Professor James Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront
So Hague’s ward leaders were always prominent in local parishes and there’s a synergy, in other words, a system. This was a very, very hierarchical system that works so well, because the people in the system were deeply vested in the idea of a system itself. In other words, the people in the Port of New York and New Jersey — the population, the Irish and Italian American Catholics that overwhelmingly dominated life in the port — they already believed in a system of authority and hierarchy and a deference to authority. So it wasn’t that difficult to create a very hierarchical structure in the port, which was like a blended moral and political and economic authority and it created a machine that was extremely powerful for the first half of the twentieth century.
BH: This wasn’t just money changing hands, there was murder involved as well, right?
JF: As many as one hundred longshoremen were murdered on the West Side alone between World War I and World War II. It’s hard to determine the circumstances. In some cases people got in fights at bars, and other times people were assassinated. Oftentimes, seeking control of the piers was determined at gunpoint, and of course somebody had to be authorizing these individual waterfront businessmen to walk onto these piers, threaten and intimidate others. In some cases they murdered their rival and a lot of people were thrown into the Hudson River. Their bodies would surface in April after being submerged in the winter, and people would see these bodies floating down the river and they just knew they could not say or do anything because that would implicate themselves somehow or risk their own lives. So, the system depended on the code of silence, reinforced by violence, and it was almost totally immune to law enforcement presence because it was really, literally, off-limits. The waterfront was off-limits to anyone without legitimate business there, and that included law enforcement.
In fact, between the two World Wars, if one hundred longshoremen were murdered there was not a single conviction of the murderer of a longshoreman. It was only in 1947, a man called “Cockeye Dunn,” who killed 34 people, killed a man over control of a pier on Jane Street — in this case, the victim’s wife told cops that her husband told her that Cockeye Dunn had shot him, and so that lead to a prosecution which eventually lead to his conviction. That was the first conviction of a waterfront murder in the 20th century, and that was 1947. That was the time things were beginning to change. But it was very violent and it was violent in a way that the ruling forces managed to persuade others that the violence was a divinely sanctioned response to the threat of disorder. There was nothing more frightening to people on the waterfront than the notion of social disorder, because there was a feeling that it was almost a state of nature that would devolve into a state of savagery. So, there had to be duly authorized individuals in charge to make decisions about life and death and crime and punishment and things like that. It was very deferential and I do think this deference to authority is an Irish American trait that was really perfected on the waterfront in the early 20th century.
BH: What was the pivotal moment in turning the tide?
JF: In 1948, this journalist, Malcolm Johnson, had been given the file of the Cockeye Dunne case by the assistant district attorney who prosecuted him, and right around the same time this young Jesuit Irish American Labor priest, John Corridan, had been turned loose at the Xavier Labor School. Fr. Corridan began to poke around the waterfront and he became the leading source for Malcolm Johnson’s series of articles for the old New York Sun called “Crime on the Waterfront” that won Johnson the Pulitzer Prize. So 1948 is the pivotal year in that the code of silence begins to crack open. The end of WWII also meant that a lot of men who grew up on the West Side and Hudson County, they fought overseas, risked their lives, saw people get killed, and they suddenly begin to ask themselves, “We risk everything for democracy overseas for American democracy and the freedom of other people, but we don’t have freedom here on the West Side or in Hudson County?’ They never had elections in their local longshoremen union offices and things like that, so they began to clamor for democracy — for elections, for accountability for their leadership — and so that began to generate a kind of rebellion or resistance movement against the more or less mobbed up leadership of the union.
The time was right and it just so happened that this young Jesuit labor priest had just been authorized to pursue a kind of waterfront apostolate and he began talking to investigative reporters. Fr. Corridan’s initial mission was to persuade the rank and file dockworkers to speak up and to take responsibility for themselves and the union but they chose not to do that. So, once he felt rejected on the waterfront, he started to go off the waterfront and create these relationships with people like Malcolm Johnson and then screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was hired to write a script based on these “Crime on the Waterfront” articles. From there it really proliferated and Corridan became the leading expert on the waterfront, and he became the go-to guy for all these reformers and investigative journalists who wanted to now get in on this crusade to try to reform the entire culture and industry of the port. Between 1948 and 1954 there was a massive campaign to overthrow the powers in the port. It culminated with both the movie On the Waterfront and with the attempt to overthrow the ILA and replace it with a reform union.
BH: What was the dynamic happening between men like Corridan the reformer and other priests who were very interested in maintaining the status quo?
JF: [Laughs.] I’m laughing because here’s the thing I was most struck by, that no one knew about and it had never been discussed or written about: The code of silence was violated every day by Fr. Corridan, at least from the perspective of the waterfront, because he’s always talking to outsiders, getting Budd Schulberg and others to tell his story from his perspective in national magazines and The New York Times‘s magazine, things like that, but the one thing never discussed openly in the media at the time was the fact that this campaign on behalf of these Jesuit labor priests deeply divided the Roman Catholic Church on the West Side of Manhattan and Hudson County, N.J. What it did was open up this tremendous rift between the reformers, Jesuit labor priests and their followers, and the defenders of status quo. The most prominent was Monsignor Jack O’Donnell, who was the pastor of Guardian Angel Church and was the official chaplain of the Port of New York and New Jersey. He was a militant defender of the West Side code, you might call it. See, it had a religious significance on the West Side — a sign of honor in that the code of silence was seen as a sacred way of life ordained by God — and they would do anything to defend it. They saw this Jesuit priest as an interloper and as a busybody and meddler, so there was a tremendously contentious struggle within the Church on the West Side between the mid-1940s and mid-50s. It was never discussed because to do so, they used to call it “giving scandal” — you could never let anyone outside the Church know there were bitter divisions within the Church. Fr. Corridan was generally willing to play by those rules. He never did openly condemn or criticize anyone in the Church. But in later years, Father Phil Carey, his boss, was very outspoken about what he believed to be the corruption of these figure like Msgr. O’Donnell and others; but that took a very long time to unfold because the impression everyone also had of the Church was that it was a monolithic structure that really brooked no internal dissention, particularly among the clergy. That’s a part of the story that’s never been told at all; never even hinted at until I got a hold of the research.