Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll was the archetypal wild, reckless, violent young gangster of the Prohibition era. Even while the likes of Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Al Capone, Coll managed to stand out for his complete recklessness, seeming unconcern with personal risk and utter indifference to the violence that constantly hung around him like a bad smell. He was the kind of gangster that you didn’t need to cross for him to put you at risk.
With so many powerful enemies, simply being in the same room was enough to put people in danger of a stray bullet.
Born in Gweedore, Ireland on July 20, 1908, Coll emigrated to the US a a year later.
Whether or not he was born a sadistic psychopath is unknown, but it’s unlikely growing up in Hell’s Kitchen would have ironed out any pre-existing psychological defects. Instead, Hell’s Kitchen being Hell’s Kitchen, Coll’s mind formed amid constant violence, crime and sudden death. By the time he was 12 Coll earned his first stint at reform school. He would be in and out of reform schools for the next few years. Once the reform schools decided they couldn’t handle him Coll roamed the streets full-time, joining the notorious ‘Gophers’ street gang. Then as now, today’s street punks were tomorrow’s gangsters and Coll was no exception.
Coll was a young enforcer working for notorious beer baron ‘Dutch’ Schultz from the late-1920’s, starting in his late teens. It wasn’t long before ‘Mad Dog’ committed his first murders. Anthony Borello owned a speakeasy and one of his hostesses was Mary Smith. Schultz, like most bootleggers, usually forced customers to buy his booze and nobody else’s. Anybody refusing to buy or caught buying from a rival could expect swift, brutal retaliation. Borello wouldn’t buy Schultz’s booze and Mary Smith just happened to be there at the time Coll arrived to deal with Borello. Naturally, Smith became a witness to the murder. Equally naturally (to him anyway) Coll murdered her as well. Allegedly through Schultz bribing and intimidating the jury, Coll was acquitted.
The relationship between Coll and Schultz was always contentious and often sour. Coll resented being Schultz’s employee, taking a junior position and an equally junior share of the profits. To make extra money Coll performed an armed robbery of a New York dairy, taking $17,000 in cash. Schultz was outraged. The last thing he needed was unnecessary police attention on him and his gang. To Schultz’s immense surprise (and equal fury) Coll laughed at Schultz’s attempts to discipline him. Instead of humbly backing down he demanded an equal partnership under threat of Schultz being kidnapped and probably killed.
Schultz, himself notoriously temperamental, laughed at Coll’s demand to be made a full partner. He was enraged when Coll made his kidnapping threat. One of Coll’s other sidelines was kidnapping for ransom, kidnapping other gangsters as they wouldn’t go to the the police. They couldn’t, bound both by the underworld code of silence and the fact that the taxman would usually take great interest in where they’d obtained the ransom money and why they hadn’t declared this income for taxes. Again, this caused fury among kidnapped gangsters and their friends and, while lucrative for Coll, the kidnappings were a source of regular frustration for Schultz. Hence, the Schultz-Coll partnership never happened. The Schultz-Coll war certainly did.
It was during his war with Schultz that Coll reached his worst. It’s estimated that Coll and his (very few) recruits killed over 20 Schultz gangsters. Schultz’s men, in return, rubbed out several of Coll’s allies including his brother Peter Coll. One hit that went terribly wrong involved one of Schultz’s senior men, Joseph Rao. Rao was lazing outside a gangster hang-out on July 28, 1931 when a car pulled up on the sidewalk. The car contained several men with Thompson sub-machine guns and shotguns. The tommy gunners and shotgunners unleashed a fusillade of lead and buckshot. They didn’t kill Joey Rao, he escaped largely unhurt. They did shoot five children who were close to Rao when the shooting started. Four were seriously wounded, but survived. One, a 5-year old boy named Michael Vengalli, died shortly after being shot. Vincent Coll had now become Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll, also known as the ‘Baby Killer.’
All of New York, the straight world and underworld alike, was appalled by the carnage. Honest citizens were appalled on general principle. They had to put up with enough gangland violence as it was without the needless deaths of innocent bystanders, especially children. The underworld were appalled too, not over innocent people being killed, but because they knew that the victims being children would undoubtedly force a major crackdown on gang activity until Coll was either caught or killed.
For Coll, being caught by the police or by the underworld made no difference.
For Coll, being caught by the police or by the underworld made no difference. With electrocution mandatory for murder in New York State at the time, Coll’s only choice was between a bullet from his underworld colleagues or a train ride to Sing Sing Prison’s dreaded ‘Death House’ followed by a seat in ‘Old Sparky.’. One way or another Coll was doomed. Coll knew it, he also didn’t seem to care.
He surrendered to police and was arrested to await trial. Fortunately for Coll he’d retained legendary defence lawyer Samuel Liebowitz (defender of Alabama’s Scottsboro Boys). What sealed Coll’s seemingly-remarkable escape from execution was the sole prosecution witness (Joey Rao having refused to testify). Witness George Brecht was soon exposed by Liebowitz as having a criminal record, a history of mental health problems and of having made similarly inconsistent testimony in a different murder case in Missouri. With the star prosecution witness’s credibility entirely destroyed, the trial judge had no option but to direct the jury to acquit.
This wasn’t as good for Coll as it seemed. Granted, he’d evaded lawful justice, but gangland justice could be far swifter and equally deadly. While Coll remained alive and free, causing endless police attention wherever he went in New York, no gangster found it easy to do business. The anticipated police crackdown began. Gangsters knew the only way to make that crackdown go away was to deal with Coll themselves. Coll had few friends left in gangland after his kidnappings, freelance contract killings and shoot-outs had caused so much police attention and bloodshed. If the law couldn’t fix him then the underworld could. And did.
By now Coll was so complete an outcast that Prohibition bigshots ‘Dutch’ Schultz and Owney ‘ The Killer’ Madden both placed $50,000 bounties on his head. These were open contracts where any gunman could try his luck. Whoever killed Coll stood to collect at least $100,000, the gratitude of gangland and the relief of respectable, honest New Yorkers. It wasn’t long before somebody collected.
On February 8, 1932 Coll was in a drugstore using a public payphone when he died. He was on the phone to none other than Owney Madden himself and the conversation wasn’t friendly. To raise extra money Coll was openly threatening to kidnap Madden’s brother-in-law for a hefty ransom. Madden simply kept Coll talking and, while Madden and Coll argued, Madden’s triggermen raced to the drugstore hoping to find Coll still on the phone. He was still on the phone and Madden’s gunmen abruptly terminated Coll and his conversation.
A car arrived outside the store. One man stayed at the wheel and two entered the store. One of them quietly urged the storekeeper to keep quiet. A long burst of machine-gun fire shredded the phone booth and Coll himself, leaving 15 bullets in his body. Unlike much of Coll’s handiwork, only the phone booth and Coll himself were hit by the bullets and nobody else was killed or wounded. It was a clean, precise job done by a professional.
The ‘Mad Dog’ had finally been put to sleep. He died aged only 23. He was buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetary beside his brother Peter, himself killed during the Schultz-Coll war. The two brothers probably knew more peace in death than they ever found in life.