Joe Bruno on the Mob — Johnny Spanish (John Weyer)

Johnny Spanish, whose real name was John Weyer, was one of the most feared gangsters in the early part of the 20th century. He took the name Johnny Spanish because he was half Jewish and half Spanish, but on the Spanish side he claimed to be a descendant of Butcher Weyer, the last Governor of Cuba. So he figured Johnny Spanish had much more cache in it than plain old John Weyer.

Spanish was born on the Lower East side of Manhattan, and he quickly immersed himself in various street crimes. The short, frail and morose Spanish was a loner, whose specialty was robbing saloons. Yet he liked to throw in the twist of sending a message to the saloon owner first, telling them of his imminent arrival. His legend grew immensely when he performed that feat at a dive on Norfolk Street, owned by Mersher the Strong Arm. Spanish gave Mersher notice that he would arrive at a certain time, and that he did, armed with his usual four guns, and an accomplice lurking behind him. He threw a couple of shots through the mirror behind the bar, then emptied the till. Then to add insult to injury, he lined 10 customers against the wall and relived them of all their cash and jewelry. Spanish’s notoriety grew, and soon he was accepted into Paul Kelly’s Five Points Gang, where he continued his shenanigans.

Spanish found it profitable to steal the proceeds of the very lucrative suss gambling games, which was a variation of the popular faro. He had his eye on one such game, operated by Kid Jigger on Forsyth Street. One day he approached Jigger, who was known to be a fierce gunfighter, and demanded half the take from his game, from that point on.

“And why should I give you half my stuss graft?” Jigger inquired.

“Because I’ll knock you off if you don’t,” Spanish said.

Jigger laughed. Spanish took offense and told him, “Alright then, I’ll knock you off tomorrow night.”

Sure enough, being a man of his word, on the following night as Jigger strode from his suss game on Forsyth Street, Spanish opened fire with two guns. Jigger ran back into the building to safely, but the bullets struck an eight-year-old girl, who was innocently playing in the streets, killing her on the spot. This necessitated Spanish leaving the city for several months, and when he returned, he was alarmed to find out that his girlfriend (who happened to be pregnant by who knows who), had been stolen by fellow thug Kid Dropper, real named Nathan Kaplan. Spanish figured he’d settle with his ex-girlfriend first. He grabbed her off the streets, threw her in a taxicab, the headed out to the marshes of Maspeth, Long Island. There he tied her to a tree, then emptied five shots into her pregnant belly. He left her there to die, but miraculously the woman survived and her baby was subsequently born with three missing fingers.

For this atrocity, Spanish was arrested and sentenced to seven years in Sing Sing Prison. Upon his release in 1917, Paul Kelly’s Five Points Gang was no more, and Spanish figured he could take over Kelly’s former rackets. Only Kid Dropper had the same idea. The two old foes battled over the union protection racket for more than two years. One day in early 1919, the bulkier Dropper cornered Spanish on the street and carved him up bad with a knife. Spanish survived, but not for long.

On July 29, 1919, Spanish was entering a restaurant at 19 Second Avenue, when Dropper and two accomplices opened fire, hitting Spanish several times in the chest. Bullets being better than blades, Spanish died a few days later in Bellevue Hospital.


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