World War II’s most lethal female was a young Russian woman who had to work hard to convince the authorities to let her fight on the front lines. When they finally relented, they sent her into combat without a rifle. She eventually got her hands on one, and proved her chops as a deadly sniper when she killed over 300 fascists in less than a year. Following are thirty things about her and other lethal historic figures.
30. History’s Most Lethal Female Sniper
Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, nee Belova, was WWII’s deadliest female sniper, and probably the war’s most lethal female combatant. She was born to Russian parents in the Ukraine in 1916, and moved with her family to Kiev when she was young. A tomboy since early childhood, Pavlichenko had a fierce competitive streak in all sports and athletic activities. In her teens, she joined the shooting club of a paramilitary sports organization, the Volunteer Society for Cooperation With the Army, Navy, and Aviation. She took to firearms like a duck to water.
Pavlichenko became an excellent sharpshooter who earned a marksmanship certificate for those skilled at precise shooting, and was awarded a coveted Voroshilov Sharpshooter badge. She got married at age sixteen and had a son, but the marriage fell apart and she supported herself as a grinder in a military factory. She attended Kiev University with plans to become a history teacher and scholar, and competed in track as a pole-vaulter and sprinter. She also took a six-month sniper course run by the Red Army. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Pavlichenko was in fine fettle to take them on.
29. Military Authorities Wanted to Make This Woman a Nurse, But She Insisted That Her Place Was in Combat on the Front Lines
When the Germans invaded in the summer of 1941, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was 24-years-old, and in her fourth year of higher education. When she heard the news, she dropped everything and rushed to Odessa to enlist in the Red Army. The military authorities wanted to shunt her into a role viewed as more suitable for women, and pushed her to become a nurse. She refused, and insisted that she had the skills and physical fitness to fight on the front lines with the infantry. As the invaders plunged ever deeper into Soviet territory and the situation grew more desperate, the authorities finally relented and allowed her to join the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division.
Because of dire equipment shortages, Pavlichenko wasn’t even given a rifle, but was instead issued some fragmentation grenades. Her baptism of fire came on August 8th, 1941, as her unit fought desperately to defend a hill. She finally got her hands on a firearm when a fallen comrade handed her his Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle. She promptly shot two enemy personnel, and demonstrated her lethal chops to her comrades. From then on, she was officially designated a sniper. It was a dangerous occupation: during WWII, the Red Army trained and deployed 2000 female snipers. Only 500 of them survived to see war’s end.
28. Lyudmila Pavlichenko Killed Hundreds of Enemy Soldiers in Her First Few Months of Combat
Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s first two kills in August, 1941, were just the start of the lethal havoc she would visit upon the invaders. Over a two-and-a-half month stretch, in what came to be known as the Siege of Odessa, German troops and their Romanian Axis allies sought to seize the Black Sea port city. Pavlichenko fought on the front lines, and took a deadly toll on the enemy. By the end of August, she had over 100 confirmed kills, and had been promoted to the rank of senior sergeant.
By the time the siege ended with the fall of the city, Pavlichenko’s kill count had climbed to 187. The Soviets retreated to Sevastopol on the Crimea, where she fought with the defenders in another siege for eight months. In the midst of war, she married a fellow sniper, but he was fatally injured by mortar fire a few days after the wedding. That only further fueled her determination to punish the enemy. By May, 1942, her confirmed kill count had risen to 257, and she was commissioned as a lieutenant.
27. The More Lethal She Demonstrated Herself to be, the More Dangerous Assignments Pavlichenko Was Given
As the number of her confirmed kills rose, and her lethal cred was further cemented, the military leaned more and more on Lyudmila Pavlichenko, and gave her more and more dangerous assignments. Of those, the hairiest were counter-sniping missions: de facto duels to take out the other side’s snipers. She excelled in those engagements, in which snipers patiently and quietly stalked each other across the lines, with death the common penalty for the first one to make a mistake, and survival the winner’s chief reward.
Pavlichenko fought dozens of sniper duels, and won each and every one of them. The most memorable one that stuck in her mind was against a particularly skilled German sniper she was assigned to take down during the Siege of Sevastopol. She carefully stalked him, even as he stalked her, for three days amidst the debris and wreckage of the city’s ruins. In the end, as she recounted, her adversary made “one move too many“, and ended up as one of 36 enemy snipers whom she took down.
