Murder, Inc: the rise and fall of New York City's mafia hitmen
Nige Tassell explores the emergence of Murder, Inc – the mob of hard-as-nails hitmen tasked with bringing down the New York City mafia’s most wanted – and how this organisation of contract killers eventually brought down
George ‘Whitey’ Rudnick was a handsome man, all olive skin and Brylcreemed matinée-idol hair. Or at least he was up until one day in May 1937, when his blood-soaked body was discovered slumped across the rear seat of a stolen automobile in Brooklyn. The loan shark had met a grisly end, stabbed no fewer than 63 times with an ice pick. Just to make certain of his demise, his assailants had applied a meat cleaver to his skull.
Rudnick’s savage murder was far from an anomaly. He was merely the latest victim of Murder, Inc, a brutal crew of hitmen-for-hire responsible for hundreds of killings across New York City and beyond during the 1930s. With organised crime tightening its hold on the city during the Prohibition years, these killers were commissioned by mob bosses to wipe out anyone who could undermine their empires, be they double-crosser, police informant or rival mobster stepping on their territory.
Murder, Inc had its roots in the Brownsville neighbourhood of Brooklyn, an area known at the time as ‘the Jerusalem of America’ due to its 300,000 Jewish residents. Its streets were run by the Shapiro brothers, led by Meyer Shapiro, the self-styled ‘boss of Brownsville’. A short, stocky young man called Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles had other ideas, though.
Although a go-fer for the Shapiros (he was once shot in the back while standing guard over one of the Shapiros’ slot machines), Reles soon grew tired of doing the dirty work while the brothers feathered their nests. “Why do we have to take the leftovers?” he once moaned.
Together with his partner Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein, Reles formed an alliance with Italian gangsters Harry ‘Happy’ Maione and Frank ‘Dasher’ Abbandando, who ran loan-sharking and gambling activities in the adjacent neighbourhood of Ocean Hill. Their aim was to take out the Shapiros and have Brownsville all for themselves.
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Meyer Shapiro survived a full 20 assassination attempts before Reles’s crew targeted his brother, Irving. Acting on a tip-off, they abducted him from a Manhattan speakeasy before executing him in a Lower East Side basement; Reles himself fired the fatal bullet. The Shapiros’ empire quickly crumbled – the Brownsville Boys were the new bosses.
By taking their corner of Brooklyn, Reles and his associates greatly improved their reputation within the National Crime Syndicate, another Jewish-Italian pact that included the likes of legendary crime bosses ‘Lucky’ Luciano and ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Luciano was effectively the head of the syndicate, a figure powerful enough in the New York underworld to convince the bosses of rival mobs that cooperation was mutually beneficial when it came to protecting their interests. Until then, it had been all-out civil war in the city’s criminal community, with its hierarchy decided by the Darwinian principles of ‘survival of the fittest’ – or, rather, survival of the most heavily armed.
The syndicate was guided by a board of ‘directors’ that included eight senior underworld figures, including Luciano and Jewish boss Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, a fearsome racketeer in the clothing industry. One significant figure who hadn’t been recruited to the board was Dutch Schultz. There was a common belief among the upper echelons of the criminal fraternity that the bootlegger was something of a loose cannon, his personality at odds with the prevailing mood of cooperation. His omission would later prove significant.
How much organised crime was there in New York?During the decade that Murder, Inc operated, organised crime in New York City was rife across all its boroughs. Territory was shared between the Italian-American Mafia and Jewish mobs, all aiming to fulfil the American dream of prosperity, albeit through foul means.
An uneasy peace was largely observed between the various gangs, helped by the founding of the multi-ethnic National Crime Syndicate, which advocated cooperation and the pursuit of common aims. Evading the attention and clutches of federal investigators was certainly a mutual goal.
The mobs’ activities included racketeering, robbery, extortion, loan sharking, gambling, prostitution and – bearing in mind this was the very lucrative Prohibition era – bootlegging and speakeasy ownership.
These interests were protected in part through the establishment of another joint Italian-Jewish endeavour – the no-nonsense, hitmen-for-hire outfit known as Murder, Inc.
To defend the syndicate’s principles and objectives, a crew of enforcers was required, whose brief would range from intimidating debtors to exacting the most brutal executions imaginable. In the sensationalist newspaper vernacular of the times, these were almost exclusively referred to as ‘slayings’. Buchalter recommended the Brooklyn Boys for the job. Not only were they brutal and unforgiving, they were also young and hungry. And they were ready to roll.
The process was simple. Disaffected gangsters would stand before the syndicate’s board and present their case against rival mobsters. The board would pass judgement and determine the sentence. The Brooklyn Boys – later referred to by the press as Murder, Inc – would then be commissioned to mete out the punishment.
