When local author Richard Sullivan sent me a note, talking about the release of his new book, a number of snippets caught my eye. In what Richard calls his “crazy-but-true history of Buffalo”, Volume 3 recounts many of the incredible, relatively obscure historic happenings that were sensational when they took place, but have been mostly forgotten with the passage of time. Reading The First Ward 3 – Murderers, Scoundrels & Ragamuffins is akin to reliving the distant memories.
Today the Old First Ward is becoming a hip place to live in the City of Buffalo, filled with cyclists, breweries… there’s even a shipping container house on the horizon. But back in the day, this part of town was fairly rough and tumble. Just reading about some of the book highlights, we get a sense about the sort of happenings that were commonplace in this part of town:
- The infamous murders of 6-year-old Marian Murphy and the elderly Mrs. & Mrs. Franz Frehr challenge the BPD’s ability to solve them.
- Fingy Conners continues to rule Buffalo in conjunction with the “Waterfront Gang” of city alderman, altering the course of history.
- A horrific fire on Seneca Street kills three firemen and injures 12. Fingy Conners sets up a charity for the widows and children via his Courier newspaper, then keeps all the money, leaving the families penniless.
- 1907 Old Home Week celebration nearly doubles the city’s population and is a wild success.
Following is a breakdown of Richard’s three First Ward books, via an interview:
This is your third book. Will there be more?
The First Ward series will total five books or more. Three volumes are in print currently and available at Dog Ears on Abbott Rd., the BECHS gift shop, the Waterfront Memories Museum on Hamburg St., and Talking Leaves Books as well as online at Amazon.com in both paper and digital form.
How is the series laid out? In time, place, etc.?
The series is arranged chronologically. The First Ward I spans 1850-1899 and is is a door stop at 590 pages with photographs. The First Ward II spans 1900-1903 (a lot happened) and comes in at 366 pages with photos. The First Ward III spans 1903-1909 and comes in at 440 pages, also with photos.
Who are the key figures in the book/s?
The series’ primary focus is real-life super villain FINGY CONNERS. Conners’ influence in Buffalo was nothing short of heart-stopping (literally), so the fact that he has been completely forgotten is just unbelievable. No figure in time has been more influential in Buffalo’s history, economy, criminal element, politics, labor unions movement, police department, and eventual downfall as was the 1st ward’s Fingy Conners. His influence spanned 50 years. Conners in 1906 became the Chairman of the Democratic Party of New York State, after which his influence became nationwide.
How have you come to be the orator for this fascinating area of the city?
Buffalo’s 1st ward essentially ruled all of Buffalo’s politics from 1860-1915, so THE FIRST WARD is indeed the history of Buffalo itself. I am related to Fingy Conners by marriage, but the Sullivan brothers are my direct ancestors. BPD Detective Sergeant Jim Sullivan was my great-grandfather and founder of the Mutual Rowing Club on South St. His brother Alderman John P. Sullivan ruled over Buffalo’s Common Council for 25 years. They lived next door to each other at Hamburg and South Streets. The rowing club, the backbone of social life locally, directly abutted their back yards.
Following are the book topics, as they pertain to each of the three editions:
–Immigrants John Sullivan and Mary McGrady fresh off the boat meet in New York City. Finding no opportunity there, they decide their future lies “out west” in Buffalo. They eventually have two children, the above-mentioned Sullivan brothers. Tragedy ensues.
— In 1866 the city is in turmoil due to the Fenian Invasion. Ulysses S. Grant rides into town and places the city under martial law. All public movement is forbidden. Buffalo’s citizens rebel.
— Fingy Conners’ entire family dies suspiciously within one year, with him inheriting all their estates including his father’s saloon. Out of the saloon he establishes a draconian labor contracting business. He cuts laborers’ wages in half. The city sinks into economic depression as Conners fills his pockets. Wholesale suffering follows.
— Conners gobbles up businesses with his newfound wealth: street paving, breweries, an interurban railway, a burial vault business, real estate, bank directorships — and comes to control the entirety of shipping on all the Great Lakes. This volume culminates with Conners’ battle royale with Catholic Bishop James Quigley during the great Grain Scoopers Strike of 1899. After losing this fight, Conners dispatches my great-grand uncle David J. Nugent, his chief enforcer, to invade with a gang of 17 the ore ship Mather being unloaded on the docks. They fire 200 rounds down upon the thoroughly unsuspecting working men scooping ore in the ship’s hold. Nugent is arrested and convicted, but Fingy pulls strings and Nugent never goes to prison.
