THE STORY OF DOPEY BENNY FEIN
John William Tuohy
Fein Benjamin AAKA Dopey Benny Born 1887. Died 1962. Lived at 531 Montague Street in Brooklyn. He was married with three children.
The son of a tailor, his nickname “Dopey” came from an adenoidal condition, which gave him a sleepy look. When asked to explain the name, Fein said “I don’t know, I never used dope. I got the title as a nickname years ago” As a teen, he was pickpocket and petty thief
Developing an arrest record in 1905 as head of a local street gang. He served time in prison for armed robbery and was arrested twice for murder, but was never convicted on those charges.
In 1910, he joined Big Jake Zelig’s (Zelig’s real name was either William Alberts or Harry Morris) gang where he was essentially a strong-arm enforcer and labor extortionist in the garment district with its predominately-Jewish immigrant labor force. When Zelig was killed, Benny struck off on his own with the garment extortion business and had a long running battles and feuds Italian labor racketeer Joe Sirroco and Joseph ‘The Greaser’ Rosenzweig over territory.
In 1913, with Jake Zelig dead, Fein tried to break the Romanian born (1891) Rosenzweig’s iron grip on the garment industry in an uprising known as the Labor Sluggers War that lasted from about 1913 until 1916.
At the start of the war, on August 10, 1913, according to Fein, a patrolman named Patrick Sheridan found him on the Forsyth and Grand (Fein lived at 102 Forsyth Street) and said, “Come with me Benny”. And they walked to the corner of Forsyth and Bowery where another foot cop was waiting. At that point, the two cops took out blackjacks and in front of 15 witnesses beat Fein and then arrested him for assaulting an officer. Sheridan claimed that had ordered Fein and his gang to disperse from the front of bathhouse and they refused and attacked him. A jury agreed with Sheridan and found Fein guilty of second-degree assault.
Benny proclaimed his innocence and said that for an entire year, the word on the street was that he would be framed for a crime so that he could be taken off the streets “I have tried my best to be a good boy and avoid trouble” he told judge “but the police would not have it that way. I am not without a heart. I am human”
The judge sentenced him to five years at Sing-Sing prison. On January 25, 1914, minutes after Benny was placed on a train to Sing-Sing, his father, Issac came to the Tombs and asked to see his son. When he was told that Benny had just left, the father burst into tears.
On May 13, 1914, the conviction was overturned by a high court. In 1914, he was arrested for trying to extort $500 from a business agent of the Local 509 Butchers Union named Ben Solomonowitz. Fein had threatened to kill Solomonowitz if the official didn’t have the money on Benny’s next visit, so Solomonowitz went to the police. The following week, Fein returned and issues his threat, not realizing that detectives were listening from the next room.
Fein was arrested and tossed in the Tombs with bail set at $8,000, an enormous amount of money at the time. Fein waited in his cell for two days, expecting he would be bailed out by his gang members or his friends in Tammany Hall, but nothing happened. Certain that he had been sold out to the law, Fein contacted the District Attorney and started to name names.
In all, his testimony was eighty pages long, detailing every possible aspect of labor extortion within the garment industry in Manhattan including the history of Monk Eastman and Big Jake Zelig and how Fein had come to declare war on Rosenzweig
He told the police;
“My first job as a gangster for hire was to go to a shop and beat up some workmen there. The man that employed me, a union official paid me $100 for my work and $10 for each of the men that I hired. I planned the job and then told my employer that it would take more men then he figured and I would not touch it for under $600.00. He agreed. I got my men together, divided them into squads and passed out pieces of gas pipe and clubs to them. We met the workmen we were after as they came from work and we beat them up. I didn’t want to mix up in the work myself and kept out of it, but I was where I could watch my men work. The man who employed me said he liked the work fine and paid me $500 as a bonus. That started me at my work.”
Fein said he charged the unions $150 to wreck a small manufacturers shop while large shops went up to $600. Cutting off an ear or shooting an owner in the leg went for $60 to $100 depending on who the victim was. Throwing a manager down an elevator shaft was $200. and that he earned more than $10,000 a year as an extortionist. He was twice offered $15,000 in cash to go to work for the bosses instead of the workers but Fein turned them down twice. “I was for the working people” he told the DA. He said he hired strong-arm women as well as men, and paid them $7.50a day, decent money at the time. (The average worked earned $19.23 a day at the time)
It was also the same amount that he paid his men. The women were armed with weighted umbrellas and long, deadly sharp, hairpins. When a theater on the east side of New York hired non-union actors, Fein sent in women who feigned fits in the middle of the performance.
