The true story of one of the most notorious and enigmatic figures of the gangster era, whose 2000-strong “army” of thugs, thieves and prostitutes, in alliance with corrupt politicians and crooked cops, ruled the Lower East Side of New York in the early years of the 20th Century. However, after a gun battle with incorruptible Pinkerton agents, Monk was sent to Sing Sing for ten years and when he emerged, he found his power was broken. Harassed by police, menaced by gangland rivals, he enlisted in the New York National Guard as one of the oldest American “doughboys” in World War I and became a war hero. Always in the thick of the fighting, including the storming of the Hindenburg Line, Monk also saved several of his comrades lives. He returned to New York to a hero’s welcome and was granted a full pardon for his former crimes by the state governor, but Monk’s extraordinary life still had one final twist.
It is a subject that has captivated me for years – a vivid story of a man’s descent into the abyss and his subsequent rise and redemption, set against the background of the Lower East Side in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth.
Monk Eastman has been celebrated in print by writers as diverse as P.G. Wodehouse and Jorge Luis Borges but, such was Monk’s skill at covering his tracks, that the true story of his life and sudden death had never been uncovered. Nor is this just another blood-soaked gangland tale. It is also a lens through which to examine New York – indeed, the other leading character is the city itself – in the era when it transcended London to become pre-eminent among the cities of the world, the standard-bearer of the dawning “American Century”, but when its wealth and prestige were tarnished by the stench of corruption pervading every aspect of public life, and its less fortunate citizens lived out their lives in conditions of dirt and depravity that were worse than the meanest Old World slums, ghettos and peasant villages.
The canvas is broad, from downtown Manhattan to the battlefields of Flanders and France, reflecting the life of the mean streets of New York and the experience of the ordinary Doughboys enlisting to fight the First World War in Europe, a place most knew only as a name on a map.
This portrait of a man, a place and an era also raises intriguing questions. When the forces of law and order are mired in corruption, to whom should poor citizens turn for justice? To what extent does criminality, violence and killing become acceptable in the service of the state? Can a man redeem a terrible past through his present actions? And how much can he really change his true inner nature?
There are also strong contemporary resonances. Gangsters and corrupt officials and policemen have not disappeared and for all the material and human progress of the intervening decades, the gap between rich and poor in New York remains as wide as ever. For all too many, life in the housing projects or on the streets can be almost as hellish and as brief as in the Lower East Side tenements over which Monk Eastman ruled.
'Intriguing... [Hanson’s] descriptions of the slums, gang warfare, corruption, and police raids are contextually rich and wonderfully convincing... The book intriguingly snapshots a city in time as well as a life.’
Kirkus Reviews, USA
‘Mr. Hanson fashions Lower Manhattan into a mirror of hell that would make even Damon Runyon recoil.’
Winston Groom, Wall Street Journal, USA
‘Monk Eastman is brought to life by Hanson... a first rate work of a singular life.’
Publishing News, USA