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This book tracks the rise and fall of an underworld culture that bred some of America's greatest racketeers, bootleggers, gamblers, and professional killers, examining the careers of such high-profile figures as Meyer Lansky and Benjamin Bugsy Siegel.
Columbia University Press
|Introduction: Some Questions of Motive and Method|
|1||The Old Neighborhood||1|
|2||The Mugwumps and the Jews||44|
|4||Lepke's Rise: The Chronicles of Labor||129|
|5||Lepke's Fall: The Chronicles of Thomas E. Dewey||175|
|6||The Worlds of Meyer Lansky||229|
|Afterword to the Morningside Edition||287|
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
Abe Shoenfeld could not have been completely surprised that day in August 1912 when a group of influential New York City German-American Jews called on him to undertake an important and highly confidential assignment. They wanted him to head a team of private investigators who would check out and report on the criminals and vice lords of the city's great Jewish quarter, the Lower East Side. The incidence of crime and vice down there had gotten out of hand, had indeed reached scandalous dimensions--so scandalous the newspapers were reporting them daily, featuring them in one headline story after another; so scandalous they threatened to bring all New York Jews, even the most respectable (the Germans), into disrepute. The crisis demanded an extreme response.
That Shoenfeld had been selected to carry out this grave enterprise could not have surprised him either. He had grown up on the Lower East Side--his father had been active in the trade union movement--spoke Yiddish fluently, and knew every aspect of the community's life, its upper and nether worlds both. And he had recently done investigative work of this sort, for a commission (financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) looking into New York's malignant "social evil," prostitution. That work had taken Shoenfeld into the seamiest depths of the Lower East Side. He bore the best of credentials.
One of his first reports, written only days after he was on the job, discussed a place named Segal's Cafe, located on Second Avenue, a broad boulevard filled with theaters and restaurants and dance halls and new apartment buildings and stores, the neighborhood's entertainment and social and commercial center. Segal's customers, however, were not drawn from the crowds who walked along the great thoroughfare. They usually came to Segal's when everyone else slept, when Second Avenue itself was quiet as a tomb, and there they talked and drank and gambled a little; they relaxed after their day's labor was done, for their work schedules differed from other people's: they all belonged to the Lower East Side underworld.
Months later Shoenfeld sent to his employers a list of the "habitues" of Segal's Cafe. It is presented here exactly as he wrote it:
Patsye Keegan--gun-pipe fiend--mack.
Sadie Chink--ex-prostitute--owner disorderly house.
Aaron Horlig alias Big Aleck--50% owner.
Louis Segal alias Little Segal--50% owner.
Charlie Auerbach--mack--strike breaker--life taker.
Little Carl--right name Carl Hudis alias Harry Cohen--gunmack.
Charles Pearlstein alias Kopki--mack--strike breaker--doorman.
Keever alias Little Keever--mack-gun--gunman-strongarm.
McKinley--gun and mack.
Whitey Lewis--indicted and convicted--Rosenthal Affair.
Lefty Louis--indicted and convicted--Rosenthal Affair.
Jack Zelig---recently murdered.
Dopey Benny--guerilla--life taker.
Valinsky--gun--brother to Harry Vallon of Rosenthal Fame.
Little Mikie Newman-gangster.
Louis Cruller--alias Little Cruller--gun and mack.
Candy Kid Phil--gun.
Sam Boston--gambler--owner--former fagin--fence--commission better. His wife a pickpocket.
Meyer Boston--same as his brother Sam--their right names are Meyer & Sam Solomon.
Little Natie--(not the one from Broome St.)--gun. Right family name is Lubin being related to Lubin the Philadelphia Moving Film Company.
Charlie Whitey--mack and strike breaker.
Dinah Hudis--prostitute. Her mack is Little Carl.
Jennie Morris alias Jennie The Factory--former prostitute and at present disorderly house owner. Her mack is Harry Morris. Owner 249 Broome Street.
Bessie London--right name is Mrs. Meyer Solomon--her husband is Meyer Boston--best gun-mol in the world.
Tillie Gold--right name Mrs. Sam Solomon--her husband is Sam Boston--a gun-mol from Bessie London's School.
Tillie Finkelstein--gun-mol from Bessie London's School--married to Candy Kid Phil--do not know his family name.