26. In Less Than a Year, “Lady Death” Had Over 300 Confirmed Enemy Kills
As the Siege of Sevastapol progressed, Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s reputation as a deadly sharpshooter grew. She began to train other snipers to follow in her lethal footsteps, and by the time the siege came to a close, her trainees had killed about 100 Axis personnel. By June, 1942, Pavlichenko’s personal confirmed kill count had climbed to 309. By then, she was a famous national heroine nicknamed “Lady Death”, and known to all and sundry throughout the USSR. She was also-well known to the enemy.
The German military tried to bribe Pavlichenko, and sent messages across the front lines via loudspeakers that blared stuff like: “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer“. When that didn’t work, the inducements became threats, and towards the end of her time in Sevastopol, German loudspeakers blared: “If we catch you, we will tear you into 309 pieces and scatter them to the winds!” Rather than scare her, the fact that the enemy accurately knew her kill count only made her happy.
In June 1942, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was severely injured by mortar shell fragments that struck her in the face and head. Stavka, or the Soviet High Command, was not about to let a national heroine perish from lack of adequate medical care in the hard pressed and besieged Sevastopol if they could do anything about it. Accordingly, they ordered her evacuated by submarine. She recovered from her injuries after about a month in a hospital and was eager to return to the front lines, but her combat career was over.
After her close brush with the Grim Reaper, Soviet authorities decided that with over 300 dead enemies to her name, the lethal Lady Death had fought enough. From then on, they reasoned, she would be more valuable to the national war effort not on the front lines with a sniper rifle in her hands, but as a trainer who prepared other snipers for the rigors of combat. She would be even more valuable in a public relations role, both at home and abroad.
In late 1942, the hard-pressed Soviets were desperate for their allies to launch a second front and relieve the pressure on them. So Lyudmila Pavlichenko was sent to the US to drum up support for a second front. She became the first Soviet citizen received by an American president, when Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House. She also became a lifelong friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited her to tour America and recount her experiences. She was taken aback by the frivolity of the American press. Pavlichenko, who had been in combat for a year and killed over 300 enemy soldiers, was referred to as the “Girl Sniper”, and was questioned about the kind of lipstick and makeup she used on the front lines.
As she recalled: “One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat“. She stolidly plugged on, and won great applause in a Chicago speech when she stated: “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” During her tour, Pavlichenko spoke of the lack of racial segregation in the Red Army, and its gender equality – both matters in which the US military lagged far behind. By the time she left, Pavlichenko had made an impression, and even inspired Woody Guthrie to write a song about her, Miss Pavlichenko.
23. Pavlichenko’s Wartime Experiences Left Her With PTSD
Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s public relations tour also took her to Canada and Britain. Her arrival in Toronto was greeted by thousands of well-wishers, and she was presented with a scope-mounted sniper rifle, now on display at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. In Britain, the lethal warrior gave speeches, visited factories and the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and accepted donations for the Red Army. Despite her efforts, however, she and her countrymen had to wait two more years before a second front was opened in France in 1944. Upon her return, Pavlichenko was promoted to major, given the country’s highest military distinction, the title Hero of the Soviet Union, as well as the Order of Lenin – the highest civilian distinction – twice.
Pavlichenko never returned to combat, but trained snipers until war’s end. Afterwards, she resumed her studies and graduated from Kiev University with a history degree. Unfortunately, she struggled with depression and PTSD for many years. In 1957, during a visit to Moscow, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that she see her friend, Pavlichenko. Amidst high Cold War tensions, the reunion took place under KGB supervision. However, the two women managed to give their attendants the slip and catch up, laugh, and reminisce about the months spent together touring America. Lyudmila Pavlichenko, history’s most lethal female sniper, passed away in 1974 after a stroke.
22. This Finn Might Have Been More Lethal Than Lady Death
Lethal as Lyudmila Pavlichenko was, she might not have been as lethal as one of her country’s adversaries, Finnish sniper Simo Hayha (1905 – 2002) who ran up a huge score against the Red Army. Nicknamed the “White Death”, Hayha is commonly credited with killing 505 Soviet soldiers during the Winter War of 1939 – 1940, a David vs Goliath fight that pitted tiny Finland against her giant neighbor. It should be noted, however, only 259 of those kills were confirmed, while Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed sniper kills.
Hayha was born in an agricultural community, and from early childhood, was accustomed to hard work on the farm. He had a lifelong passion for rifles, entered and won numerous marksmanship competitions, and his home was full of trophies. Hayha got an early start in the skills of the hunt, and first learned how to stalk and bring down game in the Finnish wilderness when he was still a child. Thus, he picked up traits of toughness, patience, and accurate shooting that came in handy and served him well when he went to war.
