On a pleasant evening, not many weeks ago, a young man bearing the rather picturesque name of Little Augie was standing with a friend on a street corner in New York's lower East Side. The friend was facing toward the curb, and suddenly he gave a cry of warning. Little Augie swung about in time to see an automobile charge down upon him. Two pistols were thrust through the curtain of the automobile—and within a moment or two Little Augie lay dead upon the sidewalk. His friend was hit, too; he died the next afternoon with the customary refusal to comment upon the matter.
It is perhaps a significant commentary upon the gang wars of New York City in this day to observe that Little Augie's death was predicted in 1992; that it required five years to generate one moment of forthright violence in which he was shot down.
As a matter of reality, the strife of which he was a victim is not a vastly important thing, as Manhattan criminal life goes. That is to say, the East Side gang wars have less effect upon the safety and the pocketbooks of honest citizens than other gang activities in New York. In the public mind, however, they serve to keep alive the fading illusion of romance in the doings of the underworld. So, perhaps, they may be worth considering. If they are to be understood, one must prowl for a little time through the days that are past.
Little Augie was the leader of his gang, and his gang was superficially the tradition of those loosely organized mobs which have always distinguished the crowded slums of Manhattan. In the middle of the last century, for example, East Side gangs were made up of savage and rollicking young Irishmen—brawny thugs who liked a fight better than anything on earth and rarely attempted to suppress their desires. They would break heads over any pretext whatever: women, politics, liquor, disputed money. Their weapon was a length of lead pipe, and most of the battles were straightforward riots, fought out honestly enough in some convenient street. These Irish gangsters, in the beginning, had no heart for prolonged vendettas. They brawled at the drop of a hat, but when the hat was picked up, with fitting apologies, the brawl was over. They went home to nurse their broken heads and forgive their enemies.
They lived by a countless number of small crimes: sneak thieving, purse snatching, administering 'knock-out drops' to late revelers, picking unwary pockets. People called them hoodlums, and hoodlums they were, but they were a gusty element in community life, noisy and forceful. New York was not a place of great riches. Small amounts of money were enough to keep body and soul together, and that was the end of every Irish gangster's desire. It was his pleasure to control the elections, when the elections needed controlling. And occasionally he even found himself on the side of the police—as in the draft riots of '64, when the Rabbit Foot Gang and the Gas House boys were of inestimable value in quelling disturbances which threatened to exterminate the constabulary altogether.
As the century waned, the money urge grew among common people. The gangsters began to think of big profits in addition to excitement and a full stomach. The infiltration of Italian immigrants who cast their lot with the mobs provided the necessary stimulation. They still fought among themselves, of course—the Italians with knives instead of lead pipes, and the Irishmen finally with pistols. But they also began to fight against the community, in a much more overt way than they had ever done before. The hired gunman became a recognized individual in New York life. Fixed prices were established for murders, and crimes of violence increased enormously.
The trade of gunman reached its scandalous climax in the celebrated Becker case. Four gunmen were hired by Lieutenant Becker to murder Rosenthal, the gambler, because Rosenthal had agreed to give ruinous testimony to a grand jury investigating police graft in New York. They performed their job in workmanlike fashion. (By now the Irishman had almost been pushed out of the trade, and none of these four belonged to that race.) But they were caught. They were convicted, and, along with Becker, they were executed. The city underwent a wave of revulsion and reform; and the gangs—having lost heart a little, anyway, at the sudden debacle of four invincible killers—dwindled away.
In 1920, or thereabouts, the East Side found itself populated entirely by Jewish people. The Irish had gone—broken their colony and scattered over the city with many potential Irish gangsters turning their faces toward the bright buttons and the neat blue uniforms of the police force. The Italians had moved into other regions.
The same circumstances which drove the Irish lads of 1850 into street-corner gangs now affected some thousands of Jewish boys. Enormously ambitious, yet held severely in their poverty by the great city looming over them, they drifted into carelessly organized fellowships. Natural leaders, of one sort and another, found themselves surrounded by cohorts, ready for almost anything. One of these leaders was Jacob Augen, who very soon came to be widely known as Little Augie. Another bore the name of the Kid Dropper—gained in his early youth when he earned his pin money by knocking down youngsters as they bent over sidewalk dice games and running off with their pennies.