Author retraces O'Connell kidnapping history

— Photo provided by James Dunn

Downtown Albany’s State Street, circa 1930, was a bustling hub of political and underworld activity.

— Photo provided by James Dunn

Author James Dunn found family ties to the O’Connell kidnapping of the 1930s, and set out to document the history of the kidnapping and trial, after learning that his grandfather was the jury foreman. His book, Kidnapping the Prince of Albany, is available at local bookstores and online.

— Photo provided by James Dunn

The signature of John O’Connell Jr. can be seen at the bottom of this transcribed ransom note from 1933. O’Connell, the nephew of the leader of the Albany Democratic Party, Daniel O’Connell, was kidnapped and held for 23 days until the O’Connell family paid mobsters $40,000.

— Photo provided by James Dunn

Jack “Legs” Diamond’s mug shot, taken in Philadelphia in 1930 for crimes previous to the O’Connell kidnapping, shows the young Irish-American mobster who became an international celebrity. Speculation links Albany Democratic Party leader Daniel O’Connell to Diamond; O’Connell prevented Diamond from starting mob strong-arm protection in Albany, and O’Connell’s connections may have been responsible for Diamond’s execution in 1931. By 1933, New York City and New Jersey mobsters zeroed in on the O’Connell family for the kidnapping of John “Butch” O’Connell Jr., as described by author James Dunn in Kidnapping the Prince of Albany.

— Photo provided by James Dunn

This 1930s-era car is reputed to be the get-away car used by mobsters who snatched John O’Connell Jr. in what became one of Albany’s  most famous crime cases.

Author James Dunn found a family connection to the famous O’Connell kidnapping of the 1930s while doing a genealogy search. His 12-year study of the kidnapping — during which he obtained declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation documents — led Dunn to write a novelized account of the kidnapping. Kidnapping the Prince of Albany is for sale now at local bookstores and online.
“It’s about 90-percent truth,” Dunn told The Enterprise. “The events are there.”

The “events” happened in 1933, when mobsters, who were anxious to make up funds after a previous botched kidnapping and a disappointing bank robbery, kidnapped a young boxer, John O’Connell Jr., and the nephew of Albany County Democratic Party patriarch Daniel P. O’Connell. Kidnappers asked for $250,000, but negotiated over a 23-day period to return O’Connell back unharmed for $40,000 ransom. The mob’s kidnapping mastermind was arrested and eight other mobsters were convicted in the crime.

Dunn found a connection to the historic kidnapping when visiting his ailing father; he learned that his grandfather, Theodore Washington Dunn, was the jury foreman for the trial of the mobster who planned the O’Connell kidnapping. According to family lore, T.W. Dunn was hand-picked by the O’Connell family to be the foreman.

His interest sparked, James Dunn Googled the case to find out more about his grandfather’s part in it, but found no information, he said. He began to search in earnest.

“I got into it sort of by the back door,” he said. “I went from one step to the next. There’s a lot of misinformation about the [case]. Someone had to set the record straight — that was me.”

Dunn told The Enterprise that the FBI documents on the kidnapping were difficult to obtain.

“I did not know how much they had. They sent it in a 24-inch-thick box. A lot of it was redacted” and had thick black lines on the pages, he said. Dunn tried to use the material for six months before he wrote to the FBI to ask for the original files. Delays in receiving the information caused Dunn to hire an attorney to help him communicate with the FBI.

“They would have to manually copy each page,” he said, explaining the process of obtaining information on the case from the FBI.

Dunn found an archive in Maryland that had information on the case — 10 boxes of notes with nothing indexed, he said.

“I went through page by page. I took what I thought was relevant,” he said. Adding to the difficulty of gathering materials was a post-9/11 edict; after the September 2001 attacks, the kidnapping files were temporarily classified “so terrorists wouldn’t get ideas,” Dunn said.

“Kidnapping is a business…In South America and the Middle East, it’s business,” he said. In the 1930s, kidnap victims were usually returned unharmed. After the Lindburgh baby kidnapping resulted in the death of the toddler, kidnapping and transporting victims across state lines became a federal crime punishable by death, until the law was changed in the 1970s.

Dunn dug into the nature of the mob while researching his novel.

“You’re just an object” to the mob, he said. Movies about the mafia tend to portray emotional ties between members, Dunn said. The history he unearthed showed mobsters to be blood-thirsty killers who shot their fellow mob members without remorse.

His research found new information, which he wove into the story, he said. He included it in his narrative, but also provided other researchers with easier access to the files.

“That’s why I put my new information in the Albany Hall of Records,” Dunn said.

Even with all the materials, Dunn did not know where the meetings among the kidnappers were held, or what was said at the meetings. He filled in “as what I thought would have happened and to give an idea to the reader. I created the conversation,” he said.

Dunn served in the military for 21 years before becoming an airline pilot, now based in North Carolina — his ties to Albany remain, with relatives in the area. His work in the military included some writing, he said.

“I learned what people look for. In a book, you have to get the reader to want to turn the page,” he said. He named the book after learning the O’Connell family history.

The mob knew the O’Connell name, and knew that, of four O’Connell brothers, the eldest did not carry a gun, Dunn said.

“Don’t get the old man,” the mobsters reasoned, according to Dunn. John O’Connell’s “a kid — a prince among three kings,” Dunn said. According to Dunn, the O’Connells were well-known in political circles.

“They had a few dollars, but they weren’t rolling in cash. They had power. They did deals,” Dunn said.

Dunn addresses some of the mysteries of the O’Connell case in his fictionalized account; whether or not the O’Connells had Jack “Legs” Diamond killed; whether or not O’Connell-owned Hendricks Beer was sold to local taverns under threat of arson; and whether or not ransom money that was not recovered was, instead, buried in Washington Park in Albany.

He also alludes to whether or not the mobster tried for the kidnapping was “railroaded.”

“The readers can make up their own minds,” Dunn said.

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