Volume 79, Number 44 | April 7 - 13, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Notebook

Sullivan — which one? — and a body in the basement

By Patricia Fieldsteel

Jane Street and its surrounding blocks have the habit of attracting unsolved murders. During the thirty-odd years I lived there, there were two directly on Jane, one on Horatio and another inside a grocery on W. 13th at Eighth Avenue. Hardly a large number, except for the victims and their families.

A third mysterious Jane Street murder took place long before my birth. I first heard about the body in the basement at 31 Eighth Ave. (where Tavern on Jane is today) in the mid-1970s. At that time it was Jerry Foley’s Bar and Grill (“The Paddock”), a blue-collar joint. People said someone named Sullivan had been murdered in a bar brawl in the early 1900s, before the establishment belonged to Foley and his sister, Miss Kitty. A quick grave had been dug in the dirt floor of the sub-cellar. Some claimed Sullivan had been a crooked cop demanding too large a take from the local Irish mob. Others said he’d been a clean cop trying to break up the mob’s dealings, in particular the notorious Hudson Dusters. Still others insisted the body belonged to the notorious Irish gangster “Farmer” Sullivan, who had managed to take the proverbial pot of gold with him to his basement grave.

In the late ’70s, Jack Caldwell, a former cop, bought and restored the building, opening the superb Jane Street Seafood Café. Jack sold the restaurant to Kevin McCallion, a great guy and good source of information. He, too, had heard someone named Sullivan was buried down there, murdered most likely in the 1930s.

I asked L., the fat-mouthed super of the building where I lived. Before the War, L. had lived at 55 Jane, when it was a rooming house. (William Burroughs and a host of junkies had also once rented rooms there.) L. was wounded in Normandy, awarded a Purple Cross and sent home. On Dec. 23, 1944, a fact ingrained in the hard disk of anyone’s brain who lived there, he moved into our building. Though his opinions were dubious about anything relating to the present, he could often be reliably called on for events and historical nuggets from the distant past. I asked about the body.

“Patreesha, like I say, in the ’50s a bunch of us dug up that cellar. F---in’ hours it took. You know what we found? A bunch of f---in’ broken dishes! Like I say, there’s no f---in’ body down there!”

After I moved to France in 2002, I began to trawl the Internet, particularly old newspapers and books now digitized and available online. Slowly, what I believe is the explanation of this third unsolved Jane Street murder began to unravel, revealing much about the block’s history in its wake.

The area around today’s Jane Street was once the Lenape settlement of Sapponikan, known for its lush vegetation and rich, loamy soil. After the Dutch had swindled the land from the Indians, it became known as Bossen Bouwerie (“Farm in the Woods”). Wouter van Twiller, a bibulous, self-serving dullard, was the second director general of the Dutch West India Company’s New Netherland colony from 1633 to 1638, and the first European settler in today’s West Village. He was a tobacco speculator and developed prosperous tobacco farms there for his personal enrichment. Over the following centuries, after the area had been renamed Green-wich (“Green Village”) and then Greenwich Village, it was still known for its verdant farms and country retreats from the “city” to the south.

During the 1890s, when the area was heavily settled by the Irish, Robert J. Sullivan, described by The New York Times as “a tough from the time he could toddle” arrived on the scene. Born on the land of van Twiller’s old farm, he quickly acquired the moniker “Farmer,” which he used as a professional middleweight pugilist. Farmer Sullivan was renowned for his ability to take a bare, hard-fisted punch, fighting several bouts in the ring at the old Madison Square Garden. He lost no time in rising among the ranks of the Village’s underworld while still in his teens. The Times called him an “election slugger, hi-jacker, boss stevedore and all-round thug.” He was the major suspect in at least 10 murders but always managed to elude conviction, one time even managing to get a 20-year-to-life murder sentence to Sing Sing overturned in the higher courts.

By 1910, the cops at the old Sixth Precinct on Charles Street had hauled him in 16 times, but they were never able to make the charges stick. Farmer had friends. He was tight with the notorious Butler Gang, rising high in power along the Chelsea docks and involving himself in all sorts of rackets.

