By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
"A criminal class has developed among the Jews…Jewish gunmen, Jewish pickpockets, Jewish horse-poisoners, Jewish gamblers, Jewish prostitutes, Jewish white slavers. All of these exist." (American Hebrew, December 12, 1913)
Jewish gangsters have not been studied in such depth as their Italoamerican counterparts, who represent the staple of mob literature. We can rattle off the names of many of the notorious Italians, going back decades, but who can name such characters, many with colorful monikers, as Tick-Tock Tannenbaum, Dopey Benny, Big Jack Zelig, Little Angie, Bennie Green, Crazy Jake, Little Mikie Newman, Gyp the Blood, Big Nose Willie, Alley Fat; or the Detroit Purple Gang leaders Hymie Paul, Joe Lebowitz, Isadore Sutker? The list is lengthy, not to mention a substantial congregation of Jewish associates and hangers-on.
A golden age of Hebraic hoodlums existed, from the turn of the century gonifs (Yiddish: thief or petty crook) like Monk Eastmen, to the 1920s mastermind Arnold Rothstein, to Mickey Cohen and Meyer Lansky (who died in 1983 at 81), to the Chicago-bred artful powerbroker Sidney Korshak (1907-1996) and his white-collar co-conspirators.
The rise of Kosher Nostra began in New York City at the turn of the century when Monk Eastman (nee Jacob Osterman) ended the reign of the Irish gangs in the Five Points area of the old Lower East Side. For two decades thereafter, the now dominant Jews engaged in tribal warfare—spreading outward from their poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The supremacy of the Jewish hoods was to see its twilight when, in 1944, the "King of the Rackets" Louis "Lepke" Buchalter went to the electric chair, and the Italians definitively came to the fore.
"The Jewish criminal [in New York] exploited the opportunities that lay close at hand. He shook down peddlers and pushcart vendors and store owners. He was occasionally a burglar or thief or a ‘fagin.’ One such fagin, Harry Joblinsky, had fifteen nimble pickpockets under his wing; another, Abe Greenthal, commanded the notorious Sheeny Gang. More often, the criminal was a fence, a receiver and mover of stolen goods." (Albert Fried. The Rise and fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, 1980)
Herbert Asbury, an early 20th century historian of New York gangs, described Monk Eastman as having a bullet-shaped head, a broken nose and a pair of cauliflower ears, with plenty of scars. He was ferocious looking, a simian figure, as frightening as he looked: "malevolence incarnate." Monk participated in the nascent Jewish labor movement. He played both sides of the street, furnishing for-hire thugs to employers to break strikes, and to unions to assault "scabs."
In 1904, Eastman received ten years in Sing Sing for shooting a Pinkerton detective. Back on the streets (after serving with distinction in the U.S. Army in France during the First World War), he was gunned down in 1920 by rival bootleggers. Kid Twist carried on where Monk left off.
Monk, the gentleman, boasted that he never used his club on women. When he blacked their eyes it was with his fist, "and I always takes me knucks off first." It was the likes of Eastman that vexed the bearded Jewish patriarchs: those younger Jewish immigrants who had turned their backs on the old ways to spend time with thugs and goys. "Shall the race remain stained and blotted in reputation or rise to new heights?" the head of the New York Jewish community asked, praying for salvation that there would be fewer Gyp the Bloods in the future.
Jewish crime was a matter of palpable concern to the community at large, which tried to sweep under the rug, or at least minimize, the growing bad publicity it generated. Any utterances by public officials of the plague of Jewish thugs were quickly attacked by Jewish leaders. Statistics were suppressed and critics of Jewish criminality were silenced or forced to admit to overgeneralization. The Jews were especially sensitive to the possibility of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration biases at work. The fact remained that such crime was evident to the naked eye.
The official crime statistics told the story. In Manhattan and The Bronx, between 1900 and 1914, Jews accounted for 21 percent of the felony charges. "In certain crimes where cunning is especially needed, Jews furnish most of the criminals," in particular property crimes. There was much thievery, opportunistic street crimes like a convenient pocket to pick (grifting) and strong-arming. Gang leaders delivered the vote to local politicians, forced thieves, gamblers, and operators of disorderly houses to pay protection money, and extorted shopkeepers and street vendors, exacting cash on a regular schedule. Racketeering, the art of levying and collecting tribute through violence and intimidation (a new word for an old practice), was considered a "peculiarly Jewish" enterprise. Dopey Benny was the first Jewish gangster to make racketeering a full-time business. He and others succeeded in seizing control of New York’s Jewish "rag trade" clothing industry. Horse-poisoning flourished in an era when horses were valuable commodities. The self-styled "Yiddish Black Hand," a copycat of the alleged Italian La mano nera of the day, would by letter threaten a horse owner to "Pay or we’ll drop a horse on you." Joseph "Yushke Nigger" Toblinsky was the King of the Horse-Poisoners. (Jenna Weissman Joselit. Our Gang: Jewish Crime in the New York Jewish Community, 1900-1940)
"The gangster of the Prohibition Era was almost invariably second-generation American; he was almost invariably a Sicilian, an Irishman, a Jew." (Kenneth Allsup. The Bootleggers and Their Era, 1961)
Prohibition represented new opportunities for criminal groups and gave rise to the need for greater cooperation. Mobsters evolved into organization men. Racketeering, smuggling and other crimes were transformed from the work of gangs to organized crime with a differentiation of tasks. Criminals prospered from the conflicts between labor and management, just before and subsequent to the First World War. By 1921 some unions already had strong-arm men on their payrolls. The neighborhood gang morphed to an advanced state of development. The possibilities of profit soared relative to street criminality. The potential for competition and attendant interclan violence was greater and the degree of professionalization enhanced.