21. Simo Hayha’s Years of Competitive Marksmanship Made Him a Lethal Sniper
Simo Hayha did his one-year mandatory service in the Finnish Army in 1925, and after his honorable discharge, he signed up for the Civil Guard – Finland’s equivalent of the National Guard in the US. There, his years as a huntsman and competitive shooter made him his unit’s best shot. So he was trained as a sniper, first with a Russian Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle, and later, with an improved Finnish variant. In due course, he was able to accurately hit sixteen targets in a minute, from a distance of about 200 yards. In the heavily forested Finnish landscape, there were few unobstructed lines of sight, and thus few targets at distances longer than that.
When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 and kicked off the Winter War, Hayha was called up for active duty in the Finnish Army, and finally got the opportunity to put his years of marksmanship practice to lethal use. Although the invaders greatly outnumbered the Finns, the Red Army had not gotten over Stalin’s recent military purges, which removed many experienced officers and left the Soviet military in disarray. The Finns by contrast, while numerically inferior, were better trained and organized, and were more familiar with the local terrain. They were also highly motivated, since their own homes and families were in the invaders’ path.
20. This Sniper Did in Hundreds of Soviet Soldiers in Just Three Months
Simo Hayha became known as the “White Death” in the course of the Winter War. Every day, he donned white winter camouflage to blend into the snowy landscape, took his rifle and a day’s supply of food and ammunition, and stalked Soviet soldiers in the Finnish wilderness. He picked kill zones along likely enemy routes of advance, and selected positions that overlooked them. Hayha then burrowed into the snow, and patiently waited for enemies to enter the deadly grounds. He did not use a scope, because he did not want to risk exposure from sunlight glare. Instead, he relied exclusively on iron sights, which made his 505 kills that much more impressive.
Later, sources from his unit pointed out that “only” 259 of those kills were confirmed. The rest were probable, but unconfirmed. However, even if he had “only” killed 259 enemy personnel, 259 kills would still make Hayha one of the most lethal warriors to have ever walked a battlefield. Especially when one considers just how relatively brief the Winter War was: it began on November 30, 1939, and ended on March 13, 1940. Hayha had thus put paid to at least 259 enemy soldiers, and perhaps as many as 505, in only three and a half months.
When America joined the World War I in 1917, there was little to indicate that Alvin Cullum York (1887 – 1964) would become one of the conflict’s most lethal heroes. York was born in a log cabin in rural Tennessee, the third of eleven children of impoverished but deeply devout parents. As a young man, he worked in railroad construction and as a logger to help the family make ends meet. On his downtime, he developed a reputation as a hell raiser, and as a violent alcoholic who liked to fight in saloons.
Eventually, he underwent a religious conversion experience, and became a pacifist. When he received his draft registration card after America joined the war, York requested an exemption as a conscientious objector. His request was denied, and he was drafted, sent to boot camp, then assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division. There, York got over his pacifism after his commanding officers used Biblical passages to convince him of the morality of fighting for a just cause. He was shipped to France, and by October 1918, he had been promoted to corporal.
18. When Alvin York Suddenly Found Himself in Charge of the Remnants of a Raider Party
On October 8, 1918, amidst the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, recently promoted Corporal Alvin York was sent across no-man’s-land in a party of four non-commissioned officers and thirteen privates. Their mission: to infiltrate German lines and silence a machine gun position. However, the German position turned out to be far stronger than intelligence had indicated. As the Americans made their way through broken terrain, they entered the kill zone of over 35 well hidden machine guns. The Germans opened up a lethal crossfire, and within seconds, nine Doughboys, including the other three non-commissioned officers, were cut down.
York suddenly found himself the most senior non-com, in charge of the survivors. As he described what happened next: “You never heard such a racket in all of your life. â¦ As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over 30 of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. â¦ All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”
17. A Former Pacifist Who Became a Lethal Whirlwind
Corporal Alvin York set out to do his best against waves of attacking Germans, and his best turned out to be amazing. From an upright position, then from a prone one, York simply drew beads with his rifle on any German heads that popped up, and put them down like it was target practice. All while a hail of bullets from dozens of German rifles and machine guns was directed his way. York’s rifle eventually ran out of bullets, so six Germans took the opportunity to charge him with bayonets. He took out his .45 pistol, and shot all six before they reached him. As he described it:
“I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all“. The Germans finally had enough of the lethal machine that none could seemingly halt. An officer raised his hands, walked up to York, and told him “If you don’t shoot anymore, I will make them give up“. That was fine by York. When it was over, he had single handedly killed 28 Germans, captured 132 more, plus 32 machine guns. The exploit earned him the Medal of Honor, and made him WWI’s greatest American hero.
