Three East 236th Street is a trim little house on the eastern border of the park, just north of where the old Mosholu Parkway once emerged from the woods. In the winter of 1931, a middle-aged man named Emanuel Kamna lived there with his wife, in-laws, and two daughters. He had enlisted with the National Guard in his twenties and never left the military. He’d patrolled the Mexican border during the Pancho Villa Expedition and survived the shell-shredded trenches of Flanders during the Great War. After returning from Europe with an honorable discharge, he found work at the Kingsbridge Armory, just south of the park, where he earned $7 a day maintaining guns and rifles for the National Guard’s 27th Division. The wages were modest, but he was lucky to have a job. These were the early days of the Great Depression, before shantytowns mushroomed in the parks, when bankers and merchants still spoke wistfully about an imminent improvement in business conditions. But the unemployment rate was closing on 20 percent, and the breadlines grew longer with each passing day. The shock of the stock market crash had been replaced by a deepening sense of malaise.
The armory was three miles from Kamna’s house, an hour’s walk with a pleasant stretch through the park. On February 26, 1931, he was crossing the Mosholu Parkway just before 7:00 a.m. when he saw it—the white glove caught on a bramble beside the roadway, just hanging there as if someone had left it to dry. Then he looked down into the gully and saw its owner. He had encountered enough corpses to recognize death. He saw it in the contortion of her neck, the hands folded neatly together as if smoothing out her dress, the eyes wide open. He lingered for a moment but did not approach. Instead, he turned back to the road and held up his arm to hail an automobile. A delivery truck from the Tidewater Oil Company rumbled to a stop. Kamna told the driver what he’d seen, and they drove out of the park in search of a phone. By the time the news hit the press later that day, the story had gotten mangled. The truck driver was credited with finding the body while walking to work. Kamna returned to the armory and faded into obscurity.
But the news of his gruesome discovery blazed on without him as the mysterious murder ignited New York’s collective imagination. Like a wildfire in a windstorm, it flared in unexpected directions, leaping from tree to tree until it scorched vast territories far from the original spark. By the time the conflagration burned out in 1932, the mayor had resigned in disgrace, and Tammany Hall, the fearsome political machine that had ruled New York City for a century, lay a smoldering ruin. Then, amid the ashes and rubble, a modern metropolis took root and reached for the sky.
Inspector Henry Engelbert Bruckman didn’t look much like the chiseled heroes of detective films. His face was full and fleshy, with a soft chin that faded into his neck and an incongruously sharp nose. Congenital bags under his eyes made him look gloomy and fatigued. He was tough, though, six-foot-two and solid. As a rookie, he’d distinguished himself by knocking out five members of the Hudson Dusters gang in “one of the liveliest street fights ever seen in Greenwich Village.” Yet his superiors were more impressed by his “quick, incisive mind,” “amazingly retentive memory,” and “uncanny eye for detail.” His detective work was meticulous, characterized by dogged fact-finding rather than swift leaps of intuition. Faced with a challenging case, he would spend long hours searching for clues and fitting them into position like puzzle pieces until a picture emerged from the mosaic.
He was one of the rare police officers of the era who won promotions for competence rather than political fealty. High-level hiring decisions were usually determined by the Tammany Hall bosses, who prized loyalty over independence. Bruckman’s colleague, Inspector Lewis Valentine, had been demoted after he annoyed Tammany leaders by arresting well-connected gamblers. Bruckman wasn’t a crusader like Valentine; he kept his head down and avoided politics. But he was honest, diligent, and tenacious. Raised in a tenement house in Yorkville on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by parents who were German immigrants, he spent twenty-five years on the force, methodically passing the required civil-service exams and climbing the ranks to become Bronx Borough Inspector at the age of forty-five, despite having only an eighth-grade education.
Bruckman’s ascent coincided with a revolution in organized crime. The Hudson Dusters gang was old-school, an unruly crew of Irish hoodlums reminiscent of the nineteenth-century ruffians portrayed in Gangs of New York. When Bruckman scrapped with the Dusters in 1905, they were already headed toward oblivion, soon to be supplanted by a new breed of gangster. A few of the Dusters played poker in the prop room of Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre. They were often joined by an awkward, pale-faced teenager who spoke little but carried a roll of bills that grew thicker over the course of the night. Sometimes he lent money to his fellow gamblers at steep rates. Within a few years, the teenager, Arnold Rothstein, had become one of New York’s richest men. In addition to playing high-stakes poker, he waged hundreds of thousands of dollars on horse races and usually won. He bet on baseball, too, and was blamed for fixing the 1919 World Series, though his role in the scandal is a matter of dispute. Gambling was only one of his many revenue streams, however. He was also a bookmaker and a loan shark. He underwrote bail bonds, financed nightclubs and casinos, arranged police protection for criminal operations, and supplied thugs-for-hire to participate in violent labor strikes—as either strikers or strikebreakers, depending on who was paying. Known as “The Brain,” “The Bankroll,” and “The Man Uptown,” he had dealings with almost every major criminal and corrupt politician in New York City. “Rothstein’s main function was organization,” wrote biographer Leo Katcher. “He provided money and manpower and protection. He arranged corruption—for a price. And, if things went wrong, Rothstein was ready to provide bail and attorneys. He put crime on a corporate basis when the proceeds of crime became large enough to warrant it.”
