Tuesday, March 23, 2010
In the winter of 1933, the empty store stayed dark all day, dusty wooden crates piled high behind the windows. But if you lived close by, you knew that the door opened at night and that behind the stacked boxes was a bare-bones little speakeasy, a sofa, four tables, a plywood bar along the back wall, a fair supply of bootlegged whiskey, and a bartender who slept it off at night on the sofa.
The speakeasy, such as it was, kept its owner out of the breadlines. Barely. Sometimes his patrons paid; sometimes they didn’t. They’d empty the ragtag of coins out of their pockets and put the rest on a tab. Sometimes they paid that tab, sometimes not. The worst was old Michael Malloy, who drifted in and out of employment – street cleaner, coffin polisher - according to whether he was able to stay upright. There were nights when the owner would have sworn that he was pouring most of his profits down Mike Malloy’s neck.
Malloy and money were the topics of discussion one night after he’d had passed out again atop the plywood bar. The speakeasy boss, Tony Marino, and several of his friends were playing an idle game of pinochle, drinking some bootlegged whiskey, all of them worrying over money and the Depression’s hard times.
If only one of them had a wealthy relative or, barring that, a sick one with a good insurance policy. The right kind of dead family member would have really come in handy right then. Too bad none of them had an expendable relative. But perhaps, Marino suggested, they could create one -- someone no one would miss, someone hardly worth keeping alive anyway.
As the story was later told, to a man, they turned to look at Mike Malloy, snoring off another bender in the backroom bar. And at the moment, in a ragtag speakeasy in the Bronx, was chosen the worst possible victim of a murder scheme, a man the newspapers would later dub “Mike the Durable.”
The saga of the almost invincible Mike, the improbably cursed murder syndicate, and the investigation that sent all four of those card players to the electric chair, is probably my favorite true crimes story from The Poisoner’s Handbook. It’s just natural Alfred Hitchcock material, with the same macabre sense of the ridiculous, a corpse that just won't go away, that pervades Hitchcock's film “The Trouble With Harry".
I’m not arguing that murder – in this case the death of a harmless and rather pathetic old man – is laugh track material. But this particular story is a dark comedy of errors. And it definitely proves that familiar saying – you couldn’t make it up – reminding us that even the most creative fiction writers can’t always top what people come up with all by themselves.
The conspirators in the Malloy scheme finalized their plans in January of 1933, clustered around a table at that no-name speakeasy. They’d persuaded their amiable victim to pose as the brother of bartender Red Murphy – in exchange for free whiskey – and taken out two insurance policies with a combined payout of $1,800.
In addition to Murphy, the others in the oddly assembled plot included Marino, a fruit vendor named Daniel Kriesberg, and Frank Pasqua, an increasingly money-strapped funeral home director. Their initial idea was simple. Prohibition was still in effect, and New York City was awash in poison alcohol, the product of shoddy home brews, government efforts to contaminate the liquor supply as an enforcement tool, and bootlegger concoctions. They would just provide Malloy with a generous allotment of bad alcohol and watch him go down.
But the old derelict thrived on bad whiskey, drank himself into a stupor every night, and returned the next day. So they decided on poisonous snacks to go with the liquor – bad oysters, rotten sardine sandwiches, sandwiches with metal shavings, sandwiches with glass. He loved those too.
A month later, they had yet another plan. They waited one night until he passed out, carried him to a park bench on a freezing February night and poured water on him. He didn’t even wake up during the soaking. But he was back next night without so much as catching a cold. Finally, the exasperated would-be killers hired a cab driver, Hershy Green, to run over Malloy in a nearby street. But a policeman found him after the accident and took him to a hospital. He was back in the bar, asking for a drink, a few weeks later.
It wasn’t until the end of February that they figured out a way to kill him, using illuminating gas, dense with poisonous carbon monoxide. Finally, they started collecting their insurance money. But unfortunately – at least for them - the story of the indestructible Malloy was too good to stay secret. It started circulating in other bars, making its way round other card games, until the Bronx police picked the rumors and began an investigation.
And the conspirators had other bad luck too. They’d paid a corrupt local doctor to sign a death certificate attributing Malloy’s death to poison alcohol and had their victim hastily buried. But the city exhumed the body. And even though this was several months after the death, forensic scientists could detect lethal levels of carbon monoxide in the old man’s tissues.
Both the cab driver and the physician made deals and testified for the prosecution. And Murphy, Marino, Kriesberg and Pasqua all went to the electric chair in the summer of 1934. A reporter for the now-vanished New York Daily Mirror recorded the execution in crisp staccato: “The kw-e-e- of the dynamo. Two thousand volts and ten amperes. The rip-saw current that tears one apart. Three shocks.” It was, he wrote, “the State’s toast to old ‘Mike the Durable’.”Tweet