Max 'Kid Twist' Zweifach would never have handed his cronies to the law on a platter. He never even gave the cops the time of day if he could help it.
The original Kid Twist, whose skill in dodging the law inspired his nickname, was born on March 14, 1884 in Austria. His father, Adolph Zweifach, was a hardworking tailor and his mother, the former Hanna Reci, was of Italian descent. The family emigrated to America in 1886 to escape the pogroms and settled in New York's Lower East Side, where thousands of Jewish refugees like themselves were living.
The path that Max Zweifach took in life was not the one his parents hoped for. If he made any attempt at joining his father in the tailoring business, he soon abandoned it. Max was an experienced thief by the time he reached his mid-teens. One of his closest friends was Zelig Lefkowitz, a juvenile pickpocket destined to become infamous as Big Jack Zelig. Another favored accomplice was his brother, Daniel, who went by the nicknames of Kid Slyfox and Dinny Fox.
He was a tall, lightly muscled individual, capable of punching fast and hard. With his straight black hair and olive complexion, Zweifach was more Italian than Jewish in appearance. He robbed, stole, and fought with a nerveless indifference, and was somewhat of a prodigy. By the time he was murdered at the age of twenty-four, he had turned Monk Eastman's seminal street gang into a Jewish-run crime syndicate that would give his namesake, Abe Reles, and other Jewish gangsters like Jack Zelig and Dopey Benny Fein their start.
The future kingpin experienced his first arrest when he was sixteen. On June 10, 1899, gambler Joseph Kelly parked his bicycle at the corner of Third Avenue and Thirty-Third Street and entered a store. When he came out, the bike was gone. So was Zweifach, who had been loitering nearby. After the bicycle was found in a hock shop, the proprietor turned the juvenile thief in. When he appeared in court on June 19 and was asked his occupation, he replied flippantly, "Bicycles." The judge glared, but nothing intimidated Max Zweifach- not the justice system, the police, or rival gangsters.
The gang overlord of Manhattan's Jewish quarter in 1900 was Edward 'Monk' Eastman. The stocky, battle-scarred Eastman was a former dance hall bouncer who commanded a small army of sluggers, thieves, and killers. He also enjoyed the protection of Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine that shaped city politics. Eastman and his thugs delivered votes to their patron during elections, and Tammany in turn ensured that the gang ran its extortion, drug-selling, and prostitution rackets with a minimum of police interference.
Contrary to popular belief, Max Zweifach did not apprentice himself to Eastman. He, Daniel, and friends like Charles Levin (also known as Ike the Blood) banded together and created their own small combine. A New York Times article published in 1903 pointed out that he "was not so much a leader of the Monk Eastman gang as he is a leader of a young group of East Siders on his own account."
Zweifach even differed from Eastman politically, being a staunch Republican. In 1902 the 'Kid Twist gang' backed attorney Sam Koenig in his bid for the Republican leadership in the Sixteenth Assembly District. Dozens of battered voters later, they got him in, and a grateful Koenig responded whenever they fell afoul of the law. Zweifach, noted a writer for Current Literature magazine, "was arrested dozens of times, but always escaped by reason of his 'pull'."
One such instance took place barely a year later. On August 17, 1903, Zweifach was in a candy and cigar store at 98 Goerck Street. A rival gangster, John 'Mugsy' Bayard, sauntered in and started trouble. Soon the guns came out, and several shots later, Bayard lay dying on the shop floor and Zweifach was on his way to a relative's house in Jersey City. He turned himself in the next day, after Daniel 'convinced' enough shop patrons to swear that the young gangster had acted in self-defense. He was held for the coroner on a charge of murder, but the matter was quietly dropped after witnesses insisted that Bayard had fired the first shot.
After successfully dodging that murder charge, Zweifach became friendly with Monk Eastman. The great man could always use a smart young lieutenant who knew how to kill and cover up afterward. Their association lasted just over a year. Monk was arrested in February 1904 for attempting to rob a drunk who turned out to have a wealthy and influential father, and his Tammany patrons withdrew their support. The following April, Eastman was convicted of assault and sentenced to 10 years in Sing Sing, leaving his crew without a leader.
Max Zweifach saw his chance and went for it. He proclaimed himself Monk Eastman's successor, and the gang's younger element rallied behind him. In addition to his brother Daniel, his strongest supporters were Samuel Pristrich, alias Cyclone Louie, and Harris Stahl. Alfred Henry Lewis, author of Apaches of New York, wrote that Pristrich was a professional strong man who earned extra cash by wowing Coney Island crowds with feats of strength. Of Stahl, an undercover detective reported, "He was known as a terror. With Twist behind him he had nerve, and for a song and dance he would crack a man's skull, or break his nose or a rib."
Senior gang members, on the other hand, supported the candidacy of Ritchie 'Kid' Fitzpatrick, an Irish-American who ran a cut-throat saloon during the 1890s and personally disposed of an arsonist gang that tried to shake him down. Fitzpatrick and Eastman had been cronies for years. He regarded the much-younger Zweifach as an upstart, albeit a shrewd and dangerous one.
Only fear of police crackdowns prevented the two factions from going to war right away. An unstable truce prevailed until October 30, 1904, when Fitzpatrick shot and wounded one of the 'Twist boys' during an argument. Seizing a golden opportunity, Zweifach invited his rival to a saloon at 77 Sheriff Street, ostensibly to discuss the incident and prevent retaliatory flare-ups among the rank and file.
During the conference, which took place on November 1, Harris Stahl loudly accused Fitzpatrick of shooting his friend. The Irishman suspected a ruse and bolted from the saloon. While Zweifach watched placidly, Stahl chased the older gangster outside and fired two bullets into his back, killing him instantly. The young gunman was arrested by a police officer who arrived seconds afterward and charged with murder, but during his trial in February 1905 witnesses to the shooting failed to identify him, and he walked.
No one else from the Old Guard wanted to stand in Zweifach's way after that, leaving him free to take control. Under Kid Twist, the old Eastman gang became a well-oiled machine, enjoying greater respect and fear than ever before. In a 1909 article for McClure's magazine, muckraking writer George Kibbe Turner called Zweifach a "hatchet-faced young Jew" but conceded that he was "a much more acute leader" than his predecessor.
Zweifach also commanded more political support. During elections, Turner wrote, "Eastman could be counted upon for some four and five hundred 'repeaters'. Twist could easily raise double that number…. Under Twist the gang assumed its present position- the strongest in New York."
If there was an opportunity to make money, he took it, no matter how penny-ante or odd. He would walk into stuss houses and crap joints and shout, "I want fifty dollars. What, you're not going to cough up? I'll shoot up your ---- place!" Soon proprietors were reaching for their cash boxes the moment he appeared in the doorway. He also invested in the production of a celery tonic, which he demanded that local shops and saloons carry, or else. When one grogshop owner refused, Zweifach became a one-man demolition crew and smashed the premises into kindling. Word spread fast throughout the Lower East Side, and soon most watering holes featured bottles of the tonic, whose stickers bore Kid Twist's grinning portrait.
He embarked on one of his more ambitious and profitable projects in early 1904. Zweifach engaged two printers, Isadore Hauptmann and Seymour Singer, to run off $4000 worth of counterfeit New York Central Railroad passes, which he then sold to the public via scalpers. A fourth party named Albert Neumann advanced the funds to get the operation started. Zweifach and the money man disliked one another right from the start- Seymour Singer would later confess that the gangster approached him to help ambush and kill Neumann. By the time the authorities discovered the scheme, Zweifach had added thousands to his personal fortune. He and his co-conspirators were arrested by police and railroad detectives in March 1905, but he went free when the others refused to testify against him.
Zweifach reacted to another's success like a shark does to blood: he moved in for the kill. One of the most talked-about Twist casualties was Charles Greenwich, alias 'the Bottler'. Greenwich ran a thriving stuss game at 65 Suffolk Street. He was under the protection of the Five Points gang, which had engaged the old Eastmans in spectacular street battles in the past, but that mattered little to Zweifach. He approached Greenwich and informed him that effective immediately, he was taking on Harris Stahl as a partner. When the other man hesitated, Max added that his Five Points friends could not protect him forever. The Bottler conceded the point and unhappily split his earnings fifty-fifty with the Twist gang. Then, in May 1907, Zweifach advised him that he was now out of his own game: another gang member called the Nailer was assuming his half. Greenwich responded by barring the door to his establishment and admitting only trusted parties. The battle of wills ended when Harris Stahl encountered the Bottler at the corner of Suffolk and Broome Streets on June 1 and shot him dead.
