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Now reading Bernard Baff and the Kosher Killers

Bernard Baff and the Kosher Killers

A Tale of Birds and Blood in Turn- of-the-Century New York.

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At the turn of the twentieth century, New York City’s Live Poultry Commission Merchants’ Protective Association thought they had fixed every inch of the city’s kosher poultry market in their favor. They paid off the wholesale jobbers and bought up nearly every stall in the West Washington Market. At the start of each week, they held meetings to decide what price the city’s Jewish residents should pay to get their kosher chicken. Whenever an aspiring poultry merchant tried to break the trust, they handed him a wad of cash as encouragement to find another calling. If someone needed more than cash to be convinced, the association might poison his horses as a warning.

In July 1913, Joe Cohen, a higher-up in the association, thought that Bernard Baff , who’d let the association and gone freelance, might be in need of a good scare. He found a group of Italian gangsters who were willing to drive to Baff ’s house in Arverne, Queens, and put a bomb on the veranda. The bomb was a dud, the first of many failed attempts to scare the illiterate immigrant, who was often proclaimed the “poultry king” of America’s biggest metropolis.

Until massive waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in 1880, New York
City didn’t eat much chicken: its stockyards and stomachs were filled with
beef and pork, along with the occasional mutton. A representative 1859 menu from the Metropolitan Hotel listed twenty-three options containing beef or pork but only two choices for chicken—tying the bird with mackerel in popularity. But Jewish immigrants, fleeing the anti-Semitism of Eastern European countries, brought kosher diets with them and a tradition of eating chicken for Friday’s Shabbat dinner.

From the late 1800s to 1916, the annual sales of live poultry went from 25 million pounds to “almost five times that amount,” according to a New York trade
journal. By the 1880s, sixty thousand Jews lived in the twenty-block square known as the Lower East Side. By 1910, the Jewish population had increased from roughly 4 percent of the city’s population to almost a full quarter—and everyone wanted a kosher chicken.

In 1889, the tan-brick structure of the West Washington Market in what is known today as the Meatpacking District was unveiled. Its merchants sold meat, poultry, or dairy using new technology that could run brine water through 2,5000 feet of pipes, keeping cold-storage rooms between 25 and 45 degrees. The majority of New York’s live poultry industry soon concentrated in this market, where they received ten to fifteen train cars of live poultry every week. The steel railcars were specially outfitted for hauling live poultry and could each hold up to twenty thousand pounds of squawking birds. The chickens were housed in containers that went eight levels high, with only enough space left for a narrow corridor for feed storage and a living area for the unlucky carman whose job it was to watch the birds over the days spent on the rails and waiting at terminals. Shippers sold their birds on commission to wholesale receivers, mostly association members. At the association’s height of power, they controlled nearly all of the birds brought into New York City. In 1908, the Pennsylvania Railroad delivered 902 cars of live poultry, 91 percent of which went to association members— they received over 14 million pounds of chicken and other birds from that rail line alone. These receivers were effectively the sole distributors of poultry for the city’s retail slaughtermen and butchers. Some of them even double-dipped into the retail market.

When Baff arrived from the Pale of Settlement—the only part of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live at the time—there was no Ellis Island or Statue of Liberty waiting to greet him in New York. Those would come later. What Baff found was a city of 1.3 million people and a new life free from restrictions. He entered the butchering trade and ran a shop of his own for nearly nine years before deciding that live poultry was where the real money could be made. He opened his first live-chicken business at 60 Thompson Avenue. By then he’d wised up: he dissociated himself from the association and, freed from their price-fixing scheme, decided to undersell his competition and make up involume what he lost in price. He owned the chickens and he owned a kosher slaughterhouse, so he could undercut other poultrymen in the chicken-meat market. Plus, he mastered the art of “overcropping.”

Overcropping was the poultryman’s way of tipping the scales in his favor, quite literally. Baff first arranged for his chickens to be starved for a day or two prior to their arrival. Just before they were weighed for sale, the birds were encouraged to gorge themselves on an all-you-can-peck buffet. Baff was rumored to have mixed gravel and small rocks into the feed for added weight. The practice was called overcropping, because it packed the chicken’s digestive area known as the crop. It was so widespread that some estimates say chicken-buying New Yorkers were paying for something in the range of 150,000 to 300,000 pounds of sand and gravel every week.

By the early 1910s, Baff, who hadn’t even been in business for a decade, was the most hated man in an industry that wished it were as good at cheating as he was.

In 1910 two members of the association, Pauline Jacobs and Charles Werner, tried to use the justice system to get at Baff: they sued him for nonpayment. Like most people facing a lawsuit, Baff hired a lawyer—unlike most, he and his lawyer went straight to the district attorney’s office and spilled the beans about the association’s shady dealings. Baff agreed to become the state’s star witness in a circus of a case that captured public attention around the world.

Thirteen of the eighty-seven indicted poultrymen were sentenced. The district attorney, Charles Whitman, called their acts “sordid and mean and contemptible and despicable.” He continued: “[The poultrymen] did not control gigantic enterprises, but as far as they could, they deliberately extorted money from those who, under the conditions, were about as little able to pay as any in the land.”

In its final judgments, the court said, “A conspiracy to monopolize and control a food product is a mean and insidious crime stealthily committed and usually, if not always, by men who masquerade in the garb of good repute, but in whose breasts the quality of common morality has been stifled by the most despicable form of greed.”

Despite the fact that Baff was guilty of many of the same illegal schemes, his stand against the association made him a hero. During the trial, his attorney flaunted that Baff had been fighting the organization since 1910 while downplaying that he had once been a member.

The Sherman antitrust law, the first federal act to outlaw monopolistic practices, was passed in 1890. Nine years after the Sherman Act, New York developed the Donnelly Act. The association had the dubious honor of being the first trust successfully prosecuted by that legislation, and several of its members were the first men in the nation to be jailed for anticompetitive activities.

Villainy Comes Cheap

In 1913, Antonio Cardinale and his brother-in-law purchased a retail chicken market on 108th Street, hoping to make their fortune. Business wasn’t good. Being an Italian in the kosher-chicken industry was difficult. Jewish vendors were wary of selling to him and, unlike Baff, Cardinale couldn’t post in the Jewish paper every week to advertise his low prices. As if things weren’t
hard enough, Baff’s friend and customer Aaron Newmark had a shop around the corner on 109th Street. Newmark, Cardinale said, was buying six or maybe seven cars a week from Baff. Newmark was helping Baff “ruin the business up there and something ought to be done.”

Joe Cohen, the association leader who’d originally tried to bomb Baff, picked
up the torch from there. “This man will never behave himself. He has got to be
killed. He will ruin the business of everybody,” Cohen told Cardinale.

New York had cleaned up slightly in the half century since the rowdy heyday of the Five Points, when gangs like the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits ran wild, but most new Jewish immigrants still lived in poverty in the tenements of lower Manhattan. The early 1900s were the beginning of an era for Jewish crime and gangsters. Arson and horse poisoning were crimes that were “associated almost exclusively with New York’s Jews,” wrote Dr. Jenna Weissman Joselit in Our Gang, a history of Jewish crime and community in the Big Apple.

For one hundred dollars, you could commission a hit man from the local saloon to shoot someone; shooting to kill might cost you five hundred dollars. Police Commissioner Arthur Woods said that it might take as little as ten dollars to have someone knocked down and stomped on. “Of course,” Commissioner Woods said, “if it were a man who could stir up a fuss, the
price would be higher.” Baff wasn’t just hard to oust, but wealthy, too. Putting a price on his head was costly.

Attempts to scare or kill Baff failed one after another. The association hired
gangsters to shoot Baff on the street but could never get him alone; his son Harry was always by his side. The owner of the safe-house saloon, Ippolito Greco tried getting two young thugs to use a “poisoned ice pick” on Baff. It’s unclear which of the many things wrong with this plan caused it to fall through.

The association eventually bought a .22 Winchester rifle with a silencer and set a gunman to wait in a loft of association poultryman Charles Hawk’s office in the West Washington Market. He’d have a straight shot at Baff if he came walking past. Days went by, and the gunman continued waiting. He fired off practice shots when no one was around. Finally he conceded defeat. He told his employers that Baff had never showed up—with four stores in Manhattan
and Brooklyn to tend to as well as additional locations in Boston and Philadelphia, Baff was a busy man—but he was wrong. Baff had walked past multiple times. The hit man, hired from the local saloon, had simply
failed to recognize him.

The cumulative effect of all these murder attempts was putting a strain on Cohen’s wallet. In the summer of 1914, New York poultrymen pooled their funds to avert a strike by chicken pullers and handlers, which was scheduled to occur just prior to the Jewish holidays, when it would do the most damage to business. The merchants got together to contribute between five and fifty dollars per person—Baff himself may have contributed twenty-five dollars. The strike never took place. Most who added to the fund probably assumed the
funds had worked as promised and bought the necessary goodwill from the strikers. Unbeknownst to all but a few, the funds were never meant to end a strike. Instead, it was part of an anti-Baff fund that would pay the killers who would end Baff’s life.

