a meticulous woman who kept an extraordinarily clean home.  Flossie was a spinster and similar to her sister Tinella when it came to religion: religiously fervent and a member of the St. John’s Fire-Baptized Holiness Church. She was rigid in her attitudes and very strict and demanding of a code that was acceptable to the church.

Flossie was concerned about Willie’s behavior (such as keeping late hours) and escapades which had them on the verge of being kicked out of the Red Hook Houses. From his point of view, Willie had an “underlying resentment towards his aunt which may be ‘explosive.'” He expressed his anger to his aunt for her demands of him of a code of conduct which he couldn’t keep.

Another area of friction between Aunt Flossie and Vice was that she didn’t like his friends and forbade him from bringing them home. When she was away, he did it anyway.

What seemed to set Aunt Flossie off was when Willie was beaten up by an alleged member of the “Sioux” gang. A couple months after this he was hit by a bottle thrown through the window of a store for which he received cuts requiring treatment at the hospital.  Willie blamed both of these incidents on “racial friction” (which could have been true as well as being a gang fight). Then, on Feb.24, 1958, Aunt Flossie intercepted a letter sent to her nephew signed by “Lash and Jackson,” who identified themselves as members of the Bishops and El Kovons.  The letter was written from the Youth House in the Bronx (a detention-type center for youth) and both Lash and Jackson anticipated celebrating “with some wine” with Vice later on when they returned home.  The letter also contained lewd language, although I don’t know what it said.  For his part, Willie denied being either a member of the El Kovons or the Bishops and that he was just friends with them and that they were younger boys who were trying to impress him as being “big men.”

Willie’s denials of being in a gang are weak.  To strengthen the case that he was a member of the El Kovons, two bullets were found in his room by his Aunt Flossie on Jun 24, 1957.  Then later in the year in December, 1957 she found a sharpening stone and knife in his room and overheard a discussion between him and a pal about a fight.

Willie said he found the two bullets on the street and brought them home out of curiosity.  As for the sharpening stone he had that for sharpening a small pen knife that he owned (which was the knife his aunt found).  In regards to the fight, he said that he wasn’t involved in it and that he was “just discussing it.”  He didn’t see anything wrong with his nickname “Vice,” which his friends called him and which he cut into his left forearm leaving a scar.

All of this to finally get to the point about his religion.  Willie attended St. John’s Fire-Baptized Holiness church on 1016 Fulton Street with his mother.  According to her, Willie attended church there on Sunday as well as on Friday evenings. This is where he was “fire-baptized.” However, after his mother passed and he lived with Aunt Flossie, he had no interest in church because it was so strict.  According to him, he was admonished not to dance, smoke, date or chew gum.  He could not follow such a rigid code of conduct because no one else behaved this way.  He also did not attend church because he lacked the proper clothing to dress well.

I looked up 1016 Fulton Street to see what it looks like to today and amazingly the same church is still there!  The name on the front plainly says “St. John’s F.B.H. Church Inc.”

1016 Fulton Street St. John’s F.B.H. Church Inc.

1016 Fulton Street St. John’s F.B.H. Church Inc.

If I were to make a guess on Willie’s demise, I don’t think it ended well.  I lose track of him after he was sentenced to a reformatory for three years (the authorities identified him as a member of the El Kovons and the Bishops) and he got out on parole.  While on parole he was caught with a hypodermic needle; it looked like he was hooked on heroin.  He made the usual denials about it, but beating heroin is extremely difficult.