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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
speakeasy rasputin

Iron Mike Malloy: The Donegal man they tried nine times to kill

Greed, murder and whiskey: How an indestructible Irishman finally fell foul of New York City in the 1930s.

309026036_39d5eeb837_o Kent Wang Kent Wang

ON A WINTER night in January 1933, Mike Malloy sat in his local speakeasy, on Third Avenue in the Bronx, drinking whiskey. Getting drunk.

That was nothing out of the ordinary. Malloy, a Donegal man about 40 years old, had fallen on hard times.

He had been a gainfully employed stationary engineer – working on industrial machines in New York. But this was the height of the Great Depression, and the jobs had dried up.

Like so many men of that era who once worked in America’s heavy industry, and so many Irish men who travelled to big cities across the United States, he hit the bottle hard, and became a slave to it. A “speakeasy derelict.”

But that night, he was drinking on the house.

Surrounded by a motley crew in Tony Marino’s bar at 3804 Third Avenue, we can only imagine the scene.

Did it ever occur to him that he had gone from flat-broke barfly who could never pay off his tab, to being merrily plied with an endless stream of free drink?

What explanation did Tony offer for his sudden, uncharacteristic munificence?

How was the banter that night? What jokes did the gang tell, while they clapped Mike on the back and poured him another glass?

Sheltered from the cold reality of homelessness and destitution on the other side of the door, he must have thought something miraculous was happening.

He couldn’t possibly have suspected that his buddies – Tony Marino, Red Murphy the barman, Frank Pasqua the undertaker, Daniel Kreisberg the fruit-seller, and Hershy Green the cabbie – were trying to kill him.

But what they didn’t know was that Mike Malloy – sick, weak, alcoholic Mike Malloy – was almost indestructible.

And their 10 desperate attempts to knock off the Irishman and cash in, would bring them to the electric chair, and become the stuff of legend in New York city.

‘Nicholas Mellory’

speakeasy Ossie Le Viness / NY Daily News The innocuous shopfront of Tony Marino's Third Avenue speakeasy, as it was in 1933. Ossie Le Viness / NY Daily News / NY Daily News

The story starts in December 1932. The gang of five – later to be dubbed The Murder Trust – were talking about money. Specifically, how to get more of it.

A conversation that must have played out a million times in speakeasies, bars and brothels across America in the three years since the Wall Street Crash laid waste to the entire economy.

Someone’s heard tell of a job going somewhere. Someone else has thought of a fool-proof scheme to scam their way into a few dollars.

At the beginning of winter in 1932, someone at Tony Marino’s Mermaid Speakeasy thought of life insurance.

If only they knew someone close to death, they could sign them up for a life insurance policy (by persuasion or fraud), then cash in when they checked out.

They had an obvious candidate in the down-and-out Donegal man.

In December, Joseph “Red” Murphy, the bartender, took out three policies for a “Nicholas Mellory” and, posing as his brother Joseph Mellory, signed as the beneficiary.

Metropolitan Life sold him one for $800, and Prudential sold him two worth $494 each.

In total, the fictional Nicholas Mellory’s life was worth $1,788 – about $31,000 (€28,129) in today’s money, but the payout would be doubled if his death was an accident.

Double_indemnity Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

The policy of “double indemnity” was at the heart of an infamous New York murder just five years earlier.

In 1927, a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder, and her lover, murdered her husband Albert and passed it off as a burglary gone awry.

She had persuaded Albert to take out a life insurance policy, with an extra payout in the event of a violent death.

The two were easily caught, convicted, and both electrocuted after a high-profile trial that inspired the novel Double Indemnity, and the classic noir thriller movie of the same name.

So now, in order to split $3,500 between them, the gang simply had to bring about Mike Malloy’s untimely demise, and pass him off as Nicholas Mellory.

The easiest way to kill Mike, they thought, was to simply remove the brakes.

‘His thirst was immense, but his buying ability limited’

whiskey-b Library of Congress Library of Congress

Between 1928 and 1932, New York was averaging 780 deaths a year from alcohol poisoning, so another one would hardly raise any eyebrows.

And Mike Malloy had all the appearance of a man who was already drinking himself into an early grave, so they removed his biggest obstacle – money.

They began, by all appearances, to treat him like an honoured guest, as described in the pages of the New Yorker later that year:

His thirst was immense, but his buying ability limited, and he often had to wait late and long to be treated.
When the tide began to flow, what did Malloy think? Perhaps he decided he was already dead and in paradise.

Not just yet.

No matter how much the Murder Trust poured down Mike’s neck, his tolerance, constitution or deeply-buried will to live, kept him ticking, and kept him coming back for more free booze.

So when the good stuff didn’t work, they tried the bad stuff. The really bad stuff.

murphy The Bronx Home News Joseph Red Murphy The Bronx Home News

The gang reportedly treated him to methanol (alcohol crudely distilled from wood), and denatured alcohol (highly poisonous ethanol specifically designed to be undrinkable).

But, as the New York Times would later report:

There was something about Michael Malloy that even denatured alcohol could not effect.

As the winter of 1933 progressed, Marino and the rest of the speakeasy conspiracy grew increasingly baffled and frustrated by the Donegal man’s stubborn and inexplicable refusal die.

But if drink was his domain, then maybe food would prove his undoing.

Someone at the bar found an ancient-looking tin of sardines, found them sufficiently foul-smelling, and prepared a sandwich for Mike.

Just to make sure the rotten fish would succeed in killing him, they added broken glass, carpet tacks, and even the tin itself – chopped up and finely ground.

The result? Malloy ate it and asked for another one.

On another occasion, Joseph “Red” Murphy found a jar of oysters, marinating in denatured alcohol, behind the bar.

In better times, Murphy had been a chemist, and knew that the combination of oysters and hard spirits can cause serious, even fatal poisoning.

Naturally, they let Mike loose on the jar, and gave him some of their best bad liquour to wash them down with. He ate them with relish, and somehow suffered no ill consequences.

It being winter, the gang then tried to let nature do the job for them.

A night on a park bench

crotonapark Carlos Gomez A frozen Crotona Park in the Bronx. Carlos Gomez

One frozen night that January, they got Mike well soaked in alcohol at the bar, then walked him, half-conscious, to nearby Crotona Park, near the Bronx Zoo.

They carefully placed him on a bench, waited for him to finally lose consciousness, then ripped open his ragged coat and shirt, and poured water all over him.

Even someone in the rudest of health would struggle to make it through the night on that bench, covered in ice and not properly clothed. Malloy, they thought, didn’t stand a chance.

But somehow, the sheer cold in the air managed to break through his slumber and wake him. He stumbled off, no doubt mystified, and was back in Tony’s place by morning.

In a rare moment of poetic justice in this saga, the New Yorker later noted that the exertion of bringing Mike to his “resting place” in Crotona Park left Frank Pasqua, the undertaker, with a bad cold.

After this fourth failure, the group decided to take a more direct and brutal approach. This is where Harry “Hershy” Green enters the story in a big way.

04036r Library of Congress File photo of an American cab driver. Library of Congress

Green, a 23-year-old son of Russian Jewish immigrants, ran a taxi company in the Bronx, and was asked to arrange an “accidental” collision with Mike Malloy.

The gang had offered John McNally and James Salone $200 and then $400 to run him over, but both men refused, and Green himself stepped in.

On 30 January, Malloy was found lying on the side of the road, between Baychester Avenue and Gunhill Road, in the Bronx.

He was taken to Fordham Hospital, suffering a broken shoulder, concussion, and possible fractured skull.

Back in the speakeasy, Green, Marino and the rest frantically scoured the local papers for news of a fatal taxi collision. They never found it.

After a week of recuperation, Mike Malloy marched through the door at 3804 Third Avenue, fitter than ever, and declared, “I’m dying for a drink!”

On 7 February, a man carrying Nicholas Mellory’s ID card was found battered and bloodied at Austin Place, in the South Bronx.

He was revealed to be Joseph Patrick Murray, a 31-year-old out of work plasterer who had fallen on hard times, and was later found in a “rickety shack in a Depression colony” next to the Hudson Parkway.

Worn out by the seemingly indestructible Mike Malloy, Tony Marino and the Murder Trust had found another “Nicholas Mellory”, and Hershy Green had, once again, hit him with his cab.

MNY324035 Museum of the City of new York Fordham Hospital, where Malloy spent a week recovering after his taxi accident. Museum of the City of new York

At this point, the gang may well have been simply targeting another out-of-luck Irishman.

It can’t be verified, but Joseph Patrick Murray may well in fact have been Patrick Joseph Murray, a 31-year-old immigrant from Calteraun, Co Sligo, whose wife Mary was from Cloontia, Co Mayo.

In 1934, his permanent address was listed as 1786 Vyse Avenue, right on the other side of Crotona Park from Tony Marino’s speakeasy.

Either way, they failed once again. But this time, they left traces.

Murray later recounted getting drunk at a speakeasy in Harlem on the night of 7 February, before being offered a free lift and free booze by a taxi driver.

There were two men in the back seat, and driving the cab was a face familiar to Murray – Harry Green.

The New York Times reports that a “negro” saw Murray being knocked down by the car at Austin Place, and quickly wrote down the taxi license number – it was Green’s.

On the ID for Nicholas Mellory, found stuffed into Murray’s coat pocket after the accident, was his next of kin – Frank Pasqua, the undertaker.

Murray suffered internal injuries, broken ribs and a broken left shoulder. While he was recovering in Lincoln Hospital, the Murder Trust resolved to finish off the Donegal man, once and for all.

The coup de grâce

fultonave NY Daily News The room where Mike Malloy died, at 1210 Fulton Avenue. (Gas pipe marked on the right). NY Daily News

On 22 February, a Wednesday, Murphy and Kreisberg booked a room at 1210 Fulton Ave, half a mile down the road from the bar.

Malloy was, once again, treated as a royal guest at Tony’s place, and drank himself into a stupor. Seeing their opportunity, Murphy and Kreisberg brought him down Third Avenue to the room.

They threw him on the bed, unhooked the tube from the gas light in the room, put one end in his mouth, and switched it on.

In all, they had tried nine times to kill Mike Malloy.

There was a botched machine gun attack that he escaped, and – perhaps forgetting the imperative of an accidental death – on another occasion they simply tried “beating him on the head.”

Between all the free booze, free food, pay-offs and planning, the gang spent $1,875 trying to cash in on a $3,500 insurance, split five ways, by one estimate.

But on the tenth attempt, with a tube pumping carbon monoxide into his system, Iron Mike didn’t stand a chance. He was dead in 20 minutes.

The next morning, a Dr Frank Manzella came to the room. For a $100 fee, he signed a death cert for Nicholas Mellory, citing “lobar pneumonia” as the cause of death.

Manzella also falsely claimed that Malloy had been to his doctor’s office in Harlem twice before his death, complaining of “grippe,” which he listed as a contributory cause of death, along with acute bronchitis.

MelloryDeathCert_Page_1 NYC Municipal Archives NYC Municipal Archives

With Manzella’s fake as proof of death, Metropolitan Life paid out the $800 policy on Mellory. As a final insult, Frank Pasqua wrote out a $400 check to impress insurance agents with the lavish funeral he was preparing for his dear friend.

In reality, he stuck Mike Malloy in a $10 coffin and buried him in a $12 grave.

He didn’t even bother to embalm his body – a final moment of greed and haste that would send them all to the electric chair.

Red flags

On 18 March, ‘Tough’ Tony Bastone was shot dead. He was a local gangster, and acquainted with everyone at Marino’s speakeasy.

A Joseph Maglione was charged with his murder, and Red Murphy was taken into custody as a material witness.

When agents from Prudential tried to track down “Joseph Mellory” (Murphy), and couldn’t find him in order to pay out the two remaining insurance policies, their suspicions were raised.

Meanwhile, the tall tale of Mike Malloy and the Murder Trust had spread like wildfire throughout the borough of the Bronx.

Soon enough, neighbourhood cops got wind of it, and the District Attorney, Samuel Foley, started an investigation.

He ordered Mike Malloy’s body to be dug up, and given a proper autopsy.

945e09ac60684df31a0274d065f13e9f New York Medical Examiner's Office Mike Malloy's body, during autopsy. New York Medical Examiner's Office

Unfortunately for Pasqua and the rest, forensic pathology and toxicology was a burgeoning science in New York of the 1930s.

When Dr Hochmann performed a full examination of Malloy’s body on 11 May, he found the tell-tale cherry-red discolouration all over his body.

The official verdict? “Asphyxiation by carbon monoxide.”

The irony, as outlined in Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, is that if Pasqua had taken the time to embalm the body, the liquid would have removed all trace of the gas.

The next day, Marino, Murphy, Pasqua, Kreisberg and Green were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Green was already in custody on gun charges, likewise Kreisberg, who had been arrested on a separate robbery and assault charge.

Dr Frank Manzella, a former Republic Alderman in Harlem, was arrested and charged with being an accessory after the fact.

manzellaBDE Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dr Frank Manzella (L), being arrested in the Bronx, May 1933. Brooklyn Daily Eagle

John McNally and James Salone – the two men who refused hundreds of dollars to run Malloy over – were taken in as material witnesses.

Joseph Maglione, suspected of killing Tough Tony Bastone, managed to plead his murder charge down to manslaughter, saving himself from execution, in exchange for testifying against the Murder Trust.

An eerily similar cold case

On 14 May, District Attorney Samuel Foley revealed an extraordinary and chilling twist.

On St Patrick’s Day 1932, Mabelle “Betty” Carlson, a 27-year-old hairdresser from a well-to-do Washington DC family, had been found dead at 3806 Third Avenue – next door to the speakeasy, and the apartment of none other than Tony Marino.

The official cause of death was “broncho-pneumonia,” with “acute and chronic alcoholism” as contributing factors.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported:

It was said at the prosecutor’s office that Miss Carlson, presumably while intoxicated, had been exposed to open windows and cold water poured on her during the cold weather that preceded her death.

The similarity to the attempt on Mike Malloy’s life in Crotona Park was unmistakeable.

Marino’s explanation to Foley, as reported by the New York Times, was that:

The Carlson woman had been a habitué of his place, and knowing she was destitute, he had provided a home for her.

Foley announced he was investigating the possibility that Marino, and another woman, had collected $2,000 in life insurance after the death of Betty Carlson.

Two days later, he told reporters he had asked the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to look for any similar cases, after receiving letters from six families whose loved ones had once lived in the Bronx, but had been missing for more than two years.

A sensational trial

By the time the trial began in October, Hershy Green had turned state’s witness, in exchange for the lesser charge of first-degree assault, for running over Murray in his taxi.

The four others tried every trick in the book to exonerate themselves. They turned on each other, claimed the witnesses testifying against them were actually in on the plot as well.

pasqua NYPD Frank Pasqua, after his arrest. NYPD

Pasqua’s lawyer tried to argue he was just the undertaker, and had nothing to do with the planning.

Murphy and Kreisberg both fingered each other as the one who gassed Malloy on 22 February.

All except Marino claimed they were acting under the threats and intimidation of local tough guy Tony Bastone, saying he had forced them “at gunpoint” to kill Malloy and kick up the insurance money to him.

Foley, the prosecutor, dismissed this as “desperation,” pointing out that Frank Pasqua had confessed his role in the murder plot in May, two months after Bastone was himself shot dead.

Tony Marino, meanwhile, pleaded insanity.

marino NYPD Tony Marino, after his arrest. NYPD

His lawyer brought a doctor to the Bronx County Courthouse, who testified that a childhood fall, combined with a recent illness (probably syphilis), meant Marino had “become abnormal.”

Foley brought in a neurologist, however, who concluded he was “faking abnormality.”

Early on the morning of 19 October, a jury found all four guilty of first degree murder.

The New York Times reported that, in response to hearing the verdicts, Marino “glared angrily,” Kreisberg “swayed”, Pasqua “winced”, and Murphy “remained inscrutable.”

Outside the court, Foley told the media:

I don’t want to give the impression of gloating over these convictions, but once more a Bronx jury has upheld the local reputation for common sense and courage.
I think it was a proper verdict for a most cruel murder, which was inspired by nothing more than sordid greed.

They were sentenced to death by electrocution, and driven off to Sing Sing prison in New York. In the prison van, they sang songs together, including the Jelly Roll Morton hit My Gal Sal.

When he arrived at Sing Sing, Daniel Kreisberg told reporters, “It’s a fine day for some people.”

OnlyJazzHQ / YouTube

Harry Green was given five to 10 years for his vehicular assault on Murray, and Frank Manzella, who was paid to write Nicholas Mellory’s fake death cert, was convicted of the lesser charge of failing to report a suspicious death.

On 7 June 1934, Tony Marino, Daniel Kreisberg, and Frank Pasqua were put to death on the electric chair.

Marino, the son of Italian immigrants and a married father to one child, was 28.

Kreisberg was 29, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and had a wife and three kids.

Frank Pasqua, the youngest of the group, was just 24 years old. In a bitter irony, his wedding a few years earlier had been conducted by James Barrett – the judge in his murder trial.

kreisberg Bronx Home News Daniel Kreisberg. Bronx Home News

Two hours before he was due to die along with the others, Joseph Murphy got a reprieve from the Lieutenant Governor of New York, Michael William Bray.

Some startling new evidence had emerged. Joseph Murphy, it appeared, was born Archie Mott, an orphan, estranged from his family and unmarried.

A doctor who treated him in 1933 found him to be “mentally unbalanced.”

His lawyer had heard from an inmate at Sing Sing that Murphy was committed to the Connecticut School for Boys, under the name of Archie Mott, and had escaped in 1929.

The man who pleaded for a stay of execution was none other than Samuel Foley, the prosecutor who had orchestrated Murphy’s conviction.

Despite several reprieves for psychological testing, however, he was denied a retrial, and executed on 5 July. He was 28 years old.


foley PA District Attorney Samuel Foley, pictured in 1934. PA

Foley became famous the following year, when he took part in the prosecution of Richard Hauptmann, for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby – by far that era’s most explosive and high-profile criminal trial.

He later became a judge, and when he died in 1951, some 10,000 people lined the streets of the Bronx for his funeral.

As for Mike Malloy – details are scarce. Some newspaper reports from the time cited his age as 60, others 40.

The Mellory death cert, although fake, lists his age as 40, and a photo from the autopsy gives the appearance of a man in early, rather than late, middle age.

We know he was an Irish immigrant, but a birth cert, immigration or census records, have proved elusive.

There are several Malloys and Molloys from Co Donegal who fit his description and age profile.

But for now, his true identity remains a mystery.

ferncliff Ferncliff Cemetery Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Ferncliff Cemetery

As does his full story – why he left Ireland, how he ended up a target for the murderers at Tony Marino’s speakeasy, and who he was before he hit hard times.

His legend, however, is immortal. Tales of Mike the Durable, Mike the Indestructible, Iron Mike, spread from the gritty neighbourhoods of the Bronx in 1933, and became national news during the trial of the Murder Trust.

It has inspired plays, novels, and musical tributes, and become enshrined in the cultural history of New York City, as one of the most outrageous true stories ever told.

Michael Malloy, the man himself, was reburied after the autopsy, at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

And that’s where he lies today – inside a $10 coffin, in a charity plot, with no headstone and no name. Unclaimed and unmourned, 3,000 miles from home.

Read: A tribe called west – The forgotten Galway brothers who once ruled baseball>

Read: How a Galway community saved one of their own from an unmarked burial>

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