The Great Depression was a tough time for New York. With a staggering half the country out of work, many of those who had come stateside to chase the American dream found themselves jobless, homeless, and above all hopeless.
In the age of COVID-19, we’ve seen people turn to all kinds of money-making side gigs to make ends meet: delivering takeaways, investing in penny stocks, launching true crime podcasts… It’s a real testament to human ingenuity, and the same was true back in the 1930s, when bootleggers and odd-jobbers hustled to fill the gaping budget gaps traditional employment left behind.
Some routes to riches are more commendable than others though, which brings us to today’s case. Murder and fraud, for example, is not a recommended methods for whipping up some rent money, and I’m about to tell you exactly why. This is the story of how one man repeatedly cheated death, stumbling his way through a nefarious plot against his life with nothing but dumb luck and several hundred gallons of whiskey to help him.
Toughest of the tough, this is the story of Iron Mike, New York City’s booze-soaked Rasputin.
The story unfolded back in 1933, right towards the end of both the Great Depression and America’s prohibition era. Alcohol was outlawed, but given the recent rising tide of human misery, it was in higher demand than ever before.
To fill the demand, underground watering holes called speakeasies popped up around New York. These were unlicensed bars selling bootleg liquor to the down-and-outs of the town. One such place was the favorite establishment of Michael Malloy, a famous local boozehound who had fallen on seriously hard times.
Despite his lack of funds, he would walk through the doors of the bar each and every day, greeted by bartender Joe Murphy, and the owner, Anthony Marino. One day, while watching old Mike stumble out the doors of their bar and off into the night, Murphy and Marino had an idea: there was a better way to make money off this particular customer than just charging him for drinks.
With the help of two of their regulars, a greengrocer named Dan Kriesberg, and an undertaker called Frank Pasqua, they hatched a plan to end Mike’s life, and turn a nice bit of profit while doing so. No, they didn’t try to sell his organs — kidney transplants weren’t possible for another 5 or 6 years.
Instead, they decided to take out three separate insurance policies in a fake name, before hastening the demise of their most persistent customer…
THE FIRST ATTEMPT
The next time Mike came to the bar, he was given a far more warm reception than usual. Suddenly Murphy didn’t seem to care so much about his limited budget. In fact, he offered him unlimited credit for the evening.
The owner Marino even came to join the party, and informed Mike of his plans to run for a spot in the local government. After drinking on the man’s dollar for several hours straight, Mike was all too happy to sign a petition to support Marino’s campaign, and the men toasted to a successful year ahead.
Now, you’ve probably already worked out that there was no petition: Mike had just signed all three life insurance policies, worth about $65,000 in today’s money with Pasqua as the beneficiary. And with that, they put phase 2 into operation.
Actually, it had technically already started, because their murder plan was basically to just let Mike drink himself to death for free. They even set him up somewhere to sleep in a back room, so he could bash into the hooch 24/7. Every time he passed out, he woke up with a fresh glass waiting for him. Surely no man could gulp down such a never ending stream of free whiskey and live to tell the tale.
There was one fatal flaw with this plan though: Mike was Irish…
Now, I don’t really go in for stereotypes, but the Irish tend not to shy away from this one — it’s more like a badge of honor for some. Whether it was down to genetics, culture, or whatever, suffice to say that Michael Malloy could handle his drink.
Born in County Donegal in 1873, Mike came to America in his youth and found work as a firefighter in New York. After being laid off during the depression, he spent some time as a pro boxer, before ending up on the streets of the Bronx. As the Daily Mail put it back then, he was among the “flotsam and jetsam in the swift current of underworld speakeasy life, those no-longer-responsible derelicts who stumble through the last days of their lives in a continual haze of ‘Bowery Smoke.’”
He had no family, and made a meagre living doing odd jobs like street sweeping in exchange for booze. Homelessness left him looking ten years older than his actual age — mid 50s at the time — which was one of the reasons the conspirators chose him as their mark. They would soon discover though, that Mike was far, far sturdier than he looked.
When alcohol alone obviously failed to kill the Irishman, the bar staff started to supplement it with some less savory additions. They started mixing his drinks with antifreeze, but to their dismay Mike just found this absolutely delicious, and continued to guzzle down glass after glass. It speaks volumes about the kind of swill they must have been serving before.
Surely if antifreeze wouldn’t do it, turpentine would. No? Rat poison, then. Still no? Okay, how about some tainted food instead? Pasqua told his co-conspirators that he had once seen a man die after eating raw oysters with alcohol, so they gave that a go.
It was probably far from the worst meal Mike had eaten recently, so he kept it down without issue. Next, they served him up a sandwich of spoiled sardines, poison, and metal shavings. When he was done, he asked for another.
