The Godfather of Quarry Hill by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson would like to thank Suzanne Grace for sharing this Youtube video with him, taken from the ‘Mobs of America’ documentary on TG4.

This week Chris Nickson writes about Owen Madden, one of Leeds’ biggest criminals, and the journey he took from Quarry Hill, Leeds to Hot Springs, Arkansas, via the gangster scene of 1920s New York City.

Leeds has always had its share of criminals – the first recorded murder here was in the 1300s, although a few had almost certainly occurred before that; thanks to what seems like a careful exchange of money, the killer walked free – but only one has gone on to be a kingpin of the American underworld. And he had the unlikely name of Owen Madden.

He certainly didn’t have an auspicious start. His parents, Frank and Mary, had grown up in Leeds, both from Irish families. After their marriage they settled in Quarry Hill, and Owen, their second child, was born at 25, Somerset Street, one of a row of back-to-back slum houses on December 18, 1891. Nicknamed Owney in the family, he always insisted that his actual birthday was Christmas Day. As his longtime associate Billy Wells, explained, ‘Owney didn’t want no attention. He didn’t want anyone making a fuss over him. He always said his birthday was on Christmas, so that no one would celebrate him.’

And there was little fuss when he was young. The family moved to Wigan and Liverpool as Frank sought work. He had plans to emigrate to the United States, but he died before it could happen. Mary Madden did go, though, leaving Frank, his brother Martin and younger sister Mary in a care home on Springfield Terrace in Burmantofts.

Mary lived with her widowed sister on 10th Avenue in New York and sent for her children in 1902, a year after she’d moved. By then, Owen was 10, and Leeds was part of him. For the rest of his life he’d keep a Leeds accent and collect clippings from the Yorkshire Post. Until the 1950s, when the FBI threatened him with deportation, he had a British passport.

In the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, you had to be tough. Owen joined the gang known as the Gophers, made up of newcomers from Ireland and England and quickly earned a reputation as a fighter – within a short time he had a police record. In his early teens he killed someone for the first time, boastful enough to shout to witnesses, ‘Go ahead and call the cops! Owney Madden, 10th Avenue.’ No one was willing to step forward.

By 18 he was an established killer, a gangster making plenty of money from crime, a free spender and ladies’ man. He survived an attack by a rival gang in 1912, but in 1914 he was arrested for murder and convicted, sentenced to 20 years in the notorious Sing-Sing.

Being in prison didn’t slow him down. He spent nine years there, and while behind bars he purchased the Deluxe Club in New York, which he renamed the Cotton Club; it was to become one of the centres of jazz and night life.

Out on parole in 1923, he teamed up with another former Gopher, and saw all the possibilities of Prohibition, both as a distributor and retailer of illegal alcohol. It wasn’t long before he owned 20 clubs in New York, rubbing shoulders with the biggest gangsters of the time, and keeping City Hall sweet with bribes.

He was smart enough to see the end of Prohibition coming. By 1931 he was out of that racket and into boxing, promoting bouts and running the careers of a number of heavyweights.

But by 1935, the New York criminal landscape was changing. The Mafia was flexing its muscles, he was being investigated for another murder, and boxing wasn’t as profitable as it had been. Madden moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, out in the Ozark mountains.

It had become a gambling haven, helped by corrupt public officials and police who turned a blind eye in return for kickbacks. Mobsters went there to hide out. It was a good place to make money – and to keep it.

He married in 1953, to the daughter of the Hot Springs postmaster, and became a pillar of local society, paying for the building of a local boys’ club, the uniforms of the high school band, and giving gifts to charities and churches in the town. He died of emphysema on April 24, 1965, and was reputed to have left $3 million (about $20 million at current values) – although its whereabouts have never been found.


Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s.

Gods of Gold, a mystery set against the backdrop of the 1890 gas strike in Leeds and the first in his new Victorian series, was published in August 2014.

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