Bessarabian Gangs of London by John Rennie
TO most observers of the East End, organised crime means just one firm – the Krays. But gang-based crime (and the turf wars that go hand in hand with it) is as old as the East End itself.
Often the constant influx of immigrants has led to power struggles, as younger, hungrier and more vicious incomers fight for the takings on offer. And at the turn of the last century, the most powerful gang was the Whitechapel-based Bessarabians, often known as the Bessarabian Tigers or Fighters.
This 40-strong pack owed its curious name to a region of Southern Russia, located on the Romanian border. Bessarabia ‘moved’ from country to country over the 18th and 19th century, as war constantly shifted the national borders of Eastern Europe.
Since the early 1800s there had been settlement of the area by German Jews, but with end-of-the-century Russia in political turmoil many Bessarabians headed west in search of safety and peace.
Fetching up in Whitechapel, most of the settlers set to work earning their living as shopkeepers, tanners, cobblers and labourers. Such industrious folk proved rich pickings for the criminals who had journeyed west with them.
Former Scotland Yard detective George W Cornish had the unenviable job of dealing with the new criminals. Years later he recalled the problems in his memoir Cornish of the Yard. “The Russian Jews with their ingrained terror of the police would, in practically every case, rather put up with the gangs than risk the consequences of complaining to us … we were continually having to let cases drop through lack of evidence.
“They levied a protection toll on timid alien shopkeepers, proprietors of coffee stalls and so on. The faintest shadow of protest on their part at this blackmail and the gang descended on them in force armed with guns, knives and such weapons as broken bottles.”
Detective Sergeant B Leeson, who often went undercover in his attempts to gain evidence against the Tigers, cast more light on their bullying and parasitic methods in his book Lost London. “Lists of Londoners to be blackmailed were drawn up by the gangsters, and amongst these prospective brides provided the happiest and most productive results.
“A few days before the wedding ceremony, a gangster would approach the bride’s parents and threaten to expose all sorts of imaginary indiscretions of which their daughter had been guilty if there silence was not bought. The victims, fearful of the scandal that might ensue, invariably paid up.”
For nearly a decade the gang battled for control of the Whitechapel streets with their Russian rivals, the Odessians. The Odessians lured a leading Bessarabian named Perkoff into an alley and sliced off one of his ears. In revenge, the Bessarabians smashed up a coffee stall under the protection of the Odessians.
On the rare occasions Leeson and his colleagues managed to get the gangs to court, the case invariably collapsed, with witnesses intimidated into silence. In 1902, Bessarabians Barnet Badeczosky, Joseph Weinstein and Max Moses (who boxed at Wonderland under the pseudonym Kid McCoy) were arrested for attacking Odessian Philip Garalovitch in Union Street. The former Russian policeman (which made him a hated target for the Tigers) was knocked to the ground and robbed of £6, his watch and his umbrella.
But by the time the case reached the magistrates the witnesses had been bought or threatened. Garalovitch, figuring that his attackers would soon be back on the street and after him, prudently moved on again – this time to South Africa. He was sensible. Badeczosky and Weinstein walked free and Moses was fined £3. With the £6 the trio had taken from their victim, they were £3 up on the deal!
But the wall of silence was crumbling. All it needed was another act of excess by the Bessarabians to bring it down once and for all. In October 1902 there was a fight between the two gangs at a Yiddish music hall in the York Minster, a pub in Philpot Street. An Odessian named Henry Brodovich was stabbed to death and frightened witnesses at last started to talk. The callous Moses observed: “If that man hadn’t died £15 would have squared it.”
The leaders of the Bessarabian Tigers were jailed or fled the country, and the police turned their efforts to weakening the Odessians. By the outbreak of World War I, the Russian gangs stranglehold was broken – leaving a power vacuum for the next generation of gangsters to fill.
For further reading, see East End Gangland by James Morton, ISBN 0751530050, £7.99 paperback.