He was born in Russia on July 15, 1901, (some say 1903), and came to the United States as a young child with his parents. Law enforcement authorities say that Hyman Chaim Stromberg (aka Harry Stromberg) was actually raised and reared on the gritty streets of New York before later relocating to the City of Philadelphia during the “Roaring Twenties” Prohibition era, where he quickly established himself as a “kingpin” bootlegger with a large gang of fledgling gunmen and gangsters, bootleggers, and rumrunners at his command.
He either migrated on his own or was sent to the City of Brotherly Love by mob higher-ups from New York. But either way, Philadelphia is where he would first truly establish his underworld credentials within the American underworld and become notorious under the moniker, “Nigger Rosen,” or “Nig Rosen.” It’s also where he would begin to establish a very impressive underworld resume.
Once he got to town, Stromberg, or Nig Rosen, organized a syndicate that quickly strong-armed their way into control of the city’s illicit alcohol-bootlegging rackets. And anyone who balked at that notion quickly got a savage beating, or worse. They found themselves on the wrong end of a gun. Malcontents were usually found in a remote ditch somewhere with two in the back of the head…or they were just made to disappear and never found at all.
After showing he meant business, almost everybody else eventually fell in line pretty quickly. Rosen and his gang soon controlled a good portion of Philadelphia’s bootlegging trade (in Delaware County,) sharing control of the city’s underworld with the Italian Mafia which was headquartered in South Philly.
Through the years, Philly’s Jewish mob was known to work hand-in-glove with their Italian counterparts. This mutually beneficial alliance could best be described at times as that of “friendly competitors.” It was sometimes a love-hate relationship, but it was also a much-needed partnership built on mutual trust and convenience.
Too Notorious For His Own Good
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Jewish mob needed another “golden goose,” so they seamlessly pivoted into gambling rackets to make up for their lost revenue. Pulling a page from the same playbook, the gang quickly went out and knocked heads again. This time around, they either pushed out and took over, or strong-armed their way into, partnerships with all the smaller independent numbers banks and bookmakers who operated within their perceived territory.
They had to kill dozens of gamblers and racketeers who resisted their advances before their message finally sunk in. That message was: “Move over because the real gangsters are here now!”
But aggressive moves like strong-arming your way into control of the city’s underworld are not without their problems. Local police soon started a citywide campaign to rid themselves of gangsters and racketeers. Rosen quickly became the number one target on a growing list of undesirables. Rosen’s underworld reputation became his undoing, and the stepped-up police pressure soon forced him to flee the area.
After being driven out of Philadelphia, Rosen moved his headquarters to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, just beyond the Philadelphia city line, where he reputedly operated until the late 1930s. He then returned to New York City but retained his control over the local mob and personally directed its activities through his top lieutenant and enforcer, Willy Weisberg.
Despite Rosen having to oversee his fiefdom from afar, over the next few decades, “The 69th Street Mob,” as they came to be known by local law enforcement and the underworld, would continue to gain ground and maintain a virtual “lock” over a good portion of Philadelphia’s numbers-lottery racket.
In 1951, George F. Richardson, the Asst. Superintendent of Philadelphia’s Police Commanding Detective Division testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee Investigation Hearing about the conditions of organized crime in Philadelphia. He told the committee of senators, led by Sen. Estes Kefauver, that rackets kingpin Hyman Stromberg had “gathered around him a gang of vicious killers, sluggers, and strong-arm men.”
Richardson continued, “He ruled with an iron hand and those who opposed Rosen were killed or otherwise removed from circulation.”
The FBI confirmed that Rosen had top underworld connections throughout the entire nation. But so far as the local Philadelphia mob was concerned, he was considered their undisputed leader and was commonly referred to as, “The Big Mahoff,” a Yiddish word for the big boss. His word was considered law and an unfortunate “accident” was likely to befall any member who flouted his authority.
The Legitimate Businessman
Ostensibly, his legitimate business interests were diverse and many. For years, he operated a variety of garment manufacturing firms including The Dearest Miss Dress Company located at 254 West 35th Street, Studio Frocks Ltd., Jay & Lou Mfg., Co., Lou-Jay Dress Company, and Judy-Lee Fashions, Inc., located in Manhattan’s garment district. These dress factories were thought to be among several others he either owned or controlled in various east coast cities including Scranton, PA, and Baltimore, MD. Authorities said he also exercised some control over the key labor unions connected to the garment industry.
Investigators also said Rosen held ownership interests in extensive real estate and several hotels including one located in Miami, Florida.
