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.
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.
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.”