New York’s waterfront has always been a tough place for tough people. Working the docks was never a sinecure, especially for the ordinary dockworker facing long hours, heavy labor and constant anger while doing so for low pay and poor working conditions. The waterfront has also long been associated with crime. Ever since the docks were founded, mobsters of one kind or another have sought to make them their personal playground. They’ve smuggled contraband in and fugitives out. They’ve brought in drugs, bootleg alcohol and cigarettes, guns and illegal immigrants, all for a price. Shipping lines and trucking firms have faced paying heavily just for the privilege of doing business at all. If a ship’s captain didn’t pay off, then dockworkers wouldn’t unload. If warehouse owners didn’t pay off, then their warehouses were robbed or burned and they could expect vicious beatings or worse. If trucking companies didn’t pay off, then their trucks were hijacked or sabotaged, their garages burned and their workers terrorized.
Even ordinary dockworkers, themselves already facing death, injury and lasting health problems through their work, found themselves paying kickbacks to gangsters simply for the right to work at all. The mobsters ran gambling and bootlegging among the dockworkers and, naturally, with gambling came loansharking and brutality routinely visited on dockworkers who couldn’t pay their debts. You might think that the dockers could go to their union and complain, try to force action about the conditions and the pay and the rampant gangsterism infesting their workplaces and daily lives. But they couldn’t because the dockworkers union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, was run by a corrupt leader, Joe Ryan. Ryan, known as ‘Nickel and Dime’ by ILA members because he took large bribes to get them the least possible concessions from their employers, ran New York’s waterfront with an iron fist on behalf of Mafiosi like Albert Anastasia. His second-in-command was Eddie McGuire, an equally iron-fisted man who was every bit as tough as his reputation suggested.
Anastasia, former head of Murder Inc. and known in the underworld as ‘The Lord High Executioner’ for his psychopathic attitude to murder, made huge fortunes from the waterfront rackets. If you worked for Joe Ryan then you were really working for Albert Anastasia. If you crossed Ryan then you also crossed Anastasia. Courtesy of Johnny ‘Cockye’ Dunn, one of Anastasia’s chief dockland enforcers, very few people crossed either Ryan or Anastasia and lived to tell the tale.
Dockworkers themselves were routinely extorted through a ritual called the ‘shape up.’ Dockers stood around the dock gates hoping to be picked for a day’s work by hiring bosses. Hiring bosses often demanded a kickback, usually around 5% of a docker’s weekly pay, simply to pick them. Those who paid wore an ace of spades in their hatband and were regularly chosen. The hiring bosses collected the week’s take, took their cut and gave the rest to racketeers. If you didn’t pay, you didn’t work. If you made a fuss then the least you could expect was a severe beating or a visit from the waterfront’s Grim Reaper, ‘Cockeye’ Dunn.
Dunn had a record as long as your arm and a violent streak to match. Murder was simply a standard business practise for him and his right-hand man Andrew ‘Squint’ Sheridan. Anybody speaking out against gangsters, union racketeering, extortion and so on could expect to have Joe Ryan or Albert Anastasia send Dun and Sheridan to shut them up permanently. But, overall, the waterfront rackets ran themselves relatively smoothly and everybody knew where they stood. All except hiring boss Andy Hintz and his comrades working on Pier 51.
Pier 51 was known as the ‘rebel pier.’ It was practically the only pier on the docks where a honest worker could put in honest work and not be extorted via the ‘shape up.’ Andy Hintz was also unafraid to speak his mind about the ILA, its corrupt leaders and their gangster cohorts. A docker wanting to earn an honest living didn’t really have anywhere else to go.
Not surprisingly, the ILA leaders and the Mob viewed Pier 51 as a cancer spot in their otherwise total control over the waterfront. Bad enough that Pier 51 was openly honest, a drop of decency in a sea of corruption and violence. But for Andy Hintz to publicly defy the will of the ILA leaders and their gangster overlords was even worse. Pier 51 had to be rendered harmless and that meant only one thing. Andy Hintz, who had consistently refused to be bribed or bullied into line, had to go.
Enter ‘Cockeye’ Dunn, ‘Squint’ Sheridan and former boxer-turned-enforcer Danny Gentile. ‘Cockey was the brains of the trio. ‘Squint’ Sheridan was pure muscle, not the brightest of lightbulbs even when he had 2000 volts running through him. Gentile was simply another of the workaday, bottom-feeding thugs with which the waterfront was already teeming. They’d all tried to bully or bribe Andy Hintz and they’d all failed. Now Hintz was going to pay the price for his defiant decency. Only days earlier he’d responded to Dunn’s latest threat by telling him to go to Hell. Dunn, by now enraged at Hintz’s obstinacy, decided that Hintz would be going to Hell and Dunn himself was going to send him there.
On January 8, 1947, Hintz did exactly that. He was leaving for work at Pier 51 when he was confronted in the stairwell of his apartment block by Dunn, Sheridan and Gentile. No words were exchanged, but Hintz was shot six times and left for dead. Unfortunately for Dunn, Sheridan and Gentile, he wasn’t. At least not yet.
Hintz identified the trio to his wife when she came running out after hearing the shots. He named his murderers, not only to his wife but also to police as he lay slowly dying in hospital. Hintz, knowing he was mortally wounded, made what’s known as a ‘dying declaration.’ In New York at that time a dying declaration was considered as good an eyewitness account as any. Dunn was almost immediately arrested and brought under guard to Hintz’s bedside where Hintz positively identified him. Sheridan went on the lam to Florida where he was arrested on January 24 by FBI agents. Danny Gentile turned himself in at the end of March.
Andy Hintz finally died on January 29, 1947. For Dunn, Sheridan and Gentile that meant two things, both of them very bad news. One was that the initial charge of attempted murder was replaced with first-degree murder. The other was that New York State at the time issued a mandatory death sentence for first-degree murder. As his Hintz passed through death’s door, the door to the Sing Sing Death House opened wide for Dunn, Sheridan and Gentile.
Their trial began on December 4, 1947 with Judge George Donnellan presiding. After jury selection and trial it was on New Year’s Eve that the jury rendered their verdict. The trio were about to start a very unhappy New Year and two of them wouldn’t live to finish it. All three were condemned to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair, nicknamed ‘Old Sparky’ by inmates, prison staff, the public and the world’s press. They were promptly shipped ‘up the river’ to await the outcome of appeals and execution.
Sheridan, not the smartest of the trio by a long way, offered no reason for authorities to commute his sentence. Dunn and Gentlie were smarter. Gentile secured a commutation the day before they were due to die, a favourable letter from District Attorney Frank Hogan certifying that he’d given all the help he could have given to law enforcement. Dunn, however, didn’t get a deal. He offered information but, once checked out, it all incriminated people who were already dead or was proven to be a tissue of lies designed solely to keep him away from the ‘hot seat.’ While Gentile walked from the Death House into Sing Sing’s general population, ‘Cockeye’ and ‘Squint’ had nothing to do but endure the standard pre-execution routine.
Their final day was spent writing letters, ordering their last meals, being issued with the standard execution clothes (made without metal zips or wooden buttons to avoid the risk of setting them on fire), they spoke with their lawyers (who could offer nothing but sympathy), smoked cigarettes and watched the clock tick down. Finally, at 11pm on July 7 1947, they walked their ‘last mile’ only twenty-five steps from their pre-execution cells in the ‘Dancehall’ to ‘Old Sparky’ itself.
Executioner Joseph Francel, an electrician from Cairo, New York was now an old hand. He’d taken over from his famous predecessor Robert Elliott on Elliott’s retirement in 1939 and would continue in the job until 1953 when he resigned after executing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He would earn the standard amount for a double execution at Sing Sing, $150 for the first inmate and an extra $50 for each inmate extra. He stood to gain $200 plus gas money for doing his job that night. He did it perfectly as usual. Both men were marched into the death chamber, died and were wheeled into the adjoining autopsy room, New York State law mandated autopsy immediately after execution.
The waterfront rackets would long outlast them. Eddie McGuire was eventually forced into retirement in Florida. After leaving New York for his own safety he never again held so lucrative or prestigious a position in the underworld. Joe Ryan held on as leader of the ILA until the early 1950’s, being forced to resign when mounting political and public pressure forced even the ILA to try and clean up its act. Danny Gentile disappeared into obscurity after his prison time. During the existence of the Sing Sing Death House only one-third of condemned inmates who walked in left alive. Gentile was one of the lucky few to make the return trip. Albert Anastasia, already a homicidal maniac, became too ambitious, greedy, violent and untrustworthy even for other Mafiosi to tolerate any longer. On October 25, 1957 he journeyed from his palatial home in Fort Lee, New Jersey into New York City. One of his regular appointments was at the barber’s shop of the Park Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan. Unfortunately for Anastasia he wasn’t the only mobster to drop by the barber shop. Several masked men walked up behind him as he relaxed in a chair with a hot towel obscuring his vision and unloaded a volley of bullets. The ‘Lord High Executioner’ ended his career with one more brutal death. His own.