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A Rite of Passage for Jewish Gangsters of the Lower East Side: The Manhattan Third District Magistrate’s Court

This post is the third 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 Robyn Berland, Jason Didier, and Bree Evans.

Courthouse at Second Avenue and East 2nd Street.

The early 20th century in New York City was a chaotic era of expansion, spurred on by unprecedented labor strikes, political reform, and a tremendous influx of immigrants. It is estimated that between 1900 and 1914 one-third of the total Jewish population of Eastern Europe (about two million people) immigrated to America, most of them settling on the Lower East Side as German and Italian immigrants had before them. The expansion in population also expanded gang crime, leading a journalist in 1923 to dub the area “that east side district south of Fourteenth Street where the gangsters make their battlefield.”

In an attempt to maintain order, the New Essex Market Courthouse was opened in 1919 at the corner of Second Avenue and East 2nd Street. This building, designed by architect Alfred Hopkins and modeled on European prisons, replaced the old Essex Market Courthouse, a condemned building that had been farther south on Essex Street. The New Essex Market Courthouse would serve as a revolving door for the major gangsters of the day, and its docket records illustrate the diversity in crime and criminal that followed the huge immigration boom.

Kid Dropper

Keeping order in the gangsters’ “battlefield” was perhaps never more difficult than on August 28, 1923, when notorious gang leader Nathan “Kid Dropper” Caplin was killed while leaving the courthouse. This shooting, called by presiding Judge Alfred Talley “the most flagrant murder committed within my memory in the city of New York,” was a tipping point in the history of crime on the Lower East Side. Kid Dropper had been fighting for years against fellow gangster Little Augie for supremacy in the lucrative labor-slugging business. Little Augie convinced Louis Cohen, a waifish and unassuming youth of 19, to shoot Kid Dropper on August 28 outside the courthouse despite heavy police presence and a large group of onlookers. The brazen murder would result in no less than a dozen related killings between the gangs over the subsequent four years.

Little Augie

Kid Dropper, Little Augie, and other gangsters of their historical moment represented a new style of gangster who treated criminal business as though it were commercial enterprise and felt no moral qualms about squealing on their enemies to advance their own positions. Journalists lamented that these practices were in contrast to older New York gangs in which members retained a tight-lipped loyalty and held regular jobs during the week. Gangsters of Kid Dropper’s ilk were instead ruthless killers who only cared about the money being made and harbored no romanticized notions about their loyalties.

Louis Cohen

The use of the New Essex Market Courthouse between 1919 and 1946 conveniently encapsulates this era of expansion, reform, and the businesslike commercialization of the gangs on the Lower East Side. The Court docket records reflect not only the major gangsters but also the diversity of the gang underworld, revealing too many young men immersed in the life of violence and fatalism. Today, the Essex Market Court house still stands, now home to the Anthology Film Archives after a period of abandonment, as a powerful reminder of the crime and unrest that once embroiled this small section of the city.

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