He was a mean-spirited runt; a little man with a large mustache that seemed to dominate his snarling face. But liberal Republican Thomas E. Dewey, a man who made his bones as a Special Prosecutor in New York City and who would stop at nothing to further his skyrocketing career, was just an eyelash away from becoming the President of the United States.
Dewey was born on March 24, 1902 in the little town of Owosso, Michigan. Dewey’s father was the editor and publisher of the local newspaper — the Owosso Times. Dewey senior’s mission in life was to right the wrongs of the political world, especially the tyranny of Tammany Hall, a corrupt Democratic political machine, based in New York City, but with tentacles all around America. Dewey Jr. admired his father’s zeal, and it was this that later motivated Dewey to go after organized crime figures in New York City, with a vengeance that not always adhered to the letter of the law.
But first Dewey wanted to sing.
Dewey was a talented operatic baritone, and while he was attending the University of Michigan he joined the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a national fraternity for men of music. Dewey was also a member of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dewey wrote for The Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper. However, Dewey was better at singing than he was at writing, so much so, in 1923, Dewey finished third in the National Singing Contest. However, Dewey soon developed throat problems, and although he briefly considered a career in music, he changed his mind and opted to be a lawyer instead.
With his father’s money, Dewey traveled to New York City and enrolled at the Columbia Law School. One of his classmates was the radical socialist/communist Paul Robeson, who became a singer and actor of some note, in between moving to and from the country he really loved – Russia. However, Dewey was no idealist like Robeson. After he graduated law school in just two years, Dewey decided to hang up his own shingle and go into private practice, which he did from 1925-31. In 1928, Dewey married actress Frances Hutt. After their marriage, Dewey’s wife quit acting, and they eventually raised two sons: Thomas E. Dewey, Jr., and John Martin Dewey.
In 1931, Dewey was named chief assistant to George Medalie, and was given the official title of Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. This was the springboard Dewey needed to further a political carer that knew no boundaries, and counted heavily on legal improprieties.
In 1933, Dewey first major case was the prosecution of former pickpocket Irving Wexler, better known as Waxey Gordon. Gordon was a protégé of Arnold Rothstein, considered “The Godfather” of the modern gangster. In 1928, after Rothstein was killed over a large gambling debt, Gordon took over all of Rothstein’s operations — in the bootlegging, and in the gambling business. Gordon’s partners in crime included such illustrious gangsters like Lucky Luciano, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Gurrah Shapiro, and Meyer Lansky. Even after cutting in his partners, Gordon was said to have made over $2 million a year in profits.
However, Gordon and Lansky hated each other, and after Dewey unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Gordon for his crimes, Lansky, with the blessing of Luciano and Buchalter, funneled information, including documentation to Dewey that showed that maybe Gordon was not paying his fair share of this income taxes. Using the same tactic the government had used against Al Capone, Dewey, now in the possession of books that said Gordon had hidden $5 million in taxable income over a ten-year period, lowered the hammer on Gordon. He cross-examined Gordon with such cruelty, spit was proverbially flying from Dewey’s mouth and down his copious mustache. Gordon, basically an oaf with the mentally and vocabulary of a ten-year-old, was no match for Dewey on the witness stand. After the most one-side trial that could possibly occur, Gordon was slapped with a ten-year prison sentence.
Dewey next set his sights on Dutch Schultz.
By the time Dewey was ready to prosecute Schultz, it was alleged that District Attorney William C. Dodge was not aggressively going after the mob and crooked politicians, and there were plenty of both in New York City. In 1935, Dewey got a bump up in rank, when Governor Herbert H. Lehman, bypassing Dodge, appointed Dewey as Special Prosecutor in New York County (Manhattan). With the backing of Governor Lehman, Dewey assembled a crack staff of more than 60 assistants, investigators, process servers, stenographers, and clerks. New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia chipped in with 63 of his best police officers to the cause, and Dewey was on top of the prosecutorial world.
