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»An Ideal Picture of the Jew«?

Jewish Responses to Vice in 1910s New York City

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On 16 July 1912, the evening edition of the daily The World printed a strikingly detailed sketch of a murderous attack that had happened less than 24 hours earlier. A photo of the crime scene formed the background to the collage, while drawn figures in comic style represented the five attackers, their position and route, as well as their victim. All of them were no strangers to the authorities and the victim’s name was soon to become emblematic.

Photo Diagram of Murder; Suspect, Victim and Police Enemy. On the left is a picture of Lieutenant Charles Becker, the photograph on the right shows Louis Libby, accused of owning the car used by the attackers, and Rosenthal is depicted in the bottom center. Source: The World (evening edition), 16 July 1912, 1.
Photo Diagram of Murder; Suspect, Victim and Police Enemy. On the left is a picture of Lieutenant Charles Becker, the photograph on the right shows Louis Libby, accused of owning the car used by the attackers, and Rosenthal is depicted in the bottom center. Source: The World (evening edition), 16 July 1912, 1.

Herman »Beansy« Rosenthal had led a dangerous life in the first half of July 1912. He had lived dangerously before already, certainly, but this summer he had exhausted his »colleagues’« goodwill. As part of a larger network of Jewish gamblers that enjoyed a kind of paid protection by the New York police, Rosenthal could generally mind his own business. But the situation had changed for the worse. In early July, he met with District Attorney Charles Whitman, offering incriminating information on the police’s involvement in New York’s underworld. One police lieutenant was specifically prominent in his accounts: Charles Becker, who ran the »strong arm squad,« was supposed to raid a gambling parlor at 104 West 45th Street, but allegedly acted as Rosenthal’s silent partner in this establishment. Rosenthal felt harassed by the increased police presence in his home, located in the same building as the parlor, which made it impossible for him to pursue his line of business. After he visited Whitman again on 15 July 1912 and provided names of witnesses, Whitman agreed to let him make his case in front of a grand jury. But Rosenthal never made it there: Six hours before his testimony, at 2 am on 16 July 1912, he was shot dead after leaving the Hotel Metropole.

The meticulous sketch published by The World on the very same day of the murder is a manifestation of the contemporary foible for sensationalist judicial reporting. News traveled fast throughout the United States and newspapers across the whole country found themselves occupied with this crime. Their immediate and visually compelling reactions were not without good cause. At the turn of the century, judicial reporting was increasingly perceived as a place for the discussion – and determination – of moral and social standards by an engaged public. The more scandalous the crime, the more important the lesson that should be learned from it, and the Rosenthal murder seemed exceptional: Most of the people implicated – the gunmen, the helpers, and the victim – were Jewish.

Yet this was not the first time that the New York Jewish community’s involvement in vice made the headlines. Four years previously, Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham published an article titled Foreign Criminals in New York in the North American Review, stating that half of the city’s delinquents were Jews. The Jewish press and leaders were upset and rejected Bingham’s statements as antisemitic attacks underpinned with seemingly statistic figures. The outcry was big but scattered: The sharp division between the established uptown Jews, mostly represented by the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish immigrant communities on the Lower East Side rendered a reaction with one common voice impossible. The protagonist of corresponding unification attempts was the prominent rabbi Judah Leib Magnes, who was later to become the first chancellor and then the first president of the Hebrew University. In 1909, his persistence finally led to the foundation of the Kehillah, a joint platform of the city’s Jewish communities. But whether Bingham’s allegations contained a core of truth remained of little to no interest.

In early August 1912, however, in a confidential address to the Executive Committee and the Advisory Council of the Kehillah, Magnes, as its chairman, proposed a different approach. Just like contemporary (Jewish) newspapers, he was busily engaged with the following question: To what extent was this a Jewish issue? After all, Rosenthal had not led a Jewish life, his first as well as second wife were Christian, and even though the gunmen’s families had come from Eastern Europe, most of the men involved were born in the USA. This case had caused a sensation, but no one could seriously argue that the majority of New York’s criminals were Jewish. Even Bingham revoked his allegations in the end. Magnes agreed with these arguments, but also acknowledged failure on the part of the Jewish communities:

»We are responsible, so it seems to me, in part for the conditions that have arisen. […] We are responsible, also, to the city in which we live, to help the city clean out the criminals that may infest it. And we are responsible to ourselves, to the healthy development of Judaism to clean out our own household, because if we do not clean our own household, there are others who will come and do it for us.«Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, Private Collection Judah L. Magnes, P3-511, Magnes’ Address to the »Kehillah« Executive Committee on the Rosenthal Murder, 1–6, here 2. The document is falsely dated »July & August 1914«; the address was given in August 1912. The following quotes are taken from that same document.

The press coverage of the Rosenthal murder proved him right.

View of Crowd Watching the Funeral of Gambler Herman Rosenthal, July 1912, N. Y. City. Source: Library of Congress, Bain Collection, 1912. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-50074/Bain News Service.
View of Crowd Watching the Funeral of Gambler Herman Rosenthal, July 1912, N. Y. City. Source: Library of Congress, Bain Collection, 1912. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-50074/Bain News Service.

Former means employed by rabbis – ignorance or ḥerem – turned out to be ineffective and, against the backdrop of debates on immigration restrictions and nativist interpretations of crime rates, the admission of responsibility enabled the Kehillah to choose a radically different path: a close cooperation with state institutions. In addition to a »good Jewish training,« a newly founded Social Morals Bureau was to bring an end to the problem of Jewish vice. Equipped with a private detective, the Bureau was a source of information for New York’s police as well as the city’s Mayor William Jay Gaynor. In a twist of fate, Jewish crime opened up new scopes of action for the Jewish community that could now present itself as a crucial partner in government decisions and, maybe more importantly, demonstrate its loyalty. The partnership between Gaynor and Magnes grew so close that the latter even spoke at Gaynor’s funeral in October 1913.

It was not least the public indignation at the Rosenthal murder, exemplified by the sketch published in The World, that generated a particular case for joint efforts by Jewish leaders and state institutions in the beginning of the 1910s. According to Magnes, it was the Jews’ responsibility »to clean out the evil from [their] midst.” By founding the Bureau, the Kehillah left its place of ignorance and took on this duty. »Up to the present time, we have been constructing an ideal picture of the Jew« – now that this image was shattered, its pieces served Magnes to paint a new picture, one that showed Jews engaged in cleaning up their city.

Margarita Lerman is a PhD candidate at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an Affiliated Researcher at the Dubnow Institute since 2021. Her cooperation with Yfaat Weiss began in 2017, intensified during her studies in Jerusalem in 2018, and grew closer ever since. Together with Marcos Silber, Yfaat Weiss is the supervisor of her PhD dissertation | lerman(at)dubnow.de

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