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Buchalter was the board member who would issue the contract on someone’s head. His preferred outlet was Albert Anastasia, a dead-eyed assassin rejoicing in the fear-inducing nickname of The Lord High Executioner. Issued with a contract, Anastasia would either commission Reles or Maione to carry out the killing.
The enforcement arm operated out of a Brooklyn candy store. Even Murder, Inc’s female supporting cast had their own vivid nicknames; the store’s proprietor was Rosie Gold, otherwise known as ‘Midnight Rose’ on account of her establishment being open 24 hours a day. Those hours were perfect for an on-call, round-the-clock hitman outfit. The phone at the store would ring and, once the most suitable personnel were selected, off they would head into the dark Brooklyn night to ‘solve’ the problem.
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Hits, though, weren’t necessarily quick, instant affairs. The crew were meticulous in their planning and would take as long as was necessary, being as professional in their tasks as the most prepared, soberest lawyer or accountant. They needed to be efficient, dispassionate and cold-hearted. Variables had to be kept to a minimum. No hotheads need apply.
As well as receiving a retainer fee, these killers were paid for each and every hit they successfully carried out, anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000. Good money could be made by a morally ambivalent hitman-for-hire. Murder, Inc also received commissions from further afield, from crime bosses in other US cities. Farming these jobs out to freelance hitmen left local mobsters and their men protected by watertight alibis. And, by the time a body was discovered, the killer would be halfway back to New York City on the train.
While the different boroughs of New York City were subject to strong mob influence, easily bought law-enforcers and politicians were also enlisted to help protect the gangsters’ interests. But not all public officials could be bought. Later to become a two-time Republican presidential candidate, Michigan-born Thomas Dewey made his reputation as a special prosecutor charged with destroying organised crime’s hold on the city. Heading up a large team of investigators, the bookish Dewey fearlessly had the mob’s bosses in his legal crosshairs.
Dutch Schultz, the mobster who hadn’t made the board of the syndicate, much to his disdain, was one of the first to be targeted by Dewey. His first conviction for tax evasion didn’t stick though, and, at the retrial (held out of town following Schultz’s complaint that he wouldn’t get a fair hearing), he used his charm on the jury to earn a ‘not guilty’ verdict.
The ever-irrational Schultz, however, refused to let the heat on him lose its temperature. It would prove to be an unwise decision. Applying the values and practices of the underworld to his dealings with the legal process, he vowed to have Dewey assassinated as punishment for targeting him.
Such a pronouncement didn’t sit well with the syndicate. Rather than risk societal outrage at the execution of a high-ranking public servant – and the heavy repression on the activities of organised crime that such an act would surely provoke – the syndicate did indeed order a hit. The problem was that it was Schultz himself who would be the victim. His demise (and that of three of his men) came in a hail of bullets in the bathroom of a New Jersey restaurant in October 1935.
With Schultz out of the frame, Buchalter was now in Dewey’s sights. The mobster chose to get his revenge in first, embarking on a programme of eliminating anyone who could endanger his empire by squealing to Dewey. It was this campaign that did for ‘Whitey’ Rudnick, who had allegedly been seen in the company of a federal investigator. Joseph Rosen was another such victim, a trucking entrepreneur forced into bankruptcy by Buchalter, but who was believed to be out for revenge. Accordingly, he was gunned down by Emanuel ‘Mendy’ Weiss and Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss. It was but one murder chalked up by Strauss, Murder, Inc’s most prolific hitman with a three-figure number of kills to his name.
By June 1940, Brooklyn’s law-enforcers had around 200 unsolved murders on their books. It was, however, not a figure that daunted a new wave of gangbusters, led by the incoming New York district attorney, William O’Dwyer, and his assistant, Burton Turkus. Turkus was a man possessed, resolute on stymying the slaughters in Brooklyn and beyond. He received a tip-off about the involvement of ‘Kid Twist’ Reles and ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein in one of those many unsolved homicides, and pursued his prey like the hungriest wolf. Many lower-level mobsters were rounded up and incarcerated, hoodwinked into believing that they had been ratted out by their bosses.
As a result, more than a few started to sing, with details of slayings – who, how and why – revealed to a grateful prosecution team. But it would still take an extraordinary U-turn by one of the main protagonists to really unlock these unsolved cases. That came in 1940, when Reles suddenly swapped sides and became an informant, offering up a wealth of information to prosecutors about Brooklyn’s high body count in return for a suspended sentence for all his high crimes and misdemeanours.
As well as realising that he’d receive the death penalty if the investigators successfully prosecuted him, Reles was also motivated by a fear that the mob would get to him in the fullness of time. The protection offered by the authorities was undeniably preferable to being the victim of a hit himself.
