And you thought Jews didn't commit crimes. Think again. There were thousands. - Quote from the book "The Jews of Sing Sing by Ron Arons.
Ron Arons has written a book that will interest not only some genealogists, but also historians, social scientists, criminal justice students and professionals, and anyone else interested in the seamier side of life of the first half of the twentieth century. The full title of the book is The Jews of Sing Sing : Gotham Gangsters and Gonuvim. From this book, I learned that “gonuvim” is a Yiddish word for “thieves.”
The book is a collection of biographies of Jewish criminals, but also much more. While describing the lives of many such criminals, author Arons provides insight into the backgrounds of these men. He shows time and again a pattern of dysfunctional families, alcoholic fathers and mothers, as well as life in the high-crime ghettoes of New York City. Indeed, this book is as much a social study as it is a collection of biographies.
Ron Arons has unusual skills: he is both a storyteller and an intrepid investigator who supplies the details of nearly every document he uncovers. This book is full of source citations, along with fascinating stories.
As I always do when reading such books, I looked for anyone of my own surname. I was pleasantly surprised to find an entire chapter devoted to Edward “Monk” Eastman, one of the founders of the first Jewish crime gangs in New York. Arons starts the chapter by stating, “Eastman was not the first Jewish criminal in New York, but, by most accounts the first Jewish gangster in New York.”
It seems that Eastman had a long criminal career. He escaped incarceration for many years but eventually served time in the Tombs (Manhattan's primary local jail) and later at Sing Sing. As evidence of his hard life, the record of his admittance to Sing Sing lists his height as five feet six inches with scars all over his body, including two from bullets to the abdomen, more scars on the face and ears, a missing tooth, five front teeth capped with gold, and faded tattoos. The description sounds like a thug. Indeed, I later found a picture of him at http://www.jewsofsingsing.com/_arons.php?show_gallery=yes&which_gallery=i that is almost exactly the image that I expected of this career criminal and street fighter.
Eastman’s death was the same as his life: violent. He was shot by another small-time street thug. The coroner’s report lists three separate bullet wounds to the right hand, one to the left hand, one to the left forearm, one bullet that entered and exited his stomach, plus one more that pierced his left ventricle. The man apparently was used for target practice. He died within seconds.
Arons devotes twenty-two pages to this “Jewish gangster” and then ends by pointing out that his grandfather Eastman was born in New Hampshire sometime around the year 1800. There weren't many Jews in New Hampshire at that time, but my study of the name shows hundreds of Eastmans in the state at that time, all of them Protestants, descendants of the original Puritan immigrant of 1638. Arons also points out that all three of Eastman's sisters were married as Presbyterians and that Eastman's maternal grandfather died in a Baptist rest home. Eastman probably wasn't Jewish although he constantly associated with Jews, and many members of his gang were Jewish. Arons ends the chapter by writing, “But regardless of his true religion, Eastman remains the father or godfather of all Jewish gangsters in New York, a leader who trained many to follow in his footsteps, not just as foot soldiers but as leaders themselves.”
Ah well, perhaps I do have a real outlaw in my extended family.
The above description of the chapter about “Monk” Eastman is an example of the many biographies contained in “The Jews of Sing Sing.” The chapters vary somewhat, but most of them give detailed information about the men being described as well as the environments in which they lived. If Arons included one of your relatives in this book, you'll find this to be a fascinating book. However, anyone interested in Jewish history or New York history or the history of criminal justice or any related subjects will also find this to be a worthwhile read. The book also serves as a great “template,” showing anyone how to “re-assemble” the life of a person long since deceased, whether that person was Jewish or not, and regardless of his or her occupation.
Ron Arons became interested in this topic when he researched his own family tree and discovered a family secret: his great-grandfather did time at Sing Sing. In the process of researching his criminal ancestor’s past, Ron has since traced his roots to England, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania.
In 2005 Ron Arons won a Hackman Research Residency Award from the New York State Archives to continue his research of New York Jewish criminals. In January 2008, Ron appeared on the PBS television series, The Jewish Americans, as the acknowledged expert on Jewish criminals of New York’s Lower East Side.
Arons tours the country, giving educational and entertaining presentations on Jewish criminals and Jewish genealogy. Ron tells his stories in great detail but with little sympathy for the hardened criminals. However, he does know how to tell a tale. I enjoyed this book.
For more information about “The Jews of Sing Sing,” look at the book's web site at http://www.jewsofsingsing.com. This site also contains a searchable database of all the Jewish inmates. You may find one of your ancestors listed there. Like Ron Arons' discovery of his family's secret, you may uncover a family secret that you were never told when you were growing up.
“The Jews of Sing Sing” is available from the larger online bookstores, as well as from the author's web site at http://www.jewsofsingsing.com/store.php, or from RootsBooks.com at http://www.rootsbooks.com/shop.php?i=1569803331. It is also available on special order from most any other bookstore if you specify ISBN 1569803331. The book retails for $22.95 but sells at the discount bookstores for about $15 in hardcover.
You also may be interested in a video interview of Ron Arons that is available at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2008/07/video-intervi-1.html.