Sullivan was a brawler and a drunk. By the early 1930s, he’d opened the Farmer Sullivan Bar and Grill at 31 Eighth Ave., on the corner of Jane Street. In 1934, the police received a tip: A Sullivan gang lieutenant named “Happy Ahrens” had been murdered and buried in the bar’s basement. Detectives arrived to dig up the bones. Nothing was found, but Happy was also never seen again.

Two years later, before dawn on the morning of Sept. 20, 1936, Farmer swaggered into Joseph Martini’s Tavern on a lonely road in Keyport, New Jersey, (near Matawan) with several buddies, henchmen and bodyguards. Decked out in a snazzy new suit, flashy tiepin and enormous diamond ring, he took a seat facing the porch and placed a large order from the kitchen. It is not known if he requested veal. There were two patrons, including a woman, at the bar; a third was in the washroom.

In a scene straight out of but many decades preceding “The Godfather,” Farmer’s bodyguard got up from his seat backing onto the window and sauntered toward the bathroom. As soon as he was out of range, two revolvers opened fire from the porch, spraying eight bullets through the screen and glass onto the table, instantly killing Sullivan with a shot through his heart. The men in his party vanished — their footsteps heard rushing out the door followed by the shooters. All made a quick getaway in two cars that screeched away from the scene.

When State Police identified the body, the joyful news spread fast through precincts on both sides of the Hudson. The 40-year-old, no-neck, scar-faced, barrel-chested monster was no more. Martini told officers he hadn’t known the Farmer.

“I opened this tavern two nights ago,” he said. “The first night the storm washes me out. Then this shooting comes along and washes me up.”

The Farmer’s new suit yielded a fascinating secret: a little black book with neat penciled accounts in Sullivan’s own hand detailing political payoffs in all five New York City boroughs. For reasons unexplained, Democratic “workers” received $5 more than Republicans.

Later in the day, detectives climbed three flights of stairs at 300 W. 68th St. to deliver the news to Mrs. Sullivan. They were guided through the gloomy halls by the screeching of the Farmer’s pet parrot. The widow reportedly received the announcement with dry eyes. As the detectives left, the parrot called after them, “Goodbye! Goodbye, Papa!”

This still leaves the good cop/bad cop Sullivan mystery. Back in the 1890s, an Irish-American street gang called the Hudson Dusters began to operate out of a house on Hudson Street, where 61 Jane St. (“The Cézanne”) is today. Frequently moving their headquarters to avoid raids, they were known for their addiction to cocaine and morphine (hence the “dusters”). They specialized in armed robbery, assault, narcotics trafficking, robbery, extortion from local merchants and election fraud. By the early 1900s, they controlled the West Village and were known for their wild parties, often attended by artists and bohemians. For one such event, they’d demanded free delivery of six barrels of beer from a neighborhood saloonkeeper. When he refused, they destroyed the saloon.

The owner reported the incident to his friend Patrolman Dennis Sullivan of the Charles Street Station. The good cop Sullivan vowed to drive the Dusters into the ground once and for all. For his efforts, the Dusters beat him nearly to death outside another local saloon, destroying his face and leaving him blind in one eye. (I was unable to verify the exact location of either establishment.) The event was immortalized in a many-versed song penned by a leader of the Gophers, an allied gang. It was printed up and distributed throughout the Dusters’ turf, including the precinct on Charles Street. The ballad began:
 
Says Dinny “Here’s me only chance
To gain meself a name;
I’ll clean up the Hudson Dusters,
and reach the hall of fame.”
He lost his stick and cannon,
and his shield they took away.
It was then he remembered,
Every dog had his day.
 
By 1916, the Dusters were wiped out. As to the bad cop, Sullivan, I’m sure there were several. I just wasn’t able to find one connected to the Jane Street murder mystery, the murder that wasn’t. Like I say, much as I’m loath to admit it, sometimes L. is right: There’s no body in the basement at Tavern on Jane.

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