Local Boy Makes Bad

'Mad Dog Coll – An Irish Gangster'  by Breandán Delap
(Mercier Press £9.99)

Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll was born in Tigh Hiudai Beag's bar, future home of Clannad and Altan, in the Rosses, Co. Donegal, in 1908. To this day the more respectable citizenry of Bunbeg, Kincasslagh, Derrybeg and Dungloe refer to him as "an madra mire" rather than Mad Dog Coll. In his brief career as a murderer, bootlegger, kidnapper, extortionist, hijacker, torturer, hitman, loanshark, moonshiner and womaniser he made it to number one in the FBI's 'Most Wanted' list. He also picked up the nickname 'the gangster from Gweedore.'

One year old Vinnie arrived in New York with his family in 1909 and settled in the Bronx. The American dream did not pan out for the Colls and virtually all of them died young. Vinnie's mother, worn out, died in 1916. Five of Vinnie's siblings died before he was 12, of poverty, tuberculosis and penury. His father Toaly Coll abandoned his waning family and split, never to be heard of again. Vinnie grew up in poverty and crime. His only friend was his brother Peter, who was gunned down, at the age of 24 in Harlem a scant year before Vinnie finally bought it.

Before prohibition New York Irish gangs like the Whyos, the Dead Rabbits, who used to march through the mean streets of New York with pikes with dead rabbits skewered on them, the Plug Uglies and the Kerrytonians dominated the Bronx and the Five Points, but during the prohibition era the mobs were increasingly Italian and Jewish and controlled by the likes of Dutch Schulz (Arthur Flegenheimer), Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Louis Lepke et al. Coll started out after he got out of the reformatory by signing up as 'an enforcer' for Dutch Schultz but soon got ambitious and formed his own gang.

The 'new boys', the 'mad dogs,' were exemplified by 'Legs' Diamond and Vinnie Coll. Live fast, die soon and make a pretty corpse. During a brief two year period they injected fear into the mob by their crazed unchecked violence and their 'don't give a fuck' attitude. Kidnapping rival gangsters was one of Coll's specialties – and he was vicious. One 'survivor' who was ransomed from the Coll gang had had his eyes bandaged with gonorrhea infected cloth and died blind. Coll's notoriety was fueled by the infamous 'Harlem baby killing.' A drive-by shooting where the intended target was a Dutch Schultz minor bootlegger, whom Coll's gang missed but managed to kill a five year old child and wound several other kids. Coll was tried for the killing but, with the assiduous legal talent of the famous/ infamous Sam Leibovitz was acquitted – shades of OJ Simpson.

Hunted by not only the corrupt cops, – for example, in 1929 New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen used to receive $35,000 a month from the infamous Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, – and the various mobs alike Dillinger and Coll became the urban folklore myth and were, of course, gunned down. Legs in his hotel room while drunk (he'd survived five previous attacks and carried more than twenty slugs in him). Vincent himself was gunned down in a telephone box on 23rd Street aged 23 by one of Dutch Schulz's hitmen on February 8, 1932. An eye-witness was another Donegal woman Peggy Bonner, who was working in the hotel where Vinnie was crashing while on the run. He never got to take the wife back home to Gaoth Dobhair on the Lough Swilley railway. The Dutchman himself was mown down on October 23, 1935 by a gunman who served 23 years. Vinnie left a wife – the mysterious Lottie Kreisberger-Coll, a serial bigamist and murderess in her own right – and the only woman Vinnie ever loved. Lottie herself went down for a drive-by where, as usual, the wrong target was hit a mere two years after Vinnie had shuffled off this mound of misery, served her time and disappeared.

Vinnie was buried in St. Raymond's cemetery in the Bronx where his brother Peter lay. There were few mourners. The only letter of condolence came from Alice diamond, the late Legs' widow. A week after Vinnie's burial St Raymond's was the scene of the mysterious $50,000 ransom handover by Lindbergh kidnapping go-between John 'Jafsie' Condon who tossed the loot over the wall just beside Vinnie's grave. It was obviously all go at St. Raymond's boneyard in those days.

Coll's gravestone

Breandán Delap, who comes from the Rosses himself has written a wonderful book. Always interesting and a fascinating retelling of the brief life of one of Donegal's unsung 'heroes.' Written in the 'True Detective' style it is eminently readable for all and sundry – particularly sundry. Seriously recommended. Buy it today.

And a final note. A second cousin of the long dead Coll is none other than MLA and SDLP member Brid Rodgers. Has the SDLP got a secret armed wing?


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