Dutch Schultz, born Arthur Flegenheimer on August 6, 1902, was the most visible mobster in New York City, but he was only one of the nine-member National Crime Commission, that included Italians gangsters Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, as well as fellow Jewish members Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. During Prohibition, Schultz made millions in the sale of illegal beer, and was nicknamed “The Beer Baron of the Bronx.” In the early 1920’s, Schultz bulldozed his way into the Harlem numbers rackets, pushing aside notable black number kings Madame Stephanie St. Clair, Bumpy Johnson, and Casper Holstein. Noted crime author and former cop Ralph Salerno once said, “Schultz asked the black numbers to a meeting in his office. When they came in, Schultz put his forty-five on the desk and said, “I’m your partner.’”
Holstein backed off quietly, but St. Clair, and her muscle Johnson, decided to fight back against Schultz. Johnson went as far as to visit Lucky Luciano downtown in Little Italy to plead his case. Luciano admired the spunk of Johnson, but he told Johnson that Schultz was his partner in other endeavors, and that he had to back his partner. Luciano advised Johnson to tell St. Clair it was in their best interest to work under Schultz in the Harlem numbers game. St. Clair refused at first, but after the word was put out on the Harlem streets that St. Clair was to be shot on sight, she agreed to Luciano’s proposition.
Schultz also made a ton of cash taking bets on illegal sporting events. Schultz owned the Coney Island racetrack in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the daily Harlem number were used from the last three digits of the total mutual handle for the day. Schultz was able to manipulate those daily numbers by having his numbers wiz Otto “Abbadabba” Berman determine which three-digit numbers were bet heavily that day, then call the track before the last race to change the last three digits to numbers which were bet lightly, or maybe not at all. Schultz also had a vast array of illegal slot machines placed all over New York City, that pumped out cash like water gushing down Niagara Falls.
As much money as he had accumulated, Schultz dressed like a broken-down valise. Luciano once said of Schultz, “He has all the money in the world, but he dresses like a bum.”
Schultz claimed he never spent more than two dollars for a shirt in his life. “Only queers wear silk shits,” Schultz said.
The Feds had their first shot at Schultz, when they indicted him on income tax evasion. But the wily Schultz went into the wind for several months, and when he did turn himself in, his lawyer was somehow able to move the venue to the sleepy upstate town of Malone, New York. Schultz went to Malone months before the trial and gave out money to local worthy causes like he was the Salvation Army. Schultz, a non-practicing Jew, even converted to Catholicism in order to garner the support of the Malone locals, who were overwhelmingly Catholic. The trial was a slam dunk for Schultz, and he walked out of the Malone courtroom with a loopy smile on his face, a free man.
However, a prosecution ordered by the mighty Dewey was a different proposition for Schultz. When Schultz got word that Dewey had Schultz right in his cross hairs, Schultz called for an emergency meeting of the nine-man National Crime Commission. At this meeting Schultz said, “Dewey will not stop until all of us Commission members are in jail.” Schultz then slammed his hand on the table for emphasis, “We have to take Dewey out!”
The other commission members were skeptical of Schultz’s demands. But they decided to table Schultz’s request to see how easy it might be to gun Dewey down. They gave the chore to Albert Anastasia, a ruthless killer, and one of the bosses of Murder Incorporated. Anastasia was known on the streets as the “Lord High Executioner.” In order to clock Dewey’s movements, Anastasia borrowed a baby from a friend for several days. Anastasia pushed the baby in a carriage around 214 Fifth Avenue, the posh apartment building where Dewey lived. As Anastasia strolled the streets pushing the baby carriage, he was able to ascertain Dewey’s exact daily movements.
Dewey exited the apartment building at 8 a.m. sharp every weekday morning. Surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, Dewey would walk a few blocks to a neighborhood drug store for his morning cup of coffee, and to make a phone call from a pay phone in back. While Dewey was alone in the back of the drug store, his men stood guard like mastiffs out front. Anastasia figured he could be waiting at the counter when Dewey entered, and kill him before he could reach the pay phone in back. Other Murder Incorporated killers would take care of Dewey’s bodyguards in front of the drug store.
The following week, after Schultz was asked to leave the room, Anastasia presented his plan to the rest of the Commission. Even though the deed could possibly be done, it was decided that if they did kill Dewey, all hell would break loose on their rackets. The only one, besides Schultz, who voted for the hit was Gurrah Shapiro.
Manhattan D.A. Frank Hogan later said, “I suppose they figured the National Guard would have been called out if Dewey was killed. And I guess they wouldn’t have been far wrong.”
When Schultz was called back into the room and told the bad news he exploded in rage. “Dewey’s got to go! I’m hitting him myself in 48 hours.”
This did not please the rest of the Commission members too much. They immediately decided that Schultz was the one who had to go.
Luciano and Lansky figured that since Schultz was Jewish, Jewish gangster were the proper choice in ending the life of a mob boss. Lansky decided to use two of Murder Incorporated’s best men: Charlie “The Bug” Workman, and Mendy Weiss. The place for the hit was set to be Schultz’s hangout — The Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey. A nobody named Piggy, who was familiar with the Newark streets, was selected to be the getaway driver.
On October 23, 1935, at approximately 10:15 pm, Piggy parked a dark sedan outside The Palace Chop House. Workman and Weiss exited the car, guns drawn. They entered the restaurant and found the front room empty, but there was lively chatter coming from the back room. When the killers entered the back room, they spotted Schultz’s top men — Lulu Rosenkrantz, Abe Landau, and Abbadabba Berman finishing the remains of their last supper. With blazing guns in both hands, Workman and Weiss opened fire. Landau and Rosenkrantz returned fire after they were hit, but were turned into swiss cheese and rendered quite dead.
“It was like a Wild West show,” Workman said later.
However, Dutch Schultz was nowhere to be found.
Workman emptied his .38, dropped it to the floor, then rushed with his .45 into the bathroom, where he found Schultz in a stall. Workman fired the .45 twice. Schultz ducked the first slug, but the second slug found its mark just below his chest. The bullet blasted through Schultz’s stomach, large intestine, gall bladder, and liver, before falling on the floor next to him. Schultz was rushed to the hospital, and was in the state of delirium, taking utter nonsense, until he passed away the following evening.
Before Schultz died, a telegram was delivered to his death bed. It read, “As ye reap, also shall ye sow.” It was signed “Madame St. Clair.”
With Schultz out of the way, and Dewey still very much alive, Dewey turned his sights on the second most visible mobster in New York City: Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Luciano was a high-ranking member on the National Crime Commission, and he metaphorically spat in Dewey’s face by showing up almost every night in swank nightclubs all around town with a knockout broad on his arm. The problem was, Luciano, along with his close friend Meyer Lansky (who was a quiet homebody and didn’t irk Dewey as much as Luciano did), were almost untouchable, because of the several layers of insulation they had placed between themselves and the crimes committed on the streets by their underlings. Plus, both Luciano and Lansky had several legitimate business interests, with savvy accountants, who made sure the proper amounts of taxes were paid to the government.
So what was Dewey to do?
Simple — he would frame Luciano for one of the few crimes Luciano wasn’t committing.
At the time, Luciano lived in a swank apartment (room 39D) at the Waldorf-Astoria under the name of Mr. Ross. Dewey was cutting a wide swath through New York City; first going after the gambling rackets, then setting his sights on prostitution. On January 31, 1936, Dewey order his men 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 Lulu Rosenkrantz, Abe Landau, and Abbadabba Berman 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.
So even though Luciano detested prostitution and never had his fingers in its dirty pie, it was inevitable that some of the dough kicked up to him by his captains had sometimes originated in sex dens.
