Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn't Know About the Mafia's Death Squad
Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad

Khalid Elhassan - February 1, 2018

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Inside the Palace Chop restaurant in Newark, New Jersey, in the aftermath of Murder Incorporated’s execution of loose cannon mob boss Dutch Schultz and three of his associates. National Crime Syndicate

Typical Murder Inc. Hits

Murder Incorporated’s killers usually put in a lot of prep work before carrying out a hit. Often, a getaway car would be stolen weeks before the planned killing, and stashed away until the day of the hit. A trailing car, whose job would be to “accidentally” ram or otherwise block pursuing police cruisers in case of a chase, would also be stolen and stashed away. Fake or stolen license plates would be secured to further muddy the waters and make vehicle identification that much more difficult.

Weapons were secured for the murder, and destroyed immediately afterwards. Any other evidence, along with the cars used in the hit, would be burned after the job was done. Different hitmen had different preferences. Most used pistols, but some preferred ice picks. Others liked using garrotes. Some opted for shotguns. A minority even liked killing with their bare hands. Murder Incorporated’s two most enthusiastic murderers were Harry “Happy” Maione, and Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss. The duo really liked killing, and eagerly volunteered for every assignment that was announced.

The most famous hit carried out by Murder Inc. was on mob boss Dutch Schultz, in 1935. Schultz was close friends with many in the highest rungs of organized crime, such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano. However, Schultz threatened to become a loose cannon after crusading prosecutor Thomas Dewey put him in his crosshairs. He sought permission from The Commission to kill Dewey, but was turned down – the mob had a strict policy against targeting law enforcement.

When Schultz gave signs that he might go rogue and go after Dewey anyhow, The Commission ordered his death before he invited a catastrophic backlash upon all of them by murdering the prominent prosecutor. Three Murder Inc. hitmen were sent out, and they tracked him to The Palace Chop restaurant in Newark, New Jersey. There, they executed Shultz, his accountant, and two bodyguards.

Another example was the hit carried out in November of 1937 against Harry Millman, a troublesome Detroit gangster whose violent antics had roiled that city’s underworld. Millman was a member of Detroit’s Purple Gang, a bootlegging outfit, who became a loose cannon. He stirred trouble with beefs against members of his own gang, and those of competing gangs. Millman’s behavior was bad for business, and the locals repeatedly tried to do him in, but failed – including a car bomb that killed an unfortunate valet attendant, but spared Millman.

Finally, The Commission got involved, and ordered Millman’s execution. A call was made to the waiting hitmen at Midnight Rose, and Murder Incorporated’s two most enthusiastic killers, Maione and Strauss, caught a train to Detroit. Upon arrival, the began planning the hit. In Millman’s case, it was simplified by the fact that the target was a known drunkard, who spent a lot of time at a few favored bars.

Maione and Strauss picked the most suitable bar for their hit, and planned out their entrance and exit and escape routes. Then they simply walked into the bar and started shooting. After dropping their target dead, the two hitmen made their escape, and were on a train back to NYC before their victim’s corpse had turned cold. Although there had been numerous eyewitnesses, the hitmen were out of towners unknown to any locals, so nobody was able to identify them.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, whose fight for the title of “Boss of All Bosses” threatened to wreck the mafia. Slide Player

Before Murder Inc., Fights Over Mob Leadership Had Threatened the Mafia’s Existence

Before Murder Inc., chaos had ruled the Italian-American mafia. In the early 20th century, there had been little to distinguish Italian-American gangs – concentrated mostly in the northeast – from other ethnic gangs. That changed almost overnight, with the arrival of Prohibition in 1920. Notwithstanding Prohibition’s ban on the sale of alcohol, Public demand for alcohol remained high. Since that demand could no longer be satisfied legally, criminals stepped in to satisfy it illegally.

The profits were astronomical, and American organized crime boomed as it never had before or since, as Prohibition took a hitherto well regulated and taxed major industry – alcohol – and gifted it to criminals. Italian gangsters benefited the most, because they had something other criminals did not: a model and tradition, from the Old Country mafia, of an organized, disciplined, and hierarchical criminal structure.

The Old Country’s mafia also furnished experienced personnel, who sought to replicate their mafia in the US. The two most important were Giuseppe Masseria, and Salvatore Maranzano. Their efforts to duplicate the Old Country system in America were initially successful, but they got into trouble because they failed to fully understand, and adapt to, the differences between conditions in the US and in Italy.