Usually six to ten women would suffer screaming and fainting fits every twenty minutes until the performance was called off. Fein held trails for those accused of breaking union laws. The accused were invited to attend to defend themselves. If they were found guilty, Fein decided on the punishment. Among those he found guilty included Herman Lieberwitz, a member of the garment workers union who was moonlighting in upstate New York in nun-union jobs.
On August 10, 1910, Benny tracked him down to 85 East Fourth Street and cracked his skull open. Lieberwitz died at Bellevue Hospital a short time later. Next they beat Benjamin Polar, a union leader who was, as Fein said, “in the way of some other union people” Then Max Fleischer, a union organizer who had offended some workers, was beaten nearly to death in a restaurant at 106 Delancey Street. A beer bottle was broken over his head. They left a written notice on his body that he was to retire from the union business. Benny and his men destroyed shops at 77 Green street that belonged to Max and Joseph Lampert because they refused to pay a union fine of less than $100.00 Shops belonging to Max Roth at 1115 Broadway and another shop belonging to Ron Kushin at 41 East Twenty-First Street, were destroyed.
Rather than kill witnesses, Fein offered them a chance to relocate to Cleveland Ohio. His men all carried guns but were seldom arrested for possession of a deadly weapon since the gangster were accompanied by their girlfriends or prostitutes on each adventure where guns were needed. When the police arrived, they slipped the guns into the women’s backsides
Fein kept a diary of his life as a union goon, a dairy that included names, dates, times and places. Based on those notes, the DA issued 32 indictments against hoodlums and labor officials, but none of them resulted in convictions. Benny was released without charges on May 15, 1915.
On November 28, 1914, during a clash between union and non-union help at the S. Feldman Hat Factory at 168 Green Street, a non-union enforcer named Max Green (146 East Houston) who worked for Joe Sirroco was shot to death after he shot Hyman Emmanuel, one of Benny’s men, in the leg. Waxy Gordon was later identified as the man who killed Max Green.
On December 12, 1914, some men from Benny’s gang were inside Madison Square Garden watching a bicycle race when they were surrounded by members of Joe Sirroco’s gang who challenged them to a fight. Outnumbered, Fein’s men refused but at some point, Anthony Scantuli AKA Tony the Cheese (165 Hester Street) one of Sirroco’s men was shot in the hip. Tony Ross and Frank ”Nigger” Jula were arrested for the shooting. Later, another fight broke out in front of the London Theater near Broadway.
Looking for revenge for the attack at Madison Square Garden, Benny and his gang came to Arlington Hall at 12-23 St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan where the Sirroco gang was having an annual ball. They waited outside the hall and when they saw Charles Piazza, who worked for Joe Sirroco, walking down the street, they shot him through the left shoulder and then returned to party they were having a few blocks away. One bullet went wild and killed a bystander named Frederick Strauss, a clerk of the court in Manhattan.
A witness identified Dopey Benny and his gang members Little Abbie Beckerman (Born 1888 of 232 East Broadway) and Rubin Kaplan (Born 1888 of 226 Second Avenue) as the shooters. He also identified Waxy Gordon, (25 Delancey Street) and a member of Dopey Benny’s gang as another shooter. Another witness said he saw a man he later identified as Gordon run up to the halls bouncer, a character named Edward Morris AKA Fat Bull and cry out “Fat Bull! Hide me!”
In the end, they were all released due to lack of evidence. With the end of the Sluggers war and his reputation in tatters, Benny’s power and influence waned. In November of 1925, Fein was arrested in case that involved cocaine.
On May 29, 1915, Joseph ‘The Greaser’ Rosenzweig, a tailor’s presser by trade, pled guilty murder of Phillip Pinchy Paul in 1914. He allowed a gangster named Benny Snyder to murder Paul because Rosenzweig wanted Paul’s job as an organizer in the Furriers union.
On June 30, 1931, Benny, now 44 years old and out of trouble for almost 14 years, was arrested on assault charges with gangsters Samuel Hirsch and Samuel Rubin after throwing acid on local Brooklyn businessman Mortimer Kahn as he sat in front of his neck tie shop at 124 Allen street in Brooklyn.
On February 25, 1942 he was sentenced to ten to twenty years for trying to fence $2.5 million in stolen property, taken mostly from the garment center in Manhattan. Abe Niggy Cohen, an old timer from the Lower East Side was convicted with him. After his release from Sing-Sing, Fein settled down and went to work as tailor. He died in 1962, from cancer and emphysema.