The relationship of the underworld to the greater society underwent a transformation. In the old days the gangsters had worked as hired hands for the gamblers, who in turn worked for the police and the politicians. After the advent of Prohibition, which turned the gangs into freewheeling empires, it would be the men of the underworld who often called the tune, with the overworld accepting favors granted by the crime lords. We find that the "Ambassador of Crime" Frank Costello wielded substantial power. He would not have been overheard on the telephone expressing his undying gratitude to a politician for favors granted; it was the other way around.
Jewish mobs formed and prospered in all of the cities with sizable Jewish populations. Leon Gleckman had his boys in St. Paul, Solomon Weissman in Kansas City (Missouri), Charles Soloman in Boston, and others in Detroit and Philadelphia. In Cleveland, according to police records filed by ethnicity, in 1930, the numbers of major mobsters were Hebrew (27), German (15), thirteen Italians, and nine Irishmen. Twelve of the Jews were foreign-born and all of the Italians. In the 1930s, the Jewish Cleveland mob was among the strongest in the nation.
Big-time bootlegging gave rise to the gang/syndicate cartel, in other words a criminal enterprise that required the cooperation and expertise of many mobs as well as associate members and non-mob persons (and pay-offs) to coordinate the unhindered movement of quantities of booze from source to customer.
The necessity of such cooperation brought about the Big Seven Bootlegging Combine Conclave, which was held in May 1929 at the President Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was perhaps the most ethnically-mixed mobster get-together ever. To name a few of the illustrious: Al Capone, Jacob Guzik, Joe Bernstein (and other members of the Detroit Purple Gang), Cleveland’s Moe Dalitz, Newark’s Long Zwillman, and Meyer Lansky of the Bug & Meyer Mob, a racketeering group formed in 1925 by Lansky and close friend Bugsy Siegel. (In 1933, the New York Jewish chieftains held an exclusive meeting at the Franconia Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.)
A Siegel anecdote: When the Bug migrated to Hollywood from the East Coast, in the late 1930s, he infiltrated the movie extras’ organization and proceeded to put the bite on the Hollywood film community. Burton B. Turkus describes an extortion scenario (Murder, Inc., 1951): The Bug would say to a high-salaried actor, "I guess you don’t understand. If I don’t get $10,000 from you then what happens? The extras walk out—just like that. No extras, no picture."
Meyer Lansky had few peers as a racketeer. This is Nicholas Gage’s assessment of his prowess (The Mafia is not an Equal Opportunity Employer, 1971): "The thing that sets Lansky apart from most men who have achieved the American dream is his line of business. He chose to pursue his ambitions not in steel or oil, not in automobiles or banking, but in crime. In that field he is as much a visionary innovator as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller were in theirs." Lanky’s personal fortune at this death was estimated between $100 million and $300 million. This "hidden fortune" was actually a journalistic conceit. A reporter for the Miami Herald arbitrarily chose the estimate in 1967. Newspapers circulated this as fact and it became another mafia myth, even believed by the FBI.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of the Jewish brand of criminality during Prohibition was Detroit’s Purple Gang, a loose confederation of mostly Jewish thugs and rumrunners. Initially, the gang was a nascent group of juvenile delinquents on the lower-east side of Detroit numbering more than a dozen boys from the same neighborhood. Their numbers swelled as the gang’s reputation increased. (The Purples got their name when co-religionists looking upon them in disdain used the term "purple," that is, tainted, as in meat.)
The growing strength of the Purples encouraged an influx of recruits from other cities. By the late 1920, the Purples reigned supreme over the Detroit underworld, controlling the city’s vice, gambling, kidnapping, and especially narcotics and liquor trafficking. They remained a dominating force into the middle 1930s both in Detroit and beyond. (At least their reputation did.)