Giuseppe Masseria (1887 – 1931), AKA Joe “The Boss”, was born in Sicily, from which he fled as a teenager to escape a murder charge. He made it to America, which had no extradition treaty with Italy, and began his criminal career in the US as a gang enforcer in NYC’s Lower East Side. In 1916, his boss was murdered, so Masseria broke off and formed his own splinter gang, and by the mid 1920s, he was among NYC’s most powerful crime bosses. By 1929, Masseria, now known as “Joe the Boss”, led NYC’s biggest crime family – today’s Genovese crime family.

Masseria’s deadliest foe was Salvatore Maranzano (1886 – 1931), another Sicilian who carved a criminal empire in America. Maranzano had studied to become a priest, but changed his mind and became a mobster instead. He emigrated to America after WWI, and opened a real estate business as a cover for bootlegging, narcotics, gambling, and prostitution operations. He fancied himself an intellectual, and liked to lecture less educated American mobsters about Julius Caesar – which earned him the derisive (although never to his face) nickname “Little Caesar”.

Maranzano prospered, and as his power grew, the Big Apple became too small to contain both him and Masseria. By 1930, Maranzano felt sufficiently confident in his power to openly challenge Joe “The Boss” Masseria for the title capo di tutti capi, or “Boss of All Bosses”. That led to what came to be known as the Castellammarese War, a vicious gang war for control of NYC’s underworld, that had highly disruptive spillover effects on the rest of the mafia across the US.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Louis Riggiona, one of the many victims of the Castellammarese War. La Cosa Nostra

Disruptive Gang Wars Had Been Bad for the Mafia’s Business

The dominant Italian-American mafia figure in the 1920s had been Joe Masseria. He ran a powerful crime family, whose ranks included future mob bosses such as Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese. Masseria was respected in America, but not in the Old Country, where his success aroused envy. Back in Sicily, a Don Vito Ferro, a mafia chieftain from Castellamare, decided that he should control the American mafia. So he directed an underling, Salvatore Maranzano to establish the Castellammerese faction. Its ranks included future bosses such as Joe Profaci, Joe Bonano, and Stefano Maggadino.

Over the years, tensions steadily mounted between Masseria’s and Maranzano’s criminal organizations. They finally erupted in a vicious fight for control of the Italian-American mafia that came to be known as The Castellamerese War, from February, 1930, until April, 1931. It ended with the assassination of Masseria, after which Maranzano declared himself Boss of All Bosses.

Preliminary skirmishing began in 1928, when the rival organizations started hijacking each other’s alcohol trucks, and encroaching upon their opponent’s bootlegging operations. Open fighting erupted in February, 1930, when Masseria ordered the killing of a Castellamarese Detroit gangster. The Castellamarese responded by killing a key Masseria enforcer in Harlem. A few weeks later, they convinced a Masseria ally whom he had once betrayed, the Reina family, to switch sides. The Reinas killed a key Masseria loyalist on their way out. Masseria responded in October, 1930, by sending one of his key lieutenants, Alfred Mineo, to kill a key Castellamerese ally, Joe Aiello, in Chicago.

All of this was wreaking havoc on mafia business in the US, but the bloodshed went on. In November, Mineo and another key Masseria henchman were murdered, and Mineo’s successor defected to Maranzano. From then on, the tide turned against Masseria, as his allies started switching sides, one after the other. With Masseria’s ship clearly sinking, his remaining henchmen, led by Lucky Luciano, approached Maranzano with an offer to defect, promising to seal the deal by murdering Masseria. On April 15th, 1931, Masseria was duly murdered.

Over 60 mobsters had been killed, and the violence had damaged the interests of the mafia throughout the US. On the surface, it had been a power struggle between Masseria and Maranzano. However, beneath the surface was a struggle of their younger subordinates, who grew up American, against the rival bosses and their entire generation of leadership, derided as “Mustache Petes”. The American born mobsters viewed the “Mustache Petes” as narrow minded and set in their Old Country ways, and incapable of adapting to American realities.

