The plot of the new movie The Kitchen sounds like it could be based on a true story at first. Three mob wives played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss take over for their husbands after the men are put in prison. That could happen, right? Well, it could, but in this case, it didn't — at least not exactly this way. While the movie isn't based on a real-life group of women, the idea stems from a real gang that existed in the 1970s.
The Kitchen is an adaptation of a comic book miniseries from DC Vertigo, a DC Comics imprint that released more adult stories than the prime DC line. Both the movie and the comic are about three women living in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the late 1970s. After their husbands are imprisoned, they become mobsters themselves and, according to the DC Comics description, "Once they get a taste of the fast life and easy money, it won’t be easy to stop." The description also explains, "The Irish gangs of Hell’s Kitchen rule the neighborhood, bringing terror to the streets and doing the dirty work for the Italian Mafia."
Now, while the women in this particular story aren't real people, there was a lot of gang activity in Hell's Kitchen in that decade. In particular, there was an Irish gang called the Westies that was centered in the neighborhood from the 1960s through the 1980s. An Associated Press story from 1986 explains that the Westies had been working with the Italian Gambino crime family for eight to 10 years at that point. The article also says that the Westies were known for being particularly violent, and wouldn't just kill people, but also dismember them. "These are people who would cut off a guy’s head and take it to a bar to show his friends," said Michael Cherkasky, the head of the District Attorney's Rackets Bureau.
The article notes that many of the Westies were in prison or in hiding, and mentions that one woman, Edna Coonan (also known as Julia), was accused of passing along orders from her imprisoned husband, James Coonan, that someone be killed. UPI reported at the time that she was indicted on conspiracy charges, but pleaded innocent. Her lawyer said, "She's a housewife... her only crime is being his wife." Edna and James were convicted in 1988; her of racketeering, including involvement in one murder, and him of a racketeering charge that included seven murders, as reported by the New York Times. Edna was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and James, who considered the gang's leader, was sentenced to 75 years. Some other members of the gang were also convicted of crimes at the same time and this was considered the end of the Westies.
The writer of The Kitchen comics, Ollie Masters, spoke about his inspiration in a 2014 interview with USA Today around the time the comic was released. "We've all loved doing the research for this book, because everything about that time just seems so dangerous but exciting," said the English author. "Crime was rampant in the city, the Mafia and Irish gangs like the Westies in Hell's Kitchen were a more prominent part of people's day-to-day life than they are now. You had this kind of gangster Wild West happening in the streets but you also had a boom in creativity and a feeling that anything could happen. Even three housewives taking over their husbands' gang."
Audiences will get to see those three women come to life when The Kitchen is released on Aug. 9 — and see if their fates match up with that of the real-life gang.