Joe Bruno on the Mob – Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro – The Brawn Behind Lepke’s Brains.

He was a gorilla of a man, with a chest like a circus strongman and the temperament of a killer, which was exactly what he was. Yet, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro had the intellect of a rock, which is why he needed the “brains” of one of the best criminal minds of all time — Louis “Lepke” Buchalter to help him succeed in a life of crime.

Shapiro was born on May 5, 1899, in Odessa, Russia, the son of Russian Jews. His family immigrated to America and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Shapiro spoke with a thick Russian/New York accent, like his mouth was full of marbles. His favorite expression was “get out of here.” But the way he said it sounded like “Gurrah dahere,” hence his pals shortened that to “Gurrah,” a nickname that stood with him the rest of his life.

Shapiro first met Lepke when they were two crooks trying to steal from the same pushcart. Shapiro, then 18, decided that this kid Lepke, who was two years younger than him, was the perfect partner for someone like him, whose answer to all problems was “let’s just kill the bum.”

Lepke decided there was big money to be made in the labor union rackets. So he enlisted the brawn of Shapiro to terrorized certain union locals into submission, which meant Shapiro was usually beating someone to a pulp, which he enjoyed immensely. When enough union members had been corrected, Lepke and Shapiro, who were then known as the “Gorilla Boys,” took control of the union. As union bosses, they would skim union dues off the top, and take kickbacks from the business owners, who wanted to avoid labor strikes.

Lepke, with Shapiro’s help, strong-armed his way to the top of the national crime syndicate. With partners like Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky, the “Gorilla Boys” were making so much money shaking down the unions, they became known as the “Gold Dust Twins.” Of course, in these types of endeavors, to keep everyone in line, sometimes someone has “to go,” or get killed. Lepke was put in charge of what the press called “Murder Incorporated, with Anastasia and Shapiro being his main weapons. When Shapiro wasn’t killing people himself, he was in charge of recruiting more killers for the cause.

In the mid 1930’s, Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey went on a mission to end the national crime syndicate. Dutch Schultz called an emergency meeting of the nine-member crime commission syndicate, where he said the only way for him and his pals to stay out of jail, was to whack Dewey. Shapiro and Anastasia agreed with Schultz, and Lepke was pretty much undecided if this was the proper course of action. Yet Lansky and Luciano’s logic prevailed, and the final vote was 8-1 against killing Dewey. Schultz objected, saying he would take care of the matter himself, and for this, he was gunned down two days later, before he could cause any more trouble with the law. This decision not to kill Dewey haunted Shapiro as long as he lived.

In 1936, Dewey indited Lepke and Shapiro for violating the Sherman Ant-Trust Act. Dewey accused the duo of conspiring to restrain trade in rabbit skins through their Protective Fur Dressers Corporation. Dewey claimed Shapiro and Lepke used threats of violence, and sometime violence itself, to fix prices and reduce competition.

The trial, which took place in October 1936, was merely a formality. Shapiro and Lepke were both convicted, but not jailed. They were out on bail, and while they fought for an appeal, both decided to take a powder. Strangely enough, Lepke’s appeal was upheld and a new trail ordered. But Shapiro’s conviction stood.

While Lepke was hidden in Brooklyn by Anastasia, Shapiro laid low in New Jersey; then he took a trek out to the Mid West. Without Lepke to console and control him, Shapiro was a broken man. All he knew how to do was administer beatings and kill people. Suddenly, Shapiro started getting severe chest pains and panic attacks. Not being able to go back to his old life, and too sick to continue in his new life, on April 14, 1938, Shapiro inexplicably turned himself into the authorities. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

While Shapiro was locked up in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, and Lepke on death row in Sing Sing Prison in New York, after being convicted of murder, Shapiro somehow smuggled a note to Lepke. It said, “I told you so,” meaning they should have killed Dewey when they had the chance.

Shapiro died in prison of a heart attack in 1947, utterly convinced the worst mistake he and Lepke ever made was not killing one more person.


4 Responses to “Joe Bruno on the Mob – Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro – The Brawn Behind Lepke’s Brains.”

  1. Roger keizerstein Says:

    Hi Joe,

    My grandfather’s sister, Anna Ginsberg, married Jake Shapiro. Thus, he was an uncle through marriage.
    Question: since Jake was in charge of enforcing extortion through murder and various forms of violence, would he have been the person who ordered the fire bombing of my paternal grandfather’s and uncle’s bakery for refusing to join the union or pay protection money? (In East New York, 1936.)
    After their bakery was bombed, they moved to Middletown NY and set up shop there. After that, my uncle went onto having a chain of bakeries in Hartford CT. He’s the guy that baked President Kennedy’s birthday cake for a party at MSG with Marilyn Monroe singing…
    Wouldn’t it be ironic if the bombing of the bakery led to my uncle’s Myron’s enormous success, wealth and 15 minutes of fame.

    Sincerely, Roger Keizerstein

    • It’s certainly more than possible Shapiro, or Lepke, ordered the bombing of the bakery for refusing to join the union. But it seemed to have a happy ending anyway. Good for your grandfather.

  2. Roger keizerstein Says:


  3. Antonino Lucania Says:

    Yeah good for everybody..including Dewey.

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