On This Day in 1932 – Francis ‘Two-Gun’ Crowley,provided inspiration for James Cagney

He was no relation to notorious Satanist Aleister Crowley, but had more than a touch of the Devil in him just the same. Born in New York City on October 31, 1912 (fitting for someone as scary as him) he lasted only 19 years before walking his last mile at Sing Sing’s death house on January 21, 1932. Some say that life can be nasty, brutish and short. Crowley’s was certainly a short life, very nasty and just as brutish.

His start in life, to be fair, had been none too promising. His biological mother, a woman of German descent, was unmarried at a time when single mothers tended to attract much worse criticism than they do today. In fact, she was so afraid of how people might react that immediately put him up for adoption.

His childhood became increasingly turbulent. As a young boy he frequently picked arguments and fights, often with bigger boys. They had to be bigger than Francis as he never grew to be more than five feet, six inches tall with little muscle to compensate for his lack of height. Like such charming characters as ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, Francis Crowley was a small man with a huge temper.

An arch-misanthrope, Crowley wasn’t keen on humans in general and police officers in particular. Whether or not his absent father was a cop (it’s been suggested at least once) has never been resolved. But, whatever he lacked in size, he more than made up for in sheer violence and a hair-trigger temper. Perhaps to compensate for his diminutive stature Crowley developed a habit of carrying several guns on him at all times. Given his violent nature it wasn’t long before he’d find an excuse to use them.

Having been saddled with limited size and a rough start in life Crowley also resented some of the nicknames he earned during his career. ‘Two-Gun’ wasn’t too bad, itmarked him out as someone to fear. Being labelled the ‘Half-Pint Killer’, ‘Puny Killer’ and ‘Half-Pint Moron’ were just insulting and infuriating.

After several years of petty crimes Crowley’s crime spree began in the Bronx on February 21, 1931 when he and two accomplices gate-crashed a dance held by the American Legion. Not taking well to loud, obnoxious gate-crashers the Legionnaires  demanded that they leave. Crowley and his friends refused. When several Legionnaires tried to eject them Crowley responded by shooting two of them.

Now he’d made the leap from petty hoodlum to big-time badman via two counts of attempted murder. On March 13 Crowley, by now in hiding, found himself cornered by police. He wasn’t cornered for long, shooting Detective Ferdinand Schaedel before escaping. Like the two Legionnaires Detective Schaedel was seriously wounded, but survived. Crowley had racked up three shootings in only a couple of weeks.

He wasn’t done yet, far from it. Four days later he racked up another felony. With four accomplices Crowley robbed a bank in New Rochelle in Westchester County, this time without shooting anybody. That made a change but didn’t dampen the NYPD’s enthusiasm. Crowley had almost killed one of their own and they wanted him behind bars or dead. In the end they managed both.

Crowley didn’t spend too long in hiding. Only a month he was back in action, this time performing a home invasion with two accomplices. They forced their way into the home of wealthy real estate broker Rudolph Adler. Adler’s dog Trixie proved more than a match for them, attacking them and standing her ground even after they’d injured her owner. In company with long-time crime partner Rudolph ‘Fats’ Duringer (so called because of his vast waistline) Crowley fled empty-handed.

April 27 saw Fats and Two Gun commit their first confirmed murder. While joyriding in a stolen car with dancehall hostess Virginia Brannen, Duringer made a pass at her. A repulsed Brannen brushed him off none too gently. It was the wrong move to make. Enraged, Duringer raped her and shot her in the head. They dumped her body outside St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Yonkers. If caught both men were both now facing a seat in ‘Old Sparky.’ Crowley didn’t seem to care, already accepting that his career couldn’t last forever and the best he could expect was life behind bars..

Crowley’s murderous rampage didn’t end there. Only two days after murdering Virginia Brannen, Crowley was again driving around the city when he was spotted by police. After a frenetic car chase and firefight he escaped, but not for long. The NYPD were not only thoroughly infuriated by crime spree, but were now determined to nail him for capital murder. Bullets extracted from the police car were matched to those found in the body of Virginia Brannen and also to several other unsolved shootings.

Enough was enough. The NYPD now made it a top priority to bring Crowley’s rampage to a permanent end. The following day Crowley’s car was found abandoned, riddled with bullet holes and also containing several bloodstains. It was obvious to police that even though Crowley had escaped either he, Duringer or both had been wounded.

The NYPD continued their hunt for Crowley. Crowley, equally determined, continued eluding them until May 6. Sitting in another stolen car with his girlfriend Helen Walsh, who was only 16 and perhaps unaware of just how bad a choice he was) Crowley was spotted by two police officers. Patrolmen Frederick Hirsch and Peter Yodice, approached the car on Long Island, instructing Crowley to identify himself. He did, fatally shooting Patrolman Hirsch and seriously wounding Patrolman Yodice.

