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."
"Zelig is a fascinating
subject. This is an area of New York gangster history that has been
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
"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."
Site content copyright 2005 by Rose Keefe and Joseph Lefkowitz.
Last updated on June 13, 2009
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