Through coercion and intimidation, during the 1930s, Rosen also seized control of the Maryland Athletic Club, located just outside Washington, D.C. At the time, the Maryland A.C. was considered one of the oldest and largest illegal gambling houses in the country. The club’s former owner was a man named Jimmy LaFontaine, known as “The Frenchman.” But after Stromberg moved in on him, LaFontaine was essentially relegated to the role of a minor partner. Rosen then installed his own man, Herman (Mugsy) Taylor, a known hoodlum, noted fight promotor, and veteran at running gambling parlors, as the new “front man” operating the Maryland Athletic Club.
The Gambling Rackets
As stated above, by the mid-late 1930s, Nig Rosen was the titular head of a huge syndicate that controlled large sections of Philadelphia’s gambling rackets. These included operating a multimillion-dollar numbers lottery estimated to gross $5,000,000 a year and a major horse and sports betting operation. At one point in time, a few years later, Rosen and his mob greatly expanded their reach once again after they pushed into nearby Atlantic City and forcibly took control of the lottery-numbers racket.
The criminal network also operated horse race “wire” service information centers, one of which was located on Callow Hill Street where in the backroom of a barbershop police detectives later reported finding a loudspeaker blaring racing results into the mouthpieces of a staggering 45 telephone information system. Authorities said that at the other end of each telephone line was another bookie office.
In another West Philadelphia police raid, authorities said they found a second illegal horserace information center being manned by two bookmakers. And at a third bookmaking wire room located on Lebanon Avenue, raiding detectives found racetrack results being announced into a loudspeaker surrounded by 18 telephones, and bookie Harry (Buzz) Brennan was arrested as he recorded bets.
The “Jewish Mob” also operated several illegal underground “casinos” that were sprinkled throughout the city that regularly offered cards, dice, and roulette games to high-stakes players.
Such Well-Rounded Hoodlums
The Jewish mob operated primarily in the sections north and west of the city from their headquarters in Upper Darby, leaving the South Philly-South Jersey area to the Italians.
Aside from liquor bootlegging and gambling, over the years, other major activities the “69th Street Mob” controlled included prostitution, armed robberies and truck hijacking, shakedowns and strong-arm extortion, labor-union racketeering, and international narcotics smuggling.
Regarding these last two activities, by the 1940s, Rosen and his men were active in infiltrating the city’s growing labor movement. Among a suspected dozen or so labor unions said to be under racketeer control were the following: Teamsters Local #929, Produce, Poultry, Fish and Oystermen Drivers and Helpers Union [Shorty Feldman served as business agent]; Teamsters Union Local #596; Teamsters Union Local #107; International Union Alliance of Machinists, Local #724; Local #410, Luncheonette, Sandwich Shop and Fountain Shop Employees Union (AFL-CIO); and Local #1, National Hair Cloth Union (Independent).
They controlled lucrative labor rackets including embezzlement and misappropriation of union funds, “sweetheart” contracts, bribery and kickbacks, labor extortion, inflated salaries, and payroll padding were just some of the extracurricular activities open to Philadelphia’s 69th Street Mob…It seems Philadelphia’s “Jewish Mafia” was having a party!
Handlin’ Da Schmeck
By the 1950s, Rosen also became known as one of the biggest narcotics kingpins in the United States. On September 20, 1957, he and several members of his gang were among 46 mob suspects indicted across the country for participating in one of the largest heroin smuggling and wholesale distribution networks ever dismantled by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (FBNDD).
At a press conference, and FBN spokesmen called Stromberg, “The overall mastermind of a worldwide dope organization that imported opium and heroin direct from France and distributed an estimated $20,000,000 a year in narcotics throughout various cities in the United States.”
Authorities said the drug ring operated from January 1959 to May 1956. Collectively, during that six-year span, the gang allegedly smuggled into the country over $100,000,000 worth of hard narcotics.
Authorities said that, on average, each and every month, Stromberg’s drug network would smuggle in some 50 pounds of heroin alone, in addition to huge quantities of cocaine and opium. The gang accomplished this through the systematic bribery of three key U.S. Customs inspectors they had corrupted to allow drug shipments to pass through customs checkpoints undetected.
They stated that on at least one occasion a load of heroin valued on the illicit market at over $3,500,000 was smuggled into the country. Authorities said the drug ring was tracked as they distributed their product to the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and even Montreal, Canada.
A year later, in 1958, Stromberg was among 18 defendants convicted after a long jury trial. He was sentenced to serve five years imprisonment in a federal penitentiary.
