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Skirmish in the Subway: A Not So Merry Christmas for Gangster Monk Eastman

This post is the second of a four-part series called Everyday Lives, Ordinary People: A History of East Village Immigrants, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2013 Intro to Public History course. Each group of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of everyday people in the East Village between 1850 and 1950. In conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 11th, each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid.

The following post was written by Mary Kate Gliedt, Victoria Harty, and Emily Henehan.

Monk Eastman

One of the most iconic gathering spaces in Greenwich Village is Union Square. Home to restaurants, shops, and many subway lines, the park at 14th Street has been a hub of activity in the Village for decades.

Perhaps one of the most notable things to happen in Union Square was the  shootout on Christmas night 1920 that took down infamous gangster Monk Eastman. Born Edward Eastman in 1875, Monk fell into the gang life as a young adult, and around the turn of the century formed the first influential non-Irish gang the Village had ever seen. The men and women of the Eastman Gang engaged in unsavory activities of all kinds, from drug-running to racketeering and from prostitution to petty larceny. Their leader, Monk Eastman, served time in Sing Sing for his involvement in crime on the Lower East Side, but returned to the gangster life immediately after his release.

Bored of the petty crime and constant police chases, Monk Eastman enlisted to fight in WWI in 1917. He was sent to France as a part of “O’Ryan’s Roughnecks,” and returned to America at war’s end a hero. His full rights of citizenship, which had been stripped from him following his felony conviction, were even restored by the Governor of New York. Finally it seemed that Eastman had put his life on the straight and narrow.

However, Christmas of 1920 found Monk in the middle of an illegal alcohol distribution scheme, centered around Union Square. A Prohibition agent with the federal government sniffed out Monk and his cronies, and a conflict broke out. The fight soon turned violent, and shots began to ring out. One bullet struck Monk Eastman, and took down this notorious gangster in the middle of the 14th Street/Union Square subway station. Eastman died in the early hours of December 26, 1920.

Union Square today.

Monk Eastman’s violent death in the oft-traveled subway station means little to nothing to the people who stream in and out of it daily. However, Eastman’s death marked a major turning point in New York gang history. The disintegration of the Eastman gang, caused in large part by Eastman’s death, marked the beginning of the end of ethnic gangs in the Village. The main rivals faced by Eastman and his gang were Irish gangs from the Five Points trying to encroach on their territory. Their battles were turf wars, defending both the New York streets and their national identities. After the decline of the Eastman gang, the emergent gangs were all Jewish gangs who were concerned not with maintaining their ethnic identities, but with maintaining their power and control over others and over the streets. The Union Square subway station stands as a memorial to Monk Eastman, and an era of gang violence that would be often longed for in the far-more-violent decades to come.

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