| Born on:
28 Mar 2002
Updated: 28 Oct 2005
Brooklyn’s Last Irish Boss
Submission from Allan May
Area: New York, USA
(copied with permission of the author)
Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the
Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Contact him: AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com.
Vannie Higgins: Brooklyn’s Last Irish Boss
By Allan May
Charles “Vannie” Higgins had all the right
connections and built a thriving bootleg empire in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn during the 1920s.
However, like most successful gangsters of that era,
Higgins wanted more. It was this greed that would
cause him, and many like him, to perish before
Prohibition had run its course.
Vannie Higgins was born in 1897 in the Bay Ridge
neighborhood where he would enjoy his greatest
success. Never looked upon as a mob big shot, Higgins,
none the less, was considered a “cut above the average
gangster,” and he had a knack of escaping imprisonment despite his many arrests.
His criminal career began in 1915 when he was
arrested for assault and placed on one year’s
probation. The following year, ditto – assault and
another year on probation. It would be another ten
years though before Higgins was arrested again.
Between 1920 and 1927, Higgins built up a
profitable rum-running and bootlegging business in Bay
Ridge. He served at times as a lieutenant to fellow
Irishman, Big Bill Dwyer, New York’s most notorious
rumrunner, who was in partnership with Frank Costello.
Higgins owned the Cigarette, a speed boat described as
“the fleetest rum-runner in New York waters.” He also
owned a seaplane and a fleet of trucks and taxicabs to
help him move the liquor to his club in Brooklyn as
well as to other customers.
One of the few gangsters to ever own a pilot’s
license, Higgins once flew to the Comstock Prison in
New York to visit Warden Joseph H. Wilson, a childhood
friend. Wilson had ordered a nearby meadow cleared by
convict labor so Higgins could land his plane. When
then New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt found out
about the visit he chastised the warden. Wilson
replied that he had known Higgins for years and
indicated that the governor should mind his own
Another time Higgins flew to Baltimore where
after a “business meeting” he stopped at a speakeasy
before flying back. As he was leaving the bar a
gunfight between rival gangs broke out. Trying to run
for safety, Higgins was wounded in the leg by a police
officer who mistook him for one of the warring gang
In May 1926 Higgins was arrested for assault and
robbery. Although the charges were dismissed he would
face more serious problems when he was arrested for
possession of a revolver in July 1928. This time he
countered-filed charges against the New York City
Police Department, claiming to be the victim of
“persecution” by Brooklyn detectives. Higgins dropped
his charge after he was cleared of the gun possession
During 1928, Higgins sought to expand his empire
by aligning himself with Jack “Legs” Diamond, Vincent
“Mad Dog” Coll, and Anthony Carfano, better known as
“Little Augie Pisano”. While trying to move into
Manhattan, Higgins and his allies came into conflict
with Dutch Schultz and others, resulting in a
Manhattan beer war.
Although considered a boss, Higgins never shied
away from the “heavy” work. In 1928 he was involved in
a shootout that took place at the Owl’s Head Café at
Sixty-ninth Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn. As
Higgins and other gang members blasted away at rival
mobsters, police showed up and joined in the exchange
of gunfire. During the shooting, Patrolman Daniel
Maloney was killed in the crossfire and two other men
were seriously wounded. Higgins was arrested and
charged with murder, but five days later charges were
dropped. Later that year, Higgins and two of his
gunmen were arrested for the murder of Samuel Orlando,
a Brooklyn bootlegger. Again charges were dropped when
there was not enough evidence to hold them.
A short time later, Higgins and sidekick “Bad
Bill” Bailey were the target of rivals in downtown
Brooklyn. Riding down the street together they were
passed by an automobile carrying hoods who opened fire
with shotguns. Neither man was harmed
After the death of Arnold Rothstein in November
1928, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz were engaged in a
gang war for control of the Manhattan beer trade.
Higgins' position was not clear. Some sources claim he
was aligned with Dwyer, Pisano, and Diamond, while
other sources state that he was in direct conflict.
In “Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond: Anatomy of a Gangster,”
some of these contradictions are exposed. In 1930,
according to author Gary Levine, Higgins kidnapped Leo
Steinberg for revenge on Pisano (revenge for what
Levine doesn’t say). Higgins supposedly took Steinberg
for a one-way ride, filled him full of lead, and
weighted his body down in the ocean off Long Beach,
Long Island. Steinberg’s brother offered Diamond
$50,000 for the return of Leo. Diamond contacted
Higgins for assistance and after Vannie told Legs
where he could find the body he felt he was entitled
to the $50,000. When Diamond refused to cough up the
requested cash, Higgins’ men confronted Legs and shot
him several times. As was his usual habit, Diamond
In March 1931, Higgins was arrested, and for the
first time convicted, in Jersey City for disorderly
conduct and driving while intoxicated. He was fined a
total of $200 and had his driver’s license suspended.
