Famed for his curly blond hair, baby face and sharp suits as much as his criminal profession, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll was one of the most infamous gangsters to ever walk the streets of New York City and has been immortalized countless times in fiction and film. He was born in 1908 above a pub in the poverty stricken parish of Gweedore - a Gaelic speaking part of Donegal. Eager to escape their tough existence on the periphery of Europe, the family emigrated together to the Bronx in New York City whilst he was still a newborn.
But emigration turned out to be no silver bullet for the family’s poverty and by the time Vincent reached the age of 12, five of his siblings had died. His father left, never to contact his surviving children again, and his mother died from tuberculosis in 1916. His elder sister valiantly cared for him before he was sent to Catholic reform school - the equivalent for the time of a juvenile correction facility. Even then he was expelled from multiples institutions and Vincent become a member of a notorious street gang called the Gophers. Clashes with the law were inevitable and at 16 he was arrested for carrying a gun; by the time he was in his early 20’s the baby faced mobster had been arrested at least a dozen times.
The Prohibition Era was a tough time to be an Irish gangster in New York City; before the passage of the 18th Amendment it was the Irish who had run the criminal underworld of Manhattan and the Bronx. But it was the Italians and Jewish gangs that had risen to the challenge of Prohibition and it was a Jew, Dutch Schultz, who spotted Coll’s potential; Schultz was the son of German Jewish immigrants and was making a small fortune out of speakeasies across New York City. Recognizing Vincent’s violent and cut-throat nature, he hired the then teenager as an enforcer and he quickly became a trusted employee in his ever expanding criminal empire.
At age only 19 Coll was charged with the murder of speakeasy owner Anthony Borrello and Mary Smith a dance hall hostess. It was alleged that he impulsively murdered Borrello after he refused to buy Schultz’s alcohol. Whatever the evidence, the charges against him were dropped, thanks, most assumed, to Schultz’s influence with the New York Police Department.
But it was not long before the relationship soured; aged 21 Coll demanded that Schultz make him an equal partner in his criminal empire, only for his request to be curtly dismissed. Furious, Coll split from his mentor and formed his own gang. The two would never speak a civil word to each other again and the feud quickly escalated into an all out war between their two factions.
Tragically for Coll, one of the first victims was his older brother Peter who was shot dead whilst driving through Harlem. Convulsed with grief and hatred, Coll launched an all out attack on Schultz’s gang, gunning down roughly 20 of his men. To finance the war he engaged in repeated kidnaps of fellow mobsters, charging huge ransoms for their release, safe in the knowledge their families would never turn to the police for help.
Tragically in July 1931 during the attempted kidnap of one Schultz’s associates a five year boy was caught in the crossfire and shot dead. The killing of young Michael Vengalli drew national attention to New York’s problem with gangs and it was then that the City’s Mayor, Jimmy Walker, infamously dubbed Coll the “Mad Dog”.
Coll went into hiding; he dyed his blond locks black, grew a mustache and wore glasses. But he only managed three months on the run before being picked up by police in the Bronx. A defiant Coll insisted he had been in Albany during the murder but he was nonetheless indicted by a grand jury. The case went to trial that December but quickly unraveled after the prosecution's sole witness went to pieces on the stand. A free man once again, Coll would protest his innocence for the rest of his life, although few believed him.
But outside of prison Coll’s life was still at risk - Schultz remained his sworn enemy and had placed a $50,000 bounty on his head. A mere two months after his acquittal, Coll called one of Schultz’s associates, Owney Madden, from a Manhattan payphone. Nicknamed “The Killer”, Madden kept Coll talking long enough for his men to trace his location. A black limousine pulled up with three men in it; two got out and one opened his coat to reveal a machine gun underneath; he opened fire on Coll, killing him instantly. In total, 15 bullets were removed from his body by the pathologist, although many more passed straight through him. He was 23 years of age.
Coll was buried alongside Peter - his brother and a fellow mobster. Dutch Schultz sent a wreath to the funeral bearing the three letter message, “From the Boys”. He too was later killed by a fellow gangster’s bullet.
Dead but not forgotten, Coll would be remembered in film and song for decades after his murder. From The Ballad Of Mad Dog Coll to numerous Hollywood movies about his infamous life, popular culture has memorialized him in a way few could have predicted when he was poor, unruly Irish orphan growing up in the Bronx.