Birdie Pomerantz--gun-mol--married to Philly Furst, a gun, now out of town working the rattlers and shorts and towns out west.
And other women of their calibre and men also.
At this address people of the underworld from out of town pay visits when they come here, as for instance Celia Minsky and Pauline alias Pauline The Horse Car--both disorderly house madams of Philadelphia. At this address Gold the actor plays pinochle, and Greenberg a city employee also. Zelig was "framed up" in here. Red Phil was in here 20 minutes before he killed Jack Zelig. Other habitues are not yet on my lists, and whom I can think of just now are:
Big Nose Willie--gun.
Herman Scheiner--alias Chaim The Mummey--gun.
Tutsie--worker in a pool room or crap house.
Dan The Stud Dealer
Shoenfeld was very thorough. He wrote colorful, densely detailed and sharply opinionated sketches of many of these characters. One example, taken at random, will suffice--his account of the Solomon brothers, alias the Bostons (after the city of their birth), Samuel and Meyer, and their wives or gun-mols, Tillie and Bessie. Sam, at twenty-eight, three years older than Meyer, was short and pudgy (five feet four, one hundred sixty-five pounds) and had "rosy stout cheeks" and "a heavy underlip showing his innate lustful character." How lustful is proved by the fact that he once had been "noted for his propensities as a seducer" and deadly "maiden taker." Also, he had been a "full fledged pickpocket and fagin" who stole barrels, the zinc steps of tenement buildings, and the purses of mothers wheeling baby carriages. He had met Tillie Gold about six years earlier, when she hardly spoke English. But Tillie happened to be the friend, or rather protegee, of Bessie London who was then going with Meyer and had already established herself as "the cleverest booster gun-mol in the world" (booster meaning a female specialist in pilfering from department-store counters). By the time Sam married Tillie she had become an expert thief in her own right, enabling him to retire from "the gun craft" and go into a vocation worthier of his abilities, gambling. Tillie is quite a woman: "about 5 ft. 5 inches--medium color hair--good-looking--nice mannered--is considered clever--is a wise talker--walks up and down Second Avenue with thieving girls--kept women and prostitutes...."
Meyer and Bessie had a roughly similar arrangement, though apparently a more successful one. Meyer, who was slim, handsome, well-dressed, and soft-spoken (Sam had "a loud mouth--nobody knows as much as he does--he contradicts everybody"), took fewer chances and played the odds more shrewdly. "Today he is a big Second Avenue Man," a "wise guy" (big shot) who "can play pinochle for $500 a game." What is more, Meyer had Bessie, queen of the gun-mols, who lavished huge sums of money on him, beginning with an $18,000 dowry. Shoenfeld cannot help admiring her: "She is quick and clever--and had an auspicious manner--is very ladylike--has a good heart and is a good kid." Yet Shoenfeld finds on balance that "Meyer and Bessie do not live as happily as Sam and Tillie do. Sam cares somewhat for Tillie aside of [sic] her money stealings--and Meyer only wants money, money, money from Bessie."
Such, then, were the Bostons, typical habitues of Segal's Cafe.
During his investigation, which went on for years, Shoenfeld discovered many similar "hangouts" in the neighborhood: Gluckow's Odessa Tea House on Broome Street; the University Cafe and Simmie Tischler's hangout on Rivington; Max Himmel's and Harry Blinderman's notorious establishments on Delancey; Blattberg's Saloon, the Onyx, Sam Boske's Hop Joint, all on Stanton; Dora Gold's candy store on First Street; Gucker's Saloon on Second Street; and Sam Paul's place on Seventh Street, to name a few. All of these had their own list of habitues, each of whose life stories Shoenfeld carefully recorded. He also inquired into their occupations and modus operandi, catching them very nearly in the act itself. He compiled an endless quantity of material on whole families of prominent and long entrenched madams and pimps and procurers: Rosie and Jacob Hertz, the Rosenbachs and the Goldmans and countless others; on drug dealers, the likes of Benny Silver, Hymie Fischel, Willie Gipson, Dinny Slyfox, Little Archie, and their ilk who were "poisoning the mind and body of Jewry"; on strikebreakers and guerillas: Charlie the Expressman, Charlie Auerbach and Dopey Benny (both habitues of Segal's Cafe), Waxey Gordon, Pinchy Paul, Little Rothie, Billy Lustig, and their companions; on out and out bandits like the "Warshover Thieves"--who, as their title suggests, came originally from Warsaw, Poland, and who now comprised a vicious little group of pickpockets, their turf being the streetcars on Delancey, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge; and so on and on. By the time his assignment ended Shoenfeld had written biographical vignettes on some 1,900 of these people. And he had not come close to exhausting the neighborhood's subterranean life.
