In the early morning of December 26, 1920, gangland legend "Monk" Eastman was shot to death near Union Square in Manhattan. It was an abrupt end to a day of holiday merry-making as well as to a decades-long criminal career.
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"Monk" Eastman had spent Christmas evening celebrating with some friends at the Court Cafe at Driggs Avenue and Broadway at the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge. Though Prohibition was in effect, bootleg booze was readily available, and the forty-seven-year-old gangster and his associates drank large quantities of the stuff.
Around midnight, the Court Cafe quieted down, and the Eastman party decided to move on into Manhattan to continue the jolly time. The group piled into a car, and Monk directed the driver, twenty-six-year-old William J. Simermeyer, to the Blue Bird Cabaret, 62 East Fourteenth Street. Eastman was a frequent visitor at the Blue Bird and was friendly with its management and staff.
After several hours of singing and heavy drinking, Eastman and friends left the Blue Bird at about four o'clock in the morning and walked a short distance east on Fourteenth Street to the corner of Fourth Avenue. Several gunshots were fired. The group quickly disbanded, leaving a collapsed Eastman dying on the curb.
Sidney Levine, master of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit subway station at Fourteenth Street, heard the gunshots and rushed upstairs to the street. He saw a body by the roadside and found a still-hot .32-caliber revolver on the station stairs.
Patrons and employees from cafes in the neighborhood and taxidrivers who were parked nearby all rushed to the shooting victim. None apparently recognized him. When the sound of a heartbeat was noted, driver Peter Bailey loaded the victim into his taxi and sped off to St. Vincent's Hospital. Eastman did not survive the trip.
Still unrecognized, his "gorilla-like" remains were moved to the morgue of the Mercer Street Police Station. Lieutenant William Funston, serving as acting captain in command of the district's detectives, took personal charge of the investigation. Detectives John Bottie and Joseph Gilinson were assigned to the case.
It was about six o'clock when the two veteran detectives had a look at the victim and instantly identified him as former Lower East Side crime czar Monk Eastman. Their identification was confirmed through police fingerprint records.
Evidence indicated that Eastman had extended his arms and hands in a vain effort to shield himself from the gunshots that took his life. There were wounds to both his forearms and to his left hand. Shots were fired at close range, as powder burns were evident on his overcoat. One slug entered at the left center of Eastman's chest. Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris confirmed on December 27 that it was the cause of death, having pierced Monk's heart. Norris also noted that Eastman was very drunk at the moment his life ended.
No weapons were found on Eastman. Investigators did find $144, a heavy watch and chain and two pairs of gold eyeglasses, indicating that Monk's killer did not intend to rob him.
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Assistant District Attorney John R. Hennis, chief of the D.A.'s homicide bureau, became the public spokesman for the investigation. It was a challenging role, as there seemed no limit to speculation by the New York press. In just the first two days following Eastman's murder, newspapers had suggested that it was the result of a disagreement with a bootlegging or narcotics trafficking partner, that it was related to a love affair, that it was an act of vengeance by an old rival and that it was an underworld penalty for cooperating with authorities.
There was some support for each of those possibilities. Investigators in Brooklyn were certain that Eastman was engaged in bootlegging and narcotics distribution, though he had sworn off such activities following his heroic return from service in the Great War. For a time, he made an effort to stay away from gangs and rackets. He worked in an automobile accessories store and tried managing his own pet shop (he had great affection for birds and other pets and had run a pet store many years earlier). But the old life drew him back in. In recent months, police had been following him into Manhattan in the hope of identifying a narcotics supplier.
The romantic angle related to the discovery of a Christmas card signed "Lottie" that was found in Eastman's pockets. Some Eastman friends reported that he had been married years earlier. His wife had not been seen for some time, and one report explained that she died. Authorities doubted that Monk would have jeopardized his life for love, as he seemed never to place a great deal of value in the company of a woman.
As far as enemies and rivals were concerned, Eastman had made plenty since his days as street gang warrior, strike-breaker and Tammany Hall-hired political "slugger," but he outlived many of them. "Eat-'em-up Jack" McManus had his skull crushed back in 1905. Bullets took out Max "Kid Twist" Zwerbach in 1908, "Big Jack" Zelig in 1912, Jack Pioggi in 1914 and "Johnny Spanish" Weyler in 1919. A number of the old brawlers were still around but were giving way to a new generation of Prohibition Era gangsters.
