Joe Bruno on the Mob — Benjamin “Dopey” Fein
Benjamin “Dopey” Fein was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1889. He was nicknamed “Dopey” because an eye condition made his eyelids droop, and he seemed either to be falling asleep, or on some sort of narcotic, in the street vernacular — “dope.”
Fein dropped out of school at an early age and became involved is various street crimes like pickpocketing and petty robberies. He enlisted groups of youngsters, particularly from the school he dropped out of, PS 20 on Essex Street. Soon he had scores of preteen criminals terrorizing the streets of the Lower East Side. Luck went bad for Fein, when in 1905, he was arrested for assault and robbery and sent upstate to the Elmira State Penitentiary, where he cooled his heels for 3 ½ years. He was released and arrested twice more, before he finally hit the streets in 1910 and joined “Big” Jack Zelig’s gang.
After Zelig was murdered in 1912, Fein decided on a lateral career move and he started working for the bosses of certain labor unions, especially the Garment Workers Union (GWU). He and his men became “Schlammers,” which meant they broke the heads of any union members who did not toe the line the union bigwigs laid out for them. After the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, which killed 146 people, 123 of them woman, Fein became involved with the ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Fein had a reputation of making sure the woman in his union got paid the same salary for their work as did the men in the GWU, which was contrary to the common practice at the time. Being on the ladies’ side was a tactical maneuver that allowed Fein to use woman as “toters,” or carriers of concealed weapons, that Fein and his gang had ready access too. Fein’s women accomplices hid guns, knives and brass knuckles in mufflers, or in hairdos puffed high on their heads.
Fein’s main enemy at the time was Jack Sirroco, who was also heavily involved in the labor movement, but not with the unions, but rather with the manufacturers, which put him at cross purposes with Fein. Fein and Sirroco’s gangs fought numerous battles, especially when both sides showed up representing opposing parties at a labor strike.
In January, 1914, Fein and his gang ambushed Sirroco’s gang at a party at Arlington Hall on St. Mark’s Place. Only one person was killed and it was innocent bystander named Fredrick Strauss, who just happened to be a County Clerk officer. Fein was arrested for murder, and after a few days in the slammer, he decided to become a canary for the cops. Unknown to his associates in the labor unions, Fein had kept meticulous records on all his “labor transactions.” He had written down everything, including who was involved in what, when, where and how. This led to the arrests and convictions of dozens of people, including high-ranking officials of the Garment Workers Union and International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Fein was set free, but because he was considered a rat, he lost all of his friends and his influence. He committed petty crimes, until he was arrested in 1931 for throwing acid in the face of a competitor, Mortimer Kahn. That set him up in Sing Sing for a few years, and in 1941, he was arrested again for stealing over $250,000 of clothing and fabric from the Garment Center. Fein was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but then, for some unknown reason, his sentence was reduced to 10-20 years.
When Fein was released from prison for the last time, he went right back into the garment industry, but this time as a legitimate tailor, a skill he had learned from his father. He moved from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn, where he married and raised a family. Fein, unlike most of his contemporaries, who were either killed in the streets, or fried in the electric chair, died of natural causes in 1962.