Sunday, December 27, 2009

R.I.P. Monk Eastman

Shortly after 5:00 a.m. on December 26, 1920, two New York City patrolmen found a middle-aged, rough-looking man lying outside the BMT subway entrance near 14th Street and Fourth Avenue. One of them rolled him over, reached inside his coat, and felt his chest, which was sticky with blood. Upon detecting a faint heartbeat, they summoned an ambulance to hurry him to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

The man had been shot in the chest, stomach, and arms, each 32 calibre bullet shattering a bone or puncturing a vital organ. (The weapon itself was later found on the steps of the Union Square subway entrance.) His pockets contained $140 in cash, ruling out robbery as a murder motive. An autopsy revealed huge quantities of ethyl alcohol in his system, suggesting that he’d been killed in a drunken fight instead. The man was clearly a brawler: scars covered his broad face and short but muscular body, and both his ears and nose were disfigured by abuse. But who was he? And who had shot him?

Attendants at the city morgue found no means of identification save a label on the inside coat pocket that read “E. Eastman. Oct. 22, 1919. No. 17434 WB”. The tag was traced to Witty Brothers Tailors, a well-known men’s suit manufacturer. When the owner confirmed over the telephone that he had made the suit in question for one Edward ‘Monk’ Eastman, extras began flying off the presses at lightning speed.

Monk Eastman was a name that New Yorkers recognized immediately, even in 1920. Before his 1904 downfall and imprisonment, Eastman had been the most feared and storied gangster in the city, maybe even the country. In its Big Town Biography series, the Daily News recalled, “In his glory, Monk … commanded an army of 1,200 of the city's meanest thugs, a grimy bunch of safecrackers, pickpockets and general ruffians from dangerous dives with names like the Flea Bag, the Bucket of Blood and Suicide Hall.” He stood barely five foot six, but he was pure muscle and as ferocious as a bulldog in battle. When he strolled throughout his fiefdom, a derby perched carelessly on his head and stubby features crinkled in a scowl, even the beat cops eyed him with trepidation. For years he was as much a part of the Lower East Side cityscape as the crumbling tenements, raucous Bowery, and Chinatown.

That all changed in April 1904, when Eastman was sentenced to ten years in prison for first degree assault. He was paroled in 1909 and returned to his old stomping grounds, but his power had faded and he did not attempt to regain his former notoriety. Instead, he undertook a lower profile livelihood as a dope peddler. Because of his infamous past, however, the New York police kept hunting him down whenever major crimes took place. Eastman sought an escape by joining the army when the United States entered World War I. He served with valor in France, the Manhattan gang wars having prepared him well for the European battlefields, and came home a decorated war hero. He told reporters that he was “going straight” but by 1919 he was working for Arnold Rothstein as a loan collector and preparing to go into bootlegging once Prohibition became law. Now he was dead, murdered just as the Volstead Act was on the verge of turning gangsters into millionaires.

Newsmen tracked down and interviewed Charley Jones, a former Eastman gangster who now sold automobiles. Jones said that as far as he knew, his former boss had gone straight and opened a pet store on Broadway. The aging ex-thug did suggest that “young squirt gunmen” might have spotted Eastman on the street and, trying to make a name for themselves, shot down a legend in cold blood.

Three days before New Year's, over four thousand spectators assembled in the cold to watch a local legend be laid to rest. Eastman’s army comrades exchanged fond, teary memories with grizzled veterans of the 1902-03 Manhattan gang wars. The latter took one last look at their former boss, a now-peaceful figure dressed in full military regalia, and watched with lowered heads as he was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens.

Unlike most gangland murders, Eastman’s was ultimately solved. On January 4, 1921, a shady Prohibition agent named Jerry W. Bohan turned himself in.

Bohan claimed that he had killed the one-time gang lord in self-defense. On Christmas night, he, Eastman and some friends went to the Blue Bird Café, a basement speakeasy on Fourteenth Street, and drank bootleg liquor for hours. At around 4:00 am, they began arguing. According to Bohan, the dispute was over how much to tip the staff, but since he and Eastman were partners in a bootlegging enterprise, they probably clashed over how much they, not the waiter, had coming to them.

Bohan said that he tried to leave the café when tempers became dangerously high, but Eastman chased him outside and accused him of having been a “rat” ever since he became a Prohibition agent. The gangster then allegedly reached into his coat pocket as if going for a weapon. The dry agent drew his gun, fired several times, and jumped into a cab heading north on Fourth Avenue.

The jury at Bohan’s trial listened to his version of events with scepticism, knowing that his past was not exactly spotless. In 1911 he had killed Brooklyn stevedore ‘Joe the Bear’ Faulkner under questionable circumstances and been acquitted, but this jury was not so gullible. They found him guilty of manslaughter, and the judge sentenced him to three to ten years in Sing Sing. He was paroled the following June, his minimum term having been reduced for good behavior.

