5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History

5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History

Matthew - February 7, 2017

The most feared men in the underworld are typically not the bosses, or the brash, flashy gangsters who grab headlines. They are the silent killers. The nameless, faceless men who murder for hire and disappear without a trace. Below are the stories of 5 deadly mob hitmen who left behind a trail of bodies while maintaining a relatively low profile.

“Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss

Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss was a feared enforcer for Murder, Inc., the gang of killers employed by various organized crime groups in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily in New York. Strauss was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1909 and quickly fell into a life of crime. By the age of 25, Strauss had already been arrested 17 times in New York City. As was typical of organized crime figures of the day, Strauss was never convicted for any of these early transgressions. An Assistant District Attorney in New York said Strauss “had never been convicted of so much as smoking on a subway platform.”

5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History
“Pittsburgh Phil” Strass on the right. Pinterest

By the time Strauss was a full-blown assassin for Murder, Inc., he used many tools to get rid of witnesses, enemies, and anyone else who had crossed the mafia. He carried a knife, gun, and an icepick so he could choose between weapons when killing a target. Strauss was sometimes sent out of town to conduct business, including the high-profile murder of Harry Millman of the Purple Gang in a diner in Detroit.

Strauss continued to murder throughout the 1930s, until a fellow Murder, Inc. associate decided to talk to authorities and pin a number of crimes on his fellow gang members. Abe “Kid Twist” Reles cooperated with police, and Strauss was just one of the names he named. Strauss was arrested for the murder of gangster Irving “Puggy” Feinstein in 1940. Reles’ account of the murder could be counted on by police: he had participated in Feinstein’s killing.

During his trial, “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss attempted to convince the judge and jury that he was insane. He grew a long beard, stopped showering, and made a point of chewing on a leather briefcase strap throughout the ordeal. The jury wasn’t buying the act, however, and Strauss, along with his companion Martin “Bugsy” Goldstein, was sentenced to death in Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair, known as “Old Sparky.” On June 12, 1941, Strauss and Goldstein were executed. As for the informant, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles; he mysteriously fell from a window and died while under police protection in November 1941.

5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History
Mugshot of Irving Cohen. Gorilla Convict

Irving “Big Gangi” Cohen

Cohen was born in Brooklyn in 1906 and became a low-level member of the notorious, and prolific hit squad known as Murder, Inc. Cohen was a cold-blooded killer, handy with an ice pick and a pistol.

Cohen’s life took a dramatic turn during the murder of a fellow Murder, Inc. member named Walter Sage. Sage had been ordered to be killed because he was skimming profits from gambling operations. On a drive to the Catskill Mountains in July 1937, Cohen grabbed Sage in a headlock from the back seat, while his associate Jack Drucker stabbed the defenseless Sage over 30 times with an ice pick. During the assault, Drucker had also accidentally stabbed Cohen in the arm. Cohen believed this was no accident, and as soon as the driver pulled over to dispose of the body, “Big Gangi” Cohen bolted from the car and wasn’t seen again…until he resurfaced on the silver screen a couple of years later.

It turns out Cohen had made a new life for himself in California using the name Jack Gordon, and he had small parts in a number of films. In 1939, Cohen showed up in a bit part in a Hollywood film entitled Golden Boy. A fellow gangster who had been in on the murder of Walter Sage noticed Cohen in the film and alerted a District Attorney in Brooklyn, hoping to lessen his own sentence. Cohen was arrested in Los Angeles and sent back to the east coast to answer for the murder of Walter Sage.

Cohen sobbed in court and vehemently denied he had anything to do with the murder. Miraculously, the jury believed Cohen’s story and he was acquitted of the murder. Cohen returned to Los Angeles and worked as an actor in small roles for many years. He died in 1976 at the age of 69.

5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History
Joseph Barboza in a Boston Police mugshot. New York Daily News

Joseph “The Animal” Barboza

Joseph Barboza worked as a hitman in Boston and other parts of New England for the Patriarca crime family in the 1960s. His family was Portuguese, and Barboza became a skilled chef, specializing in Portuguese cuisine. He also had a brief career as a light heavyweight boxer before he turned his attention to murder.

Barboza served a stint in prison in Massachusetts in the early 1950s, and became involved with the Patriarca organized crime family while he was behind bars. The mob was attracted to Barboza’s violent demeanor and his ability to carry out a contract killing with no hassle. However, he could never be officially inducted into the Patriarca mob because of his Portuguese heritage. Barboza was also allied with the Winter Hill Gang out of Boston.

Barboza had a falling out with the Patriarca family in the late 1960s. While imprisoned on a murder charge in the summer of 1967, Barboza felt he only had one option left. He agreed to cooperate with the FBI and talk about what he knew about organized crime in New England. He became one of the first people to enter the Witness Protection Program. He testified against his former boss in court, and his former associates were furious. Barboza’s testimony led to the imprisonment of 6 men, with 4 of them receiving death sentences.

