Left Off the Ark
A Bestiary of Gangs
YIDDISH BLACK HAND
Habitat: Lower East Side (also known colloquially at the time as "New Israel").
Prey: Any businessman that owned horses, primarily ice-cream vendors; any horse unlucky enough to have a stubborn owner.
Behavior: It went like this. The gang would slither into its saloon headquarters on Suffolk Street. They would pick out a stableman and write him a letter, signing as the "Yiddish Black Hand," and demanding tribute "or else we’ll drop a horse on you." If payment wasn’t prompt, a horse would soon drop.
The gang’s leaders included the improbably–named enforcer "Harry McGurk" (obviously a pseudonym, given that he was a Russian Jew) and squat strategist Joseph "Yuske Nigger" Toblinksy, who is rumored to have personally poisoned over 200 horses. By 1909, horse poisoning was so prevalent that the ice cream manufacturers’ association created a communal fund earmarked for the Yiddish Black Hand–an annual tax just to leave their horses alone.
Habitat: Brownsville, Brooklyn. But in carrying out contracts, they ranged as far as Cleveland and Detroit. The gang was headquartered out of the back of Midnight Rose’s–an all-night candy store whose top sellers were licorice and lemon drops.
Enemies: To settle an early power struggle with the Shapiro Brothers, the "Brownsville Boys"—as Murder Inc. was then known—shot leader Irving Shapiro 18 times. The boys also massacred another competing gang, the Ambergs, dismembering Pretty Amberg in the back of a kosher restaurant called Yiddel Lorber’s.
Prey: Any poor schmuck the bosses wanted dead. The unlucky soul would be literally hunted down, then shot, stabbed, or strangled. The gang killed hundreds, most notably Dutch Schultz.
Behavior: After the assassination of Salvatore Maranzano—last of the old school Mafia bosses—the Lansky-Siegel-Luciano generation of mobsters created a highly organized criminal syndicate to oversee gang activities. Lepke was charged with creating an enforcement arm for the syndicate–a satellite gang that would do its hits.
Though not averse to a knife or a gun, Murder Inc. favored the rope and the ice pick. Its leaders included burly killer Pittsburg Phil Straus, whose specialty was sitting on a man’s chest and looping a rope over the victim’s hand, legs, and neck. As though in the grip of a boa constrictor, the more the man struggled, the tighter the rope became. Straus killed over 30 men.
Straus’ partner, Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles, was so named because he too had a python-like habit of throttling his victims–"twisting" their necks with his bare hands. Of committing routine murder Reles said "I got used to it." At trial, one judge took this measure of the man: "He had no sympathies. He was killing other men for money. He is a living tiger."
Other notable gang members included "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum—whose mouth, like a clock, never stopped–and Walter Sage, who claimed his criminal activities were necessary to support his study of the Talmud. Worthy of mention too is Buggsy Goldstein, who declared on being sentenced to death that the only thing he wanted to do before he died was pee up the judge’s leg.
Reles eventually became the biggest rat in Jewish gangster history, bringing down Lepke and revealing the grisly details of the gang’s day-to-day operations. His dead body was found on the roof of a tenement building—a five-floor drop from the window of his guarded room. The suspicious death gave rise to the expression, "This bird can sing but he can’t fly."
LEPKE & GURRAH GANG
Habitat: New York City
Enemies: Thomas Dewey, J. Edgar Hoover.
Prey: Little Augie, their gangster predecessor and patron, whom they gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Their daily bread was shaking down businesses, especially bakeries, for protection.
Behavior: Starting out as shotgun riders on Arnold Rothstein’s liquor runs, Louis Lepke and his simian-like associate, "Gurrah" Shapiro, soon became know as "The Gorilla Boys" for their enthusiastic schlamming.
In the 1930’s, Lepke became increasingly important to the work of the syndicate. He recruited its execution squad–Murder Inc.–and was the man who gave the order when a death sentence was handed down. On the lam from his own potential execution on murder and racketeering charges, Lepke became shark-like, constantly on the move between the backrooms and basements of Brooklyn and Jersey. As he shuffled from hiding spot to hiding spot, his killers whacked witness after witness.
Exhausted from more than two years of hide–and–seek with the cops, Lepke finally surrendered himself directly to J. Edgar Hoover in a dramatic nighttime meeting. Gurrah was thrown in jail. Lepke got the chair. The Gorilla Boys were now extinct.