In mid 1936, spurred on by testimony of hooker and pimps who had never even met Luciano, Dewey ordered a warrant for Luciano’s arrest on the charge of running a huge prostitution ring. Luciano, outraged at being charged with something he had nothing to do with, dodged the warrant by traveling down to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to a resort run by his old pal Lulu Rosenkrantz, Abe Landau, and Abbadabba Berman . After making untold millions in the rum running and gambling enterprises, Madden had retired from the rackets, and re-invented himself as a successful businessman and hotelier.
If it had been a gambling pinch, Luciano would have lawyered up with the best attorneys in town, turned himself in, and would have stood a decent chance of beating the rap. But prostitution was uncharted territory for Luciano. His pal Lanky would later say, “Charlie had the same revulsion about running brothels that I did. He believed no respectable man ever made money from a woman in that horrible way.”
It took four months for Dewey to locate Luciano, and when he did, he sent twenty Arkansas Rangers to Madden’s resort, where they cuffed Luciano and threw him on a train back to New York City.
It was a three-week trial, and Luciano never stood a chance. Dewey paraded hooker after hooker, and pimp after pimp onto the witness stand. The hookers told of the degradation they had suffered toiling in the field of their choice. And the pimps testified that the money the hookers handed over to them eventually made it into the hands of Mr. Ross – Lucky Luciano. When Luciano took the stand, his course manner stood in stark contrast to the intelligent and erudite Dewey, who had been training for this moment all his life. When the verdict came in, Luciano was found guilty of 558 counts, and sentenced to 30-50 years in prison; the longest prison sentence ever rendered for prostitution.
There was immediate rage in the ranks of organized crime throughout America. All the top gangsters knew for certain Luciano never had a thing to do with prostitution. Dewey had broken the rules, and he showed no shame in doing so. In 1941, the imprisoned Gurrah Shapiro sent a note to his pal Louie Lepke who was awaiting the electric chair, “I told you we should have killed Dewey when we had the chance.”
In Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews,” Cohen said crime writer and former cop Ralph Salerno had once told him on this subject, “The gangsters said to us: Don’t frame me. Don’t drop a little envelope in my pocket, then run up and say ‘I caught you with narcotics.’ That’s a frame up. That’s a no-no. That’s what I demand of you, Ralph. But what I give you in return is, if you ever catch me right, I go to jail and do my time. And they don’t drag me out of the courtroom saying, ‘You son of a bitch, you and your family are dead.’ None of that crap. I’m a professional. And if you be a professional too, and catch me right, then it’s not personal.”
Luciano did a little over 10 years in the slammer. But after World War II, he was freed from jail, and as part of his deal with the government for having his men protect the waterfront from enemy sabotage, Luciano was deported to Italy. One of the men who signed off on this deal was New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. It was also alleged that Luciano’s pals had contributed $600,000 to Dewey’s campaign coffers, when Dewey was running for President of the United States.
In 1962, before he died of a heart attack at the Naples International Airport, Luciano wrote in his autobiography The Last Testament, which he planned to make into a movie, “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 the Luciano trophy on his prosecutorial mantle, Dewey set his sights on one of Luciano’s fellow National Crime commission members: Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. But Buchalter, still seething over the way Dewey railroaded Luciano, went on the lam for four years to avoid prosecution. When Lepke finally turned himself in 1939, Dewey already had bigger fish to fry: he decided he wanted to be governor of the state of New York.
In 1938, Edwin Jaeckle, the New York Republican Party Chairman, selected Dewey, only 36 years old, to run for governor against the extremely popular incumbent governor Herbert H. Lehman. The liberal Republican Dewey ran his entire campaign on his record as “racket-buster,” especially the successful prosecution (frame-up) of Lucky Luciano. However, Lehman, on the coattails of his association with the popular President of the United States – Franklin D. Roosevelt – won a close election, beating Dewey by a mere 1.4% of the vote. But Dewey’s good showing against Lehman propelled him into one of the leaders of the Republican party.