— Both Sullivan brothers’ families suffer more than their share of tragedies.
— The Mutual Rowing Club becomes an integral part in the social fabric of the ward; Buffalo’s seven active rowing clubs through their regattas and social events provide entertainment for the city’s citizens.
— Fingy Conners meets William Randolph Hearst, a marriage made in hell. Hearst’s influence propels Conners into the newspaper business so that Fingy might better control his critics. Fingy buys three newspapers.
–Fingy Conners, sore loser of the scoopers strike, schemes vengeance by moving the entirety of his grain business to Montreal to take advantage of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Erie Canal is nothing more than a ditch and unable to compete. Conners’ move would cripple if not destroy Buffalo’s economy. Alderman Sullivan enlists the aid of his wife’s cousin, head of the Canadian railway system, to take down Fingy and his destroy his plan.
–The murder of Edwin Burdick, investigated by Detective Jim Sullivan, makes national headlines for weeks. The police incompetence and aggression are breathtaking. They fail to solve the crime.
–Cousin and world-wide celebrity John L. Sullivan arrives in Belfast NY to train for his historic heavyweight bout with Jake Kilrain. The brothers visit him there to encourage and support the Champ.
–The Pan American Exposition takes shape, gets torn to pieces in a hurricane, is fraught with problems, but opens on time. Various Sullivan family members take part in the exciting venture.
–President McKinley is shot at the Pan Am Exposition. A black man, James “Big Ben” Parker, thwarts the assassin, preserving McKinley’s life, but racism soon erases the Negro’s heroics from history.
–Fingy Conners’ mentor, William Randolph Hearst, a war monger, sails his yacht to Cuba to personally participate in the Spanish American War. There his star journalist is shot. Even as he clings to life, Hearst abandons him and sails away.
–A string of stunning murders make headlines. Detective Jim Sullivan is involved in all of the investigations; A six year old little girl on the westside, an elderly German couple on Jefferson Street, a much-loved saloonkeeper in the 1st ward, an over-the-hill dancehall queen downtown are all killed. The police have no clue and botch the investigations left and right. The city is in an uproar.
–The Alderman’s son encounters an unhinged predator — their own parish priest. The Alderman doesn’t want to believe it.
–The Alderman and Fingy Conners unite to battle a man who could change everything by righting the wronged course of the city: Charles Feldman. Feldman pledges to take down Conners and abolish outright the crooked Board of Aldermen.
–The Alderman’s ignored family suffers great loss even as his personal fortunes rise. He directs the course of Buffalo’s Old Home Week which remains to this day the most successful celebration Buffalo has ever witnessed.
–A terrible fire takes the lives of 3 firemen and injures 12. Fingy sets up a charitable fund through his Buffalo Courier newspaper asking the citizens of Buffalo to contribute. They do, and Fingy keeps all the money as widows and children of the firefighters scramble to survive. Only after legal proceedings a full year and a half after the fact is Fingy forced to hand over the money.
–Collier’s Magazine’s super-reporter Will Irwin arrives in Buffalo to do a profile on Fingy Conners. Reveals to the world that Conners murders his enemies. At the same time the New York Times and others rake Conners over the coals. Predictably, he reacts as if he is a wounded innocent. All hell breaks loose.
–Cousin John L. Sullivan is guest of honor at a celebration at the Mutual Rowing Club on South street, along with vaudevillian W.C. Fields. A good time is had by all.
–Before there was Halloween, Thanksgiving Day was for trick or treaters. The ragamuffins take to the streets to have their fun.
Knowing the history of such a colorful part of town, will help us to shape its future. The gripping stories told in Richard’s books don’t seem as if they could be true, but alas they are. This is how Buffalo was shaped, for better or worse. This city indeed had an evil villain who somehow escaped unscathed time after time. Now Richard has caught up with him, to publicly display his wretched antics on the pages of his books (along with other stories that revolve around the era in which he lived). It’s time to get to know a city that you thought you knew, through a man whose family was a part of the epic saga. These captivating tales will forever change the way that you view your own city.