KOSHER CAPONES: A new book looks at the history of Chicago’s Jewish gangsters

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Joe Kraus has family history, which explains his motivation for writing “The Kosher Capones: A History of Chicago’s Jewish Gangsters.”

Kraus, very respectable as chairman of the Department of English and Theatre at the University of Scranton, has some bloodlines that were, well, a bit bloody.

No, it does not take one to know one in this instance.

“It’s certainly not pride,” said Kraus. “Nor is it shame. More a sense of wonder. It was a world that is so close by family, but so far from us by culture.”

Kraus’ grandfather Maxie Miller was a hood, part of the Miller family of gangsters, sharpies and shady characters. Great-uncle Harry Miller was part of a flying squad of cops, operating under the aegis of Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak, who exceeded their authority and tried to put a hit on Al Capone successor Frank Nitti.

Meanwhile, Kraus’ paternal grandmother helped run Joe Stein’s Rumanian Steakhouse, where Stein, according to family lore, would “plug his ears and leave the room when Matt Capone and other Syndicate figures starting talking business.”

As Kraus probed into his family’s past, he tried to answer a perplexing question: If Jews were so active in the rackets in their prime, why is that history almost buried today?

The answer seems to be part of the upward mobility of Jews as the 20th century proceeded. Some Jews had to go illegal to make money in a tough world. Their heirs tended not to follow in their footsteps, went into total denial and buried the past.

Sid Luckman, the Bears’ Jewish demi-god and still rated their best-ever quarterback, moved forward into athletic and business respectability after his father, Meyer Luckman, had been put away for murdering his brother-in-law back in Brooklyn. The elder Luckman had links to organized crime, notably to Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a Jew who once ran the infamous Murder, Inc.

Chicago Jew Moses Annenberg ran a gangland-style circulation battle to put the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers for which he worked first and foremost on newsstands.  But son Walter Annenberg made the Philadelphia Inquirer a respectable newspaper and founded TV Guide in 1953. Later, Annenberg was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom by President Richard Nixon.

Jack ‘Greasy Thumb’ Guzik as he prepared to testify before the Kefauver Senate investigation into organized crime. Guzik was Al Capone’s best friend, and was almost certainly the most powerful Jew in the history of Chicago organized crime.

On the old West Side, Julius “Lovin’ Putty” Anixter was a big backer of gangster Bennie Zuckerman.  But the next generation of Anixters went totally legit as cable TV equipment distributors. Grandson Jim Anixter is a raconteur-Cubs fan who has tried to buy the team several times, has a scale model of Wrigley Field in his Highland Park home and was noted for his pink hat and bright green shirt behind home plate.

As the 20th century ebbed, the Jews’ role in gangland Chicago was muted. You might hear of a Lenny Patrick play turncoat in a crucial trial that put a crimp into Syndicate activities, or about Allen Dorfman getting rubbed out in the parking lot of the old Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood in 1983.

Kraus had to dig deep. There was no Jewish kingpin of crime in Chicago in the manner of Meyer Lansky on the East Coast or Bugsy Siegel in Las Vegas. Jews ran neighborhood duchies or, as in the case of Jack ‘Greasy Thumb’ Guzik, was the right-hand man of Al Capone.

“Capone sucked up all the oxygen,” Kraus said. Chicago was the only major city that did not have a Jew at the top. In Boston, you have Charlie ‘King’ Solomon, in LA, it was Mickey Cohen and in Miami, Davey Berman.

“Most other cities didn’t have such a successful hostile takeover (of gangland operations). You had the five families in New York. Capone overcame a bunch of rivals, both Italian and Irish. In New York under Lucky Luciano, the Sicilians came to power.   In Chicago, the Neopolitans (of which Capone was one) defeat the Sicilians.”

Author Joe Kraus

Before, during and after Capone’s reign, Jews carved out their territories and dovetailed with politicians, including Jacob Arvey, a Jewish national kingmaker in the 1940s onward who certainly knew of illicit activities and purveyors in the city. Kraus puts it all in perspective in “The Kosher Capones:”

“To put it metaphorically, the story of the Italian American gangster in Chicago — the story of Al Capone and his successors — is shaped like Italian bread, narrow and straight with knife marks scarring the length of it. The story of the Jewish gangster is shaped more like challah, with different strands braiding together to create a softer whole.

Lefty Rosenthal, the model for the character of Ace Rothstein, played by Robert DeNiro in the movie ‘Casino.’

“The Italian American–dominated Syndicate has a mostly uninterrupted narrative, running from Capone’s mentors ‘Big Jim’ Colosimo and Johnny Torrio to his eventual successors, Paul Ricca, Tony Accardo, and, finally, among others, Sam Carlisi. In contrast, the story of the “Kosher Capones” is broken, spliced, and woven back together. It’s twisted by the shifting neighborhoods where Jews congregated, the changing structures of organized crime, and the growing effectiveness of federal, state, and local law enforcement.

“It’s also the story of a group of underdogs, of gangsters who were never entirely in control of their own story. It’s about a series of characters who needed perpetually to react to or ally with other elements of Chicago’s organized crime, who fought to control a piece of the action while others were ultimately controlling them.

Davey Yaras

“At bottom, three braids combine to form the history of the Chicago Jewish gangster. There’s the independent strand that runs from the early shtarkers, tough guys, of Maxwell Street, like Manny Abrahams, Jules Portugese, and Morris Eller, through to the gangsters of Lawndale including the Miller brothers, Julius Anixter, and Benny Zuckerman. Then there’s the Syndicate strand that took over from them at the end of World War II, with figures like Lenny Patrick, David Yaras, Jack Guzik, and Frank Rosenthal, who oversaw crime in the Jewish districts and sometimes beyond.

“And finally, there’s the strand of Jewish politicians like Michael and Moe Rosenberg, Jacob Arvey, and Arthur Elrod who, with one foot in the world of crime and another in city and national politics, understood themselves as granting franchise rights to and relying on the services of the winners of those ongoing gangster feuds.”

Kraus’ interest was first piqued when as a recent college graduate, his mother, the former June Miller, gave him a copy of the book, “The Joker is Wild,” about comedian Joe E. Lewis. Later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra, the book describes how Lewis’ vocal cords were cut and acid was thrown on his face by “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn’s thugs when Lewis threatened to leave his performing gig at the old Green Mill club.

Kraus began researching his family history. His grandfather Maxie Miller died when June Miller was just two years old. Stories got tangled over the decades. According to family lore, Maxie Miller got shot by famed hood Dion O’Banion.

“The story had it that Davey and Maxie Miller walked out of a theater, O’Banion pulls the trigger and Maxie falls. But in reality it was Davey Miller who was shot. Maxie Miller ended up dying of tuberculosis. And so I wanted to know the real story of my grandfather.”

Benny ‘Zukie the Bookie’ Zuckerman

Ditto with great-uncle Harry.  He was part of the Hoodlum Squad put together by Cermak to crack down on gangs. The catch was that Cermak, who consolidated the Democratic political machine that still exists in watered-down form today, wanted to control gangsters on his own terms.

After Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion, Frank Nitti took over his operations. Two Jewish cops, Harry Miller and Harry Lang, burst into Nitti’s offices. Lang went into the back room and shot Nitti twice. Then he tried to concoct a self-defense story by attempting to shoot himself in his arm – but missed. Fellow cop Christ Callahan told the whole truth that Lang simply “went nuts,” said Kraus.  Cermak wanted to control Nitti, not an assassination. Lang and Miller were fired, while both Nitti and the Syndicate survived.

A short time later, Cermak himself was wounded, dying weeks later, riding with Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Miami motorcade just before the latter’s 1933 inauguration. Longtime speculation suggested Cermak, not FDR, was in fact the target, in retaliation for his muscling in on gangs. Kraus cannot proclaim Cermak-the-target theory as fact. But given the intricate web of relationships, nothing can be dismissed.

Cermak’s political successors entered into a kind of accommodation with gangs. They did not directly gain financial benefit from crime. None accepted direct campaign contributions, as corrupt Chicago Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson had with Capone. But they didn’t ask the feds to help them crack down once and for all. Kraus said Arvey, who had the ear of President Harry S Truman, walked a “careful tightrope” between legitimate and illegitimate factions.

“There was a space” between post-Capone politicians and gangsters, Kraus said.

At least elections were quieter compared with the “Pineapple Primary of 1928,” dubbed “pineapple” as a nickname for hand grenades.  Kraus describes Octavius Granady’s attempt to run against an established Jewish ward committeeman:

“Throughout the day the Eller gang sent cars all around the ward intimidating and slugging where they thought necessary. In several cases, they simply kidnapped people at gunpoint and brought them to a shanty located at 1352 S. Peoria and held them in the house by armed guards until after the polls had closed.

“Such tactics mostly cleared the streets of Eller opposition, but Granady himself was another matter. He, too, drove around the ward, rallying what supporters he could find. Eller gunmen, driving in a convoy, spotted Granady and sped after him.

“After a few blocks, they forced his car to the curb, and he got out and ran. Suddenly, rifle barrels sprouted from the Eller cars’ windows, and machine guns spurted. Granady fell instantly. Some reports suggested a gunman got out of the car and fired a coup de grace; others said the cars just kept going.

“The Eller cars sped off, but they were hardly inconspicuous. Draped with bunting and other election decorations, they bore large banners urging people to reelect Morris Eller as 20th Ward committeeman. The last thing some witnesses to the murder saw was Eller’s own face prominently pictured on the backs of the receding cars.”

Kraus relates Jewish personal and cultural influence on Capone himself. Jack Guzik had actually preceded Capone in prominence in Johnny Torrio’s organization before Capone took over. Guzik’s brother Harry Guzik also was involved in gangland activities. Jack Guzik, often nicknamed “Jake,” became in essence the chief operating officer of the Capone organization.

“He knew how to work the levers of corruption,” said Kraus. “Jack had a deep, personal friendship with Capone. They were very close.

“Notoriously, the last murder Capone committed himself was in defense of Guzik.  An Irish tough was giving Guzik a hard time. Guzik went back and came crying to Capone. Al confronted the man. The tough guy said, ‘Go back to your whores, Dago.’  Capone supposedly shot him in the face. There was a cover-up (with the corrupt law enforcement of the time).”

“With Guzik, Capone learned Yiddish well enough that later in his career, he got Molly Picon to come to a command performance in Chicago.  Guzik also got Capone interested in going for a schvitz.  All other gang leaders starting going to the schvitz. That was not part of (Italian) culture, but it became a common thing for them.”

Head of the Chicago political machine Jacob Arvey, right, with, among others, Daniel “Tubbo” Gilbert, a famously corrupt Chicago cop.

Kraus summed up the role of the Jewish gangster through the angle of his great-uncle Davey:

“As available as he was to defend Jews across the city, Davey Miller’s clear focus was Jewish Lawndale. From the time he established his M&E restaurant and gym at 3216 W. Roosevelt Road, it became a center of Jewish self-protection as the neighborhood rapidly transformed into the largest and most concentrated community in Chicago Jewish history, one that by the middle 1930s reached a population of 110,000 and encompassed roughly 40 percent of Chicago’s Jewry.

“Jews had begun to establish a presence in North Lawndale as early as the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, and from there they began to move into neighboring Douglas Park and East and West Garfield Park, establishing the Jewish community of greater Lawndale, complete with distinctly Jewish communal, cultural, and business institutions. Still, while the Jews moving to Lawndale in the late 1910s and early 1920s looked like ‘yankees’ to some of the more Orthodox Jews they left behind on Maxwell Street, they appeared as unwelcome foreigners to many of the existing residents.

“Some of the German and Irish landlords of North Lawndale refused to rent to them, youth gangs often harassed or attacked them, and there were even rumors of pogroms put together by angry Polish neighbors who worried that Jews would displace them from Douglas or Garfield Parks. They had the legal right to make a new home, but they often needed help from the other side of the law to enforce that right. And Miller, with his shtarkers — Jewish toughs and would-be gangsters like his brothers, the young Benny Zuckerman, and family members of the even younger Lenny Patrick — provided that help.”

The gangsters provided protection in more ways than one, and no doubt a bit of pride for standing up with their fists and even guns.

By no means have Jewish gang-like criminals been relegated to the history books, Kraus said. He cites the example of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

“How is Madoff not organized crime?” he asked.

The weakness in human nature, preying upon other human weaknesses, may have been transformed, but still exists.

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