Joe Bruno on the Mob – Harry Strauss, a.k.a. Pittsburgh Phil – Murder Incorporated’s Top Hit Man

Harry Strauss, who called himself Pittsburgh Phil, was the most cold-blooded killer our country has ever seen. Strauss started out as a small-time hood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and he was soon famous for being an efficient contract killer, who never carried a weapon unless he was “on a job.” Strauss, who had never been to Pittsburgh in his life (he just liked the name), was called “Pep” by his homicidal associates. He liked committing murder so much (it was reported he killed anywhere from one hundred to five hundred people), he often volunteered for murder contracts because, as Brooklyn District Attorney William O’Dwyer once said, “just for the lust to kill.”

Strauss was so good at his “job,” other big-time mobsters began to take notice. Strauss explained, “Like a ballplayer, that’s me. I figure I get my seasoning doing these jobs. Someone from one of those big mobs spots me. Then, up to the Big Leagues.”

Which is exactly what eventually happened. In the early 1930’s, Strauss caught the eye of Louie “Lepke” Buchalter, who had just formed his group of trained contract killers called Murder Incorporated. Strauss was invited into the “Big Leagues,” and soon Strauss’ murder output exceeded those of Murder Incorporated’s next two most prolific killers, Happy Maione and Abe Relles, combined. When an out-of-town contract was required, it was almost always Strauss who was requested. When those occasions arose, Strauss packed a bag with a shirt, change of socks, underwear, a gun, length of rope and an ice pick, just in case. Most times, Strauss didn’t even know the name of the man whom he had killed, and didn’t care anyway. Still, Strauss sometimes got copies of the newspaper of the city in which he had recently finished a contract, just to admire the efficiency of his handiwork.

As proficient as he was at killing, Strauss was just as good in the art of seducing members of the opposite sex. Tall, dark and handsome, Strauss wore $60 suits, which in the time of the Depression, was a kingly sum. Once, while he was in a lineup at a local police station, New York City Police Commission Lewis Valentine remarked, “Look at him! He’s the best dressed man in the room and he’s never worked a day in his life.” Strauss had a steamy love affair with Brooklyn beauty Evelyn Middleman, who was called “The Kiss of Death,” because in order to win her affections, Strauss had to murder her former boyfriend.

Once, during the course of a hit, when Strauss was injured himself, and as a result, he made his victim’s death all the more gruesome. One night, Strauss and a few of his confederates lured Puggy Feinstein into a Brooklyn home and Strauss commenced stabbing Feinstein numerous times with an icepick. But Feinstein would not go away easily and he bit down hard on Strauss’ pinkie finger, almost severing the mangled digit. “Give me a rope. I’ll fix this bum,” Strauss said. With the help of his pals, Strauss formed a nose with the rope and put it around Feinstein’s neck. He tied the other end of the rope around Feinstein’s feet, trussing him up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Then they gleefully watched, as Feinstein struggled frantically, slowly strangling himself to death.

After Feinstein took his last breath, they dragged him to a nearby vacant lot and used his body to start a barn fire. They resisted the urge to roast marshmallows and instead, absconded to a Sheepshead Bay restaurant to celebrate. While the boys were chowing down their hardy meal, Strauss was none too happy. When asked what was wrong, Strauss said, “Maybe I’m getting lockjaw from being bit.” He hardly finished his lobster dinner.

Not all of Strauss’ contact hits went according to plan. Once he was summoned down to Jacksonville, Florida to do a “piece of work,” for the local mob boss. His contact in Jacksonville took Strauss to the mark’s house and told him the hit would be an easy one, because the man left his home every day at exactly the same time. But Strauss didn’t like the set-up. The target’s house was on a busy two-way street corner and there was no expert wheelman, or even a getaway car, to flee the scene after the deed was done. So Strauss decided to follow the mark, and that he did, first to a busy restaurant, then to a nearby movie house. When Strauss entered the movie house, he was happy to see that his man had taken a seat in the back row, all by himself. Strauss was then overjoyed, when he looked to his right and spotted an ax in a glass case, with the sign under it saying, “To be used in case of a fire.” Strauss felt as if the ax had been placed there by the hand of God.

Strauss took the ax from its case and slowly made his way to where his mark was sitting, when suddenly, a lady stood up from one of the front row seats and exited the movie house. Strauss’ intended target immediately jumped to his feet and hurried to the empty seat up front. Convinced this job was jinxed, Strauss put the ax back into its case and exited the movie house. He went back to his hotel, packed quickly, headed for the airport and hightailed it back to Brooklyn. He explained to his confederates why the hit went awry.

“Those Florida jerks wanted me to do a cowboy job,” Strauss said. “And then just when I go set him up properly, the bum turns out to be a God-damned chair-hopper.”

Speaking of chairs, after Abe Reles squealed to the cops on his confederates at Murder Incorporated, on June 12, 1941, Strauss was given the chair himself; the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, at exactly 11:06 pm Eastern Standard Time, thereby elevating Strauss from the Big Leagues, to the Posthumous Hit Man Hall of Fame.



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