According to the promotional literature accompanying the Our Gotham film project, “The life and crimes of Monk Eastman faded for awhile from public memory as the Twenties progressed and millionaire gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran assumed the cachet of movie stars. But sooner or later, antiquity becomes modernity, and Eastman has been resurrected time and again in literature and film…. Today, Monk Eastman lives on in the popular imagination as the archetypical early New York gangster. His name is not always remembered, but with his harsh ‘Noo Yawk’ accent, battle-ravaged features, and multi-notched club, (he) remains an integral part of Manhattan mythology.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life, Crimes, and Confession of Bridget Durgan

On August 30, 1867 an Irish domestic named Bridget Durgan was hanged in the New Brunswick, New Jersey jail yard for the murder of Mrs. Mary Ellen Coriel. Soon after the execution, one of her spiritual advisors published a 30-plus page account of the crime with a confession section that was allegedly dictated by Bridget herself.

If Bridget Durgan actually wrote the confession, her reason for murdering Mrs. Coriel was revenge for a lifetime of abuse and injustice. She claimed to have been born to respectable parents in County Sligo, Ireland, in 1843, but 'went wrong' when an employer's son seduced her. After being paid to leave the area, she sailed to New York and found work as a housekeeper. Her mistress ordered her out of the house when a tryst with an unnamed gentleman left her pregnant. "From that moment, I began to hate everybody," Bridget wrote, "but most of all mistresses, and I resolved to kill someone if only the chance came my way."

After giving birth in a charity hospital, the bitter young woman worked for a few months in a slum brothel. One night the police raided the resort, but Bridget evaded arrest by vaulting over a fence. She fled to Brooklyn and went back into domestic service, but it proved to be almost as bad a decision as selling her body: she and her employer, a Mrs. Horning, soon hated each other. Finally Mrs. Horning called her "a devilish infernal slut" and fired her. Only the presence of the woman's husband prevented Bridget from stabbing her on the spot. The furious maid was determined to kill her former employer though, sending her poisoned cakes and skulking outside the house with a knife. She only gave up after Mrs. Horning died of natural causes.

Her plan thwarted, Bridget went to Newmarket, New Jersey, where she found a position in the house of Dr. and Mrs. Coriel. Eventually, she wrote, "it came into my head that if Mrs. Coriel were only out of the way, that I would have a very good place with the Doctor, as he would no doubt still keep house and have me take care of it and Mamey (the Coriels' baby) who was fond of me. This brought Mrs. Horning into my mind, and instantly, like a flash of lightning, I felt impelled to kill Mrs. Coreil."

So she did. On the night of February 26, 1867, while the doctor was out, Bridget stabbed and clubbed her mistress to death. (She wrote that she allowed the bloody, dying woman to kiss her baby one last time before finishing her off.) After setting the house on fire, she grabbed the child and fled to a neighbor's home, where she wailed that robbers had killed Mrs. Coreil. Her wild behaviour and speech aroused suspicion. So did the fact that the house bore no visible signs of a break-in.

Bridget Durgan was arrested and charged with the murder of her employer. A jury found her guilty and the judge sentenced her to hang, but she seemed unperturbed and defiant until her final night on earth. Perhaps she had been convinced that she would obtain a last-minute reprieve on account of her gender. When that didn't happen, she wrote a confession that she instructed the Reverend Brendan to publish after her death.

The Life and Crimes of Bridget Durgan was published after chapbooks of this type stopped being extended sermons, so it is an interesting and readable account of a forgotten case. Equally fascinating is how the prose and illustrations reflect the public's reaction to Bridget herself. She broke almost every social taboo in existance at the time: she was an Irish servant who killed a doctor's wife to satisfy a bloodlust and further entrench herself in the doctor's household. In consequence, the pen and ink drawings in the book depict her as a husky she-demon with wild hair and troll-like features. When she murdered an American lady of a superior class, she relinquished her rights to any leniency that the courts showed to female defendants during this period. She was no longer a woman, but a vicious monster whose destruction was necessary to protect American households.

The Life and Crimes of Bridget Durgan is included in the Open Source Books collection at and can either be read online via a specialized viewer or downloaded in pdf format.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shades of 1918

The other night, I was enjoying an evening stroll near my home. As I passed a walk-in medical clinic, a figure in hospital garb, complete with face mask, stepped outside and put a sandwich board on the sidewalk. It proclaimed in bold red letters 'H1N1 FLU SHOTS AVAILABLE HERE'.

I have not been vaccinated yet, although I plan to be. My immune system has always been excellent, but if the 1918-19 flu epidemic is an accurate indicator, that could be a liability.

I am currently reading John Barry's The Great Influenza, an account of the Spanish flu devastation that wiped out millions. In early 1918, when World War I was at its height, a contagious and lethal influenza A virus of the H1N1 subtype exploded in a Kansas army camp and migrated east, its first step in a global journey that claimed an estimated 100 million victims. Modern science's most illustrious practitioners struggled to understand and contain the epidemic, which killed more people in one year than the Black Death consumed in a century.The tragedy was amplified by the fact that the majority of victims were in the prime of life: children lost their parents, newlyweds were cruelly separated, and aging parents lived to see their adult children precede them in death. A few survivors have been in the news this past year, recalling those days of isolation, loss, and terror.

I often heard my grandmother talk about her two aunts who died when the flu reached Nova Scotia: one had just turned thirty while the other was only thirty-two. Both were strong-willed, vivacious women who had plenty to live for, something I appreciated even as a child. I remember poring over my grandmother's photo album, looking at the youthful faces of her aunts Clarice and Eva and trying to understand WHY.

Barry's book has helped me understand why, at least from a medical and scientific standpoint. The 1918 flu virus was the most lethal to young adults because their strong immune systems overreacted (a process known as a 'cytokine storm') and ravaged the body as mercilessly as the virus itself. Children and seniors reacted less intensely and therefore recovered. It was a twisted reversal of Darwin's theory, and caused people to live in fear. No wonder: in some cases mere hours transpired between the first flush of fever and the last dying gasps. You could never say "See you later" to anyone and be sure that you actually would.

The Great Influenza is a monumental study of the Spanish flu epidemic. A reviewer for Newsweek called it "Terrifying.... the lessons of 1918 couldn't be more relevant." Judging from the fact that people are lining up everywhere to get the H1N1 vaccine and hand sanitizer dispensers are in most public places now, the lessons appear to have been learned.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Genesis of Organized Crime

The Mafia is one of those organizations that Hollywood and the media have turned into a household name. Its current public face is the fictional Tony Soprano. The closing years of the nineteenth century and the dawning of the twentieth were the halcyon days of Giuseppe Morello, who was known to cop and criminal alike as ‘the Clutch Hand’ because of a deformed arm. The nickname could just as well have derived from his talent for seizing any opportunity to make crime pay.

Mike Dash has written an engrossing account of Morello’s ascendancy from the dusty streets of his native Corleone, Sicily to the saloons and tenements of New York, where he became the much-feared boss of the Italian-dominated rackets. He counterfeited American and Canadian currency, masterminded insurance scams, and unleashed Black Hand terror on his frightened countrymen, all the while building and strengthening a gang that became the first organized crime family. Morello’s vicious rule encompassed some of the most sensational examples of mob violence in the city’s history, such as the Barrel Murder of 1903 and the Masseria-Maranzano war of Sicilian succession. The ageing Clutch Hand served as advisor to Joe ‘the Boss’ Masseria in the latter conflict, and was killed by Maranzano gunmen in August 1930.

As with his previous books, Dash focuses on primary sources, such as the records of the U.S. Secret Service (which tracked Morello during his counterfeiting days) and the memoirs of its New York bureau chief, William Flynn, who pursued the Clutch Hand’s gang as doggedly as another legendary mob-buster, NYPD Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino (whose war with the Mafia and brutal murder are both covered in detail). Chilling anecdotes mingle with archival evidence to tell a story that rivals the best crime fiction.

“The First Family” is one of the finest accounts of the Mafia’s shady and bloody beginnings. Those who enjoyed this book are advised to also read Thomas Hunt and Martha Machecha Sheldon’s “Deep Water”, which is a similarly authoritative and original treatment of the 1890 assassination of New Orleans police chief David Hennessy, which was America’s first widely publicized Mafia hit.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Demon in the Belfry

In April 1895, two young women followed a man they trusted into the Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Mission District and did not emerge alive. The bloody, disfigured corpse of 21-year-old Minnie Williams was found in the library the day before Easter Sunday, and soon afterward searchers discovered the naked body of Blanche Lamont, who had been missing since April 3, in the belfry. Clues and witness statements directed the police to Theo Durrant, a young medical student who also happened to be assistant Sunday School superintendent for the church.

Durrant’s murder trial was attended by such eminent spectators as Presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan and Gold Rush millionaire John Mackay. The evidence against him was so overwhelming that the jury brought in a guilty verdict in less than half an hour. While his January 1898 execution brought closure to the families of Minnie Williams and Blanche Lamont, it also left a lot of unanswered questions. Why did he kill two young women whom he’d known well and never born any malice against? And what motivated a man who had been devoted to his parents and sister and active in church affairs to commit murder in the first place? The press hinted that he was a depraved monster disguised as a pious youth, and referred to him as ‘the Demon in the Belfry’. In Sympathy for the Devil, Virginia McConnell questions the justice of these assumptions.

