James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke was one of the most notorious Irish-American gangsters of all time, a violent, ruthless criminal responsible for countless murders and one of the largest cash robberies in American history.
Burke was never a member of the Mafia. His Irish blood excluded him from its Italian-only ranks. But he spent his bloody career working closely with the made men and associates of two New York City crime families.
He had a son who joined him in organized crime and a daughter who married a gangster. And Burke himself was the inspiration for the character Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorcese’s 1990 movie GoodFellas.
If any gangster came from a troubled childhood, it was Burke. Born James Conway on July 5, 1931, in New York, he never knew who his father was. His Irish mother, Jane Conway, placed him in a foster home when he was two, and he spent his earliest years in a Catholic orphanage.
Much of Burke’s young life was marked by severe abuse, as he was passed from one foster home to another. Some foster parents treated him kindly, while others abused him physically and sexually.
In 1944, when Burke was 13, his foster father lost control of his car when he turned to hit Burke in the back seat. The man was killed, and his widow, who survived, blamed Burke and beat him regularly.
Eventually the Burke family of Rockaway, Queens, adopted him. His life with them was pleasant and calm, and even years after he had established himself as a criminal player, he visited them several times each year and sent them money.
As a young man Burke worked briefly as a bricklayer. It made him strong, but it didn’t last. He was soon scheming and pulling off odd crimes.
Burke may have been a master criminal later in his career, but early on he was better at getting caught than anything else. Between the ages of 16 and 22, he was behind bars for all but 86 days.
During one of those stints, he was sentenced to five years in prison in 1949, when he was 18, for passing bad checks. The fact that he kept his mouth shut about his partners earned him points with the Mafia.
Inside prison, he had a reputation as a tough guy. He solidified his connections with the Italian mob, performing murders inside prison at the behest of made men. In an unusual accomplishment for any associate, let alone an Irish one, he managed to find good work under both the Lucchese and Colombo crime families.
Once he was out, Burke made a name for himself in profitable crimes: cigarette smuggling, hijacking, loan-sharking, extortion, drug-dealing and armed robbery. To keep his victims and fellow criminals in line, he routinely resorted to murder of the most violent sort.
Indeed, he seemed to relish the job. When he was about to marry in 1962, he discovered his fiancée’s ex-boyfriend was stalking her – calling her, shouting at her on the sidewalk, driving by the house repeatedly. The day of the wedding, cops found the boyfriend’s body in his car, chopped up into a dozen pieces.
Burke was happy to murder almost anyone, whether by himself or by order. He routinely killed off witnesses and informants after crooked cops tipped him off to their whereabouts. And he didn’t hesitate to murder his fellow gangsters in order to get a bigger cut of a scam.
Nonetheless, he had a reputation as a charming, gregarious gentleman. He was known to tip the drivers of the trucks he hijacked and to help out strangers. When an old woman complained her criminal son wouldn’t pay back a $5,000 loan, Burke paid it himself and then killed the son.
Burke, though he wasn’t a made man, ran an informal mob crew whose members included Henry Hill, the famous Mafia rat whose story inspired GoodFellas. They worked out of Brooklyn and Queens, where Burke owned a bar called Robert’s Lounge.
Robert’s was supposedly the burial site of more than a dozen mob victims. It was also the place where Burke and his crew dreamed up their most audacious plans, including the most audacious of them all.
Burke and Hill were sent to prison for 10 years for beating up a Florida man who owed money to their friend. Both men got out about six
years later and went straight back to organized crime, where they became involved in drug trafficking despite the prohibition of their Mafia bosses.
But it was the Lufthansa heist that made Jimmy Burke. Under his planning and recruitment, a team of mob associates robbed the Lufthansa cargo hold at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. They got away with almost $6 million in cash and jewelry, the largest robbery of its kind at the time.
The job made Burke and his bosses rich, but it made him paranoid. Burke was surprised by the size of the take, and he worried the resulting publicity made it more likely someone would talk. Not only did the actual robbers get very little money out of the deal, most of them wound up dead. At least one was killed because Burke simply didn’t want to pay him his share.
In 1980, the drug trafficking that Burke and Hill had done behind their bosses’ backs finally caught up with them. Hill, a trafficker who had become addicted to the product, was arrested and faced decades in prison – not to mention a Mafia hierarchy that probably wanted him dead for dealing drugs.
So he flipped in what arguably ranks as the most famous example of a Mafioso ratting out his friends and associates. He sang about his bosses, his mentors, his friends, and he sang about Burke.
Hill’s testimony in federal court led to 50 convictions, including those of Burke and their boss, Paul Vario. In 1982 Burke was sentenced to 20 years for his role in fixing Boston College basketball games in 1978. In 1985 Burke received an additional life sentence for murdering con artist Richard Eaton, who had swindled him out of $250,000 in drug money.
Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, age 64, died of lung cancer on April 13, 1996, at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. He was still serving his sentence and would have been eligible for parole in 2004.