DOPEY BENNY CREW
Habitat: Lower East Side
Enemies: The Five Pointers Gang, led by Jack Sirocco.
Prey: Targeted garment manufacturers primarily. But the gang also made quite a few pennies by picking the pockets of unsuspecting saps.
Behavior: Dopey Benny–so-called because his drooping eye-lids made him look sleepy–led perhaps one of the most eccentric crews ever to emerge from the streets. To ensure that orders were followed, Benny and the gang set up a kangaroo trial procedure. If a member violated the rules, the gang would gather in a "General Sessions Court," to decide his punishment, whether it be breaking his thumb, "clipping his ear" (maiming), or death. There was no appeal.
As committed to the cause of women’s liberty as to that of justice, Benny was (uniquely it seems) an equal-opportunity gangster. Though most of the women on his payroll acted as spies, they sometimes served as strike breakers or enforcers using weighted umbrellas and hat pins. Some women even served as the gang’s gun-toters, concealing the weapons in Orthodox wigs or a special hairdo called the "Mikado tuck-up."
BIG JACK ZELIG CREW
Habitat: Lower East Side
Enemies: Zelig was considered a neighborhood hero for his determination to push Italian gangs out of Jewish neighborhoods. He personally killed one Julius Morrello (who came through the door ready to kill Zelig with the words "I gotta cook that big Yid Zelig"). And he once sent his men to shoot up rival gangster Chick Trickster’s headquarters, even as he himself lay in a hospital bed with a bullet wound to the head. But the gang by no means limited its antagonists to gentiles, murdering noted desperado "Spanish Louie" – a Sephardic Jew who could be easily picked out by his black sombrero.
Prey: The gang preyed mainly on immigrant voters, threatening retribution if they did not show up and vote for the candidates to whom Zelig had promised election in exchange for cash.
Behavior: Zelig guarded his home turf against the Irish and Italians with the aid of strongman Harry "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, who, despite his modest size, was powerful enough to break a man’s back. And yet despite the gratitude of fellow residents, Zelig was eventually shot dead on a trolley car by a neighborhood punk. The big man was unable to defend himself, having handed his gun to an underling and sewn his pockets shut to avoid police scrutiny.
With the murder, the Jews of the Lower East Side lost both an able defender and a vicious gangster. Private detective Abe Shoenfeld wrote of Zelig: "Only a fair shot with a gun….but a fighting terrier….a wild cat with his fists."
KID TWIST CREW
Habitat: Lower East Side
Enemies: In 1903, engaged in a massive gun battle with Paul Kelly and the Five Pointers involving over 100 gunmen. Only a handful of men died on each side, leaving neither one satisfied. So they kept on fighting.
Prey: Voters, brothel-keepers, and gambling-parlor proprietors.
Behavior: Monk Eastman, in the words of Herbert Asbury, "began life with a bullet-shaped head, and during his turbulent career acquired a broken nose and a pair of cauliflower ears….He seemed always to need a haircut, and he accentuated his ferocious and unusual appearance by affecting a derby hat several sizes too small which perched precariously atop his shock of bristly, unruly hair."
Monk carried brass knuckles and a pistol with him at all times. He loved violence. In fact, he loved it so much that he foolishly shot a Pinkerton detective dead and went down for ten on a murder rap. With Monk’s "monkey face" no longer a fixture in the neighborhood, his lieutenant Max Zweibach—a.k.a. Kid Twist, a.k.a. Kid Sly Fox—took the reins.
Twist swore that "no ‘wop’ and no ‘mick’ would rule over the Lower East Side of New York." To this end, he employed the services of a massive "guerilla" named Samuel Teitsch as enforcer and bodyguard, a one-time circus strongman who bent iron bars around victims’ necks and went by the stage name of "Cyclone Lewis." But the Italian Five Pointers spoiled all the fun, gunning Twist and Teitsch down in 1908.
Enemies: None. They cooperated with the Sicilian Mafia and killed anyone else. As one bootlegger put it, "The Purple Gang was a hard lot of guys, so tough they made Capone’s playmates look like a kindergarten class."
