Luc Sante, General Editor
For more than fifty years, Willie Sutton devoted his boundless energy and undoubted genius exclusively to two activities at which he became better than any man in history: breaking in and breaking out. The targets in the first instance were banks and in the second, prisons. Unarguably America’s most famous bank robber, Willie never injured a soul, but took on almost a hundred banks and departed three of America’s most escape-proof penitentiaries. This is the stuff of myth—rascally and cautionary by turns—yet true in every searing, diverting, and brilliantly recalled detail.
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About the Author
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Irishtown Made Me
I was born on June 30, 1901, on the corner of Nassau and Gold in a section along the Brooklyn docks known as Irishtown. When I was three, we moved over one block to High Street, between Gold Street and Bridge Street, and about five years later we moved down the block from 183 High to 227 High. Irishtown was wedged in between the East River on the north, the Navy Yard on the east, and the Washington Street entrance approach to the Brooklyn Bridge off to the west. To pin my own neighborhood down more closely, the Manhattan Bridge was built while I was nine or ten and we kids used to drive everybody crazy by clambering up the structural ironwork which was going up only a block away from my house.
It was a workingman's neighborhood of one- and two-family dwellings and small neighborhood stores in which credit was extended from payday to payday. We weren't bad off, considering. My father, William Francis Sutton, Sr.--I'm William Francis, Jr.--was a hard-working blacksmith who earned fifteen dollars a week, which was not a bad salary in those days. A blacksmith at that time was like an automobile mechanic today. No matter how bad the times got, there was always a place somewhere for a good one. My mother's father, who was totally blind, lived with us, and so did her brothers, John and Jim, plus John's wife, my Aunt Alice. My grandfather had gone blind from working over the coffee roasters for the A & P stores, and he had a pension. The others all worked and contributed to the upkeep of the house. We were the first family in the neighborhood to have a Victrola, a brand-new Victor in which the music was produced from round cylinders and projected through a cone-shaped horn.
It was a tough neighborhood, but it was a toughness without any strut or swagger. There was constant warfare for control of the docks, because to control the docks meant that you controlled the gambling, the loan-sharking, the pilfering, and the kickbacks. Plus the loading racket, which was the sweetest racket of all. Two rackets really. A flat rate, otherwise known as extortion, was levied against the importer, and then another charge was levied against the truckers for every crate they loaded. Lead pipes and brass knuckles were standard equipment. Murder was commonplace. No one was ever convicted. A code of silence was observed in Irishtown more faithfully than omerts is observed by the Mafia.
A code of silence that was to have a powerful influence on my life.
Since it was all muscle, the gang members were generally in their late teens or early twenties and therefore very easy for a kid to identify with. The dock boss--the leader--would usually be a little older, all the way up into his mid-twenties, maybe. They gained control by killing their predecessors, and they in turn were killed by their successors. Two years was a long time for a dock boss to stay alive; the turnover was very rapid. They were beaten to a pulp on a dark street; they were shot or stabbed and dumped into the water.
Bill Lovert, my first idol, held power longer than most. A slim man, not very tall, with a sure sense of command and a vibrant personality. Or, at any rate, he was before he had his head bashed in along the docks one night. His successor, Dinny Meehan, was the only dock boss I can remember who died in bed. By which I mean that somebody slipped in through his bedroom window while he was asleep and put a bullet in his brain.
It wasn't only the gangs that were at war with the police. Everybody was. If a man was arrested, his whole family would run alongside the paddy wagon screaming:
"Stop beating my husband!"
"Stop beating my son!"
"They're murdering my daddy!"
The word would go out and in a matter of minutes all his friends would gather outside the police headquarters at Poplar Street and set up a clamor:
"Murderers! Cowards! Leave the lad alone!"
The lad was going to be beaten up anyway. Everybody knew that. The theory was that if you could show the police that there were people on the outside who were interested in his welfare the beating would be less severe.
Either way, all the police ever got out of him was the exercise. Nobody ever talked in Irishtown.
The Italian section began on the other side of the Tillary Street Slaughterhouse, and as far as the kids were concerned we got along very nicely. Probably, now that I think of it, because PS 5 was situated right on the border, and neither group had to fight its way through. The Irish mobs and the Italian mobs were something else. The Irish, having got there first, ran the docks, and the Italians were always fighting for their piece of the action. They didn't get very far. Scarface Al Capone was a member of the Italian mob, and it was common knowledge in later years that he had gone to Chicago because the Irish mob played too rough. Although there was one occasion I distinctly remember where the Irish mob invaded an Italian social club down at Union Street and Fourth Avenue in South Brooklyn, and several of the Irish were brought back dead.
If the docks were a battleground, the East River was both our playground and our lifeline. We swam through the raw untreated garbage which was dumped regularly into the river. We dove off the cargo barges as they were being pulled toward shore, against the tide, by their little tugboats. Before I was out of my early teens I was swimming to Manhattan and back with such ease that on three separate occasions I was able to rescue friends of mine who couldn't make it. If I hadn't been such a powerful swimmer in my youth I would never have been able to save myself, years later, when an attempt to escape from a Pennsylvania prison through the main sewer went all wrong.
Everything came in by barge, including the livestock that was headed for the Tillary Street Slaughterhouse. A cattle drive through the narrow cobblestone streets of Irishtown? I saw it often. The barges, carrying cattle or sheep, would dock a couple of blocks from St. Ann's, the first school I attended. The cattle would be driven down Hudson Avenue, past the tenement houses and the neighborhood stores, to the slaughterhouse, which was actually on Hudson Avenue, a little east of Tillary, a block away from PS 5, the second school I attended. The sheep didn't have to be driven. They would follow the Judas sheep, which, at this slaughterhouse anyway, was literally a black sheep. Two big iron doors would swing open and the sheep, baaing piteously, would be crowded into the building.
