Murder, Inc. Trials: 1941

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Murder, Inc. Trials: 1941

Defendants: Frank "The Dasher" Abbandando, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Louis Capone, Martin "Buggsy" Goldstein, Harry "Happy" Malone, Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss, and Mendy Weiss
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Hyman Barshay, James L. Cuff, William Kleinman, David F. Price, Daniel M. Pryor, and Alfred I. Rosner
Chief Prosecutors: William O'Dwyer, Solomon A. Klein, and Burton B. Turkus
Judges: John J. Fitzgerald and Franklin Taylor
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Dates of Trials: May 8-22, 1940 (Abbandando, Malone, and Strauss, for Rudnick slaying); September 9-19, 1940 (Strauss and Goldstein, for Feinstein slaying); March 10April3, 1941 (Abbandando and Malone, second trial for Rudnick slaying); October 21-November 30, 1941 (Buchalter, Capone, and Weiss for Rosen slaying)
Verdicts: Guilty
Sentences: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: These trials awakened America to the fact that crime was one of the nation's biggest businesses, so vast that the crime syndicate had established its own enforcement armlabeled by the press "Murder, Inc." They also helped advance two political careers: Thomas E. Dewey moved from special prosecutor to district attorney to governor of New York and two unsuccessful campaigns as Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States, and Brooklyn District Attorney William O'Dwyer later became mayor of New York City.

Starting in the early 1930s, crime became organized into a national syndicate as local gangs specializing in bootlegging, prostitution, and racketeering began cooperating to produce greater wealth for themselves. Soon such bosses as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, "Dutch" Schultz, and Meyer Lansky, all of whom served on the board of directors of the syndicate, realized they needed to protect their power by eliminating any underlings caught skimming from the revenue chain, trying to seize more power than had been delegated to them, or otherwise getting out of line.

Meyer Lansky had the idea of creating a small, well-organized army of killers. In succession, the bosses put "Bugsy" Siegel, then Albert Anastasia, and finally Louis "Lepke" Buchalter in charge. Buchalter came up with the code words that eventually found their way into the American language: The murder specialists could accept a "contract" (assignment) to "hit" (kill) any "bum" (intended victim) anywhere at a price per hit that ranged from $1,000 to $6,000. Members of the force operated in secrecy and without territorial claims. The rank-and-file mobsters never knew who they were. The killers prided themselves on their ability to do their homework by studying photographs of a bum they did not otherwise know, move unrecognized into a strange city, find the miscreant, hit him by ice pick or knife or bullets (one used whatever was handy, including a fire ax grabbed from a restaurant's wall case), and quietly leave town while the perplexed police looked around among the local bad guys.

"We Only Kill Each Other"

The organization also prided itself on its businesslike outlook: Killers were provided insurance, health, and pension benefits and were kept on salary between hits. They knew that, if they were caught, the best lawyers would defend them and, if they were convicted, their families would find the take-home pay still coming in while they did time in jail. Furthermore, organization philosophy was summed up in the words of "Bugsy" Siegel to a nervous building contractor hired to make alterations in his home: "We only kill each other." Hitting police or prosecutors was strictly forbidden lest it produce intensive crackdowns by law enforcement people.

By 1935, a New York grand jury, alarmed by the path of blood left by the operations of the national crime syndicate, asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor to supersede the district attorney in investigating vice and racketeering. Governor Herbert H. Lehman appointed Thomas E. Dewey, who earlier had earned prominence as chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Within two years, Dewey had gained 72 convictions and suffered only one acquittal and had been elected district attorney of New York County (i.e., Manhattan). Meantime, the New York newspapers had invented the corporate title "Murder, Inc." to identify the hit squad that was Dewey's target. The crime syndicate began to worry.

"Dutch" Schultz told the syndicate board it was time to break the "we only kill each other" rule: A contract on Dewey should be put out, he insisted. The board tried to make the irrepressible Schultz understand what a disastrous avalanche of police pressure he was inviting. Schultz marched angrily out of the meeting, shouting, "If you guys are too yellow to go after Dewey, I'll get him myself and I'll get him in a week."

As the door slammed behind Schultz, the board consulted. Anastasia, who was commandant of the killer troop, said, "Okay, I guess the Dutchman goes." That evening, Schultz was cornered in a restaurant washroom by Charles "The Bug" Workman and Mendy Weiss and riddled with bullets.