After his victory, Maranzano reorganized the Italian-American mafia, and established the basic structure that survives to this day. However, Maranazano, was an egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, who fancied himself a Julius Caesar of crime. He ran into trouble when he tried to impose Italian mafia customs upon American mafiosi raised in the US. That rubbed them wrong, and Maranzano’s reign as Boss of All Bosses was cut short. Five months after declaring himself capo di tutti capi, Lucky Luciano had him murdered, after which he abolished the Boss of All Bosses title, and set up a collective mafia leadership council to avoid future gang wars.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Lucky Luciano. The Mob Museum

Lucky Luciano Ordered the Creation of Murder Inc. to Help Usher in the Modern Mafia

Murder Inc. was the ordered into being by Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962), a visionary criminal mastermind who founded today’s Genovese crime family, and is considered the godfather of modern American organized crime. His greatest contribution was to establish The Commission – a committee to run the Italian-American mafia and arbitrate its disputes, in order to avoid future gang wars harmful to everybody’s interests. Murder Inc. was to ensure that the Commission’s will was heeded – or else.

Luciano emigrated to America at age 9, and by age 10, he was already involved in shoplifting, mugging, and extortion. He did his first stint behind bars – six months for selling heroin – at age 19. In 1920, Luciano joined Masseria’s crime family, and became his chief lieutenant, running his bootlegging, prostitution, and narcotics operations. Incidentally, the notion that the mafia avoided drugs is just a myth popularized by The Godfather. In reality, the mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start, and Luciano became America’s biggest ever home grown drug lord.

Luciano was appalled by the 1930 – 1931 Castellamarese War, and the way it drew attention to and disrupted mafia business. He eventually made a deal with Maranzano, then had Masseria killed. Five months later, Luciano had Maranzano killed as well, after which he established The Commission to regulate the American mob, and avert similar bloodshed.

Things went sour for Luciano with the arrival of a reformist New York crusading prosectuor, Thomas Dewey, who prosecuted Luciano for forced prosecution. Luciano was convicted in 1936, and received a 30 years sentence. He was saved by WWII, during which Luciano’s friend Meyer Lansky cut a deal with the US Navy to commute Luciano’s sentence in exchange for mafia mob help in protecting New York’s harbor. After the war, Luciano was freed and deported to Italy. His reforms and restructuring of the American mafia, remained even after he was gone.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Murder Incorporated’s leaders, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (left), and Albert “Lord High Executioner” Anastasia. National Crime Syndicate

Murder Inc. Was the Enforcement Arm of the Mob’s Oversight Body, “The Commission”

Lucky Luciano brought the “Boss of All Bosses” era to an end by arranging the murders of the rival Castellamarese War leaders, Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. He then set out to end the old Sicilian mafia regime, and establish rule by consensus for the new crime families. He began by abolishing the position and title of capo di tutti capi, or Boss of All Bosses – from then on, the Italian-American mafia would have no single overlord. Instead, the committee known as The Commission would regulate the American mob, with Murder Inc. as the instrument for enforcing its writ.

The Commission consisted of the five NYC crime families, the Buffalo family, and the Chicago Outfit. Over the years, the makeup changed, but the basic concept of a committee comprised of America’s most powerful mafia families stayed the same. Today, it is made of the five NYC families and the Chicago Outfit, while the Buffalo family has been replaced by that of Philadelphia.

Gang wars did not completely disappear with the formation of The Commission. However, The Commission, and its Murder Inc. regulators, did lessen the frequency and intensity of gang wars, by making crime families think twice before starting a war. An aggressor family could find itself dealing not only with its immediate rival, but with The Commission, its Murder Inc. hitmen, and other families as well. That was a strong incentive to negotiate instead of resort to violence. When wars did break out, The Commission often sent in Murder Inc. to murder the offending leadership, then appointed new leaders.

The Commission met frequently, until 1985, when the last meeting attended by all bosses in person was held. Afterwards, things became too hot, as the US government finally went after the mob seriously, with vigorous investigations and successful prosecutions of its leaders. In such an environment, direct meetings between bosses became too risky, and from then on the Commission worked through cutouts.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Wanted poster for Louis Buchalter, after he jumped bail and went on the lam in 1936. Tablet Magazine

Murder Incorporated’s Founder, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter

Murder Inc. was broken into two subgroups, and organized along ethnic lines – Italians and Jews – with the hitmen of each group usually, but not always, sent after targets of their own ethnicity. At first, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a ruthless Jewish labor racketeer, was in charge of the Jewish section, and in overall charge of Murder Inc., until his arrest in 1936. The Italians were run by Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, who eventually went on to run all of Murder Inc. after Buchalter’s downfall.

Louis Buchalter (1897 – 1944) rose to prominence in New York City’s criminal underworld as a labor racketeer. The son of a Russian immigrant father who owned a hardware store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Buchalter lost his father at age 12, and consumption forced his mother to move to Arizona’s dry climate. She left him in NYC with his elder sister, but Buchalter’s sibling was unable to control him, and he drifted into crime.