Conscientious as he was in gathering the facts, Shoenfeld could not help being a moralist, a scathing judge of the evildoers who brought such shame on the Jews. At one point in his essay on Segal's Cafe he recommends that a vigilante group "be formed in 4 hours and regardless of the law and order of the day ... plant a 14 inch gun and shoot the damn basement and its hoard of carrion into perdition." His animus is understandable, implied as it is in the very terms of his mission. He must raise as high as he can the moral barrier between the men and women he is tracking down and the rest of the Lower East Side Jews, decent, hard-working, law-abiding. But this approach, valuable and even necessary as it was, scarcely did justice to the questions it called forth. If the numbers were so large, if thousands of men and women belonged to the underworld, their legions scattered throughout the neighborhood, and if they had their own solidarities, vocations, institutions, what amounted to their own society or culture flourishing at once within and beneath the community as a whole--if so, then how could one speak of a simple moral dichotomy, the "good" people versus the "bad" ones? Was it enough therefore to single out, isolate, apprehend, and punish the guilty individuals, assuming this could be done? What had brought about such a deep-rooted and pervasive underworld culture? And just how was that culture bound up with--rather than distinguished from--the community in general? These questions obviously require their own inquiry and their own answers.
We are saying that Segal's Cafe and everything it signified was the product of a history that had been germinating on the Lower East Side decades before Abe Shoenfeld appeared on the scene in the summer of 1912.
That some men among the first wave of Jews who settled on the Lower East Side in the early 1880s turned to "disorderly women," as prostitutes were then called, is a reasonably safe assumption. Many of these men were unmarried or had left their wives (and children) behind; others went to prostitutes for occasional solace from the endless tyranny of their workaday lives. It is also safe to assume that they regarded their reliance on street women, however infrequent, as a transgression of moral and holy writ. Yet what were they to do? For married bachelors the only alternative short of self-denial was to take a mistress, an alternative which might--and often did--have unhappy consequences. As for unmarried young men, the best advice after all was to hold off marrying as long as possible, or at least until they had acquired a modest competence. Prostitution, then, had its uses, even its social virtues, on the Lower East Side as it did in all the other ghettos and immigrant habitations across the land.
Inevitably, the shame and the sense of guilt diminished, the moral proscriptions lost much of their authority, and--for the homeless and frustrated men so disposed--buying one's sexual pleasures became more and more routine. Habit has its own justification.
The women who served the Jews in the first years of their arrival were experienced, well-trained professionals. Many were brought to the Lower East Side from adjoining neighborhoods, "The Tenderloin" to the north for instance, a district full of bawdyhouses. These Irish and German and white and black American women who comprised the labor force usually charged fifty cents a trick, no small sum in those days when six or seven dollars a week was a livable wage. (The price, incidentally, remained constant for decades.) How much the prostitutes kept for themselves is another matter. It was rarely more than half the amount earned, and often less, the "surplus" going to the usual retinue, the pimps and landlords, along with the local officials from the cop on the beat to the political boss. Still, to look at the facts coldbloodedly, the average streetwalking whore ended up with more income than the average working girl, her Irish or German or rural American sister, say, who scrubbed floors from dawn to dusk in the big city for a few coppers a day.
It was not long before Jewish women began to make their appearance on the streets, too. Soon there were scores of them, then hundreds; then, by the turn of the century when the neighborhood's population was at its height, hundreds upon hundreds. We do not have even an approximation of how many there were. No quantitative study of prostitution as such was ever done, and only a few attempts, and those on a very small scale, were made to ascertain which immigrant or ethnic groups contributed what proportion of the total. The numerous reports on the "social evil" that came out after 1901 usually skirted such questions.
