Michael Malloy: Rasputin of the Bronx
The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn the United States has ever seen. Starting with the stock market crash on Black Friday, October 24, 1929, this trying and uncertain period stretched ten years until 1939. This dark era in American history forced many out of their homes and into ramshackle shacks in ever-growing shantytowns. For most families, meat was a commodity that could not be afforded. Meals were much simpler, sometimes even consisting of a dandelion salad. The times were desperate and the people even more so. Out of this desperation was born many scams and schemes to either get rich, or just get by.
Wikipedia states that Michael Malloy, also known as Iron Mike, Mike the Durable, and Rasputin of the Bronx, had previously been a firefighter before falling on hard times. Well known for being a heavy drinker, he had become homeless. He was originally from County Donegal in Ireland and lived in New York City throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. His date of birth is unknown. Irish Central states that he has become most known throughout history for surviving as many twenty attempts on his life.
Smithsonian Magazine published the most detailed article about this bizarre and astonishing story. It all started on a hot July afternoon in 1932. Americans were feeling the crushing and devastating effects of the Depression at this time. Desperation hung thick in the air and there seemed to be no escaping it. As most of the country was worried about how they were going to feed themselves or their families, 27-year-old Tony Marino was worried about his speakeasy going belly-up. He sat with two of his friends, Francis Pasqua and Daniel Kriesberg, and a round of drinks. It was at a small table inside this illegal bar that these men plotted what they thought would be an easy crime.
It was a simple insurance fraud scheme. They would need to find a mark, file a claim, and help him to his grave. Then all they would need would be a corrupt doctor and someone to identify the body under the name on the claim so they could cash in. Pasqua, a 24-year-old undertaker, was just the kind of cohort Marino would need. Kriesberg, a 29-year-old grocer and father of three, would later say that he had only participated for the sake of his family.
The group already had their eye on someone sitting across the bar. Michael Malloy was a regular that no one knew much about aside from the fact that he was Irish, which was obvious given his accent. He didn't seem to have any friends or family. Aside from odd jobs sweeping alleys or collecting trash, he didn't have a vocation to depend on, either. Though he was only about 50, he appeared to be ten years older. Every morning he walked into the speakeasy and asked for "Another mornin's morning, if ya don't mind." Hours later, he would be passed out on the dirty floor.
Iron Mike had been allowed to drink on credit at the speakeasy, but had stopped paying his tab. Marino informed his friends that "Business is bad." As they watched this poor man down on his luck, they figured that it couldn't be hard to get him to drink himself to death.
The group thought that their plan was bullet-proof. What made them feel all the more invincible was the fact that Marino had already pulled off a similar stunt to collect on a life insurance policy. Just the year prior to their desperate scheming, he had befriended a homeless woman named Mabelle Carlson. After a little manipulation and persuasion, he got her to take out a $2000 life insurance policy on herself, naming him as the beneficiary. Today that would be worth $39,052.24. One dreadfully cold night after the papers were signed, Marino force-fed her alcohol, stripped her naked, drenched her mattress and sheets in ice water, and pushed her bed underneath an open window. Her cause of death was listed as bronchial pneumonia and Marino collected the payout without an issue. Pasqua asked why he didn't take out a policy on his Irish regular, stating that he could "take care of the rest."
The group closely eyed their mark from across the bar. He was already drunk and completely unaware that he was being watched, or plotted against. Marino nodded to Pasqua, saying, "He looks all in. He ain't got much longer to go anyhow. The stuff is gettin' him."
Pasqua paid an unnamed acquaintance to go with him on his meetings with insurance agents going by the name Nicholas Mellory and the occupation of florist. This was a detail that another acquaintance of Pasqua's in the funeral business was willing to confirm, likely for a sum of cash. Within five months Pasqua and his anonymous acquaintance, with the help of a dirty insurance agent, had secured three policies on Mellory's life. Two of these were with Prudential Life, and the other with Metropolitan Life. Once this first step was taken care of, Pasqua recruited a bartender from the speakeasy named Joseph Murphy to identify Michael Malloy's body under the name on the insurance policies. He would also play the part of next of kin, collecting the payouts as the beneficiary. If all went according to plan they stood to split $3,576, now worth $77,470.52.
By this point the "Murder Trust," as they were dubbed by the press, had grown to include four more petty criminals and regulars of the speakeasy. Edward "Tin Ear" Smith, oddly named for his artificial wax ear, John McNally, Tough Tony Bastone, and his sidekick, Joseph Maglione joined the squad. On a bone-chilling December night in 1932, the gang gathered at Marino's place of business to begin their murder plot. The answer to a seamless death seemed simple enough. If Malloy was allowed an open tab, he would quickly drink himself to death if an accident didn't occur first.
Claiming that competition from other establishments had forced him to ease up on his rules, he opened Iron Mike's tab up much to the unfortunate man's delight. He immediately sat down at the bar and took advantage. No sooner than Marino had poured the first shot did he have to pour another, then another, and another. He stood at the bar pouring shot after shot until his arm grew tired from the task. In all that time Malloy's breathing remained steady and his complexion normal. When he was finally done, he wiped his mouth with the dirty sleeve of his jacket and thanked Marino for his hospitality before informing him that he would be back soon. Within 24 hours, he walked back in ready to take full advantage of his open tab.
For the next three days this continued. Mike the Durable proved just how durable he was as he drank enough to put a horse down. He paused only long enough to eat a complimentary sardine sandwich here and there. The gang had hoped that he would've fallen and struck his head, or choked to death on his vomit as he left the bar on the third night. As heavily as he had imbibed, how could he not? But on the forth day he walked right back in and exclaimed, "Boy! Ain't I got a thirst?"
The group was astonished. What they thought would be an easy task was proving to be much more difficult. Tough Tony was beginning to lose his patience. He wanted to shoot Malloy and get it over with once and for all. That just wouldn't do for a life insurance payout, though. Joseph Murphy made a much more inconspicuous suggestion. Why didn't they just swap out his regular gin and whiskey for wood alcohol?
A drink containing only 4% wood alcohol could cause blindness. This was an issue that many during the prohibition era found themselves faced with. By 1929, more than 50,000 people nationwide had died from drinking impure alcohol. This mass of people had met their maker from simply drinking tainted alcohol. Michael Malloy was being served shots of pure wood alcohol straight-up. He was given just enough liquor to get him feeling good. Once he started to sink into the warm buzz that had become so familiar and comforting, the swap was made.
Marino thought this idea was a stroke of pure brilliance, saying, "give all of the drink he wants...and let him drink himself to death." Kriesberg agreed wholeheartedly, declaring that they should give him "wood alcohol cocktails and see what happens." At a nearby paint shop, Marino bought a few cans of the toxic liquid for only ten cents a piece. Carrying his rather unremarkable brown paper bag of murder materials back to the speakeasy, he was ready for Rasputin of the Bronx to make his daily visit. The group watched in utter shock as he threw back one lethal shot after another, unfazed. Beyond the normal signs of intoxication, he displayed not a single physical symptom. He got up and walked out of the bar, the gang thinking he would surely die in the night after drinking so many of the dangerous shots. Instead, he returned the following night for more.
Just as before, Malloy continued to visit the speakeasy night after night. And night after night the "Murder Trust" fed him wood alcohol to no avail. Then one night Malloy collapsed without warning. The men stood around with their breath caught in their throats as they watched the crumpled heap of Iron Mike for signs of life. Pasqua knelt to feel for a pulse. Then he lowered his ear to listen for breathing. Though quite slow and labored, he was still breathing.
They waited while closely watching the rise and fall of this poor man's chest. When they heard what the Smithsonian referred to as "a long, jagged breath," they knew they had just heard the death rattle. Mike the Durable's final strained breath exhaled into the atmosphere. But then, another sound ripped through the silent room. Malloy began to snore loudly. Hours later, he awoke ready to start right where he left off, saying, "Gimme some of th' old regular, me lad!"
After a while the seemingly quick and simple plot had stretched out so long and required so much help that it was starting to become more of a cost than a benefit. The open tab Malloy had taken full advantage of, the numerous cans of wood alcohol, and the monthly insurance premiums quickly added up. Marino was becoming worried that he would go bankrupt just trying to kill this man. Tough Tony tried to suggest more brutal measures once again, but once again he was shut down in favor of a more discreet plan. Something that just couldn't fail.
Malloy was a well-known lover of seafood. Pasqua suggested that they soak some oysters in denatured alcohol for a few days before serving them to him. He clarified that drinking alcohol while eating oysters causes acute indigestion because the oysters remain preserved. They served him the tainted food along with shots of wood alcohol. As he ravaged his meal and downed several shots, the group played a game of pinochle while they watched and waited to see what happened next. Malloy let out a belch before licking his fingers clean. Having cleaned his plate as well, he suffered no effects. The men were at a loss.
The killing of Michael Malloy began to take on an all new meaning. It became a point of pride as well as a payout. These criminals started to feel as though their very reputations were on line. Aside from the fact that their scheme was becoming more costly the longer it stretched out was the issue of splitting the money. At this point there were too many people involved for each one to get a large cut.
Joseph Murphy came up with a fool-proof idea that the entire gang felt optimistic about. He left a tin of sardines out for several days to rot before mixing in some metal shrapnel for good measure. He made a sandwich from the fatal mixture and served it to Malloy. Surely any minute he would fall out, his organs shredded by the shrapnel. But he polished off the sandwich and asked for another instead.
An emergency meeting was called to figure out what to do. It was decided that since Marino's first insurance scam had proved so effective they would just copy the conditions Mabelle Carlson had died under. That night the group allowed Malloy to pass out before hauling him to Pasqua's roadster. They drove through the bitterly cold night with their inebriated target fast asleep in the back seat. The drive to Crotona Park was eerily silent as they prepared to be done with this whole thing.
He was lugged across the park and through the snow before having his shirt taken from him. They dumped Malloy on a bench as he continued to sleep straight through the experience. Before they left him for dead in the freezing New York City temperatures they dumped bottles of water out on his chest and head. When the gang left him passed out cold on the park bench they thought surely that this was the end of it. He would freeze to death as many that were forced into homelessness did during the Great Depression.
