If murder had its own joke book (and really, if it doesn't, it should,) one of the most popular selections would begin, "A psychotic cab driver, a syphilitic ginmill owner, and a crooked undertaker walk into a bar..." It would be a fitting tribute to an epic tale that is arguably true-crime's most grimly hilarious assassination plot.
Our story opens in the speakeasy run by Tony Marino on New York's Third Avenue. The year was 1932. Marino had recently suffered a crushing personal loss. His girlfriend, Betty Carlsen, had died of what the medical examiner ruled was a combination of pneumonia and chronic alcoholism. It would perhaps be insensitive to mention that word on the street had it that Miss Carlsen's fatal illness came about when she was encouraged to drink herself into unconsciousness, after which she was placed overnight in an freezing-cold room, stripped naked, and had buckets of icy water poured over her insensible form. It is also probably not worth mentioning that Marino's sorrow was greatly eased by the $800 in life insurance he collected upon her death.
Marino shared news of this palliative to grief with his friends: A taxi-driver named Harry Green, Marino's bartender Joe Murphy, an all-purpose professional robber named Dan Kreisberg, and perhaps the most indispensable member of the group, undertaker Frank Pasqua.
This tidy little windfall stirred the group's ambitions to new heights. Death is the great inevitability in this world, they reasoned. Happens eventually to us all. Since that is the case, it seemed silly to have people slip from this life without benefiting others. If you're going to die, do so in a way that brings joy and financial aid to others!
These men were true humanitarians.
One day in December 1932, as Marino and his cronies pondered the enticing potentialities of life insurance, their eyes happened to land on one of Marino's most frequent customers, an aging, homeless ex-fireman named Michael Malloy.
Malloy was one of those sad specimens of humanity found in such depressing numbers in any large city. No one seemed to know much of anything about him, and worse, no one cared. He had no known family, friends, or interests in life other than drinking. He was the sort of person who passes in and out of this life completely unnoticed.
Well, on this particular evening, he was certainly noticed by Tony Marino. To the rest of the world, Malloy looked like an uninteresting, valueless figure. To the Marino gang, he resembled a potential gold mine. "He looks all in," Marino's practiced eye proclaimed. "He ain't got much longer to go anyhow. The stuff is gettin' him."
Their first act was to get Malloy's life insured. Just the sensible, practical thing to do. Through the good offices of the less reputable employees of Metropolitan Life and Prudential, our little crew managed to get three different policies on Malloy's life (under the name of "Nicholas Mellory,") for a total of $1,788. There were double indemnities on the policies in case "Mellory" met his death by accident.
After all, life is hazardous, and full of nasty surprises. Best to be prepared for anything.
The gang then moved on to Phase Two. They obviously had in mind that Malloy should die from perfectly natural, if greatly accelerated, causes. To Malloy's delight, he found that the previously ungenerous Marino was more than happy to serve him drinks on the house. In fact, the bar owner seemed positively eager for Malloy to drink his fill. The whisky, gin, scotch, and bourbon was poured into him like it was water. "Ain't I got a thirst?" he told his new pals gleefully.
To the Marino gang's astonishment, these free drinks had no more visible effect on Malloy than if they had been water. For days, the elderly man guzzled enough cheap hootch to stun an elephant and rather than impairing him, it seemed to give Malloy a new lease on life. This non-stop liquid diet made him blossom like a rose. There was a vitality and good cheer about him that gave great unease to anyone with a financial interest in his life expectancy. Besides, all this free liquor--not to mention the monthly insurance premiums-- made a serious dent in their profit margin.
While the Marino gang understandably did not leave detailed notes on their next moves, neighborhood gossip had it that they took to giving Malloy drinks that are not on standard cocktail menus. Wood alcohol on the rocks. Turpentine with a twist. Horse liniment with an antifreeze chaser. Shots of rat poison. No matter what he was served, Malloy happily gulped it down and asked for seconds.
By January 1933, Green and Pasqua decided it was time for more direct measures. One dark and cold night, they poured Malloy glasses of various hellbrews until he was in a stupor, hauled him to the Bronx Zoo, took off his coat and shirt, poured cold water over him, and left him to become a human popsicle.
The next day, as the gang at Tony Marino's optimistically scanned the newspaper obituaries, their hopes were dashed when Malloy cheerfully strolled in. He had caught a bit of a chill last night, he said. He'd be as good as new once he had a few drinks.
The escapade, however, left Pasqua with a bad case of tonsillitis. He feared that murdering Michael Malloy was going to be the death of him.
The gang turned to more scientific methods. Bartender Murphy offered Malloy oysters soaked in denatured alcohol. Finger-lickin' good, as far as the Irishman was concerned. Murphy then opened a can of sardines and waited until they had quite thoroughly spoiled. He spread the ptomaine-rich delicacy on some bread and threw in a garnish of metal shreds and carpet tacks. He then offered this sandwich of death to his favorite customer. Malloy found it a rare treat. All it needed was a pint or so of turpentine to wash it down.
The Marino gang began to feel like they had been plunged into a nightmare. They were going bankrupt trying to kill a man who appeared to be more invincible than Superman. However, they had invested too much in Malloy to turn back now. There was nothing for it but to try, try again.
Late on the night of January 30, a policeman came across an unconscious form lying in the intersection of Baychester Avenue and Gun Hill Road. The man had been run over. Several times. Authorities did not know it at the time, but the victim had been hit by a taxicab.
One very particular taxicab.
At the hospital, they determined that the injured man--in addition to being a severe alcoholic--had suffered a concussion, a fractured skull, and a broken shoulder. Considering his already frail physical condition, it looked very doubtful that he would survive.
Given all that, one can imagine the disappointment when just one week later, the still-bandaged Malloy walked gratefully into Marino's speakeasy. After what he had been through, he told his friends, "I'm dying for a drink!"
If only Malloy could have known that he had uttered one of the greatest punchlines in crime history.
The gang decided to try a different tack. Rather than killing Malloy--something that was looking like an impossible dream--perhaps they could murder a more cooperative substitute? They found a particularly luckless local drunk named Joe Murray, slipped into his pocket some papers establishing that he was "Nicholas Mellory," and Green ran him down several times with his cab. Fortunately, another driver came along before Green could finish the job, and Murray eventually recovered. Malloy's invincibility seemed to be contagious.
It has been estimated that by this stage of the game, our little Murder, Incorporated had spent about $1800 trying to murder a man who was worth, at best, $1788. By this point, however, the money had almost ceased to matter. This had become personal. The would-be killers' amour propre and sense of professional pride was at stake. The Marino troop could not look themselves in the mirror as long as Michael Malloy walked this earth. They promised two men named McNally and Salone $400 if they would kill Malloy. This offer was rejected.
Finally, on February 22, 1933, the gang celebrated the Washington's Birthday holiday by putting Malloy into a drunken stupor. Then, they brought him to a room in a Fulton Avenue flophouse. One end of a rubber hose was attached to the gas-tap. The other end was placed in Malloy's mouth.
By morning, the gang saw to their deep satisfaction that Malloy the Invincible was only human after all.
Naturally, Pasqua the undertaker was brought in to deal with the corpse. He contacted a Dr. Frank Manzella, who, for a payment of $100, was quite willing to issue a death certificate stating that the cause of Malloy's demise was "pneumonia."
The Marino gang had won the battle, but soon found they lost the war. When the time finally came to collect that hard-won insurance money, most of the confederates were in prison on various unrelated charges. When this interesting fact came to the attention of the police, it caused them to take a second look at Malloy's death. The more they looked, the more they found. Malloy's body was exhumed--his killers, feeling they had already spent quite enough money on their victim, had given him a $12 funeral in the local Potter's Field--and it was easily determined that he had died from inhaling illuminating gas. The Marino gang--quickly dubbed by the newspapers, "The Murder Trust" were charged with Malloy's death.
It was one of the least suspenseful murder trials New York has ever seen. After the inevitable verdict, Marino, Murphy, Kriesberg and Pasqua all took a seat in the state's electric chair. Green was given a long prison sentence. Pasqua's crooked doctor friend, Dr. Manzella, was convicted as an accessory.
And Michael Malloy took his most unusual place in history.