Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Legend of Paddy Murphy spawns weeklong Greek festivities

The national Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) Web site points proudly to their crime-fighting brother of the Prohibition era, Elliot Ness. They list him among their notable members, right between William McKinley and David Spade.

Ness, whose memoir The Untouchables (Messner, 1957) about his enforcers who couldn’t be bribed, figures heavily into an SAE legend about a tragic meeting of brothers on different sides of the law. One took his master’s degree in criminology; the other became a rumrunner for the kingpin of the underworld.

Picture Chicago, 1929.

Ness called it “a city ruled by the knife, pistol, shotgun, Tommy gun and ‘pineapple’ of the underworld, a jungle of steel and concrete clutched fast in the fat, diamond-studded hand of a scar-faced killer named Al Capone.”

On the night when fate wore a frat pin, Ness and his Untouchables got wind of a huge booze deal going down. Busting into the joint with pistols pulled, they found Paddy Murphy calling the shots for Scarface.

Just as the money hit the table, Ness ordered the thugs to reach for the rafters. Instead, Paddy made his last mistake and went for his shoulder holster. Ness plugged him with one pop from his snub-nosed .38, then hurried over to hear the imminent corpse breathe his last. To his surprise, instead of a tip from a dying man’s lips, he got the secret SAE handshake from a bootlegger with a bullet hole.

Ness was thunderstruck. In honor of his fallen brother, he ordered a noble funeral for Mrs. Murphy’s boy gone bad.

Reason enough for a party.

Over time and over campuses nationwide, the Paddy Murphy saga spread among the Sig Alphs. Banquets in all seasons featured pinstripes, white ties, spats, South Side fedoras and plastic machine guns.

By 1948, DU had adopted a regular observance. Noted one diarist, “The Paddy Murphy Party … Twas the night that Paddy Murphy died I never shall forget … to the strains of this cheerful dirge … guests honored Paddy according to his last request; ‘with many a tear and a good deal of beer.’”

For the new century, the University of Denver has seen a revival of tradition, according to former SAE chapter president David Kinsley.

DU celebrates.

The weeklong festivities, May 5–May 10, include a mock Murphy funeral. Pallbearers carry a shamrock-crested coffin across the lawn between Sturm Hall and the fraternity house at Asbury and Gaylord. Seniors wax poetic about a life gone astray, redeemed in the final moments with a gesture of brotherhood. Jimmy Nguyen, the current SAE chapter president at DU, says Paddy Murphy events started a day early this year to coincide with Cinco de Mayo.

On May 6, a pub-crawl will include visits to Irish pubs downtown, with appropriate refreshments at the ready for the under-21 crowd. Friday is reserved for giving back to the community, Paddy Murphy style, as SAE members volunteer atProject Homeless Connect 6.

Saturday night is the culminating event, a formal gathering in honor of the fallen gangster. The black tie affair is to be held May 10 at 1770 Sherman Street Event Complex. The community is encouraged to attend; a portion of the proceeds benefits the March of Dimes.

According to Kinsley the whole affair is “serious, but not very somber.” “The Paddy Murphy story speaks to ties and bonds of brotherhood,” he says. “It cements the fact that we are part of something larger.”

A good legend is a yarn that has the possibility of being true. A really good legend has a hero, a villain and a lesson. Over the years Sigma Alpha Epsilon has gone public with their celebration of Paddy Murphy, although the handshake remains a secret. After all, a little mystery completes the perfect legend, one that reaches from there … to fraternity.

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