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.