Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood
Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood

An argument could be made on both sides whether the most kill-crazy mobsters in New York in recent years were the brutal hit men of the Gambinos under Roy DeMeo, who maintained what can only be called a slaughterhouse flat in Brooklyn, or the Westies, who terrorized Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood and the surrounding West Side (the original setting for West Side Story).

Those aficionados who favored the Westies (many of whom were former choirboys) could cite as an example the fate of one of the gang's own members, Patrick "Paddy" Dugan. From the Westies viewpoint Dugan's transgressions were many and clearly called for the death penalty.

Dugan was in the habit of making money on the side by shaking down loan sharks, even after the Westies had decided to align themselves with the Gambinos and cease such unseemly behavior. Dugan was warned many times to stop all non-sanctioned operations but simply did not obey. Then Dugan murdered one of Westies leader Jimmy Coonan's close buddies and his fate was sealed.

Dugan was murdered, and in typical Westies style his body was sliced up into little pieces for disposal. Jimmy Coonan retained the severed fingers, which he added to a bag full of the fingers of other victims. Coonan showed the bag to others to encourage them to be more cooperative.

This hardly meant the Westies were not a sentimental bunch. They decided Dugan still was a reasonably good lad, so they took his severed head to a local ginmill, propped it up on the bar and for several hours Coonan, other Westies and friends of Dugan sentimentally toasted the deceased's memory. They even lit a cigarette of Dugan's brand and placed it between the dead man's lips.

The Westies never comprised more than a couple dozen men, but they were so kill-crazy their foes must have thought they were up against a Roman legion. The mob became a fearsome operative in narcotics, extortion, loan-sharking, labor racketeering and kidnapping.

Jimmy Coonan
Jimmy Coonan
The Westies kidnapped several Mafia men for ransom and in some cases even after collecting the money consigned their victim to the depths of the Hudson River. The mafiosi knew that if they tried to invade Westie turf they faced certain death.

Then Coonan pulled his greatest coup, murdering a big-money mob loan shark named Ruby Stein. Coonan had a special motive in disposing of Ruby since he was in to the loan shark for $70,000, and other Westies were in for similar sums. More important the Westies came into the possession of Ruby's "black book," which recorded the millions of Mafia dollars that were out in loans. The Westies simply went out and took over many of the loans.

After the death of Carlo Gambino, his successor Paul Castellano decided he had to tame the Westies, but he feared killing them, realizing the gang was monstrous about retribution. Instead, he took them into the Gambino family fold, using them in a number of rackets and for a number of hits.

The matter of the Stein murder and his missing book was ignored, the mob taking an estimated $4 million hit, as the Westies swore they knew nothing about the matter. By the early 1980s many of the Westies were very rich; Coonan himself was worth millions.

Together with the Gambinos, the gang operated many juicy rackets. They infiltrated the union representing personnel working on the U.S.S. Intrepid, the aircraft carrier museum anchored in the Hudson River. That gallant ship had survived kamikaze attacks in World War II but was almost sunk into bankruptcy by the skimming of ticket receipts and the padding of payroll with no-show jobs. The Westies also dominated certain backstage unions at Broadway theaters and were said to be a partial cause of rising ticket prices.

Despite the wealth heaped on the gang, the fact remained once a Westie always a Westie. Some of them continued unauthorized stealing from other mobsters as well as from their own associates. Many were constantly drugged up and followed an old custom of playing Russian roulette for $1,000 a bullet.

Disaffection spread in the ranks, some of the boys faulting Coonan for "trying to be more Italian than Irish." Coonan himself left for the comforts of New Jersey and only came to the West Side when absolutely necessary. Several Westies determined it was time to kill Coonan, but their plans never worked out.

To relieve some of the pressure on himself, Coonan with some other Westies framed the gang's number two man, Mickey Featherstone, for murder. Featherstone was convicted and then decided to turn informer, something that shocked the denizens of Hell's Kitchen because Mickey had been regarded as the most stand-up guy in the mob.

Mickey Featherstone
Mickey Featherstone
Featherstone's evidence landed a number of Westies in prison on RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act charges. Jimmy Coonan got 75 years. Some others got 40or 50-year terms. The Westies were decimated, while Featherstone and a few others went into the witness protection program, and the alliance between the Irish and Italian gangsters was finished.

Some said the Westies destroyed themselves or that law enforcement did them in. Others however noted yet another irresistible force. Gentrification drove many of the working-class elements out of the neighborhood. They had been the primary victims of the Westies, and without the main victims, the ravagers were likewise ravaged.

(It might be noted that even with the Westies hold on the Broadway unions broken, no one noticed any reduction in theater ticket prices.)