Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com.
The Wexler / Gordon Story
The Rise of Waxey Gordon
By Allan May
Born in 1886 “to a large, wretchedly poor Polish-Jewish immigrant family,” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Irving Wexler got his nickname “Waxey” after he began his criminal career as a pickpocket. Friends said he was able to remove a victim’s wallet from their pocket “as though it were coated with wax.” The name Gordon was from one of several aliases he used. His police record began in 1905 when he was arrested for pickpocketing and sent to the Elmira Reformatory in October of that year. He was returned there for a short while after a parole violation in 1908. Later that year he was arrested in Boston and served four months in the workhouse. He was then arrested in Philadelphia and did a nineteen-month stretch there. Both arrests were for picking pockets. This last stint must have convinced him there was no future for him in this field for he returned to Manhattan and became a strong-arm goon in the labor gang of “Dopey Benny” Fein.
Gordon was described as a “gruff, powerful, thickset man,” with a particular talent for what the Jews called “schlamming,” which translates to roughing up or beating a person. In 1914, during a gang street fight, a municipal court clerk was killed by a “stray” bullet. Gordon was one of thirteen hoods arrested for the shooting. He and another gang member were the only ones tried for the murder, and after a lengthy trial they were acquitted. The same year, Gordon was sent to Sing Sing for two years for beating a man and robbing him of $465. He was released in 1916. It would be his last prison term until the 1930s.
By the time he returned to Manhattan, “Dopey Benny” had left the labor rackets and Gordon found work for other gangs as a labor goon, strike breaker, dope peddler, and robber – until Prohibition came along. In the fall of 1920, Waxey met Maxey. Max “Big Maxey” Greenberg had recently left St. Louis for Detroit after he double-crossed members of the St. Louis Egan’s Rats Gang and took sides with the Hogan Gang. While in Detroit, Greenberg began smuggling in whiskey from Canada. Quickly realizing how profitable this venture was, he wanted to expand and needed $175,000 to do so. He traveled to New York in hopes that through Gordon, he could obtain financing from Arnold Rothstein, also known as the “Big Bank Roll.” Gordon knew Rothstein from having worked for him in the garment district as a labor enforcer.
Rothstein met the two in Central Park. Sitting on a park bench, he listened to their plan to smuggle in Canadian Whiskey. The following day the three men met again, this time in Rothstein’s office where he made a counterproposal. Rothstein would finance the venture, but the liquor would be purchased and brought in from Great Britain. Gordon, who was acting as a middleman, asked to be included in the deal and was cut in for a small “piece.” From this “piece,” Gordon would launch a successful rum running empire and become a wealthy man. After Rothstein ended his partnership with the two in 1921, he continued to help finance them. Gordon took over two large warehouses when they split, one in the city and the other on Long Island. Rothstein would later use Gordon’s speedboats to smuggle in diamonds and dope. As with rum running, it was Gordon who saw the large potential in narcotics and later introduced it to Rothstein. Just as with the run running, Gordon lacked the finances to enter the racket on a large scale.
Waxey put a gang together of hoods from the old neighborhood to help him with the rum running business. The liquor would be retrieved from “Rum Row,” the fleet of ships anchored off the coast of New York and New Jersey, just outside the three mile limit (later extended to twelve). It would then be brought ashore, taken to the warehouses where it would be cut and stored, and then sold to restaurants, clubs, and bootleggers in the New York metropolitan area. The best “clientele” always received the uncut merchandise.
From his headquarters in the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and Broadway, Gordon operated an efficient operation, which he modeled after his mentor, Rothstein. Gordon lived in a lavishly decorated, ten room apartment, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and owned a large home on the Jersey shore. In his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America,” Albert Fried describes Waxey’s transformation from street thug to “a captain of the bootleg industry:”
“Gone was the schlammer and gunsel of yore. He was reborn Irving Wexler, free-spending New York businessman, owner of real estate and stocks and other properties of a vaguer nature,…a gentleman about town conspicuous by his fancy dress and limousine and companions. He too cultivated a persona. And while he could not yet be a Rothstein – he was still too grubby and coarse and arriviste-looking – he was definitely cutting his own swath of respectability.”
In 1925, government agents, who had been watching Gordon’s operation, got lucky when Hans Furhman, one of Gordon’s ship captains, was unhappy with the amount of money he received from one of the shipments. He decided to get even by going to the authorities and telling them about a Canadian steamer that was on its way to Queens with a hidden cargo of liquor consigned to Gordon. On September 23, agents raided Gordon’s headquarters arresting everyone there, including Maxey Greenberg, and seized maps, charts, and radio codes. Gordon, who was on his way to Europe for a vacation with his family, was arrested when he returned. Before the trial began, Captain Furhman mysteriously died in a guarded New York hotel room. The police ruled it a suicide and the case against Gordon went down the drain.