The summer of 1941 was a bad time for the Soviet Union, and especially for the Red Army and its soldiers. The recent sudden German onslaught, Operation Barbarossa, had caught the USSR off guard and inflicted catastrophic losses upon the communist state. As Soviet military casualties mounted, the reeling Red Army’s personnel withdrew – or fled – in disarray from the advance of the rampaging Nazis. An unheralded Ukrainian soldier, Dmitry Ovcharenko, found himself among the millions of caught up in the calamity.
Ovcharenko’s obscurity did not last for long, however. A few weeks into the German invasion, he managed to pull off an act of sheer brutal and lethal bloody mindedness that set him apart and made him an early Soviet war hero. In a feat worthy of an action movie – or a horror flick – Ovcharenko took on scores of Germans, without a firearm. Instead, he slaughtered them with an ax. By the time his rampage was over, dozens of Nazis were slain, and the rest had fled in terror.
The son of a carpenter, Dmitry Ovcharenko was born in 1919 in the small village of Ovcharovo in the Ukraine’s Lugansk District. He grew into a mild mannered young man. In light of his lethal wartime exploits, it is ironic that acquaintances described him as somebody without a vicious bone in his body, and the type of person who would not hurt a fly. He quit school in fifth grade to earn his way in the village’s collective farm, where he cared for cattle, cut and stored hay, and tried to learn the craft of carpentry from his father.
Everyday life in his village required handiness with an ax – a skill that came in quite handy and served him quite well. When he turned twenty one, Ovcharenko was drafted into the Red Army. He was not gung ho about the military, and all he wanted was to serve his term, return to his village, get married, and raise a family. Then the Nazis invaded in June, 1941, and Ovcharenko’s plans went up in smoke. It did not take him long to make the invaders pay.
In mid-July, 1941, a few weeks after the German invasion, Dmitry Ovcharenko was in southern Ukraine, a soldier in the 389th Regiment of the 176th Infantry Division. He had been wounded recently, and as he recovered, he was given light duty and was entrusted with a cart to bring up supplies from the rear to his comrades on the front. Unbeknownst to Ovcharenko, however, the front had moved, and on July 13, 1941, he turned a bend in the road and found himself face to face with dozens of Germans. An enemy soldier quickly seized Ovcharenko’s rifle, then an officer came up to interrogate him. Unfortunately for the Germans, Ovcharenko’s cart had an ax.
Mid-interrogation, Ovcharenko suddenly seized the ax and lopped off the German officer’s head in a single sweep. As the shocked Germans tried to process what had just happened, Ovcharenko dove into the cart, pulled out some hand grenades, and lobbed them at the enemy soldiers. Within a few lethal seconds, the ground was covered with twenty one dead and dying Germans, and the rest scattered. Ovcharenko hefted his ax and gave chase. He caught up with another enemy officer from behind, and lopped off his head as well. The now-thoroughly-demoralized and terrified Germans – most likely reach echelon troops rather than front line soldiers – did not fight back. Instead, they gave in to blind panic and fled in terror.
Dmitry Ovcharenko eventually wore himself out chasing the Germans with an ax, and returned to his cart, whose vicinity by then was a field of carnage. He collected all the maps and documents and weapons off the dead enemy soldiers, loaded them in the cart, and delivered them to the headquarters of the 389th Regiment. When he explained what had happened, he was not believed at first – not until his comrades inspected the scene of his one-man rampage, and saw the gruesome evidence scattered all over the place.
Having killed twenty one German soldiers with grenades and beheaded two German officers with an ax, Ovcharenko was awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union decoration. As a military historian put it: “Ovcharenko showed wit and extraordinary courage, taking advantage of the confusion of the Germans. I think that he was a man of unbending will, devoted to his duty, land, and homeland. And striving to liberate his native land from fascist invaders by any means“. Dmitry Ovcharenko soldiered on until the war’s final year, until he was fatally injured in Hungary. He died of his wounds on January 28, 1945.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Italian-American mafia set up a contract killer system that worked so smoothly it came to be known as “Murder Incorporated”. It was broken into two subgroups and organized along ethnic lines – Italians and Jews. The hitmen of each group usually, but not always, were sent after targets of their own ethnicity. The lethal system was run at first by Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a ruthless Jewish labor racketeer in charge of the Jewish section, until his arrest in 1936. The Italians were headed by Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, who eventually ran all of Murder Inc. after Buchalter’s downfall.