After the Volstead Act outlawed the sale of liquor in the United States in 1920, Rothstein swooped into the bootlegging business. He established a whiskey-smuggling operation from Canada—across Lake Ontario and down the Hudson River—and soon added overseas routes from Britain and Cuba. He also financed local bootleggers and provided them with trucks and drivers in return for a cut of the proceeds. Smuggling and bootlegging were highly profitable—a case of Scotch could be purchased for $75 in London and sold for $300 in New York—but the business was risky. Rothstein mitigated interference from authorities through bribes and political favors, but hijacking became a constant threat. A truck full of expensive liquor was an attractive target for bandits, and victimized bootleggers had no legal recourse to recover their stolen contraband.
To protect his merchandise, Rothstein hired one of his labor-strike thugs, a former Hudson Duster named Jack Diamond. Skinny and pale, with brooding eyebrows and hard, gray eyes, Diamond was a dashing publicity hound who favored a chinchilla coat, white silk scarf, and wide-brimmed, white felt hat. People called him “Legs,” possibly because of his youthful prowess as a truck bouncer—a petty thief who pilfered packages from delivery trucks and sprinted away. By the time he reached his twenties, Diamond was stealing entire trucks. He was vicious, cunning, and unencumbered by sentiment or conscience, a man well-suited for the violence of the Prohibition Era. Arnold Rothstein hired Legs and his brother Eddie to ride shotgun on his delivery trucks for $7.50 a day and didn’t object when they moonlighted by hijacking his competitors.
In 1921, Legs Diamond asked Rothstein to help him start his own bootlegging operation. Rothstein, who preferred to let others do the dirty work, agreed to provide financing, legal services, and protection from the cops. With his support, Legs established a well-organized crime gang with rackets all over town, including burglary, hijacking, bootlegging, and narcotics. Some of the most notorious gangsters of the era got their start under Diamond, including Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as Dutch Schultz. Unlike the clannish Hudson Dusters, they had diverse ethnic backgrounds. The Diamond brothers were second-generation Irish immigrants raised in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Schultz was an Austrian Jew from Yorkville. Luciano was born in Sicily and grew up on the Lower East Side. “Diamond was the organizer of the first really modern mob in New York,” recalled Schultz’s lawyer, “Dixie” Davis. “As distinguished from the old loosely knit gangs, the mob was a compact business organization with a payroll of gunmen who worked for a boss.”
The Diamond mob was short-lived, however. Legs was a difficult boss: cruel and capricious, prone to explosive rages, and devoid of loyalty. When his minions split to start their own operations, brutal turf wars ensued. Diamond allied with a bellicose Brooklyn rum runner named Vannie Higgins to shut out his erstwhile protégé, Dutch Schultz. Meanwhile, Lucky Luciano went to work for Mafia boss Joe Masseria during the brutal Castellammarese War, which pitted the Italian crime families against each other. Flush with money, equipped with shotguns and modern submachine guns, the mobsters battled for power, profit, and vengeance. “Prohibition has brought into existence an organization of crime and criminal such as no other country on the face of the globe has ever known,” observed actuarial scientist Frederick Hoffman in 1930. “Gangsters and gunmen are being killed almost day after day, forming a not inconsiderable item in the large number of homicidal deaths.”
Arnold Rothstein was one of the statistics, gunned down during a business meeting at the glamorous Park Central Hotel in 1928, allegedly over a gambling debt. When a detective asked him who’d done it as he lay dying in the hospital, he put a trembling finger to his lips and whispered, “You know me better than that, Paddy.” Two years later, hit men busted into Jack Diamond’s suite at the Monticello Hotel near Central Park and drilled him with five bullets—reportedly payback by Vannie Higgins after Legs double-crossed him. After they left him for dead, he swigged two shots of whiskey, stumbled out of his room in his red silk pajamas, and collapsed in the hallway. Fifty-one gangsters had already been killed that year, and the surgeon expected him to join their ranks, but Diamond, who had survived two previous shootings, pulled through again. “His ability to recover from what ambulance surgeons always declare at first to be fatal wounds have made him the clay pigeon of the underworld,” marveled the New York Herald Tribune. Vannie Higgins, who was in Montreal to negotiate a bootlegging deal, sent Legs a sardonic telegram, “Better luck next time, old pal.” But like Rothstein, Diamond confounded the police by refusing to name the shooters, dismissing all questions with a shake of the head and a twisted smile.
Excerpted from The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age, by Michael Wolraich. Copyright 2024. Published by Union Square & Co. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.