Thursday, October 3, 2019

Joe Kraus's "The Kosher Capones"

Joe Kraus is Chair of the Department of English and Theatre at the University of Scranton. He is co-author of An Accidental Anarchist, and his scholarly and creative work has appeared widely.

Kraus applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Kosher Capones: A History of Chicago's Jewish Gangsters, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book is a photograph – of the gangster Benny “Zuckie the Bookie” Zuckerman – and, looking at it under the page-99-test, it does imply my larger argument.

My book opens with an account of the almost-entirely-forgotten 1944 murder of Zuckerman by a group that most likely included Lenny Patrick. It was big news then, but its implications were clear to only a handful of observers. Zuckerman had emerged as the boss of Chicago’s independent Jewish gangsters, consolidating several smaller gangs from the Jewish Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. He was “independent” in a particular way, though: he owed money to the larger Chicago Syndicate to keep what he termed the “franchise” for running gambling and other illegal activities, but he kept counsel with others who’d emerged from the same rough-and-tumble background.

After Zuckerman’s murder, Patrick emerged as the new boss, but he was clearly a functionary of the larger, Italian-American-dominated Syndicate that grew out of the Al Capone gang. In other words, he jumped when Paul Ricca or Tony Accardo told him to jump.

So, curiously, finding Zuckerman’s photo on page 99 is a lens into the book as a whole. He’s a small man, and he looks dwarfed by his clichéd 1940s gangster clothes. He’s unsmiling with a hat that could be slipping off his head or could be a veiled middle finger to whomever is taking his picture. He’s a man who looks too small for the frame, though, and that’s essentially the argument of the book. Once upon a time, there were gangsters who could, in their limited way, function as independents allied with the fearsome Syndicate. And then, with his murder, there weren’t.

In the book, I work in both directions from Zuckerman’s killing. I look at the gangsters and politicians who preceded him, and then I look at Patrick’s 40-year career running the Jewish neighborhoods as a Syndicate lieutenant. And, as part of that, I look at the way the gangster world changed in response to demographic, legal, and political pressures.

The man pictured on page 99 looks like someone trying to bluff his way into a stronger position than he has. The system of organized crime that made his rise possible was rapidly changing, though, and that meant the Syndicate – in the person of Lenny Patrick – was just about to call his bluff.
Learn more about The Kosher Capones at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue