Joe Bruno on the Mob – Murder Incorporated


After the Castellammarese War ended in 1931, with both opposing bosses, Joe “The Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano ending up quite dead due to the treachery of Lucky Luciano, amongst others, Luciano, along with Jewish mobster mastermind Meyer Lansky, formed a nine-member National Crime Commission, which cut across ethnic lines. There was no single boss of this commission, but instead the leadership was divided equally amongst Luciano, Lansky, Lansky’s sidekick Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Frank Costello, Joe Bonanno, Vincent Mangano, Joe “Adonis “Doto, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and his right-hand man Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro. (Loose cannon Dutch Schultz – real name Arthur  Flegenheimer – was not a member of the Commission for exactly that reason: he was a loose cannon and could not be trusted with making common sense decisions.)         

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Of course, all corporations need a separation of powers within that corporation, whereas certain people are given duties that do not infringe on the power and duties of other members of that organization. (Make no mistake, the National Crime Commission ran like a well-oiled machine, and indeed operated like an unregistered corporation)                                                           

This is where Murder Incorporated came into play.

It was decided that for the good of the National Crime Commission sometimes distasteful things must be done to keep the Commission nice and profitable. This included killing people who endangered the continued flow of cash into the Commission’s coffers. The Commission decided that they needed to establish a separate branch of the Commission, that was responsible for one thing and one thing only: the murder of those people the bosses said needed to be killed.

Louie Lepke was put in charge of, what the press called Murder Inc., and to assist Lepke in his duties, the Commission appointed Albert Anastasia, nicknamed “The Lord High Executioner,” to be Lepke’s right-hand-man. Lepke would never give a direct order to any of his killers to do a job. Instead, Lepke used trusted men like Mendy Weiss and Louis Capone, to issue the final order and decree to the hit men chosen. By keeping a level, or two, of insulation between himself and the actual killers, Lepke figured nothing could ever be directly pinned on him.

And at first, Lepke was right, until he made one fatal mistake. But we’ll get to later.

The first order of business for Lepke and Anastasia was to assemble a crack hit team to do the actual dirty work. Through Louis Capone, who was close to Anastasia, Lepke had been nurturing a group of homicidal maniacs, some of whom with rather kill that breathe the cool fresh air of Brooklyn. These killers were called “The Boys from Brownsville,” whom we featured earlier in this book. The Boys from Brownsville were hardly the only killers employed by Murder Inc., but they were the foundation which led to as many as 100 freelance assassins being put on a steady weekly salary (of $125 and up), to be ready to kill whenever an order was given. These men were sometimes paid extra for a job especially well-done, and they were allowed to operate in designated territories in the gambling and loansharking businesses, or in any illegal operation, like hijackings, and even kidnappings. But one thing is for sure: even if a member of Murder Inc.  didn’t kill anyone for a month, or two, or three, his killing salary came in steadily every week.

Now let’s get to the cast of characters of Murder Inc.

The first and foremost turned out to be the biggest headache for Lepke: Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. As we discussed earlier in this book, by eliminating the three Shapiro brothers, Meyer, Irving, and Willie, Reles along with his childhood pal Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein, took over all the illegal rackets in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. To do so, Reles enlisted the help of Harry “Happy” Maione and Frank “Dasher “ Abbandando of the neighboring “Ocean Hill Hooligans.” Soon, such cutthroat killers like Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Vito Gurino, and “Blue Jaw” Magoon were taken into the fold, and the Boys from Brownsville were a formidable group of killers indeed. The key for their transition from Brownsville to the big time was Louis Capone, ostensibly a Brooklyn restaurateur, who was very close to Albert Anastasia.

When Anastasia, along with Lepke, was entrusted by the Commission to form Murder Inc., Anastasia approached Capone and said, “What about Reles and his boys from Brownsville? Are these guys capable of doing what needs to be done? No questions asked.”

Capone assured Anastasia that Reles and his boys were stone-cold killers, and efficient ones at that. The only problem Capone had was that Reles and Maione, considered to be the number one and number two leaders of the group, hated each other’s guts; and they didn’t trust each other much either.

Despite their petty differences, Reles and Maione worked like a well-oiled killing machine. Under the direction of Anastasia and Capone, the Murder Inc. killers operated in such a manner that was almost foolproof. When assignments were given out by the bosses for killings all over the country, the arrangements were made in a way that detection of the actual killers was almost impossible. The key to their method was the concepts of corroboration and separation of powers. The bosses brought in several men to do different aspects of each job, with one man knowing nothing about the other men, and their involvement. Still, each man was so intimately involved in the operation, he would be considered an accomplice, and his possible corroborating testimony was useless in a court of law, in case he ever decided to turn rat.

For instance, let’s say Joe Schmoe from Illiniois was next on Murder Inc.’s hit list. Murder Inc. would hire one man to steal an automobile for the getaway. Then another man would be directed to get as many guns as were needed for the job. Then there would be a third man, who would be the ‘finger-man”: the one who would point out Joe Schmoe to the actual shooters. Then of course, they needed a getaway driver, and a driver of a “crash car”: a legitimately registered car, that would crash into a pursuing police car, or the car of a nosy citizen, after the deed was done. The reason for the legit car was that the driver of the crash car could claim it was just an accident, while the shooters escaped in the stolen car. (For obvious reasons, it was not a smart idea to crash into a police car with a stolen car.)

The beauty of this routine was that each man involved in the murder would have limited knowledge of the other men involved in the hit. The man who stole the car would not know who purchased the guns, or who did the actual shooting,  etc….etc….

Of course, Lepke and Anastasia did not rely entirely on the Boys from Brownsville to do all their dirty work. Other killers were needed to do a variety of jobs in a myriad of places. One killer was enlisted from a unlikely place: the Loch Sheldrake Country Club, in the Catskills, in upstate New York. 

