Murder is nothing new. Most murderers are amateurs while some, such as hitmen, are professionals. What you very seldom find is a group of hitmen, a dedicated gang of killers selling murder-for-hire as the enforcement arm of a national crime syndicate. ‘Murder Incorporated’ was exactly that. Within the underworld there was nothing like them prior to their appearance and there’s been nothing like them since their demise. They were an integral part of the restructuring of American organised crime and one of the most notorious criminal groups that ever existed.
The National Syndicate (as distinct from the American Mafia whose senior leaders formed only part of it) was a multi-ethnic group of top-level gangsters composed mainly, but not entirely, if Italian, Irish and Jewish crimelords. After the Castellamarese War lasting through 1930 and 1931, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano restructured the American Mafia. With that done, he turned his attention to restructuring American gangland in general. At a summit meeting in 1934 the crimelords, under Luciano’s influence, agreed territories, boundaries, rackets and what would be done to resolve disputes.
That didn’t mean an end to gang violence, there’ll always be gangland violence. What it did mean was that American gangsters would run crime as a business along corporate lines. Violence would now become a business practice, not a natural outcome of hot-headed gunmen settling grudges by force instead of through arbitration. A national Syndicate run by a ‘Commission’ similar to a corporation’s board of directors would now rule the American underworld from coast to coast. The Commission would set down rules and arbitrate disputes. Defying their rulings meant a visit from their enforcers, Murder Incorporated.
Murder Inc. was formed from the merging of two gangs. The Italian ‘Ocean Hill Mob’ led by Harry ‘Happy’ Maione (so-called because of his perpetual scowl and deeply anti-social personality) and the predominantly Jewish ‘Brownsville Boys’ based in Brownsville, Brooklyn and led by Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles. Nobody’s quite sure how Reles got his nickname. There was another gangster (long-deceased by then) called Kid Twist. There was also a type of candy by the same name. Others, more chillingly, state that he got the nickname because he had he hands and a particularly brutal way of strangling people. Its member included Italians ‘Dandy’ Jack Parisi, Vito ‘Chicken Head’ Gurino (who shot the heads off running chickens for target practice), Louis Capone (no relation to Al) and Jewish mobsters like Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss (the gang’s most prolific murderer), Emmanuel ‘Mendy’ Weiss, Allie ‘Tick Tock’ Tannenbaum (so named because he despatched his vicitims with the regularity and precision of a ticking clock) and Charles ‘The Bug’ Workman (who carried out the gang’s most infamous hit, that of beer baron ‘Dutch’ Schultz in Newark, New Jersey and drew a 23-year sentence for his efforts. There were others that we’ll get to in passing, but these were the gang’s leading lights. Their most popular nicknamenof ‘Murder Incorporated’ was a journalist’s tagline. Within gangland they were known as simply ‘The Combination.’
The gang’s day-to-day boss was one of the most fearsome men in mafia history, Albert Anastasia. Known variously as ‘Earthquake’, ‘The Mad Hatter’ and, scariest of all, ‘Lord High Executioner’, Anastasia was a homicidal maniac of stunning brutality with a total indifference to the value of human life. To Anastasia, it was simple. A person’s life was worth however much Anastasia was prepared to accept for killing them. Sometimes he’d even do it for nothing, as a favour to his gangland pals, and then they’d return the favour some time down the line when Anastasia felt like ordering a murder. He tended to order murders the same way you or I might order a pizza. Although that should be no surprise, he’d already spent his 19th birthday on Death Row after murdering a dockworker during a brawl. Murder Inc’s gunmen weren’t paid for gangland killings, the victim’s criminal rackets were simply divided up and the spoils more than covered the cost. When Murder Inc. gunmen took on the occasional private contract then fee was based on the risk and difficulty involved.
Their modus operandi was pretty simple. Essentially, Murder Inc. was an employment agency for assassins. Although operating out of the ‘Midnight Rose’ candy store New York they killed all over the country. If a boss in, say, Los Angeles, Chicago or San Antonio wanted somebody dead and was connected to the Syndicate then a call to New York saw somebody despatched wherever they were needed. Once they reconnoitred their target and done the job their orders were to return to New York as quickly as possible, preferably having left town before their handiwork had even been discovered. That way whoever ordered a hit would be insulated from the potential consequences unless the hitman talked. Eventually, more than one did, with disastrous consequences for some very notorious names.