Word reached Buchalter in 1937 that Dewey was building a case against him. His buddy Anastasia, who had himself proposed killing Dewey soon after Schultz was eliminated, visited Lucky Luciano in Dannemora Prison (where the syndicate boss had languished since Dewey convicted him on charges of compulsory prostitution in 1936) and got permission to hide Buchalter. For two years, while Dewey offered a $25,000 reward and J. Edgar Hoover promised $5,000 to the FBI agent who turned Buchalter in, he could not be found. Meantime, from his hiding place in Brooklyn, Buchalter became more and more belligerent, dispatching killers to eliminate every potential witness against him.

Surrender to J. Edgar Hoover and Walter Winchell

By 1939, the syndicate board knew Buchalter was a liability. He had to go. But sending him off the way Dutch Schultz was sent would inspire Dewey to even greater determination to wipe out the syndicate. From prison, Luciano masterminded a scheme to make Buchalter think a deal had been made. Trusting his pals, he came out of hiding and surrendered to J. Edgar Hoover himself in a car driven by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, then learned he had been double-crossed: There was no deal. Within a month, he was tried in federal court on a narcotics charge, convicted, and sentenced to 14 years. Next, Dewey convicted him on a charge of extortion, with a 30-years-to-life sentence.

Within a year, one of Buchalter's killers, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, arrested on a murder charge, decided to talk in exchange for police protection and immunity from prosecution. Soon the syndicate board knew that Reles, who seemed gifted with total recall, had talked for 12 days, filling 25 stenographic notebooks.

With Reles' testimony in May 1940, Brooklyn District Attorney William O'Dwyer (who later served as mayor of New York City, then resigned to become ambassador to Mexico) convicted Frank "The Dasher" Abbandando, Harry "Happy" Malone, and Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss of the murder of mobster George Rudnick. Sentenced to die, they appealed, citing an error in Judge Franklin Taylor's charge to the jury.

Meantime, O'Dwyer gained a second death sentence for Strauss in September 1940 for killing gangster Irving "Piggy" Feinstein. Convicted with Strauss was Martin "Buggsy" Goldstein. When the New York State Court of Appeals reversed the first convictions, O'Dwyer let Strauss sit in Sing Sing Prison in March 1941 while he convicted Abbandando and Malone all over again. All three then lost appeal after appeal. Strauss and Goldstein were executed on June 12, 1941, and Abbandando and Malone on February 19, 1942.

O'Dwyer pulled Buchalter out of Federal prison in November 1941 and tried him, with Louis Capone and Mendy Weiss, for the murder of candy-store operator Joseph Rosen, whom they had forced out of business and then hit after he threatened to complain to authorities. Reles' testimony, including vivid descriptions of garrotings and ice pick stabbings, brought the first and only conviction and execution of a member of the syndicate board. (Buchalter was one of the wealthiest Americans ever lawfully executed.)

Reles was next scheduled to testify in the trial of Albert Anastasia for the murder of Teamster official Morris Diamondanother outside-the-mob murder that Luciano had cautioned Anastasia against. But early on the morning of November 12, 1941, the body of Kid Twist Reles was found lying 42 feet below the window of the hotel room where six policemen were supposedly protecting him. Deprived of his star witness, O'Dwyer withdrew the charges against Anastasia.

Buchalter, Capone, and Weiss, having exhausted all possible appeals, died at Sing Sing on March 4, 1944. With the earlier executions of Abbandando, Malone, Strauss, and Goldstein, then, a handful of men paid with their lives for the dozens upon dozens of ruthless killings by perhaps 60, perhaps as many as 100, professional killers on the "Murder, Inc." payroll over some 15 years.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fox, Stephen. Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth-Century America. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1989.

Godwin, John. Murder USA: The Ways We Kill Each Other. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

Gosch, Martin A. and Richard Hammer. The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974.

McClellan, John L. Crime Without Punishment. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1962.

Messick, Hank. The Silent Syndicate. New York: Macmillan Co., 1967.

Nash, Jay Robert. Almanac of World Crime. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981.

. Encycopedia of World Crime. Wilmetre, Ill.: CrimeBooks, 1991.

Turkus, Burton B. and Sid Feder. Murder, Inc. New York: Farrar, Straus/Manor Books, 1951.