Owney Madden

Friday the 24th of April 2015 marked the 50th-anniversary of Owney Madden’s death.Owney – sometimes Owen – Madden was a legendary figure in American organised crime; a notorious bootlegger during the Roaring Twenties; an associate of Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano; the owner of the fabled Cotton Club; a childhood friend to actor George Raft and a role model for his patented blend of tough guy in expensive tailoring. Madden was one of New York’s most influential men; it was said that “When you wanted anything in New York, you saw Owney”.Madden, portrayed by Bob Hoskins in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Cotton Club, was, then, a powerful and well-connected man – one who understood that his brand of employment needed discretion as much as muscle; a man who bought the influence of legendary newspaper columnist Walter Winchell for the very purpose of keeping his own name away from public and governmental eyes. It is no wonder that some have seen him as the likely model for the mysteriously rich and richly mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.That’s all very interesting – but what has it got to do with the history and heritage of Leeds? Well, it is a fact – a fact that is not as well-known as it should be and one which was brought to our attention by a recent library user – that Owney Madden was actually born in this very city towards the end of the nineteenth-century, before emigrating to the New York at 10-years old. In fact, it is said that Madden enjoyed collecting clippings from the pages of the Yorkshire Post and that he retained his native Yorkshire accent until his death in 1965.Fascinatingly, using the free access enjoyed by library users to the Ancestry website, we managed to locate records for Mr. Madden’s time in West Yorkshire – including his appearance with his brother Martin at Springfield Terrace, Leeds on the census of 1901: 

1901 census for Springfield Terrace
1901 census for Springfield Terrace

A browse around our photographic archive of Leeds threw up this gem: a 1902 image of Somerset Court, near to Somerset Street where Madden’s family was living at the time of his birth in 1892 –

Somerset Court, 1902
Somerset Court, 1902

The section of map below – reproduced from our extensive collection of historic maps – shows the location of the Somerset Street area in 1910, in what is now the section of the city centre housing the bus station.

Somerset Street area, 1910
Somerset Street area, 1910

Further digging revealed Madden’s presence on the passenger list for the U.S.-bound ship the SS Teutonic in 1902 and on the US Federal Census of 1940. These records can also be viewed by library users, together with an image of Madden’s grave in Hope Springs, Arkansas.

Owney’s life once he reached the United States was the stuff of fiction – the street-fighting with immigrant gangs in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen ward of New York; the ascension through the ranks of the Gopher Gang to organised crime mastermind. More detail about that extraordinary life can be found in several articles available through our holdings of the Yorkshire Evening Post and traceable through our digital newspaper index. A section from one can be seen below. A book – Arkansas Godfather: The Story of Owney Madden and how he hijacked Middle America, focusing on his criminal career in the United States – is also available for reference viewing.

Photograph of Owney from the Yorkshire Evening Post
Photograph of Owney from the Yorkshire Evening Post

Yorkshire Evening Post, 8 July 1985, p.4

This is just one example of the great stories that remain to be uncovered in the archives and collections of our Local and Family History library. Visit us today to start your own journey of discovery.



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