Their weapons were equally simple. Handguns, shotguns, Tommy guns, icepicks, meat cleavers, ropes, lead pipes. Nothing fancy as, the more complicated the weapon, the more likely tht something might go wrong. None of that ‘Day of The Jackal’-style specialised weaponry for these gangsters. Poison was a rarity, while the icepick and the handgun were Murder Incorporated’s heavy hitters. Most of Murder Inc’s jobs worked on the KISS principles: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Murder Inc kept it simple for nearly eight years. During that time dead gangsters and ‘civilians’ (non-criminals who’d seen something they shouldn’t or were otherwise displeased the Mob) popped up all over the country. No accurate estimate of their total has ever been possible (murderers tend not to advertise, after all) but we do know their victims numbered in the hundreds, especially in New York where unexplained corpses were popping up all over the State on an increasingly regular basis. Murder inc. even contributed to American underworld slang. To them a target was a ‘mark’ or a ‘bum,’ a murder was a ‘hit’ or a ‘contract,’ a killer was a ‘hitman,’ to be ‘taken’ meant being killed
The most vicious of all Murder Inc’s killers was Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss. It’s said that he murdered over 100 people and that his personal motto was “It’s OK to do murder, as long as I don’t get caught.” His weapon of choice was an icepick, although anything that came to hand was a potential weapon for Phil. He used a meat cleaver at least once. Other particularly heavy hitters were Allie ‘Tick Tock’ Tannenbaum, Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, Seymour ‘Blue Jaw’ Magoon (so called due to his permanent five o’clock shadow) and Emannuel ‘Mendy’ Weiss. Lesser, but equally odious members included Vito ‘Chicken Head’ Gurino, Frank ‘The Dasher’ Abbandando (so called for his once running away from a rival hitman sent to kill him, then appearing behind his would-be assassin and shooting him in the back of the head) and Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein (whose colleagues thought he was slightly insane, but never called him ‘Buggsy’ to his face). All in all, a regular Murderer’s Row of incredibly vicious, violent men. The hit on beer baron ‘Dutch Schultz’ at the Palace Chop House resulted in the deaths of Schultz and three of his men, it was a particularly violent crime even by Murder Inc’s advanced standards, but was also typical of the violence they were capable of even against a rogue boss of Schultz’s stature.
Mercifully, Murder Inc’s reign of terror couldn’t last forever. In 1937 its former leader and most regular client, racketeer and drug trafficker Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, became a fugitive, not surrendering himself until 1940. While a fugitive he went on a spree of contract murders using Murder Inc. gunmen to eliminate informers, suspected informers and even those he thought might inform in the future. In the underworld a twisted version of respect operates which, boiled down, means that any boss has to ensure their underlings fear their vengeance more than facing long jail sentences. Lepke’s underlings came to fear him so much that co-operation looked like a much safer bet.
Lepke’s blood-lust included former employees, former friends and even some of his most trusted underlings such as Max Rubin. One the early victims of his killing spree was a former trucker, Joseph Rosen, in 1937. The Rosen hit would have far-reaching consequence for Lepke and his associates. Abe Reles and Martin Goldstein were arrested as a result of information supplied by two of their colleagues, ‘Dukey’ Maffetore and Abe ‘Red’ Levine. Their evidence could see Reles taking a seat in Old Sparky unless he offered enough information to save him from a death sentence. He offered more than enough. He became a witness and provided the template for every Mob turncoat from Joe Valachi onward.
Arrested and told his options, he opted for co-operation over electrocution or a bullet from one of his former colleagues. Reles embarked upon singing a grand opera. During his first two weeks in custody he filled 12 stenographer’s books and talked for fourteen days straight. He also agreed to testify against his former comrades in return for immunity. Once Reles cracked so did Magoon, Tannenbaum, Sholem Bernstein, and several others like a row of dominoes falling. Lepke was already at the death house door because the prosecution evidence in the Rosen case was so strong. Reles and Tannenbaum could supply enough corroboration to see him marched through that door and wheeled back out.
Lepke’s trial for ordering the Rosen murder began in mid-October, 1941. In November he and his two senior aides, ‘Mendy’ Weiss and Louis Capone, were convicted. By that time Strauss, Abbandando, Goldstein and Maione had already been executed with Reles’ evidence proving decisive. Several others were either serving long jail sentences or facing execution. It would have been useful to prosecutors if Reles hadn’t fallen out of the window of his heavily-guarded hotel suite, becoming ‘The canary who could sing, but couldn’t fly’, but Tannenbaum’s evidence was enough. Tannenbaum had actually overheard Lepke order the murder and, under New York law at the time, he could supply corroboration as he wasn’t involved in the crime itself. Anastasia was off the hook due to Reles’ unscheduled flying lesson, but Lepke, Capone and Weiss were good to go. All three were convicted in November and condemned in December, 1941. Their combined appeals, especially Lepke’s, would see them survive in Sing Sing’s death house until March 4, 1944.
Executions at Sing Sing were traditionally performed on a Thursday, known to staff and inmates alike as ‘Black Thursday.’ A last minute 48-hour reprieve saw the execution of Buchalter, Weiss and Capone shifted back to Saturday, March 4, 1944, much to the distaste of Sing Sing’s resident rabbi, Joseph Katz, who would act as spiritual advisor to Buchalter and Weiss (Capone was a Catholic). Rabbi Katz resented executions being held on the Jewish Sabbath. On March 2 two other condemned inmates, Joe Palmer and Vincent Soolami, went as scheduled for murdering Detective Joseph Miccio during a robbery, On March 4, Capone went first at 11pm. After him came Weiss, whose last words were “I’m here on a framed-up case.” Finally it was Lepke’s turn. He walked into the brightly-lit room, grim-faced and silent, saying nothing as the straps and electrodes were applied, staring straight ahead and looking briefly upward as the leather helmet came down over his face. The switch was thrown and 2000 volts riped through his body. By 11:20pm the only top-level mobster in American history to be legally executed was certified dead. Lepke and Murder Incorporated were dead and buried.