• U.S.

Police: World’s Toughest

5 minute read

All his colleagues privately called him “cemetery bait,” and the bookmakers along his Broadway beat said that on any given day, the odds were 9 to 5 he would be killed. But when the shots were fired, they were off target; the knives and brickbats missed; the flung cue balls were wide of the mark. Johnny Broderick, “the world’s toughest cop,” was destined to die in bed—which he did last week of a heart attack on his 72nd birthday.

No less a connoisseur than Jack (“Legs”) Diamond tagged him as the toughest. And Legs spoke from experience. One night the famous hoodlum declared that he was going to get Broderick. First Grade Detective Broderick, Shield No. 226, heard about the boast and went looking for Legs. “I understand you’ve been looking for me,” growled Johnny as some of Legs’s backup men started drifting away. “Ah, hell, Johnny, can’t you take a joke?” asked a worried Legs. “Not from you, y’bum,” replied Broderick as his left hook mashed Diamond into unconsciousness.

The Only Way. John Joseph Broderick came by his talents naturally enough. He grew up in Manhattan’s East 20s, the Gashouse district, and while many of his neighbors were learning how to be thugs, Johnny, fresh from parochial school, was driving a brick truck at the age of twelve. A stint in the World War I Navy and a few months as a fireman convinced him that he was not cut out for such tame endeavors. The pug-faced Irishman joined the cops in 1923. “Gimme a gangster, give him a gun, and leave the rest to me,” he used to say. Well aware that the hoods of his day had such powerful political connections that it was difficult to convict them of serious crimes, Johnny believed in dealing out punishment on the spot. And only rarely did his targets or the public respond with complaints about police brutality.

The Broderick legend grew steadily. Informed that two men were bothering some ladies in front of a restaurant, Broderick rushed to the scene, righteously flung the toughs through the front window of the place, then raced inside and arrested them for malicious destruction of property. He cleaned out the gamblers at the Polo Grounds by climbing on a chair in a field box and shouting: “Come down, alia yez, and if yez don’t, I’ll throw yez off the roof.” They came.

He was always in the middle of the big cops-and-robbers shootouts. When Francis (“Two-Gun”) Crowley was holed up, Broderick gave him two hours to surrender, then marched up to the building and found himself facing Crowley’s pistol. He flattened the gunman with a punch before Crowley could find the courage to shoot.

A physical-fitness buff, he never drank or smoked, and he worked out at Stillman’s Gym every day. He always preferred using his fist to a gun, and his knuckles took such a beating that Bellevue Hospital used him as an exhibit to show how much punishment the human hand could take. After a while, to make it easier on the knuckles, he took to grabbing victims above the knots of their ties with his right hand and twisting hard while firing a few lefts. Two were usually enough. Following the example of kings and queens and Franklin Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey used him as a bodyguard; once Dempsey confessed that Broderick was the only man he would not like to fight outside the ring.

“Times Have Changed.” Broadway reporters fattened their columns with Broderick lore. Damon Runyon turned him into Johnny Brannigan, and Edward G. Robinson played him in the movies (Bullets or Ballots). But the imitators were always second best. When a gushing socialite claimed Broderick had given her his whistle, he growled, “I never owned a whistle because I never had to call for help.” When he arrived alone at a Harlem riot and was asked where the rest of the squad was, he replied, “Hell, this ain’t the World War.” Only occasionally could he be topped. On being introduced to Humphrey Bogart, he leaned in close and said, “I don’t like Hollywood tough guys, see. What happened to all of them?” Bogey leaned even closer: “I run ’em all out of town, see.”

Broderick retired in 1947 after 24½ years and eight medals for valor. His career had not been without hints that he had been on the take—which were perhaps inevitable when a man on a detective’s salary found money enough to wear the best of suits, always tightly tailored to his trim 5-ft. 9-in., 175-lb. frame, and cream-colored, monogrammed silk underwear. Such sartorial habits made him “The Duke” to oth ers on the force, but in the outside world he was “The Boffer.” And the verb “to broderick” became part of the language as a synonym for clobbering.

Today it would not work. Law-enforcement officers are learning to operate within the law. And on his farm in upper New York State, retired Johnny Broderick recognized the change. New York was not his kind of town any more, he acknowledged. “I know what I would have done in my day,” he said of current crime problems, “but I’m not going to give today’s cops any advice. Times have changed.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com