"Big" Jack Zelig (May 13, 1888 – October 5, 1912) was an American gangster and one of the last leaders of the Monk Eastman Gang.
Born as Zelig Harry Lefkowitz, by the time he was six years old Zelig was a well-known pickpocket and thief while growing up on New York's Lower East Side as a member of Crazy Butch's pickpocket gang before joining the Eastman Gang in the late 1890s. Rising up the ranks, Zelig became leader of the Eastman Gang after "Kid Twist" (Max Zwerbach)'s death in 1908. With lieutenants Jack Sirocco and Chick Tricker, the gang had over seventy-five members, including satellite gangs such as the Lenox Avenue Gang, led by "Gyp the Blood" (aka Harry Horowitz). During this period, Zelig was also known as "The Big Yid."
Feud with Sirocco and Tricker
After being arrested in 1911 for robbing a brothel, Sirocco and Tricker attempted to gain leadership of the gang by refusing to bail out Zelig. Zelig was later released due to his political connections and he was informed by a member that Sirocco and Tricker were planning on murdering him upon his release. The assassin, a gunman named Julie Morrell, was lured by Zelig to The Stuyvesant Casino (140 Second Avenue, now the Ukrainian National Home) where he was killed, possibly while intoxicated, by the gang leader on December 2, 1911.
The next year, the old Eastman/Five Points feud flared anew. As Zelig left the Criminal Courts on afternoon on June 3, 1912, he was shot through the neck by a Five Points gunman named Charley Torti, who was a known associate of Louis Pioggi, aka Louie the Lump, who had gunned down Zelig's mentor, Kid Twist Zwerbach, four years earlier. Zelig was leaving the courthouse having been released on $1000 bail following his arrest for "shooting up the saloon" of Pioggi's brother Jake. Big Jack recovered from his wound in time to be dragged into the Becker/Rosenthal case.
During the second decade of the 20th century, Zelig informally mentored the young Louis Buchalter, teaching him many of the basic methods of the gangster's profession.
Charles Becker, a corrupt NYPD lieutenant, had Zelig in his pocket for quite some time, and in the summer of 1912, Becker was named as a prime extortionist in the underworld. A New York World exposé named him as one of three corrupt police officers involved in the case of Herman Rosenthal, a small time bookmaker who had complained to the press that his illegal businesses had been badly damaged by the greed of the city's corrupt police officers.
Becker told Jack Zelig and members of the Lenox Avenue Gang, specifically, Harry "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, Jacob "Whitey Lewis" Seidenshner, Louis "Lefty Louie" Rosenberg, and Francesco "Dago Frank" Cirofisi, that he wanted Rosenthal "croaked". The gambler was gunned down in front of a Times Square joint called the Metropole Hotel on July 16, 1912, two days after his story appeared in the newspapers. In the aftermath, the District Attorney, Charles S. Whitman, made no secret of his belief that the gangsters who killed him had committed the murder at Becker's behest.
The fall-out from the Rosenthal murder was huge, making national headlines. All of Big Jack's henchmen were rounded up and charged with murder. It was widely whispered that their boss would testify against them in exchange for leniency.
The day before he could do so, on October 5, 1912, Zelig was shot behind the ear and killed by "Boston Red" Phil Davidson (of 111 E. 7th Street) while riding on a 2nd Avenue trolley car while passing East 13th Street. Zelig was hanging out at Segal's Cafe (76 Second Avenue, now a church), when he received an anonymous phone call requesting his presence on 14th street. Zelig jumped on the uptown trolley; when he stood up at the intersection of 13th street, Davidson approached him and killed him with a police revolver. Zelig was 24 years old. Davidson ran East on 14th Street where he ran into a police officer on beat patrol who made him drop his weapon.
Davidson claimed he had shot Zelig over a $400 grudge, but it was popularly believed he had been killed to keep him from testifying against Charles Becker in the Rosenthal murder case involving the Lenox Avenue Gang.
Shortly after Zelig's death New York detective Abe Shoenfeld wrote "Jack Zelig is as dead as a door nail. Men before him – like Kid Twist, Monk Eastman, and others – were as pygmies to a giant. With the passing of Zelig, one of the most 'nerviest', strongest, and best men of his kind left us."