I’ll admit that when I began reading the book, I had doubts about McConnell’s impartiality: in the introduction, she wrote, “His two tragic deeds aside, I would have been proud to call him ‘brother’ or ‘friend’.” But unlike the mindless, adoring women who simpered over Theo Durrant during his courtroom appearances, McConnell has credible reasons for her partiality. Reviewing his family and medical history, she points out that his father was manic-depressive and prone to impulsive actions, and Durrant himself nearly died from meningitis, or ‘brain fever’, a condition that often left survivors with brain damage. She suggests that he may have been in a manic phase when he killed the two women, and the behaviour he exhibited at that time corresponds to the profile: loquaciousness, impulsivity, and unnatural energy levels. When not in the throes of the disorder, Durrant was apparently a mild-mannered, caring individual who placed women on a pedestal.

Sympathy for the Devil is a sympathetic, but not sentimental, treatment of the Emmanuel Baptist murders. It includes rare and unsettling photos, such as a vibrant young Blanche Lamont, the belfry landing where her nude body was found, and the blood-spattered walls of the room where Minnie Williams met her death. Any future books about the case have a very high bar to leap over.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Attorney for the Damned

I have just finished reading Donald McRae's The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow. If a one-word review was sufficient, I'd just say "Wow". Or "Amazing." But it's not, so here goes.

Clarence Darrow had two principle reasons for living: winning and women. We know a lot about his courtroom victories, thanks to a succession of books, articles, and film adaptations. The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow delves into more intimate territory, namely his relationship with Mary Field Parton, socialist writer and reporter. She prevented him from committing suicide in 1912, and despite disillusion and heartache, supported him while he built his legacy as America’s greatest defense attorney. Compassionate yet conceited, equal parts earthy and intellectual, few American lawyers have attained the mythical status of Clarence Darrow. He turned seemingly hopeless cases into judicial triumphs, spawning the nickname ‘Attorney for the Damned’.

In 1924 he saved teenaged thrill killers Leopold and Loeb from the gallows by persuading the judge that mental illness was sufficient grounds to commute the death penalty. An ardent civil libertarian, Darrow defended John Scopes, who stood trial in Tennessee in July 1925 for teaching Darwinism in a state-funded school. The following October, he joined the defense team of a black physician, Ossian Sweet, who had moved into an all-white neighbourhood in Detroit and caused a riot that saw one white man killed and another injured. His closing statement in that trial is regarded as a civil rights landmark.

Previous reviewers have complained that this book contains no new information about Darrow’s career or personal life. That may be: I admit that this is the first biography I’ve read of the man whom Variety called "America's greatest one-man stage draw." As an introduction to Darrow’s legacy, I found McRae’s book to be engrossing. It may not be especially critical or insightful about the legal issues of the day, but this is a book aimed at the popular history market and has its limits in that regard.

What appears to be new in McRae’s treatment of Clarence Darrow’s story is his emphasis on the stormy relationship with Mary Field Parton. Although she had the misfortune of falling in love with a man whose moral compass was broken at birth and has been trivialized by some as a peripheral floozy, she was part of Darrow’s life for over thirty years, and shared in both his greatest highs and darkest lows. McRae’s access to her diaries gave him, and therefore the reader, a little more insight into how the ‘attorney for the damned’ affected those close to him.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tenement Nights

On August 3, Bad Seeds in the Big Apple author Pat Downey and I gave a presentation at the Tenement House Museum in New York. The evening's theme was Dead Guys in Suits and the subject matter was- yes, you guessed it- New York gangsters. Thanks to mentions in Time Out New York and other publications, a good-sized and sincerely interested crowd turned up.

At the end of Pat's and my presentation, we gave the attendees a surprise treat. Actor Franklin Abrams and two colleagues performed a scene from an upcoming Monk 1903 webisode: a confrontation between Max 'Kid Twist' Zweifach (Abrams) and Ritchie Fitzpatrick (Mike Lubik) over who will assume the throne left vacant by Monk Eastman's prison sentence. Zweifach's granddaughter and other family members were in the crowd, and enjoyed the performance hugely. Just an FYI- Franklin and I are collaborating on a one-man show about Kid Twist, and hope to launch it at the museum in the New Year.

Why all this emphasis on Kid Twist? To begin with, he was a ruthless but fascinating figure whose impact on New York gangster history has been underestimated. Since Monk Eastman was likely not Jewish, Zweifach is therefore the New York City's first Jewish gang lord. When he was murdered at Coney Island in May 1908, he left an estate valued at $50,000 to $100,000 (over a million dollars today), an astronomical sum for a twenty-four-year-old gangster to possess, especially since he did not run women or sell drugs, the two major organized vices of the early twentieth century. We know that he dreamed big- in 1905, when he was barely twenty-one, Zweifach masterminded a scheme to forge $5,000 worth of phoney railroad passes. He was caught for that one, but judging from the unusual size of his estate, he must have gotten away with many more. As I told the crowd at the Tenement House Museum, "Further study into Zweifach's past will yield valuable information about early Jewish crime in America."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chicago's Original Big Feller

Read any book about Chicago’s criminal past and chances are that you’ll come across the name of Michael Cassius ‘Big Mike’ McDonald. He was the founding father of a sophisticated, profitable, and far-reaching crime confederacy that included politicians, police officers, and even the mayor’s office. But so much time and chicanery has passed since his heyday that McDonald has receded into Chicago mythology. What Richard Lindberg has done in The Gambler King of Clark Street is employ dedicated research methods to crack through the lore and remind us that Big Mike was Chicago’s original ‘Big Feller’.