The United States Immigration Commission, a body set up by Congress to investigate a broad range of immigrant and immigrant-related problems, conducted a survey of prostitutes brought before the New York City Magistrates Court between November 15, 1908, and March 15, 1909. While the survey was not a good one, the sampling being too narrow and the time period in question too brief, it does furnish some valuable data. The Commission found that of the 2,093 cases before the court 1,512 (almost three fourths) consisted of native-born women, a preponderance of whom were presumably Jewish (one can only infer this since the ethnic headings are Russian and Polish, not "Hebrew"). The data are more exact on the 581 foreign-born: 225 are Jewish as against 154 French, 64 German, 31 Italian, 29 Irish, and 10 Polish, the five next largest groups. The Commission also concluded that only a handful of Jewish women came to America as prostitutes, a total of seven in 1908-9 (most of the French prostitutes had been imported by white slave traders operating out of Marseilles).
A few years later a private New York City vice commission carefully examined the records of 647 New York prostitutes who were being held at the State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills. While that study too leaves much to be desired, so far as the ratio of Jewish inmates to the rest are concerned it more or less corroborates the Immigration Commission findings. It found that of the 290 women at Bedford Hills who had foreign-born parents, 92 were Jewish (Russian, Austrian, German and Hungarian in that order); next highest were the Irish with 65 and the German with 60. It would be unwise of course to generalize extravagantly from these reports. What they both bear out, though, is the impression--nay, the fact--that the Lower East Side had become one of the infamous red-light zones of the age.
The problem overwhelmed every effort that Jewish philanthropic and charity organizations undertook to deal with it. These organizations were created and staffed by the rich German or "uptown" Jews who had no firsthand knowledge of what life was like downtown. For their part, Lower East Siders kept their distance from the prostitutes, the scourge of the streets, a blight to every eye. Religious societies struck them from the roster of the living. Other Jews, equally appalled, had their own lives to worry about. Some blamed the women, others the circumstances. All felt helpless before the monstrous reality of prostitution.
Not until 1901 did the National Council of Jewish Women establish the Clara de Hirsch House for Immigrant Girls; and not until 1905 the Lakeview Home; each accommodated only a few hundred women at a time. Some fallen women were also admitted to the Hawthorne School, an institution built in 1906 for Jewish delinquent boys (about which more later). These efforts deserve mention here if only to emphasize the inadequacy of the response, necessarily so, given the enormity of the condition, though any response was better than none and any life saved a miracle.
A New York City police commissioner, William McAdoo, explained as well as anyone why so many Jewish women became prostitutes. "The horrors of the sweatshop," he wrote in 1906, "the awful sordidness of life in the dismal tenement, the biting, grinding poverty, the fierce competition, the pitiful wages for long hours of toil under unwholesome conditions, physical depression, and mental unhappiness are all allied with the temptation to join the better-clad, better-fed, and apparently happier [people]." Yet the question still remains: What accounts for the high rate of Jewish prostitutes, compared with other immigrant women who suffered similar poverty and despair and were subject to similar "temptations"? Why did fewer prostitutes--fewer both proportionately and absolutely--emerge from other immigrant ranks?
The answer (one can only speculate here) may lie quite simply in the fact that prostitution was one of the ways in which Jewish women, some at any rate, expressed the contrary side of their virtues. For just as Jewish women were more independent, less passive, less bound to the constraints of traditional authority than other women (Italian, Polish, et al.), so more of them rebelled against the pin-pricks, said no to the despotism that gathered about them, becoming on the one hand militant trade unionists or radical ideologues or social activists, or on the other hand (we draw the contrast as sharply as possible) streetwalkers who acted on the belief, cynical to be sure, though no more cynical than the reigning ethic of competitive individualism and Social Darwinism, that only they--those few who helped themselves by embracing the underworld culture--could be saved. Jewish women, more than any other, sought to make their own lives, for good or ill.