He started building up a rap sheet early, with his first arrest coming in 1915 for assault and burglary. He did a year in a juvenile reformatory, and soon after his release in 1917, was rearrested and sentenced to a year and a half in Sing Sing for grand larceny. Upon his release, he got into labor racketeering, and via violence and intimidation, began controlling New York’s garment industry unions. He then used the unions to shake down factory owners for weekly payments, threatening them with strikes, labor troubles, and other workplace unrest if they did not pony up. By the mid 1920s, Buchalter was running a highly profitable protection racket, and in alliance with the Lucchese crime family, he effectively controlled NYC’s garment industry.

In the early 1930s, at Lucky Luciano’s bidding, Buchalter created what came to be known as Murder Inc. Luciano wanted a means of insulating Cosa Nostra members, particularly the mob’s higher ups, from any connection with the killings attendant upon their line of work. So Buchalter set up a system that relied upon multiple cutouts between The Commission, which ordered or sanctioned the mafia’s hits, and the actual contract killers. The latter were thugs from Italian and Jewish street gangs, unconnected to the Cosa Nostra and its higher ups, and thus incapable of implicating them if they were caught. Before long, Buchalter’s hitmen were crisscrossing America, carrying out dozens or hundreds of killings each year.

Buchalter’s demeanor was in sharp contrast with his actual viciousness and literal murderousness. He was dangerously paranoid, and in his final years, he went on a mission to murder any potential witnesses who had, or whom he suspected of having, any evidence against him of criminal wrongdoing. Because karma sometimes loves irony, it would be the murder of one of these potential witnesses in 1936 that would ultimately do Buchalter in.

The deadly violence was not evident from looking at him. Unlike many mob bosses who liked wearing their toughness on their sleeves, Buchalter was a soft spoken and quiet man, who preferred listening to talking. He was highly regarded by his subordinates, who were exceptionally loyal to him, because he treated them exceptionally well. In addition to generously compensating them for their services, Buchalter did not stint on the personal touches. He socialized with and treated his underlings to entertainments, taking them to boxing matches and other sporting events, and even on winter cruises.

Buchalter’s downfall began with the 1936 Murder Inc. killing of a Brooklyn candy store owner, Joseph Rosen, whom Buchalter had shaken down out of a garment factory, and now suspected of snitching to the authorities. The Rosen murder went unsolved for some time, but two months later, Buchalter was convicted of anti-trust violations. He went on the lam while out on bail, and was sentenced in absentia to two years. Albert Anastasia took over as boss of Murder Inc.

The following year, the fugitive Buchalter was indicted on federal narcotics charges. He remained on the lam for nearly three years, before finally surrendering in person to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1939. He was sentenced to 14 years, then turned to New York authorities, who tried and convicted him of state racketeering charges, for which he received a 30 year sentence.

While serving the federal sentence, a Murder Inc. hitman, Abe Reles, had turned state’s evidence and implicated Buchalter in the 1936 Rosen murder, plus three others. Buchalter and his two main Murder Inc. lieutenants were charged with the four murders in 1941, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Buchalter appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, but his sentence was upheld. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter earned the distinction of becoming the only major mob boss to ever receive the death penalty. He met his end on “Old Sparky”, Sing Sing prison’s infamous electric chair, on March 4th, 1944.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Albert Anastasia, in life and death. The Mob Museum

Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia

When Murder Inc. was founded, Albert Anastasia (1902 – 1957) became the chief deputy of the execution squad’s founder, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and headed the Italian contract killer segment of the organization. When Buchalter went on the lam in 1936, his duties were taken over by Anastasia, who rose to head the entirety of Murder Incorporated.

Anastasia was trouble from early on. He arrived in the US in 1919 as an illegal immigrant, and went to work on New York’s waterfront. In 1921, he was convicted of murdering a longshoreman and sentenced to death. Anastasia was awaiting execution in Sing Sing prison, when his sentence was thrown out on a technicality, and he was granted a retrial. When the retrial came around in 1922, all the witnesses from the first trial had vanished, and Anastasia walked free. The following year, he was convicted on a firearms charge, and sentenced to two years. In 1928, he was again tried for murder, but walked after all the prosecution’s witnesses disappeared or changed their mind about testifying. He walked from additional murder raps, for the same reasons, in 1932 and 1933.

By the late 1920s, Anastasia was a major labor racketeer, and controlled NYC’s longshoreman unions. He allied himself with Joe Masseria, but when his ship started sinking in the Castellamarese War, Anastasia joined Lucky Luciano in killing Masseria. Five months later, Anastasia participated in the murder of Masseria’s successor, Salvatore Maranzano. Anastasia rose to prominence in the new mob era resulting from the Masseria and Maranzano murders.

Lucky Luciano tapped Anastasia to play a leading role in Murder Inc. Unlike Buchalter, who kept a low profile about his viciousness, Anastasia was a vicious murderer who took pleasure in letting everybody know that he was a vicious murderer. He took such joy in his duties with Murder Inc. that he became the most feared mobster of his era, earning the nicknames “Lord High Executioner” and “The Mad Hatter”.

When Murder Inc. began unraveling after hitman Abe Reles turned state’s evidence, it seemed that Anastasia was finally done for. Reles was scheduled to offer evidence against Anastasia, but early on the morning of that day, he fell to his death from a 6th floor window. “Fell” was the official explanation, and as police explained it, Reles had been trying to lower himself out the window via an improvised rope made of tied bed sheets. However, he had shown no inclination to escape, and ever since snitching on the mob, had been deathly afraid to be out of police sight. With Reles out of the way, Anastasia escaped prosecution for his Murder Inc. misdeeds.

Anastasia enlisted in the US Army during WWII, rose to technical sergeant, and was honorably discharged in 1944, receiving US citizenship as reward for his services. After the war, he founded what is today the Gambino crime family, but his greed and brutality alienated his subordinates. On October 25th, 1957, belated karma finally caught up with Albert Anastasia, when he was shot to death in a barber’s chair while waiting for a shave.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn’t Know About the Mafia’s Death Squad
Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, in life and after his fatal fall from a 6th floor window. Pintrest

The Unmasking and Undoing of Murder Inc.

Murder Inc. began to unravel in 1940, when Harry Rudolph, a career criminal and police informant, was held as a material witness in a 1933 murder of a minor teenaged gangster. Rudolph implicated three Murder Inc. hitmen, and one of the trio, Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles was flipped by the authorities, and agreed to testify against his colleagues in over 200 murders.

Until then, the authorities had been unaware of the mafia’s streamlined contract killing system, let alone its scope and extent. Abe Reles’ flipping was thus the moment when the smelly stuff hit the proverbial fan for Murder Inc. Worse, for Murder Incorporated’s leaders and contract killers, Abe Reles turned out to be some kind of savant, with a freakish photographic memory of nearly every moment of his entire life. As applied to Murder, Inc., it meant that Reles could provide detailed testimony of every murder he had been involved in or heard of. That included dates, participants, where the killings had occurred, and how they had been carried out.

Once Abe Reles started singing, other Murder Inc. killers saw the wisdom of cutting a deal with the authorities. Eventually, four other hitmen turned state’s evidence, and joined Reles in sinking their former colleagues. The first trials of the mafia’s contract killers began in May of 1940, and with the testimony of Reles and the other canaries singing, the convictions came in quick succession. They included the conviction and sentencing to death of Louis Buchalter, Murder Incorporated’s founder, his chief lieutenants, and other hitmen. Within a few years, Murder Inc. had vanished, with most of its members executed or imprisoned.

Reles and the other hitmen who had turned state’s evidence were stashed by the authorities in a secure location, the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Early in the morning of November 12th, 1941, with police guarding the door, Reles fell to his death out the window of his sixth floor hotel room. Police explained it as an accidental death, but the circumstances were such that it was clear that the mob had gotten to Reles’ police bodyguards, and that one or more of them had pushed him out. As one mobster put it: “The canary could sing, but he couldn’t fly“.

 

Sources and Further Reading:

Burton, Turkus B., and Feder, Sid – Murder Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate (2003)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lucky Luciano

J Grit – Murder, Inc. – The Syndicate’s Killing Team

Kavieff, Paul R. – The Life and Times of Lepke Buchalter, America’s Most Ruthless Labor Racketeer

Mafia Genealogy – The Castellamarese War

Murderpedia – Louis Lepke Buchalter

New York Times, The – Guards Demoted in Reles Escape (11/ 14/ 1941)

Sifakis, Carl – The Mafia Encyclopedia (2005)

Time Magazine – Top 10 Real Life Mob Bosses (1/ 20/ 2011)

Wikipedia – Albert Anastasia

Wikipedia – Dutch Schultz

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