After months of legal wrangling, the story of Philly's K&A gang finally gets published.
"This was never like a planned thing," says Chick Goodroe. "In the neighborhood where I grew up you became either a fireman, a policeman, a roofer or a burglar."
For Goodroe, a young man who enjoyed women, sleeping late and money, the latter occupation was the obvious choice. What followed were Cadillacs and Lincolns, strings of girlfriends, jewelry and eventually a fair share of jail time. But for a time, life was sweet.
"I used to carry a bag of jewelry. Small pieces. I'd meet you in a bar and I'd say, 'Gee, these earrings would look good on you,'" he says, smiling. "I wouldn't even know your name, but I'd be giving you jewelry. We called them 'whomp 'em' bags."
That way of life would also lead Goodroe, now in his 60s, to Temple professor Allen Hornblum, who for the past five years has been chasing down the urban legend created by Goodroe and the other members of Philadelphia's elusive Irish mob. The result is Hornblum's latest book Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K&A Gang. Named for the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny in North Philadelphia where the men lived and played, the book profiles an underground world of crime different from the hierarchal Italian wiseguys. These were the "standup" guys, a gang of blue-collar Irish criminals whose story hasn't been told before.
"That's a sin of omission," says Hornblum, "because there was an Irish mob here and they did have a very unique brand of operation. They weren't killers. They weren't bank robbers as the Boston Irish were. They had a particular craft that they developed here, and that was burglary."
The book details the birth and development of a revolutionary and very lucrative way to burgle. In the '50s the K&A boys began targeting luxurious Philadelphia homes that contained furs, jewelry, coin collections and safes stuffed with cash, made all the more conspicuous by the glinting red lights of primitive security systems. Using an organized division of labor, the thieves would have the house cleaned out in minutes-its safe cracked, the goods tucked into pillowcases. The group could knock off a half-dozen houses in one night. Their efficiency baffled law enforcement.
"One of the things people don't realize is they were the foremost burglary ring in the '50s, '60s and early '70s," says Hornblum. "In some cases they had a bigger reputation in North Carolina and Florida and Maine than they did in Philly. They left Philly for greener pastures. They went where the money was. They'd leaked what they could out of Chestnut Hill and the Main Line and Rydal and those ritzy areas around the city."
|Edward Burke, Francis Brewer|
"My father used to be a fence for these guys," remembers Thomas Vaughan, a friend of Goodroe's and a former bartender in the K&A area. "Every time I came home from school I had a different television."
As time passed, so did the heyday of K&A. North Philadelphia changed dramatically, and policing tactics and home security became more effective. Meth was the new hot ticket. Today, with many of the K&A members either dead, imprisoned or settled into more legitimate lifestyles, Hornblum had his work cut out for him. The research began, appropriately, in a bar.
"I hang on occasion at a bar in Tacony with a lot of guys that came out of Kensington," says Hornblum. "And they would just whet my appetite with these characters and these stories. The more I heard the more enticed I became. So I finally threw myself out there and started tracking these guys down."
Hornblum's success with some of the "standup" guys-members of the gang reputed for their loyalty-wasn't universal. Though Junior, legendary for his refusal to talk to police, came to trust and help Hornblum, others did their best to halt progress on the book. Originally slated for release this past June, a slew of appearances and preorders were abruptly canceled when the publisher Temple University Press backed out.
After months of uncertainty, Confessions finally comes out this week on Barricade Books, a company that specializes in "books that people are frightened about." Barricade's website touts Confessions as "the book the mob tried to suppress."
"We believe everything has a right to be heard if it's factual and accurate, and this book seems to be," says Barricade Books president Lyle Stuart. "If we have to go to court, we go to court. If we go broke doing it ... that's what I've been doing all my life. I've been publishing for 50 years, and I'm a First Amendment fanatic."
Confessions has given the elusive Irish mob its place in Philadelphia history, and it may also find its place on the silver screen. Vince Vaughn, Edward Norton and Tobey Maguire have all reportedly shown interest in a film adaptation.
But the excitement hasn't made Goodroe lose the characteristic cool he needed in the days of narrow escapes and police chases. Even the prospect of being depicted by one of Hollywood's A-listers hasn't gotten to him.
"Proud? I wouldn't go as far as to say proud. Would I feel shame? No. Do I feel remorse?" he says. "The remorse I would feel is because if I had to do it over again I would certainly have put a lot of the money away."
Wed., Feb. 15, 7pm. Free. Finnigan's Wake, 537 N. Third St. 215.574.9317
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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