Paul Kelly was the most high profile New York City gangster in the early 1900’s. Real name Paulo Vaccarelli, Kelly was was born in Sicily in 1879. He immigrated to America in the early 1890’s and soon became a bantemweight boxer of some note. He changed his name from the Italian Vacacarelli to the Irish-sounding Kelly, in order to get more fights, at a time when being Italian in America was frowned upon as being low class.
Unlike most gangsters of his day, Kelly was an intelligent, erudite man, who could speak three languages. He was a dapper dresser, and an easy person to like, which is why he was able to recruit so many quality gangsters to work under him.
After Kelly retired from boxing, he formed the notorious Five Points Gang in lower Manhattan. The 1500-member Five Points Gang was the breeding ground for some of the most famous gangsters ever to set foot in America. Their members included, Johnny Torrio and Al Capone (both of whom later emigrated to control Chicago), Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano and Frankie Yale. While Kelly’s gang was almost entirely comprised of Italians, his main nemesis was Monk Eastman, who headed a 2000-strong, mostly Jewish gang. Kelly and Eastman’s crew fought often and violently. The dividing line for their territories was the Bowery. Kelly’s domain was west of the Bowery and Eastman ruled to the east of the Bowery. Everything else was neutral territory and that’s where the trouble started, causing disputes over who controlled what and where.
Both men worked for Tammany Hall, as head-busters on Election Day, where either one group, or the other, would stand guard at all the polling places, making sure the Tammany Hall-backed candidate got the bulk of the votes. Finally, the two gangs became so out-of-control dangerous to the community, the Tammany Hall bosses ordered Eastman and Kelly to duke it out themselves, mano a mano, with the winner getting control of the prized neutral territories. The two men went at it for a full two hours, and even though the ex-boxer Kelly was fifty pounds lighter than the hulking Eastman, neither man was able to knock out the other man. The fight was ruled a draw, and they went back to their usual violent, territorial disputes.
Kelly’s base of operations was his fancy New Brighton Athletic Club on Great Jones Street, just north of Houston Street. In April 1905, police raided the club and arrested several members, including Kelly. Even though four policemen testified they had witnessed illegal activities in the club, due to the false testimony of a police captain named Burke, and a Tammany Hall-appointed judge named Barlow, Kelly’s case was summarily dismissed, to the roar of a cheering crowd of hundreds of Kelly supporters in the courthouse.
Kelly’s luck ran out in November, 1908, when two of his former henchmen, Biff Ellison and Razor Riley barged into the New Brighton Athletic club with guns blazing. Kelly was sitting at a table with his two bodyguards, Bill Harrington and Rough House Hogan. Kelly dove under the table, but not before he was shot three times. Harrington took a bullet to the head and died instantly. Kelly fired back from under the table and he injured both Ellison and Riley.
Even though he recovered from his injuries, Kelly’s clout was never the same after the shooting incident. Within days, and since Kelly’s notoriety had lost him the favor of Tammany Hall, police shut down the New Brighton Athletic Club. Kelly relocated to Italian Harlem and toned down his criminal endeavors to a point. Kelly became intimately involved in union activities, some legal and some not-so-legal, and eventually he was elected vice president of the International Longshoremen Association.
Unlike his arch-enemy Eastman, who was shot to death on the streets in 1920, Kelly died in 1936 of natural causes.