The Gophers street gang was formed in the 1890’s from a conglomerate of other Irish street gangs that patrolled the west side of Manhattan. They were given their name, because after they performed one misdeed, or another, they hid themselves in the cavernous neighborhood cellars to avoid arrest. The Gophers first ruled the area from Seventh to Eleventh Avenues, from Fourteenth Street to Forty Second Street, but later moved as far north as Fifty Seventh Street. Their numbers swelled and eventually reached over five hundred thugs, all murderous hooligans of the worst kind.
Their first base of operations was a notorious saloon called Battle Row, also the name of the area on 39th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenue, where the Gophers committed most of their mayhem. Battle Row was owned by a thug named Mallet Murphy, who was given that nickname because he corrected drunks and other miscreants with a wooden mallet, instead of a bludgeon, which was the weapon of choice of that day.
Due to death, or imprisonment of their bosses, the Gophers went through several leaders. The most famous Gopher boss was Owney “The Killer” Madden, whose reign ended in 1913, when he was sent to the slammer for ten years, for killing Little Patsy Doyle, his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, and an ambitious man intent on replacing Madden as the leader of the Gophers.
Another such boss was One Lung Curran, who originated a practice that determined the fashion wear of his gang. One day Curran, dismayed that his girlfriend did not have a proper winter coat, snuck up on a passing policeman, clubbed him over the head and stole his winter police coat. He gave the coat to his girlfriend, and after a few alterations, she produced a swell model, with a military cut. Other Gophers followed this trend, and soon there was an epidemic of police officers staggering back to their station house on West Forty Seventh Street, blood dripping from their heads and dressed only in their shirts, shoes and trousers. This prompted the police captain of that precinct to send groups of four and five cops into the Gophers’ domain, to bludgeon enough Gophers that the sartorial vogue was soon over.
Another Gopher leader was Happy Jack Mulraney, so called, because his face seemed to be set into a permanent smile. This smile was not intended, but in fact caused by a quirky paralysis of Mulraney’s face muscles. His cohorts enjoyed inciting the psychopathic killer Mulraney into a rage by telling him someone had made fun of his unintentional grin. One day, Paddy the Priest, a bar owner on Tenth Avenue and a close friend of Mulraney’s, made the horrible mistake of asking Mulraney why he didn’t smile out of the other side of his face. Mulraney shot Paddy the Priest in the head, killing him instantly, then robbed his cash register. For his temporary lapse in judgment, Mulraney was sentenced to life in prison.
One day, in August of 1908, several Gophers wandered out of their West Side domain and smack into the middle of a shootout on the Lower East Side between Monk Eastman’s gang and Paul Kelly’s Five Pointers. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, the Gophers opened fire, shooting at members of both waring gangs. One Gopher later said, “A lot of guys were poppin’ at each other, so why shouldn’t we do a little poppin’ ourselves?”
For years, the Gopher’s main source of income was plundering the freight cars and train depot of the New York Central Railroad, which ran along Eleventh Avenue. The New York City police was unable, and sometimes unwilling, to stop these shenanigans. So the railroad organized its own “police force,” which was comprised mostly of ex-cops, who had been brutalized by the Gophers in the past and were looking for revenge. The result was, the “special police” went into Hell’s Kitchen, beating the Gophers from one end of the neighborhood to the other, or as one of the cops said, “From hell to breakfast.” Sometimes they used clubs, and if needed, they fired guns. Being former policemen and well trained in firearms, they were the much better at gunplay than the Gophers.
In 1917, after the arrest of One Lung Curran, and with Madden still in jail and Mulraney in jail until his final breath, the Gophers gradually dissipated. By 1920, the Gophers street gang ceased to exist, only to be replaced in later years by another murderous group called “The Westies.”