Owney Madden: Killer Behind the Cotton Club

December 18 is the birthday of underworld figure Owen Vincent “Owney” Madden (1891-1965).  We don’t normally write about crime bosses per se here on Travalanche, and we certainly don’t celebrate them, but the worlds of celebrity and show business certainly touched the lives of certain of them, and Madden was one of these. Unfortunately many of these guys get sentimentalized in the process; we’ll certainly try not to do that.

For Madden was a thug! His nickname “The Killer” was thoroughly earned. He was only 13 when he joined the Gopher Gang, an Irish street gang in Hell’s Kitchen. Though Madden was born in England, his parents were Irish. His was a pretty broken family. His father, a petty thief, seems to have remained behind in Leeds, while his mother immigrated to America to join her sister when Owen was eleven, leaving him at an orphanage for a time. Upon arriving to join his mom several months later, he instantly joined the Gophers, where he quickly rose up the ranks by killing members of rival gangs in brutal street brawls. He was the kind of fighter who would beat opponents to death with a lead pipe. He helped the gang expand its turf, and was so tough that he survived a 1912 assassination attempt in which he was shot ELEVEN times. Two years later, he was finally nabbed for murder (one of his many jealousy killings) and sent up to Sing-Sing.

Madden did nine years of a 20 year sentence, and emerged in 1923 to find an entirely different criminal environment. The Gophers had now disbanded and Prohibition was in full swing. He quickly established his own bootlegging gang and made a fortune. And this is what gets sadly romanticized, I think. Madden was a major Jazz Age figure, and he opened or bankrolled numerous speakeasies, including the famous Cotton Club. He was a friend of George Raft and Mae West, and opened Club Intime with Texas Guinan. But while booze most certainly should not be illegal, murdering dozens of people makes you, above all, one should think, a MURDERER. Not a glamorous celebrity.

In the early ’30s, Madden became an important boxing promoter, owning a piece of guys like Max Baer and Primo Carnera. In 1935, he blew town for good, induced by increasing police pressure, and the growing displacement of the Irish mob by the Italian one. Ah, progress! He spent his last three decades operating illegal gambling casinos in the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Bob Hoskins played Madden in the 1984 movie The Cotton Club. Fredric Lehne played him on Boardwalk Empire.