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Chicago’s Jewish Gangsters: Pastrami on Italian Bread

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The Italian component of organized crime has been widely known and documented. In the dramatic sense there was the 1960’s television drama The Untouchables,” Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel The Godfather,” and the famous trilogy of movies, to name a couple of examples. In real life, the Valachi hearings, enactment of RICO laws which enabled prosecution, and underbosses turning on their superiors for more lenient sentencing, all have all elicited horror at, and fascination with, organized crime and the people involved which exist in parallel tracks in our society.

Certainly, in twentieth-century history, one major nexus of organized crime was Chicago. The criminals at first preying on their fellow immigrant populations got a major boost economically with the well-intentioned, though ultimately futile enactment of Prohibition with the ratification of the Volstead Act. Alcohol was illegal? An equally illegal group sprang up to fill the need. Raw capitalism of market opportunity coupled with supply and demand. Of course, law enforcement wasn’t going to allow such business, unless they were paid off, and they were, handsomely, making Chicago one of the more corrupt cities of the era.

Certainly, in twentieth-century history, one major nexus of organized crime was Chicago.

Brooklyn, New York-born Alphonse Capone may be the most visible face of the period. He and his gang certainly gained the most notoriety, with Capone finally being brought to heel, not by the murders, the Prohibition laws, the gambling dens, the prostitution, protection rackets on small businesses, no, it was tax evasion that proved his undoing. As always, follow the money.

Chicago wasn’t just full of Italian immigrants. Other ethnic groups were also part of the tapestry of the “second city.” They all had their good people and those denizens of their respective underworlds. Part of Capone’s genius was to devise a system of tribute so they could all reasonably co-exist when they weren’t all bent on wiping each other out.

Chicago wasn’t just full of Italian immigrants. Other ethnic groups were also part of the tapestry of the “second city.”

With the Italians occupying center stage, the supporting actors in the Chicago underworld have largely gone unnoticed. Until now. The Kosher Capones by Joe Kraus has painstakingly documented the role of the Jewish mob in the larger drama. Whilst starting as an independent gang within their own community, they would go on to become a subsidiary wing of the Capone gang, playing a significant role in political corruption. They became the pastrami in Italian bread, adding their own flavor to the sandwich of corruption and crime that was a staple of the Chicago political and law enforcement diet for decades. With Kraus having ancestry in what Vito Corleone called the “family business,” he brings authentic interest to the subject, rather than a dry academic read and gives us a work we can really bite into, capice? Mazel tov on a job well done.


Patrick Garrison is the data processing manager for the Press, which means he manages to process data. He lives with his wife and cats. Long a fan of the gangster genre, he can sometimes be a real wiseguy who does a credible characterization of Vito Corleone. Writing this piece was an offer he couldn’t refuse.


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