Owen Vincent "Owney" Madden (18 December 1891-24 April 1965) was an Irish-American gangster and the owner of the famous "Cotton Club" in Harlem, New York City during Prohibition. Madden became known as "Owney the Killer" for his reputation as a fierce gangster, and he impressed many people with his street smarts. Madden was responsible for several murders during his lifetime, including Little Patsy Doyle and Mad Dog Coll, and he retired to Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1932, leaving New York as the American Mafia took over. Madden died peacefully in 1965.
Owen Vincent Madden was born in Leeds, England on 18 December 1891 to a working-class Irish Catholic family; his father was from County Mayo, and his mother from County Sligo. His father died when Owney was young, and his mother and her three children moved to Hell's Kitchen, New York City in the United States in 1904. Owney was immediately taken by the streets, becoming a gangster in the Irish community of the city and having a murder arrest in 1914; he was said to have killed five people by the time that he was sixteen.
Madden rose to become the leader of the Gopher Gang after establishing a fearsome reputation for himself, and he became known as "Owney the Killer". Madden once shot a man on a streetcar after the man had asked one of Madden's girlfriends out, and he also shot an Italian member of the Hudson Dusters for an imagined slight. On 6 November 1912, Madden was shot eleven times by Hudson Dusters gang members at the Arbor Dance hall on 52nd Street in revenge for the murder of one of their gang members. The police found him and removed six bullets from him; the other five bullets stayed with him until his burial. Within the next week, several members of the Hudson Dusters had been killed by Madden and his gang. In November 1914, Madden had the Duster's leader Little Patsy Doyle murdered at Nash's Cafe while he met with two of Madden's girlfriends, who would later betray Madden and testify against him. Madden was sent to Sing Sing, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prisn.
Duke of the West Side
On 1 February 1923, he was released from prison after just nine years of his twenty-year sentence, and he emerged a calmer, more sensible man. Madden found that New York had changed since had been imprisoned, and he began to hijack trucks containing liquor shipments before buying the Phoenix Cereal Brewing Company to distribute liquor on the streets. Madden purchased the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City, which became a center of African-American culture during the "Harlem Renaissance", and the Cotton Club was a very popular venue; he had the best entertainment, sold liquor, and invited local politicians to the club. Men like Duke Ellington, Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney, and Lena Horn were frequently at the club, and Madden owned the center of New York's action. Madden became known as "the Duke of the West Side" for the immense power that he wielded. Madden was involved with African-American criminal Valentin Narcisse in Harlem, partnering with him to control a growing entertainment industry as it spread to New Jersey and other areas outside of New York. In 1929, Madden was the only Irishman present at the Atlantic City Conference, as he controlled the police department and local politics. The Conference determined that out-of-control gangsters such as Mad Dog Coll and Legs Diamond would have to be eliminated, and Madden was told that it was his job to take care of the rogue faction. Mad Dog Coll was executed by Bo Weinberg while talking to Madden on the phone, eliminating the uncontrollable Irish mobster.
Madden realized that the heyday of the Irish Mob was over, and he allegedly made a deal with New York politicians that would allow for him to live a peaceful life in Hot Springs, Arkansas in exchange for leaving New York permanently. Madden owned nice hotels in Hot Springs and was frequently visited by friends in the entertainment industry, and married the postmaster's daughter, Agnes Denvy. Hot Springs became known as a waystation for gangsters in the south, and Madden died of natural causes in 1965 at the age of 73. One of his greatest achievements was allowing for the Irish to enter politics legally, as malcontented Irishmen decided that they could get more money and power on the right side of the law than on the wrong side. While Madden was a bad person during his lifetime, his legacy as the Cotton Club's owner and as a major Irish-American public figure, "the gangster who got away", still endures.