Furious before these two shootings, the NYPD were now thoroughly enraged. Not only was Crowley embarrassing them by proving so difficult to catch, he also seemed to think that he could murder their officers whenever he felt like it. That frustration didn’t last much longer. The day after Patrolmen Hirsch and Yodice were shot their colleagues would have their revenge.

Crowley and Walsh hid out in an apartment on West 91st Street, hoping somehow to stay hidden until the storm blew over. They didn’t have too long to hide. One of the building’s other residents was a former girlfriend of Crowley’s and on seeing him with another woman spotted a chance for revenge. Promptly developing an entirely non-jealous sense of civic virtue, his ex called the police. The NYPD arrived quickly and in large numbers. The chance to kill or catch the notorious ‘Two-Gun’ was well worth the extra manpower. Crowley’s last stand, the legendary ‘Battle of 91st Street,’ was about to begin.

A total of 300 officers toting tommy guns, pistol, shotguns, rifles and tear gas guns converged and surrounded the building. Unsurprisingly this attracted spectators, by the end of the siege some 15,000 New Yorkers had turned out to see the show. They were not to be disappointed.

For over two hours Crowley shot it out against hopeless odds. NYPD officers fired over 700 rounds into the building in addition to many tear gas canisters. Crowley matched them shot for shot, also tossing several gas canisters back out into the street. It was an all-out gun battle seldom seen even during Prohibition. While Crowley did most of the shooting Duringer and Walsh helped. They constantly reloaded his pistols for him, keeping up a continuous supply until Crowley’s guns began overheating from excessive use.

But it was a forlorn hope. However violent they might be no gangster can tackle 300 heavily-armed and vengeful police officers. Surrounded with no escape and suffering four gunshot wounds, Crowley was eventually captured. Captured with him were Duringer and Walsh. True to his nickname officers found two pistols strapped to Crowley’s legs when he was finally arrested.

Helen Walsh got off lightly. She testified against Crowley and Duringer and was later released in return for her testimony. As expected Duringer and Crowley neither deserved or received mercy. Theyboth drew death sentences, Crowley for murdering Patrolman Hirsch and Duringer for murdering Virginia Brannen. They were promptly transferred to Sing Sing Prison’s dreaded ‘Death House’ to await execution.

Duringer died first on December 10, 1931. As you might have noticed, the State of New York didn’t tend to waste time when dealing with condemned inmates. Duringer, described as one of the fattest men ever to sit in the electric chair, reportedly had to be squashed down a little before being strapped in. He was dead only moments later. Soon his crime partner, who had fallen out with both Walsh and Duringer since his trial and believed both were informants, would walk his own last mile. Crowley’s end might have been a relief for prison staff who’d had to deal with him during his last few months.

Crowley was a disciplinary nightmare in the death house. He attacked officers and other inmates, was caught in possessing home-made weapons, set fire to his bedding and stuffed his clothes into the cell’s toilet and flood the cell. Warden Lawes, normally known for his kindness to the condemned, took stern action. Having been kept naked in an empty cell for several days on only bread and water Crowley finally began to calm down. He even made a friend, a wild starling which he fed and doted on. Whether he tamed it, it tamed him or possibly both was never fully ascertained.

At 11pm on January 21, 1932, ‘Two-Gun’ met his maker. Escorted down the corridor between the Dance Hall cells and Sing death chamber he remained defiant to the end. Standing in front of the chair, Warden Lawes asked Crowley if he had anything left to say.

He certainly did. First he demanded a rag to clean the chair. Duringer having died first, Crowley stated:

“I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it.”

Having made this astonishing (and unfulfilled) request Crowley sat down and waited while the straps and electrodes were applied. Hand-picked officers moved in quickly, firmly buckling the leather restraints around his arms, legs, belly and chest. State Electrician Robert Elliott then applied a leather helmet containing the head electrode. As it slid down over his face Crowley managed one last, bitterly sarcastic remark:

‘Give my love to my Mother…’

Closing his eyes so he wouldn’t actually watch Crowley die, Warden Lawes gave the signal and Elliott threw the switch. For two full minutes electricity seared through Crowley’s body. Elliott watched carefully, altering the voltage to avoid burning him too much as the two-minute cycle was completed. Then he shut off the power and the prison doctor confirmed that Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley was finally dead.

That might have been the end of the story, but not quite. Crowley’s story had been a state-wide sensation and one follower was a certain James Cagney. AA fellow New York Irishman, Cagney later used Crowley as inspiration for Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett in 1949 movie ‘White Heat.’ Before that the bloody shoot-out and execution of ‘Rocky Sullivan’ in 1936 classic ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ had gone down in cinema history.

Decades later, Cagney was still being asked about Sullivan’s iconic final scene. Had Sullivan virtuously faked fear to deter the ‘Dead End Kids’ from a life of crime or had he really died a coward? Crediting his audience with some intelligence (and wise enough to keep the debate going) Cagney always said they should decide for themselves.

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