The Loch Sheldrake Country Club was owned by Sam Tannenbaum, who had first owned a grocery store on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Loch Sheldrake Country Club was a ritzy establishment, and it housed many rich Jewish families for their summer vacations. Of course, Lepke and his crew were well-represented at the Loch Sheldrake. Those gangsters who rubbed elbows with the legitimate Jewish businessmen included Lepke, his partner Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, Shimmy Salles, a bagman for Lepke’s rackets, Curly Holtz, a labor racketeer, and “Big Harry” Greenburg, who was Lepke and Shapiro’s partners in various Garment Center swindles.

Gurrah Shapiro, a thick-chested gorilla-of-a-man, was quite a character himself, and also quite capable, as was Lepke, of pulling the trigger when necessary. Whenever Shapiro was angry, and that was often, his favorite saying was “Get out of here.” Yet, with his gravelly voice, the phrase sounded like “Gurra dahere.” Hence, his pals gave Shapiro the nickname “Gurrah.”

Sam Tannenbaum had a teenaged son named Allie, who Sam eventually was grooming as his replacement when Sam decided to retire. Sam Tannenbaum employed Allie at his hotel, either waiting tables, or setting up beach chairs by  the lake. Sam also did not pay Allie a dime for his work, to ensure Allie didn’t disappear to his old haunts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, until after the summer season was over. As the owner’s son, the Jewish gangsters invited Allie Tannenbaum to all their parties, and Allie got a fresh taste of what it was like to be around people who had coins constantly jingling in their pockets. This made him a likely suspect to be drawn into their world of  murder and mayhem.

One day, after the summer season of 1931 was over at Loch Sheldrake, Tannenbaum was strolling down Broadway in Manhattan, when he bumped into “Big Harry” Greenberg.

Greenberg asked Tannenbaum, “Do you want a job?”

“I could use one, if it pays,” Tannenbaum said.

Greenberg  smiled. “This one is for Lepke. You know what kind of a job it will be.”

Tannenbaum shrugged, and said he would do whatever it took to earn some fancy cash, so he could spread it around like his Jewish gangster idols.

Little did Greenberg know he was hiring one of his eventual killers.

Tannenbaum started working for Lepke, initially for $35 a week. His job included general assignments like slugging, strikebreaking, and throwing stink bombs where they were needed to be thrown. Tannenbaum later graduated to more important duties, like “schlammings,” which meant he “schlammed,”or cracked the heads of union workers who were not towing Lepke’s line.

As his work production increased, so did Tannenbaum’s salary. In short order, Tannenbaum was intimately involved in six murders, and he helped dispose of the body of a seventh murder victim. As a result of  “making his bones” in the murder department, Tannenbaum started raking in an impressive $125 a week; more than he made in an entire summer at his father’s resort. Because of Tannenbaum’s summer location in the Catskills, Tannenbaum’s job consisted mostly of  murders and extortions in upstate New York. Tannenbaum was a valuable asset to Lepke in Sullivan County, because Tannenbaum was familiar with the back highways and numerous lakes, where bodies could be disposed of.  During the winter, Tannenbaum and his family vacationed in Florida, where Tannenbaum worked as a strong-arm-man in several of Lepke’s gambling joints.

            In the early 1930’s Lepke added another valuable asset to Murder Inc., when he hired Charlie “The Bug” Workman.

“The Bug” was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1908, the second of six children born to Samuel and Anna Workman. Workman quit school in the 9th grade, and began roaming the streets of the Lower East Side, looking for trouble. When he was 18, Workman was arrested for the first time, for stealing a $12 bundle of cotton thread from a truck parked on Broadway. Since it was his first offense, Workman got off with simple probation. The following year, Workman was arrested for shooting a man behind the ear over who-owed-who $20. By this time, Workman’s reputation on the streets was such, the man he shot refused to testify against  him, and even said he couldn’t  truthfully identify Workman as the shooter. Miffed, the cops pulled up his file and decided Workman had violated his parole on the cotton theft. As a result, Workman was sent to the New York State Reformatory. For the next few years, Workman was in and out of prison, for such parole violations as  associating with “questionable characters” and “failure to get a job.”

            In 1926, Workman hooked on as a freelance leg breaker, or schlammer, for Lepke’s union strike breaking activities. Workman did such a good job, in the early 1930’s, Lepke put Workman on his permanent payroll at $125 a week, as a killer for Lepke’s Murder Incorporated machine. Lepke liked Workman’s cool demeanor, and after Workman performed a few exceptional “hits” for Lepke, Lepke gave him the nickname “The Bug,” because a person had to be crazy to kill with the calm detachment Workman displayed when  performing his gruesome tasks. Workman’s other nickname “Handsome Charlie,” was given to him by members of the opposite sex.

For the next few years, Workman was in and out of trouble with the law. In 1932, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. In 1933, Workman was arrested again for decking an off-duty police officer after a minor traffic dust-up. All the while, his specialty was  killing whomever Lepke said needed to be killed. After a hit was done, Workman enjoyed the fringe benefit of “sweeping out the pockets” of his victims. Most of the times, Workman earned himself an extra thousand dollars or so for his efforts. And one time he even found a ten-thousand-dollar bonus in the pants pocket of some poor sucker whom he had just whacked.

This bad habit almost got Workman into big trouble, but we’ll get to that later too.

Lepke’s Murder Inc. didn’t limit it’s exploits to the New York City area. Take the case of Abe Wagner, for instance.

Abe Wagner was a lower East side thug/bootlegger who fashioned himself as the quintessential Jewish hood, the new “Kid Dropper,” he told people; Dropper being a tough New York City Jewish gang leader who had bought the ranch himself in 1923. Wagner thought he such a tough guy, he once roughed up the son of Italian mob kingpin  Joe “The Boss” Masseria, then told the kid to go home and show his old man what Abe Wagner had done to him. Luckily for Wagner, Masseria was gunned down before he could avenge his son’s indignity.

Wagner and his brother Allie were making a nice living in the bootlegging business on the Lower East Side, when the Mazza gang, with ties to Lucky Luciano, decided to move in on them and take over their  operations. On February 20, 1932, Wagner was riding down Suffolk street in his brand new car.  As Wagner was weaving slowly past the numerous street pushcarts, a half a dozen shooters appeared from nowhere and opened fire at Wagner. As his car was being shot into Swiss cheese, Wagner somehow was able to roll out the passenger’s door, then escape by dashing though the crowded street.

Not being the bravest of souls like he boasted, Wagner decided to make peace with his enemies; but at a safe distance. Instead of making the trek himself, Wagner sent his partner Harry Brown and Abe’s brother Albie to the Mazza gang’s headquarters at the Hatfield Hotel on the Upper East Side.

            “See if you can pay them off,” Wagner said.

            The two men arrived at the Hatfield Hotel with a huge sum of  “let’s make peace”  money, which the Mazza’s gladly accepted. Then they shot Albie Wagner dead, leaving Harry Brown alive, so that he could deliver the message to Abe that there would be no peace as long as Abe Wagner was alive himself.

Wagner’s mother was mortified her youngest son Albie was murdered and didn’t want the same fate to befall Abe.

“Take Goldie (Abe’s wife) and go away someplace for a while,” Mama Wagner told her son. “Go now so I won’t worry. Hurry.”

Wagner did as his mother requested, and he and Goldie quickly left town. A month later, the Lindberg baby was abducted in Hopewell, New Jersey, and because he was such a low-life thug who had the reputation of stooping to almost anything to make a buck, Wagner immediately came under suspicion.

“We have a tip that Wagner was seen in the vicinity of Hopewell about a month before the kidnapping,” said Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of the New Jersey state police.

The cops couldn’t find Wagner, but the Mazza Gang had scores of  eyes, and feet on the ground throughout the country, and they put this apparatus into motion. After Wagner laid low with his wife in various out-of-town locations, he decided to sneak back into New York City to see his mom. He was in his mother’s apartment for a few hours, when word got back to Mama Wagner that her son had been spotted.

“Go quick,” she said. “Don’t wait.”

Wagner picked up his wife and hightailed it out west, stopping at St. Paul, Minnesota. He changed his name to Abe Loeb, and as a ruse, he decided to start a fruit and vegetable retail business. Despite his change of identity, it took only a few weeks for the Mazza Gang to locate Wagner in St. Paul. Luciano contacted Lepke and told Lepke to get two of his finest boys on the case. Lepke, though his usual intermediaries, dispatched two of his most efficient (but not very bright) killers, Joseph Shaefer and George Young, out to St. Paul to lower the boom on Wagner. Both men were on the lam already, for  killing federal agent John J. Finiello, during a raid two years earlier on an Elizabeth, New Jersey illegal brewery. Schaefer and Young knew St. Paul intimately, since it was one of their hideouts during their two years on the run.

On July 25, 1932, after having a prescription filled, Wagner and his new partner Al Gordon left a drug store on University Avenue. They were followed by Schaefer and Young, who were riding in a dark green Packard. Suddenly, the hit-men jumped out of the car and began firing. Gordon was killed instantly, but Wagner was only winged. He ran for his life down University Avenue, then turned onto Snelling Avenue. The gunmen caught up with Wagner as he ran into the Green Dragon Restaurant. There, in front of several witnesses,  they shot Wagner six times, then beat him over the head with their guns,  just because they could. Wagner died a few hours later at Ancker Hospital.

In an amazing display of stupidity, the out-of-town Murder Inc. gunmen allowed themselves to be arrested by a passing patrolman on Roy Street just minutes after they exited the Green Dragon Restaurant. Schaefer and Young were tried and convicted of the murders of Wagner and Gordon, and sentenced to life in prison. However, Murder Inc. was well-stocked with operatives, so their operation hardly missed a murderous beat.

All was going fine and dandy for the National Crime Commission until 1935, when Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey set his sights on all the New York City top gangsters. After already putting  Jewish mobster Irving Wexler (a.k.a. Waxey Gordon) behind bars for ten years for income tax evasion, Dewey went after the most visible mobster in New York City: Dutch Schultz. As was mentioned previously, Schultz was not a Commission member, but he had made millions in the illegal booze business (he was called the “Beer Baron of the Bronx), as well as in the Harlem numbers business, where he had pushed out top black operators: Madam Stephanie St. Clair, Bumpy Johnson, and Caspar Holstein. Money brings prestige, and since Schultz was smart enough to cut in  the Commission members on his profits, he did wield some power in their decision making.

Except this one time.

When Schultz (who already beat an income tax case mainly because he had his venue transferred to the sleepy, and gullible town of Malone, New York) heard the mighty Dewey was after him, he became apoplectic. Schultz called for an immediate meeting of the National Crime Commission, where he said, “Dewey will not stop until all of  us Commission members are in prison. We have to take Dewey out!”

The Commission did not immediately reject Schultz’s demands. In fact, the Commission directed Albert Anastasia to determine if Dewey indeed could be taken out without much difficulty. Anastasia went so far as to “borrow” a baby from a friend, then push this baby around in a baby carriage in front and around the streets near Dewey’s apartment building at 214 Fifth Avenue. Using this ruse, Anastasia was able to clock Dewey’s morning movements quite precisely.

It seemed that every morning at 8 a.m. sharp, Dewey exited his apartment building, and, surrounded by a squadron of bodyguards, he strode a few blocks to a neighborhood drug store for his morning cup of coffee, and to make a phone call to his office from the phone booth in the back. Anastasia told the Commission, that Anastasia could wait in the coffee shop for Dewey’s morning arrival. And as Dewey passed him and headed to the phone booth in back, Anastasia could fill Dewey with lead, then kill the drug store owner so that there wouldn’t be any witnesses. Anastasia said that his men out front would take out Dewey’s bodyguards, so that Anastasia could make his safe escape.

