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.
Around each of these young men there gathered a score or two of purposeless lads. Most of them labored at small trades—driving laundry wagons, pressing trousers, cleaning windows. They were poor, and ambitious, and bored. They were likewise gregarious, and so they met together in the evenings to boast in their hard, clipped voices of their valorous plans in this world of men. Certain of them drifted into petty thievery; as the Irish had done before them. Perhaps one or two—a half dozen—were more daring, and engaged in the robbery of pay-roll messengers. On the other hand, still in the fashion of their Irish predecessors, the gangs did not commit crimes as a unit. They were too big, too unwieldy, for any sort of concerted action.
Before long, however, they found a way to profit from their fellowship, from their organization under an accepted leader. Several contractors, engaged upon important building enterprises;, were faced with strikes among their workers. They hired free-lance laborers. And to protect these fellows the lads of the East Side gangs were summoned. Little Augie and the Kid Dropper supplied their small-statured, unhealthy followers with weapons. And so they were launched in the new character of desperadoes.
Finding themselves suddenly in economic competition, and finding themselves just as suddenly emerging as dangerous fellows, it was only natural that the two gangs should begin to scorn each other. Inhabiting the same crowded, nervous streets, living in the same fantastic scene of poverty, and carelessness, and tremendous ambitions, a natural and somewhat purposeless animosity grew between the two gangs. The economic competition did not really amount to much, for, as their fame grew, there was work enough for both gangs. And so this animosity did not become dynamic until the paths of the two mobs crossed in the matter of those pretty, dark girls who live among the tenements.