Recommended Reading

Gangster City by Pat Downey (Barricade Books, 2004)- Excellent account of the early New York gangs, with exciting and colorful new information about Jack Zelig, Monk Eastman, and their contemporaries. Order here from Amazon.com
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Against the Evidence by Andy Logan (McCall Publishing, 1970)- The first truly insightful book about the Becker-Rosenthal affair. Makes an excellent case for Charles Becker having been framed. Book is out of print, but can be ordered through Abe Books.
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Rothstein by David Pietrusza (Carroll and Graf, 2003)- Meticulously researched and well-written account of Arnold Rothstein's life includes a great overview of Zelig and the Rosenthal murder. Order here from Amazon.com.

Mr. Pietrusza's site is here.

 

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The StarkerThe Life and Crimes of a Vintage Criminal Rediscovered....

"My great-grandfather Jacob Goldberg worked for Jack Zelig for years. Rose Keefe's manuscript digs through the legend and its fallacies and brings to light the man that I heard so much about."
-Miriam Goldberg

"Zelig is a fascinating subject. This is an area of New York gangster history that has been unexplored."
Rick Mattix, author of Public Enemies

"I just finished the Starker by Rose Keefe. What a great book, I loved the detail she put into it. I learned more about Big Jack than I had ever heard before. If you haven't read it I suggest you do."

Stan Neu, Gangsterologists mailing list

Zelig Lefkowitz, alias Big Jack Zelig, like a lot of his pre-Volstead contemporaries, has had his historical impact overshadowed by the Capone and Murder Inc types. The early New York gangs have been written about as a phenomenon, but my book personalizes their desperate and bloody experience by examining it from Jack Zelig's perspective. The Starker: Big Jack Zelig and the Becker-Rosenthal Affair, revisits that vibrant and lawless period in New York history when the gang bosses achieved their position by being tougher and more resourceful than their underlings.

"Big Jack" Zelig was, from a sociological perspective, an enigma. He had no business existing. Unlike the typical gangster of the era, he had not turned to crime as a way out of the diseased, desperate slums. Although not on a par with the Rothschilds, his family had been modestly affluent and he had advantages that thousands of his fellow Jews in New York could only aspire to. Simply put, he had nothing to run from, no specter of poverty to exorcise with one stolen dollar after another. He was the American Dream rejected: the son of hardworking Russian Jews who fled the pogroms back home to give their children a better life, only to learn with dismay that their son Zelig kept the streets of the Lower East Side loud with the types of activities they had crossed an ocean to get away from.


The Rosenthal Killers: Gyp the Blood (back row,second from left), Lefty Louis (back row, middle), Dago Frank Cirofici (back row, extreme right), Whitey Lewis (front row, extreme right)

Zelig's name retains a certain shadowy glamor because four members of his gang, along with corrupt cop Charles Becker, ended up in the electric chair for the July 1912 murder of Herman Rosenthal, a pudgy gambler whose threat to expose Becker as a grafter and 'uniformed hood' resulted in a barroom warrant being issued for his execution. Continuing interest in the Becker-Rosenthal affair has kept Jack Zelig's name from being completely lost to history and therefore unrecognizable to today's public. There have been four books written about the case, but The Starker will introduce new evidence, namely the testimony that he'd intended to give at Becker's trial. The same material provides a unique insight into the smiling killer who, in the words of New York editor Herbert Bayard Swope, "threw terror into the heart of the New York underworld like no one has before or since."

Zelig was shot to death by low level hoodlum Red Phil Davidson aboard a Second Avenue streetcar on October 5, 1912, the night before he was due to take the stand in the Becker trial. (For reasons never properly explained, Davidson used a police issue revolver to do the job.) District Attorney Whitman wailed to the press that he'd now lost a star witness, the man who could confirm that Becker had hired his bloodiest killers to murder Rosenthal. Zelig's family has provided me with the information that Big Jack actually intended to testify for the defense, and prove that someone other than Becker had approached him to sanction the Rosenthal hit. Red Phil Davidson claimed that he killed Zelig for robbing him of $8 the night before, but when the facts are examined, he was little more than a hired assassin.

In 2003 I had the pleasure of interviewing 98 year old John Christie, who, as a six year old boy, was lounging in a trolley seat three rows behind Big Jack at the time that Davidson sent the bullet into the latter's brain. Finding a living witness to a 1912 murder is an amazing event in itself.

The Starker introduces modern readers to not only Zelig, but also Harry 'Gyp the Blood' Horowitz, Zelig thug and Rosenthal killer who would break a man's back over his knee on a $2.00 bet; District Attorney Charles Seymour Whitman, who, in his blind determination to become Governor, used the Rosenthal case for political purposes and may have sent at least two innocent men to the electric chair, and Zelig's ex-boss Monk Eastman, who prided himself on removing his brass knuckles before disciplining a lady, and whose imprisonment made Big Jack the heir to a strike force of 1000 Jewish gangsters.

Jack Zelig was a killer, but like all genuine leaders, he also had an intelligence and a greatness that earned him a grudging respect even from those sworn to put him and his type away. After hearing of the murder on the trolley car, Jewish detective Abe Shoenfeld said with genuine feeling, "Jack Zelig is as dead as a doornail. Men who came before him, men like Kid Twist and Monk Eastman, were as pygmies to a giant. With the passing of Zelig, the best, and nerviest, of his kind left us."

-Rose Keefe

Site content copyright 2005 by Rose Keefe and Joseph Lefkowitz.

Last updated on June 13, 2009

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