In Section 3 of Chapter XVI of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury mentioned three East Side gang leaders who carved out a specialty in the field of extortion: poisoning the work horses used by delivery companies and street vendors, as well as the stables that housed the animals. At times these gangs worked on their own behalf, demanding payoffs from the businesses they threatened. However, at other times they were commissioned to sabotage a business under a contract with that business’s competitor. Indeed, it appears that this racket emerged on the Lower East Side and across the river in Brooklyn from this motive, and flourished in the cutthroat capitalism economic atmosphere of the predominantly Jewish immigrant communities. Small businesses were territorial, and any intrusions into a business’s market service area was seen as a personal threat to one’s livelihood.
The three gangsters named by Asbury were “Yoske Nigger”, “Charley the Cripple”, and “Johnny Levinsky.” Asbury reprinted these names from his source material on the horse poisoners, a full-page feature article in the New York Tribune’s Sunday edition of August 17, 1913 titled “The Horse Poisoners: The Throttling of a Vicious Species of Gang Crime”, by Edwin Newdick. Newdick was a Dartmouth-educated reporter who specialized in news of labor relations, so he made pains to open his article with an explanation of the economic forces that gave rise to this racket. Newdick named “Yoske Nigger” as Joseph Toblinsky, “Charlie Cripple” as Charles Vitofsky, and “John L.” John Levinsky.
Toblinsky and Vitofsky were widely publicized as members of the “Yiddish Camorra” (they also called their affiliation the “Arsenic Club”). However, among the dozens of newspaper articles printed about the horse poisoners, the name “Levinsky” (or variants) is not to be found, outside of Newdick’s article. There were, though, two other men frequently mentioned as being leaders of the gang: Hyman Edelstein and Louis Levine.
Joseph (Yoske is a Yiddish variant of Joseph) Toblinsky was a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant born in 1883. His criminal record started in his teens and stretched to 1944, when he died as an inmate of Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, New York. Most of his crimes were burglaries and highway thefts. Charles Vitofsky (also spelled Witofsky) was about the same age as Toblinsky. Though arrested for his connection with the Arsenic Club, the main witness against him was murdered the day before he was slated to testify. Vitofsky/Witofsky appears to have reformed after other horse poisoners were sent to prison. Hyman Edelstein was the senior gang associate, a trucking contractor by trade, which placed him in the ideal position to reward some businesses and victimize others. In 1914, Edelstein was was of the last of the Arsenic Club to be imprisoned, receiving a stiff sentence of 7-to-15 years at Sing Sing.
The Arsenic Club’s height was in the 1907-1911 period. Altogether, it was estimated that they killed over 500 animals in the span of a decade, and committed an unknown number of murders. They were brought down by a combination of factors: Lower East Side and Brooklyn businesses that used horses finally banded together to stop the gang, once they realized that the violence could target any one of them. The New York State legislature changed the law in 1911 to make poisoning animals a felony rather than a misdemeanor. This made it possible to imprison the gang members. The ASPCA offered substantial rewards for information about the gang.
However, the demise of this racket can really be attributed to the advent of the internal combustion engine. By the 1910s, many deliveries started to be made by motorized vehicles. The opportunities for racketeering–pioneered by the horse poisoners–grew exponentially with the trucking industry.