Zelig Harry Lefkowitz was born on May 13, 1888 into a middle class family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Unlike many, Zelig was not forced into a life of crime by poverty — he chose it willingly. Nonetheless, by the age of six he had already gained a reputation as a skilled pickpocket and thief. In the late 1890s, Zelig joined Monk Eastman’s gang, and rose up through the ranks. After Eastman was sent to prison, he was succeeded by Max Zwerbach. When Zwerbach died in 1908, Jack Zelig became the leader of what remained of Monk Eastman’s gang.

Zelig’s end arrived under bizarre circumstances.  New York City Police Lieutenant Charles Becker hired Zelig’s gang to murder Herman Rosenthal, a Manhattan bookie whose testimony ignited a police corruption scandal. Zelig’s men killed Rosenthal, but the District Attorney immediately suspected Becker of being behind the crime. Rumors swirled that Jack Zelig was going to testify against Becker. The day before the trial began — October 5, 1912 — Zelig was shot and killed while riding a trolley car in Manhattan. Lieutenant Becker was tried, convicted, and executed for the death of Herman Rosenthal.

Many considered Jack Zelig to be among the toughest gang leaders of the early 20th century. As way of memorial, New York City police detective Abe Schoenfeld said, “Men who came before him, men like Kid Twist and Monk Eastman, were as pygmies to a giant. With the passing of Zelig, the best, and nerviest, of his kind left us.”

Artwork Information:
Jack Zelig, 2008
Mixed Media Silkscreen on Paper
19″ x 29″