Baff was still at work when he received a messenger. It was November 24, 1914—two days before Thanksgiving. The sun had set, and the night was neither warmer nor colder than anyone would expect in November. No one knows what ruse was employed to get Baff alone and away from his office. Whatever it was, it worked. Baff greeted the visitor and, soon after, left his son Harry in the shop they owned together. The Poultry King turned north on Thirteenth Avenue (now the Chelsea Piers). He was just passing the Brooklyn Poultry Co. when two men stepped out of a darkened doorway behind him.

The gunmen shot simultaneously. Two bullets hit Baff in the back at close range and went through his body as he fell. Some witnesses reported hearing him cry, “I am shot!”

After escaping bombs, threats, and poisoned ice picks, Baff toppled to the ground. An ambulance arrived quickly to the scene, but it was too late. Bernard Baff was fifty-two years old when he died.

Onlookers described seeing two men leap over Baff’s body and run south through the crowded streets. They got into a waiting car with a chauffeur in the driver’s seat. People tried to run after the murderers, shouting at them as they sped off in their coffee-colored getaway car. Later reports said the car may have been stolen from one of Baff’s associates. Somewhere between the crime scene and wherever the killer’s next destination was—likely Greco’s
Harlem saloon—the men tossed their guns out of the moving car.

The district attorney’s office saw the poultryman’s death as an attack against
the law itself. It was witness intimidation, the type of fixing Tammany Hall had been known for, and those charged with the safety of New York City’s residents wanted it to stop. Mayor John P. Mitchel described Baff as “a peaceable, law-abiding citizen and respectable businessman of substantial means, who was not unmindful of the interests of the general public in the conduct of his private business.” Mitchel continued, “If such a man can be wantonly done to death by hired thugs, then no merchant is safe who arouses the enmity of unscrupulous rivals.”

The police prioritized finding Baff’s killers. Mayor Mitchel said, “I should like to see all of these professional thugs driven off the ends of the piers into the river.” The Poultry King was one of twenty-five people who died in New York on November 24, 1914. But he was the only one whose murder trial was regularly news in national and international papers for almost a full decade afterward.

The city remained outraged.

“[Baff] lived in the shadow of the automatic gun because he would not subscribe to the principle that in the West Washington market there is no law but the law of force, no property right that may not be violated by workers more criminal than industrious, and nobody to pay the bills of wholesale loot, theft and fraud but the ultimate public,” wrote one particularly feeling reporter for The Day. “He fought his fight right there in the midst of the criminalism and moral debauchery of the poultry market; fought with the weapons that he knew and so valiantly and successfully that they had to kill him to beat him.”

Beginning with confessions from lowerlevel thugs, the police pieced together the team that was culpable for Baff’s demise. The association had paid fifteen hundred dollars for the final act that killed Baff. The chauffer got two hundred fifty dollars. One of the shooters, a young Italian by the name of Giuseppe Archiello, received only one hundred dollars. Two other brothers involved in the plan got three hundred dollars apiece. Two hundred dollars was split
between miscellaneous go-betweens for their trouble and silence. Cardinale wasn’t paid for the crime, though some speculated that Cohen may have promised to back a new business enterprise, and later said that his conscience was troubled by the murder and his role in it.

In 1916, Archiello and the driver of the getaway car were sent to Sing Sing to await the electric chair. Two years later, Joseph Cohen was also convicted for the murders and sentenced to death. Cardinale, who was brought back from Italy to testify in the murder trial, was never charged. All together, eleven men were indicted for their part in the murder. Greco died before the case went to trial.

The DA’s office thought they had the case wrapped up when the unthinkable
happened: one of their key witnesses, Joseph Sorro, said he’d made up much of
his testimony.

In 1922, Cohen and the other association members had their sentences commuted. Cohen said, “I have hoped for the opportunity to vindicate myself. I think I can do that, and that I will never return here.” Though the state had the option of retrying Cohen, they did not. No one else was ever charged with Baff’s murder. Sorro, however, was given ten to twenty years for his perjured testimony.

Cohen wasn’t a free man for long. In April 1932, three unidentified gunmen shot him as he was leaving his home in Brooklyn. The case didn’t get much notice, and the killers were never found. Call it karma or simple coincidence in the often-violent business world of New York City chicken. Baff died a hero for the common man, a lone voice against the trusts, but his death did nothing to strip the industry of its base tendencies. Only two years after his death, the state held an inquiry into the live-poultry market. This time, they alleged that B. Baff & Sons—with B. Baff no longer in the picture—were controlling the poultry market in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The overcropping scam continued. During Passover in 1916, it was estimated that people paid $164,000 for 656,250 pounds of old food and rocks that the chickens had gobbled up before sale.