McDonald’s methods were alternately insidious and blatant. He bonded many a poor immigrant out of jail, aware that such favors translated into ethnic community votes. This in turn made him invaluable to the local bosses. His multi-storey gambling palace on Clark Street looted workingmen of their scant wages and sucked in the funds that enabled him to buy the police and the judiciary. No one could ever accuse McDonald’s game plan of lacking a grass-roots element.

Big Mike controlled everything except his wives. The first, Mary Noonan, ran off twice, first with an actor and the second time with a Catholic priest. His second spouse, a buxom blonde Jewess named Dora Feldman, was several years younger and ended up finding a teenaged lover whom she eventually killed for infidelity. The latter debacle is said to have hastened McDonald’s death in 1907.

The Internet Age has granted access to public records, newspaper archives, photo collections, etc, to anyone with a computer. History writers no longer have to be local or on a well-paid sabbatical to conduct research. The bar has been raised, but in this instance, Lindberg sails over it effortlessly. I was fascinated by the humanizing detail that he uncovered about Mike McDonald’s early years, and pleased to note his use of family stories and popular anecdotes, which demonstrate how the person is remembered by those who knew him or were affected by him.

Author Pat Hickey notes in his ingenious review of The Gambler King of Clark Street: “The story is an eye-opener…. the lakefront liberals who castigated John McCain and the GOP so savagely last fall, turn a blind eye and say nothing about the 130 years of non-stop corruption in the City of Chicago – most of it perpetrated by the Lords of the Machine, of which Mike McDonald was its founding father.” I heartily agree, and stand by what I wrote for the book’s jacket: “Chicago history aficionados owe Richard C. Lindberg a debt of gratitude for providing a deeper understanding of how the city became what it is today.”

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Misled by a book, and loving it

In August 1849, Frederick Manning and his Swiss wife, Maria, lured a middle-aged moneylender named Patrick O'Connor to their home in the Bermondsey section of London. O'Connor and Mrs. Manning had been lovers prior to her marriage, and probably for awhile afterward too. They shot and clubbed him to death, covered his body with quicklime, and then buried it under their kitchen floor. Maria hurried to O'Connor's rented room, where she stole money and railway share certificates. Then she and Frederick fled in opposite directions: she went to Edinburgh while he sailed to the Channel Islands. When a concerned friend reported O'Connor's disappearance, the police went to the Manning home and discovered the makeshift grave. After a nationwide manhunt, the murderous couple was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. They were hung at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in November 1849, in front of a raucous crowd.

Using the title alone as a point of reference, London 1849: a Victorian Murder Story appears to be about the Manning case. But it isn't. Michael Alpert has written a social history of London in the year 1849, when the O'Connor murder shocked the city. The first chapter is dedicated to the crime and the apprehension of Frederick and Maria Manning, and the concluding one uses their trial and execution to illustrate the workings of the British justice system. But the rest of the book is an admittedly fascinating look at the daily lives of mid-nineteenth century Londoners: what they ate, where they went for entertainment, how the class system worked, and the waning role of religion in their lives.

Whenever possible, Alpert frames his topic to suggest what the Mannings might have done in a given circumstance. For example, in the chapter about recreation, he proposes that Maria would not have been interested in the Frith paintings at the National Gallery, as she had been a lady's maid in wealthy homes prior to her marriage and probably seen her fill of such masterpieces. When discussing the modes of public transportation available in 1849, Alpert presents a reasonably accurate re-enactment of Frederick Manning's flight from London to the Channel island of Jersey, where he was finally apprehended.

I love social history and true crime, so have absolutely no complaints about Michael Alpert's marriage of the two genres. But he runs the risk of disappointing true crime fans who pick up his book expecting to read a concise account of the 'Bermondsey horror'. These people will be better off tracking down a copy of Albert Borowitz's The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin: The Bermondsey Horror.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Free Audiobook MP3s from BN

I've hopped on the audiobook bandwagon a little late in the game. I admit it. As a bibliophile, I've always been resistant to books being produced in any format that didn't involve paper and ink. Although I still prefer my reading matter to be in the traditional format, I warmed to e-books when so many valuable old volumes that I need for research were only available electronically. With that point of resistance pierced, the route to audiobook fan was not a long one. That mission was accomplished this week.

While browsing the Barnes and Noble website for new releases in the true crime genre, I discovered an Audiobook MP3 free download offer. You can choose one or all of the nine stories available. Nothing turns me into a potential customer more than a try-before-you-buy option, so I signed up and selected the titles that interested me. Seconds later an e-mail arrived containing the requisite download links, and I had something to listen to while I cleaned my workspace. I liked some more than others, but nothing was so heinous that I'd never listen to it again.

According to the Barnes and Noble site, the free audiobook offer ends May 16 at 2:59 a.m. EST., so if you're interested, act now.

If your first love of books came from the stories that your parents read to you at bedtime, there's something comforting about letting another person tell you a story. As an author, I also think it's important to embrace new technologies in the area of information dissemination. It's no field for a technophobe.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

True Crime Writing in 1838

Most True Crime works published prior to 1850 were really half sermon, half cautionary tale. Their basic message was that the devil motivated the perpetrators, and criminal impulses could be overcome if one obeyed their parents and the Ten Commandments. Mitigating circumstances were nonexistant, and sympathy for the criminal out of the question.

Last weekend, while browsing Google's database of digitized public domain material, I found a 62 page volume titled EUGENE ARAM who was executed for the murder of Daniel Clark in 1759. It was published in England in 1838, and so popular during its day that two editions were released. What made the book comparatively unique was that the author, Norrisson Scatcherd, did not write it to preach or condemn. On the contrary, he became fascinated by Aram's story while still a boy, and traces of that seminal awe can be detected throughout the book.

"I became seized with an insatiable curiousity to know something about that extraordinary man (Aram) and the particulars about his case," Scatcherd wrote in the preface. He recalled being laughed at "for hunting after old men and women, to pick up the fruits of their observations, or the traditions of their forefathers." He spoke to an old woman who shook hands with Aram while he was awaiting execution at York Castle, and a man whose relative acted as a maid to the widow of Daniel Clark, Aram's alleged victim.

In my opinion, Norrisson Scatcherd was over a hundred years ahead of his time. He was an investigative writer before the term even existed, refusing to let religious dogma shape his perspective. He believed that Eugene Aram did not kill Daniel Clark, and defended his conclusion with facts taken from personal interviews and the trial transcript. I can understand why the reading public found his book so beguiling: instead of offering yet another execution sermon, Scatcherd breathed life into a man long since consigned to a murderer's grave.

EUGENE ARAM can be read online here. Both writers and fans of True Crime will enjoy this early example of the genre.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fall River Outrage

Thanks to the Easter Holiday, I've had three days off. When not eating or sleeping, I've had my nose buried in a book given to me as a belated birthday present: David Richard Kasserman's Fall River Outrage: Life, Murder and Justice in Early Industrial New England.

Sixty years before Lizzie Borden and her legendary axe splashed blood over the name of Fall River, Massachusetts, the growing industrial community was the site of a murder whose social implications affected the industrial revolution and an emerging form of Christianity.

In December 1832, unmarried and pregnant mill worker Sarah Maria Cornell was found hanging from a haystack support pole outside Fall River. A prominent Methodist minister named Ephraim Kingsbury Avery was accused of seducing and then murdering her. When Avery went to trial, two large and opposing institutions faced off.

The Fall River industrialists portrayed Sarah Cornell as an innocent victim of a "wicked married man". Kasserman wrote, "In trying to clear her name, they protected their own." Their concerns were valid: in 1832 more women were leaving their parents' homes to take jobs in mills and factories, and if these workplaces became known as hotbeds of immorality, parental intervention could deprive them of badly needed workers.

The Methodist Episcopal Church supported the opposite impression of the victim: the more lascivious she appeared to have been, the less likely it was that Avery alone had a reason to kill her. Methodism, with its emphasis on emotionality and easy salvation, was regarded with suspicion in a society dominated by the austere Calvinist Congregational Church. The Methodist leaders could ill afford to have a scandal topple the precarious position the church occupied in Jacksonian America. Apparently Avery's lawyers, in condemning Sarah Cornell as a harlot, were the first to use the character of the female victim as a defense strategy.

I'm half-way through, and impressed by what I've read so far. Good writers like Kasserman, in reminding us what made these cases so important during their day, contribute greatly to our understanding of early American society.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"The Starker" reviewed on 'Best Yeggs'

I've been following a blog called 'Best Yeggs' since its inception. Marisa not only reads historic true crime, she is also a tenacious researcher and an excellent writer if her blog posts are any indication. She is especially intense when it comes to the subject of Vivan Chase, a female gangster (Chase was too self-possessed to be a mere gun moll) who, like Bonnie Parker, died violently in a car. I understand that unstoppable fascination all too well- it spawned three books and is giving me no rest until my fourth one is completed.

Marisa recently reviewed The Starker for 'Best Yeggs'. I've copied the text below, but encourage anyone who reads this to click through to her blog. In my opinion, she is someone to keep an eye on: the Vivian Chase story is as mysterious as it is tragic, and there is every indication that Marisa will one day publish the fruits of her research.