As the money poured in, Zweifach began dressing the part of the successful businessman. He wore tailored suits, pomaded his straight black hair, and sported fresh flowers on his lapel. His money, dark good looks, and gangland prestige made him attractive to women, something he welcomed, although he had married the former Sarah Birnbaum in June 1904 and had a son with her. She remained at their home at 257 Sackman Street in Brownsville, blissfully or wilfully unaware of her husband's philandering. Zweifach probably never thought that his predilection for the fair sex would have more fatal consequences than a complaining spouse.
On the evening of May 14, 1908, he and Samuel 'Cyclone Louie' Pristrich were at Coney Island, enjoying the company of two singers, Carroll Terry and Mabel Leon. Miss Terry was the former paramour of a Five Points gangster named Louis Poggi, alias Louie the Lump. She would later say that she had never met Kid Twist before that evening, but the fact that her ex-lover and new flame were mortal enemies by that point suggests otherwise. Underworld gossip stated that prior to meeting Miss Terry and her friend for drinks on May 14, Zweifach and Pristrich found Poggi drinking in a Coney Island bar and amused themselves by making him jump out the window at gunpoint.
The two gangsters took the girls to an Italian café on the Oceanic Walk for dinner. At 8:00 p.m., the foursome strolled out of the restaurant. Louis Poggi was crouching in a nearby doorway, gripping a pistol, but they did not see him until it was too late.
The Italian gangster punched Carroll Terry, throwing her to the boardwalk, and fired a bullet into her shoulder. Before Zweifach could turn around, he was struck behind the right ear and killed instantly. Pristrich, on the other hand, took five bullets to his chunky body before a sixth landed behind his left ear and dropped him permanently. In contrast, Mabel Leon escaped with only her nerves in tatters. Louis Poggi, his revenge complete, ran in the other direction.
Dozens of Coney Island pleasure seekers witnessed the executions. When the smoke cleared, they stared in shock at the moaning, wounded chorine and the two bloody corpses, which were sprawled in the doorway of the new South Brooklyn Hotel. Police reserves from the Coney Island station raced to the scene. They called a doctor for Carroll Terry and had the bodies of Zweifach and Pristrich taken to the morgue.
While the police hunted for Poggi, Zweifach's followers went on a rampage. On May 18, the Gotham Theatre was thrown into an uproar when some Jewish gangsters attacked an Italian outside the building and made threats toward Italians in general. Lucky for Louis Poggi, the police found him before they did: he was located and arrested in Saybrook, Connecticut on May 19, but remained behind bars until his court appearance on June 9, preventing Daniel Zweifach and other Twist gang members from exacting vengeance.
Although he had been indicted on two counts of first degree murder, Poggi's lawyer advised him to plead guilty to one charge of manslaughter, which, if accepted, would result in a brief term in the reformatory at Elmira.
"My client is a lad of nineteen," the lawyer explained to the judge. After adding that Zweifach had been threatening the Italian youth for some time, he added, "He (Poggi) knew that Twist had been charged with killing several other men who had crossed his path, and the records of the police show that murder was held against Twist but no case was ever proved. The man and his partner, 'Cyclone', were more desperate in their methods than ever was Jesse James or any Western outlaw." In other words, Louis Poggi struck first to prevent a similar fate from befalling him.
The judge, Justice Scudder, was impressed by the argument. He also took into account the fact that Poggi had a clean record. Accepting the manslaughter plea, Scudder sentenced Poggi to a term at Elmira, which would only last for eleven months if he were a model prisoner. The young Five Pointer allegedly sneered afterward, "What's five months? I could do that standing on my head."
Max Zweifach was buried at Mount Zion Cemetery. His family was not left in financial straits: George Kibbe Turner wrote in his McClure's article, "Twist is believed, by those in a position to know, to have left a fortune of $50,000 to $100,000 accumulated during his leadership by his careful business management." Some of it was cash, but Zweifach had also bought buildings and downtown property whose value would increase over the years. Sarah Zweifach inherited enough money to keep herself and her son in modest luxury.
For awhile the gang was held together by a hoodlum named Abe Lewis, who was Samuel Pristrich's first cousin. Daniel Zweifach and Harris Stahl, the most obvious contenders for the vacant leadership spot, both declined the risky honor. A boss of Zweifach's calibre did not emerge until late 1910, when old friend Zelig Lefkowitz, now known and feared as Big Jack Zelig, took command.
See also: Big Jack Zelig