A tale of mid-1800s New York City and “the first gangster, a model for Lansky and Gambino.”
Though Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone contributor Cohen (The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, 2017, etc.) claims his latest is about the birth of a gangster nation, the narrative focuses on one horrific multiple murder, the capture of the culprit by a star detective, and the trial. At the center of this book is Albert Hicks (circa 1820-1860), the supposed founding father of the New York underworld. The author delivers an entertaining story, beginning with a picture of New York City just before the Civil War, especially the seedy underbelly surrounding the port. Hicks’ childhood was marked by a wild, restless disposition, aversion to labor, and the perpetual need to fight. As a teenager, he served his first prison term, escaped, and was caught and put in solitary confinement for a year. Feeling hopeless and abandoned, he set off for revenge and to make his fortune. Signing on to an oyster sloop, he proved to be a good worker—until boredom set in or something angered him and he lost his temper. Aboard another ship a few voyages later, he was involved in his first mutiny, an event that, sadly, proved to be his best learning experience. He was a good speaker and persuader and was easily able to draw crews to mutiny, after which they would take the profits from the voyage and blow it all on wine, women, and gambling. It became the template for his life of crime before he was executed by hanging in front of a massive crowd of nearly 20,000.
Though not a traditional gangster book—Hicks was certainly a pirate and a murderer, but he lacked a loyal gang or specific territory—this is a rollicking, page-turning tale that is “too great and grisly to be anything but true.”