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The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster Hardcover – 1 Aug 2008
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Life around the turn of the 20th century was a rugged ordeal. The times in which Jack Zelig, Dopey Fein and the gangsters and policeman did business was a wide open period where bigotry was out in the open, not only against Jews, but Italians, Irishmen and Blacks, and police corruption, as we know it now, was the norm.
Within this framework, the principal in this story was a man of principle. He would not involve himself in drugs, prostitution, or any other vice he found immoral. Also, he was a defender of his people.
It was common for Jews of that era to get mugged or beat up for being Jewish. Zelig would place others in his gang on trams and train cars and actually plant Orthodox Jews with long beards on these trains. The moment someone would begin to abuse these "plants", they would get accosted themselves, and taught a lesson. Zelig, therefore became a hero to his people of the times.
The turn of the century is often thought of as a time of innocence, but in many ways Zelig became the prototype gangster for the times to come. A thinking leader, a man of conviction and an individual of extreme toughness.
Rose Keefe does a solid job of bringing this story to life.
Zelig's cronies were a foursome of shady characters with similar nicknames. "Gyp the Blood" (Harry Horowitz), Lefty Louie Rosenberg, Dago Frank Cirofici, and Jacob "Whitey Lewis" Seidenshner. New York police Lieutenant Charles Becker had a falling out with his one-time partner Herman Rosenthal who wanted to expose Becker's corruption. Becker is supposed to have had Bald Jack Rose, Bridgey Webber, and Harry Vallon hire someone to rid the world of Rosenthal. Jack Zelig's four thugs were those hired to do the dirty work, and Rosenthal was dispatched at the Hotel Metropole near Times Square in July of 1912. Complicating this mess was the October 1912 murder of Jack Zelig on a 2nd Avneue streetcar by Red Phil Davidson who had been the beneficiary of a beating by Zelig. Zelig would have had knowledge that could have freed Becker from the Tombs and sent Bald Jack Rose there in his place since Rose had inquired already in April about having Rosenthal expunged.
I found two disgusting individuals during Becker's trial. The district attorney Charles Whitman who was trying to make a name for himself by prosecuting Becker as a stepping stone to becoming governor of New York and perhaps as President of the United States. The other is Judge John Goff who was blatantly prejudicial against the defense and held marathon sessions to get the trial over with as soon as possible. Becker was convicted each of the two times he was tried and paid the price in the electric chair along with the four convicted assassins. Becker ended up having to appeal to the district attorney and now governor who convicted him, Charles Whitman. This, of course, proved fruitless.
Rose Keefe has done a wonderful job in researching this book and goes into considerable detail. This is the third book I have read involving the Becker/Rosenthal case, and I have enjoyed them all. This is not a book to be read like The Bobbsey Twins. I read it slowly to try and keep track of all the details in addition to taking notes, and I still don't pretend to have everything straight. I did find an extra word (as) on the middle of page 226 and a spelling error (chosn) near the bottom of page 255, but this is very minor. Perhaps Rose would like to correct this in the paperback edition. All of Rose Keefe's crime books are first rate and I am looking forward to her next effort. Perhaps "The Mad Hatter" "The Lord High Executioner", Albert Anastasia.
One of the best true crime writers there is, Keefe has done a staggering amount of research that included scouring the National Archives, dozens of books, census records, newspapers, periodicals, etc. She also conducted extensive interviews with both friends and family of the long-dead gangster. Rose even found an elderly man who chillingly related how, as a six-year old boy, he had the grave misfortune of witnessing Big Jack's 1912 murder on a Second Avenue streetcar.
Zelig himself comes alive on the pages. Far from the smirking skull-cracker that Herbert Asbury made him out to be, the Big Jack of The Starker is well-groomed, intelligent, and articulate. Keefe does a wonderful job of fleshing out not just who Zelig was but why he did what he did. Of how a youthful Big Jack faltered when tasked to assassinate a rival hood (showing that not ALL gangsters can 'push a button' when required). Of how an ill-fated trip to Chicago not only changed Zelig's outlook on the world but nearly claimed his own life. How despite being one of the most feared gang bosses in New York, Big Jack was a devoted husband and father who went out of his way to protect the elderly Jewish citizens of his neighborhood. It is also shown why that while Zelig had every reason to hate the police (after being beaten and framed by them on more than one occasion), he declared to friends intention to testify before the Becker/Rosenthal grand jury in order to exonerate the wrongly accused NYPD Lt. Charles Becker. How, above all, Big Jack Zelig was a man of principles, which he followed no matter the cost.
Rose's descriptive writing style also brings the Lower East Side of old to life, and paints updated portraits of Big Jack's contemporaries, such as Kid Twist Zweifach, Crazy Butch, Lefty Louis, Gyp the Blood, Dopey Benny Fein, and the 'big kahuna' himself, Monk Eastman. The Becker/Rosenthal case itself is given a fresh examination as well, detailing how a nefarious perfect storm of corruption, double-dealing, and scheming claimed not only Herman Rosenthal's life but the lives of several others, guilty and innocent.
All in all, The Starker is an fantastic read and a must-have for anyone interested in true crime and/or New York City history.