When professional boxer Jake LaMotta – aka “Raging Bull” or “The Bronx Bull” – died in 2017, his net worth was approximately $10 million. That’s quite a stratospheric rise from his humble beginnings growing up poor in the Lower East Side and then later the Bronx in the 1920s and 1930s.
Although the youth gangs that New York City recoiled from in the 1950s were not an issue when Jake was a teenager, he still had several scrapes with the law and was sent to a reformatory, which is where he first learned to box. After he got out of reformatory, he became an amateur fighter and then turned professional in 1941 at the age of 19 years old.
These early years of Jake are interesting to me, especially the details of his run-ins with the law. That’s what this page is about.
Jake was born on July 10, 1922 in Manhattan and was the oldest of five children. However, he grew up in the Bronx where he attended public school. Up to Grade 7, his conduct was satisfactory, but upon attending P.S. 55 in Grade 7, his conduct took a down swing. He didn’t pay attention in class and created disturbances. He annoyed the other students and disrespected the teachers. He then transferred to the New York Industrial High School at 138th Street and 5th Avenue where he was registered in the 3rd term. It was during these years that he got into trouble.
The first incident happened on January 2, 1937, when at 9 p.m., Jake, along with an older teenager, shimmied up a high wire fence surrounding the playground of P.S. 55 in the Bronx. After gaining access to the building, they went up a flight of stairs leading to the auditorium roof and broke into the clerk’s office. Next they used a skeleton key to gain entrance into another office where they stole a Corona typewriter that was worth $80. They didn’t get very far with the typewriter to begin their lives of becoming the next Jack London (as if). As soon as they left the school they were nabbed by a Patrolman from the 48th Precinct who caught Jake with the typewriter in his hands. He was put on probation.
Two and a half months later, on March 16, 1937, Jake broke into 1463 Brook Avenue with two others and tried to steal some lead pipe. My guess is they were planning on selling the lead pipe at a junkyard to gin up some spending money. Everything was quiet for seven months, until October 29, 1937, when Jake was arrested by a state railway policeman for disorderly conduct on the 3rd Ave L train where Jake used “vile and abusive language in the presence of other passengers.” In both these incidents, Jake was kept on probation.
Jake got through Christmas and New Year’s Day before getting arrested on January 14, 1938 for assaulting a boy at a railroad station who had to be treated by an “ambulance surgeon.” The beating must have been serious because Jake was taken to Bellevue Hospital for a psychiatric examination. When he returned, he was continued on probation.
Being kept on probation without being hit by any violations couldn’t last forever…
The pebble dropped on August 6, 1938 when a skeleton key made another guest appearance. In response to a radio call, a detective was sent to 757 Elton Ave in the Bronx at 2 a.m. on August 6. After searching the house and the hallway he found Jake and an accomplice who was an escapee from the Catholic Protectory, crouched in a corner of the yard. When he questioned the boys as to what they were doing, they replied that they were just looking around (at 2 a.m.!). Doing some looking around himself, the detective found a chisel and some skeleton keys near the two boys. They denied owning the chisel, but the accomplice admitted that he found the skeleton keys. Jake was acquitted of the charge of Possession of Burglar’s Tools, but was convicted of Unlawful Entry in Bronx Special Sessions. On August 19, 1938, he was sentenced to the reformatory and admitted there on August 27.
While he was in the reformatory, Jake received letters from his family; here is one from his cousin Jerry:
Jake served just over a year at the reformatory and was released on parole on November 24, 1939. He was on parole until August 1941 at which point he was a free man and began pursuing his soon-to-be famous boxing career. Little would he know that the boxing he learned in the reformatory was to pay off handsomely. How was he to know he would eventually be worth $10 million? And have his life story splashed on the silver screen in the all-time classic movie Raging Bull? And have none other than Robert DeNiro play him in the film?