He was no relation to famed Satanist Aleister Crowley, but young Francis 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 the last mile at the notorious Sing Sing Prison on January 21, 1932. It was a short life and a very, very violent one.
His start in life, to be fair to him, 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 seemed to have severe case of ‘small man syndrome’ and a temper to match. He wasn’t keen on humans in general, but he reserved his most bilious attitude for police officers. Whether or not his absent father was a cop, as has been suggested at least once by people trying to explain his venomous attitude towards them, has never been resolved. But, whatever he lacked in physical bulk, he more than made up for in sheer violence and a hair-trigger temper. Perhaps to compensate for his diminutive stature Crowley (also nicknamed the ‘Half-Pint Killer’) developed a habit of carrying several guns on him at all times. It wasn’t long before he’d find an excuse to use them.
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. The Legionnaires didn’t take kindly to their behaviour and demanded that they leave. Crowley and his friends refused and, when several of the Legionnaires tried to eject them from the building, Crowley responded by shooting two of them. Now he’d made the leap from petty hoodlum into being wanted on 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. Like the two Legionnaires, Detective Schaedel was seriously wounded, but survived. Crowley had racked up three shootings in only a couple of weeks.
Four days later he racked up another felony. With four accomplices Crowley robbed a bank in New Rochelle in Westchester County. This time he managed to get away without shooting anybody, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the NYPD to catch a felon who had almost killed one of their own.
A month after that Crowley was back in action, this time performing a home invasion with two accomplices. They forced their way into the home of Rudolph Adler, a real estate broker of considerable means. Adler’s dog, Trixie, proved more than a match for them, attacking them and standing her ground after they had injured her owner. In company with his long-time crime partner Rudolph ‘Fats’ Duringer (so called because of his vast waistline) Crowley fled the scene empty-handed.
It was on April 27 that Fats and Two Gun committed their first confirmed murder. He was joyriding in a stolen car with Duringer and dancehall hostess Virginia Brannen when Duringer made a pass at her. Brannen, repulsed by her morbidly obese suitor, brushed him off none too gently. It was the wrong move to make. Enraged, Duringer raped her and then shot her in the head before he and Crowley dumped her body outside St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Yonkers. They were both now facing a seat in the infamous ‘Old Sparky’ at Sing Sing.
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. 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 and, most interesting to the police, was riddled with bullet holes and also contained a number of bloodstains. It was obvious to police that, even though Crowley had escaped, he or Duringer hadn’t escaped unscathed.
The NYPD continued their efforts to catch Crowley. Crowley, equally determined, continued to elude them. At least he did until May 6. On that date he was 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 for a long-term relationship. Two local officers, Patrolmen Frederick Hirsch and Peter Yodice, approached the car on Long Island and requested that Crowley identified himself. He did so by 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 as and when he felt like it. The day after Patrolmen Hirsch and Yodice were shot they 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, promptly developed an entirely non-jealous sense of civic virtue and called the police. With the prospect of bagging the infamous ‘Two Gun’ Crowley to look forward to, the NYPD arrived quickly and in large numbers. Crowley’s last stand, what became known as the ‘Battle of 91st Street,’ was about to begin.
A total of 300 officers, all toting tommy guns, pistol, shotguns, rifles and tear gas guns, converged and surrounded the building. This, not surprisingly, attracted spectators, some 15,000 New Yorkers turned out to also surround the building and 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’s response was to shoot back and throw several of the gas canisters back out into the street. It was an all-out gun battle seldom seen even during the Prohibition era. While Crowley did most of the shooting, Duringer and Walsh helped by constantly reloading his pistols for him, keeping up a continuous supply until Crowley’s guns began to overheat from excessive use.
But it was a forlorn hope. No one gangster, however violent they may be, can tackle around 300 heavily-armed and vengeful police officers. Surrounded and with no escape, wounded seriously by four gunshot wounds, Crowley was eventually captured. Captured with him were Duringer and Walsh. True to his nickname, the arresting 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. Duringer and Crowley, as expected, weren’t treated with any mercy. Duringer and Crowley both drew death sentences, Crowley for murdering Patrolman Hirsch and Duringer for the murder of 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 was reportedly one of the fattest men ever to sit in the electric chair and 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, perhaps much to the relief of the prison staff who had to deal with him during his last few months.
Crowley was a disciplinary nightmare on Death Row. He attacked officers, he attacked other inmates, he was caught in possession of home-made weapons, he set fire to his bedding, then stuffed his clothes into the cell’s toilet and flooded the cell. It took Warden Lawes ordering that he be kept naked in an empty cell for several days before he 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. He was escorted down the corridor between the cells and Sing Sing’s death chamber and he was defiant to the end. Standing in front of the chair, Warden Lawes asked him for his last words and if he had anything to say before execution. He 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. As the leather helmet containing the head electrode slid down over his face he managed one last, bitterly sarcastic remark:
‘Give my love to my mother…’
Warden Lawes gave the signal and ‘State Electrician’ Robert Greene Elliott threw the switch. For two full minutes electricity seared through his 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.