The Man Who Wouldn’t Die: New York’s Most Fantastic Murder

February 13, 2012


The plot was conceived over a round of drinks. One afternoon in July 1932, Francis Pasqua, Daniel Kriesberg and Tony Marino sat in Marino’s eponymous speakeasy and raised their glasses, sealing their complicity, figuring the job was already half-finished. How difficult could it be to push Michael Malloy to drink himself to death? Every morning the old man showed up at Marino’s place in the Bronx and requested “Another mornin’s morning, if ya don’t mind” in his muddled brogue; hours later he would pass out on the floor. For a while Marino had let Malloy drink on credit, but he no longer paid his tabs. “Business,” the saloonkeeper confided to Pasqua and Kriesberg, “is bad.”

Pasqua, 24, an undertaker by trade, eyed Malloy’s sloping figure, the glass of whiskey hoisted to his slack mouth. No one knew much about him—not even, it seemed, Malloy himself—other than that he had come from Ireland. He had no friends or family, no definitive date of birth (most guessed him to be about 60), no apparent trade or vocation beyond the occasional odd job sweeping alleys or collecting garbage, happy to be paid in alcohol instead of money. He was, wrote the Daily Mirror, just part of the “flotsam and jetsam in the swift current of underworld speakeasy life, those no-longer-responsible derelicts who stumble through the last days of their lives in a continual haze of ‘Bowery Smoke.’ ”

“Why don’t you take out insurance on Malloy?” Pasqua asked Marino that day, according to another contemporary newspaper report. “I can take care of the rest.”

Marino paused. Pasqua knew he’d pulled off such a scheme once before. The prior year, Marino, 27, had befriended a homeless woman named Mabelle Carson and convinced her to take out a $2,000 life insurance policy, naming him as the beneficiary. One frigid night he force-fed her alcohol, stripped off her clothing, doused the sheets and mattress with ice water, and pushed the bed beneath an open window. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as bronchial pneumonia, and Marino collected the money without incident.

Marino nodded and motioned to Malloy. “He looks all in. He ain’t got much longer to go anyhow. The stuff is gettin’ him.” He and Pasqua glanced over at Daniel Kriesberg. The 29-year-old grocer and father of three would later say he participated for the sake of his family. He nodded, and the gang set into motion a macabre chain of events that would earn Michael Malloy cult immortality by proving him nearly immortal.

Pasqua offered to do the legwork, paying an unnamed acquaintance to accompany him to meetings with insurance agents. This acquaintance called himself Nicholas Mellory and gave his occupation as florist, a detail that one of Pasqua’s colleagues in the funeral business was willing to verify. It took Pasqua five months (and a connection with an unscrupulous agent) to secure three policies—all offering double indemnity—on Nicholas Mellory’s life: two with Prudential Life Insurance Company and one with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Pasqua recruited Joseph Murphy, a bartender at Marino’s, to identify the deceased as Michael Malloy and claim to be his next of kin and beneficiary. If all went as planned, Pasqua and his cohorts would split $3,576 (about $54,000 in today’s dollars) after Michael Malloy died as uneventfully and anonymously as he had lived.

The “Murder Trust,” as the press would call them, now included a few other Marino’s regulars, including petty criminals John McNally and Edward “Tin Ear” Smith (so-called even though his artificial ear was made of wax), “Tough Tony” Bastone and his slavish sidekick, Joseph Maglione. One night in December 1932 they all gathered at the speakeasy to commence the killing of Michael Malloy.

To Malloy’s undisguised delight, Tony Marino granted him an open-ended tab, saying competition from other saloons had forced him to ease the rules. No sooner did Malloy down a shot than Marino refilled his glass. “Malloy had been a hard drinker all his life,” one witness said, “and he drank on and on.” He drank until Marino’s arm tired from holding the bottle. Remarkably, his breathing remained steady; his skin retained its normally ruddy tinge. Finally, he dragged a grungy sleeve across his mouth, thanked his host for the hospitality, and said he’d be back soon. Within 24 hours, he was.

Malloy followed this pattern for three days, pausing only long enough to eat a complimentary sardine sandwich. Marino and his accomplices were at a loss. Maybe, they hoped, Malloy would choke on his own vomit or fall and slam his head. But on the fourth day Malloy stumbled into the bar. “Boy!” he exclaimed, nodding at Marino. “Ain’t I got a thirst?”

Tough Tony grew impatient, suggesting someone simply shoot Malloy in the head, but Murphy recommended a more subtle solution: exchanging Malloy’s whiskey and gin with shots of wood alcohol. Drinks containing just four percent wood alcohol could cause blindness, and by 1929 more than 50,000 people nationwide had died from the effects of impure alcohol. They would serve Malloy not shots tainted with wood alcohol, but wood alcohol straight up.

Marino thought it a brilliant plan, declaring he would “give [Malloy] all of the drink he wants…and let him drink himself to death.” Kriesberg allowed a rare display of enthusiasm. “Yeah,” he added, “feed ’im wood alcohol cocktails and see what happens.” Murphy bought a few ten-cent cans of wood alcohol at a nearby paint shop and carried them back in a brown paper bag. He served Malloy shots of cheap whiskey to get him “feeling good,” and then made the switch.

The gang watched, rapt, as Malloy downed several shots and kept asking for more, displaying no physical symptoms other than those typical of inebriation. “He didn’t know that what he was drinking was wood alcohol,” reported the New York Evening Post, “and what he didn’t know apparently didn’t hurt him. He drank all the wood alcohol he was given and came back for more.”

Night after night the scene repeated itself, with Malloy drinking shots of wood alcohol as fast as Murphy poured them, until the night he crumpled without warning to the floor. The gang fell silent, staring at the jumbled heap by their feet. Pasqua knelt by Malloy’s body, feeling the neck for a pulse, lowering his ear to the mouth. The man’s breath was slow and labored. They decided to wait, watching the sluggish rise and fall of his chest. Any minute now. Finally, there was a long, jagged breath—the death rattle?—but then Malloy began to snore. He awakened some hours later, rubbed his eyes, and said, “Gimme some of th’ old regular, me lad!”

The plot to kill Michael Malloy was becoming cost-prohibitive; the open bar tab, the cans of wood alcohol and the monthly insurance premiums all added up. Marino fretted that his speakeasy would go bankrupt. Tough Tony once again advocated brute force, but Pasqua had another idea. Malloy had a well-known taste for seafood. Why not drop some oysters in denatured alcohol, let them soak for a few days, and serve them while Malloy imbibed? “Alcohol taken during a meal of oysters,” Pasqua was quoted as saying, “will almost invariably cause acute indigestion, for the oysters tend to remain preserved.” As planned, Malloy ate them one by one, savoring each bite, and washed them down with wood alcohol. Marino, Pasqua and the rest played pinochle and waited, but Malloy merely licked his fingers and belched…

Read it all.

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