Rubbing Elbows with the Big Boys
Over the years, law enforcement authorities also took note of his close association with Meyer Lansky. They said that Rosen and Lansky had a “piece” of certain business interests together down in Miami Beach, Florida, and out west in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Besides Lansky, other top rackets bosses Rosen was closely tied to included such underworld heavyweights as New York’s Owney Madden, Arthur (Dutch Schultz) Fleigenheimer, Irving (Waxey Gordon) Wexler, Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, and New Jersey’s Abner (Longy) Zwillman.
He was also considered an intimate of such Italian mafia bosses as Salvatore (Lucky) Luciano, Francesco (Frank Costello) Castiglia, Giuseppe (Joe Adonis) Doto, Gaetano (Tommy Brown) Lucchese, Chicago’s Alphonse (Scarface Al) Capone and the Fischetti brothers, and Jewish mob boss Mickey Cohen of Los Angeles.
A Hoodlum for All Seasons
While he was back in New York City, on August 6, 1945, Hyman Chaim Stromberg became a naturalized citizen of the United States. At the time, he and his wife were residing in a luxury apartment on the swanky Upper East Side at 420 East 55th Street.
Several years later, in 1948, the Strombergs also purchased a second residence at 5196 Pine Tree Drive in Miami Beach, Florida. From that point forward Rosen became a seasonal resident of South Florida.
The FBI said that each year during the winter season, there was a large influx of Philadelphia-based gangsters and racketeers who converged down in Miami Beach. Acting at his direction, Rosen’s two top assistants, Cappy Hoffman and Willie Weisberg, flew down to Florida each winter to “financially back” Miami’s local gambling rackets.
During the spring and summer seasons, Rosen’s “69th Street Mob” operated similar gambling rackets in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a popular vacation destination, so as to take advantage of the visiting crowd there.
Mob lore has it that at one point in time, Rosen even sent his top strong-arm man Willie Weisberg down to the City of Baltimore in a failed bid to “take over” the numbers rackets there which were largely in the hands of a predominantly local Jewish underworld.
Infuriated at being rebuffed by the locals, Baltimore Police later reported that Weisberg had tossed two “pineapple” bombs into the front entrances of the principal numbers “banks” in town before then hightailing it back to Atlantic City.
Drawing Heat and Headaches
It was in connection with these particular bombing incidents that Baltimore police officials sought the assistance of their counterparts in the Pennsylvania Department of Justice. Along with several special investigators and state troopers, they headed to Atlantic City in an ill-fated bid to capture Weisberg and possibly jail the city’s racket kingpin, Harry (Nig Rosen) Stromberg, in the process. The investigators suspected Weisberg had received his marching orders from his underworld superior.
For his part, Weisberg hid out in plain sight while cavalierly going about his daily business, largely uninterrupted by local authorities…Such is the power of money greasing the right palms. The out-of-town probers were quickly stonewalled by local police and ended up walking away completely empty-handed.
Then, in 1951, Rosen and Weisberg were repeatedly called to testify before the Kefauver Senate Committee. In two prolonged sessions, investigators quizzed them about their control over underworld rackets and pervasive police graft and corruption in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City. But once again, nothing would come of this criminal probe.
But a year later, by October 1952, the U.S. Justice Department did start an action against Stromberg seeking to strip him of citizenship and deport him back to Russia, labeling him an “unsavory and undesirable” character. But after much hoopla, these efforts also failed, and he was allowed to remain in the United States.
Stromberg eventually exited the scene and passed away some years later. The exact date of his death is not known. But what is known is that after he passed, his longtime driver-bodyguard and second-in-command, Willie Weisberg, took over control of this criminal network.
By the late 1970s-early 1980s, as it had in other cities, what had once been a very significant Jewish underworld presence in Philadelphia started to fade away.
Note: The Button Guys chart below lists most of the known membership and affiliates of the crew headed by Rosen; a rank-n-file membership of mostly Jewish hoodlums. The 6 hoodlums listed under the title “Chief Lieutenants” were considered among the most important and powerful “bosses” (roughly equivalent in rank to Mafia capos) within their criminal network. Under “Top Aides/Enforcers,” we name 26 key enforcers and crew members (equivalent to soldiers). We also list another 219 associated hoods under the heading “Crew Members/Affiliates” who ran the gamut from direct crew members to labor-union racketeers, affiliated policy runners, and bookmakers of the 69th Street Mob’s vast gambling operations, and drug dealers who were supplied by this underworld network.
Through the years, most of those named were arrested as part of this crew’s criminal activities or were publicly identified as being affiliated with Rosen and his organization in one form or another.
Collectively, at the height of their underworld power, Philadelphia’s Jewish Mob was undoubtedly a major force to be reckoned with – in league with, but separate from, Cosa Nostra itself.