True Crime: Owney Madden

By Chris Bunton

Owen Vincent “Owney'” Madden was born in December of 1891 in Leeds, England to Irish parents.

Due to extreme poverty, his mother left England with his sister Mary, and placed Owney and his brother Martin in an orphanage, while she booked travel to the United States.

After arriving in America, she stayed with family while working as a maid to save up money to pay for Owney and his brother’s trip over to the U.S.

Not long after arriving in Hell’s Kitchen, Owney became associated with the street gangs of New York.

Belonging to the Gophers street gang, he was involved with robbery, protection rackets, gambling and running prostitutes.

It is said, that his first crime involved beating a man senseless and stealing $500. This was a big payout at the time, and the young man was hooked.

He was called Owney “the killer” Madden because he was ruthless. He became the leader of the Gophers and had personally killed several people. He was so confident of his gang’s ability to intimidate witnesses and control police, that he openly shot a man in the street and told bystanders, “Get the police, I’m Owney Madden, 10th street”

During a time of competition from a rival gang called the “Hudson Dusters”, he stormed into their dance hall club during a party and started talking trash. He ended up in a gun battle with 11 of them and was shot 6 times. He survived and did not snitch. But, the Gophers got revenge.

In 1915 He went to prison for arranging the murder of the leader of the Dusters, William Moore. AKA “Little Patsy Doyle”. He ended up serving 7-9 years.

After his release from prison, it was Prohibition in the United States and Owney went back to his gang life. He started at the bottom and worked his way up till he formed his own gang and began hijacking booze and selling it from his own speakeasies.

As he rose in wealth and power, he dated the film actress Mae West. She described Madden as “Sweet, but oh so vicious.”

Owney eventually bought the run down Club Deluxe from the former heavy weight boxer, Jack Johnson. Then, he and his partners turned it into the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club became world famous for it’s performers, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Cab Calloway. It played a part in the Harlem Renaissance which was going on at the time.

Eventually, the Italian Mafia got stronger in town, and slowly worked to drive out the Irish gangs. They liked Owney and worked with him, but the writing was on the wall. After a period of being a boxing promoter where he promoted some of the best boxers, and rigged matches. He knew it was time to leave New York. It was 1934.

Owney took his Cotton Club and Boxing fortune and moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he set up shop, with clubs, hotels, gambling, and prostitution. He had health issues due to his multiple bullet wounds, and the spas of Hot Springs helped him.

Hot Springs, at the time was run by Mayor McLaughlin who had opened up the town to illicit activities. Everyone turned a blind eye to what was going on and enjoyed the income that worked to one day save the town from the Great Depression.

When Owney arrived, he made a deal with the mayor, which benefited both men and the town itself. Owney set up the wire service for the horse race track to the bookies and had a controlling interest in the Southern Club and Ohio Club.

After several years of prosperity, The Italian mafia and other gangsters, began visiting Owney and used Hot Springs as a place they could go to relax. A place where the police protected them instead of harassing them. Folks such as Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and AL Capone, could be seen there often.

Owney lived as a regular citizen of Hot Springs. He kept a low profile while helping the town thrive.

Owney died on April 24, 1965.

I traveled to Hot Springs and His house still sits a few blocks from down town where the clubs, hotels and baths were located.

It’s a simple home where he and his wife Agnes enjoyed a normal life together. Owney lived as gentleman in the town and enjoyed his retirement there.

He and his wife are buried next to each other in Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs.

Hot Springs still speaks of the history and prosperity Owney brought to the town.

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Bio: Chris Bunton is a writer, poet and blogger from Southern Illinois. He travels to various locations and researches true crime figures.

Read more True Crime and Crime Travel at The Yard: Crime Blog.

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Publishing Editor for The Yard: Crime Blog.

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