While clearing a block of turn-of-the-century townhouses for a drive-through fondue restaurant, workers in 1973 discovered an artifact from the city’s former days as a gangland paradise. Wedged in between a basement wall was a metal strong box containing the last will and testament of Rory Sheehan, the fearsome Roxboro neighborhood mob boss. The box contained the will, a photographic portrait of Sheehan with his characteristic scowl, and an Irish tricolor flag. The discovery of the will not only shed some light on the enigmatic boss but also set off a three year hunt for a store of buried treasure that captured the attention of anyone within reach of a pickaxe.
Rory Sheehan was born in 1879 in Dublin and settled in the city in 1894 with his father. The young Rory first found work as a grocery delivery boy. On his route was Wallace “Towers” Kinsky, the notorious state senator, who was working at the time in the DA’s office. Years later, “Towers” Kinsky would settle a sweetheart deal in the construction of the Wyndham Hydroelectric Dam with a company within Sheehan’s crime syndicate. In celebration of the deal, Sheehan treated Kinsky to a night on Issacs Street, in the heart of the red light district. Kinsky suffered a fatal heart attack sometime before sunrise, allegedly in the company of three prostitutes. Local legend maintains he died with a broad smile across his face, and Grinning Kinsky’s remains a popular tavern on Issacs Street today.
As a youth, Sheehan fought briefly in the Spanish-American War; an exploding shell at the invasion of Guantanamo Bay shattered his right ankle. The grimace he developed while learning to walk again earned him the nickname “Lemon,” only uttered in his absence after his rise to power.
When he returned home, Rory felt stifled by factory jobs and quickly turned to crime. One day he was caught stealing a suitcase from the taxi of Padraig Rafferty, the reigning boss of organized crime in Roxboro, and probably the inspiration for the Irish ballad, “Boy of Bantry.” Rafferty instantly took Sheehan under his wing, grooming him as his eventual successor. The crime boss even introduced Sheehan to his future wife Natalie.
As the new second-in-command, Sheehan convinced Rafferty to back the Columbia Appliance Co., one of the earliest purveyors of refrigerators for domestic use. The 1911 Home Expo proved to be the company’s death knell, however, when not one “Infrigidation Unit” was sold, and Columbia went under. Consequently Sheehan found himself out of favor with Rafferty for the first time. To regain his position, he forced out Bobby O’Brien, the new favorite, by exploiting his fear of insects and infesting O’Brien’s home with earwigs. O’Brien fled his home and left the city humiliated.
Upon the death of Rafferty in 1922, Sheehan became the undisputed “King of Roxboro,” cutting an imposing figure as he surveyed his neighborhood daily. Sheehan was widely known for his incredible fits of anger. Even when secure in his power, he never slept without his revolver “Cara” under his pillow. He was the inspiration for the 1926 radio serial “Wily Seamus,” a comedy program about a conniving Irish mob boss. Sheehan first heard the serial for himself in the penthouse apartment of a friend. Infuriated, he lifted the heavy radio set and tossed it out of the window onto the street below. In another famous incident, Rory took every piece of his wife’s jewelry and flushed them down the toilet in response to Natalie’s request that he “lighten up.”
Sheehan was still unchallenged in Roxboro when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1934. He was last seen leaving his mistress Judy Bellam’s house in the early morning of Memorial Day, uncharacteristically alone. The newly formed FBI had no leads. Rory’s syndicate, deprived of its captain, collapsed soon afterward.
Sheehan’s disappearance was never adequately explained. Several culprits were fingered: he was unpopular with other criminal organizations, especially the Stahlmänner, a rival German construction racket. Syndicate elders disapproved of his brutal tactics, and Bobby O’Brien continually swore revenge from exile. His purported remains, touring with Barnum and Bailey in the early ‘60s, showed no signs of a broken right ankle nor any fracture in the left forearm, a result of beating a subordinate with a paperweight in 1919.
Police declared Sheehan legally dead in 1940. For years after his disappearance, to “Rory the gal” was a popular expression for skipping out on a date. And so the discovered Sheehan will was the last trace of the mob boss, as his lieutenant Timothy Molloy had destroyed all of his personal papers. By default, Sheehan’s son James had inherited the entirety of his father’s fortune, including the luxurious Sheehan Mansion in President Heights, since bought by Henry Kissinger for use as a winter retreat.
James quickly squandered his inheritance, however, and by the time the will was discovered, he was lodging at the Logan Boulevard YMCA.
After the will was confirmed as legitimate a new chapter in the story of the crime boss opened. Unwilling to award too much to “the lazy and the deficient,” Sheehan claimed to have hidden $150,000, worth millions today, in a place “below the water’s edge.” A massive public search followed, with treasure hunters ranging from the local chapter of the Milliner’s League, to Japanese venture capitalist Kazuo Takeda, to legions of ordinary citizens armed with gardener’s spades. The Parks Service made frequent complaints concerning large open holes dug around Theodore’s Pond. The Water Department was endlessly occupied with fixing burst pipes and vandalized water mains. Councilwoman Sheena Waters was beset with nighttime excavations of her front lawn. No dig was successful, though six Columbia Infrigidation Units were unearthed near the old George Waterson School for Boys.
The discovery of Sheehan’s treasure finally came three years after the will was found. A security guard at the Wyndham Hydroelectric Dam, lost in the catacomb-like subbasement, forced open a disused storage room hoping to find a way out. He found instead a crate of silver ingots with the skeleton of Rory Sheehan lying beside it. Sheehan had apparently gone to check on his cache and became trapped when the room’s heavy metal door locked behind him. In a twist of fate, it was Sheehan’s deliberate over-spending on the dam project that meant that once trapped, he was doomed: the thick walls and maze-like layout of the dam ensured no one would hear his cries for help.
The stipulations of the will were eventually carried out using the discovered treasure. A sizeable portion was seized by the state for inheritance tax. A smaller part paid for the following year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, at Rory’s request to finance efforts for “a united Ireland.” None of Sheehan’s surviving partners in crime were entitled to the money; said Sheehan in his will, “You lot would have cut me down for my pocket watch would you have had the chance.” James Sheehan received a small stipend and died in 1987; he was buried next to his father, whose tombstone is capped with a bust depicting his stern visage, scowling outwards in the direction of Wyndham Dam.
– M. Link