Monday, March 30, 2009

Vivian Again

so far I actually have 2 candidates for my little theory that Vivian was born or raised in Springfield but her maiden name was not Davis...Vivian Gaunt 11 years old in 1911 and Vivian Byrne 12 years old in 1911. Both in Springfield for the right time frame. In fact Vivian Gaunt moved from Springfield around 1917. It may be a wild goose chase but hey...nothing ventured nothing gained.

Monday, March 23, 2009


OK, so for a while now Vivian's kind of had me stumped. It's like the more I learn the less I know. I'd been thinking that maybe Vivian Davis wasn't her maiden name. The marriage certificate to George Chase listed her maiden name as Vivian Davis from KC, MO and her age as 19. I can find Vivian Davis earlier in that year (1920) in the census as a single waitress in KC, MO. When she was booked for her fight with Mrs. Flournoy in 1926 she listed her hometown as Springfield, MO. Now, I've looked for Vivian Davis in Springfield and I found one. But she died in 1920 at 15 years old.

Vivian was most likely born around 1901; unfortunately, birth certificates were not required in MO until 1910. (For now, I'm sticking to MO as a birth place) The MO state archives has a wonderful website with digital vital records and indexes for the period before 1910. But no luck. I'm more than likely going to need to travel for what I'm looking for in KC (school records and such)to determine if there was a Vivian Davis who at school there during the right time period. That is going to have to wait for a while until I can afford to get away. So while I'm waiting to pursue that angle I'll see if I can't find another Vivian in Springfield during the right time frame. I found some old school records online so.... It's just one possibility and it won't hurt. Might not help but it won't hurt.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Starker Big Jack Zelig

Anyone who's followed my blog is aware that I enjoy Rose Keefe's work so it won't come as any surprise that I think The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster
is much better than good.

What surprised me was Keefe's ability to bring Zelig to life. While I was excited when I heard about the book (research on a period that deserves a more detailed look), I had my doubts that someone who has been dead for over 90 years and who has NOT been studied in depth could be “brought to life” {clich├ęs exist for a reason}. As much as I love her work, I honestly wondered whether Rose Keefe could pull it off. She did!

“Big Jack Zelig” is only a marginal figure in most crime histories. He rose to prominence as ‘the” NYC Jewish Gang leader in the first decade of the 20th century. Here’s a man who died in 1912 and, in most histories, whose chief claim to fame had been the circumstances of his death. He was murdered by Red Phil Davidson in order to keep him from testifying for the defense in the Herman "Beansy" Rosenthal murder trial. The Rosenthal murder was the crime of the century during this time period. Charles Becker a NYPD Lieutenant was railroaded and executed for the murder. Zelig was to testify in his defense but was killed to prevent his naming the true killers and exonerating Becker.

Keefe introduces readers to Zelig Zvi Lefkowitz more person than myth. A young, bright child, who did not understand why the money that he drew wouldn't ease his family and neighbors' lives, Zelig, was a bright kid from a respectable family who chose to steal (how familiar). In his teens he became an accomplished "gun" as pickpockets were called then. When he was younger he could bring tears to his eyes at will when he was caught to feign hunger and desperate need so his victims would have sympathy for him. Oddly enough, he was only a peripheral member of Monk Eastman's gang, while he was a good thief, Zelig wasn't a standout thug. He actually chickened out on the first murder he agreed to do. A trip to Chicago and a severe beating at the hands of gamblers changed that. He returned to NYC a hardened man who would not back down. Keefe writes about Zelig's world detailing an array of colorful gang members, seedy gamblers, and corrupt politicians with just enough detail to be enjoyable with out ever getting too scholarly.

To me a good historical biography knows what to leave out. The book never stopped being about Big Jack Zelig. It would be easy to let the Herman Rosenthal murder and the Becker trials overwhelm Zelig's story. I could go on and on but in a nutshell Rose Keefe did a lot better than I would have thought possible. She takes her subject a man who has become a marginal figure in the 90 years after his death and lets the reader understand just who Big Jack Zelig is and why some people called him great. This book is a lot better than good. Take a look at Rose Keefe's Zelig web page for more information: