The Wild Bill Show
Pauline Murphy writes of the life and times of Lixnaw native, mobster and war hero William 'Wild Bill' Lovett, a Kerry export that made a 'brief but bloody' mark on the Big Apple
William J Lovett was born in Lixnaw on July 15, 1894. He was a child when he crossed the Atlantic with his family.
William grew up in the rough and tumble of Brooklyn's waterfront known as Irishtown, where he got involved with street gangs and earned his nickname 'Wild Bill'. His father worked as a dockside watchman and was a devout Catholic who wanted young Bill to join the Franciscans, but he instead chose the life of a gangster.
When the United States entered World War I, Bill enlisted in the 77th Infantry Division. Assigned to the 13th Machine gun battalion in France, Bill saw action on the western front and was awarded the distinguished service cross for bravery when he rescued two injured comrades trapped in no man's land during a night attack in the Argonne.
After the war Bill returned to Brooklyn, where he became leader of the Jay Street Gang which ran gambling, extortion, prostitution and robbery on the waterfront.
The main Irish gang in New York at that time was the White Hand Gang led by Dinny Meehan.
In March 1920 two men entered Meehan's apartment and shot him as he lay sleeping in his bed. The killing was blamed on a rival Italian gang, but heavy suspicion lay on Wild Bill, who then took over leadership of the White Hand Gang.
There was a running feud between Italian gangs and Irish gangs at this time, but Irish gangs had internal fueds which were just as bloody. In the months following Meehan's murder, up to 20 Irish gang-related killings occured in Irishtown - the area between Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge.
Bill was well read and very articulate, but he had a weakness when it came to alcohol. He also had a fierce temper, which was dangerous when it was fuelled by whiskey. One day, while drinking in a bar, Bill shot one of his own men when he saw him pulling a cat by the tail. Wild Bill may not have been too fond of his fellow man, but he had a great affection for animals!
Bill was a regular at the courthouse; his life as a gangster often landed him there, but corruption often saw him walk out a free man. In 1921, while walking out of court after yet another appearance before the judge, a gunman fired at Bill but failed to hit him. The gunman was Garry Barry, a rival Irish gangster. Barry was later found stabbed to death in a New York Street after his failed assassination attempt on Wild Bill.
In January 1923 Bill's life came under attack again. The New York Times of January 4, 1923, reported "Lovett was found by a friend in a room on the top floor of a two-storey shanty in the rear of 289 Front Street with three bullet wounds in his breast." Bill survived and tracked down and killed his would-be assassin, Eddie Hughes.
Later in that same year, Bill and his associates attacked brothers James and Timmy Quilty in a New York saloon. Timmy was killed outright, but James survived. Bill's associate Frank Healy was shot dead on a New York Street in retaliation for the Quilty brothers. Days later, Healy's shooter, Frank Byrne, was walking down a street when a number of Bill's men drove past and sprayed him with bullets. Such tit-for-tat killings saw the streets of Brooklyn awash in the blood of Irish gangsters.
In the summer of 1923 Bill married childhood sweetheart Anna Lonergan, sister of his most trusted associate, Richard 'Pegleg' Lonergan. Anna was one of 15 children, and her father was a violent drunkard who once prevailed as a prizefighter. One day, when he punched Anna in her face, her mother took his gun and shot her husband dead.
Anna was known as the Queen of the Irishtown Docks. At the age of 14 she spent a night in jail after she smacked a butcher across his face with a piece of liver when he tried to kiss her.
Anna's brother, Pegleg, received his nickname after a trolly car accident which saw him lose his right leg as a child.
After their wedding Bill and Anna bought a house in New Jersey. It was then that Bill decided to reform his gangster ways, and he handed over command of the White Hand Gang to his brother-in-law, Pegleg. Bill was determined to go straight and applied for a foreman's job at a Silk Factory in New York City. On October 31, 1923, Bill left home to go to the job interview in New York, but he never made it.
Bill failed to attend his job interview. He instead went on a drinking spree with old friends around his old haunts on the Brooklyn waterfront. Bill was drinking in Thomas Sands Saloon with an old friend, Joe Flynn, into the early hours of November 1 when the two men staggered out of the saloon and passed out drunk in a room in the dock loaders store on 25 Bridge Street. At 8am the next morning a passing policeman noticed the door of Number 25 was open.
When he went inside to investigate he found the bloodied and battered body of 29-year-old Wild Bill Lovett. He had been beaten with a cleaver and shot a number of times in the head and neck. When police questioned Joe Flynn he told them he woke in the middle of the night and went home, leaving Bill sleeping near a stove.
The New York Times of November 2, 1923, stated: "It is the theory of the police that the person or persons who killed Lovett lay in wait." Joe Flynn was initially arrested, but he was released without charge.
It was strongly believed Bill was killed by Italian rivals, notably Frankie Yale's Brooklyn mob, and Yale's chief enforcer, Willie 'Two Knife' Altieri, is said to have been Bill's executioner.
Anna's brother, Pegleg Lonergan, who took over the White Hand Gang, would meet his own bloody end on Christmas Day 1925 in a shoot-out between Irish and Italian gangs in a social club. After Bill's death, Anna married Matty Martin, a member of the White Hand Gang.
Matty would also meet a violent end in 1931 he was shot dead in a New York speak-easy. Anna never remarried; she did have a brief relationship with Italian mobster Leonard Scarnici, but his end came in 1935 on the electric chair in Sing Sing prison. After spending most of her life with Irish gangsters, Anna lived out her days alone in a small apartment in Brooklyn.
Wild Bill Lovett was buried with full military honours at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. Reporting on the funeral, the New York Times of November 11, 1923, stated:
"The war hero who tried to reform was unable to shun his old haunts...he went back to Brooklyn where his part in half a dozen gang killings was common knowledge though unproved."
Like most of the gangsters of that era, Wild Bill Lovett's life was brief but bloody.