Hanson (Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War, 2006, etc.) pursues the glamour in New York City’s Lower East Side gangland.
The author can be indulged for his fascination with the teeming criminal underside of turn-of-the-century immigrant New York because his descriptions of the slums, gang warfare, corruption and police raids are contextually rich and wonderfully convincing. Hanson delves into the clutter surrounding the elusive “facts” of Eastman’s life to create a portrait of an evidently intelligent character who had a keen eye for opportunity and possessed a sense of honor. Born in 1873, young Eastman scraped by with a pet store and sold pigeons. His education was gained on the street, first in Brooklyn, then the LES, and he soon became a young tough, lured into the “sum of human misery.” Built like a pugilist, he moved from being a bouncer to dance-hall “sheriff” to racketeer and chief of his own gang, extending in territory from the Bowery to the East River. By the turn of the century, his gang had more than 1,000 members, carving a lucrative protection racket from street vendors, settling labor disputes and acting as repeat voters for the Tammany Hall men. Eventually too many returns to the rogues’ gallery and a stint at Sing Sing inaugurated a period of waning fortunes, rendering his next move shocking. In 1917, just as the United States entered World War I, Eastman enlisted. Though 43, he was in fairly robust physical condition, despite numerous gunshot wounds and scars. Therein follows the bizarre second half of this devoted biography, tracking Eastman’s fierce combat duty in France with the 106th Infantry, made up of working-class Brooklyn boys. Eventually they valiantly penetrated the Hindenburg Line and Eastman distinguished himself in combat.
A quirky study that intriguingly snapshots a city in time as well as a life.