mad in pursuit family history: Muhoney, Family Outlaw


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Family Legend

Sometimes exploring family history is less about Who, more about Why. My thoughts jump to my great uncle Moses. He was a gangster.

Yep, that's the family legend propagated to me by my grandfather Ewald. I remember sitting at a picnic table in the back yard, while E. told the rambling story as only he could -- starting every story in midstream assuming you knew all the characters. What I gathered was that two of my grandmother's brothers belonged to the prohibition-era gangs of the 1920's and, like proper gangsters, they were gunned down.

Moses I and Moses II


Police Record. In 2004, our cousin Rose Park surfaced some data: a police report from Chicago's 22nd Precinct [1]. Moses Rafael Flanagan was murdered on the streets of Chicago in a Prohibition-related "hit," on 7 May 1919. He was 23.The report is unambiguous. Little Modie, my grandmother's youngest brother, was no innocent bystander. He was a hood, with a hood nickname -- Muhoney or Muroney.

Prohibition had taken hold in most states but wouldn't go into effect nationally till January 1920. But in 1919, Illinois ratified 18th Amendment and passed State prohibition statutes. And Al Capone moved into Chicago (7244 South Prairie Avenue) to escape trouble in Brooklyn and to join the multi-ethnic racketeering gang of Colosimo and Torrio [3].

Military Registration. Later, more data: On June 5, the year before he was murdered, when he registered (but was not inducted) for World War I, he was living in the St Louis City Workhouse -- jail [see Form below]. Who knows why. The conversation with Ewald suggested Muhoney was a member of a gang -- maybe one of the notorious Irish gangs of St. Louis -- the Hogan Gang or Egan's Rats [2].

Draft Card Moses Flanagan

Family & Gangsters

"Mahoney's" mother died when he was six and he was raised by a cantankerous father who both attracted and repelled mother figures for his children. [Photo, above: young Moses Rafael at the age of 10 or 12, posing with his father Moses in a souvenir photo at Union Station, St. Louis.]

Little is known about the other brothers, Tommy and Joe. Both died young. Tom worked as a machine operator for a building supply company and died at 33 with delirium tremens. Joe was a machinist for a planing mill and died at 29 of pneumonia.

The death of young men -- sons and brothers -- is always tragic. And yet we are romanced by our gangsters.

Muhoney's father was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1865 and his grandmother was a McCarty. Another Limerick McCarty had a son named Henry, born about the same time as Muhoney's father. He was born Henry McCarty but died as Billy the Kid. Were they were cousins? 

A while back I read a New Yorker article --  "The Many Stories of Billy the Kid" by Fintan O’Toole. The author had a theory about why there were so many glamorous legends about someone very unglamorous:

The Kid was about 18 when he arrived in Lincoln County [New Mexico]. He was small – about five feet seven – thin, and boyish, with a silky, adolescent fuzz on his upper lip. He looked weak and easy to pick on, and Lincoln County was a place of hard men all too willing to exploit the vulnerable. No one knew much of his past. So he gave himself a new name and invented a life story: that of an intrepid, romantic, daring outlaw, no longer a skinny boy, a man you wouldn’t want to mess with.

In an open place like this, where the rich past of the Mescalero and of the Hispanics has been violently erased, there is no history, only deeds. What matters is not who you are but what you do. You take your identity from the places in which you perform memorable actions. You kill a man in Lincoln and you become the Lincoln killer. You survive the massacre at McSween’s house and you become the frontier survivor. You escape from the House and you become the great New Mexico escape artist. You are executed and buried at Fort Sumner and the place becomes your homeland.

Henry McCarty left behind the dark history of his family’s Ireland, the shame of their famine and exile, and became Billy the Kid. He discarded the complicated religious animosities that for a Catholic convert to Presbyterianism must have been particularly hard to cope with. He invented a new identity, and, when the war broke out around him, he got the opportunity to live up to it.

He may have started out as an Irish cowboy, but he became an American cowboy. For he embodied the greatest of all American paradigms, that of the immigrant making a new life. He discovered that out here, where no one knows you, you are free to invent a life and call it authentic, to spin a story and find that others will tell it for you, to escape from history and enter the vast playground of myth.

As I reread this passage, I think of Moses Rafael Flanagan, a motherless boy reinventing himself as the tough guy Muhoney, just like his cousin Billy. Gangs offer a clear "family" structure and a strong identity when one's own family breaks down. Prohibition was rife with opportunity to make a quick buck. And thus, the weakest boys escape from history and enter the vast playground of family myth.

4.12.01 (revised 2.2.08, 5.21.09)


For the basics, check the summary of the Flanagan kids and the timeline of their demise.

"Muhoney" as a boy

[1] Source: Homicide in Chicago interactive database: Moses Flanigan. Discovered by Rose Park.

The Record:

Case Number 3604
Date of offense May 14, 1919
Date of death May 14, 1919
Time between offense and death Immediate - death occurred at the crime scene
Address 1842 Monroe
Type of location Street, or other non-commercial public place/alley
Type of public place Street, sidewalk or alley
Location description in front of address
Type of death Homicide
Type of homicide Intentional murder
Characteristics shot to death
Method of killing Other gun, gun unspecified
Weapon shot to death
Motive shot as he jumped out of an auto containing a number of unknown men with whom he was riding.
Murder/suicide? Yes
Total number of victims 1
Related to Prohibition? Yes
Related to Organized Crime? Murder for hire, "hit"
Name Flanigan, Moses aka Muhoney aka Muroney
Age 22 years
Gender Male
Race White
Ethnicity Irish
Victim/defendant relationship Not related by family
Gender Male
Defendant/victim relationship Relationship Unknown
Precinct 22
Allegations of police corruption No
Charges against defendant
No charges recorded
Type of legal decision recorded None
Allegations of police corruption No

[2] Gangs of St. Louis in American Mafia Egan's Rats and Hogan Gang. See also Egan's Rats in wikipedia.

[3] Chicago gangs from American Mafia