This is the story of Michael Malloy, a Prohibition-era drunkard best known for his unpaid bar tabs and being (almost) impossible to kill. Here, Elemental’s Deborah Blum recounts how Malloy (who would come to be known as “Mike the Durable,” and “Iron Mike”) survived multiple attempts on his life — and some of the science behind the murderous method that finally did him in.
Pictured up top: A young Michael Malloy, and the “Ghoulish Plotters” who failed repeatedly to rob him of his life.
In the winter of 1933, the empty store stayed dark all day, dusty wooden crates piled high behind the windows. But if you lived close by, you knew that the door opened at night and that behind the stacked boxes was a bare-bones little speakeasy, a sofa, four tables, a plywood bar along the back wall, a fair supply of bootlegged whiskey, and a bartender who slept it off at night on the sofa.
The speakeasy, such as it was, kept its owner out of the breadlines. Barely. Sometimes his patrons paid; sometimes they didn’t. They’d empty the ragtag of coins out of their pockets and put the rest on a tab. Sometimes they paid that tab, sometimes not. The worst was old Michael Malloy, who drifted in and out of employment — street cleaner, coffin polisher — according to whether he was able to stay upright. There were nights when the owner would have sworn that he was pouring most of his profits down Mike Malloy’s neck.
Malloy and money were the topics of discussion one night after he had passed out again atop the plywood bar. The speakeasy boss, Tony Marino, and several of his friends were playing an idle game of pinochle, drinking some bootlegged whiskey, all of them worrying over money and the Depression’s hard times.
If only one of them had a wealthy relative or, barring that, a sick one with a good insurance policy. The right kind of dead family member would have really come in handy right then. Too bad none of them had an expendable relative. But perhaps, Marino suggested, they could create one — someone no one would miss, someone hardly worth keeping alive anyway.
As the story was later told, to a man, they turned to look at Mike Malloy, snoring off another bender in the backroom bar. And at the moment, in a ragtag speakeasy in the Bronx, was chosen the worst possible victim of a murder scheme, a man the newspapers would later dub “Mike the Durable.”
The saga of the almost invincible Mike, the improbably cursed murder syndicate, and the investigation that sent all four of those card players to the electric chair, is one of my favorite true crime stories from the Prohibition era. It’s Alfred Hitchcock material, a dark comedy of errors, or the stuff of Greek tragedy, with Nemesis hovering nearby. It’s a classic example of that familiar saying: you couldn’t make it up.
The conspirators in the Malloy scheme finalized their plans in January of 1933, clustered around a table at that no-name speakeasy [pictured here, photographed by Ossie LeViness, via]. They persuaded their amiable victim to pose as the brother of bartender Red Murphy – in exchange for free whiskey. They took out two insurance policies with a combined payout of $1,800, big money in the breadline days.
In addition to Murphy, the others in the oddly assembled plot included Marino, a fruit vendor named Daniel Kriesberg, and Frank Pasqua, an increasingly money-strapped funeral home director. Their initial idea was simple. Prohibition was still in effect, and New York City was awash in poison alcohol, the product of shoddy home brews, government efforts to contaminate the liquor supply as an enforcement tool, and bootlegger concoctions. They would provide Malloy with a generous allotment of bad alcohol and watch him go down to the floor, just another victim of the speakeasy life.
But the old derelict thrived on bad whiskey. He drank himself into a stupor every night, and returned every next day looking for more. So they decided on poisonous snacks to go with the liquor – bad oysters, rotten sardine sandwiches, sandwiches with metal shavings, sandwiches with glass. He loved those too.
He seemed, in fact, to be gaining weight.
A frustrated month later, the conspirators had yet another plan. They waited one night until he passed out, carried him to a park bench on a freezing February night and poured water on him. He didn’t even wake up during the soaking. But he was back next night without so much as catching a cold. Finally, the exasperated would-be killers bribed a cab driver to run over Malloy in a nearby street. And – just their luck – a policeman found him after the accident and took the battered victim to a hospital. Malloy was back in the bar, bragging about a broken collar bone, asking for a drink, a few weeks later.
It wasn’t until the end of February that they found the right weapon. Two of the men rented a room in an old boarding house with gas lighting. Once Malloy was again good and drunk, they hauled him there, connected a hose to the gas valve, ran it into the old man’s mouth. The illuminating gas was dense with that lethal poison, carbon monoxide.
The conspirators didn’t know, of course, that carbon monoxide is so efficient because it muscles oxygen out of the blood stream. They didn’t know that carbon monoxide forms a bond with proteins in the blood that is 200 times more powerful than that of oxygen. That it induces a chemical suffocation.
They didn’t know that and they probably wouldn’t have cared. They just knew that the steady hiss of illuminating gas did its job. Malloy barely lasted ten minutes.
The two men got the body buried quickly, quickly went to collect their payout. But unfortunately – at least for those in the murder conspiracy – the story of the indestructible Mike was too good to stay secret. The tale started circulating in other bars, making its way round other card games, until the Bronx police picked the rumors and, skeptically at first, began an investigation.
And the conspirators had other bad luck too. They’d paid a corrupt local doctor to sign a death certificate attributing Malloy’s death to poison alcohol. But city forensic scientists exhumed the body. And even though this was several months after the death, by that time researchers knew that carbon monoxide was not only efficient but durable, tainting a body for weeks after death. Laboratory analysis easily found lethal levels of carbon monoxide in the remains of old Mike Malloy.
Both the cab driver and the physician made deals and testified for the prosecution.
And Murphy, Marino, Kriesberg and Pasqua all went to the electric chair in the summer of 1934. A reporter for the now-vanished New York Daily Mirror recorded the execution in a grim staccato: “The kw-e-e- of the dynamo. Two thousand volts and ten amperes. The rip-saw current that tears one apart. Three shocks.” It was, he wrote, “the State’s toast to old ‘Mike the Durable’.”
This post by Deborah Blum originally appeared on Wired Science Blogs’ Elemental. Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.
For another great account of the murder of Mike Malloy, visit Smithsonian Magazine’s Past Imperfect.