Monk Eastman: The Gangster Who Became a War Hero

Written by Neil Hanson
Review by Cecelia Holland

At the turn of the last century, New York City was a seething mix of wealth and power, ambition and corruption. The city’s underworld, centered on the Lower East Side, thrived on an intimate connection with Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine, which dominated local politics. Monk Eastman, gang boss of a good part of the Bowery, owed his power more to his ability to supply votes for the machine than his formidable fighting skills. Finally sent “up the river” to Sing Sing in 1904, the resourceful thug emerged five years later to a different world, where his talents were less profitable. Then, astonishingly, in 1917, in his forties, he enlisted in the army, went to France with the Expeditionary Force, and helped us win the war.

This is an extraordinary story, and the data is detailed, but it wanted to be a novel. The story needs a real plot, engaging characters with interior lives, at least somebody to like. Monk doesn’t do it. Even Hanson’s lovingly detailed recitals of his many scars don’t make him endearing. Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York is more fun, and faster reading.