Prohibition began in Michigan on May 1, 1918. Detroit was the first city with a population over a quarter of a million to have a prohibition law. The Purples had an advantage in the rum-running business because of Detroit’s proximity to Canada, which had its own prohibition legislation, but allowed the export of spirits. Thus was born the quaint "Little Jewish Navy" consisting of a fleet of a dozen fast boats that hauled Canadian booze across the Detroit River to the city, and beyond. Jealousies, egos, and internecine quarrels and killings led to the self-destruction of the Purples. (Paul R. Kavieff. The Purple Gang: Organized Crime in Detroit, 1910-1945, 2000)
Historian Humbert S. Nelli noted that the Atlantic City Confab congregated to "participate in the scramble for wealth made possible by the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment." Given the ethnic prejudices of the period, the forging of an Italian-Jewish alliance was probably the most unique episode in American organized crime. The Italians and the Jews "spoke" the same language. Common childhood experiences of privation and exclusion overrode obvious ethnic differences. That alliance was in Albert Fried’s view (The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, 1980) the inevitable product of sharing the worst kind of lower-class, immigrant environment. He continues, "Italians and Jews, both, were equally barbarous, each representing the lowest level of abomination to which gangsterism in America had sunk." That environment produced a number of cold-blooded hired killers, the most obvious Murder, Inc., of the 1930s, composed of Jewish and Italian hitmen.
There was, to be sure, dissension in the ranks; some of Lucky Luciano’s and Frank Costello’s comrades did not appreciate their coziness with persons outside the closed-lipped, exclusive paesano group. Such relationships verged on betrayal of their strict criminal code. (Costello married his Jewish childhood sweetheart.) Vito Genovese was in particular vehement in his utter disgust: "What are you trying to do, load us with a bunch of Hebes?" The buddy trio of Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano was said to be the tightest friendships in American crime circles.
According to Luciano (in his purported memoirs) Dutch Schultz expressed interest in Catholicism. "And then I’ll be damned," Charley Lucky remarked, "if he [Schultz] didn’t start to talk about the Catholic religion. He wanted to know what it was like to be a Catholic, whether Vito Genovese and me ever went to confession, if we knew what you had to do to switch to Catholicism from being a Jew. What’s funny is when I started hanging around Jews like Meyer and Bugsy and Dutch, the old guys Masseria and Maranzano and lots of my friends used to beef to me about it. Someday, they said, the Jews are gonna make me join a synagogue. So what happens? It ain’t me that gets turned. It’s the Dutchman."
New York’s 1930s crimebuster Thomas Dewey perceptively noted the transition of the untutored and unwashed street gangs of the early Kosher Nostra years to their modern counterparts. Dewey: "Only in the cruder and more primitive rackets are violence and threats still necessary or the shakedown plain and brazen. Legal means are customarily used to achieve illegal objectives. A well-devised cloak of respectability and legitimacy is generally present. The innuendo and veiled threat are sufficient to exact payment." (Fried, 1980) (Why not the silk glove rather than the iron fist?) This statement could have been as easily composed in our contemporary era, specifically as an introduction to the life and times of the suave superboss and fixer Sidney Korshak.
Sid Korshak became counsel to large corporations and an associate of important political figures. He was a major player in Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union and was senior advisor to organized-crime groups in California, Nevada, Chicago, and New York. Korshak was a powerful presence on the Hollywood movie scene. According to the FBI, the "fixer" was an "enigmatic player behind countless 20th century mergers, political deals, and organized crime chicaneries. He was the primary link between the underworld and the corporate overworld."
Gus Russo’s biography of Korshak (Supermob, 2006) speaks of the sophistication of the modern Kosher Nostra where dirty deeds were replaced by manicured fingernails and legalese. Brains were stressed over brawn, with emphasis on "evolving into a real estate powerhouse, an organized-labor autocracy." Through the cumulative effects of power and the power brokers in various sectors of the political economy, the Supermob can deftly sow corruption through "methodically nurtured political ties." The Supermob effectively insulated itself from prosecution.
Sid Korshak represented the modern-day stereotype of the influence peddler, and a functioning link between racketeers and corporate America. His weapon was not the gun or goon but the telephone and Rolodex, which he wielded with great dexterity. A contemporary and pupil of Meyer Lansky, he rose out of the Chicago Jewish neighborhoods with the help of the Capone mob. Korshak’s law practice brought him into contact with many infamous characters and racketeering businessmen. As early as the 1930s, he legally represented local gangsters, exerted influence in union affairs while fixing public officials and negotiated sweetheart deals with employers. Once settled in Los Angeles, Korshak became part of the system that channeled Teamster money to various investment opportunities, especially to the nascent La Vegas mob-controlled casinos, where the art of "skimming" profits became perfected. As a mediator, working both sides of the street, he earned the reputation as a brilliant negotiator, a sophisticated racketeer who lived in the shadows, thereby leaving an ambiguous trail that investigators could not follow to conclusion. Nothing stuck to this Teflon superboss.
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