The notion that a lifelong underworld figure like Monk Eastman might be cooperating with police seemed outrageous. However, on the day after Eastman's murder, authorities revealed that Eastman had been holding meetings with narcotics investigators. Acting Captain Daniel Carey, commander of detectives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, went to Eastman's room, 801 Driggs Avenue, in the middle of December and again just before Christmas to discuss an investigation of a drug ring. Dr. Carleton Simon, deputy police commissioner in charge of the narcotics squad, and squad Detective Barney Boylan had also met with Eastman during the month of December. When questioned about the meetings, the police did not deny that Eastman helped to expose an opium ring.
Killed by a friend
Speaking with reporters on December 28, Hennis refused to address the press assumptions. He revealed a belief that Eastman was killed not by an old enemy but by a longtime friend. He refused to identify the suspect, who was not yet in custody.
Hennis explained that, after Eastman and a half dozen partiers left the Blue Bird, they met an old acquaintance. Eastman spoke to the man briefly before the man fired the shots that took Eastman's life. After that, the remaining partiers all scattered.
"We cannot tell whether Monk was double-crossed [by the friends he was with]," Hennis explained, "but we do know that the man who shot him was known to all the rest. He is a well known character, although not so famous as Monk."
A later announcement described the suspect as "not a gangster" but a man who was on intimate terms with criminals in the Union Square area.
On December 30, news reports indicated that the identity of Eastman's killer was learned through the questioning of driver William J. Simermeyer and Eastman friend Sylvester Hamilton, both of Brooklyn. The men were each held in $10,000 bail as material witnesses.
Burial with military honors
Monk Eastman was buried with military honors on December 30, 1920. The funeral was arranged and financed by friends who had served with Eastman in the World War I American Expeditionary Force and could not bear to see him interred in a potter's field.
Infamous for his brutality on the streets of New York City, Eastman earned the respect of his fellow servicemen during the war. He volunteered for military service in October 1917, after emerging from a term in Sing Sing Prison. He enlisted in the 47th Regiment, New York National Guard, under the name of William Delaney. A short time later, part of the 47th, including Eastman/Delaney, was joined with the 106th United States Infantry and sent overseas to fight in France.
Eastman and the 106th participated in the advance along Vierstraat Ridge in Belgium in the late summer of 1918. During that battle, Eastman rescued a fallen comrade, braving enemy fire and suffering two bullet wounds. Following that act of heroism, he was sent to the hospital to recover.
Just three days later, he reportedly left the hospital, without orders and without his uniform, to rejoin his old unit at the front. Wearing hospital pajamas, it is said that Eastman single-handedly slithered through mud to a German machine gun nest and succeeded in taking the position from the enemy.
Eastman's courageous service so rehabilitated his image that Colonel Franklin W. Ward, commander of the 106th Infantry, and First Lieutenant Joseph A. Kerrigan went to New York State Governor Alfred E. Smith to plead that the former gangster's state citizenship, lost due to his felony convictions, be fully reinstated. Governor Smith agreed to the request on May 8, 1919.
On the day of Eastman's funeral, thousands came out to Mrs. Samuel Yannaco's small undertaking establishment, 348 Metropolitan Avenue, to pay their respects. Eastman's body was was dressed in his military uniform, adorned with the American Legion wounded men's button. On his left shoulder was an insignia for his military unit. His sleeves showed three service stripes and two wound stripes.
A silver plate on the coffin was inscribed, "Edward Eastman. Our lost pal. Gone but not forgotten."
At a funeral service, Rev. James H. Lockwood expressed regret at never having gotten to know Eastman: "It is not my province to judge this man's life. His Creator will pass judgment; He possesses all the particulars and is competent to judge any soul. It may startle you to hear me say I wish I had known this man in life. We may have been reciprocally helpful. It has been said there is so much bad in the best of us, so much good in the worst of us, that it does not become any of us to think harshly of the rest of us. That is one way of saying 'let him that is without sin cast the first stone.'"
The American Legion provided a military escort for the coffin to its gravesite in Cypress Hills Cemetery. Taps was played, and a final military salute was fired.
Drunken quarrel with a Prohibition agent
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The press learned the identity of the murder suspect and published it on the final day of 1920.
Jeremiah Bohan, a Brooklyn businessman and longtime pal of Eastman, was believed to have been part of the group of holiday revelers who accompanied Eastman from the Court Cafe to the Blue Bird Cabaret on Christmas night. Police had not found Bohan at his home or his work or any of his usual haunts since Monk was shot to death.