Shortly after this incident, Higgins and some of
his men were in the Blossom Health Inn on West 57th
Street in Manhattan. Higgins got into an argument with
Frank McManus whose bother George allegedly fired the
fatal bullet into Arnold Rothstein. McManus ordered
the men out of his establishment. Higgins refused to
leave without an order for a truckload of beer. A
fight ensued and Higgins received several knife wounds
and ended up, ironically, in Polyclinic Hospital where
Rothstein had succumbed to his wound. At the hospital,
like Rothstein, Higgins refused to identify his
In May 1931, Higgins was charged by the
government of taking part in a rum-running ring that
operated in Long Beach. Seventeen other people were
indicted, including Long Beach Police Chief Morris
Grossman, in what the government alleged was a $10
million dollar operation. Higgins was acquitted in the
Higgins and “Bad Bill” Bailey were arrested in
November 1931 for the murder of Robert “Whitey”
Benson, one of their own gunmen who they suspected of
working with Dutch Schultz. Both men and their
attorneys appeared before the Manhattan district
attorney for questioning. Before the district attorney
could open his mouth, both men in unison stated, “On
advice of our lawyers we refuse to make any further
statement.” Once more Higgins was released due to lack
Vannie Higgins was described as a devoted family
man. On Saturday night, June 18, 1932, he attended a
tap dance recital at the Knights of Columbus clubhouse
in Prospect Park to see his seven-year-old daughter
Jean perform. With Higgins was his wife, mother, two
brothers, and a brother-in-law. Also, in attendance
were mobsters Irving Bitz and Salvatore Spitale. Bitz
had two daughters performing in the program.
The recital was followed by “dancing for the
older folks, refreshments for all – a neighborhood
party.” At about 1:15 am, Higgins and his family left
through a side entrance to the club on Union Street.
The group was laughing as they strolled toward
Higgins’ automobile. Vannie walked in front of the
group holding his daughter’s hand. As Higgins reached
his 16-cylinder luxury coupe, a dark sedan came slowly
toward him. From twenty feet away a gunman began
firing. Higgins’ daughter Jean was hit first suffering
a wound to her ear lobe. Vannie pushed the girl down
on the running board and, in a selfless manner, ran
out into the open, unarmed, to draw the gunfire away
from his family. Police later expressed surprise that
his rivals would try to kill him with family members
so dangerously close to the line of fire.
Higgin’s brothers pushed the women into the
protection of a garage near the coupe as Vannie ran
wildly down Union Street with shooters from two cars now firing at him. Higgins by now had been hit several
times. His fedora hat lay in the gutter and his light
gray suit was blood splattered. When he collapsed on
Union Street his assailants continued to fire at him.
He struggled to his feet and ran a short distance to
Eighth Avenue, turned and staggered another hundred feet before he fell again. He crawled to the
protection of a stoop in front of an old brownstone
house and crouched while the assassins sped off.
The first person to reach Higgins was a police
officer who recognized him immediately. The two had
grown up together in Bay Ridge. “Who was it, Vannie?”
“I’ll get them,” Higgins mumbled. “They tried to
wipe out my whole family.”
“Who, Vannie?” again asked the officer, but
Higgins fell unconscious.
The officer helped carry Higgins to a cab that
took him to Methodist Episcopal Hospital. He had
suffered wounds to the abdomen, chest, and left arm. By 1:40 am, with his wife and mother at his side,
Higgins had been administered the last rights by a
Roman Catholic priest. Higgins, however, regained
consciousness and tried to hold on.
Lieutenant John McGowan of the Brooklyn homicide
unit, who had known Higgins for twenty years, soon
arrived. “Vannie, it looks like it’s all over for you,
now. Tell me what happened,” said McGowan.
“Don’t bother me, Mac. I’m sick,” replied
Two police officers remained at his side in case
he might name the shooters, but true to code he
answered no more questions. In his delirium, he called
out several times, “I’ve got to live. I’ve got to get
out of here. Gotta straighten this out. They tried to
wipe out the whole family.”
Higgins was given three blood transfusions,
rallying after each one. However, it was a losing
battle and he died of his wounds Sunday afternoon some
fifteen hours after the shooting.
Motives for the killing were abundant. There were
rumors that Higgins was going to move in on certain
night club interests in Manhattan and that his gang
had clashed with Pisano’s bunch. There was talk that
it was a revenge killing for either the murder of Leo
Steinberg or the subsequent shooting of Diamond. There
was also the rumor that Higgins was involved in the
murder of Diamond. When Joe “Lefty” Burke, a Diamond
associate who swore to “get” Higgins, he was murdered
in a Brooklyn speakeasy in April 1932. There was a
report that friends of Burke were spotted near the
Knights of Columbus clubhouse the night of the murder.
One last theory was that it was the Schultz mob
doing a little clean up work. One witness supposedly
identified Schultz gunman Abe “Bo” Weinberg in one of
the automobiles that pursued Higgins.
Despite all of the theories no one was ever
brought to trial for the murder of Vannie Higgins. The
newspapers spoke of him in such glowing terms as the
“most powerful underworld leader since the death of
Frankie Uale (sic),” and “the last of the Irish
underworld leaders in Brooklyn.” However, the tough
Irishman, who once called himself “just a lobster
fisherman” when police stopped his rum-running boat,
faded from view and has received little mention in mob folklore.
Copyright A. R. May 1999
div. of PLR International
P.O. Box 19146
Cleveland, OH 44119-0146 216 374-0000
Copyright © 1999 PLR International
. . . . . . . .
14 Apr 2005
Higgins, Vannie d. June 19, 1932.
Famous Prohibition Era rum runner from Brooklyn, N.Y.
He was shot by men of "Murder Inc" on June 18,1932
on a Brooklyn Street and died the next day.
Saint John's Cemetery, Queens, New York, USA.
Specific Interment Location: Near grave of Carmine Galante.
The above information is reproduced here with the permission of
All information remains the copyright of the submitter and may be removed at any time, at their request.
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