Lepke Buchalter (1897 – 1944), the initial head of Murder Incorporated, 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 when he was twelve-years-old, and consumption forced his mother to move to Arizona’s dry climate. She left him in NYC with his elder sister, but she was unable to control him, and he drifted into crime.
Lepke Buchalter’s rap sheet began with his first arrest while still a teenager, 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 prison for grand larceny. When he got out, he got into labor racketeering, and via violence and intimidation, began to exert control over New York’s garment industry unions. He then used the unions to shake down factory owners for weekly payments, and threatened them with strikes, labor troubles, and other workplace unrest if they did not pony up.
Simultaneously, he raided the unions’ bank accounts and treated them as his private slush fund. By the mid 1920s, Buchalter was in a charge of a highly profitable protection racket, and in alliance with the Lucchese crime family, one of New York City’s five Italian-American crime syndicates, he effectively controlled NYC’s garment industry. Then, in the early 1930s, at the behest of mob boss and visionary Lucky Luciano, Buchalter created the lethal system that came to be known as Murder Incorporated.
10. Mafia Contract Killers Crisscrossed America to Carry Out Hundreds of Murder Each Year
Lucky Luciano wanted to insulate the mafia, particularly its higher ups, from any evidence that could link them with the murders that accompanied their business. So Lepke Buchalter set up a system that relied upon multiple cutouts between the mafia’s governing body, The Commission, which ordered or sanctioned hits, and the actual contract killers. The latter were thugs from Italian and Jewish street gangs, unconnected to the mafia and its bosses, and thus could not implicate them if caught. They operated out of Midnight Rose, a coffee and candy shop in Brooklyn, where the killers hung out and waited for assignments.
Buchalter’s lethal hitmen crisscrossed America, and carried out dozens or hundreds of murders each year. Their boss’s quiet demeanor was in sharp contrast with his actual viciousness and literal murderousness. Buchalter was dangerously paranoid, and in his final years, he went on a mission to murder any potential witnesses who might have criminal evidence that could be used against him. Because karma sometimes loves irony, it was the murder of one of these potential witnesses in 1936 that ultimately doomed Buchalter.
9. The Murder That Began to Undo Murder Incorporated
The lethal violence that lurked within Lepke Buchalter was not evident from a casual glance. Unlike many mob bosses who liked to wear their toughness on their sleeves, Buchalter was a soft spoken and quiet man, who preferred to listen instead of talk. He was highly regarded by his subordinates, who were exceptionally loyal to him because he treated them exceptionally well. He generously compensated them for their services, and did not stint on the personal touches. He socialized with and treated his underlings to entertainments, took them to boxing matches and other events, and even on winter cruises.
Buchalter’s downfall began with the 1936 hit on a Brooklyn candy store owner, Joseph Rosen. Buchalter had shaken him down out of a garment factory, and he now suspected that he had turned snitch and was in contact with 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, head of Murder Incorporated’s Italian hitmen, took over as overall boss of Murder Incorporated.
8. The Lethal Lepke Buchalter Became the Only Major Mob Boss to Receive the Death Penalty
After a year on the lam, the fugitive Lepke Buchalter was indicted on federal narcotics charges. He stayed on the run, one step ahead of the law, for nearly three years, before he finally surrendered in person to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1939. He was sentenced to fourteen years on the federal charges, and was then turned to the New York authorities. The Empire State’s prosecutors tried and won convictions against him on state racketeering charges, for which he received a thirty-year sentence.
While Buchalter was in federal prison, a Murder Incorporated hitman, Abe Reles, turned state’s evidence and implicated Buchalter in the 1936 Rosen murder, plus three others. Buchalter and his two main 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. 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.
7. Lepke Buchalter’s Replacement Was Even More Lethal
When Murder Incorporated was founded, Albert Anastasia (1902 – 1957) became the chief deputy of its boss, 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, who was even more lethal than his predecessor, 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 the murder of a longshoreman and sentenced to death.
However, as Anastasia awaited execution in Sing Sing prison, 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 decided not to testify. He walked from more murder raps, for the same reasons, in 1932 and 1933.