The following week, the Commission summoned Schultz to a meeting to discuss their decision on the fate of Dewey. The Commission told Schultz, that although the take-out of Dewey was doable, it was not in their best interest to kill the most famous lawman in the United States of America. If they whacked Dewey, the Commission reasoned, the full brunt of  United States law enforcement would come crashing down on their collective skulls.The lone dissenter on the Commission was Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, who agreed with Schultz that if Dewey were allowed to live, he would not rest until he put the entire Commission behind bars. However, Shapiro’s lifelong pal Lepke finally convinced Shapiro that a live Dewey was the lesser of two evils. Years later, both Lepke and Shapiro would regret this decision.

When Schultz heard the bad news, he went nuts.

“Dewey’s got to go!” Schultz told the Commission. “I’m hitting him myself in 48 hours.”

By losing his temper, Schultz had just signed his own death warrant.

As soon as Schultz left the room, the Commission decided they could not afford to let Schultz carried out his threats. The ball was handed to Lepke and Anastasia’s Murder Inc. crew, and the two bosses decided, that because Schultz was a Jewish mob boss (Schultz did convert to Catholicism as a ruse to con the Malone, New York yokels into finding him not guilty in his previous income tax case), that Jewish killers, out of respect, would be needed to carry out the hit. The contract was given to Charlie “The Bug” Workman, and Lepke’s close pal Mendy Weiss.

On Oct. 23, 1935, Workman and Weiss were driven to the Palace Chophouse in Newark, New Jersey, in a car driven by a man known as “Piggy” – not a Murder Inc. operative, but just a Newark local who knew the terrain. While Piggy waited outside in the car with the engine running, Workman and Weiss rushed inside. The front bar-room area was empty, but they heard lively chatter coming from the back room where Schultz and his cohorts usually held court. The two gunmen burst into the back room – guns abasing. They blasted bullets at three of Schultz’ henchmen, Lulu Rosencrantz, Abe Landau and Abbadabba Berman, who were enjoying their last supper together. It was reminiscent of a “Wild West” shootout, but the element of surprise worked to Workman’s and Weiss’ favor. Even though Schultz’s men returned fire, when the dust settled, all three men were dead, and Workman and Weiss were not even injured.

It was Weiss who spoke first, “Where’s Schultz? You better check the bathroom.”

Workman rushed into the bathroom with a hot .45 in his hand. The bathroom looked empty, but after Workman kicked in the door of the stall, there was Schultz, pants down and not looking slightly constipated. Workman fired once, but Schultz ducked and the bullet blasted into the wall above his head. Workman lowered his gun a tad, then fired again. This time the slug ripped through Schultz’s stomach, large intestine, gall bladder, and liver, before falling on the floor next to him. The reason Workman didn’t fire again was because he was out of bullets from the back-room shootout.

Workman then made a serious mistake. Instead of hustling out of the bathroom and into the getaway car outside, Workman, as was his habit, decided to roll Schultz for any loose change Schultz might have on his person.

Two bad things happened immediately. First, Workman was dismayed to discover Schultz was dead broke. Then when Workman finally rushed outside, Weiss, Piggy, and the getaway car were nowhere in sight.

With the sound of police sirens piercing the air, Workman hurried into the swamp behind the chophouse. He ditched his blood-stained overcoat, then stomped in the general direction of New York City. After a few hours of slushing through mud, Workman was finally able to locate a set of railroad tracks. He followed these tracks all night long, until he passed under the Hudson River, and found himself in downtown Manhattan, on the other wide of the Holland Tunnel. Workman rushed to a downtown mob-run coffee shop, and he was horrified to discover that Schultz’s murder was the main topic of discussion, and that Weiss was credited with being the lone killer. This ticked off Workman to no end, and he plotted his revenge.

In the meantime, Schultz was found by the police and rushed to a local hospital. There he lay delirious for two days; spouting inanities like: “Oh Duckie, see we skipped again.” And, “Please mother, crack down on the Chinaman’s friends and Hitler’s commander.” And,  “Louie, didn’t I give you my doorbell?” His temperature rose to 106 degrees before he lapsed into a coma.

On October 25, before he expired, Schultz received a telegram, saying, “As ye sow, so shall you reap.”

The telegram was signed “Stephanie St. Clair.”

After leaving the coffee shop, Workman absconded to a safe house to get a few hours’ sleep. Then he phoned Lepke and demanded a meeting over the disappearance of Weiss from the scene of the crime. The meeting took place a few days later at Weiss’ house at 400 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. First, Workman laid out the reasons why he thought Weiss should be disciplined; death being the punishment.

When it was Weiss’s turn to speak, he said,  “I claim hitting the Dutchman was mob business. And I stayed until hitting the Dutchman was over. But then the Bug went back in the toilet to give the Dutchman a heist. I claim that was not mob business anymore. It was personal business.”

Lepke agreed with Weiss’ assessment, and Workman was none too happy. Lepke suggested to Workman that he should travel down to Florida for a cooling-off period, otherwise the air up north might not be too healthy for Workman. Workman did as he was told, and while “vacationing” in Miami, Workman met with Luciano to receive funds for his trip. Workman started to plead his case about Weiss to Luciano, but Luciano would have none of that.

Luciano shoved a stack of bills into Workman’s hands, saying, “Here’s the money. Now stop talking about that other thing.”

Workman took the money, and then he took the hint, and forgot all about Weiss, Schultz, and the entire Palace Chop House incident.

With Schultz now no longer a factor in New York City crime, Dewey set his sights on Lucky Luciano. The only problem was, Luciano had insulated himself from the every-day crimes his men committed on the streets, and as a result, Dewey did not have any concrete evidence with which to indict Luciano for anything. That’s when Dewey came up with the bright idea of framing Luciano, and that’s exactly what Dewey did.

