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Meet St. Louis's Smartest Cab Driver, Mobster Raconteur

Categories: Books, History

WaughPic.jpg
Waugh has been successful despite lacking a college degree.
​The cab driver rises from bed in the middle of the afternoon four days a week, just like he's done for the last 10 years. He showers, packs a sandwich, and it's off to the garage to begin his 12-hour graveyard shift.

It's a brutal lifestyle, especially considering that the driver, Daniel Waugh, lives a double-life. By night, he sifts through the city's quiet, largely lifeless streets. By day, he spins those streets into a web of passion and mayhem.

Waugh is a chronicler of St. Louis history -- specifically its history of organized crime. With two books under his belt, it's a safe bet that the South City cabbie is the foremost expert of St. Louis gangster life during the Prohibition era.

In his writings, Waugh takes us back to the heyday of the city, during the time of the World's Fair, when Irish gangs served as the muscle of the Democratic Party, stuffing ballots, bribing judges and terrorizing voters. Waugh recounts how those groups eventually gave way to warring clans of Italians who fought to control the St. Louis bootlegging industry. Local gangs included the "Green Ones," a murderous group of extortionists whose name recalled the rolling hills of rural Sicily, and the Russo Gang, a band of ex-railroad workers headquartered in a butcher's shop on 9th Street. Their leader, Shorty Russo, colonized the shop by grabbing the owner's cleaver and putting it to his neck.

"These guys were ruthless," says Waugh, 33, sipping a Hefferveisen at the Scottish Arms pub in the Central West End. "The romantic Prohibition movies with actors like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson are so sanitized and whitewashed. In reality, these gangs were violent, virile and grubby."

Waugh sports a bushy beard, beefy frame and beat-up bomber jacket. His not-so-subtle voice nearly fills the barroom, and waitresses playfully poke him as they pass by, outing him as a regular. What's so remarkable about his story is that success has come without any formal training. He never went to college, let alone graduate school, like his literary peers.

Like the cabs he's driven for the past 10 years, Waugh stays close to the street. He grew up in a rough section of West Detroit; his high school is now abandoned, and his childhood home has been razed. At 16, after seeing the movie "Taxi Driver," he applied for his hack license.

Waugh fell in love with mobster folklore as a kid, reading voraciously on the subject. Then, after a few visits, he discovered his second love: St. Louis. (Blame the Cardinals, he says.) After a short stint in the Army, he moved here for good, driving a cab at night to pay the bills and spending his days researching the city's history, poring over newspaper clippings, F.B.I. reports, coroners' inquests and court transcripts.

With so much attention paid to the mobsters of Chicago, it's easy to forget that St. Louis was once the country's fourth-largest city, which produced its own brand of gangster life. In his first book, "Egan's Rats," Waugh profiles the most notorious clan of the Celtic era, led by Tom Egan, the head of the city's Democratic City Committee, who ran a moonshine still out of a North City Irish neighborhood called the Kerry Patch. Waugh's second book, "Gangs of St. Louis," focuses on the Italian wave of mobsters.

Aside from warring over brothels, casinos and speakeasies, the gangs also controlled the drug trade, which centered on Turkish-produced opium that was funneled through Sicily. "All the stuff in 'The Godfather' about no drugs is bullshit. They've been selling drugs since Day 1," says Waugh, whose next project will be a screenplay.

Waugh's dual life as a driver/writer hasn't been easy. Some nights have been spent wandering the streets aimlessly; others are spent cleaning a lot of puke. One passenger died in his back seat, and another sent him on a goose chase for hookers and drugs. He's mourned a colleague shot to death by a rider looking for a payday. Because he never knows how much money a given week will produce, he's had to pick up a third job with a towing company. He gets no sleep.

"It's been a real bitch," he admits. "I was a virtual zombie during the creation of 'Gangs of St. Louis.' "

The rewards, though, have made up for lost slumber.

"Waugh is one of the most lucid and comprehensive writers I've ever encountered," says Bill Helmer, a longtime Playboy magazine editor who's written several mobster books himself. By covering St. Louis, "Dan has filled a void in the gangster biz," says Mario Gomes, a gang historian who runs the website MyAlCaponeMuseum.com. And unlike university-employed historians who don't need to drive taxis to make ends meet, Waugh conducts his research "as a labor of love," says Gomes.

Suddenly, that labor of love has gotten a lot easier. Last week, Waugh was given a large raise by his towing company. After 10 years as a graveyard hack, he's calling it quits. He put in his final shift the other day.


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