One of the cases in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ is that of New York legend ‘Iron’ Mike Malloy. Malloy’s story is part of the city and state’s history and his death led to the destruction of the so-called ‘Murder Trust’ that had killed already and would no doubt have continued doing so. To help promote the book here’s the chapter on Malloy free, gratis and for nothing. If you like it, buy the book. I do have thre hungry cats to feed, after all.
Walk through Ferncliff Cemetery around 25 miles from Manhattan and you will see a host of notable name, people remarkable for their accomplishments. Jazz musicians Cab Calloway and Thelonious Monk, singer Paul Robeson, scientist Nikola Tesla, actor Basil Rathbone, and many others. There is one you will not see, but whose story has become a New York legend. His name was Mike Malloy. Also known as “Durable Mike Malloy” and “Iron Mike,” he was a former firefighter and machine engineer who had certainly fallen on hard times. An alcoholic, by 1932, he was also homeless and destitute, doing odd jobs in return for cash and free drinks. Homeless and friendless, Malloy was seemingly destined to die without anyone to mourn, care, or even notice.
Fate, though, had other plans for him. So, unfortunately, did a group of bungling amateur criminals later known as the “Murder Trust.” Granted, the phrase “criminally incompetent” might have been coined for this little band, but they did have at least one successful murder under their belt already. Had Iron Mike been a little less durable, they would doubtless have racked up many more.
Led by speakeasy owner Tony Marino, the Trust were rounded out by undertaker Francis Pasqua, bartender Joseph “Red” Murphy, cab driver Harry “Hershey” Green, and a fruit-peddler named Daniel Kreisberg. Pasqua also roped in Frank Manzella, a doctor and former city Alderman prepared to certify illegitimate deaths using legitimate paperwork for a bargain price of $100. When they needed to hide murder as death by natural causes, Manzella’s signature had worked once already.
The Murder Trust was a complete package. Everybody involved knew their particular role, albeit not playing them particularly well. From the Trust’s perspective, Malloy played his role in maddeningly unhelpful fashion, but Malloy would come later.
First would be destitute streetwalker Maybelle Carson. Carson, too, had fallen on hard times and Marino, always in need of extra cash, figured she was an easy target for murder and insurance fraud. It is a fact of life that street people are often especially vulnerable to anyone purporting to offer a helping hand. Marino knew that they are seldom missed and he was right—Maybelle Carson was not. In 1931, he befriended her, letting her sleep at his apartment and drink for free at his speakeasy, the Mermaid at 3804 Third Avenue in the Bronx. He also persuaded her to take out an insurance policy naming him as her sole beneficiary. When she died, officially of bronchial pneumonia, Marino quickly pocketed the payout.
However, Carson had not died of pneumonia; she had died because Marino plied her with a staggering amount of alcohol, stripped her naked, put her in a bed that had been doused with iced water, and left her comatose next to an open window. With Carson helpless and unable to rouse herself, a New York winter had done the rest. Having quickly spent his ill-gotten gains and so far got away with murder, Marino was looking for a similarly destitute second victim. Knowing Malloy was homeless, friendless, and likely to succumb to alcoholism relatively quickly, Marino had found one; it turned out to be the death of Malloy and the Murder Trust, but also the birth of a New York legend.
Malloy fit the bill perfectly. No one was even likely to notice his death, let alone start investigating it for anything suspicious. With Prohibition in its dying days, New York City was averaging some 780 deaths a year from alcoholism and the consumption of bathtub booze. Malloy would be one of hundreds every year who drank too much for too long or drank something that was more poisonous than potable.
Bathtub booze was well-named as much of it was literally made in bathtubs. When Prohibition began in 1920 and outlawed traditional drinking, homemade drinks were often supplied as a substitute. Ingredients like turpentine, anti-freeze, sulfuric acid, iodine, surgical spirits, and denatured alcohol were often deadly. To hide the taste, speakeasy bartenders often used colors and flavors to make them drinkable although still deadly, calling their deadly brews “cocktails.” Speakeasy owners and bootleggers grew rich quickly, though thousands of speakeasy customers often grew very ill and frequently died. Malloy would show an almost-superhuman reluctance to do the same.
By 1932, Malloy was probably in his fifties, although looking a lot older. No records can be identified as his among the thousands of Malloys that passed through Ellis Island and doubtless destitution and drink had taken their toll. Malloy, though, was very far from finished—just how far, the Trust were about to discover. New York’s Irish community had apparently shunned him since he succumbed to the demon drink. Negative, racist stereotypes of drunken Irish folk still abounded, and respectable Irish immigrants looked down on any of their countrymen conforming to them; while there were many who loathed the stereotypical work-shy Irish drunkard, few loathed them more than other Irish folk.
Malloy’s lifestyle might explain why few Irish New Yorkers wanted him around. It could also explain why he was welcome in a speakeasy run by an Italian when relations between the two groups were often competitive and hostile. The Mermaid was considered a dive, even for a Prohibition speakeasy, the kind of down-at-heel place visited only by the lowest people. Whatever the reason for his being a regular at Marino’s bar, Marino viewed Malloy as the perfect prey. With Maybelle Carson dead, her murder unnoticed, and her insurance money now spent, the Trust needed a fresh victim.
‘Red’ Murphy tended bar at the Mermaid. With typical Irish warmth and friendly chatter, he was just the man to lure Malloy into the Trust’s clutches. Marino also dangled another carrot before his hapless victim—having previously cut Malloy’s line of credit at the Mermaid, Marino allowed him to run up a big a tab as he liked. Once permanently drunk, it was simple for Murphy to have Malloy agree to an insurance policy. With insurance fraudulently obtained, Malloy would be left to drink himself to death. In Marino’s opinion, that would not take too long. With Malloy’s drinking, Marino reasoned, the insurance would pay out sooner rather than later. The trap was now set; all Malloy had to do was stumble into it.
Murphy took out three policies totaling $1,788—one with Metropolitan Life and two more with Prudential. They were signed by a Nicholas Mellory, Red Murphy posing as his equally non-existent brother Joseph Mellory for the occasion. The policies also had a double indemnity clause, doubling the pay-outs if the holder died in an accident. Fake though they were, the pay-outs would be real enough; so would the body of Nicholas Mellory, if not his identity. Using Manzella’s doctored death certificate and undertaker Pasqua’s ability to legitimately dispose of the body, the Trust could set their plan in motion, which they had by November 1932. What followed would enter New York legend as a landmark of criminal incompetence. Profits and Malloy himself scuppered the Trust’s original plan right from the beginning. Malloy simply refused to die.
No matter how much free booze passed his lips at Marino’s expense, he survived. Malloy’s body did not give up, nor did he stumble under a truck, freeze to death in a gutter, fall into the Hudson River, or die of alcohol poisoning. No matter how bad a state he was in, at the end of each night, he would come staggering in at opening time the next day, still frustratingly alive. Marino’s speakeasy profits were poor to start with. Malloy was draining them still further with every new day and fresh glass, so it was not long before the Trust began taking more proactively homicidal measures to speed his departure. Their increasingly desperate and constantly clumsy efforts to see him into the next world would result in their own departure from this one.
They had started with the obvious: alcohol. That should have been a simple, effective means of their victim destroying himself rather than the Trust taking the additional risk of actually murdering him. Insurance fraud was not a capital offence then or now; first-degree murder no longer is in New York State, but in 1932, it certainly was. The 1920s and 1930s was the busiest period for New York’s electric chair, averaging around twenty executions every year. If choosing Malloy was a bad idea, then actually murdering him was even worse.
Bartender Red Murphy had not always been a down-at-heel bartender in a sleazy speakeasy. He had once been a chemist, although, as things turned out, not a very good one. His rather limited knowledge extended to concoctions far more deadly than the average cocktail. Firstly, he took to lacing Malloy’s drinks with methanol; also known as wood alcohol, methanol can be deadly even in relatively small amounts.
The Trust was severely disappointed by its effect on Malloy, specifically the lack thereof. Night after night, he swallowed glass after glass, drinking his way through the Mermaid’s inventory at Marino’s expense. Morning after morning, he returned, showing little of any signs of ill-health. The Trust began wondering what it would take for Malloy to show a profit rather than depleting Marino’s. Now looking for Plan “C,” they soon found one—denatured alcohol.
Denatured alcohol, more commonly known as methylated spirits, was used by bootleggers to give their poisoned products a little extra kick. It is more widely used today in camping stoves and alcohol burners as well as having a variety of industrial uses; it is not and never should be used for drinking. Sold today with purple coloring as a warning, it also contains a variety of chemicals intended specifically to make it undrinkable. Pyridine and methanol make it poisonous. Denatonium gives it its bitter flavor. Methyl violet makes it purple, although undyed versions are available. Over the Christmas period of 1926, thirty-one New Yorkers died from drinking it. With that in mind, the Trust thought it likely to succeed where methanol alone had already failed. It did not.
Now consuming more methanol, ethanol, booze, and meths than he was food, Malloy remained inexplicably alive. The Trust was staggered not only by his incredible resilience. Every drink that did not kill him was coming out of Marino’s pocket and, by extension, out of theirs. If he continued as he was going, the insurance money might not even cover the cost of murdering him in the first place. Another plan was obviously called for—food poisoning, though not the more conventional poisoning involving arsenic, cyanide, or some other actual poison, but rotten fish.
The Mermaid had always kept a few cans of sardines for sale to hungry customers. Their clientele having more interest in drinking than eating, the cans had remained on the shelf until somebody actually wanted them. If toxic drink had not worked, toxic food might. A can was opened and left for a week until it had bred enough bacteria to be lethal. Thoughtfully making his sandwich out of his favorite rye bread, the Trust mixed in some ground glass, a large sprinkling of rat poison, and even metal shavings. The shavings, formerly the can itself, were a handy means of destroying the evidence of what should have been Malloy’s last meal.
Washed down with glass after glass of anti-freeze, Malloy would surely die. After seeing him out at closing time, the Trust were convinced it could not fail. That Malloy’s drinks were also being laced with turpentine and even horse liniment should have made his demise a mere formality. Malloy stumbled into the Mermaid the next night. He had thoroughly enjoyed his evening’s drinking and especially the free sandwich. Not only had it not killed him as expected, he walked into the Mermaid and asked if they could make him some more.
While the rest of the Trust gazed at Malloy in disbelief, Marino went into the back room utterly dumbfounded. The resourceful-if-bungling Murphy was on hand with yet another bright idea—a dozen oysters marinated overnight in neat anti-freeze, accompanied by as many methanol, anti-freeze, turpentine, horse liniment, and denatured alcohol shots as Malloy could swallow. Even after that, he turned up at the Mermaid the next night wanting some more. The Trust was by now reaching the end of their rather limited wits and patience. Marino turned in desperation to an old favorite.
Having successfully frozen Maybelle Carson to death, he opted to do the same with Malloy. One night, the Trust poured a quite staggering quantity of anti-freeze into Malloy. They also stripped him naked, carried him over to Clermont Park, and left him facing the full fury of a New York winter. They were convinced, yet again, that they had succeeded. They were less convinced when Pasqua arrived the next day with a severe cold caught during the night’s exertions.
As he sat down in the Mermaid, Pasqua remarked bitterly that while the Trust would get over Malloy’s refusing to die, Malloy certainly would not. As if on cue Malloy walked through the door. Telling the Trust he had only caught “a bit of a chill,” he settled himself at the bar and began yet another night’s extremely heavy drinking.
Morally speaking, Marino’s Murder Trust were reprehensible criminals, predators of the poor and dispossessed. Intellectually speaking, they should have given up their increasingly desperate efforts, especially as local gossip had already begun circulating about the Mermaid’s best non-paying customer. They did not stop trying the apparently impossible.
Instead, they dug themselves even deeper, hiring local thug and suspected hitman “Tough Tony” Bastone. Bastone was neither particularly skilled nor especially smart—certainly not Murder Incorporated material. His suggestion was that Malloy die accidentally in a hit-and-run car accident, thus doubling the insurance pay-out.
Enter cab driver Harry “Hershey” Green who later served a life sentence for his involvement. Their first attempt failed. Surprisingly, its failure could not be blamed on Malloy’s constitution but on blind luck. As Green sped down Gun Hill Road where an inebriated Malloy would not have felt a thing, a woman happened to lean out of her bedroom window. Not wanting to add a witness to the Trust’s already lengthy list of problems, Green swerved away from Malloy. On Baychester Avenue, a few nights later, they tried the cab trick again.
This time, Malloy never knew what hit him. However, he did know that it had not killed him. Thinking Malloy would never die, the Trust chose another derelict to take his place as Nicholas Mellory. Joseph Murphy was promptly run down by Green’s car, a card identifying him as Michael Malloy left in his pocket. According to Pasqua (who, being an undertaker, should have known), Murphy was definitely dead.
Still unsure if Malloy himself actually was dead, worse news for the Trust quickly arrived—neither was Murphy. A Michael Malloy, however, had been admitted to Fordham Hospital with serious injuries. It seemed as though things could not get any worse until three weeks had passed. Then a familiar face appeared at the Mermaid: “Evening, lads! I’m dying for a drink! Make it snappy!”
The Trust had checked most of New York’s hospitals, but not all. The indestructible Malloy had survived his encounter with Green’s cab and was in fact the healthiest he had been since the Trust had started trying to kill him. In much improved condition, he seated himself at the bar, complained that the hospital had only given him food, milk, and cocoa instead of hard liquor, and proceeded to rectify that problem at the Trust’s expense.
Bizarrely, the Trust decided to leave Malloy alone, at least temporarily. If Murphy died in Fordham Hospital, they might still be able to pass him off as Nicholas Mellory. Malloy, meanwhile, had not tumbled to their increasingly desperate efforts to kill him. They soon discovered yet another stumbling block—Murphy did not die, eventually making a full recovery. The real Malloy was now back on the agenda.
Desperate beyond belief, the Trust simply threw caution to the wind, abandoning any pretense of subtlety. Red Murphy rented a room and 1402 Fulton Avenue and Daniel Kreisberg lured Malloy, promising him a long session with a new kind of alcohol. Malloy certainly was plied with alcohol. He was also held down while the pair stuffed a gas pipe into his mouth and let him die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Michael Malloy was finally dead.
Manzella was quick to sign a death certificate listing lobar pneumonia as the cause of death. Now recovered from his cold, Pasqua was equally quick to bury Malloy. If he had embalmed or cremated Malloy, it would have removed any evidence as to the real cause of death; a cardinal sign of carbon monoxide poisoning is the victim’s body turning a cherry red color.
Instead, Pasqua’s haste involved spending only $22 on Malloy’s interment. Pasqua did so bad a job that he had not even emptied Malloy’s pockets before placing him in his coffin. When Malloy was exhumed, his wad of chewing tobacco lay undisturbed in his pocket. Pasqua’s unseemly haste and criminal incompetence would cost the Trust their lives. With Malloy safely interred at Ferncliff in a pauper’s grave, Marino collected the insurance—less than $2,000. Most of it he kept for himself, splitting only small shares with the rest of the Trust.
Just as Pasqua’s haste and meanness would come back to haunt the Trust, so would that of their leader Marino. It was not long before some, especially Green and Bastone, began to grumble about their shares being so small. They were less than discreet about it, especially Green. Local gossip began building, and sooner or later, it would reach the wrong ears. In fact, the take had been so small that the Trust actually made a loss. Marino had kept the lion’s share and it still had not covered his expenses.
Two months after Malloy’s untimely (if merciful) demise, Bastone was also killed. A bully and two-bit thug, he was murdered at the Mermaid by John Maggione. Maggione was a Mermaid regular who probably knew more than he should about Marino and his Trust. Tiring of Bastone’s bluster and bullying, Maggione had simply walked into the Mermaid and shot him in the chest. Bastone, shot on Marino’s premises, had also died there.
Unbeknown to the Trust, Bastone and Green’s grumbling had finally reached the wrong set of ears. The ears in question were those of the District Attorney. Just as Malloy had not been as compliant as the Trust had hoped, Bastone and Green had been far too talkative. District Attorney Edward Foley had heard disquieting rumors about an alleged insurance murder in the Bronx.
Further rumors told of an organized gang engaging in murder for profit. To Foley, this was extremely disturbing as gangs of that kind were prepared to keep killing until they were stopped. Thinking the rumors worth following up, Foley assigned Assistant District Attorney Edward Breslin to investigate.
According to local gossip, the victim was an unnamed Irishman, and an unnamed Italian undertaker was also involved. Together with Detective Edward Byrness, Breslin checked every death certificate issued in the Bronx within the previous six months. Only one fit that particular bill—Michael Malloy. The death certificate signed by Frank Manzella listed Francis Pasqua as the undertaker. The possible victim was Irish and the undertaker Italian just as the rumors had said.
With that in mind, Breslin and Byrness decided to look more closely at Francis Pasqua. They did not have enough evidence to request an autopsy, and Manzella being a former alderman still with political connections, they knew they had to tread carefully until a solid case could be assembled. Breslin and Byrness soon found that Pasqua had done virtually no undertaking business of late. He was also known to be a shady character with alleged underworld ties.
Worse was Manzella’s death certificate listing 1402 Fulton Avenue as a private residence instead of the rooming house it actually was. For so glaring a mistake to appear on a death certificate of a possible murder victim simply had to be investigated. The insurance companies had no address on file for Malloy. His policy stated “Nicholas Mellory” was homeless, not renting a room on Fulton Avenue. It also listed Tony Marino as his beneficiary, when Malloy was a well-known regular at Marino’s speakeasy.
Marino and Pasqua were put under surveillance around the clock. Further discrepancies followed thick and fast. Breslin and Byrness visited the address on Fulton Avenue. The landlady told them it had been rented for Nicholas Mellory by his brother Joseph, whose description was a dead ringer for the Mermaid’s bartender Red Murphy.
With enough evidence to request an autopsy, Breslin and Byrness did so. Michael Malloy would return to haunt his murderers one last time. Due to his long-term alcohol consumption, Malloy’s body incredibly well-preserved enough that there could be no doubt as to its findings; he had died of gas poisoning, not from any form of pneumonia. With so well-preserved a victim, the autopsy’s findings would prove unbeatable in court.
The final nail in the Murder Trust’s coffin came unexpectedly for Breslin and Byrness. It also came from close to home. A clerk in the District Attorney’s office had been a reporter for the New York World when Maybelle Carson had died. Having covered the case personally, he remembered she had been insured and that her sole beneficiary was a certain Tony Marino. He also remembered that when Carson died, she had done so at Marino’s apartment at 3806 Third Avenue, right next-door to the Mermaid.
On May 12, 1933, the entire Trust were arrested. Green and Kreisberg were easily found. They were already in jail—Green on a firearms charge and Kreisberg for robbery and assault. Manzella was charged with being an accessory after the fact and later convicted. John Maggione had pled his killing of Tony Bastone down to manslaughter. In return for the District Attorney sparing him the electric chair, Maggione had agreed to testify against the Trust’s members when they were tried for first-degree murder.
Honoring his word Maggione, a Mermaid regular himself, did so. The Trust’s principal members—Tony Marino, Daniel Kreisberg, Red Murphy, and Francis Pasqua—were all convicted of first-degree murder with no recommendations for mercy. Once caught, each Trust member had blamed the others in the hope of avoiding a death sentence. Their hopes proved forlorn as they were not any better at lying than they had been at killing, or, for that matter, keeping quiet about it. Lies and mutual recriminations did them no good against solid forensic evidence and Maggione’s testimony.
Green and Maggione would go to Sing Sing’s general population, Green serving thirteen years before his release. The other Trust members were destined for Sing Sing’s death house, where their appeals were swiftly heard and rejected. Their only hope, therefore, was Governor Herbert Lehman, widely known for his reasoned attitude to clemency. The state’s appeals court had a panel of seven judges. Whenever a condemned inmate’s appeal was denied by a vote of four to three, Lehman routinely granted clemency. The appeals court had not voted that closely and Lehman was not interested.
For the Murder Trust, all was now lost. On June 8, 1934, Pasqua, Kreisberg, and Marino walked their last mile to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Winning a temporary stay of execution, Murphy did not go with them. Instead, he watched from his cell as they were led silently away, never to return. When his stay ran out, he followed in their footsteps, dying alone on July 5.
Unlike the Trust, State Electrician Robert Elliott did his job properly and at a profit. A reporter for the New York Daily Mirror watched Marino, Kreisberg, and Pasqua die, later writing: “The k-w-e-e of the dynamo. Two thousand volts and ten amperes. The rip-saw current that tears one apart. Three shocks. It was the State’s toast to Mike the Durable.”
The Murder Trust was now dead and buried. Their own greed and incompetence had seen State Electrician Robert Elliott kill far more professionally than they ever had. Had they chosen someone other than Mike Malloy, they would probably have gone on to kill and kill again. Given enough practice, they might even have become good at it. In dying, Mike Malloy might well have saved many lives. He rests in an unmarked grave somewhere in Ferncliff Cemetery surrounded by many great, good, and notable people. Few, though, are quite as remarkable as him.