Prey: Made most of their prohibition profits by hijacking loads from other gangsters and independent bootleggers. Forced blind pig (establishments where alcohol was sold illegally) operators to sell Purple liquor and pay tribute. Extorted Jewish barbers and kosher businesses.
Behavior: "Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone/Little Joe was blowing on the slide trombone/The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang/The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang."
Elvis’ "Jailhouse Rock" is testament to the Purple Gang’s notoriety. Ruling over Detroit’s prohibition-era underworld, the Purples left an estimated 500 unsolved murders in their wake. Homicide was such an integral part of the gang’s work that its members are credited with introducing the expression "making his bones," meaning proving oneself through murder. They were the first criminals to kill with a machine gun.
But these killers were kosher. They ran stolen Canadian liquor over the great lakes in speedboats under the name the "Little Jewish Navy." And gang leader Raymond Bernstein’s own Blind Pig was called the "Kibbutzer Club." Still, however culturally cohesive, the gang was ultimately undone by violence. The public became horrified by the exploits of Purples like Ziggie Selbin, who once sliced off a man’s finger because he liked his pinky ring. Before the authorities had a chance to dismantle it, the gang devoured itself. By the end, 18 Purples had been killed by other gang members.
Era: 1991—Present Day
Habitat: Brighton Beach/Little Odessa, New York, Los Angeles, Hungary, Former Soviet Union, Czech Republic, Italy, Israel.
Enemies: This organization prefers to make friends, forming partnerships with the Japanese Yakuza and the Italian Camorra.
Prey: Banks, investors, gasoline companies, synagogues, art galleries, and jewelry collectors among others.
Behavior: Though he hails from the Ukraine, gang leader Semion "Brainy" Mogilevich calls to mind the Russian Bear, with his 300–pound–frame and crushing embrace of global markets. But though it will kill and torture those who get in its way, the organization often acts more like a thieving magpie, showing a taste for shiny jewelry and a flair for sophisticated burglary.
The gang likes to wet its beak in many other industries, from high finance to prostitution. Perhaps most troubling is its involvement in international arms smuggling and its near-total control of Hungary’s weapons industry. Unlike many criminal groups originating in the former Soviet Union, the Red Mafiya is strictly hierarchical, its members given specific spheres of responsibility over various businesses–drugs for one, warheads for another. Like Sicilian Mafiosi, Mogilevich prefers to keep criminality in the family, his blood relatives (along with his many mistresses) making up a significant number of the gang’s 300 core members.
ABUTBUL - ROSENSTEIN ALLIANCE VS. ALPERON-ABERGIL FAMILIES
Like two desert scorpions, these two criminal alliances–largely made up of families originating from North Africa–have been fighting it out for dominance, each side stinging the other but still unable to vanquish its opponent. The prize is Israel’s lucrative illegal gambling and extortion business, which no one wants to share.
The Alperon brothers–Ya’akov, Mussa, and Nissim–are proud owners of matching mustaches and terrifying reputations. Ya’akov narrowly escaped a bomb planted in his car when it was spotted by neighbors. His younger brother Nissim survived two attempted shootings. And Mussa lost part of his leg in a failed 1995 hit. The Alperons and their partners, the Aberjils, suspected the Abutbuls and their ally Ze’ev "Wolf" Rosenstein were behind the attempted assassinations.
In May, 1996, Ze’ev Rosenstein was hit by two bullets while driving through Tel Aviv. He survived, electing from then on to run his errands in an armor-plated Mercedes sedan, accompanied by four bodyguards. In August 2002, Abutbul family patriarch Felix was murdered in Prague, shortly after Ya’akov Alperon sustained minor injuries in a bungled murder attempt.
The following June, Rosenstein was wounded by shrapnel from a remote–control device detonated outside his Tel Aviv office, the fourth such attempt on his life since 1996. The next month, hit man David Atias was arrested on a stolen motorbike with photographs of brothers Itzik and Meir Aberjil in his pocket. And in August of 2003, would-be assassins fired a shoulder-mounted missile at Rosenstein’s car as he crossed the Yarkonim junction on his way home to Hod Hasharon.
Most recently, on December 11th, 2003, a massive bomb meant for Rosenstein exploded in Tel Aviv, killing three bystanders and taking half of Yehuda Halevy Street with it. Rosenstein escaped, earning the nickname "the wolf with seven lives."