Vannie Higgins (1897-1932) was a notorious Brooklyn gangster and rum-runner. He was born Charles Van Wyck Higgins in 1897 in Bay Ridge, son of Daniel and Helen (Nellie) Higgins. As a young boy he was involved in street corner brawls, then moved up the ladder to assaults, robbery and grand larceny. Although he had an extensive police record, he was usually able to squeeze out of any jail time.
When Prohibition became the law of the land in the 1920s, Higgins became an ally of Legs Diamond, Owney Madden, and later Frank Costello and Leo Steinberg, the “beer baron of Nassau County.”
According to the Brooklyn Citizen, Vannie was known as the “suave bootleg king of the borough.” He was constantly in the newspapers. In March 1929, the Brooklyn Times Union posted photos of those involved in a shoot-out at the Owl’s Head Tavern in which a policeman was killed. Higgins was among them.
When Higgins (Diamond, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, and Anthony “Little Augie Pisano” Carfano) began operating in Manhattan, they came into conflict with Dutch Schultz in what became known as the Manhattan Beer War.
In 1929 the Brooklyn Times Union reported charges against Higgins for being a racketeer and bootlegger, and that he operated a 15-passenger sea plane, several rum-running boats (including the very fast Cigarette), and a fleet of taxis used in smuggling alcohol from Canada.
The early 1930s was a busy time for Higgins and his underworld gang. He was involved in murders and shootings and the police were always looking for him. He was booked in October 1931 for allegedly killing Robert Benson. Higgins claimed innocence, saying he was only a fisherman and lobsterman.
Vannie Higgins was said to be under the protection of New York officials. In one of the more bizarre examples, Higgins landed his plane at Comstock Prison (now known as Great Meadow Correctional Facility), in Washington County, NY, to have dinner with Warden Joseph H. Wilson, a childhood friend.
In May 1931, the Brooklyn Daily Times ran a headline: “Boro Gangster, Badly Stabbed.” The paper reported that Higgins suffered three deep gashes in his chest requiring hospitalization. The incident had occurred at Frank McManus’ Blossom Heath Inn on West 57th Street in Manhattan over a beer delivery dispute. He refused to identify who had attacked him and survived, but his luck was about to run-out.
On June 18, 1932, Higgins and his wife Grace were attending a children’s dance recital at the local Knights of Columbus Hall in Prospect Park. His seven-year-old daughter Jean was one of the children performing. It was after midnight when they left. Shots rang out and Vannie Higgins was hit several times.
There are a variety of versions of this story in local newspapers. Some said daughter Jean Higgins was grazed at the ear and Vannie pushed her into the car to safety. Others state that Vannie was running down the street, dodging gunshots. He was taken to the hospital and given blood transfusions, but died shortly thereafter. The man known at the time as “Brooklyn’s Last Irish Boss” had finally met his demise, refusing to say who had killed him before he died the following day.
There were many reasons reported for his killing – the Brooklyn Times Union mentioned a “crazy quilt of underworld feuds.” The June 21 Brooklyn Eagle reported that his killing was related to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Apparently, Higgins had offered a lot of money to a fund established to help locate the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, some of which was gotten from a Long Beach rum-runner.
There were 700 people gathered at Vannie Higgins’ funeral. The Brooklyn Eagle published a photo of his family at the graveside: his wife Grace, brother Thomas, and mother Mary (who was reported as his mother-in-law by the Patterson, New Jersey Morning Call). His father, Daniel was handed a subpoena to testify in a pickpocket complaint he had brought against a Harry Lewis. After the complaint, Daniel disappeared (he was reported to be at the funeral, but was not in the family photo).
Vannie was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Queens. His father, Daniel J. Higgins, died on January 17th, 1932, just four days after his mother Helen T. McCarthy. Both are buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Fast forward to 1973: Vannie Higgins’ cousin Frank Mead, now of Chicago had been writing to Jack Conroy, socialist author of The Disinherited (1933), an important work glorifying proletarian ideas. Frank’s mother was Brooklyn born Catherine Higgins, Vannie’s aunt. In an October 2, 1973 letter to Jack Conroy, Frank stated that “the Vannie Higgins mentioned in the crime annals was my mother’s nephew, which makes me a 2nd cousin. He was machine-gunned by the mafia which conquered the Brooklyn Irish…” Jack Conroy’s letters are at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
Illustrations, from above: Vannie Higgins from the Brooklyn Eagle, October 28, 1931; the Owl’s Head Tavern, ca 1939, at the northeast corner of Bay Ridge and Third avenues; the death of Vannie Higgins reported in The New York Times, June 20, 1932; and Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited book cover.
Rebecca Rector is a genealogy researcher and retired librarian. During the COVID pandemic, she began transcribing letters and diaries for Newberry Library in Chicago and Albany County Historical Association. While transcribing letters to Jack Conroy, author of The Disinherited, she noticed the brief connection to a famous Brooklyn gangster. Intrigued, she began researching the gangster and discovered an engaging story. Rebecca has published genealogy articles, and most recently an article for New York History Review.