The reliability of Reles’s testimony was confirmed by the depth of detail he imparted. He literally knew where the bodies were buried. And as he coughed up the minutiae of brutal murder after brutal murder, Reles didn’t hold back on the names of those responsible. The likes of his former colleagues Strauss, Maione and Abbandando were now very much on the prosecutors’ radar.
The latter two were the first to stand trial for murder – that of ‘Whitey’ Rudnick three years previously. As star witness, Reles revelled in recalling every last gruesome detail of the victim’s demise, right down to the difficulty they had in squeezing the man’s corpse into the car’s back seat. In the witness stand, facing the stares and angry cat-calls of his former associates, Reles didn’t stop singing. “Reles’s song was a full-length opera,” Turkus later wrote. “He was an excellent raconteur, if you like your killings right from the feed bag.”
Maione and Abbandando were found guilty and sentenced to death. After a successful appeal but then an unsuccessful retrial, the pair met their demise via the electric chair. In a separate trial, Strauss and Goldstein met the same fate, albeit it not before Strauss feigned insanity. The jury didn’t buy it.
Twist in the tale
While Reles’s testimony had condemned these men, he wasn’t an unending source of revelation. As he prepared to again lift the lid even further on the Brooklyn murders, this time at the trial of Albert Anastasia, ‘Kid Twist’ was found dead, having fallen from the window of the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island.
Despite a heavy police presence protecting Room 623 – and official verdicts suggesting either an accident or suicide – it appeared that gangland had got to him. In later years, ‘Lucky’ Luciano confirmed that the police guard had been paid off by the mob to allow them to dispose of the star witness. The event prompted one newspaper to describe the deceased as “the canary who could sing but couldn’t fly”.
Burton Turkus might have sent four of the actual gunmen to the electric chair, but he still wanted the big prize further up the chain – Buchalter. Reles had met his maker, but other close witnesses convincingly linked Buchalter to the murder of Joseph Rosen. To Turkus’s great pleasure, the kingpin was finally ensnared and, along with Louis Capone and ‘Mendy’ Weiss, also went to the chair. He became the only mob boss to be sent to his death. The lieutenants were usually the ones offered up, while their superiors cocooned themselves from direct involvement.
Thanks to the energy of the prosecutors, and the willingness of certain key witnesses to turn the tables on their former comrades, Murder, Inc dissolved and disappeared. Perhaps it was inevitable that this Italian-Jewish collaboration would ultimately implode. Abe Reles seems to have foreseen such an outcome and it was he, the original Brownsville Boy, who showed the keenest survivalist tendencies in the last years of his life: “I am not a stool pigeon. Every one of those guys wanted to talk. Only I beat them to the bandwagon.”
Hitmen for hire: who were the key members of Murder, Inc?
Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles
The leading light of the Brownsville Boys, who would form the nucleus of the death squad known as Murder, Inc. He would also become the leading light in the prosecution of several of his former colleagues.
Harry ‘Happy’ Maione
An Italian-American hoodlum from the Ocean Hill neighbourhood of Brooklyn, who joined forces with Jewish boys Abe Reles and Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein. ‘Happy’ was an ironic nickname for the ever-sullen Maione.
Frank ‘Dasher’ Abbandando
Loyal lieutenant to ‘Happy’ Maione on the streets of Ocean Hill and a man linked to at least 30 murders in and around Brooklyn during the 1930s. His favoured weapon was the ice pick.
Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter
A major labour racketeer, Buchalter directed the Murder, Inc crew, turning them into a ruthless killing machine. Ultimately, he would go into the history books as the only major mob leader to receive the death penalty.
Not only was Anastasia co-head of Murder, Inc alongside Buchalter, but he was also a significant member of the American Cosa Nostra. He also lived longer than his contract-killer colleagues, successfully evading the guilty verdicts and death sentences handed to his cohort.
Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss
Arguably the most brutal of the Murder, Inc killers – and certainly the most prolific. Estimates put the number of victims who died at his hand at approaching 500.
In the crosshairs: who were Murder, Inc's most famous victims?
George ‘Whitey’ Rudnick
While the slaying of this loan shark, suspected to be a government informant, was particularly brutal, Rudnick was far from the most significant Murder, Inc victim. However, it was his case that saw the first members of the crew sentenced to death.
The owner of a trucking firm put out of business by ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, Rosen was subsequently murdered on Buchalter’s orders as a precaution against him talking to chief prosecutor Dewey. It was this murder, above all others, that ultimately put Lepke on Death Row.
Unsuccessfully pursued by Dewey, the firebrand Schultz vowed to have the prosecutor bumped off, a pronouncement that found him bumped off himself by disapproving individuals higher up the criminal hierarchy. (His real name was the less streetwise-sounding Arthur Simon Flegenheimer.)
Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history
This content first appeared in the December 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed