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New York’s ‘Dark Harbor’ of Organized Crime

Nathan Ward on Malcolm Johnson’s classic exposé

Jul. 13, 2010
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People who hate newspapers, whose number appears to be legion, choose to forget that newspapers often have been the catalyst for useful, needed reform in American life. Instances of such newspaper-induced reform, while not similarly legion, have been many, but few have been as influential as the reporting of Malcolm (“Mike”) Johnson for the old New York Sun.

What was originally a routine assignment from Johnson’s editor to look into the murder of a dockworker led to a lengthy investigation detailing organized crime’s absolute control over New York’s waterfront. The investigation resulted in a 24-part series, “Crime on the Waterfront,” that ran in the Sun, the city’s most conservative newspaper, in November and December 1948. The series won Johnson a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for the 1954 Oscar-winning movie On theWaterfront and the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s play A View Fromthe Bridge.

The series still makes for gripping reading, as I can attest, having read it five years ago when it was published in book form. What Nathan Ward, a former editor at American Heritage magazine, has done in Dark Harbor: The War forthe New York Waterfront (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is to not only describe Johnson’s investigation, but put it into the context of its times, presenting a nice slice of American history and evoking a wonderful era of newspapers. Johnson was the first to reveal the existence of a sort-of trade association in crime that had originated during Prohibition. The key to the dockside rackets, Johnson found, was mob control of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), a union that was a haven for ex-convicts, through which mobsters were able to control all key jobs on the piers and operate rackets without interference.

Ward shows how Johnson uncovered numerous rackets or crimes—extortion, kickbacks on workers’ wages, smuggling, usurious loan-sharking, padded payrolls—but thievery was the biggest. Whole truckloads of cargo could disappear from the piers without a trace; it was so extensive, Johnson wrote, that it amounted to “an unofficial national tax.”

The next biggest was the loading racket. This was a system by which gangsters and their union henchmen collected a fee on every pound of cargo trucked from the piers by compelling truckers to pay so-called public loaders to load the trucks.

Some of the most infamous names in American crime figure in these pages—Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, Meyer Lansky—but the “docks overlord” was John (“Cockeye”) Dunn, later executed for the murder of a boss stevedore. Among the consequences of Johnson’s reporting were Sen. Estes Kefauver’s congressional hearings into organized crime—a television sensation in the early days of the medium—as well as state legislative hearings. It also led to a number of reforms, including the Port Authority Commission that oversees hiring along the New York/New Jersey waterfront to this day; the expulsion of the ILA from the AFL-CIO; and the imprisonment of the union president.

Perhaps greatest of all was the banning of the system of hiring that, Johnson wrote, permitted the rackets to flourish, the “shape-up.” Through the shape-up, by which men were hired or rejected at the whim of a hiring boss, it was possible for criminal gangs to place their own men in key jobs on the piers, thus solidifying their rule. This system was replaced with hiring halls.

Two years after publishing the waterfront series, the Sun set for the last time after 117 years of existence. Since then newspapers have been dying at an increasing pace. It is good to learn that they did not all die in vain.


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