The slaughtering was done in open view on what could be compared to the loading platform of a factory. And it was slaughter on an assembly line. One of the workers would hit the cattle on the head with a sledgehammer to knock him off his feet and stun him and another would immediately slit his throat. With the sheep, they would simply run a long knife through the throat. The workers would be standing there in hip boots on a floor that was awash with blood, and every now and then one of them would stop to scoop up a cupful of the warm blood and drink it down. They were big, powerful men, and they believed that it gave them extra strength. That's what they told me, anyway. A couple of times while I was standing there watching, they even offered me a cup. I didn't like the taste of it much, but since I was never a kid to turn down a challenge I'd drink it.
I had nothing against the workers. They were German immigrants, most of them, with heavy accents. A job was a job. But that Judas sheep, I came to hate it. I swear that he knew what he was doing. There was an expression of exaggerated innocence on its face that no other sheep had. I hated it so much that I got all of my friends together and planned to drown it when the next load of sheep arrived. After the gangplank of the barge had been lowered we came running forward, swinging sticks and throwing rocks, and drove the black sheep right into the river. It had never occurred to any of us that the other sheep were going to follow it right into the river. What a mess!
I have never forgotten the Judas sheep, though. Or ever stopped hating it. How could I? I kept seeing that same expression of exaggerated innocence in the faces of the hired killers, the woman stranglers, and the sex fiends I ran across in prison.
We were not a family that ever had any trouble with the police. Nobody before me. And nobody except me. My mother was a deeply religious woman who filled the house with religious paintings and artifacts and was always stuffing rosary beads and religious medals into my pockets. We were regular churchgoers, and my brother, Jimmy, who was 15 months older than me, and my sister Helen remained very active in religious affairs all of their lives.
Over all of us hung the memory of the family tragedy, the death of my little sister Agnes. Agnes had been one year younger than me, a beautiful little girl with a headful of curls, the darling of the family. Such an outstanding little beauty that people were always commenting on it. When she was seven years old, she fell off the stoop in front of the house, split the back of her head open, and contracted meningitis.
Two or three days, that's all it took. She died there in the house. In those days in that neighborhood, our people didn't trust the hospitals. Any more than they trusted anything else that smacked of officialdom. People went into the hospital and died, that's all they knew. "The Bellevue Disease," they would say with a shudder. And then cross themselves. "The Black Bottle," they'd whisper knowingly. For it was common gossip in my neighborhood that if they happened to need a bed or something at Bellevue, they would pick out a poor Irish patient and give him the Black Bottle. Poison.
Not that it would have mattered in Agnes's case. The doctors knew almost nothing about meningitis in those days, except that it was so highly contagious that the law required that the body be placed in a sealed coffin, lined with lead, and buried within twenty-four hours.
The casket was placed in the parlor, within a bower of flowers. There was a small glass window in it just large enough so that you could see her face. Even in death, everybody could see how beautiful she was.
When the time came to take her away, my mother hurled herself upon the men from the funeral home. The priest tried to hold her back. My father tried to reason with her. Her closest friends begged and pleaded. It was such a hysterical scene that even now, sixty-five years later, I can see it so vividly that I can smell the sweet and heavy odor of the flowers and feel the emptiness in my stomach.
Nothing anybody could say or do could dissuade her. The men from the funeral home finally had to remove the screws, open the clamps, and then back quickly away while my mother lifted the lid and leaned down to kiss her darling daughter one last time.
For the next few weeks I wheeled my sister Helen up and down the streets, being extremely watchful of her. Although the concept of death was beyond my grasp, I did know that it meant I was never going to see my sister Agnes again, an idea which I found so wholly unacceptable that I doubt whether I could have allowed it to fully penetrate.
I also knew that my mother was prostrate with grief. She remained in a deep state of depression for a long, long time, and though she eventually did come out of it and begin to sing again the lovely Irish ballads that I loved so well, it was never again with quite the same sweet, lilting brogue.
My mother's maiden name was Mary Ellen Bowles. She had been born in Ireland. She was a small woman with sparkling brown eyes and jet-black hair. There was a saying in those days that a woman's work was never done. And it was true. There was no electricity at that time, not in Irishtown anyway. Nor hot water. You'd heat the water on the coal stove in the kitchen and dump it into a big open tub. The washing was done with Fels-Naptha, a yellow scouring soap that left its disinfectant smell in the very walls, with each piece of clothing being rubbed clean on a corrugated metal washboard and then wrung dry by cranking it through a pair of rollers.
My father was a slim, wiry man with a walrus mustache. A strong, silent man who worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, and came home so goddamned tired that he could just about have dinner and read a few of the headlines before he'd doze off to sleep.
He was never able to refuse any of us anything. For as long as I could remember, he was trying to save a few bucks for a rainy day, which wasn't easy because about the only way he could save anything was by cutting down on his tobacco or occasional glass of beer. And my mother was always conning him out of it. The ritual never changed. His bankroll was kept in his pants pocket with a rubber band around it, and since a wife was not supposed to know how much money her husband had--what a laugh!--he would go into the next room to create the impression that he was counting out the money and then come back and solemnly hand it to her. It was, of course, every penny he had. As my mother, having gone through his pants pockets the night before, very well knew.
I used to feel so sorry for him because he had to work so hard. And then angry. When I went out into the world myself, at the age of fifteen, my first job was in a bank. I'd see these poor people coming in early in the morning, putting their nickels and dimes in their accounts, and then at about eleven o'clock the bank president would be driven up in his limousine, his chauffeur would open the door for him, and in he would come--morning clothes, derby hat, cane hooked over his arm--nodding at everybody without looking at anybody--and it infuriated me.