Why you should care
It’s the story of a street boss who was a gangster before his time.
Organized-crime historian Neil Clark had read accounts of Eddie McGrath in books about New York City’s Irish Mob, but there was never much information about him. Intrigued, he started researching and filing Freedom of Information Act requests and got back a bunch of stuff on the old waterfront gangs. Amazed at what they contained, especially the stories about McGrath and John “Cockeye” Dunn, two Irish gangsters that history has largely forgotten, Clark knew he had to document their tale.
“They’d been involved in a large and bloody gang war in the mid-1930s, with dozens of unsolved murders, cementing their place as the criminal overlords of the West Side,” says Clark. The FOIA papers became the foundation of Clark’s riveting new biography, Dock Boss: Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront, which chronicles McGrath’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld. The book, which Clark researched for five years, gives a vivid and unflinching look at the gangster’s life, taking readers back to the times of smoky West Side taverns, gangland murders and the longshoremen rebellion on the docks.
The docks were a hard world where tough men worked. To gain their respect, McGrath had to be fearsome.
Originally from the Lower East Side, McGrath fell in with Dunn and the other Irish West Siders during a stint in Sing Sing for burglary. McGrath and Dunn became so powerful “because they established their rackets solely on the West Side docks, which were still an Irish stronghold at the time,” Clark says. The docks were a hard world where tough men worked. To gain their respect, McGrath had to be fearsome — which meant having a reputation as a stone-cold killer. The body count included a rival who was shot while sleeping in the same house as his entire family, an innocent woman executed for being present when her mobster boyfriend was gunned down and a suspected snitch stabbed to death in prison. “They had their fingers in every pie along the waterfront, from legitimate businesses to traditional crimes such as gambling, theft and loansharking,” Clark says.
Part of what made McGrath so successful, the book concludes, was that he was the ultimate diplomat. He counted Joe Adonis, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello as friends and remained an influence on the West Side and within the International Longshoremen’s Association until the late 1960s. But he was driven out of New York City following the conviction of his partner “Cockeye” Dunn for killing a longshoreman. On top of that, the government, the media and the police all began to take an interest in the pervasive lawlessness that dominated the waterfront. But they couldn’t pin anything on McGrath. Clark attributes McGrath’s longevity to employing tactics like using a street boss as a buffer — an innovative technique that McGrath started using long before it became an accepted practice in Mafia and gang circles.
A gangster before his time, McGrath reigned for close to four decades, seemingly unmolested. Clark’s book captures the essence of his story, while also transporting the reader to the docks and waterfront where he ruled. Documentary-like in this aspect, it’s a thrilling read about a dock boss who pulled strings from the shadows, avoiding the limelight — and would have been only a footnote in the annals of gangster lore if not for Clark’s masterful exposé.
Dock Boss: Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront releases on July 1, 2017.