A Gangster Goes to War

In New York right after the turn of the 20th century, the baddest man in the whole downtown was a thug named Monk Eastman, who controlled a gang of 2,000 Jewish hoodlums on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

His was among the most scandalous criminal enterprises in American history, according to biographer Neil Hanson in “Monk Eastman,” the story of, as the subtitle has is, “The Gangster Who Became a War Hero.” Mr. Hanson fashions Lower Manhattan into a mirror of hell that would make even Damon Runyon recoil. The city’s teeming tenements were “anthills of humanity,” the author says, and rightly so: They packed in 290,000 people to the square mile. By contrast, “the comparable figure for the worst of the London slums was 175,000.”

“Whole buildings,” we are told, “seemed to sweat as condensation formed on every wall, and the stench—always terrible—even in the depths of winter frosts—reached new heights of toxicity, flowing up from the sewers, privies, and yards, and filling the halls, stairways and airshafts like a rising tide.” Another 20 pages of this and it becomes hard to resist the impulse to go and wash one’s hands. But oh, the crime!

The area was divided into territories, just like in “West Side Story,” except that these were not hubcap-stealing Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem settling their differences with the occasional knife-fight; no siree, the downtown guys were seriously into guns and shoot-outs that consumed entire city blocks, slaughtering the innocent and the guilty with equal magnanimity.

The western part of Lower Manhattan was run by the Irish, while the Lower East Side was divided between the Italians and the Jews. The gangs had names like the Five Pointers, Yakey Yakes, Gophers, Whyos—but the most fearsome gang of all was a mostly Jewish mob called the Eastmans, after its leader, Monk, who had climbed the ladder of thuggish respectability by a combination of low cunning and epic brutishness.

By his own admission, Monk—who was not Jewish and seems to have been of English extraction—liked “to beat up a guy every once in a while. It keeps my hand in.” His given name was Edward; “Monk” came from his ability to “climb like a monkey” while pulling off second-story jobs.

Killings were frequent in the gang’s activities but generally incidental. Assault was more intentional: “Monk and his henchmen put so many people in the hospital that ambulance drivers started calling the accident ward at Bellevue ‘The Monk Eastman Pavilion.’ “

An especially noxious feature of the gangs, including Eastman’s, was their symbiotic relationship with New York’s octopodian political machine. Tammany stayed in power through the political payoff; Monk Eastman and the other gangsters stayed in power by earning protection from the long arm of the law. Eastman was arrested more than 30 times at just one police precinct, but the cases were routinely dismissed by corrupt Tammany judges or police officials.

In exchange for the get-out-of-jail help, gang ruffians provided muscle at the polls. “Repeaters” was the name given to hoodlums who voted multiple times, and “sluggers” were toughs who stuffed or stole ballot boxes—or intimidated, or even assaulted, voters at the polls. It was said that Monk Eastman alone was good for 10,000 votes.

Eastman’s luck finally ran out in 1904 when an honest jury convicted him for assault. He had attempted to mug a well-dressed drunk young man—who, it turned out, was being followed by Pinkerton detectives at the request of his worried parents. A disgraceful running gunfight ensued—coming to an end only when an alert policeman applied a nightstick to Eastman’s head. His increasing notoriety, it turned out, had cooled Tammany’s interest in protecting him from prosecution.

The five years that Eastman spent in Sing Sing did not discourage his criminal inclinations; in 1915 he was arrested for stealing a car and sentenced for a two-year stretch. The incarceration ended in September 1917, just as America’s entry into World War I was heating up. Out of prison for 10 days, with his criminal enterprises no longer in operation or promising to revive, Monk presented himself at the Army recruiting office in Brooklyn and offered his services. He also lied about his age, saying he was 39 when he was really 43.

Pvt. Monk Eastman, according to the bare-bones Army records, turned into a proper soldier and shipped out with the 106th New York Regiment as part of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division. His comrades called him “Pop.”

The division, 28,000-strong, landed in France on May 25, 1918, to confront the beaten but still dangerous German army on the Western Front. Two months earlier the Germans had launched and lost their huge last-ditch offensive, designed to defeat the Allies before the Americans arrived in force. Now the Allied commander smelled blood and decided the time was ripe to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Thus, after a few scant weeks of training, Monk Eastman and the New Yorkers were abruptly pitchforked into the great final push of the conflict—an attack on Germany’s Hindenburg Line. Here we see the awful brutality of the war, the bone-by-bone straining of thousands of men for yards, even feet, in the horrid sewer that was the Flanders Front along the Franco-Belgian border.

It was said that you could smell the battlefield miles before you could see it—the ghastly smell of death; earth churned into slime by millions of artillery shells; the lingering rotten-egg stench of poison gasses; the decaying carcasses of horses, mules and, yes, men; the blended odors both of the cooking, and the excrement, of a million soldiers packed into a battle area just a few miles wide. Veterans later tried to describe the smell but no one could, and the place made even the aroma of New York slums seem respectable.

Eastman’s battalion, according to one of its members, “jumped off on time” when the battle began but then “fairly melted away” amid the machine gun and artillery fire. “We were up against the [Hindenburg] Line itself,” said the battalion major, “and a lousy, dirty, dangerous place it was.” After two weeks of nonstop fighting, they had the Germans on the run, but at a terrible price: Nearly 80% of the regiment were casualties.

Some idea of the ferocity and tenacity of the battle can be taken from these instructions to a machine-gun company: “(1) This position will be held and the section will remain here until relieved. (2) The enemy cannot be allowed to interfere with this program. (3) If the gun team cannot remain here alive, it will remain here dead, but in any case, it will remain here. (4) Should any man, through shell shock or any other cause, attempt to surrender, he will remain here—dead. (5) Should the gun be put out of action, the team will use rifles, revolvers, Mills grenades, or other novelties. (6) Finally, the position, as stated, will be held.”

Then the war was suddenly over, and the men were shipped home and mustered out of the service. The survivors mostly went back to their former professions, including Monk Eastman, who had performed admirably for his country as a soldier.

At first he appeared to go straight and secured a petition from his army outfit testifying to his “exceptional record in the army overseas” and “utmost courage and devotion to duty.” His rights of citizenship were restored by New York Gov. Al Smith, and Monk found work as an automobile mechanic, though how he obtained the skills we are not told. Maybe stealing cars also entailed learning how to make them run. But word soon had it that he was again up to his old tricks, which had their consequences.

Since most career criminals don’t write their memoirs, it is hard to get a full picture of the man, save from spare police and military records and from a few anecdotal tales told by contemporaries and from newspaper stories of the tabloid type, which tend to be suspect.

The book’s claim that Eastman was a war hero might be a bit of a stretch, since he was neither decorated nor promoted, despite the high casualties in his unit. A case can be made, though, that anybody, just by going to the Western Front during the war—and staying there—was by definition a hero.

Thus while the story of Monk Eastman is exquisitely rich with the ganglife of New York and the perils of World War I, we’re left with the impression that, in the end, the man was a puzzle, even to himself.

Mr. Groom’s books include “A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1018” and the novel “Forrest Gump.”


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704358904575477632752858848.html