Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com.
Vannie Higgins: Brooklyn’s Last Irish Boss
By Allan May
Charles “Vannie” Higgins had all the right connections and built a thriving bootleg empire in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn during the 1920s. However, like most successful gangsters of that era, Higgins wanted more. It was this greed that would cause him, and many like him, to perish before Prohibition had run its course.
Vannie Higgins was born in 1897 in the Bay Ridge neighborhood where he would enjoy his greatest success. Never looked upon as a mob big shot, Higgins, none the less, was considered a “cut above the average gangster,” and he had a knack of escaping imprisonment despite his many arrests.
His criminal career began in 1915 when he was arrested for assault and placed on one year’s probation. The following year, ditto – assault and another year on probation. It would be another ten years though before Higgins was arrested again.
Between 1920 and 1927, Higgins built up a profitable rum-running and bootlegging business in Bay Ridge. He served at times as a lieutenant to fellow Irishman, Big Bill Dwyer, New York’s most notorious rumrunner, who was in partnership with Frank Costello. Higgins owned the Cigarette, a speed boat described as “the fleetest rum-runner in New York waters.” He also owned a seaplane and a fleet of trucks and taxicabs to help him move the liquor to his club in Brooklyn as well as to other customers.
One of the few gangsters to ever own a pilot’s license, Higgins once flew to the Comstock Prison in New York to visit Warden Joseph H. Wilson, a childhood friend. Wilson had ordered a nearby meadow cleared by convict labor so Higgins could land his plane. When then New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt found out about the visit he chastised the warden. Wilson replied that he had known Higgins for years and indicated that the governor should mind his own business.
Another time Higgins flew to Baltimore where after a “business meeting” he stopped at a speakeasy before flying back. As he was leaving the bar a gunfight between rival gangs broke out. Trying to run for safety, Higgins was wounded in the leg by a police officer who mistook him for one of the warring gang members.
In May 1926 Higgins was arrested for assault and robbery. Although the charges were dismissed he would face more serious problems when he was arrested for possession of a revolver in July 1928. This time he countered-filed charges against the New York City Police Department, claiming to be the victim of “persecution” by Brooklyn detectives. Higgins dropped his charge after he was cleared of the gun possession violation.
During 1928, Higgins sought to expand his empire by aligning himself with Jack “Legs” Diamond, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, and Anthony Carfano, better known as “Little Augie Pisano”. While trying to move into Manhattan, Higgins and his allies came into conflict with Dutch Schultz and others, resulting in a Manhattan beer war.
Although considered a boss, Higgins never shied away from the “heavy” work. In 1928 he was involved in a shootout that took place at the Owl’s Head Café at Sixty-ninth Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn. As Higgins and other gang members blasted away at rival mobsters, police showed up and joined in the exchange of gunfire. During the shooting, Patrolman Daniel Maloney was killed in the crossfire and two other men were seriously wounded. Higgins was arrested and charged with murder, but five days later charges were dropped. Later that year, Higgins and two of his gunmen were arrested for the murder of Samuel Orlando, a Brooklyn bootlegger. Again charges were dropped when there was not enough evidence to hold them.
A short time later, Higgins and sidekick “Bad Bill” Bailey were the target of rivals in downtown Brooklyn. Riding down the street together they were passed by an automobile carrying hoods who opened fire with shotguns. Neither man was harmed
After the death of Arnold Rothstein in November 1928, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz were engaged in a gang war for control of the Manhattan beer trade. Higgin’s position was not clear. Some sources claim he was aligned with Dwyer, Pisano, and Diamond, while other sources state that he was in direct conflict.
In “Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond: Anatomy of a Gangster,” some of these contradictions are exposed. In 1930, according to author Gary Levine, Higgins kidnapped Leo Steinberg for revenge on Pisano (revenge for what Levine doesn’t say). Higgins supposedly took Steinberg for a one-way ride, filled him full of lead, and weighted his body down in the ocean off Long Beach, Long Island. Steinberg’s brother offered Diamond $50,000 for the return of Leo. Diamond contacted Higgins for assistance and after Vannie told Legs where he could find the body he felt he was entitled to the $50,000. When Diamond refused to cough up the requested cash, Higgins’ men confronted Legs and shot him several times. As was his usual habit, Diamond survived.
In March 1931, Higgins was arrested, and for the first time convicted, in Jersey City for disorderly conduct and driving while intoxicated. He was fined a total of $200 and had his driver’s license suspended.
Shortly after this incident, Higgins and some of his men were in the Blossom Health Inn on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Higgins got into an argument with Frank McManus whose bother George allegedly fired the fatal bullet into Arnold Rothstein. McManus ordered the men out of his establishment. Higgins refused to leave without an order for a truckload of beer. A fight ensued and Higgins received several knife wounds and ended up, ironically, in Polyclinic Hospital where Rothstein had succumbed to his wound. At the hospital, like Rothstein, Higgins refused to identify his attacker.
