The Model J Duesenberg marketed itself as the car for men of action. Owney Madden, another owner of a Model J, was a man who could kill as easily as breathing - and had the death toll to prove it. Not exactly the kind of action E.L. Cord’s marketing team had in mind, but nevertheless the Model J Duesenberg resonated as a symbol of strength and power with formidable gangsters like Madden.
Owen Madden was born in Leeds, England on December 18, 1891. His parents, Francis and Mary Madden, were immigrants from Ireland who moved to England to escape the Irish Potato Famine. After various textile factory jobs in England, Francis Madden died. Left with nothing, Mary Madden moved ten-year old Owen and his older brother to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City in 1902.
For two years, Owen, now called Owney, lived a crime-free life and sporadically attended St. Michael’s Parochial School on West 33rd Street. However, at age 12, Owney left home to join a gang to help support his family.
Two years after joining one of New York’s most violent gangs, the Gophers, Owney Madden committed his first of many murders. According to Madden, by the time he was 14, he had already killed a man by bashing the man’s head with a lead pipe and stealing $500 from his wallet. Within three years, Madden had killed an additional four people and became a prominent member of the Gophers.
The Gophers was a name given by the public to a conglomeration of several different Irish gangs which together controlled most of Manhattan at the time. They got their unusual name for their habit of hiding in cellars.
By reputation, the Gophers were known for brazen, brutal acts of violence, even going as far as mugging lone patrol men in the gang’s territories for their guns and uniforms. The Gophers’ income came primarily from extortion, pimping, mugging, and ballot-box stuffing.
Madden earned a place of importance in the gang when he gunned down a rival Italian gangster in the streets. Madden addressed the shocked onlookers, “Owney Madden, 10th Avenue” as a challenge for them to call the police and left the scene. Madden was never charged with the crime. It would be this instance of violence that finally cemented his leadership of the Gophers and his street name – The Killer. As their leader, he generated $200 a day, which adjusted for inflation is $2,500, from the Gopher’s protection rackets.
As leader of the Gophers, Madden quickly became a professional killer and gunman known for his expensive tastes, his violent temper, and his jealousy when it came to women. Owney Madden was married to Dorthey Rogers in 1911 and had a daughter that year named Margret Madden.
However, Owney Madden was a serial adulterer in his early years. Owney’s jealousy and propensity toward violence would culminate in the most infamous moment of his criminal career.
In February of 1912, Owney Madden boarded a street trolley to shoot a store clerk named William Henshaw for asking out one of the women with whom Madden was having an affair. Henshaw lived long enough from his gunshot wounds to identify Madden as the assailant, but the charges against Madden were dropped because despite the numerous witnesses, nobody would dare testify against a man known as “The Killer.” When the woman was asked by the police if Madden had shot Henshaw, she coldly replied, “That ain’t the guy what done it.”
Over the next three years, the Gophers reached the height of their power as Madden’s criminal empire began encroaching into rival territory, particularly that of the Hudson Dusters. In retaliation, Madden was ambushed and shot 11 times outside Arbor dance hall by three members of the Dusters on November 6, 1912.
According to the November 7 edition of The Sun, Madden went to the dance hall in pursuit of his then wife, Dorthey Rogers. According to the news article, Rogers had learned about the affair Owney was having when the news of Owney killing William Henshaw was published. She decided to exact revenge against her husband by going dancing in a club outside of Madden’s sphere of influence because she knew it would make him jealous. After several failed attempts to get a private audience with his wife outside the club, Madden was met with several rival gangsters and was shot.
During his stay in the hospital, it’s reported that Madden, with the bullets still lodged in his body, told the surgeon, “Git busy with the knife thing, doc.” Madden miraculously survived the attack and subsequent surgeries despite the 10% chance the doctors gave his survival. When the police asked Madden to identify his attackers, he refused stating, "Nothing doing. The boys'll get 'em. It's nobody's business but mine who put these slugs in me!" Within a week of his release from the hospital, several members of the Dusters were killed.
Two years later in 1914, Madden became involved in a dispute with Little Patsy Doyle, a prominent member of the Dusters, over a woman named Freda Horner. Madden promptly ambushed and killed Doyle over the dispute. But this time Madden would be convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing Prison in New York. Madden would ultimately only serve nine years of the sentence, but during his time in prison the Gophers had been muscled out of New York City and dismantled by the newer alcohol-focused gangs that formed with the start of Prohibition.
Once out of prison, Madden realized that he had to adapt to the new black market and began to rebuild his empire in Hell’s Kitchen. Madden would make it big in the bootlegging business when he was taken in as Big Bill Dwyer’s partner. William “Big Bill” Dwyer was the leader of a massive alcohol smuggling operation that illegally imported whiskey from Canada into American cities. Dwyer became impressed with Madden’s tenacity when Madden began hijacking Dwyer’s liquor shipments and instead of starting a gang war with Madden, Dwyer hired Madden to intimidate the competition.
At the height of his career, Madden would own over 20 legitimate nightclubs. One of which was the Cotton Club in New York City, the nightclub famous for launching the careers of many African-American entertainers like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. Madden also launched the movie careers of Mae West and George Raft. Mae West, star of She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, described Madden as “Sweet, but oh so vicious.” George Raft worked as a driver for the mafia where he would meet Madden. Madden would encourage and help Raft to pursue an acting career. Raft would go on to play the villain in the original 1932 Scarface.
It was during his Cotton Club years that Owney Madden purchased his brand-new 1930 Model J Duesenberg. Madden was known by his Duesenberg as Donald Miller writes in Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America, “Madden always carried a pocketful of nickels and would toss them to raggedly dressed kids who gathered around his highly polished Duesenberg, parked outside one of his clubs,” Miller writes. “To these street urchins, he was Uncle Owney, the big-hearted mobster.” The last known location of the Killer’s Duesenberg is that it is owned by a private collector in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The beginning of the end for Madden’s reign in New York would occur in 1932 when Madden murdered Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll when he attempted to extort Madden. For the Italian Crime Families, Madden had killed one man too many. Through their influence with New York City’s police department, the Italian Crime Families increased police pressure on Madden. By 1935, Madden realized that his time was up in New York, and he retired to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Once there, he operated Hotel Arkansas, a spa by day and an illegal casino by night. This was a far cry from the massive networks of clubs and casinos he owned in New York. Over the 30 years of Madden’s operations, Hot Springs slowly became a hotspot for gangsters like Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Bugs Moran when they needed to hideout from the authorities. Charles “Lucky” Luciano was apprehended at Hotel Arkansas in 1935. Madden finally became a naturalized American citizen in 1953, and he eventually married Agnes Dempsy, the daughter of the city’s postmaster.
During his supposed retirement in Hot Springs, Madden became a local fixture of the town. He was easily recognizable with his iconic cap and scarf, and of course his 1930 Model J Duesenberg. Madden also became increasingly philanthropic in his later years, benefiting many local charities in Hot Springs. Among his many charitable endeavors was the purchase of school uniforms for the local high-school’s marching band members, one of whom was a young Bill Clinton. The majority of Madden’s efforts were focused towards youths, perhaps a byproduct of Madden’s own rough upbringing with the Gophers.
In 1961, a federal investigation by the Senate Committee on Organized Crime concluded that Hot Springs was the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the United States. Madden was summoned before the Senate Committee on Organized Crime where he repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment. The Arkansas state government began cracking down on illegal gambling in 1964, and Madden’s empire was fading away for the third time in his life.
Before the crackdown took too much of a toll on Owney Madden’s empire, he died from emphysema on April 24, 1965. Owney “The Killer” Madden is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs next to his second wife Agnes Dempsy.