Anyone who's followed my blog is aware that I enjoy Rose Keefe's work so it won't come as any surprise that I think this book is much better than good.

What surprised me was Keefe's ability to bring Zelig to life. While I was excited when I heard about the book (research on a period that deserves a more detailed look), I had my doubts that someone who has been dead for over 90 years and who has NOT been studied in depth could be “brought to life” {clichés exist for a reason}. As much as I love her work, I honestly wondered whether Rose Keefe could pull it off. She did!

“Big Jack Zelig” is only a marginal figure in most crime histories. He rose to prominence as ‘the” NYC Jewish Gang leader in the first decade of the 20th century. Here’s a man who died in 1912 and, in most histories, whose chief claim to fame had been the circumstances of his death. He was murdered by Red Phil Davidson in order to keep him from testifying for the defense in the Herman "Beansy" Rosenthal murder trial. The Rosenthal murder was the crime of the century during this time period. Charles Becker a NYPD Lieutenant was railroaded and executed for the murder. Zelig was to testify in his defense but was killed to prevent his naming the true killers and exonerating Becker.

Keefe introduces readers to Zelig Zvi Lefkowitz more person than myth. A young, bright child, who did not understand why the money that he drew wouldn't ease his family and neighbors' lives, Zelig, was a bright kid from a respectable family who chose to steal (how familiar). In his teens he became an accomplished "gun" as pickpockets were called then. When he was younger he could bring tears to his eyes at will when he was caught to feign hunger and desperate need so his victims would have sympathy for him. Oddly enough, he was only a peripheral member of Monk Eastman's gang, while he was a good thief, Zelig wasn't a standout thug. He actually chickened out on the first murder he agreed to do. A trip to Chicago and a severe beating at the hands of gamblers changed that. He returned to NYC a hardened man who would not back down. Keefe writes about Zelig's world detailing an array of colorful gang members, seedy gamblers, and corrupt politicians with just enough detail to be enjoyable with out ever getting too scholarly.

To me a good historical biography knows what to leave out. The book never stopped being about Big Jack Zelig. It would be easy to let the Herman Rosenthal murder and the Becker trials overwhelm Zelig's story. I could go on and on but in a nutshell Rose Keefe did a lot better than I would have thought possible. She takes her subject a man who has become a marginal figure in the 90 years after his death and lets the reader understand just who Big Jack Zelig is and why some people called him great. This book is a lot better than good. Take a look at Rose Keefe's Zelig web page for more information:

Friday, February 6, 2009

But He Was Good To His Mother

As an author, I always enjoy meeting professional colleagues whose books provided me with research material and inspiration. On January 31, I had dinner with Professor Robert Rockaway, whose study of Jewish crime, But He Was Good To His Mother, had a permanent place on my desk while I was researching and writing The Starker. My copy is pretty dog-eared by now, so when Bob gave me a new one, I was 'chuffed', as I used to say back in London, to accept.

Bob currently lives in Israel, but was in New York City for the premiere of Lansky, an off-Broadway show starring Mike Burstyn. The one-man drama was inspired by But He Was Good To His Mother, so he was a guest of honour. When I was working on The Starker, I'd peppered Bob with one question after another about early Jewish-American gangsters, and he was so gracious in his replies that I jumped at the chance to meet and thank him in person.

Franklin Abrams and I caught one of the prerun performances of Lansky at St. Luke's Theatre on the 31st. If you live in New York, it would literally be a crime to miss it. Veteran stage actor Mike Burstyn depicts Meyer Lansky as a businessman-gangster who, while waiting for official acceptance as an Israeli citizen, asks himself whether the steps he took to attain the American Dream have tarnished him as a Jew. Burstyn received a standing ovation afterward.

Bob, Franklin, and I retired to a restaurant afterward, and had an enlivening conversation about Jewish gangsters and how they viewed their sometimes vicious livelihoods. They regarded the thieving, white slavery, shakedowns, and murders as a means to an end, but unlike their Italian counterparts, they did not want their sons following in their footsteps. Lansky et al appeared to understand that they were doing wrong, unless they were inherently vicious ('Pittsburgh Phil' Strauss comes to mind here). In that respect, they were more affected by their faith than the Mafiosi.

Thanks to Bob Rockaway for a memorable evening. His book is back on my desk, along with other volumes that mention Dopey Benny Fein. I warned him that he'd be hearing from me regularly in the coming months, and he assured me that it was not a problem. Bob- now my debt to you is even bigger :) Next time we'll eat at the Waldorf!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Bibliophile's Paradise

Considering the amount of money I've spent on books over the years, I should own a controlling interest in, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and even Abe Books, which makes thousands of out-of-print crime titles accessible once again. Now that I'm older, wiser, and am carrying a bigger credit card balance, I've been seeking ways to moderate spending without giving up access to valuable research material.

