BUFFALO, N.Y. — This week we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, and a man who grew up in one of Buffalo's oldest Irish neighborhoods and rose to become one of the wealthiest men in the city's history. In spite of this, the name William "Fingy" Conners is not known to many people, and that's why we are looking back at his life.
The Old First Ward has always been known for it's hard-working, tough and colorful characters. Fingy Conners was one of them says Anthony Greco, the director of visitor experience at the Buffalo History Museum.
"I think of him as kind of the bull in the china shop of Buffalo's gentile Victorian society," Greco said.
Conners was born in the Ward in 1857.
"He's this person who isn't born into money," Greco said. "He's got this hardscrabble life. He works on steamships, he's uneducated, but he was kind of the perfect storm of intelligence, of drive, and he had this huge chip on his shoulder."
Connors is also a central character in author Richard Sullivan's five novel series of stories focused on the Old First Ward.
"Fingy Conners is a very complicated individual," Sullivan said. "He gained his power by becoming a labor contractor on Buffalo's docks. He became very wealthy and the power just grew. He became dominant over the Buffalo Police Department, over the judges, over the politicians. He put politicians in place."
Sullivan had an inside track when he went about writing his novels, and diving into the life and times of Conners. He says his ancestor was one of Conners' henchmen, who did the dirty work as Conners rose to power.
Conners established a financial foothold by running the labor on docks and silos of Buffalo's waterfront. He is said to have employed around 3,000 men, making him the world's largest contractor in the business. But he wasn't always popular, in 1899 the scoopers went on strike over his business practices. He is said to have lowered wages by half over the course of a generation.
"He really did rule through violence and threats and intimidation," Sullivan said.
Sullivan says Conners parlayed that into other businesses and more power. He opened saloons and if someone wanted to work the next day, they better drink and spend a large chunk of their pay in his tavern.
He owned an asphalt company, brewery and even bought two newspapers, the Buffalo Courier and the Buffalo Enquirer, using them to squash his rivals. He amassed a fortune and even became friends with William Randolph Hearst.
Conners also became involved in politics, rising to the position of State Democratic Chairman. Greco says that Conners was always evolving.
"Every five years he's getting himself involved in a new business, and ultimately he is driven by this attempt to earn the respect of the people who maybe grew up more privileged," Greco said. "He was trying to break into that Buffalo high society and that is really something he's never able to do."
Fingy Conners is remembered by history in many forms, criminal boss, multi-millionaire, political power broker, even philanthropist, although some would argue that his philanthropy often helped the people he forced into poverty in the first place.
He is also remembered because of that colorful nickname Fingy. He got it because he was missing a thumb. There are many theories and stories about how he lost it. One was that he was dared to let his friend chop it with a cleaver. Another story says that he dared a friend that he couldn't shoot off one of his fingers. Another tale tells of a brawl that led to Fingy's thumb being bitten off, and then others speculate that he was just born that way.
Conner's ultimately moved to Florida where he developed a farm and also spearheaded the construction of a toll road across the state that became Highway 80.