Sunday, March 30, 2008

98 Years Ago - Not Such A Funny Day For Spanish Louie

April 1st is generally associated with April Fool's Day, a day of pranks and put ons for some (and my kid brother Marc's birthday!). But the day was not so funny 98 years ago for John 'Spanish Louie' Lewis, when he met his end on the corner of Second Avenue and Twelfth Street. His street career was brief but colorful and he was also somewhat of an anomaly as possibly the only Jewish hood with Sephardic roots....


The long heritage line of New York’s Jewish gangland has generally been tied to the descendent roots of Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia. It’s the pre-dominant Jewish American denomination known as Ashkenazim, whose ancestors started pouring into New York and beyond in mass numbers starting around 1880. But while Ashkenazi Jews quickly came to define the American Jew simply because of their sheer numbers, they weren’t the first to arrive.

In September 1654, the first twenty-three Jews to ever set foot on North American soil had made their way up from Brazil by ship to settle in then New Amsterdam. They had found themselves refugees once again, spill over results of the Spanish Inquisition already one hundred and sixty-two years old. When the Portuguese re-conquered Brazil in that same year, they were expelled from another continent yet again, the perennial wandering Jew. They were Sephardic, Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent that during the initial inquisition had spread out to the rest of Europe with a high percentage stopping in Holland. With language as impetus, many others braved an Atlantic crossing and made their way to South America with a majority choosing Argentina as the final stop.

Upon their New Amsterdam arrival, the twenty-three were not received with the open door policy that was to take place two hundred years later. Governor Peter Stuyvesant looked at expelling these new strangers almost immediately, but The Dutch West India Company, with the help of a few well place Jews in Holland, denied his request. It would take another ten years, in 1664, after the British took over and re-christened the town New York, would these Jews be given some standard civil rights, and foundations in building new lives were laid. By 1700 well over three hundred Jews had arrived in the country, and by 1706, they established their first Synagogue, the Spanish – Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel, which still stands today at 8 West 70th St.

It’s a long shot to say if John ‘Spanish Louie’ Lewis’s descendants were among those three hundred, but he is an anomaly as possibly the only known Jewish hoodlum of Sephardic descent. Lewis was a lone wolf, working independently with just a few men under him. His early street training came as a member of Humpty Jackson’s troop, another incredible gangland character from the first decade of the 20th century. Besides Lewis, Jackson led a band of about fifty men with names like Lobster Kid and The Grabber, and was a lover of Voltaire, Darwin and gunplay. He had a violent streak and a hunchback that deformed his figure and naturally exaggerated his feared presence among his men. By the time Jackson was jailed for the last time in 1910, Lewis had already set out on his own. Tall tales abound about Lewis, weaved colorfully first by Herbert Asbury in The Gangs Of New York. Lewis played up his noble Spanish – Portuguese bloodline by prowling the streets dressed in all black attire, crossing two Colt revolvers under his belt and backed up his arsenal with a couple of eight inch blades at either side of his hips. To accentuate his prowess and mystery he supposedly pulled up a sweater up to under his nose as to be unrecognizable under a supposed black sombrero; he knew how to draw attention for potential clients in the underworld. With no real ties to the existing Jewish criminal community, his olive complexion and dark swarthy looks set him apart from the rest of the East Side mobsters and made him a bit of an enigma.

Because of his considerable size he freelanced his bouncing skills on many occasions until Herman Rosenthal hired him on regularly for his East Side gambling parlor by 1909. His fists were swift, he was a crack shot with a pistol and Spanish Louie’s notoriety spread quickly as the mysterious figure that regularly thumped Rosenthal’s misbehaving patrons with brutish ease. Running a gambling establishment been a fierce game of competition on the East Side and no one disdained each other more than Rosenthal and rival Louis ‘Bridgey Webber. Violent exchanges and vandalism were the norm in the means of gaining the upper hand and stealing clients away by temporarily disabling the other’s operation. Lewis used the continuing feud to his advantage and decided to steal $400 after raiding Webber’s gambling parlor with a couple of men. To everyone’s surprise, an enraged Webber turned to the police, and Lewis and his men found themselves standing in line up of scoundrels and rogues. The underworld code was breached, but pressures to make amends were met when the $400 was returned to Webber along with an extra $300 for his troubles in order to not press charges and keep the misunderstanding at street level and not involve the police. Though Lewis was freed, a grudge ingrained itself deeply within him. Webber was jumped and blackjacked a couple of months later by unknown assailants who left him on the curb with a broken jaw.

On April 1, 1910, John ‘Spanish Louie’ Lewis lay dead on a street just off Second Avenue, with two bullets in his head.
In the months leading up to that first day in April, Bridgey Webber’s broken jaw healed up slowly over the cold winter as revenge burned into his thoughts. He hired Big Jack Zelig’s crew for payback on his assault and the trio of Gyp The Blood, Lefty Louis and Whitey Lewis were presumably given the assignment. They ensnared Spanish Louie after someone claimed a friend wanted to speak to him and had led him off Second Avenue down Twelfth Street. Lewis’ street smarts kicked in quick as he drew his revolvers but the ambush was lightning fast and he had no chance against the three men. Beat patrol officers came running after hearing the two shots and discovered Lewis’ body as a gray touring car roared off. Somewhere, Bridgey Webber smiled.

Some may have quickly disregarded any mysterious street legacy Spanish Louie hoped he had attained after his body was claimed by a family in Brooklyn to be given a proper Jewish burial. Seems the mysterious stranger clad in black was just another lost kid from across the river with misguided lawless ambitions that left him dead on the streets of the East Side.

No comments: