Killing for Cash: These 10 Killers & Mobsters Who Murdered for Money
Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money

Larry Holzwarth - July 7, 2018

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
After the death of contract killer Abe Riles the New York newspapers dubbed him “The canary that could sing but couldn’t fly.” Wikimedia

Abe Reles

When committing murder to fulfill a contract Abe Reles preferred weapon of choice was an icepick, jammed into his victim’s right ear, a method at which he became quite adept. Some of his victims killed in this manner were originally believed to have died of cerebral hemorrhage, the fact of their murder not being revealed until several of the former members of Murder Inc. were cooperating with the authorities. Reles was a short but powerfully built man, who built a crew in Ocean Hill and Brownsville which eventually dominated the illegal gambling, bootlegging, extortion, and loansharking rackets, eliminating their rivals through murdering them.

Reles crew became the core of Murder Inc. after it attracted the attention of Louis Buchalter, and was used by the syndicate to carry out the executions ordered by the Five Families and approved when necessary by the Commission. Once hired, Reles or other members of the crew traveled across the United States carrying out murders, which were performed in a manner dependent upon the particular killer’s preference. The crew planned meticulously and avoided confrontations with police officers and the possibility of their crimes being observed by troublesome witnesses.

Reles was charged in several instances during the 1930s as being involved in murders but was able to avoid conviction. He did serve time for assault, which occurred when a parking lot attendant asked him to stop his repeated honking of his horn. Another account states that Reles was angry that the attendant was slow in retrieving his vehicle. In either event, Reles beat the man severely, for which he was sent to prison for a brief term in the 1930s. Reles had served other terms as a youth, including one in which he was sent to a juvenile workhouse and reform school for a term of two years. By the late 1930s, his luck avoiding conviction was running out.

After Buchalter ordered the elimination of several Murder Inc. associates and other low-level mobsters who could implicate him in multiple murders and other crimes, some gangsters turned to the authorities, offering information for protection. Reles was implicated in up to six murders, and rather than face the death penalty he too offered to provide evidence for the state. Reles gave prosecutors information regarding scores of murders and their perpetrators, including Buchalter, Abbandando, Louis Capone (no relation to Al Capone) and several more, all of whom were convicted and sent to the electric chair. With Buchalter removed, the authorities targeted his replacement, Albert Anastasia.

Reles was in protective custody at the Half Moon Hotel, on the morning of November 12, 1941, the day he was scheduled to testify at Anastasia’s trial for the murder of a longshoreman. That morning Reles fell from the window in his room on the sixth floor. There was evidence that he had tried to lower himself using a rope made of bedsheets to the fifth-floor window below, but it was likely planted. The five police officers who were guarding him were demoted after Reles’s death. Officially it was declared an accidental death, but rumors that the guards were bribed by Frank Costello and that Reles was pushed out the window began immediately. They have never been proved, but Reles had shown no desire to leave protective custody.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
When Murder Inc. killers inadvertently murdered the wrong man a crackdown, including protection deals for informants, spearheaded by Thomas E. Dewey led to its demise. Library of Congress

Seymour Magoon

It was a blown contract that led to the demise of Murder Inc. and Seymour Magoon was one of the hitmen involved. Magoon was known as Blue Jaw among his colleagues, because of his appearing to constantly be in need of a shave. Magoon was a contract killer with multiple murders on his record, but his ability as a driver led to him often being assigned the role of driving the getaway car after fellow gangsters committed the murder. Magoon was the driver on an assignment along with fellow Murder Inc. hitman Jack Parisi. In the car with them was a local thug who was there to identify their target when he exited the building across the street from where they sat in the car.

When the thug pointed to a man leaving the apartment build and identified him as the target Magoon drove past him, turned around, and as they passed the man for the second time Parisi shot him multiple times. The problem was that they got the wrong man. The victim was a music publisher with G. Schirmer Publications, not the former garment union executive named Philip Orlovsky whom they had been dispatched to kill, because Orlovsky was informing prosecutors of Buchalter’s illegal activities within the unions. The murder of the wrong man started the press putting pressure on prosecutors, and Buchalter ordered his killing crews to get out of town.

Buchalter also ordered the elimination of several gangsters who were threatened with prosecution, fearing that they would provide the authorities with information tying him to hundreds of murders and other crimes. Magoon fled with his friend and fellow Murder Inc. hitman Buggsy Goldstein, traveling across the country before returning eventually to Newburgh in New York, staying at a mob safe house. When Goldstein went into town to pick up a money order he was spotted and arrested. Within a few hours, the police arrested Magoon at the safe house. When it became evident to Magoon that several gangsters were cooperating with the authorities he decided to do the same.

Knowing that Abe Reles was cooperating with the authorities providing evidence against Goldstein, Magoon began telling them what he knew about his friend as well as another friend, Harry Strauss. Magoon testified in the trial of Goldstein and Strauss about the many murders they had committed, some of which Magoon participated in as well, leading Goldstein to shout out in court that, “You’re burning me.” Both Goldstein and Strauss were convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing-Sing on June 12, 1941. Magoon was then a witness in other trials of Murder Inc. hitmen, providing evidence which led to several more convictions.

Magoon remained in custody for a few years before he was released. After he was released he vanished from sight. Jack Parisi, who had fired the fatal shots which killed the wrong man, wasn’t captured by the authorities for more than a decade. When he was he was tried for the murder and acquitted. There were simply too few witnesses. Magoon had by then vanished and the only other witness, the small-time thug who had misidentified the victim, was unreliable as an accomplice to the crime. It was one man’s word against the other and the judge directed acquittal. In 2003 skeletal remains found in the desert near Las Vegas were determined to be those of Seymour Magoon.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
A crew of Detroit’s Purple Gang, a gang so vicious even Al Capone was wary of them. Wikimedia

Harry Millman

Harry Millman was a member of a predominately Jewish Detroit organized crime group called the Purple Gang. The Purple Gang rose in the 1920s, challenging Al Capone’s operations there during Prohibition and became notorious for their violence and their brutality. During Prohibition, the Purple Gang caused Capone so much difficulty that he arranged accommodation with them, and the Detroit gang controlled the flow of Canadian whiskey to Capone’s Chicago saloons and brothels. By the end of Prohibition, the Purple Gang was the most powerful group in the Detroit underworld, controlling nearly all gambling, loansharking, extortion rackets, and other criminal activity.

Detroit was too big of a market to be ignored by the Five Families of the National Crime Syndicate, and in the 1930s William Tocco aligned the Detroit Partnership with the Profaci crime family in New York, and established alliances with other crime families including in Los Angeles and Rhode Island. Tocco also hired Joseph Bommarito to serve as the street boss of the Detroit Partnership. The increasing influence of the Italian mafia placed it in direct conflict with the Purple Gang. Abe Bernstein, the head of the Purple Gang, attempted to prevent violence but growing tensions remained. Harry Millman, anxious to increase his standing in the Purple Gang, repeatedly attempted to confront Bommarito.

Millman had previously been involved in disputes with another member of the Detroit Partnership, Pete Licavoli, a close friend of Bommarito’s. When Millman and Bommarito met in a Detroit bar and words degenerated into a fight, Bommarito was severely gashed across his face, after which Millman began calling him Scarface. A few days later Bommarito was getting a shave when Millman spit in his face as he reclined in the barber’s chair. The Detroit Partnership informed Abe Bernstein that Millman was to be killed and that a contract would be put out to accomplish the fact. Anxious to avoid total war with the Italians the Purple Gang leader concurred.

The first attempt to kill Millman was through a bomb in his car, which detonated, blowing out the windows and leaving the car’s roof on the roof of a five-story building, but Millman was not in the car at the time. Bommarito, through the Profaci family in New York, asked for professional hitmen from Murder Inc. to be dispatched to Detroit to kill Millman. Buchalter gave the contract to Harry Strauss and Harry Maione, who went to Detroit and followed their target after making contact with local hoods who informed them of the Purple Gang member’s usual habits and the restaurants and saloons which he frequented.

On the morning of November 25, 1937, the two Murder Inc. killers found Millman at Boesky’s Delicatessen, on the corner of Hazelwood and 12th street in Detroit. Strauss and Maione shot Millman multiple times before leaving the scene. The use of Murder Inc. by the Italians and the relative lack of resistance of the Purple Gang signaled the end of the latter as the dominant element of the Detroit underworld, and from that time on the Syndicate assumed control of the criminal element in Detroit. Abe Bernstein became an associate of Meyer Lansky and the Purple Gang operations were quickly absorbed.

Killing for cash: These 10 Killers Murdered for Money
Although some believe that Charles Harrelson was one of the three tramps present at the JFK assassination, the three have been identified in police and FBI records. Wikimedia

Other killers for cash

Although organized crime is most closely associated with professional killers plying their trade for cash in the public mind it is certainly not the only place hired killers are found. Husbands and wives seek out hired killers to eliminate their spouses rather than endure the cost and bitterness of divorces. Divorce lawyers are frequently the target of hired killers, as are business associates, lovers and ex-lovers, perceived enemies and the targets of grudges, and those who will pass on large estates or insurance settlements. Gavrilo Princip, whose shots helped to start the First World War, was a killer who paid for his actions. So were the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich during the Second World War.

Charles Harrelson, the father of American actor Woody Harrelson, was a killer for hire. In 1968 Harrelson was paid the sum of $2,000 to kill a Texas grain dealer named Sam Degelia, for which he was tried with the result of a hung jury. A second trial in 1973 led to his conviction and a five to fifteen-year sentence, and he was released in 1978. The same year he was hired by a drug dealer to execute the federal judge before which the drug dealer was to be tried. Although Harrelson was convicted of the judge’s murder he claimed that he did not kill him, but merely claimed to in order to collect his fee. Harrelson died in prison in 2007.

Glennon Engleman was a former US Army Air Corps veteran who used the GI Bill to cover his expenses as he earned a degree in dentistry from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. After graduation he set up a practice in St. Louis, often offering free dental services for those unable to pay for them. He also worked as a killer for hire, contriving schemes to murder victims allowing their beneficiaries to collect on their life insurance policies, from which he extracted a fee for his services. Suspected in several additional murders, he was convicted of five, the first three in 1985, and two additional convictions in 1999. He died in prison in 1999.

Michael Danton played professional hockey in the NHL when he attempted to hire a hitman to kill his agent, David Frost. Danton pleaded guilty to the charges but later changed his position, claiming that the target was not to have been Frost, but instead Danton’s father, Steven Jefferson, from whom Danton was estranged. At any rate, the hitman he contacted was not a hitman at all, but an undercover police dispatcher. Danton’s bad judgment continued, in 2008 the man who served as his lawyer was found to have never graduated from law school and was thus not legally allowed to practice law in the jurisdiction where the case was tried. After serving five years in prison, Danton returned to professional hockey.

Murder for hire has existed throughout history and will continue as long as there are those who desire someone dead enough to be willing to pay for it and those who find no difficulty in accomplishing the deed. Hitmen, contract killers, guns for hire, and many other descriptions have long been applied to those willing to commit a killing for a profit, and the business has thrived since ancient times. The chilling murders committed by the members of Murder Inc. are frightening in the cold-blooded manner in which they were performed, but no more or less so than those committed by others every day, all around the world.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“When Big Heist Is Pulled, A Trail Of Death Follows”, by Nicholas Pileggi, The Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1986

“The Valachi Papers”, by Peter Maas, 1986

“We Only Kill Each Other: the Life and Bad Times of Bugsy Siegel”, by Dean Southern Jennings, 1967

“I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa”, by Charles Brandt, 2004

“Murder Inc.: The Story of ‘The Syndicate'” by Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder, 2003

“Abe Reles Killed Trying to Escape”, by staff reporters, The New York Times, November 13, 1941

“Kill the Dutchman: The Story of Dutch Schultz”, by Paul Sann, online

“How Prohibition made Detroit a Bootleggers Dream Town”, by Jenny Nolan, The Detroit News, June 15, 1999

“THIS WEEK IN SOUTHSIDE HISTORY: Southside dentist left trail of murder victims”, by Jim Merkel, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, September 22, 2009