November 15, 2010

Two Book Reviews - One Author - Ron Arons

Until a few weeks ago before receiving a telephone call I had never heard of Ron Arons. During that call Mr. Arons explained that he had been following postings on this blog and wondered if I would be interested in reviewing two of his books. After some discussion I agreed to either review them myself or ask some of my colleagues to review them for posting on the Criminal Law Library blog, with the understanding that the books provided for reviewing would be added to the library collection of the New York Supreme Court Criminal Term Library of New York County and not given to me personally.

We are fortunate that two colleagues, both experienced book reviewers, were available and eager to take on these assignments. Pepper Hedden who has worked with me on special projects and reviews materials regularly for the Law Library Association of Greater New York (LLAGNY) will graduate December 2010 from St. John’s University with an MLS degree. She is a reference librarian in the law library of the New York County District Attorney’s office and is reviewing The Jews of Sing Sing the first of Mr. Arons' books listed below. Ted Pollack who is reviewing Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology, also by Mr. Arons, is the Senior Law Librarian at the New York County Public Access Law Library. Ted continues to review legal materials for both the New York Law Journal and the Library Journal.

Since I am not writing any of the reviews below I will only say that as a law librarian who is always looking for useful sources of criminal records, I have already found Mr. Arons book Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology useful in identifying criminal records in other jurisdictions. Unfortunately I have not yet found time to read The Jews of Sing Sing--but I will. Now on to the book reviews:
David Badertscher

Pepper Hedden's review:

The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham Gangsters and Gonuvin
By Ron Arons
The Jews of Sing Sing proves the adage to not judge a book by its cover – or its title. This book is a lively and crystalline page-turner with something for everyone to enjoy.

Like many, Ron Arons paid little attention to the family stories he had heard over his lifetime until he found himself parentless. While disposing of the belongings of his “packrat parents”, he discovered a family tree his father had started and caught the “genealogy bug”. Having no living relatives of a proper age to ask for stories, the author began his genealogical expedition with the U.S. Census records. What he discovered raised perplexing questions. His great-grandfather had claimed to be born in three different locations. His great-grandmother’s death certificate listed a surviving husband with a name different from that of his great-grandfather. And his great-grandfather had served time in Sing Sing! He didn’t remember hearing such a story and the idea of a Jewish criminal flew in the face of his Jewish teachings to abide to a high moral value system.

Ron Arons is an award-winning researcher who invites us on his odyssey of discovery and engagingly reports the results. Over more than ten years, as he pieced together his great grandfather’ s story, he found a surprising number of other Jewish criminals from the early New York City streets especially the Lower East Side, also known as Five Points. In individual chapters, the reader is entertained with colorful descriptions of some of these Jewish criminals who had called Sing Sing “home” for a time from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.

Throughout the book, the author’s meticulous research in census records, prison records, newspapers, archives, books, police records, court transcripts and personal interviews is impressive. Where pieces about the underworld characters do not fit nicely together, Ron Arons suggests possible answers based on other research. The details are exquisite. Locations, names and facts are exact. The storytelling is infectious.

For instance, we meet Monk Eastman, “the first true Jewish gangster” whose “presence and influence lasted for decades”. In one recounting, Monk and his companions were unaware they were being watched by undercover detectives as they “pushed revolvers in the youth’s face and attempted to steal his stash.” One detective “like an Olympic hurdler” cleared the leg Eastman put out to trip him as he pursued the companion “in front of Lewis & Conger, a crockery and home furnishings store located at 130 W. 42nd Street.” What follows is literally a blow-by-blow account of how the officer used the companion as a shield to block the gun shots hurled by Monk until Monk’s revolver was empty and he threw it through the Lewis & Conger store window to later be used as evidence. There are dozens of other delightful stories.

We learn that Bennet’s Hotel once existed at 7th Avenue and 41st Street and a Worker’s Party of America office was located at 110 West 14th Street. Did you know that the phrase “keeping tabs” stems from card players who hired “counters” with tablets called “tabs” to count cards?

The Jews of Sing Sing tells the story of crime and vice as the decades unfold. Gambling at times was almost entirely in the hands of Jewish gangs. It seems that in 1910, 16% of the Sing Sing population was Jewish. Many were immigrants who disguised their identity by using aliases, as shown on serial arrest records or, as was common, to Americanize their names to hide their heritage. For instance, Bugsy Siegel’s true name was Benjamin Siegelbaum.

Along the way, we briefly encounter more recognizable figures such as Clarence Darrow, J. Edgar Hoover, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. On the flip side is the story of the cozy relations between the gangsters and Tamany Hall politicians, police, unions and the rich and famous as they collaborate in corruption, graft, extortion, and prostitution as well as those determined to root out crime. A successful, and corrupt, wealthy Mr. Hertz bribed a graft investigator to resign from the police force. . .and he did. Louis Shomberg, ostensibly a prominent businessman is thought to be behind crime networks in New York for decades. He was so successful is covering his tracks that in the 1960’s federal prosecutors just gave up trying convict and deport him in his advancing years.

An unusual story in the criminal context is that of Benjamin Gitlow, one of the founders of the American communist movement in the early 20th century who was charged under new sedition laws. Later he had a change of heart and testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and cooperated with the FBI in rooting out communism in America.

Researchers will appreciate the efforts Aron’s took to accurately detail the lives of the gangsters he profiled and the circumstances in which they lived. Historians, or lovers of New York history, will delight in description of the events in various decades and the city that knew them. New Yorkers and those familiar with the New York streets will be making mental pictures of City addresses and imagining the buildings and business that once occupied it. For fans of crime novels, this book is a romp. The Jews of Sing Sing will appeal to and delight many readers whatever their interests.


Pepper Hedden will graduate December 2010 from St. John’s University with an MLS degree and is a reference librarian in the law library of the New York County District Attorney’s office.
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Ted Pollack's review:

Title: Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology

Author: Ron Arons
Publisher: Criminal Research Press

Pages: 365

Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records” is a volume dedicated to assisting in locating current and archival material related to individuals with a criminal history. Ron Arons became interested in this area while researching a relative’s criminal past. This volume compiles a comprehensive listing of libraries, archives, and other physical locations as well as online resources that are very useful in locating criminal records. The author acknowledges that the method used to track records for and individual often varies from case to case. The apparent value in this work is the large number of resources compiled. The book is organized and covers each of the fifty states as well as the District of Columbia and the federal system. For individuals performing research in this area this book will be a highly useful tool. Nonetheless, the publisher might consider offering a digitized version with active links to websites to save users the difficulty of entering long web addresses to access online records locations. This book is recommended for special libraries, professional researchers, and individuals interested in performing research involving relatives with shady pasts.

Ted Pollack, Sr. Law Librarian, New York County Public Access Law Library