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