Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the famous gangsters of the Prohibition era: Al Capone. Lucky Luciano. Bugsy Siegel. Meyer Lansky.
But many have never heard of an Irish gangster named Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll, whose life and crimes were just as fascinating as other, better-known organized crime figures of the 1920s and 1930s. To understand why Coll grew into one of the most feared criminals in New York, you have to study his upbringing.
Coll was born in 1908 in County Donegal, Ireland. When he was less than a year old, his parents decided to do what many Irish people did in those days: they emigrated to America to seek a better life. With 7 children in tow, the Colls settled in the Bronx, but found that their lives in New York were not much better than the ones they left behind in Ireland.
They toiled in poverty, leading Coll’s father to eventually desert the family. Coll’s mother and all but one of his six siblings died before he turned 12 years old. Though an elderly neighbor took him in, Coll quickly began running the streets of New York with other like-minded youngsters who only had one thing on their mind: crime. He joined the Gophers street gang, quickly earning a reputation as a fearless criminal. Coll spent time at Catholic reform schools, but he was always eventually expelled.
When Prohibition became law in 1920, organized crime flourished in New York, as it did across the entire United States. Rival gangs fought in the streets over control of the bootlegging of illegal alcohol. Vincent Coll joined up with with Dutch Schultz‘s gang and quickly rose through the ranks; by the late 1920s, he was an enforcer and assassin for the gangster.
However, Coll was also a loose cannon, and Schultz soon grew tired of his reckless behavior. In 1929, Coll robbed a dairy in the Bronx of $17,000 without Schultz’s permission. When Schultz confronted him, Coll demanded he be made an equal parter. Instead of taking Schultz’s advice and playing by the boss’ rules, Vincent Coll left, formed his own gang, and went into business for himself in early 1931.
This meant war.
Coll’s new gang and Schultz’s mob engaged in a bloody battle. Coll’s gang financed their operations by kidnapping rival gangsters and holding them for ransom. When, in May 1931, Schultz’s mob killed Coll’s brother Peter, Coll responded by going on a rampage – in the next three weeks he gunned down four of Schultz’s men. The two gangs fought back and forth until the streets of New York were littered with bodies.
Coll earned his nickname, ‘Mad Dog,’ from an incident that occurred on July 28, 1931. That day, Coll and some of his men attempted to kidnap a rival bootlegger named Joseph Rao. During the struggle, Coll’s men opened fire on Rao, and bullets struck five children who were playing nearby. When one of the children, a 5-year-old boy, died, New York City mayor Jimmy Walker called Coll a “Mad Dog,” and the nickname caught on in the press. Coll immediately went into hiding.
Coll hid out, but was eventually arrested in the Bronx in October 1931 and charged with murder. He hired famed lawyer Samuel Leibowitz to defend him. The prosecution did not present a strong case, and, in December, Coll was acquitted. But his troubles were far from over.
Shortly after he was released from custody, Owney Madden, a rival gangster and boss of the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen, put a $50,000 bounty on Coll’s head. Hitmen hunted Coll all over New York City. On February 8, 1932 ‘Mad Dog’ Coll’s luck finally ran out. Coll phoned Owney Madden from a phone booth in a Manhattan drug store and demanded $50,000, or else he was going to kidnap Madden’s brother-in-law. Madden smartly kept Coll talking on the phone long enough to trace the call. Once Coll’s location was pinpointed, three hitmen headed to the drugstore. One of the men gunned Coll down as he stood in the phone booth, riddling his body with bullets from the weapon of choice among 1930s gangsters, a Thompson submachine gun – aka “Tommy gun.”
Coll was dead at the age of 23. Coll’s rival Dutch Schultz sent a floral wreath to his funeral that read, “From the boys.” However, in the end Schultz himself didn’t fare much better. He was shot and killed in a restaurant in New Jersey in 1935.
Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll’s legacy may not stand out as much as some of the gangsters of his era, but, for a brief time, he was as feared as any of the notorious names in the history books.
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