The 'Lethal Lady Death' and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures

Khalid Elhassan - July 10, 2021

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Lepke Buchalter. Criminal Genealogy

11. The Rise of Lepke Buchalter

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Midnight Rose, the Brooklyn candy and coffee store where Murder Incorporated hitmen hung out while waiting for lethal assignments. Pintrest

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Some of Murder Incorporated’s hitmen. Pintrest

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Lepke Buchalter in handcuffs in 1939. Library of Congress

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Albert Anastasia in 1921. Beats Boxing and Mayhem

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Albert Anastasia, left. Walmart

6. The Lord High Executioner

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Murder Incorporated hitman Abe Reles. Cosa Nostra News

5. The End of the Lethal Murder Incorporated

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Abe Reles. Pintrest

4. The Canary Who Could Sing, But Not Fly

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 ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Tamerlane. Medieval 2

3. History’s Most Lethal Warlord

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
A nineteenth century painting depicting Bayezid held captive by Tamerlane. Wikimedia

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.

The ‘Lethal Lady Death’ and Other Dangerous Historic Figures
Facial reconstruction of Tamerlane, based on his recovered skull. Owlcation

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Badass of the Week – Simo Hayha

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

Encyclopedia Britannica – Timur

History Collection – World War II Myths

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 (2006)

Lee, David D. – Sergeant York: An American Hero (1985)

Manz, Beatrice Forbes – The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (1999)

National World War II Museum – “Lady Death” of the Red Army: Lyudmila Pavlichenko

New York Times, November 14th, 1941 – Guards Demoted in Reles Escape

Saarelainen, Tapio – The White Sniper: Simo Hayha (2016)

Top War – Dmitry Ovcharenko: The Hero Who Hacked Two Dozen Fascists With an Ax

Vinogradova, Lyuba – Avenging Angels: Young Women of the Soviet Union’s WWII Sniper Corps (2017)

War History Online – Russian Rambo of WWII

Wikipedia – Alvin York

Wikipedia – Lepke Buchalter

Wikipedia – Lyudmila Pavlichenko

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