We are curious nonetheless to know who they were, what prompted them in particular, for they were at most a tiny percentage of the Jewish female population as a whole, to choose the lives they lived, cutting themselves off from parents and community and finding comfort only among their fellow and sister pariahs, such a fate being the necessary accompaniment of their choice. And we are curious also to know what became of them. Alas, we will never learn the answers. Those who could have told us, those who represented the Jewish community as social workers and philanthropists, were the most eager to say nothing, to have done once and for all with these lost souls. But would it be too far-fetched to imagine that a fair number of them, even most, ceased to practice their trade after a few years (how many years it would be enormously interesting to know) and went on to marry and bear children and settle into perfectly normal and respectable lives? I do not think so.
Like their predecessors, like their gentile sisters in other neighborhoods, Jewish prostitutes mostly worked out of crowded tenements. Typical was Rosie Solomon (no relation to the Solomon brothers), age thirty, who conducted a flourishing business in her Rivington Street flat. She was comely looking, according to the investigator's report, her shapely figure (she was five feet, eight inches tall) and dark hair set off by her five gleaming gold teeth, and she had no trouble attracting clients. Rosie Solomon had married at thirteen back in Russia and had borne a son whom she had left behind on emigrating to America. (What became of her husband we are not told.) Lately that son, now fourteen, had showed up at her apartment. It had been an especially bad time for him to do so because she was about to have a baby. She gave the lad $100 and sent him back to Russia.
Another typical streetwalker was Jennie Silver. She was pretty too: she stood five feet, six inches, weighed about 140 pounds and had blonde hair. One of Shoenfeld's men picked her up and accompanied her to her second floor place overlooking East Houston Street. She "opened the door," Shoenfeld writes, "and there were two men drinking a pint of beer. The woman said to [one of the men], `Come on Jake, get out of here for a few minutes. I have a John.' There was a little girl of about two years lying on a couch. This was Jennie's child, and Jake, whose name is Jacob Silver, is Jennie's husbandmack. She has been living with him for the past ten years. He never works. If she does not make enough money for him, he kicks and beats her...."
Hundreds of such case studies were compiled by Shoenfeld's vigilantes; they differ from each other only in detail and setting.
Occasionally prostitutes used the back rooms of stores, or "weisbierstubes" (literally, "white beer parlors"), leading in from the streets and cordoned off by a curtain, or they sublet space from families. A survey of the "social evil" published in 1910 described how one family, consisting of man and wife and three small children, made ends meet by subletting to a prostitute. "The other member of the household was an immoral woman who received men both night and day in one of the two rooms in which the family lived. Occasionally, another prostitute from a neighboring tenement came to the house and assisted in receiving company. There was no door between the two rooms, and when men came in the daytime the mother with the baby in her arms offered to leave the place if desired. At night, when the other children were home from school, the whole family remained in one room while the other was being used by this immoral woman."
This inescapable mixture of depravity and normal everyday life, this shameless promiscuity, especially offended visitors to the Lower East Side. One of them described what he saw: "hideous women swarming on the streets, lolling out of the windows, and sitting on stoops, making wanton exhibitions, inviting customers, and indulging in their peculiar methods of speech and action, in full view of hundreds of children, who romped about the streets, looking curiously at the women betimes, and noting well all of the degrading commerce."
The effect of the "degrading commerce" on children of course consituted the most serious problem of all. "Almost any child on the East Side in New York," a famous report on prostitution observed in passing, "will tell you what a `nafke bias' [whorehouse] is." The effect on young girls in particular may be judged from Lincoln Steffens' recollection of a poignant moment, one of the many he witnessed during the years he covered the Lower East Side as a crime reporter. The example is admittedly an unusual one. "`Oh, Meester Report!' an old woman wailed one evening. `Come to my house and see my children, my little girls.' She seized and pulled me in ... up the stairs, weeping, into her clean, dark room, one room, where her three little girls were huddled at the one rear window, from which they--and we--could see a prostitute serving a customer. `Da, sehen Sie, there they are watching, always they watch.' As the children rose at the sight of us and ran away, the old woman told us how her children had always to see that beastly sight. `They count the men who come of a night,' she said. `Ninety-three one night.' (I shall never forget that number.) `My oldest girl says that she will go into that business when she grows up; she says it's a good business, easy, and you can dress and eat and live."'
Steffens' account is corroborated in a more general way by the Headworker of the University Settlement Society. He wrote in 1900: "The worst sin is the sin against the children in the tenement houses, whose eyes are forced to behold sights which they never ought to witness; the youth whose moral sense is blunted; the girls who ceased to be shocked by the sight of vice and come to envy the vicious women, who appear to lead an easy and comfortable existence...."
The growth of the community brought corresponding changes to the institution. Some buildings were converted into fancy houses of assignation, comparable to those flourishing in the better quarters, where prettier and younger women, the pick of the crop, as well as superior entertainment and food and drink, were available for those who could afford them. At the more pedestrian level there sprang up the "Raines Law hotels," threadbare establishments consisting of several rooms and a saloon, a favorite place for a relaxed evening. (They were called Raines Law hotels after an 1896 New York State ordinance which forbade the sale of alcohol on Sunday except in hotels, a hotel being defined as anything with at least ten bedrooms, a dining room, and a kitchen. By 1905 there were a thousand such places in Manhattan and the Bronx alone; no estimate has been made on how many the Lower East Side had.) "The average citizen goes there," a group of reformers wrote in 1902, "to drink his glass of beer and listen to the bad music and worse jokes that play so important a part in summer entertainment. When there, he becomes subject to solicitations which have the appearance of a mere flirtation; if he yields it is with the least possible shock to his moral sensibilities; he may feel he did not seek vice, but he was overcome by circumstances." But despite these changes, despite the increasing professionalism of their trade, most Jewish prostitutes continued to solicit on the streets and use the tenement apartment as their workshop.
Then, of course, there were the pimps, or "cadets" as they were called (why remains a mystery, the dictionaries and lexicons telling us nothing about the origin of the word), who as always announced their presence on the Lower East Side at exactly the same time the prostitutes did and were as ubiquitous and as easily identifiable. The typical Jewish cadet, in the words of an official report, "is a young man averaging from eighteen to twenty-five years of age who, after having served a short apprenticeship as a `lighthouse' [an employee of a brothel], secures a staff of girls and lives upon their earnings. He dresses better than the ordinary neighborhood boy, wears an abundance of cheap jewelry, and he usually cultivates a limited amount of gentlemanly demeanor." How often Marcus E. Ravage, author of a fine memoir, An American in the Making, would encounter on the Lower East Side streets of his youth "a young gentleman with piercing, relentless eyes, faultlessly attired in modish clothes, high collar, and patent leather boots" who "painted me a dark picture of the fate of the fool who thought he could succeed in America with the antiquated notions he had brought with him from the old country." That young gentleman had come to terms with America.
No one was more reviled and hated in the community at large than the cadet, for his stock in trade was seduction and false promises. No scheme or deception was too outrageous for him to perpetrate. Aside from his personal charm he freely used marriage brokers and employment agencies to snare his victims--the young, the lonely, the innocent, the weak, the alienated, the oppressed. He sometimes showed up at the immigrants' processing center to catch the girls as soon as they landed. ("Beware," advised a Yiddish-language leaflet distributed to women who had just arrived, "beware of those who give you addresses, offer you easy, well-paid work, or even marriage. There are many evil men and some who have in their way led girls to destruction.")
Nor was it unheard of for cadets to recruit women in the old country, going back there themselves or working through marriage brokers. The United States Immigration Commission detailed one such case, that of a seventeen-year-old Polish-Jewish girl who was picked up by her bogus fiance at Ellis Island: "He took the girl directly from New York to Montana and broke her into the life there. He put her in a crib [a bordello], and forced her to lead the life of a prostitute. They stayed in----about six weeks, and he then took her to Seattle, Wash., and put her in the crib house of which----, a Japanese, is the proprietor, and in which there are Japanese, Jewish, and French women as inmates. He kept her there about a month, and then moved her to the----House, a house of prostitution of French and Jewish inmates. At the time he placed her in the----House the girl was about two and a half months pregnant. Up to this time she had hoped the man would marry her. When he found that she was pregnant he refused to marry her, but made her work as an inmate in the house of prostitution daily, and collected all her money; he refused to give her any street clothes, and made her continue to work during her pregnancy and up to the time she went to the hospital. She did not go to the hospital until the day before her child was born. She was forced to continue her work when she was too ill to walk, and suffered terrible pain. The man refused to give her any money, and she went to a charitable hospital. While she was in the hospital, the man took another prostitute and left Washington for Butte, Mont."