Tuesday, April 21, 2009

239 Henry Street: Benny Fein

According to Ron Roth, Benny Fein was born here in 1889
from the six for five site
Dopey Benny acquired his nickname from an adenoidal condition, giving him a constant sleepy appearance. Another product of the Lower East Side, there was however nothing dopey about Benny. He had above average streets smarts and proved himself a visionary when it came to organizing the art of the shtarke, the strong-armed man. After a youth of stealing, pick pocketing and other petty crimes, his wayward habits caught up with him for awhile when was sent up to Sing Sing for armed robbery. Upon his release in 1910, he joined Big Jack Zelig's gang and it was during that period where he blossomed from just another street thug, exuding leadership qualities that he would later put to use.
That leadership in question fell into his lap after boss Zelig was shot and killed on a 14th St. streetcar. It was one of the many ripple effects that followed in the wake of the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal, and the trial of Lieut. Charles Becker that followed it. Gang business could no longer operate in the same manner as it had in Zelig’s day, as there were too many prying eyes from every corner zeroing in on Lower East Side criminal activity. The corrupt nature of police and politicians and their affiliations to these gangs had been exposed, and some Tammany Hall members, once in bed with such gangs and rewarded handsomely, stepped back as well. Fein knew that the press coverage had been too hot on the Rosenthal – Becker affair and new angles needed to be figured out. While predecessors like Eastman and Zelig had dabbled in labor racketeering, Benny made it his first and foremost order of business and excelled at it. After all, he was the son of a tailor.
The Lower East Side garment industry was changing. Tenement sweatshops were giving way to factory - like production lines in buildings all around town up to 33rd st., and the industry was learning to meet the demands of a national marketplace. At the time, New York was producing the majority of clothing for the rest of America. Jews were at the forefront of this industry, as it was the one trade that they brought with them from Eastern Europe that helped them start a new life on these shores. Unions were set up early on to help the predominately Jewish labor force to make sure they were not exploited and working conditions were deemed satisfactory. At the forefront was the United Hebrew Trades (UHT), who in the past was not shy in relying on some of their own members to do a little intimidating with owners when needed. But after some time realized they would need to rely on some outside help for a little more persuading. Enter the gangster and his henchmen. Part of the problem in hiring whom some would deem ‘undesirables’ was there was never a guarantee they would work only for their side. Money motivated most of these men more than someone’s labor troubles, and reaping rewards from both sides of the conflict while it continued was a concern by the unions when hiring these gangs.
Benny Fein was different however. He was a man of principles. I like to think one particular event may of marked him significantly, and deeply affect they way he would conduct his business. On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, housed in a building in Greenwich Village facing Washing Square Park. An unwatched, misplaced cigarette ignited a raging blaze that spread quickly within minutes, kindled by baskets of spare rags soaked in sewing machine grease and clothing materials. It consumed the upper three floors of the ten story building in less than ten minutes. Firemen at the scene were unable to conduct proper rescue operations, as their ladders just couldn’t reach past the sixth floor. Panic had set in for many of the trapped workers; most of them young women, and many of them Jewish. For unexplained reasons, some of the fire exits and doors leading to stairway exits and safety were locked or blocked. What crowds below at first thought were clothing bundles hurtling to the ground, soon realized the grim truth. Faced with the prospect burning alive, many watched in helpless horror from the street as some of the trapped workers started leaping, some holding hands with others, to their death nine and ten stories below. It was, and continues to be the worst workplace disaster in New York’s history. The death toll ended up at 146, and 123 of them were women, who worked more than fifty hour weeks in abhorrent working conditions. Despite unexplained locked doors, a fire escape that collapsed, and unsafe working conditions, Triangle’s owners were found not guilty of negligence in the trial that followed. District Attorney Charles Whitman, who was to be instrumental in the arrest and prosecution of Charles Becker had witnessed the building burn. So did Herbert Bayard Swope, the journalist who would print Herman Rosenthal’s story fifteen months later. I like to think Benjamin ‘Dopey’ Fein was one of those horrified in the crowd of thousands as well, helpless and angry, and vowing to try and make a difference.
"My heart lay with the workers." he was once quoted after refusing an offer of $15,000 to work on the manufacturer's side. He was unable to double cross his friends. His men, ‘shlammers’, broke heads only for the unions and under Benny they kept their loyalty. His operation was on the UHT payroll for four years. He also had ties to the ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Dopey’s gang were given union cards as to picket alongside regular members so their actions seemed legitimate. He also was involved with the bakers’, butchers’, hat frame and neckwear workers, ragpickers’ and signpainters’ unions among others. Benny was busy. He almost single-handedly organized the practice of labor racketeering and thuggery into a full – fledged business. He drew up contacts and pay fees depending on the kind of slugging and ‘persuading’ that was needed by the unions. Instead of fighting, he created an elaborate system of territorial jurisdictions, delegating work to other gangs. Once contracted, he would sub-contract outside of the Lower East Side, somewhat unheard of in an underworld where most are motivated by greed and domination. Benny wasn’t dumb though. He still got his percentage on every sub-contract.
He also treated both sexes alike, giving equal pay for equal work, a very unusual practice back in the day. Because he used bats, clubs and blackjacks, though rarely guns, women were indispensable to him and served as ' toters' concealing weapons in mufflers, wigs, or a special hair-do of the day called the 'Mikado tuck-up'. Benny’s ladies encouraged nonunion female workers to join the unions with some intimidating practices as well. Of course, not all union members were happy with this scenario, after all, their demands were not always being met with legitimate manners, and a working relationship and trust between workers and employers could never be solidified completely. But, anytime anyone objected to their union’s strong - armed tactics, one of Benny's guerillas would warn them to keep quiet and avoid trouble. Not everybody was happy with Benny and his men, but many probably kept their jobs as a result.
Of course it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Fein and his gang. Rivalries with Italian labor racketeer Joe Sirroco led to many battles along Broome St and other areas. Dopey had led the way, building a monopoly, which was being continually challenged. Sirroco’s crew followed Dopey’s lead but in the other direction, working for the manufacturers. He also had a long running rivalry with Joseph ‘The Greaser’ Rosenzweig, and the labor slugging wars between these gangs would continue throughout 1913 and onwards. When an innocent bystander was shot and killed by accident after a botched set up by Dopey's men on Sirroco's troops, his power slowly began to decline.
Following numerous arrests, his last slip up was in the fall of 1914. Fein confronted and threatened to kill B. Zalamanowitz, a business agent for the butchers’ union who refused to pay Benny his $ 600 fee to protect his striking butchers, saying his job had been unsatisfactory. Zalamanowitz, panicked and frightened, called in the police prior to Dopey’s next scheduled visit. Waiting in the wings, they watched as Benny repeated his threats, and promptly arrested him on first-degree extortion charges. This was nothing new, a few hours in the Tombs and someone would come forward with the bail money, just like they always did, and Benny would be home by supper. But nobody came. Perhaps this time around the bail was too high at $ 8000, which the police had compounded from previous arrests. Maybe Benny was getting too hot for union officials to contiinue their affiliation and decided maybe the labor wars needed one less general. Benny sat and fumed. He felt double-crossed by everyone. Perhaps he had had enough. Benny finally broke down and began naming names. His organizational skills contributed to his thinking ahead, that this day may eventually come, and he had stayed one step ahead. Benny had written every single transaction down, unbeknownst to most of his associates. His testimony was a few hundred pages in length, explaining all the inner working of all the strike breaking gangs, and the unions involved. This led to many arrests of higher ups of both in the UHT and the ILGWU. Twenty -three labor leaders and eleven gangsters were charged with murder, extortion, assault, and riot in the months that followed. The man who designed the empire was able to tear it down as well.
Up until recently, crime historians had lost sight of him after the age of 26 and that last arrest, assuming he had disappeared into the city’s streets and never heard from again. But thanks in part to his grandson, Geoff Fein, the rest of Grandpa Dopey’s life has been brought to light a little bit more. While his 1914 testimony in exchange set him free, it would be a few more years before Benny would fly straight. He was arrested numerous times over the next few years, still active in the labor slugging trades, but in a smaller role. Benny probably didn’t make too many new friends after his testimony and it was probably much like starting over. He had a court appearance in 1931 on assault charges, his first in over thirteen years. Ten years later, Benny faced the courts again. He and fellow mobsters Abraham Cohen, John Ferraro, Herman Fogel, and Samuel Klein were taken into custody after a police raid caught them with a stolen garment shipment worth $ 10,000. He and Cohen were pegged as ringleaders in a gang responsible for over $ 250,000, 000 worth of stolen garments over a three year period. This would be his last trip to up Sing Sing, after being spared a mandatory life sentence. In the years following his release, Benny would stay in the garment industry, but on the legitimate side this time for good, applying his trade as a tailor, which he had learned from his father and had never forgotten. He made his life in Brooklyn and raised a family.
Benjamin Fein may have of walked a crooked line, and his actions deemed unjustifiable by most. But as a young man he was passionate enough to the cause of the worker, which he truly believed in, and was moved enough to try and do something about it. He was a rare breed of gangster; one spared a violent end on the streets, or in the electric chair. He passed away in 1962 from cancer and emphysema.

No comments: