Ambush at Central Park

When the IRA Came to New York

Chapter One: The Ambush

When the relentless avengers of the Irish Republican Army finally caught up with Cruxy O’Connor in Manhattan that fine spring evening, they sent six bullets his way—one for each man the informer had sent to an early grave the year before.

Four of the gunshots found their target, and as a cop reached the crumpled victim on the steps of a finishing school at 84th and Central Park West, O’Connor was clutching a revolver with a spent shell in each chamber. After one of his attackers dropped the gun, the fallen O’Connor apparently had grabbed it, intending to defend himself. But the weapon was useless by then—his assailant had emptied the revolver at him.

O’Connor hadn’t had much luck in the weapons department lately. There was that machine gun they had given him for the ambush the year before—when he told them that it jammed just as the shooting started, the boys started looking at him funny. Not long after that, he’d made the mistake of taking a pistol to Sunday Mass. The coppers threw a cordon around the church, and oh dear God, what a massacre that led to. Six men dead, including Willie Deasy, his next-door neighbor, just twenty years old.

Pa Murray and the boys blamed him. They had stalked O’Connor through three countries—he’d barely escaped with his life when they tried to poison him. And he’d had to quit his job as a bookkeeper at the B. Altman department store a month earlier, after the gunmen had started haunting his workplace.

For weeks now, his only escape from the cramped apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had been a walk and a smoke. He varied his route, just to be on the safe side. But there were some evenings, like this one, when he couldn’t stay cooped up in the flat on Columbus Avenue with his parents, his brother, his sister-in-law, and their toddler. The warm spring evening beckoned, its soft westerly breezes stirring the curtains of Manhattan. He needed a cigarette. He needed a stroll.

It was a few minutes to eight o’clock on the evening of April 13, 1922. O’Connor came bounding down the stairs of his apartment building, but even as he headed out the door, he knew, on some level, that this was crazy. Three of County Cork’s deadliest gunmen—Murray, Danny Healy, and Martin Donovan—were out there somewhere in the New York night, just itching to take a shot. There’d be hell to pay for what he’d done, and the devil’s own bill collectors wanted their due.

O’Connor headed east up 83rd Street, toward Central Park, where the sheer black rock of Bolivar Hill loomed like a dungeon wall. When he reached Central Park West, he turned north on the west side of the street.

The temperature was in the low 60s, so there were plenty of other pedestrians out taking the night air. O’Connor smoked nervously, his eyes on their faces. When he reached 84th Street, he glanced to the left, and sweet Jesus, there was Pa Murray himself, with another guy, headed straight for him.

O’Connor dashed across the street to the wall that lines Central Park, glancing back at Murray and puffing furiously on a cigarette. He headed north, then suddenly reversed himself, and that’s when Danny Healy came out from behind a tree right smack in front of him. In a gray coat and gray fedora, Healy looked like some kind of natty avenging angel.

It all happened so fast. Healy, pointing a revolver at his chest, saying something like “I’ve got you now.”

Then pulling the trigger.

* * *

Danny Healy and Martin Donovan had been near the corner of 83rd and Columbus, staking out the flat, when O’Connor walked out the door and headed toward the park. Pa Murray and Mullins, a guy from Derry who signed on for the hunt, were a little further up Columbus, near 84th Street.

Healy asked Donovan to tell Murray and Mullins to head up 84th Street toward the park, where they might be able to head off O’Connor, while Healy came up from behind him. Once he caught sight of Murray, O’Connor had been too preoccupied to notice Healy until he stepped out from behind the tree.

The gunman thought his first bullet caught O’Connor in the chest, but he dashed across Central Park West into the 84th Street intersection. Healy chased him, blazing away, hitting O’Connor twice. To Healy’s astonishment, O’Connor kept going, ducking around a trolley.

Healy followed, firing a shot that thudded into a building. Four bullets gone, only two left, and his prey was still scrambling.

O’Connor kept changing direction, like a panicked hare flushed by a pack of hounds. He tried to go north on the west side of Central Park West, but almost ran into Donovan, who pointed a revolver and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing—a misfire.

But the bullets were finally having an effect on O’Connor’s adrenaline-infused body. Wounded, winded, and bleeding, he slumped to the sidewalk.

“I caught up with him and fired twice more at him, hitting him,” Healy recalled.

As Healy blasted away, the getaway car came roaring up to the intersection, a kid from the Bronx at the wheel. Healy knew he was supposed to get in, but he just stood there, frozen, surrounded by a large group of gaping pedestrians. He couldn’t imagine he was going to get away with it. This wasn’t home, where people knew to look away when Murray and the boys cut someone down in the street. This was the very heart of Manhattan—and a horde of people were staring straight at him.

One thought kept going through his head: “No chance of escape.”

Then Donovan’s commanding voice rang out: “Run for it, Danny. Run!”

* * *

Christ, but Healy took him literally. Donovan saw Healy snap out of it, but instead of getting in the car, Healy walked casually for a bit, then broke into a run west on 84th Street. And Donovan saw the crowd of stunned pedestrians form into a posse that quickly gave chase. Dozens of them. They figured it was an underworld hit, and they weren’t about to let a bunch of gangsters get away with murder in the middle of Manhattan.

Donovan climbed into the car. It looked natural enough—he was wearing a chauffeur’s coat he’d gotten from the Bronx kid’s family. And then they were all giving chase, the car and the crowd, until the car got ahead of the posse and kept pace with Healy for a bit while they tried to talk him into getting in so they could all get the hell out of there.

The trouble they went through to get that getaway car—“Over 1,000 cars in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” and they couldn’t use one of them, Donovan complained. Finally Johnny Culhane from the Bronx came through—he had an auto rental and taxi business—but he wanted no part of driving a getaway car for a killing. Culhane was already facing a boatload of legal trouble involving several hundred Ireland-bound tommy guns the feds had confiscated from a rust bucket docked in Hoboken. As Culhane begged off, his seventeen-year-old son James jumped in, exasperated.

“I’ll drive the damn car,” he said.

Which was how they ended up with a kid from the Bronx as wheelman. And now, after all that, Healy wouldn’t get in the car.

Even with half of Manhattan on his tail.

Clearly, someone would have to put a stop to this posse business, Donovan realized. At 34, he was the grownup in the group, older than the others by a decade. He’d have to do it, or it wouldn’t get done.

It would have helped if he’d still had the revolver, but Donovan had tossed it after it misfired—why keep a useless, incriminating weapon at a crime scene? So now he’d have to pull off a bluff—one man against close to fifty. But Donovan had gotten Danny Healy into this mess by recruiting him for the O’Connor job. Healy hadn’t hesitated then. Donovan didn’t now. He got out of the car and confronted the crowd, just fifteen feet away. If even one of them dared to make a quick lunge, he’d be hopelessly overpowered in seconds. So Donovan slid a hand into his coat pocket, as if to pull a gun. “What do you want—trouble?” he asked the man at the front.


“Well, where are you going?”

“I’m going right back to where I came from.”

The man turned on his heels and did just that, followed by most of the crowd.

Then another quick conversation with Danny about getting in the car, but it didn’t do any good. The normally reliable Healy was rattled, out of his element, not thinking straight. Donovan had shouted “run,” so run he would. Healy and O’Connor, the shooter and the shot, had one thing in common that fine spring evening—they were bound and determined to stretch their legs.

Even if it killed them.