Luciano was living the high life in New York City; living at the push Waldorf Astoria Hotel (room 39 D), under the name “Mr. Ross. Luciano was prancing nightly, in a very public way,  through all the top nightclubs in town, with a beautiful broad on each arm. This irked Dewey to no end, so Dewey decided to do something about it. Knowing he had nothing on Luciano as far as the rackets, and no proof that the murders being committed by Murder Inc. were at Luciano’s bequest, Dewey decided to crack down on prostitution, something Luciano had absolutely nothing to do with.

On January 31, 1936, Dewey ordered his task force to raid more than 80 brothels; pick up every prostitute in sight (even ones walking the streets); arrest pimps of all colors and nationalities, and bring them one-by-one to his offices in the Woolworth Building. The broads were hardened hookers with colorful names like Sadie the Chink, Jennie the Factory, and Polack Francis. The pimps were low-level street hustlers who kicked up their money to mobsters, who in turn kicked it up the ladder, until some of it finally made its way into the hands of  a “Mr. Ross.” All of the arrestees had one thing in common: they did not want to go to jail. 

Dewey asked the right questions, and sometimes even gave the pimps and the hookers the right answers. As a result, Dewey figured he had enough information on Luciano’s “involvement” in the prostitution rackets to obtain an arrest warrant for Luciano. The charge was that Luciano was the top man in a $10 million-a-year New York City prostitution ring. Luciano, incredulous and quite outraged at the charges, bolted town and took refuse in a spa/hotel in Hot Springs, Ark, run by his old pal: bootlegger Owney Madden.

But Dewey was relentless. It took Dewey four months to locate Luciano and obtain the proper out-of-state arrest warrants. On April 17, 1936, Luciano, after fighting for 10 days to be released from Arkansas prison on a writ of habeas corpus, was shackled and escorted on a train to New York City by three New York city detectives who had been dispatched by Dewey.

The trial itself was a slam dunk for Dewey. He paraded onto the witness stand pimp after pimp, and prostitute after prostitute; all with the same story: “Mr. Ross” a.k.a Lucky Luciano, a man none of them had ever met, was the top man in the prostitution ring.

Luciano, disgusted by all the lies, decided to take the stand himself. This turned out to be a disaster for Luciano. Dewey was erudite and a wonderful public speaker; Luciano was a crass street thug, and his coarse manner stood in stark contrast to Dewey’s “Mr. Cool” demeanor. Luciano, even though he admitted to committing just about every crime known to man, steadfastly refused to admit he ever had anything to do with the vile racket of prostitution.

On June 7, 1936, after a four-week trial, Luciano and eight co-defendants were found guilty of 62  counts each of  “suborning prostitution.” As Dewey gloated, Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison; the longest prison sentence ever rendered for prostitution.

In 1962, just before he died of a heart attack in a Naples airport, Luciano wrote in his autobiography The Last Testament, “After sittin’ in court and listenin’ to myself being plastered to the wall, and tarred and feathered by a bunch of whores who sold themselves for a quarter, and hearin’ that no-good McCook [the judge] hand me what added to a life term, I still get madder at Dewey’s crap than anythin’ else. That little shit with the mustache comes right out in the open and admits he’s got me on everythin’ else but what he charged me with. I knew he knew I didn’t have a fuckin’ thing to do with prostitution, not with none of those broads. But Dewey was such a goddamn racketeer himself, in a legal way, that he crawled up my back with a frame and stabbed me.”

With Luciano in jail for possibly the rest of his life, Dewey set his sights on Louie “Lepke” Buchalter. Dewey initially went after Lepke for his bakery extortion rackets, but Dewey came down harder with the hammer, when he got the Federal Narcotics Bureau to build a case involving Lepke in a massive drug smuggling operation. Figuring he was facing big time in the slammer, Lepke went on the lam. He was concealed in several Brooklyn hideouts by Anastasia, while his rackets were tended to by other members of the syndicate.

Even though Lepke was on the lam, he sent orders to his Murder Inc. operatives, though intermediaries of course, to kill whomever the commission bosses said needed to be killed. But even the contract murders grounded to a halt, when Lepke realized his best killers could be the best witnesses against him in a court of law.

His paranoia increasing by the minute, Lepke ordered several of his top killers to get out of town and go on the lam themselves, or be killed. Blue Jaw Magoon and Buggsy Goldstein, the original members of the Boys from Brownsville, took the advice and went on a cross-country trip that lasted more than nine months. Their journey took them through Canada, Kansas City, California, Mexico, then back east, until they settled in a known mob hideaway in Newburgh, New York, where they were finally captured.

Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg was not one of Lepke’s Murder Inc. operatives, but Greenberg knew enough about Lepke’s rackets, especially those in the Garment Center, to give Lepke a huge headache. Through Mendy Weiss, Lepke sent word to Greenberg to get out of town fast, or suffer the consequences. Greenberg holed up in Canada for a while, but then he got to thinking. Because he was in hiding, Greenberg’s cash flow had stopped completely. He sent a letter to Weiss which said, “I hope you guys aren’t forgetting about me. You better not.” Then he asked Weiss for a reported $5,000 to help him fight the cold weather in Canada.

Lepke gave the order, through Weiss again, for Allie Tannenbaum to travel to Canada to take Big Greenie out. But when Tannenbaum arrived across the border, Greenberg had flown the coop, first to Detroit, then to as far west as he could go without swimming: Los Angeles, Cal.    

Another big mistake for Big Greenie.

National Crime Commission member Bugsy Siegel had put down stakes in L.A., and was lording over the Commission’s West Coast interests. Without much trouble, Siegel located Greenberg, and with the help of Allie Tannenbaum, who had flown in from the East Coast, and Frankie Carbo, another Murder Inc. killer, Siegel orchestrated Big Greenie’s downfall. On October 22, 1939, in front of Greenberg’s rented Hollywood house at 1804 N. Vista De Mar Drive, Carbo put several bullets in Big Greenie’s head, making Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg the first victim of a mob hit in the sunny state of California.