One site I highly recommend for access to older and FREE reading material is the Internet Archive. Declaring itself to be 'Universal Access to Human Knowledge', it has thousands of books available for download or online viewing. Most material published in the United States prior to 1923 is now in the public domain, and the Internet Archive is a virtual library of these older treasures. (According to attorney Stephen Fishman, the U.S. Copyright Office estimates that 85% of all works published between 1923 and 1963 ever had their copyrights renewed, so there are plenty of good books, magazines, photos, etc from this later period that have no restrictions on reproduction and distribution.) Among the books that I have downloaded from this site and enjoyed are:
  • Apaches of New York, by Alfred Henry Lewis. Originally published in 1911, this series of portraits of Lower East Side crimes and criminals is more entertaining and accurate. But for those who are looking for a good 'feel' of the period, it's a winner.
  • Crime of the Century, or the Assassination of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, by Henry M. Hunt. Published in 1889, this book was the first and only serious investigation of the disappearance and murder of Chicago physician Dr. Cronin. It's probable that he fell victim to the Irish terrorist element that he was known to despise. Some of the illustrations are unsettling even by today's standards, especially an artist's sketch of Cronon's bloated corpse after it was retrieved from a water resevoir.
  • The Trial of the Reverend Mr. Avery. In 1833, a Methodist minister was tried for the murder of pregnant factory worker Sarah M. Cornell, with whom he'd been having an affair. The case received national attention and was one of the longest murder trials in Rhode Island history. This volume is a trial transcript as opposed to a book-length treatment of the case, but absorbing nonetheless.
  • Darkness and Daylight, or the Lights and Shadows of New York. Published in 1886, this 740 page book has three authors- a female missionary, a journalist, and a police captain. It's a grim and eye-opening series of essays, commentaries, and sketches of Manhattan low life.

If true crime researchers ever had a Holy Grail, this site is it. Happy hunting!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ambrose Bierce- so bitter he's funny

While reading Harold Schechter's engrossing volume True Crime: an American Anthology, I was introduced to Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), an Ohio-born writer whose acidic stories and pessimistic commentary earned him the nickname 'Bitter Bierce'. It's debatable whether he was bitter or just shell-shocked by his Civil War experiences, but in any event, I found his articles for the 1860s publication News Letter to be corrosive yet brilliant satire. Below is an example:

The other day, the dead body of a Chinaman was found in an alley of this city, and taken to the morgue for identification. Deceased was addicted to doing odd jobs about town for what he could get, but otherwise bore a good character. The body was found partially concealed under a paving-stone which was embedded in the head like a precious jewel in the pate of a toad. A crowbar was driven through the abdomen and one arm was riven from its socket by some great convulsions of nature. As deceased was seen by two eight-hour men enjoying his opium-pipe and his usual health just previously to the discovery of his melancholy remains, it is supposed he came to his death by heart disease.
News Letter August 6, 1870

Bierce's closing comment was preposterous, but considering that the Chinese Exclusion Act was only twelve years in the future, the authorities probably voiced the same conclusion. He was a tireless critic of the criminal justice system and other institutions that were fundamentally flawed. What makes his articles so enjoyable are the pearl of truth embedded in all the sand and slime that he forced upon his readers.

Any true crime author whose subject matter involves late nineteenth century America should acquaint themselves with Bierce's works. 'Bitter Bierce' told it like few dared to, and the researcher will see the time and place as they really were as opposed to how they wish to be remembered.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


If you have not done so yet, be sure to visit J*Grit- the Internet Index of Tough Jews. I discovered this site in December, when I was whiling away an evening clicking on Pat Hamou's recommended links. Naturally, the first section I went to was 'Criminals'. There were some well-written articles about the Purple Gang, Dutch Schultz, and Martin 'Buggsy' Goldstein, who was allegedly the model for Edward G. Robinson's gangster persona. The site, however, doesn't restrict itself to remarkable crooks. An 'Athletes' category features boxers Barney Ross and Benny Leonard as well as karate champion Marilyn Fierro. Other categories are 'Adventurers', 'Military & Spies', 'Public Servants', 'Radicals', and 'Resisters'.

After spending hours reading the profiles of Jewish men and women who distinguished themselves in the fields of sports, public service, espionage, and crime, I contacted the site owner and offered to submit a story about Jack Zelig. He accepted, and posted the article here. Last week, he also posted an article that I wrote about Max 'Kid Twist' Zweifach. I must have been bitten by a J*Grit bug, because I intend to submit pieces about Monk Eastman and Dopey Benny Fein as well.

For those of you in the New York area, I will be appearing with Ron Arons, Rich Cohen, and one other author at the Tenement House Museum on March 11. There will be a panel discussion, followed by a reading and a book signing. Hope to see some of you there!!