The next morning Marino arrived at his bar to find a very unexpected surprise. Iron Mike was half-frozen in the basement, still sleeping it off. When he woke up, he complained of a "wee chill." It turned out that he had woken up in the park and made the half-mile walk back to the speakeasy. After convincing Murphy to let him inside, he curled up in the basement like an old stray cat.
As the month of February drew closer another insurance payment was coming due. Short on ideas, John McNally suggested that they run him over with a car. Though Tin Ear Smith was skeptical about this half-cocked plan, Marino, Pasqua, Murphy, and Kriesberg wanted to hear more. John Maglione even offered to pay a cabdriver he knew named Harry Green $150 of the insurance money to do the job for them. Today, that small sum would be worth $3,424.58.
The group piled into the back of Green's cab one cold night with Malloy sprawled out across their feet. A few blocks from the speakeasy they dragged him out of the car and down the road. Holding him up with his arms outstretched, Green punched the gas, lurching the cab forward at an incredible speed. As the men braced themselves, Maglione saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye. He yelled for Green to stop, bringing him to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. They determined that it was only a woman turning on her bedroom light nearby and continued with their nefarious plot. Rasputin of the Bronx leapt out of the way not just once, but twice to avoid being killed. On the third and final attempt, Green sped at his target going 50 miles per hour.
Maglione watched the scene unfold through his fingers. The group heard two thuds: the hard thud of the car hitting Malloy, and the soft thud of him hitting the ground. To make sure he was taken care of, Green backed the cab over him. There was no possible way he could've survived, but before anyone could check a passing car scared them off.
As Murphy had assumed the role of brother in this scheme it was up to him to call the hospitals and morgues looking for his "sibling." No one was able to tell him anything. Canvassing newspapers for articles of a fatal accident proved fruitless as well. After five days of calling and watching the papers for news of their mark, Pasqua had begun plotting another murder against another unfortunate anonymous man. With Malloy missing, they needed to find someone to pass off as Nicholas Mellory.
As the "Murder Trust" prepared to find another poor soul to benefit from, Iron Mike walked right through the door of the speakeasy. He was beaten, bandaged, and a little worse for wear, but all in all he looked not much worse than usual. As he strode in the door looking like a Looney Tunes character on the wrong end of the shenanigans, he declared, "I sure am dying for a drink!" As he sat down at the bar and started to drink, he told quite the story. All he could remember was the strong, biting taste of whiskey, the cold city air attempting to slap his senses back into him, the blinding glare of bright lights rushing towards him, and then complete blackness. He awoke in a warm bed at Fordham Hospital, wanting nothing more than to return to his open tab and empty seat at the bar. The men were more than astonished as they listened to his tale. Not by his story, but by the fact that he had survived them again.
It was seven months after the "Murder Trust" first joined their criminal forces that they finally accomplished the macabre scam they had laid out. On February 21, 1933, Mike the Durable drew his final breath in a tenement near 168th Street, less than a mile from Marino's speakeasy. The gang ran a rubber tube from a gas light fixture directly into his mouth. A towel was wrapped tightly around his face to hold the tube in place. Dr. Frank Manzella, a friend of Pasqua, filed a phony death certificate listing his cause of death as lobar pneumonia. With that Michael Malloy was buried hastily.
Though they had expected a much larger payout, they only received $800 from Metropolitan Life. Today that would be a hefty payout of $18,264.43. Murphy and Marino each ran out and bought a new suit with their cuts. A problem arose when Pasqua went to the Prudential office to collect the additional two payouts, though. He was immediately hit with a question he had not anticipated. The agent he spoke with wanted to know when he could see the body. When he replied that the deceased had already been buried the inquiry began.
The unbelievable story of Rasputin of the Bronx and his nine lives had quickly spread throughout the area. As police were becoming aware of the rumors and the fact that Malloy had in fact died, the gang had found themselves otherwise preoccupied. They were so busy fighting over their cuts of the meager payout that they didn't even see the walls closing in around them. Malloy's body was exhumed for forensic testing, the results of which proved quite damning for the "Murder Trust." All five members of the murderous crew were tried and convicted of their outlandish crimes. The cab driver paid to run Malloy over, Harry Green, was sent to prison. The rest of the gang faced a much harder sentence. Frank Pasqua, Tony Marino, Daniel Kriesberg, and Joseph Murphy were all put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing on first degree murder charges.
This story is almost too outrageous and ridiculous to be believed. At some point what started out as an insurance fraud scheme quickly devolved into an episode of Wile. E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Unfortunately the hero of our story didn't make it to the end, but one could argue that his murderers didn't, either. They didn't prove to be near as durable as their pitiful mark when the switch was flipped. They died on the first attempt at killing them. While these mongrels have gone down in history as scum-of-the-earth hustlers and killers, Iron Mike's legend of survival has lived on, beguiling all who hear the tale. Under circumstances no normal man could've endured, he rightfully earned the name of Rasputin of the Bronx.