A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation
It’s another Nonfiction Book Club selection! This was one that I put forth to the group for voting and it was definitely a compelling read.
From the publisher marketing:
Handsome and charismatic, Albert Hicks had long been known in the dive bars and gin joints of the Five Points, the most dangerous neighborhood in maritime Manhattan. For years, he operated out of the public eye, rambling from crime to crime, working on the water in ships, sleeping in the nickel-a-night flops, drinking in barrooms where rat-baiting and bear-baiting were great entertainments.
His criminal career reached its peak in 1860, when he was hired, under an alias, as a hand on an oyster sloop. His plan was to rob the ship and flee, disappearing into the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, as he’d done numerous times before, eventually finding his way back to his nearsighted Irish immigrant wife (who, like him, had been disowned by her family) and their infant son. But the plan went awry—the ship was found listing and unmanned in the foggy straits of Coney Island—and the voyage that was to enrich him instead led to his last desperate flight.
Long fascinated by gangster legends, Rich Cohen tells the story of this notorious underworld figure, from his humble origins to the wild, globe-crossing, bacchanalian crime spree that forged his ruthlessness and his reputation, to his ultimate incarnation as a demon who terrorized lower Manhattan, at a time when pirates anchored off 14th Street.
The Last Pirate of New York is, if nothing else, compulsively readable, and Cohen’s writing is very engaging. But that is probably where my praise for it ends, and we had a great discussion of it for Nonfiction Book Club last month. We focused a lot on feeling misled by the title of the book, so let’s start by dissecting it:
- Pirate: Debatable – ultimately Hicks is charged with piracy because the crime was committed on a boat and while the prosecutors couldn’t prove murder, they could prove theft and it came with a death sentence. Eventually, about three quarters of the way through the book, one could say Hicks was most likely a pirate, but waiting that long for the reveal didn’t feel fair when we all just really wanted a pirate book.
- New York: Yes – but not quite to the same Gangs of New York level that I was expecting – Hicks was arrested out of state, wasn’t originally from New York, and then spent most of his life not in New York, so yes, but with a “but.”
- Ghost Ship: Not really – For five minutes in the beginning of the story, you are told of a ship floating outside New York with apparently no one on it. After that, it’s just the crime scene. And it wasn’t really a ship, it was a three man crewed boat.
- Killer: Yes – the only definitive part here because the whole basis of the book is the fact that Hicks killed the crew of the “ghost ship.”
- Gangsters: Nope – not in the slightest would I connect Hicks to the American Gangster legend. He may have inspired later New York gangsters, but I still think a story of the gangs of New York (a la a nonfiction Gangs of New York) could have more closely called itself a book about the birth of the gangster nation
So, we were disappointed. We weren’t overly fond of the structure – crime first, followed by trial, followed by back story, followed by a hanging. There was no narrative tension – the chapter titles in the table of contents tell you what will happen to Hicks. So unfortunately, we were ultimately disappointed.
However, if you like true crime without the mystery or suspense and don’t particularly care if the title is misleading, this is a tremendously well-written and meticulously researched book, and you will probably enjoy it.
Rating: 6 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.