James T. Ellison

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For other people named James Ellison, see James Ellison (disambiguation).
James T. Ellison
Ellison.JPG
Biff Ellison, circa 1900
Born c. 1861
Maryland, United States
Died 1920s
Nationality American
Occupation Bartender
Conviction(s) First-degree manslaughter

James T. Ellison (born c. 1861), better known as Biff Ellison, was a New York City gangster affiliated with the Five Points Gang and later a leader of the Gopher Gang. He was noted for his propensity for physical violence as well as a dapper appearance that led The New York Times to describe him as "looking like a prosperous banker or broker" and contemporary chroniclers as "smooth-faced, high-featured, well-dressed, a Gangland cavalier" and "a fop in matters of dress".[1][2][3][4][5]

Ellison was closely associated with gangster Jack Sirocco during the wars against the Eastman Gang during the early 1900s. In addition to running protection rackets that reputedly gained him a handsome annual income of somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000, Ellison owned or managed several bars and gambling establishments in New York City, including the gay bar and brothel Columbia Hall (aka Paresis Hall) and an illegal pool hall occupying the basement of Ellison's residence at 231 East 14th Street.[6][7] His nickname, Biff, was a period synonym for "punch" or "hit", and it was coined in response to a youthful fight in which Ellison, then working as a bartender, knocked unconscious a customer who refused to pay for a beer.[8] He was also known as Young Biff, Fourteenth Street Biff, and Biff Ellison II to distinguish him from Frank "Biff" Ellison (1850 — 1904), a minor Manhattan society figure who had been convicted of assault in 1893 and sent to Sing Sing prison.[9][10]

Biff Ellison appears as a secondary character in the 1994 novel The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Carr describes the gangster as homosexual and makes him the central figure in a colorful scene at the gay bar Columbia Hall.

Career[edit]

After moving from his native Maryland to New York City in the early 1880s, Ellison was employed as a bartender at a variety of establishments, notably Fat Flynn's and Pickerelle's, where he developed friendships that led to his career in the world of organized crime and Tammany Hall.[11][12] As one writer observed, "The politicians loved [Ellison], for he was a valuable man around election time, the mere sight of his huge bulk being sufficient to prevent many an honest citizen exercising his right of franchise".[13]

Ellison came to wider public notice in the summer of 1902 after assaulting a police officer, Detective Sergeant Jeremiah Murphy, at Wulfer's, a Fourteenth Street saloon that stood opposite Tammany Hall.[14][15][16] The officer was so severely beaten that he was hospitalized for two weeks yet Ellison escaped serious jail time. "The politicians closed the officer's mouth," an observer noted, "and opened Ellison's cell".[17]

After Paul Sirocco defected to the Eastman gang, Ellison came into conflict with the leader of the Five Pointers, Paul Kelly, and in turn defected to the Gopher Gang. Then, on November 23, 1909, he and three other men, including Razor Reilly and Jimmy Kelly, attempted to assassinate Paul Kelly at his New Brighton club on Great Jones Street, where he was drinking with bodyguards Pat "Rough House" Hogan and William James "Red" Harrington.[18] Although Kelly escaped harm, Harrington was shot and killed, apparently by Reilly. Ellison fled to Baltimore, though two years later he returned to New York City and was arrested on an outstanding bench warrant for manslaughter.[19]

The gangster was tried before the Criminal Branch of the New York Supreme Court in 1911. Around fifty members of the James Kelly gang and seventy-five members of the Five Points gang were in attendance during the proceedings. Concerned their presence might influence the verdict, they were later forced to leave. During the trial Ellison threatened a court officer as well as prosecutors, stating that if he were found guilty he would not rest " ... until those prosecuting guys has got theirs." Ultimately the only witness who identified Ellison, not Reilly, as the shooter was Hogan, identified as "a reformed gangster" in a newspaper article about the end of the trial. Though Ellison had been promised his Tammany Hall connections would ensure he would escape prosecution, he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter on June 8, 1911, and sentenced to serve eight to 20 years at Sing Sing prison.[20][21][22][23]

Death[edit]

James "Biff" Ellison reportedly became mentally unstable during his imprisonment and was committed to an asylum where he died in the 1920s.[24]

References[edit]

  1. ^ He gave his age as 49 in a June 1911 newspaper article, "Ellison Convicted of Manslaughter", The New York Times, 9 June 1911. That statement is ambiguous, since it could mean he was born in 1861 (meaning he would turn 50 later in 1911) or in 1862 (meaning he had turned 49 between 1 January 1911 and 9 June 1911). No official document declaring his precise birth date is known to exist.
  2. ^ "Police Get Biff Ellison", The New York Times, 27 April 1911
  3. ^ Birthplace cited in Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York (G. W. Dillingham, 1912), page 254
  4. ^ Description "smooth-faced" cited in Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York (G. W. Dillingham, 1912), page 258
  5. ^ "A fop in matters of dress" cited in Herbert Asbury, "The Passing of the Gangster", The American Mercury, April 1925, page 362
  6. ^ Melissa Hope Ditmore, Encyclopaedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (Greenwood Publishing, 2006), page 344)
  7. ^ Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (Random House, 2008), page 251
  8. ^ Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York (G. W. Dillingham, 1912), page 254
  9. ^ Herbert Asbury, "The Passing of the Gangster", The American Mercury, April 1925, page 362
  10. ^ "Death of Biff Ellison: Well-Known New York Character Succumbs to Pneumonia — From Clubman to Convict", The New York Times, 27 February 1904
  11. ^ Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York (G. W. Dillingham, 1912), page 257
  12. ^ Herbert Asbury, "The Passing of the Gangster", The American Mercury, April 1925, page 362
  13. ^ Herbert Asbury, "The Passing of the Gangster", The American Mercury, April 1925, page 362
  14. ^ "Detective Badly Beaten", The New York Times, 19 July 1901
  15. ^ "Police Get Biff Ellison", The New York Times, 27 April 1911
  16. ^ Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York, Pearson's Magazine, October 1911, page 406
  17. ^ Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York, Pearson's Magazine, October 1911, page 406
  18. ^ The nickname "Red" is cited in Herbert Asbury's article "The Passing of the Gangster", The American Mercury, April 1925, page 362
  19. ^ "Police Get Biff Ellison", The New York Times, 27 April 1911
  20. ^ "Ellison Convicted of Manslaughter", The New York Times", 9 June 1911
  21. ^ "Four Gangsters Sentenced", The New York Times, 1 July 1911
  22. ^ Alfred Henry Lewis, The Apaches of New York (G. W. Dillingham, 1912), pages 251 and 257. As Lewis wrote, "Wherefore, whenever [Ellison] fell into the fingers of the police — generally for assault — the machine cast over him the pinion of its prompt protection. As the strong-arm pet of the organization, he punched and slugged, knocked down and dragged out, and did all these in safety."
  23. ^ Leo L. Redding, "Police Protection Murder in New York", The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 36, October 1912, page 38
  24. ^ Jay Robert Nash, The Great Pictorial History of World Crime (Scarecrow Press, 2004), page 474