Mickey Cohen: Memoirs of the Good Days

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The youthful bandit was nabbed and locked away in a reform school on the top of Fort Hill in Los Angeles. Here for seven months he was walloped monotonously with a bicycle tire- “For any old thing,” says Mickey.

A year later Mickey was out on probation.  He lunched with the Big Brothers once a week. His Big Brother was Abe Roth, the prize fight referee. Roth coaxed the Mickey violence into the ring. He was fighting four rounders in his 12th year, and training for these events in wild and bloody street corner combats with the vulpine youth of Boyle Heights.  Mickey’s ma remarried when he entered his teens-and Mickey was off and away. The home roost was suddenly tabu- “My ma didn‘t even know anything about me in them early days except that I was a prize fighter,” says Mickey.  

Cleveland was Mickey’s stop. His brother Harry was doing well in Cleveland with a small drugstore. Mickey crawled out from under a freight train and invaded the Ohio metropolis. Brother Harry became his manager and Mickey fought scores of four-rounders as a fly-weight, bantam-weight and featherweight.  From the ring Mickey stepped into a career of armed burglary and general muscle work. Mickey puts it- “Around 1932 I sought a new means of livelihood.” It was more than money-making that attracted the young pugilist, is my notion.  The predatory glee that stirred in the 9-year old soul of the Columbia Theatre robber took full possession of the Cohen ego. Mickey got together a troupe of his own and went “on the heavy.” The phrase means stick-ups with guns.  

“What kind of weapons did you use?” I asked Mickey.

“Every kind,” he said. “Pistols, shotguns, Tommy guns. Whatever was handy.  We specialized in gambling joints, cafes and whore houses. In one bookie joint I raised two hundred people.” [”Raising” people was lining them against the wall with their hands in the air.]

Mickey’s troupe of seven muscle boys regarded him as their leader. In 1933, by the exercise of fierceness, fearlessness and lawlessness, Mickey established himself as one of the most important burglars of Cleveland and one of the most valuable hoods for the Cleveland racket and murder gang called the “Hill Mob.”

Lawlessness is the debatable word in Mickey’s early rise. He broke laws, but they were the laws of an alien civilization.  What made him successful, actually, was keeping and enforcing the laws of the only society he knew, the underworld.  In this world, cutthroats were prime ministers, and robbers were nobility:
Like any Horatio Alger hero, Mickey aspired to a chummy nod from his betters.  And Mickey’s betters were the finely dressed ex-killers, now pot-bellied and flashing with diamonds, who bribed the high police officials and politicians and put the screws on the town. And who sat at the “round table” where decisions were made on head-breakings and “put outs.” (Put outs were killings.) Mickey carried out sentences against such undesirables.  

In Cleveland, Mickey earned his underworld sobriquet, where a nickname is a sort of title. It shows your personality has registered. Mickey became known as “the Jew Boy.” Most of his associates were Italians. He jabbered Italian and looked Italian so the title “Jew Boy” was a sort of distinction.

I tried to figure out why, and couldn’t.  Mickey explained- “The big ones in the operations are never referred to by name. They are called Charlie C or Charlie the Mick or Wop Tony. Likewise the terms Mafia or syndicate or mob are never used except by newspapers and police. No reference is ever made to an organization at all. It is only a meeting of the minds. The insiders refer to it as the people. Like, that’s the way the people want it. On occasion one of the considered heads of the Mafia is referred to as the Mahoff.”

After four years of Cleveland activity that included some 200 heavy stick-ups -Mickey calculates he committed 380 heists before quitting- he turned an eye to greener fields, Chicago. It was not entirely a matter of choice. The heat was on Mickey. The Hill Mob found it too trying to keep its protégé out of police custody. The people gave him a letter of recommendation to Chicago, and kept him on the payroll. A hood in those days, 1933, received $15 per diem for part-time services.
With the police on his trail, lamster Mickey moved to Chicago. After a short hitch in a Capone gambling casino, Mickey set up as a crooked gambler on his own. He opened a dice game in the Loop, the kind called a “flat store” or a “bust out” in which the clientele has no more chance of winning than of overthrowing the United States.

During these Chicago years Mickey also doubled in his black mask and Tommy gun. When dice suckers ran low there were always “scores” to be made in poorly defended drugstores, tailoring establishments or any terrain with a cash register. The “scores” were not always handsome, and Mickey and his troupe sometimes pulled three heists in a single day to keep solvent. So adroit was Mickey as a heister that there were no arrests.

“I lived from one heist to another,” said Mickey. “The only thing I really wanted money for was a new hat. Sometimes I would buy two hats in one day for 50 bucks apiece. I was so crazy about buyin’ hats that on a number of occasions I spent my case money for the purchase.” (Case money is “eating money,” or the last C note in the wallet.)

In 1937 Mickey returned to his childhood home, Los Angeles. Here, with two companions-one of them a white-haired fellow in his sixties – Mickey heisted two or three places a week. The trio made good scores. Their work became known and a number of tough boys enlisted under wild boy Cohen’s banner.  Mickey lived in a good hotel, drove a fine car, had himself measured for one flossy suit after another, bought scores of cream-colored Stetson hats for $50 a throw, had his shoes made “personally,” flashed a roll and gave $5 and $10 tips to waiters, bus boys, newsies, cabbies, doormen and other members of his social world.
During this stick-up rampage Mickey ran into a philosopher named Nick the Greek. Nick was a classy professional gambler. He fascinated the young burglar with stories about a sect in India whose members lived to be 180 years old, due to eating the right kind of bread and breathing correctly.

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