            However, although Louie “Lepke” Buchalter had always insulated himself from the men who actually performed his requested hits, Lepke made one big mistake, and he made it before he went on the lam.

Joe Rosen was a hard-working trucker, who though his own initiative, had started a very successful trucking business that catering to non-union, tailoring-contact customers in the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area. Because his business was so flush, Rosen was taken in as a partner in the New York & New Jersey Trucking Company; a non-union company. The only problem was, Louie Lepke and his sometimes-partner Max Rubin controlled the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s Union, and were incensed that Rubin, a non-union man, was doing  business without the benefit of the union’s protection.  In 1932, Rubin and Lepke approached Rosen and demanded that he stop delivering to non-union tailor shops in Pennsylvania.

“But if I lose the Pennsylvania business, I lose everything,” Rosen told them. “I’ve been in the clothing business all my life and now I’m being pushed out of it.”

However, Lepke, with his Murder Inc. men backing him up, could be every persuasive when necessary. Rosen was forced out of business, and was given a job as a lowly truck driver at Garfield Express, a trucking business that Lepke owned 50 percent interest in with his partner Louis Cooper. Eight months later, Cooper fired Rosen and Rosen was out of work for 18 months. Rosen used borrowed funds to open a small candy store in Brownsville, but Rosen was a loud and unhappy camper.  

Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey was making noise about Lepke’s involvement with the  Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s Union, and Rosen was making noise, saying to anyone who would listen, that maybe he and Dewey should sit down and have a little talk about Lepke’s control of the unions.

Max Rubin told Lepke, “This is bad. Joe (Rosen) is around complaining he’s got a family and he doesn’t have anything to eat. We got a desperate man on our hands.”

At first, Lepke figured he throw Rosen a few bucks, and tell Rosen to get out of town, or else. And that Lepke did, through Rubin, who made a trip to Rosen’s candy store. Rubin told Rosen, “Here’s two hundred dollars. Lepke wants you to go away and cool down. You better do what he says.”

Rubin closed his candy store and hightailed it to Reading, P.A., where his son was working as a coal miner. But after a week, Rosen left Reading, went back to Brooklyn, and re-opened his candy store. He also began running his mouth again about having that little chat with Dewey. This infuriated Lepke, and in Lepke’s midtown office , Lepke voiced his displeasure to Rubin. Lepke thought they were alone in his offices, but Allie Tannenbaum, fresh off a successful murder contract of renegade taxi-business owner Irv Ashkenaz in the Catskills, was in an adjoining room, and the door to Lepke’s office was open.

Tannenbaum heard Lepke say to Rubin, “I’ve seen enough of this crap. That (expletives) Rosen, he’s going around shooting his mouth off about seeing Dewey. He and nobody else is going any place and doing any talking. I’ll take care of him.”

On September 13, 1936, Joe Rosen opened his candy store at approximately 7:30 a.m. Waiting in a car across the street from the candy store were a group of Murder Inc. men led, by Harry “Pittsburg Phil” Strauss. As soon as Rosen was inside the store, Strauss and Happy Maione rushed the store and emptied seventeen bullets into Rosen’s body. Four of the shots were fired by Strauss after Rosen was already dead.

By the late 1930s, and with Lepke still on the lam, one by one Murder Inc. killers were arrested by the police. Most clammed up, but some began singing like a canary to save their own skins. Happy Maione, Dasher Abbandando, and Mendy Weiss refused to admit anything. But Blue Jaw Magoon, and Allie Tannenbaum were only too eager to cut deals in order to avoid the Sing Sing electric chair.

But the key for any conviction was corroboration, and this corroboration was provided by the most unlikely of individuals: Abe “Kid Twist” Reles.

On January 24, 1940, with Lepke still on the lam, Reles was picked up for the murder of a small-time crook named Red Alpert. Reles was smug about the pinch, figuring there was no independent corroboration of his involvement in Alpert’s murder, which had taken place way back in 1933. However, Reles was wrong. Two men had come forward and  implicated Reles in Alpert’s murder: small time thug Harry Rudolph, who had witnessed the killing, and Murder Inc. small-timer Dukey Maffetore. These two men also implicated Happy Maione in the Alpert hit.

Both Maione, who had been nabbed on a vagrancy charge and not yet charged with the Alpert murder, and Reles, were housed in the Tombs prison. Knowing the spit was about to hit the fan, Reles told his former partner Maione, “Don’t worry Hap. Everything’s okay.”

On March 21, after a visit from his lawyer in prison, Reles sat down and wrote a letter to his wife Rose. The letter said: “Dear Rose, Go and see (New York District Attorney) O’Dwyer and tell him I want to talk with him.”

The next day Rose Reles paid a visit to the District Attorney’s office. There she met Brooklyn assistant District Attorney Burton Turkus. Mrs. Reles told Turkus, “I want to talk to O’Dwyer personally. I want to save my husband from the electric chair. My baby is coming in June.”

Turkus nearly broke a leg rushing to tell O’Dwyer about their good fortune. In hours, Abe Reles had signed a “Consent to Be Interviewed” form, and the ball was rolling to put Murder Incorporated out of business for good.

While his world was crumbling around him, Louie “Lepke” Buchalter was still in limbo, moving from place to place in Brooklyn and in Manhattan, still hiding from the law, a $50,000 bounty on his head. Things were so bad for Lepke, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, obviously never having heard of Adolph Hitler, called Lepke “The Most Dangerous Man on Earth.”

New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia added to Lepke’s angst when he ordered his police commissioner, Lewis J. Valentine, to start a “war on hoodlums.”

The National Crime Commission was in trouble because of Lepke, and they knew it. Word was sent to Luciano, who was still in prison, for advice as to how to handle the Lepke situation. Luciano knew the only way for the heat to die down was for Lepke to surrender. But convincing Lepke to do so would take some serious conniving.

“Dimples” Wolensky was a long-time pal of Lepke’s, whom Lepke trusted immensely. The Commission sent Wolensky to meet Lepke in hiding and to convince the fugitive that the fix was in. Wolensky told Lepke that if Lepke surrendered, he would be tried only on the narcotics charge, netting him five years in prison, at most. Wolensky also told Lepke that if Lepke surrendered directly to Hoover, Dewey would then be completely out of the picture.

Lepke was skeptical, and he said he’d think it over. Lepke conferred with his closest pal in Murder Inc.: Albert Anastasia. Anastasia told Lepke the whole plan was goofy. Big Al said, “As long as they can’t get you, they can’t hurt you.”

But the pressure was on from the law, and Lepke knew, quite correctly, that if he didn’t turn himself in, his pals on the National Crime Commission would do him in instead.

On August 5, 1940, gossip columnist and radio host Walter Winchell received a phone call at his nightly headquarters: the Stork Club, at 3 East 53rd Street. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the voice on the phone was that of Albert Anastasia. Anastasia told Winchell, “Don’t ask who I am, but Lepke wants to come in. Contact Hoover, and tell him Lepke wants a guarantee he will be not be harmed if he surrenders to Hoover.”

            The following day, Winchell said on his national syndicated radio show, “Your reporter is reliably informed that Lepke, the fugitive, is on the verge of surrender, possibly this week. If Lepke can find someone he can trust, I am told, he will come in. I am authorized by the G-men that Lepke is assured of safe delivery.”

            On August 24, 1940, Winchell again received a phone call at the Stork Club, telling him to go immediately to a drug store on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, and to sit in a phone booth in the back. Winchell did as he was told, and at 9 p.m., a customer casually strolled up to Winchell and told him to phone Hoover, and to tell Hoover to be at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street at 10:20 p.m. Winchell himself was directed to drive immediately to Madison Avenue and 23rd Street.

Winchell did as he was told, and at 10:15 p.m., Lepke, wearing a mustache and twenty pounds heavier than Winchell had remembered, entered Winchell’s car. Minutes later, the two men exited Winchell’s car, and walked over to a black limousine. Hoover was sitting alone in the back seat. Winchell opened the back door of the limo, and said, “Mr. Hoover, this is Lepke.”

Hoover said to Lepke, “How do you do?”

Lepke said to Hoover, “Glad to meet you. Let’s Go.”

            Almost as soon as Lepke got into the limo, he knew he had been screwed, but there was nothing he could do about it.

            With Abe Reles and Allie Tannenbaum doing most of the squealing in court, and with Blue Jaw Magoon thrown in for good measure, one by one Murder Inc. killers were tried and convicted. Buggsy Goldstein and Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss were indicted for  the murder of small-time hood Puggy Feinstein. At the trial, Magoon, who was Goldstein’s best friend, put the nails in his former co-worker’s coffins.

While Magoon was babbling away in front of the jury, Goldstein jumped to his feet and screamed “For God sake, Seymour, that’s some story you’re telling. You’re burning me.”

            Both Goldstein and Strauss were found guilty, and at sentencing, the judge asked Goldstein if he had any final words to say. Goldstein stood tall and smiled, “Yeah Judge, I’d like to pee up your leg.”

            On the night of June 12, 1941, both Goldstein and Strauss were fried in the Sing Sing electric chair.

            Partners for life, Harry “Happy” Maione and Frank “The Dasher” Abbandando went on trial next for the 1937 murder of gambler George Rudnick. The main witness against them was Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, who himself was in on the Rudnick murder. While Reles was on the stand telling the intimate details of the Rudnick slaying, Maione face turned a deep red at the treachery of his former partner. Several times, Maione jumped to his feet, ready to attack Reles, but the court officers subdued him before any damage could be done.

After being convicted and sentenced to the chair, Maione yelled in court, “I don’t mind going to the chair, but I wish I was holding onto Reles’ leg when they put on the juice.”

After several appeals were denied, on February 19, 1942, both Maione and Abbandando were executed in Sing Sing Prison. But not before they had some measure of satisfaction knowing that Abe Reles would be waiting for them in hell.

While waiting to testify at several trails, including those of Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel, the New York City Police Department had Reles under 24-hour police guard at the Blue Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Also there in custody were songbirds Allie Tannenbaum, Sholem Bernstein and Mikey Syckoff. All four men had separate rooms in the hotel, and all were constantly in the presence of lawmen, even when they slept.

On the evening of November 11, 1941, Rose Reles visited her husband at his sixth-floor room. According to a policeman on duty, Rose and Abe had a heated argument that the policeman characterized as “quite a fight.”

At 6:45  a.m. the following morning, the assistant manager of the hotel, Al Litzberg, heard a loud thud from the direction of an extension roof, which lay four stories below Reles’ window.

            According to the November 13, 1941 edition of  the New York Times,  “Sometime after daylight yesterday, Abe Reles, squat bulgy-jawed informer against the Brooklyn murder ring, climbed out on a window edge of the sixth floor of the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island, fully dressed, but hatless. Strong wind for the gray sea tugged at his long, crisp black hair and tore at his gray suit.”

“Behind him, in his room, lights still burned. Behind him the little radio that had played all night, still blared and babbled. The informer, looking southward, could see the surf break against the jetties. He could hear the dolorous clanging of the buoy as it rocked in the tide. He could see far down the deserted boardwalk. It was shrouded in the morning mist.”

“Reles let the two bed sheets down the hotel’s east wall, two windows north of the Hotels’ Boardwalk front. Around one end of the upper bed sheet he had twisted a four-foot length of radio lead-in wire. He had wound the free end of the wire on a radio valve under the window.”

