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