However, with Gordon’s rum running operation exposed and his boats seized, he abandoned it and moved to Hudson County, New Jersey. With Maxie Greenberg and Jimmy Hassell he muscled his way into the bootlegging business and opened several breweries that were licensed to produce near-beer. Gordon rigged the breweries to produce the “real stuff” and by 1930, he was the main supplier of bootleg beer to northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. He paid Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague and his political machine handsomely for political protection. Operating legal breweries in Patterson, Newark, Union City, and Elizabeth, trucks left daily with legal near-beer shipments to throw off law enforcement. Meanwhile, the genuine beer was produced in the same vats, but before it went through the de-alcoholizing process, it was pumped by underground pipes to bottling plants, sometimes miles away. The gang of triggermen Gordon hired to make sure both his near and real beer reached their destinations was headed by Abner “Longy” Zwillman.
By the late 1920s some of the younger men whose names would become synonymous with organized crime began to emerge; Charles Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin Siegel, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Organized crime writers sometimes refer to “a group of seven” or the “Big Seven” in discussing the underworld leadership on the East Coast during this time. Although there have been variations of the “seven,” Virgil W. Peterson, in his book “The Mob,” gives us the following account:
“According to information reportedly furnished by Luciano almost three decades after Prohibition ended, the original seven members of the cartel were: (1) the Bug and Meyer mob headed by Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel and Meyer Lansky, which operated in New York, New Jersey, and surrounding areas; (2) the group headed by Joe Adonis, which held sway in Brooklyn; (3) the organization headed by Abner (Longy) Zwillman and Willie Moretti, which maintained a strong foothold in northern New Jersey, including Newark, Jersey City, and Fort Lee, as well as in western Long Island; (4) the group controlled by Irving Wexler (alias Waxey Gordon), Harry Stromberg (alias Nig Rosen), and Irving Bitz in Philadelphia; (5) Charles (King) Solomon, who ruled much of New England; (6) Enoch L. (Nucky) Johnson, boss of Atlantic City, who controlled the south New Jersey coast; and (7) Lucky Luciano along with Torrio himself. From other sources it appears quite certain that Frank Costello was also one of the ruling members of the Big Seven.”
There are two points of interest here. First, the time frame being discussed is between the death of Arnold Rothstein, in November 1928, and the beginning of the Castelammarese War, which began on a full scale in 1930. The two mob bosses with the largest armies at this time, Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, are not mentioned as being a part of the “seven.” Nor does either man attend the famous Atlantic City conference, of which Gordon participated, held in May 1929. The second point is that after the 1925 raid on Gordon’s office, crime writers have always attached him with Philadelphia mobsters Max “Boo Boo” Hoff and Harry Stromberg. How much influence and how many operations Gordon had going on in the “City of Brotherly Love” was never quite clear.
In the “Last Testament of Lucky Luciano,” he talks about a trip Joe Adonis and he made to Atlantic City sometime around 1927-28. Luciano was badly in need of imported liquor to supply his customers and went to see “Nucky” Johnson. According to Luciano, he was willing to make Johnson a partner in his gambling enterprise, but “Nucky” had to come up with some much needed Scotch for him. Luciano demanded, “I need Scotch now…So, who’s making the next shipment?” Depending on which book you read, the shipment was coming in for either Masseria or Maranzano, and it was going to Gordon, either for his customers or to be “cut” by him, in Philadelphia. For whomever it was intended, it never got to them. The shipment was hijacked by a gang that Luciano claimed to be a part of, which included Lansky, Siegel, and Adonis:
“A tree was felled across the road and at two in the morning the Maranzano trucks appeared, with several men riding shotgun. At the sight of the tree, the trucks halted and some of the men jumped out to remove it. ‘Siegel started to shoot right away, and then Lansky opened up. One of the Maranzano guys was bumped off and another was wounded, and the rest of ‘em gave up right there. But that didn’t do ‘em no good because we took away their guns and give ‘em a good beatin’ before we took off with the trucks. Maybe the best thing about it was that none of ‘em recognized us because we was all masked.’”
There have been different accounts of the same incident that indicate that as many as three or four of the men were murdered by the hijackers, and that one of the survivors recognized Lansky and told Gordon. From that point on Gordon and Lansky were bitter enemies. In “Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob,” the authors state:
“Soon afterward the two men began to quarrel openly, much to the embarrassment of their various partners. The dispute reached such bitter proportions that they accused each other of being double-crossers and liars. Once they came to blows, but Charlie Lucania (Luciano) stepped between them and told them to ‘behave.’ The feud was long-lasting and by 1931 had become known in the underworld as the ‘War of the Jews.’ Finally Charlie Lucania decided to take stronger action, because the dispute between his two friends threatened to disrupt their business. This was the only situation he had ever seen in which the passions of the ‘Little Man’ seemed to conquer his normal common sense, and it was obvious that the organization could not contain both Meyer and Waxey.’
By mid-1931 cooperation between Gordon and Lansky had become impossible. In addition to his feud with Lansky, Gordon was facing an investigation of his income tax returns by the Internal Revenue Service. According to Luciano, he and Lansky formulated a plan to feed the IRS incriminating evidence to help them put Gordon away. The plan was allegedly carried out by Lansky’s brother, Jake, who was said to have several friends that were Internal Revenue agents. Jake traveled to Philadelphia and supplied the agents with financial information that led to the indictment of Gordon. Thomas E. Dewey prosecuted the Gordon tax trial. If there was any truth to Luciano’s statement, Dewey never acknowledged it. In Dewey’s book “Twenty Against the Underworld,” neither Jake nor Meyer Lansky are mentioned.
Copyright A. R. May 1999