“He let himself down on the sheets to the fifth floor. One hand desperately clung to the sheet. With the other, Reles tugged at the screen and the window of the vacant fifth-floor room. He worked them up six inches. He tugged again with his full 160-pound weight.”

“The strain was too much for the amateur wire knot on the valve. Little by little, it came undone. Reles tried to save himself. He kicked towards the fifth-floor window ledge with his left foot, but merely brushed the shoe leather from toe to heal. He plunged to the hotel’s concrete kitchen roof, a two-story extension, forty-two feet below. He landed on his back, breaking his spine.”

Of course, this was complete nonsense fed to the newspapers by the crooked police, who actually picked Reles up and flung Reles out of the window (Reles landed 20 feet from the base of the building. If he would have accidentally fallen, he would’ve fallen straight down.). It was a $50,000 bribe paid to the cops by Italian mobster Frank Costello to stop Reles from testifying at any more Murder Inc. trials, which induced the cops to act in such an unprofessional manner.

With Murder Inc. depleted of it most of its top killers, Louie “Lepke” Buchalter, Louis Capone, and Mendy Weiss went on trial in late 1940 for the 1936 murder of Joe Rosen. At this point in time, Abe Reles was still very much alive and singing. Reles testified he knew Lepke ordered the Rosen hit. And so did Allie Tannenbaum, who testified he heard Lepke give the order to Max Rubin to have Joe Rosen killed. But the final nail in Lepke’ coffin was pounded in by Max Rubin himself.

In late 1936, after being told by Lepke, through Weiss, to get out of town, Rubin did just that; disappearing for nine months. But in 1937, Rubin came back to New York City without permission from Lepke to do so. Soon after, Rubin met with Lepke and begged Lepke to let him stay in New York City with his family.

Rubin told Lepke, “Louis, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to see my wife and child. You know how it is, Louis.”

Lepke looked at Rubin with doe-like eyes. “But Max, you came back without permission.”

“Don’t get any ideas,” Rubin told Lepke. “No one knows I’m in town. I didn’t talk to anybody.”

Lepke smiled, “By the way Max, how old are you?”

“I’m forty-eight, Lep,” Rubin said. “Exactly.”

“That’s a ripe old age, isn’t it,” Lepke replied.

In late 1937, Rubin exited the subway in the Bronx and headed up Gun Hill Road. Suddenly, a gunman ran up to Rubin and shot him once in the back of the head. Miraculously, the bullet went completely trough Rubin’s head and exited between his nose and right eye. For 38 days Rubin lay dying in the hospital, thinking every day of Lepke’s last words to him: “Forty-eight is a ripe old age, isn’t it?”

Rubin recovered, but the nerves in his neck had been shattered, and his head was left permanently crooked. He wanted revenge against Lepke, and he wanted it bad.

When Rubin appeared on the witness stand, after Reles and Tannenbaum had already testified Lepke had ordered the murder of Joe Rosen, Lepke knew his days as a free man were over. Rubin testified that it was Lepke who ordered the murder of Joe Rosen, and that Lepke  gave that order to Rubin himself. Rubin relayed the message to Louis Capone, who forwarded it to Mendy Weiss. Weiss then rounded up his top killers, including Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, to do the dirty deed.

At 10:15 Saturday night, November 1941, the jury was sent out to decide the fates of Lepke, Capone, and Weiss. At 2:30 am, the judge was told the jury was ready with its verdicts. After the jurors were seated, and the defendants returned to the courtroom, Charles E. Steven, the foreman of the jury rose and said, “We find the defendants, and each of them, guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged.”

The penalty, by law, was death.

On Monday morning, Justice Taylor stood at the bench and cast a steely gaze that bore right through Lepke’s forehead. Judge Taylor said, “Louis Buchalter, alias Lepke, for the murder of Joseph Rosen, whereof he is convicted, is hereby sentenced to the punishment of death.” Judge Taylor also gave the same pronouncement to both Louis Capone and Mendy Weiss.

For the next four years, Lepke used every trick in the book to delay his execution. When all appeals failed, two days before he was schedule to die, Lepke asked for a meeting with Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan. Lepke claimed he had information that would:

  1. Implicate a prominent labor leader on a murder charge
  2. A noted public official on a conspiracy charge.
  3. And information that a close relative of a very high public officeholder was a “front man” for at least two of the ganglords who are credited with controlling crime in the United States.

“If I would talk,” Lepke said, “a lot of big names would get hurt. When I say big, I mean big. These names would surprise you.”

Hogan met with Lepke, and after they spoke, Hogan immediately contacted the Governor of New York State: Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey gave the three men on death row a stay of execution of two more days, so that Dewey could contemplate the significance what Lepke had told Hogan. At this point, Dewy was a candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

Burton Turkus said in his book Murder Incorporated, “Obviously, then, Lepke’s information must have had, at least in his own convictions, a powerful and significant relationship to Dewey’s aspirations. The facts and the deductions all pointed unerringly in one direction: Lepke had an offer of information on politics which he felt was so national a sensation that, if publically disclosed during a close presidential campaign, could put Dewey in the White House!”

The New York Mirror wrote the day after Dewey was told of Lepke’s revelations, “It is said Lepke offered material to Governor Dewey that would have made him an unbeatable presidential candidate.”

Governor Dewey, however, could not be swayed, and he rejected Lepke’s offer.

That same day, Lepke received a letter from his old pal Gurrah Shapiro, which said, “I told you we should have taken Dewey out when we had the chance.”

On March 4, 1944, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter,  as befitting the boss, took the long walk down the last mile first, followed in minutes by Louis Capone and Mendy Weiss. All three were jolted in the Sing Sing electric chair a few minutes after midnight, effectively ending Murder Incorporated’s reign of terror in the United States of America.

 Other murders would be committed by organized crime figures in the future, but never again would a group of killers be united into one mighty organization (and on a steady weekly salary, no less) for the sole purpose of killing whomever their bosses said needed to be killed.

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

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