By the late 1920s, Albert Anastasia was a major labor racketeer who controlled NYC’s longshoreman unions, and was allied with Joe “The Boss” Masseria, NYC’s chief Mafiosi. When a gang war against a rival named Salvatore Maranzano turned against Masseria, Anastasia helped Lucky Luciano kill Joe the Boss. Five months later, Anastasia helped Luciano kill Maranzano as well. A grateful Luciano tapped Anastasia to play a leading role in Murder Incorporated. Unlike Buchalter, who kept a low profile about his viciousness, Anastasia was a vicious murderer who liked to let everybody know that he was a vicious murderer. He took such joy in his duties that he became the most feared mobster of his era, and earned the nicknames “Lord High Executioner” and “The Mad Hatter”.
When Murder Incorporated began to unravel 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. With Reles out of the way, Anastasia escaped prosecution. He enlisted in the US Army during WWII, rose to technical sergeant, was honorably discharged in 1944, and received US citizenship as a 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 25, 1957, belated karma finally caught up with Anastasia, when he was shot to death in a barber’s chair as he waited for a shave.
Murder Incorporated 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 of the organization’s 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 existence of the mafia’s streamlined contract killer system, let alone its scope and extent.
Abe Reles’ agreement to flip was thus the moment when the smelly stuff hit the proverbial fan for Murder Incorporated. Worse, for the organization’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 Incorporated, 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 murders had occurred, and how they had been carried out.
Once Abe Reles began to sing, other Murder Incorporated killers realized that the jig was up, and began to cut deals with the authorities. Eventually, four hitmen turned state’s evidence and joined Reles to testify against their former colleagues. The first trials of the mafia’s contract killers began in May, 1940, and with the testimony of Reles and the other canaries, the convictions came in quick succession. They included the conviction and death sentence of Lepke Buchalter, Murder Incorporated’s founder, his chief lieutenants, and other hitmen. Within a few years, Murder Incorporated had vanished, with most of its members executed or imprisoned.
Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia got away because of Reles’ timely death. 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 guards on 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 seemed 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“.
The previous figures on this list were lethal at a retail level. The next one, Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), the last of the great barbarian conquerors who erupted from the Eurasian Steppe and terrified the civilized world, was history’s most lethal wholesale killer. He is remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage from India to Russia and the Mediterranean, and points in between. Perhaps history’s deadliest figure, Tamerlane’s depredations are estimated to have killed about 17 million people, or five percent of the world’s population at the time. That five percent figure, if extrapolated to 2021’s global population of 7.9 billion, would be the equivalent of 395 million deaths today.
Tamerlane was a Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan. Born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan, Tamerlane’s rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen in a power struggle following the Chagatai Khan’s murder. When the dust settled, Tamerlane was the power behind a throne occupied by a Chagatai puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled. His claimed descent from Genghis was questionable, but Tamerlane used it anyhow to justify his conquests as a restoration of the Mongol Empire.
2. Tamerlane’s Savagery Was Fiendish Even by the Standards of a Savage Era
Tamerlane sought to justify his conquests with the claim that he was on a mission to reimpose legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been seized by usurpers. He then then spent 35 years sowing death and destruction far and wide. Among the cities he left depopulated and wrecked were Baghdad in Iraq; Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000.
Among his atrocities, Tamerlane liked to cement live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, pile up pyramids of severed heads, and erect towers of his victims’ skulls. His greatest victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks, a rising power in their own right. Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid I, had exchanged insulting for years, until Tamerlane finally showed up and defeated the Ottomans in 1402. Taken captive, Bayezid was humiliated and displayed in a cage at court, while his favorite wife was made to serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.
1. A Savage Conqueror’s Curse From Beyond the Grave?
To cap off his accomplishments, Tamerlane sought to conquer Ming China, which had overthrown and chased out its Mongol rulers in 1368. He formed alliances with the surviving Mongols, and established supply depots in Central Asia for his upcoming invasion. However, China was spared – and Tamerlane’s rampage finally came to an end – when the savage conqueror took ill and died in 1405, just before the start of his planned invasion. Eerily, the lethal warlord supposedly continued to wreak havoc even after death.
Centuries after his demise, Tamerlane’s body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words: “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, in an onslaught that the USSR survived only by the skin of its teeth. Just to be on the safe side, Tamerlane was reburied with full Islamic ritual in November, 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus. Tamerlane’s curse – if a curse it had been – was lifted, and the operation led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading