Hey there readers and listeners, I’m going on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back.
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While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is Three of Four.
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This episode can be found Here on Patreon
Today’s tale begins April 24th 1965. The setting, Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs Arkansas.
One imagines the scene as the town come to pay their respects to one of the good guys. Owen Vincent Madden, had arrived in the town in 1936, in an effort to turn his poor health around in their famed healing waters. A wealthy businessman from Leeds, England – by way of New York – Owney fell in love with the relaxed pace of life in Hot Springs. Somewhere, the charming, middle aged bachelor fell for Agnes Demby – the 34 year old shop clerk and daughter of the postmaster. Though certain rumours persisted about the man, he soon became a pillar of the community. Owney Madden passed away of emphysema, aged 73, and many a gangster and civilian alike would mourn his passing.
I’ve seen it written in the weeks following his funeral, the people of Hot Springs would be surprised and horrified at news of the monster who walked among them. I’ve no doubt some were, but we are talking about Hot Springs – a then corrupt town, and known safe haven for gangsters on the lam. It was the place where US Attorney Thomas Dewey finally handcuffed the legendary mob boss Lucky Luciano – when he couldn’t do him for multiple acts of murder, Dewey got Luciano for his part ownership of a brothel. I believe a lot of locals were aware of his past, and it would be naive to say Owney either pulled the wool over all their eyes – or that in some form or another he didn’t have some racket or other going there. Naive as this is also going to sound, I also believe, he was also a much better man in his later years than he had been when in New York.
So who was this man? And what was this mysterious past which may have shocked some in the community? Let’s explore that today.
Owen Vincent Madden was born in Leeds, England on December 18th 1891, to an Irish family. The Maddens emigrated to New York in 1902, settling in the tough Irish American neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. With an over-abundance of street gangs in the neighbourhood, it was no surprise that by the age of 11, Madden was a member of a group known as the Gopher Gang. Even at this young age, Madden was well known as a handful – his favourite weapon, a length of lead pipe.
As he reached his teens, Madden ascended through the ranks, but nearly found his career derailed in his late teens. He killed William Henshaw, a store clerk who made a pass at a young woman he’d laid claim to. Though Henshaw’s murder took place in front of dozens of witnesses, Henshaw himself living just long enough to ID his killer – the collective amnesia of the witnesses was something to behold, and Madden walked without conviction.
Following his release, the Gopher Gang upped their violence game, taking over the protection rackets in other neighbourhoods and rubbing out rival street gangs. This was hardly all one way traffic. The Hudson Dusters were a rival gang, formed by an ex Gopher Gang member named Goo Goo Knox. On November 6th 1914, the Hudson Dusters ambushed several Gopher Gang members outside the Arbor Dance Hall. Three Gophers were killed, and Madden was shot anywhere between six and eleven times, depending on whose recollection you read. Madden survived, and sought revenge – which led to him being sentenced to 20 years at Sing Sing Prison before the year was out. By the end of 1914 both gangs would be disbanded in a wave of murders, drug overdoses and incarcerations.
When released in 1923, Owney found a different world waiting for him. Shaking down shopkeepers for protection money was so yesterday. The 1920s were all about bootlegging.
As I state in the main episode (the original upload ran alongside Mussolini v The Mob) .. this will be a little meta…
‘On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities.’
Madden soon found employment as hired muscle for a bootlegger called Larry Fay. He arranged the import of whiskey from Canada, smuggled in the boots of American taxi cabs. Having learned the ropes, Madden set up a rival operation. Big Bill Dwyer was another rival bootlegger, who had several shipments hijacked from under his nose. Dwyer was then made an offer he could not refuse by Madden – to hand his whole business over – which he did.
Madden soon turned profits into ownership of several speakeasy’s – Most notably the Cotton Club.
In 1920, the former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opened a supper club on the corner of 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue, Harlem. Johnson struggled to keep the club open during prohibition, and turned to Madden for a quick sale. Johnson remained, nominally, the owner of the re-branded Cotton Club – which took off under the guidance of the mobster. Though a largely segregated club, open to white patrons only unless the guest a celebrity like Langston Hughes or Paul Robeson (this was still the Jim Crow era), many of the greatest black performers of the era played there – from bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb to featured singers and dancers like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers and the Dandridge Sisters.
The Cotton Club was well up there with The Savoy Ballroom as the hot tickets in town. It was always full of celebrities, had a fantastic range of alcohol available, and some of the greatest swing music ever.
It was here that Madden met, and for a while dated Mae West. He’d fund her first play, ‘Sex’ in 1927, when no-one else would. She would comment Owney was “Sweet, but oh so vicious”. He also took George Raft on as a driver. The stylish Raft would leverage his friendship with Madden to launch a career as a Hollywood actor.
By 1931, Madden had become extremely rich out of bootlegging, and various other criminal activities. After a brief stint back inside in 1932 – he’d caught the attention of authorities after putting a $50,000 price on the head of a gangster and child killer called Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll – but went away for a minor parole violation – He turned his hand to promoting boxing matches. On June 14th 1934, Max Baer – a boxer of some renown, later the father of Max Baer jr, (Jethro in the TV show The Beverley Hillbillies)
Faced off against Primo Carnera – a two metre tall monster, called The Ambling Alp, who still holds the record of winning more fights by KO than any other world heavyweight champion.
The fight, was extremely one-sided, with Baer knocking Carnera down eleven times in eleven rounds. It’s long been speculated Madden fixed the bout to maximise gambling profits.
The mid 1930s were a time of relative peace – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31 led to mafiosi setting up a ‘Commission’, which ensured some peace and stability – but Madden knew it wouldn’t last. The mafia were soon likely to muscle the likes of himself out of the market. He was feeling a little old, and suffered aches from his many gunshot wounds. Possibly with the blessing of Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, he closed shop and retired to Hot Springs Arkansas. Some point out he may have been sent there by the Mob to set up a gambling house – it is notable soon after moving to town Madden paid for a wire service to be laid in the town, allowing bookies to get the horse racing results.
Whatever the case, he arrived in town, and sought out hydro treatment for his gunshot wounds. He met, and fell in love with Agnes Demby – who almost certainly knew her husband’s past life. Beneath the surface, Hot Springs was a corrupt place, with it’s fair share of illegal gambling and prostitution – their mayor Leo P. McLaughlin was later found to be controlling much of the trade. For 30 years Madden, at the very least gave the impression of living the life of a modest, legitimate businessman. His bar, The Southern Club, did well. Whether gone legit or not, he had many visits over the years from Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis.
On the flip side, this Owen Madden was no longer a man of violence. He lived in a modest house with his wife. He was active in the community, and supported a number of local charities. He was a well known, and well liked figure, often seen round town – the trademark Fedora hat of the gangster replaced by the big, slouchy cap of the country gentleman. Whether completely clean or not, he was a remarkable figure for having gone into an idyllic semi-retirement when most of his contemporaries were either jailed or murdered.
Looking for information on Big Bills wife Agnes. Looking for friend who is writing a book about Big Bill. Thank you! Anything will help!