An interesting wrinkle in the story was provided by Bohan's appointment several months earlier as a local inspector working under State Prohibition Director Charles R. O'Connor. With Bohan's job responsibilities - ensuring compliance with the national law against the production, transportation and sale of alcohol - came a license to carry a firearm.
Authorities revealed that Bohan had a police record. He had been arrested several years earlier in connection with the killing of "Joe the Bear" Faulkner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was exonerated by a coroner's jury.
Bohan had worked as a stevedore and as a retail liquor merchant before being assigned to Prohibition enforcement duties. (The assignment was the result of a recommendation by a Brooklyn political leader unnamed in the newspaper reports.)
On January 3, 1921, Bohan surrendered to Acting Captain Daniel Carey in Williamsburg and confessed to shooting Monk Eastman. According to Bohan's statement, he shot Eastman in self-defense during a drunken quarrel.
Investigators found Bohan's description of the quarrel less than believable. He said that the two men argued about whether to leave an especially large Christmas tip for Blue Bird waiter John Bradley. Eastman wanted all in his party to contribute to the tip for Bradley, who was his personal friend. Bohan claimed that Eastman became upset when Bohan objected to contributing. According to Bohan, the idea was objectionable because Bradley wasn't even waiting on the Eastman party's table.
Bohan said he left the establishment with Eastman and the rest of the group following closely behind. At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, Eastman grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around and snarled, "Jerry, you've become a rat since you got that Prohibition job." Bohan said he saw Eastman reach for his overcoat pocket and feared he was getting a handgun. Bohan drew his own revolver, fired several times and fled, tossing the revolver into the subway entrance as he left.
Despite their years of friendship, Bohan said he felt certain that Monk was about to kill him. "I knew what his methods were," he said, "and he had his friends with him, and I thought he was going to start something which would end in my being killed. So I drew my revolver and shot him and made my getaway."
As incredible as it was, Bohan stuck to his story. When the matter came up for trial about a year later, on December 22, 1921, he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Judge Thomas Crain of General Sessions Court sentenced him to between three and ten years in Sing Sing Prison. He served just seventeen months in prison before he was paroled.
- Asbury, Herbert, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, Garden City NY: Garden City Publishers, 1928.
- Hanson, Neil, Monk Eastman: The Gangster Who Became A War Hero, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
- "'Monk' Eastman rewarded," New York Times, May 9, 1919, p. 24.
- "Monk Eastman, noted gangster, slain in street," New York Herald, Dec. 26, 1920, p. 1.
- "Eastman slain in feud over bootleg," New York Evening World, Dec. 27, 1920, p. 1.
- "'Monk' Eastman, gang leader and war hero, slain by rival gunmen," New York Tribune, Dec. 27, 1920, p. 1.
- "Monk Eastman's murder is laid to squealing on ring," New York Herald, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
- "Eastman's slayer sought in his gang," New York Times, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
- "Expect to arrest 'Monk' Eastman's murderer to-day," New York Evening World, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
- "Eastman met death as drug ring squealer," New York Tribune, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 1.
- "Eastman's slayer sought in his gang," New York Times, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
- "Monk Eastman's slayer identified as one of his gang," New York Herald, Dec. 29, 1920, p. 2.
- "Military funeral for Eastman as police seek nine," New York Evening World, Dec. 29, 1920, p. 12.
- "'Monk' Eastman buried as hero beside his mother," New York Tribune, Dec. 31, 1920, p. 6.
- "Chauffeurs name Eastman's slayer," New York Herald, Dec. 31, 1920, p. 2.
- "Search in vain for 'Monk' Eastman's slayer," New York Evening World, Dec. 31, 1920, p. 2.
- "Seek dry agent as missing link in Eastman case," New York Tribune, Jan. 1, 1920, p. 3.
- "Dry agent sought to clear murder of Monk Eastman," New York Herald, Jan. 1, 1921, p. 16.
- "Prohibition agent admits killing Monk Eastman after row, police say," New York Evening World, Jan. 3, 1921, p. 1.
- "Dry agent admits he slew Eastman in drunken fight," New York Herald, Jan. 4, 1921, p. 20.
- "Monk Eastman slayer gets 3 to 10 years," New York Herald, Dec. 23, 1921, p. 3.