The Incor­rupt­ibles: A True Sto­ry of King­pins, Crime Busters, and the Birth of the Amer­i­can Underworld

  • Review
By – July 15, 2024

Dan Slater’s The Incor­rupt­ibles takes us back to the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, when Jews were promi­nent in crime. This was true in Great Britain, East Europe, Argenti­na, Brazil, South Africa, and espe­cial­ly the Unit­ed States. There were impor­tant Jew­ish crim­i­nals and Jew­ish gangs in vir­tu­al­ly every major Amer­i­can city, but their pres­ence was espe­cial­ly heavy in the Jew­ish New York City neigh­bor­hoods of the Low­er East Side in Man­hat­tan and Brownsville – East New York in Brook­lyn. Allen Street, in the heart of the Low­er East Side ghet­to, was famous for its many brothels.

Jews, whether indi­vid­u­al­ly or in gangs, were involved in pros­ti­tu­tion, rack­e­teer­ing, rob­bery, and, in the case of Mur­der, Inc., even homi­cide. Jews were par­tic­u­lar­ly promi­nent in boot­leg­ging dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion. Charles King Solomon (Boston), Longy Zwill­man (Newark), Wax­ey Gor­don (Philadel­phia), Sol­ly Weiss­man (Kansas City), and Moe Dalitz (Cleve­land) dom­i­nat­ed the liquor trade in their cities. Crime was an avenue of upward social mobil­i­ty for Amer­i­can Jew­ish males, just as it had been for Irish and Ger­man Amer­i­cans and would in the future be for Black and Lati­no Americans.

A group of wealthy New York City Jews — head­ed by Jacob Schiff and his son-in-law, Felix War­burg — were hor­ri­fied by the involve­ment of Jews in crime and decid­ed to do some­thing about it. They felt that it dis­cred­it­ed all Jews, includ­ing them­selves. This was at a time when nativists such as Madi­son Grant, Prescott Hall, and Lothrop Stod­dard were both argu­ing that immi­gra­tion of Jews from East­ern Europe should be cur­tailed and ques­tion­ing whether Jews already res­i­dent in the Unit­ed States could or should ever become part of the Amer­i­can main­stream. Slater writes that by 1913, it was the idea of their shared fates — rein­forced by the gen­er­al population’s ten­den­cy to lump all Jew­ish-Amer­i­cans togeth­er — that pro­vid­ed the most pow­er­ful incen­tive” for Schiff and his cohorts. They orga­nized a pri­vate­ly fund­ed Jew­ish vig­i­lante group that Slater has dubbed the Incorruptibles.”

Slater is a for­mer reporter for the Wall Street Jour­nal with an inter­est in crime. His book is, as one would expect from a jour­nal­ist, col­or­ful and dra­mat­ic. It’s writ­ten in a light and folksy man­ner that brims with his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal clichés, invent­ed dia­logue, and mem­o­rable per­son­al­i­ties. These include Louis Mar­shall, Judah Magnes, Abra­ham Cahan, Lucky Luciano, and Jew­ish gang­sters like Mey­er Lan­sky, Bald Jack Rose, Big Jack Zelig, Dopey Ben­ny Fein, Joe the Greas­er Rosen­zweig, and Red Phil David­son. Slater pays par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to Arnold Roth­stein, the man who is wide­ly believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series and was the mod­el for the char­ac­ter Mey­er Wolf­sheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s nov­el, The Great Gats­by. For his research, Slater read rel­e­vant pri­ma­ry sources and sup­ple­ment­ed his read­ing with guid­ed tours through the ten­e­ments and cafes, saloons and casi­nos, broth­els and dance halls, opi­um and black-mar­ket abor­tion providers of the Low­er East Side.”

The reform efforts of Schiff, War­burg, and oth­ers to reduce the crim­i­nal behav­ior of Jews were doomed to fail, and the vig­i­lante group they fund­ed was dis­band­ed in 1914 after only a year of oper­a­tion. Nev­er­the­less, broad­er social and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments — par­tic­u­lar­ly the rapid eco­nom­ic and social ascent of Jews and their flight from crime-rid­den urban slum neigh­bor­hoods — ulti­mate­ly result­ed in a rapid decline in Jew­ish involve­ment in crime. By 1950, it was a faint shad­ow of what it had been in 1913 and proved to be a strict­ly one-gen­er­a­tion phe­nom­e­non. One of Mey­er Lansky’s sons, for exam­ple, grad­u­at­ed from West Point.

Slater’s book leaves room for fur­ther exam­i­na­tion of the larg­er eco­nom­ic and social fac­tors that led to Jews’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in crime; for exam­ple, it does not com­pare city lead­ers’ response to crime by Jews to crime com­mit­ted by oth­er eth­nic groups. How­ev­er, The Incor­rupt­ibles is sure to attract a wide audience.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions