Another Duesenberg owner from the early 1900s was a man known simply as Michael “Mickey” Duffy. Not much is known about him due to his careful and meticulous nature. Nevertheless, the story of Mickey Duffy is reminiscent of the classic Hollywood gangster movie, with the rise and fall of a mob boss due to their greed and lust for power.
William Michael Cusick was born in 1888 to Polish immigrant parents in the Grays Ferry neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Once he became involved with the Irish gangs of Philadelphia, he used a variety of Irish pseudonyms such as John Murphy and George McEwen, but he settled on Michael “Mickey” Duffy.
Duffy would only be arrested a few times for petty thefts and various misdemeanors. The only time he was ever convicted and sentenced would be in May of 1919 for assault and battery with intent to kill. After serving almost three years at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Duffy was back on the streets and continued his climb up the criminal ladder.
Once Prohibition began in 1920, Duffy easily found a vast fortune in the world of booze smuggling, brewing, and illegal bar operations. He was clever enough to invest his illegal profits into legitimate business like the fashionable Club Cadix and the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City.
The gangster practice of owning legitimate businesses created a financial paper trail that would ward off federal investigators. Duffy was exceptionally good at creating paper trails, given that he would never be charged with another crime for the rest of his life. His ability to appear legitimate gave him the edge over his competition that was needed to turn Philadelphia and the surrounding cities into his illegal booze kingdom.
Duffy’s rise to power was largely due to the misfortunes of other gangsters. His biggest competition in his early years was Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, who lacked Duffy’s keen ability to conceal his criminal activities. Hoff and his organization were recuperating from numerous federal investigations, raids, indictments, and property seizures. This allowed Duffy the opportunity to covertly take over all of Hoff’s territory and breweries.
Additionally, Duffy never killed publicly and maintained a relatively low profile on his criminal activities when compared to other well-known gangsters. He was constantly trying to seize smaller gangsters’ territories primarily through intimidation and not murder, although murder was never truly off the table. When it came time for Duffy to take over another gangster’s territory, fewer people tended to die than other more famous gang wars, which allowed Duffy to be able to take territory quickly without losing money or manpower. Duffy’s practices led his gang to grow extremely large, so they were able to generate millions of dollars in illegal profits with few significant obstacles.
Mickey Duffy’s success created a unique situation where he always had enemies but never any true rivals. Of his many enemies, the Bailey Brothers would be the first of many to try to kill Duffy. On February 25, 1927, Duffy and his bodyguard John Bricker, were ambushed on their way out of Club Cadix by associates of the Bailey Brothers. The brothers had acquired a Thompson submachine gun or “Tommy Gun” from Duffy’s rival, Boo Boo Hoff. Duffy survived but his bodyguard did not. Bricker would become the first man killed in a gang shooting by a machine gun in the United States. Duffy was seriously injured after being shot multiple times and was not expected to survive, but he recovered and within weeks was back to building his criminal empire.
Duffy had created an impressive fortune from his bootlegging operations and his illegal speakeasy bars during Prohibition. He regularly stayed in luxurious suites at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia, the Walt Whitman Hotel in Camden, and in his own luxury hotel, the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. He also owned a $90,000 mansion ($1,318,663.16 adjusted for inflation) with his wife, Edith, a former hat check girl, on City Avenue in Philadelphia. His wife was known to wear a $30,000 diamond bracelet at any public event to show off their wealth.
But above all, his prized possession was his 1931 Model J Duesenberg that he bought brand new for $20,000. The exact location or even present existence of Mickey Duffy’s Duesenberg is not clear. The location of Duffy’s Model J may very well be lost to time. There is a claim from the Hemmings Daily article, Gangster-bought Duesenberg Model J/SJ heads to auction, published in 2013, that the car was up for sale but had not found a buyer. The biggest claim is that Duffy’s car went to Owney “The Killer” Madden after his death. This is extremely unlikely, as there is no evidence Madden and Duffy knew each other, and Madden’s car was a 1930 Model J Duesenberg and Duffy’s was a 1931.
Duffy’s downfall began on September 19, 1930 in Elizabeth, New Jersey; the very city his Model J Duesenberg was made. One of Duffy’s breweries was being raided by agents of the Bureau of Prohibition when Duffy’s enforcers arrived. The enforcers drew guns on the agents to intimidate them into leaving, but an altercation began between the enforcers and Prohibition Agent John Gilbert Finiello. During the shootout, Agent Finiello was shot and killed.
Later that same year, Mickey Duffy was dubbed “King of the Numbers Racket” due to his illegal lottery system by Philadelphia District Attorney John Monaghan. Duffy was also known for a brief time as Public Enemy Number One in Philadelphia, possibly due to the killing of Agent Finiello. Now in the spotlight of the authorities and other gangsters, Duffy did not have long to live.
On August 30, 1931, Mickey Duffy was asleep in a suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City when an assassin(s) entered the room and shot and killed him. The perpetrators were never found and no charges were ever filed for Mickey Duffy’s murder. Speculation leads to the idea that Duffy was killed by members of his own gang to seize his power for themselves and to protect the rest of the gang from the threat of a federal crackdown due to Duffy’s growing infamy.
Despite his constant territorial fights with other gangsters, Mickey Duffy was well loved in Philadelphia. He was a major sponsor of his local church and the city’s orphaned children. Mickey and his wife were unable to have children, and their requests to adopt were denied. As a result, Duffy became a benefactor to various children’s programs in Philadelphia and to the low-income residents of the city.
Duffy was known to buy hundreds of tickets to sporting events and give them out to the low-income neighborhoods. After he recovered from his first assassination attempt outside Club Cadix, he donated $1,000 to the Hahneman Hospital and erected a memorial for his deceased bodyguard John Bricker, with the engraving, “Always to Be Remembered by Your Pal, M. J. D.”.
Duffy was an efficient gangster running Philadelphia’s underground, and it made him very wealthy; in return he gave generously and frequently to his city and the people in it. When he died, thousands of people attended his funeral.
Accompanying Duffy’s body to Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia was a 31-car procession. One of the cars in the procession was his own Model J Duesenberg, which he had owned for less than a year. Duffy was found to have only $7,000 to his name, but he was reportedly buried in an expensive solid bronze coffin.