Was the Gowanus Canal a dumping ground for mafia victims?

February 24, 2020 Scott Enman
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A number of strange things have been found in the Gowanus Canal over the years. Banjos, cars and that one intrepid swimmer come to mind. Not to mention Sludgie the Whale and Swamp Trump.

But what about bodies? Whenever dredging in the canal is written about, readers inevitably ask whether any corpses have been dug up. Over the years, there have been stories of the waterway being used as a dumping ground for the mob, but is there any truth behind that myth?

Though some human remains were dumped in and around the canal, according to Joseph Alexiou, a journalist, historian and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” the practice wasn’t as rampant as legend suggests.

“There was a time where if you drove your barge into the canal, the barnacles on the bottom of the boat would all die, rot and fall off the bottom of the boat because the water was so toxic,” Alexiou said. “So it is possible that certainly people got tossed into the canal and their bodies kind of decomposed and were later found. That for sure happened.

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“Was it the sole dumping ground of mafia bodies? Absolutely not. There were plenty of other places where you could go to drop off a body. There are often stories of dead bodies washing up in the canal — people falling and dying — so there is this gruesome association with it that is not untrue.”

Joseph Alexiou. Courtesy of Joseph Alexiou

Alexiou said there have certainly been cases of bodies being found in the canal, but they were usually a result of public drunkenness or accidents.

In one incident in 1920, police officer Daniel Grennan was believed to have been dumped into the canal by the “White Hand Gang,” according to the New York Evening Telegram.

The canal has appeared in crime related pop culture. For example, it made several cameos in “Law and Order,” and observant viewers may have also noticed those unmistakable green waters in “The Irishman” when Robert Deniro’s character Frank Sheeran disposed of a gun used in a crime in the canal. (Though it wasn’t supposed to be in Brooklyn.)

Related: A new home for items found at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal

Gowanus’s reputation as a dangerous neighborhood may have also strengthened the myth of the waterway being used as a dumping ground, according to Alexiou.

“The people who lived in Gowanus — we’re talking about the city of Brooklyn in the 1830s — would have always been of a lower income group and that association plus the eventual pollution that built up during the 1850s to the ’70s, that would have made the neighborhood even more associated with industry, dirty things, crime, pollution. It’s all kind of degradation,” he said.

“That combined story is what gave the canal its reputation as a seedy place to be and any waterfront at all in the city of New York at one point or another — docks — would be considered seedy, dangerous and places where people of ill repute hung out.”

The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
The Gowanus Canal. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

More recent examples

The myth of the waterway being used as a final resting place isn’t entirely false. In recent years, several cadavers have been found floating along the fetid waters of Brooklyn’s infamous canal.

Mark Phillips, a Brooklyn-based photographer, came across a body floating near the Carroll Street Bridge in 1999.

“I focused the length of the shape and realized the heels of shoes breaking the surface of the water were definitely attached to the feet of a body,” Phillips wrote on his website. “As the realization hit us, I remembered the neighborhood legends of how the Gowanus was the dumping ground of mob hitmen for generations.”

That incident was later ruled a murder, though the police never solved the crime.

Related: ‘A danger for young children.’ Residents say this Gowanus Canal bridge isn’t safe.

More recently, a man’s body was found floating in the canal with duct tape around his mouth in April 2018. Police ruled the crime a homicide that June.

In December 2017, a woman’s body was removed from the toxic waters of the canal behind the Hamilton Avenue Home Depot.

A man named Howard Frank, who was known to beg outside of synagogues throughout Brooklyn, was found face down in the canal in June 2012.

As to whether cleanup crews will find bodies in the canal’s muck during the federal Superfund remediation, Alexiou would not rule anything out.

“Who knows what kind of evidence of that is still under the ground there,” he said. “If we stir it up, we might find something very interesting.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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