By David Rosen
In August 1954, four white Brooklyn youths—Jack Koslow, Jerome Lieberman, Melvin Mittman, and Robert Trachtenberg—were arrested for the murder of Willard Mentor, a 34-year-old black man who worked at a local burlap bag factory. They were dubbed the “thrill-kill gang,” and their crime electrified the city. How could nice Jewish boys from good families commit such an act? Why?
Mariah Adin employs this incident to illuminate one long-forgotten episode in New York’s history. Her revealing and well-written study, The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s (Praeger, 2014), is not only a rigorous work, but a good read; Adin should write crime fiction!
No one could explain why these peculiar young men committed the numerous crimes they were charged with. The crimes included the beating and killing of two men they considered “bums” and the use of a bullwhip to beat the backsides of unescorted young women in neighborhood parks. Many answers were put forward, including family dysfunction, juvenile delinquency, and comic books as well as homosexuality and S&M leather fetishism.
Three boys from the Brooklyn Kill-Thrill Gang standing as the District Attorney holds up the bullwhip they used in an attack.
For Adin, the answer was a mixture of all of the above. She focuses on one of the youths, Jack Koslow, a 19-year-old facing a personal crisis. Growing up in the tough working-class neighborhood of Williamsburg, he had been targeted as a weakling, a boy terrified by his powerful father. Koslow sought a new masculinity, one identified with Nazism and white supremacy, even growing a Hitler-like mustache. He avidly read German philosophers, especially Nietzsche, as well as superhero and vampire comics.
Koslow was bi-sexual, having an affair with a local young woman along with casual sex with many men. In addition to numerous local gay pick-ups, he cruised Greenwich Village and attended “queer parties.” He was also a leather fetishist, with a pathological twist. “I was all black, black and kid leather gloves, women’s gloves,” he confessed. “I carried a big knife and a mixed blade knife.” When he went prowling with his buddies at night, he often wore a “vampire costume” that included black leather pants and a trench coat.
Koslow’s sexual behavior, along with others of the kill-thrill gang, occurred during an anti-homosexual panic then gripping the nation. Alfred Kinsey’s revealing studies of male (1948) and female (1953) sexuality empirically demonstrated that same-gender erotic attractions were far more widespread than mainstream society wanted to admit. In ’52, the American Psychiatric Association’s released the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders that labeled homosexuality a sociopathic disorder. The so-called Lavender Scare was in full swing, leading to the purges of allegedly gay men and women in federal (e.g., State Department) and other agencies. Numerous police raids at local bars, especially in Washington, DC, accompanied the purges. The period also witnessed still other “homo” scandals, ranging from murders in Boise, Idaho to celebrity outings in Hollywood. In this toxic, homophobic environment, Koslow and the thrill-kill gang’s desire to show masculinity formed a lethal mixture with the time’s thriving juvenile deliquency culture, the examples they saw in comic books, and their desire to assimilate as Jews in a post-Holocaust world.
Adin’s book is a marvelous microscopic examination that offers valuable background discussions of post-WW-II juvenile delinquency and the subversive role of comic books. However, her assessment tends to be narrowly focused, uncritically relying on the then-influential psychiatrists Dr. Fredric Wertham, the nation’s leading critic of comic books. Had she opened her critical inquiry of other developments then taking place, especially involving bikers and S&M enthusiasts, she might have advanced a more nuanced analysis of all of the cultural influences on the young men.
Returning WW-II military personnel looking for excitement transformed male sexuality. One of the most iconic moments in biker culture occurred in 1947 at the July 4th weekend jamboree in Hollister, CA, when—to everyone’s surprise—nearly 4,000 Harley-Davidson enthusiasts gathered for the American Motorcycle Association’s Gypsy Tour. The event was captured in the pages of Life magazine and immortalized in the movie The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and released 1954.
This famous photograph from The San Francisco Chronicle captures the spirit of the bikers who gathered in Hollister, CA.
It was also a period that saw the emergence of more visible leather and S&M scenes. As the anthropologist Gayle Rubin reports, “The earliest gay leather bars and motorcycle clubs appears in the midfifties, in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.” According to historian John Loughery, “the world of arousal by way of masters, slaves, whips, chains, paddles, tough talk, and black leather was in its infancy in the 1950s ….” He notes, “At least one bar in New York City was known to let patrons change into their outfits in the back after six p.m. A man in leather on the streets was sure to be stopped by the police.”
These developments underscore the role that Brando embodied as the new male in The Wild One. He was tough, uncompromising yet vulnerable, a man who exemplified the postwar new-breed, the effeminate masculine anti-hero. He fashioned a new aesthetic vocabulary for the male pose, one that collapsed Baudelaire and Billy the Kid. One can only wonder whether the four Jewish boys from Williamsburg who made up the thrill-kill gang saw the film.
Adin, a PhD from SUNY Albany who coordinates the Pathways in Technology program at SUNY Orange, appreciates the fact that times have changed, that today’s Williamsburg is not that of the ‘50s. Her book is a valuable study, fleshing out a troubling moment of post-WW-II New York history and suggesting some of the varied steps its taken to get to where we are today.
David Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.