In May 1931, Higgins was charged by the government of taking part in a rum-running ring that operated in Long Beach. Seventeen other people were indicted, including Long Beach Police Chief Morris Grossman, in what the government alleged was a $10 million dollar operation. Higgins was acquitted in the case.
Higgins and “Bad Bill” Bailey were arrested in November 1931 for the murder of Robert “Whitey” Benson, one of their own gunmen who they suspected of working with Dutch Schultz. Both men and their attorneys appeared before the Manhattan district attorney for questioning. Before the district attorney could open his mouth, both men in unison stated, “On advice of our lawyers we refuse to make any further statement.” Once more Higgins was released due to lack of evidence.
Vannie Higgins was described as a devoted family man. On Saturday night, June 18, 1932, he attended a tap dance recital at the Knights of Columbus clubhouse in Prospect Park to see his seven-year-old daughter Jean perform. With Higgins was his wife, mother, two brothers, and a brother-in-law. Also, in attendance were mobsters Irving Bitz and Salvatore Spitale. Bitz had two daughters performing in the program.
The recital was followed by “dancing for the older folks, refreshments for all – a neighborhood party.” At about 1:15 am, Higgins and his family left through a side entrance to the club on Union Street. The group was laughing as they strolled toward Higgins’ automobile. Vannie walked in front of the group holding his daughter’s hand. As Higgins reached his 16-cylinder luxury coupe, a dark sedan came slowly toward him. From twenty feet away a gunman began firing. Higgins’ daughter Jean was hit first suffering a wound to her ear lobe. Vannie pushed the girl down on the running board and, in a selfless manner, ran out into the open, unarmed, to draw the gunfire away from his family. Police later expressed surprise that his rivals would try to kill him with family members so dangerously close to the line of fire.
Higgin’s brothers pushed the women into the protection of a garage near the coupe as Vannie ran wildly down Union Street with shooters from two cars now firing at him. Higgins by now had been hit several times. His fedora hat lay in the gutter and his light gray suit was blood splattered. When he collapsed on Union Street his assailants continued to fire at him. He struggled to his feet and ran a short distance to Eighth Avenue, turned and staggered another hundred feet before he fell again. He crawled to the protection of a stoop in front of an old brownstone house and crouched while the assassins sped off.
The first person to reach Higgins was a police officer who recognized him immediately. The two had grown up together in Bay Ridge. “Who was it, Vannie?” he asked.
“I’ll get them,” Higgins mumbled. “They tried to wipe out my whole family.”
“Who, Vannie?” again asked the officer, but Higgins fell unconscious.
The officer helped carry Higgins to a cab that took him to Methodist Episcopal Hospital. He had suffered wounds to the abdomen, chest, and left arm. By 1:40 am, with his wife and mother at his side, Higgins had been administered the last rights by a Roman Catholic priest. Higgins, however, regained consciousness and tried to hold on.
Lieutenant John McGowan of the Brooklyn homicide unit, who had known Higgins for twenty years, soon arrived. “Vannie, it looks like it’s all over for you, now. Tell me what happened,” said McGowan.
“Don’t bother me, Mac. I’m sick,” replied Higgins.
Two police officers remained at his side in case he might name the shooters, but true to code he answered no more questions. In his delirium, he called out several times, “I’ve got to live. I’ve got to get out of here. Gotta straighten this out. They tried to wipe out the whole family.”
Higgins was given three blood transfusions, rallying after each one. However, it was a losing battle and he died of his wounds Sunday afternoon some fifteen hours after the shooting.
Motives for the killing were abundant. There were rumors that Higgins was going to move in on certain night club interests in Manhattan and that his gang had clashed with Pisano’s bunch. There was talk that it was a revenge killing for either the murder of Leo Steinberg or the subsequent shooting of Diamond. There was also the rumor that Higgins was involved in the murder of Diamond. When Joe “Lefty” Burke, a Diamond associate who swore to “get” Higgins, he was murdered in a Brooklyn speakeasy in April 1932. There was a report that friends of Burke were spotted near the Knights of Columbus clubhouse the night of the murder.
One last theory was that it was the Schultz mob doing a little clean up work. One witness supposedly identified Schultz gunman Abe “Bo” Weinberg in one of the automobiles that pursued Higgins.
Despite all of the theories no one was ever brought to trial for the murder of Vannie Higgins. The newspapers spoke of him in such glowing terms as the “most powerful underworld leader since the death of Frankie Uale (sic),” and “the last of the Irish underworld leaders in Brooklyn.” However, the tough Irishman, who once called himself “just a lobster fisherman” when police stopped his rum-running boat, faded from view and has received little mention in mob folklore.
Copyright A. R. May 1999