Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
Most of our “Chapters in American Jewish History” have related stories about positive Jewish contributions to American life. Like every American ethnic group, however, Jews have produced an occasional villain. The notorious gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was one such figure.
Louis Buchalter was born in 1897 and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York, one of 13 children. His doting mother nicknamed him “Lepkele” and he is known in history simply as Lepke. When his father died in 1909, 12-year-old Lepke’s mother sent him to live with his older sister in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, he began a career that led him to the highest echelons of American organized crime.
By contrast, Thomas E. Dewey was born in 1902 in Ossowo, Michigan, to a comfortable, middle-class family. His grandfather had been one of the founders of the Republican Party. Bright, energetic, and handsome, Dewey went to Columbia University Law School and remained in New York City, where he became a deputy U. S. Attorney, prosecuting the leadership of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic political machine.
Starting from such different backgrounds, operating at distant ends of the law, the lives–and fates–of Lepke and Dewey would intersect.
Italian and Jewish gangs dominated the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in which Lepke lived. In this world of small retail shops and light manufacturing, few commercial enterprises were untouched by the strong arm of the gangs, or syndicates, willing to provide “protection” or “insurance” against business disruptions such as strikes, government inspections, arson, vandalism, or direct violence. Of course, the businessmen knew that the mayhem they were being protected from was that which the “insurers” could and would impose themselves if not bought off. Since the police and political leaders were usually silent partners in the protection rackets, shopkeepers and small businessmen had no recourse but to pay. Petty gamblers, prostitutes, pickpockets, and speakeasy operators who worked outside the law had even less power to resist this extortion.
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