Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli, better known as Paul Kelly (1876 – 1936), was an early New York City Mafiosi who started off as a boxer, invested his prize money in a string of brothels, then founded the Five Points Gang – the Big Apple’s last dominant street gang. He recruited and gave a start in the criminal life to many young men who went on to become the biggest names in American organized crime, such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Seigel, and Meyer Lansky. His career was also significant because it marked Italian organized crime’s transition from street gangs and into the organized hierarchical structure of crime families.
He emigrated to the US as a teenager and took up boxing. When he turned professional, he anglicized his name from Paolo Vaccarelli to Paul Kelly and invested his earnings in brothels in the Italian immigrant district east of the Bowery. He soon added athletic clubs to his properties, which operated as fronts for street gangs that he began controlling and consolidating.
He melded his criminal activities with politics, lending Tammany Hall his support during elections. The most notorious instance took place on primary day in 1901 when Kelly unleashed 1500 gang members against an incumbent who had campaigned to keep brothels out of his Ward. Kelly’s goons ensured the incumbent’s defeat by beating up his supporters, blocking polling booths, and voting early and often for the challenger, with one gang member boasting of having voted 53 times that day. Such influence won Kelly political favors that kept him out of legal trouble or made it go away and helped lessen its impact when it did arrive.
When a rivalry with another street gang led by a Monk Eastman spilled into street violence, Tammany Hall ordered Kelly and Eastman to settle their differences in a boxing ring. The match ended in a draw, however, and when the street fighting resumed, Eastman was arrested for robbery. Tammany Hall withdrew its protection, and he was convicted and sent away for 10 years in Sing Sing, leaving Kelly as NYC’s uncontested top gang boss.
After surviving a messy assassination attempt in 1905 that entailed a bloody public shootout, Kelly was arrested but soon released because of his connections. Tammany Hall ordered him to tone it down, however, and Kelly reduced his direct street gang involvement. Moving into labor racketeering, he got himself appointed vice president of the longshoremen’s union, for which he provided muscle during labor disputes, until his death of natural causes in 1936.