• Educating Gender

David “Cockeyed Mulligan” Ablin: A Past History of Violence (Origin Story III)

I am somewhere between 5 and 6 years old when my father began telling me stories about his father, my grandfather. The reason he needs to tell me stories is because I had never met him. He died when he was 37 years old. His early death was strange to me at the time but began to be something of the normal as I became older. My father died when he was 49 (I was just turning 10), my father’s brother, my uncle, died two years later at the age of 55 and my only brother died at 33 (I was 30). As I write this, I am 54 years old and turning into the elder statesman of the male line of my family.

The stories of my grandfather, though, are far from just tales to fill in the blanks of inherited memory. They are the stuff of American mythology. Why did he die so young? Why was it so important that I knew about him? My grandfather’s stories are what you read about in a comic book or a detective novel from 1930’s America. They might be something you saw in a black and white movie or heard on a radio drama from that era.

The stories of my grandfather, though, are far from just tales to fill in the blanks of inherited memory. They are the stuff of American mythology.

David “Cockeyed Mulligan” Ablin immigrated to the United States from Belorussia at the end of the 19th century. The family name, as were many, was chopped off from Yablinofsky to its current highly generic and ethnically indistinguishable form. David had 10 brothers and sisters all who grew up in virtual poverty in early 20th century Chicago. He was a boxer as a young man, large and broad shouldered. He sustained a broken nose early in his short career which prominently defined his facial features. In early photos I still have of him he resembles a truck more than a man. David’s other defining physical feature was his crooked left eye (thus the nickname) which was never fixed. My father inherited it as did my older brother. Both of them had corrective procedures to set their eyes right. Throughout my grandfather’s brief life, his stare remained crooked.

In a fairly short amount of time, Cockeyed Mulligan Ablin became a notorious and significant player in the crime syndicate in Chicago and throughout the midwestern United States. He was a gangster. 

His first “business” was owning garages throughout the city, where people were expected to park their cars. If the expectation was not met, one could end up with broken bones or limbs. If you had a car, you parked it in my grandfather’s garages. Soon, he would also open two of the most popular speakeasies in Chicago where prominent business people, political figures, even the mayor would frequent. He ran booze across state lines. And, there was violence everywhere.

David was both the perpetrator of violence and, at times, its potential victim. One famous family story was that he was kidnapped one day by a rival gang, The Barker brothers. He was tied up in the back seat and only escaped by kicking the car door off its hinges and throwing himself out of a moving vehicle. And, of course, there was payback. These were the stories I grew up with.

In a fairly short amount of time, Cockeyed Mulligan became a notorious and significant player in the crime syndicate in Chicago and throughout the midwestern United States. He was a gangster.

He eventually got married to Lillian, my grandmother (who I did know) and they had my father and my uncle. They lived lavish lives in downtown Chicago, had a summer home and wanted for nothing even through the depression.

Cockeyed Mulligan’s death was as storied as the rest of his life. On a business trip to Indiana, his appendix burst. He refused to let the doctor operate on him, fearing that a rival gang had paid the doctor to murder him. Before his own doctor could be flown up, he died on the operating table. The announcement of his death was all over the front page of the papers the next day. And, almost just as quickly, the IRS took advantage of the situation to swoop down and seize all of the family assets. In a matter of weeks, my father’s family went from opulence to utter poverty. My grandmother found herself working behind the counter of a drug store and having to support two young boys of 7 and 10.

It’s easy to imagine why a young boy would be so interested in these stories. There sounds something so romantic and exciting about the life he lived. His rise to power out of poverty, his self made-ness, so dangerous. Cockeyed Mulligan’s story is part of the history of this country; it is the way we have come to see part of the character of the United States.

As I have gotten older, not only do my grandfather’s stories no longer feel special or glorified but now raise feelings of shame and sadness. It’s the violence. The darkly romantic version of his life feels like some excuse for desperate, violent (perhaps frightened) men who had few options for success in American life. “The life of crime” stories are nothing more than deceptive narratives for how men get to see themselves inside of hurting others. While David “Cockeyed Mulligan” Ablin is a part of my history, at least part of my work is hopefully helping boys and young men think and feel that this is not an acceptable way to define their male selves. 

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