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."

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