Pat Hamou, a Montreal-based graphic artist and illustrator, was flipping through a book of crime scene photos from the New York Daily News when one picture in particular struck him. It was a photo of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a notorious Brooklyn mobster who served as a hitman-for-hire for the loosely affiliated mafia gangs of New York that the press dubbed “Murder, Inc.” Something about Reles’ face inspired Hamou, who began making sketches of the mobster. Hamou began trolling through the history of Jewish mobsters, poring through everything from paperback biographies to history theses. “The stories and characters were very colorful, and some somewhat incredible,” Hamou told me. “And the portraits kept coming off the drawing table.” The resulting exhibit, Mazel Tough, which opens at Williamsburg’s City Reliquary tonight, is a series of richly textured pieces exploring the world of the 1910s New York Jewish mobster.
Though the better known Jewish mobsters—figures like Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel—mostly operated in the 1930s, Hamou was captured by the vividly named gang leaders of the 1910s, like Big Jack Zelig and Dopey Benny Fein. It was about this time that the case of Herman Rosenthal, a gambler that was murdered under orders of a police lieutenant. The ensuing case brought a barrage of press attention to the Jewish underworld, and the the lurking political and police corruption that enabled it.
“The entire affair read like a Hollywood script,” Hamou told me. “The reason this project fascinated me so much was that it was really a short period of time of activity, only 40 years. But it really was a reflection of its time and the immigrant experience.”
Many of the gangsters, Hamou notes, arrived to the Unites States as young children and came from poor backgrounds. Their underground networks were a way to move up the ladder. “For many of the leaders of the Jewish gangs it was really a step towards a better life for their next generation, and they were adamant that their sons and daughters continued their education and make a life for themselves,” Hamou said. “There was no family linage of crime like many of the Italian mobs. By 1940 and the arrests of many of the Jews involved in the crackdown of Murder, Inc. It really marked the end of that era on a wide scale.”
But the brevity of the period also posed a challenge for Hamou. Turn of the century reference photos are difficult to find, requiring trips to the archives. Hamou drew the portraits with rapidographs, ink pens designed for architects that administer incredibly thin lines. He then added layers of thin watercolor to give the pieces depth. “I try to capture the subject in question but hopefully add my own touch to it,” Hamou said.
“I get excited by simple things like a nose, a chin, etc. Many of them had very distinguishing features which always make the drawing much more exciting for me to work on.”
Hamou became well-versed on the history of the Jewish underwold, so he’s kicking off the exhibit at City Reliquary with a talk about his work, and the figures in the 29 portraits. “It was about more than just murder,” Hamou said. “It’s a sociological reflection of the time.”