Coll, Vincent (‘Mad Dog’) (1908–32), gangster, was born 20 July 1908 in Bunbeg, Gweedore, Co. Donegal, seventh child among six sons and two daughters of Tuathall Óg (‘Toaly’) Coll, of Bunbeg, a small farmer, and Anna Mary Coll (née Duncan), of Dublin. His parents had met and married in Brooklyn, New York, USA, to where both had emigrated (c.1890). After living fifteen years in Bunbeg (1894–1907), they reemigrated to New York in April 1909 when Vincent was eight months old. Throughout childhood and adolescence Coll endured extreme material and cultural poverty in the teeming multi-ethnic slums of the Bronx. From an early age he and his nearest brother, Peter (1907–31), roamed the streets in boy gangs, engaging in petty theft and vandalism. His father had abandoned the family by the time of his mother's death of lobar pneumonia and ‘general weakness’ when he was seven (February 1916), whereupon he and Peter were placed for three years in a catholic mission for homeless children on Staten Island (1916–19). Deeply troubled and troublesome, involved in ever more serious and violent episodes of delinquency, over the ensuing ten years while under the guardianship of his aunt and his married elder sister, he was in and out of correctional institutions. He received scanty formal education during intermittent spells in public schools or when in institutional care. Tall and rangy, looking older than his years, he had flaxen curly hair, blond-lashed blue eyes, a freckled prow-like nose, and toothy grin. Ferocious in physical combat, he would beat other boys senseless for perceived insults or infractions of gang code.
Immediately on release from the NY state reformatory, Elmira (1929), he joined the criminal gang of ‘Dutch Schultz’ (Arthur Flegenheimer) – who controlled the prohibition-era bootleg liquor trade throughout the Bronx – as sales overseer and gun-wielding enforcer. Chafing under another's authority, and resentful of the comparatively miserly wages paid by Schultz, when ‘the Dutchman’ refused his request for promotion and a piece of the highly lucrative beer trade, Coll recruited his own gang from within Schultz's operation. Apart from his brother, Peter Coll, nearly all his recruits were Italian-Americans. Over the winter of 1930–31 Coll's gang moved in earnest against Schultz's operation, hijacking his beer trucks and selling the cargos to distributors and speakeasies intimidated into transferring their allegiances. In the summer of 1931 the conflict erupted into open and deadly gangland warfare, dominating newspaper headlines and claiming some twenty lives. An early casualty was Peter Coll, mistaken for his brother and gunned down by night in his car (30 May); over the ensuing fortnight four Schultz operatives were murdered in retaliation, reputedly by Vince Coll's own hand. With reckless audacity, cold-blooded and fearless disregard for life (including his own), and reputation for sadistic techniques of torture, Coll was known throughout the underworld as ‘the Mad Mick’.
Heavily outnumbered by Schultz's forces, and forced to pay top dollar to hold and recruit gang members, Coll robbed or kidnapped for ransom several underworld figures to raise funds. While exacting $35,000 from leading racketeer Owney (‘the Killer’) Madden for ransom of his partner (and co-owner of the famed Cotton Club), nightclub magnate George Jean (‘Big Frenchy’) DeMange, he made another powerful gangland enemy. In a futile attempt to murder Schultz's leading aide, Joey Rao, Coll's gang opened fire from a moving automobile in a crowded street in Spanish Harlem, wounding four children in the fusillade, and killing a 5-year-old boy (28 July). Identified as the culprit by underworld informers, and reviled as a ‘baby-killer’, Coll was labelled by the press as ‘the Mad Dog’. Disguised with tortoise-shell glasses, black moustache, and hair dyed black, for ten weeks he eluded an intensive manhunt, hiding out in both the city and upstate NY. Receiving $25,000 down payment, he was contracted by leading mafia chieftain Salvatore Maranzano, self-styled ‘boss of bosses’, in a treacherous plan to assassinate two of his leading cohorts, Charles (‘Lucky’) Luciano and Vito Genovese. Arriving at Maranzano's office to perform the job while the three bosses were conferring, Coll encountered a team of hitmen led by Benjamin (‘Bugsy’) Siegel who had just murdered Maranzano in a preemptive strike ordered by Luciano and Genovese; Siegel graciously warned Coll of the imminent arrival of police (10 September).
On 5 October, amid a general roundup of his gang, Coll was arrested in the plush apartment shared with his girlfriend, Lottie Kriesberger, in the Cornish Arms Hotel, and charged with the murder of the child. During a seven-day trial (December) his attorney, Samuel S. Leibowitz – the leading defence lawyer of the day, hired with the proceeds of Coll's kidnapping exploits – demolished the credibility of the chief state witness, George Brecht, a paid underworld informer who perjured himself on the stand regarding his criminal record; the bench thereupon directed a verdict of not guilty. Charged immediately on two lesser counts, Coll was freed on bail (31 December). Leading New York mobsters such as Luciano and Meyer Lansky, with both of whom Schultz was now closely connected, determined that Coll must be eliminated as an unpredictably volatile threat to all, and for the unwelcome police and press attention he was drawing to underworld activities. At 1.10 a.m. on 8 February 1932, while issuing extortion threats to Madden from a drugstore telephone booth at 314 West 23rd St., Coll – probably betrayed by his bodyguard – was cut down by fifteen bullets discharged by a hitman who strafed the booth with a hail of tommy-gun fire.
Kriesberger claimed to be Coll's widow and used his surname; though they obtained a marriage licence (4 January 1932), there is no evidence that they actually married. Although Coll gunned his way to a brief several months of gangland influence and notoriety, he was out of his depth within the rapidly transforming American underworld of the early 1930s. A new generation of bosses, led by Luciano and Lansky, anticipating the repeal of prohibition, were syndicating criminal activities into a tightly organised, businesslike operation. Exceptional for the vehemence of his bloodlust – unlike most leading mobsters, who insulated themselves from the violence performed to their order, Coll revelled in murder and mayhem by his own hand – he was the most notorious of several Irish-American gangsters who, disdaining to conform to the rules and ethos of the new Italian- and Jewish-controlled national crime syndicate, suffered expeditious elimination.