Surprisingly, all of this fine drinking and dining actually had a net positive effect on Mike, who relished his new way of life, and felt more upbeat than he had years. Getting the man drunk was like giving spinach to Popeye.
By this point, the costs of free booze and insurance premiums were threatening to make the whole thing cost more than it was worth. The gang had to up their game if this plan was going to make them any money at all.
It was abundantly clear that Mike’s stomach had some kind of inhuman fortitude, so the gang gave up on their attempts at poisoning. Mike could handle anything thrown down his gullet, but hypothermia was another thing altogether.
So they decided to wait until Mike was blackout drunk, pour water all over him, open his shirt, and dump him out onto the icy streets of the New York winter. It was just a waiting game now — surely one of the other patrons would walk through the door the next evening, to tell them how Mike had been found frozen dead.
When the bar door swung open that night though, in walked the man himself, clad in a fresh new suit gifted to him by the passerby who took him out of the cold. At this point, the whole affair was starting to look like a Loony Tunes cartoon, so the gang prepared to end it once and for all.
With the promise of a $150 payment, they enlisted the help of a taxi driver named Harry Green, and took Mike out onto the streets in the middle of the night. Two them propped him up on their shoulders while the driver revved up his engine, and careered towards them. The would-be killers leapt out of the way, expecting Mike to flop down helplessly, but somehow he managed to roll out of the way himself.
It took another two attempts before a successful impact. Mike rolled up over the bonnet of the cab, and crashed down onto the road. To make sure he wouldn’t be getting back up, the driver reversed over the body, before a passerby caused the lot of them to panic and flee.
The next day, they started calling around the morgues to confirm their plan had been a success, but couldn’t find any confirmed reports of a deadly hit and run. Five whole days passed like that, with the crooks impatiently waiting for confirmation so they could claim their cash.
I think you basically know what’s coming next: that evening Mike limped through the door of the bar — bit bruised, few broken bones, but very much alive.
The murderous cabal at the speakeasy had really pushed the limits of their plan, with no success. But they couldn’t exactly just give up, if for nothing else than a kind of morbid curiosity. How exactly could Mike be killed? \
Had they found some invincible superhuman like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable? By this point the stories had started floating around town to that effect, earning our hero the nicknames Iron Mike, and Durable Mike, among others.
Frustrated by the apparent invincibility of their victim, Marino and his gang resorted to far more direct methods than they had ever planned. Over the course of the night they served Mike glass after glass of toxic wood alcohol, until he passed out as usual.
After that, they dragged him to a nearby apartment, and pressed a hose into his mouth, pumping his lungs full of gas from a light fixture. Honestly, that just feels like bad sportsmanship at this point — the man had beaten them time and time again, just let him live!
That wasn’t to be the case though; this time Mike really was dead, after 7 long and costly months of attempts on his life. The gang elicited the help of Dr Frank Manzella to produce a false death certificate, listing pneumonia as the cause. Pfft, as if a petty human disease could actually have killed him.
So with Iron Mike definitively down for the count, the gang could now go about collecting their money. They had little trouble collecting it from the first company, possibly because they had the help of a corrupt broker, but the other two policies proved more difficult to cash in on — the Prudential life insurance company needed to see a body first.
On top of that, once the first lot of money was in hand, some infighting started. The gang couldn’t agree on how exactly to divide the loot, and they ended up never paying the taxi driver his $150 cut. Meanwhile, the police caught wind of the story of Iron Mike, and were a little curious as to why a man should have to dodge death so many times in such a short space of time.
They spoke to the insurance companies, who delivered a shocking revelation: the same bar had been implicated in a similar death the year before. As it turned out, Marino had got a female patron blackout drunk before soaking her and laying her down under an open window.
They had Iron Mike’s body exhumed, and discovered that the cause of death was in fact gas poisoning, leading to the questioning of the doctor, and subsequent arrest of the entire gang. By this point, none of them were willing to go down to protect the others, so the whole story came to light through all their criss-crossing accusations.
All four of them, plus Harry Green the taxi driver, went on trial for the killing. In the end, Green would be the only one to survive the whole affair. He was only sentenced to prison, while Marino, Murphy, Pasqua, and Kriesberg were sentenced to death by electric chair.
That was the end of the story of Iron Mike — surely one of the world’s most accomplished drinkers, who could down a Fresher’s Week’s worth of alcohol in just one sitting, top it off with a hefty dose of poison, and still survive a vehicular homicide attempt. Tell this story to your mate the next time he or she passes out after half a can of cider.
The moral of the story, aside from the well-worn wisdom that crime doesn’t pay, is that if you’re trying to kill Superman, you’d better damn well find some kryptonite. Or, perhaps more aptly, if you’re trying to kill an Irishman, be aware that whiskey and turpentine will only make him stronger.