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Gowanus Canal—Truth or Fiction that "Bodies Were Dumped Here?"

Brooklyn's Most Infamous Waterway, the Gowanus Canal


The Gowanus Canal has a reputation not only for stench and environmental pollution — but also for being a dumping ground for the Brooklyn mob.

Stories of violence and murders have hung like a fog over the mile-and-a-half waterway for over a century.

Is it urban legend or fact that corpses were found floating in Gowanus Canal?

Was the Canal really a favorite dumping ground for racketeers, gangsters and organized crime in the 1950s?

And, how many bodies really ended up in Gowanus Canal? 

1. Gowanus— Tough Brooklyn from Its Beginnings

For nearly a century, Gowanus certainly earned its reputation as a tough part of South Brooklyn. Mostly Italian in the early 20th century, by mid-century the neighborhood was a mix of Italian and Irish, with a few Puerto Ricans. That it was primarily white was not by accident. It was tough from the beginning:

  • June 1, 1897, a Brookyn Eagle newspaper article headline reads: Three Italians Were Shot.
  • In 1915, 150 people get into a street brawl as two rival undertakers battle over who would bury a child who drowned in Gowanus Canal.
  • In the 1950s, Gowanus youth gangs rumble in Prospect Park.
  • In the 1970s, the "Gallo Wars"  in Gowanus cause nine deaths and 16 injuries in two years, sparking a citizens movement against organized crime.

Some news reports of "bodies floating in the Gowanus" can be unearthed:

2. President of Grain Handlers Union Found Floating in Gowanus June 29, 1946

One of the most spectacular Gowanus stories involves John Flaherty, president of the Grain Handlers Union Local 1268 of the AFL. He was found "on April 18, floating in Gowanus Canal, two months after his disappearance," according to reports in the New York Times.

All fingers pointed to organized crime elements. The mob had, in the words of one observer, "muscled in" on the Port of New York.

(Not every mob victim who worked close to the docks and Gowanus Canal ended up under water. The same six thugs who went to trial for Flaherty's death were charged with another death, of the man who ran Brooklyn's Toddy Shipyards. He was found in a car wrecking yard near Glenwood Road and Utica Avenue, "with a bullet in his head.")

3. Brooklyn Racketeer Found Slain in Canal, April 26, 1931

A 1936 New York Times article, Body Is Discovered, Bound and Garroted, in Gowanus Waters. Missing Since Jan. 31 reports,

"Bound and garroted, the body of a man identified early this morning as Tony Gubitosi, 21-year-old petty racketeer of 290 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, was pulled from the Gowanus Canal at the foot of Bond Street, Brooklyn, a few minutes before 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon."

Seymour Magoon, age 28, a body guard and lieutenant of East New York gangster Buggsy Goldstein was indicted in Gubitosi's murder. The killer's name did him in. He got caught when another criminal testified he'd "been invited to be a witness to the stabbing death of Gubitosi ... and dumping of his body into the water by Chudnowsky ... and a fellow named Seymour."

4. Mrs. Wall Says Her Murdered Husband Was Dumped in Gowanus Canal— August 23,1888

 Here's the story, over a hundred years old, but still fresh, based on a report in the New York Times on August 23, 1888:

James Wall, a "coal shoveler" and "heavy drinker" residing at 58 Union Street was found dead in the Gowanus Canal. Mrs. Wall reportedly told the Coroner's office in Downtown Brooklyn that the last time she saw her husband was at 6 p.m. on Monday night, August 3, 1888. He "gave her 10 cents" and then went out.

A few hours later, she said, "three men stopped at the house" looking for her husband. She told them he was out, "whereupon one of the strangers alleged that Wall had stolen something from him and vowed that if he found Wall he would kill him."

Mrs. Wall believed they did just that — and threw his body in the Gowanus Canal.

5. So, Just How Many Bodies Got Buried in the Gowanus Canal?

Over the 130 or so years of the the Gowanus Canal's existence there have been reports of accidental drownings. Tragically, the body of an unwanted baby (or several) has turned up. Once or twice, a car plunged into the Canal. And, more than one child fell in and couldn't swim.

A quick review of newspapers of the era turned up surprisingly few reports of murder victims whose bodies "went floating" in the Gowanus Canal.

That said, the Gowanus-Carroll Gardens area was once a close-knit, close-lipped, Italian working-class immigrant community. Organized crime operated on the nearby waterfront and in local establishments.

It's a good bet that more than one murder happened without anyone squealing to the police. And, unless the cops or courts were involved, the newspapers weren't necessarily covering violence in South Brooklyn.

The Gowanus Canal as Mafia dumping ground: fact or legend? Take your pick. One thing's for sure. Today the Gowanus Canal is a Superfund site. And unless the EPA's dredging unearths them, nobody will ever know how many "cement shoes" might have sunk in the bottom muck of Brooklyn's infamous Gowanus Canal.


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