BY RAANAN GEBERER
In every gangster movie, there’s one guy who’s crazier than the rest. He’s totally reckless and trigger-happy and finds it hard to accept the discipline of the mob. Eventually, he becomes a danger to the gang and they have to take him out.
In “Goodfellas,” such a character, Tommy DeVito, was played by Joe Pesci. In Prohibition-era New York, a real-life role was played by Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. While Coll lived most of his life in the Bronx, he spent his last year or so in an elegant hotel in Chelsea before he was shot and killed at a pharmacy on West 23rd Street.
Coll was born in Ireland in 1908, but came to New York with his family the following year. He grew up in dire poverty, was sent to reform school several times, and eventually joined the Gophers street gang. Like many young hoods, he found his opportunity with Prohibition and joined Bronx beer baron Dutch Schultz’s mob as an enforcer.
By 1929, Coll was on thin ice with Schultz after he robbed a Bronx dairy company without his permission. Coll also asked Schultz to become an equal partner in the gang, but Dutch refused. Coll and his brother Peter then formed their own gang. The final split between Coll and his former mentor came in early 1931, when Coll was arrested for another infraction and Schultz put up $10,000 of his own money for bond. Coll, though, jumped bail. Before long, Coll’s outfit and Schultz’s respective gangs were at war.
To finance his nefarious activities, Coll, in just his early 20s, embarked on a dangerous game — kidnapping wealthy bootleggers for ransom. One of his victims was Frenchy DeMange, an important member of Owney Madden’s West Side Irish mob. Madden paid the ransom, but he and Schultz also put a $50,000 bounty on Coll’s head.
Coll earned his nickname of “Mad Dog” as the result of a shooting outside a social club in East Harlem that was the hangout of Schultz associate Joey Rao. Coll and a few of his gang members drove up to the club, intending to either kill or kidnap Rao (sources differ on this). They drew their guns and started firing rapidly, injuring several young children who were playing nearby. One of those children, 5-year-old Michael Vengalli, died the following day.
Coll was arrested for the boy’s murder, and the case went to trial in December 1931. Coll hired high-profile lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, who a short time later became famous for his defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of Black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama. In the Coll case, Leibowitz poked holes in the prosecution’s case, and the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty.
Immediately after the trial, Coll married fashion designer Lottie Kreisberger and lived with her at the Cornish Arms Hotel in Chelsea, where the two of them had already been staying. The Cornish Arms didn’t have the cache of the nearby Hotel Chelsea, but was considered an attractive hotel into the 1950s. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it fell on hard times and became a nursing home. Eventually it was renovated, and it’s now the Broadmoor co-op at 315 W. 23rd St.
By 1932, time was running out for Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. On Feb. 6 of that year, he walked into London Chemists, a Chelsea pharmacy. He stepped into a phone booth, waiting for a call from Owney Madden, who supposedly wanted to call a truce. Three gunmen burst into the store, opened fire and ended Coll’s life. He was 23.
The pharmacy where Coll was rubbed out was at 312 West 23rd St., according to the “Infamous New York” website. A Petlands store is now at that location.
As for Coll’s wife, Lottie? In 1933, she and two male gangsters were arrested for robbing a jewelry store and killing a woman in the course of the robbery. She was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter. After serving her prison term, she dropped out of the public eye.