This Day in Jewish History / Notorious Mobster Jack Zelig Gunned Down in New York

Zelig was leader of the Eastman Gang, which dominated the crime scene on the Lower East Side and offered to kill victims for $100.

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Jack Zelig.
Jack Zelig. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 5, 1912, the notorious New York gangster Jack Zelig was assassinated while riding Manhattan’s 2nd Ave. trolley. At the time of his death, Zelig headed the so-called Eastman Gang – so named for Monk Eastman, who originally organized the Jewish members of the criminal gang who dominated illegal activity on the Lower East Side in the final decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.

Selig Harry Lefkowitz was born on May 13, 1882, on the Lower East Side. Unlike most other Jewish gangsters of the period, he grew up in a middle-class family, and apparently was not drawn to a life of crime out of economic or social desperation. Nonetheless, by age 14, Zelig was involved in gang of pickpockets headed by a fellow remembered today only as “Crazy Butch.”

Early in his career, according to Robert Rockaway, author of “But He Was Good to His Mother,” Zelig had a practice of hiring a sickly looking young woman to show up in court for him each time he was arrested to plead for his freedom. “Oh judge, for God’s sake, don’t send my boy-husband, the father of my baby, to jail.” At least initially, this was fairly effective at getting him released with a warning.

From the petty crime of pickpocketing, early in the new century Zelig graduated to the more diverse range of activities offered by membership in the Eastman Gang. The gang dealt in prostitution and illegal gambling, and eventually expanded to protection rackets, and vote-contracting for Tammany Hall politicians.

When Monk Eastman was arrested and sent to prison, leadership of his gang was assumed by Max “Kid Twist” Zwerbach. When he was killed, Zelig took over.

Among the many services offered by the Eastman Gang during Zelig’s tenure as boss including acting as strongmen for hire. Rockaway provides some of the prices in a list prepared by the Eastman Gang, and shown to the police at one point, offering services ranging from “slash on cheek with knife” (priced at $1-$10) up to “throwing a bomb” ($5 to $50) and murder, which could cost as much as $100.

Several times, rivals tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Zelig. What finally brought Jack Zelig down was his connection with corrupt police lieutenant Charles Becker. One of the victims of Becker and Zelig’s extortion racket was a small-time bookmaker named Herman Rosenthal.

In early July 1912, Rosenthal complained to the press about being shaken down by Lt. Becker. Two days later, Rosenthal was shot dead as he left a hotel on West 43rd St. At that point, the Manhattan district attorney became very interested in the case, and began investigating Becker’s activities and his connection with Zelig.

All of Zelig’s crew were arrested in connection with the Rosenthal murder. Apparently, Zelig himself made a deal with the DA to testify in the case against Becker (although descendants of the crime boss told biographer Rose Keefe, a century after the events took place, that Zelig was planning to testify in Becker’s defense). That’s when he received a phone call telling him to show up at 14th Street, in Manhattan.

That was on October 5, 1912. A hood named Phil Davidson, a member of the Five Points Gang, was waiting for him on the streetcar, and shot him behind the ear. Davidson later turned himself into the police, and said he had shot Zelig dead in response to a dispute over a card game.

Becker was later convicted for the murder of Rosenthal, and was sentenced to death. He and two Zelig associates were electrocuted at Sing Sing in July 1915.

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