In 1940, Dewey tried to get the Republican nomination for President to run against FDR. Although he was considered an early favorite, most Republican bigwigs thought Dewey, then 38, was too young and inexperienced to go against a titan like FDR. With the threat of World War II imminent, the Republicans wanted a leader more experienced than Dewey to lead our nation in wartime. They instead selected Wendell Willkie to run for president. Willkie lost by a landslide to FDR, who won his third term as President.
In 1942, Dewey ran for governor of New York again, and this time he won bigtime, over Democrat John J. Bennett. Dewey would run for governor twice more, in 1946 and 1950, and would be successful both times. But Dewey’s goal was the presidency, and when Dewey sunk his teeth into something, he never let go.
In 1944, Dewey again sought the Republican nomination for president. At the 1944 Republican Convention, Dewey’s two main rivals were Ohio governor John Bricker and former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen. After some back-room dealing, both men withdrew from the nomination, and Dewey was selected unanimously as the Republican candidate. Dewey immediately named Bricker as his running mate.
Using his usual tactics, during his campaign against Roosevelt, Dewey, without any proof, insisted there was corruption and communist influences in Roosevelt’s New Deal Policies. Then Dewey was ready to throw a bombshell that would devastate America: he was ready to claim that Roosevelt had known in advance about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was only through the intervention of Army General George C. Marshall that Dewey decided against using this dirty and unprovable tactic. Roosevelt won the election handily by a 54% to 46% margin. But Dewey’s showing was better than any other Republican had done running against FDR for President.
Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, a mere 82 days into his fourth term as president. This made Roosevelt’s vice-president Harry Truman the new President of the United States. However Truman, a conservative-leaning Democrat, was a polarizing figure as president, even in his own party. In early 1948, Truman’s approval rating as president was a paltry 36%. As a result, as the 1948 Presidential Elections loomed, at the 1948 Democratic Convention, the Democrats, totally divided, nominated three Democrats to run for President: Truman, Henry A. Wallace, and Strom Thurmond. Dewey easily garnered the Republican nomination, and the feeling was that because of the split in the Democrats, Dewey only had to play it safe to win the election.
The 1948 Presidential Election ran long into the night and through the early morning hours of the next day. The liberal press was so confident of Dewey’s win, on the morning of November 3, 1948, the Chicago Tribune ran the front page headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman!”
However, the man who railroaded Lucky Luciano into a long jail term could not convince the American public he was the man to be the President of the United States. Even with the Democratic nomination split three ways, and the liberal press in the tank for Dewey, Truman beat Dewey fairly easy. Truman garnered 303 electoral votes, the liberal Republican Dewey — 189, Thurmond — 39, and Henry Wallace got no electoral votes at all.
Dewey declined to run for president in 1952, but he was instrumental in getting moderate General Dwight D. Eisenhower the Presidential nomination over Dewey’s conservative foe Robert Taft. Eisenhower won two terms, but in 1964, when Taft’s protégé Barry Goldwater was nominated for president, Dewey, stewing in his own juices, declined to even attend the GOP Convention in San Francisco. It was the first Republican Convention Dewey had missed since 1936.
When Dewey’s third term as governor expired in 1955, Dewey decided he had gone as far as he could in the political arena, and would make his fortune in private law practice with his law firm Dewey Ballantine. And that Dewey did, making himself a millionaire many times over by 1960.
Dewey’s wife Frances died of cancer in 1970, and within months Dewey was dating sultry actress Kitty Carlisle. There were rumors of an imminent engagement, but before there was any formal announcement, Thomas E. Dewey died of a sudden heart attack on March 16, 1971, eight days before his 69th birthday.
Somewhere Lucky Luciano must have been smiling. Lucky might have even met his old foe face-to-face; most likely in a hot joint with no air conditioning.