Barboza moved to northern California to start a new life. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t stay out of trouble, and he was arrested for second-degree murder in 1971 and sent to Folsom Prison. Barboza was paroled in 1975 and changed his name to “Joseph Donati.” Eventually, vengeful Boston gangsters from his past tracked him down. On February 11, 1976, Barboza was shot and killed while leaving a friend’s apartment in San Francisco.

5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History
Brusca after his arrest in 1996. TP24

Giovanni Brusca

Brusca didn’t commit his many murders in New York, Boston, or any other American city. Brusca operated in the land where La Cosa Nostra began, Italy. Brusca was born in Sicily in 1957 and he was born into the Mafia; his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all made men. He moved through the ranks quickly and became an adept, ruthless killer. It is estimated that Brusca killed over 100 people. He was nicknamed “The Pig” because of his unkempt appearance and his voracious appetite for food.

In 1992, Brusca took part in the assassination of Giovanni Falcone, a prosecutor known for convicting Mafia members. Brusca and his associates planted a half-ton bomb below a street in Palermo; when Falcone’s car passed over the bomb, it was detonated remotely by Brusca. Falcone, his wife, and three police officers were killed in the blast. The bomb was so strong that it registered on local earthquake monitors.

Brusca did not limit his murderous intent toward enemies…or even adults. In 1993, one of his partners in the Falcone assassination, Santo Di Matteo, agreed to cooperate with authorities. Brusca had Di Matteo’s 11-year-old son kidnapped. Brusca and his thugs held the innocent boy for over 2 years, consistently sending Di Matteo photographs of his son being tortured. The boy was finally murdered after 26 months of imprisonment.

After his boss Salvatore Riina was arrested in 1993, Giovanni Brusca became one of the most powerful Mafia members in Italy. Brusca embarked on a reign of terror across Italy that included shootings and bombings in different Italian cities. Finally, on May 20, 1996, Brusca was captured by police. He did what a lot of other criminals do when faced with prison time; he cooperated with authorities and began to talk. Brusca confessed to murders that he himself had committed and told the police about the crimes of other Mafia members. Despite the dozens of murders, he committed with his own hands, Brusca was given a 26-year prison term in exchange for his testimony.

5 of the Deadliest Mafia Hitmen in History
Richard Kuklinski. WordPress

Richard Kuklinski

On the surface, Richard Kuklinski appeared to live a normal middle-class existence in the suburbs of New Jersey. Behind the facade, however, was a cold-blooded killer who earned the nickname “Iceman” because of his habit of freezing his victims’ bodies after he murdered them.

Kuklinski was born in Jersey City in 1935, and he grew up in an abusive household dominated by a violent father. One of Kuklinski’s brothers died at the hands of their father, but the family lied to police and said the boy had suffered serious injuries from falling down the stairs. He claimed he committed his first murder at the age of 14, murdering a bully with a piece of wood. He gained a reputation as a young man with a hot temper and reportedly killed men who beat him in pool games.

While still only 19-years-old, the young man stalked and killed victims, usually homeless men, around Manhattan, simply for the fun of it. He shot, stabbed, and used his car to increase his body count. The DeCavalcante crime family took notice of his violent behavior and recruited Kuklinski to carry out murders on their behalf. He then teamed up with New York’s Gambino crime family, committing robberies and duplicating pornographic videotapes to sell.

The Gambino family soon discovered another talent that Kuklinski possessed; a willingness to murder anyone for any reason. For 30 years, Richard Kuklinski killed those he was ordered to eliminate by the Mafia, and some for personal reasons. He used every weapon imaginable, including his fists sometimes “just for the exercise.” Authorities began to suspect Kuklinski was a mob enforcer, and in 1985 they set out to bring him down. The prospect of putting Kuklinski away was a tough one because law enforcement had no concrete evidence tying him to any murders. An undercover ATF agent posed as a fellow hitman and lured Kuklsinki into a murder-for-hire plot.

Kuklinski was arrested on December 17, 1986 and charged with a large number of crimes including murder and robbery. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life behind bars. Kuklinski remained in prison until he died in 2006 at the age of 70.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 20 Significant Mafia Hits

History Extra – Murder, Inc: The Rise And Fall Of New York City’s Mafia Hitmen

The Mob Museum – Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles: No. 2 On List Of Top 5 Most Notorious Mob Hitmen

Medium – Joe ‘The Animal’ Barboza: The Boston Mafia Portuguese Hitman

Associate Press – Eight Mobsters Convicted of Racketeering in New England

The Washington Post – ‘People-Slayer’ For Sicilian Mafia Is Freed After Becoming An Informant, Outraging Victims’ Families

The Daily Beast – Jersey’s True-Life Tony Soprano: Meet the DeCavalcante Crime Family

The Herald-Sun – Extent Of Serial Killer’s Horrendous Crimes Revealed In New Documentary