- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005


By Malcolm Johnson

Chamberlain Bros.,

$24.95, 308 pages


“There exists in the UnitedStates today an underworld syndicate, with national and international connections, which controls organized crime throughout the country.” Set against six decades of intervening crime-ridden history, that bold statement may evoke in us a yawn, but when reporter Malcolm Johnson set those words down on the front page of the old New York Sun on Dec. 6, 1948, he was himself making history.

Johnson was the first to reveal the existence of this sort of “trade association in crime” that originated during Prohibition, his son Haynes Johnson says in a foreword to this book. It came out it in the course of Malcolm Johnson’s 24-part series, “Crime on the Waterfront,” published in the Sun in November and December of 1948. It won him a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for the celebrated 1954 movie “On the Waterfront.”

What was originally a routine assignment months earlier from Johnson’s editor to look into the murder of a dock worker led to a lengthy investigation detailing organized crime’s absolute control over New York’s waterfront. The entire series is reproduced here, along with additional articles by Johnson and an introduction and further waterfront articles by novelist Budd Schulberg, author of the movie’s Oscar-winning screenplay. The series and the other articles make gripping reading even today. Together with the foreword by his son and Mr. Schulberg’s introduction, it is like reading history and then reading some of the documents of that history.

Haynes Johnson, an author and former journalist with the Washington Post, is also a Pulitzer winner, in 1966 for coverage of the civil rights struggle in Selma, Ala. — the only time that a father and son won the prizes for reporting. He tells of the death threats against the family, and of accusations — at the time the red scare was heating up — that his father was aiding the communists.

Mr. Schulberg, calling Johnson’s series a j’accuse, rightly compares him to the muckrakers of the early 20th century. The conditions Johnson describes had been festering for decades. The key to the dockside rackets, Johnson writes, was mob control of the union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, a haven for ex-convicts. “Through the union, mobsters are able to control all key jobs on the piers and rackets operate without interference.”

He describes numerous rackets or crimes — extortion, kickbacks on workers’ wages, smuggling, usurious loan-sharking, padded payrolls — but thievery was the biggest. “Whole truckloads of cargo disappear from the piers without a trace.” The next biggest was the loading racket. This was a system “by which gangsters and their union henchmen collect a fee on every pound of cargo trucked from the piers by compelling truckmen to pay so-called public loaders to load the trucks.”

Some of the most infamous names in American crime figure in these pages —Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, Meyer Lansky — but the “docks overlord” was John (Cockeye) Dunn, later executed for the murder of a boss stevedore. Also implicated in that murder was a pathetic gunman named Andy Sheridan. (“But I never killed anybody innocent,” Sheridan once testified.) “In addition to being a little on the stupid side,” Johnson writes, Sheridan was nearly blind and thus he sometimes missed when he shot. There is a strong possibility that once he mistakenly shot the “wrong” man — literally an innocent person — because of his bad eyesight.

The passage of time has dulled the tremendous impact of Johnson’s work, which went beyond inspiring a highly acclaimed and itself influential movie. Among its consequences were the Estes Kefauver congressional hearings into organized crime — a television sensation in the early days of the medium — as well as state legislative hearings. It led to a number of reforms, including the Port Authority Commission that oversees hiring along the New York/New Jersey waterfront to this day; the expulsion of the ILA from the AFL-CIO; and the imprisonment of the union president.

Perhaps greatest of all was the banning of the very system of hiring that permitted the rackets to flourish, the “shape-up.” Johnson writes, “Through the shape-up, by which men are hired or rejected at the whim of a hiring boss, it is possible for criminal gangs to place their own men in key jobs on the piers, thus solidifying their rule.” This was replaced with hiring halls.

As John Hohenberg, former secretary of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, wrote in his book, “The Pulitzer Prize Story:” “There have been many investigations since Johnson’s expose … . But nothing has approached the fearlessness and candor of that first series.”

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide