Murder Inc.: Jewish Gangsters in America
Michael Sugarman, May, 2003
They weren’t good Jews. They weren’t good people. They weren’t even good thinkers. Yet fascination lives on with these almost fictional characters. They were Jewish gangsters. They grew up going to synagogue and celebrating holidays and Sabbath, but as they got older, they were anything but orthodox. Jewish gangsters didn’t think of God, ethics, being a good Jew, or even consider tikkun olam or tzedaka. They were thugs, hoodlums, criminals, and anything synonymous with these traits. Yet, Jewish gangsters of America innovated organized crime. They made it as we know it today. These people made it organized. If you watch The Godfather series or Goodfellas or Bugsy, the crime you see is what Jews made it. They were masterminds of the mob. Jewish gangsters were descendants of immigrants trying to make a living, the “American Dream”. Other immigrants also started the life of crime, in fact, any nationality you could think of had gangsters; Italians, Irish, you name it, there were gangs for them. They were all either immigrants, or second generation Americans. You have to look at the irony of the situation. The immigrants wanted their children to lead a successful, law-abiding life, and live the “American Dream”. Now the irony was, in the time of the Depression and Prohibition, when organized crime flourished, you couldn’t be both successful and law abiding, in most cases. The only real successful people were the gangsters. The law-abiding ones were dirt poor.
There is some history, not much, but definitely some history of organized crime in America. There were gangs in New York since the 1800’s. The names and trademarks of some of these gangs are quite strange. The True Blue Americans were a gang that wore stove-pipe hats and long blue coats. The Plug Uglies wore primitive football helmets. Despite their odd names and tendencies, there were definitely vicious gangs and gangsters. The Bowery Boys were precursors to the Brownsville Gang, who would later become Murder Inc. There were mythical gangsters used to evoke fear into the hearts of other gangsters. In the 20’s and 30’s, organized crime was at its climax. This was due to the fact that America was in need because of the Depression and Prohibition was at its height. These circumstances especially benefited crime, being that people were looking for an easy way out of the Depression and some booze. But Jewish crime, such as Murder Incorporated, all came tumbling down in the 1940’s.
For Jewish organized crime in America, believe it or not, there were multiple gangs. There was the Purple Gang in Detroit, which were infamous for being super-violent and importing alcohol from Canada during prohibition. There were also many other smaller gangs. But by far, the largest, most successful one was Murder Incorporated (Murder Inc.). Few words can sum up Murder Inc., they were a driving force in America. They could control government by buying out judges, senators, and such. Murder Inc. may have only dealt with murder, but members of it dealt with every other sort of crime you could think of. The bosses usually dealt with bootlegging, gambling, and labor rackets. Everyone else dealt lightly in other things such as pimping, gambling, racketeering, and every other criminal activity. But mainly, most men of Murder Inc. were hit-men. They were all, bosses and hit-men, bad men.
Murder Incorporated killed over 1000 people across the nation. They were also known as the Combination. The term “Syndicate” is often used when talking about organized crime. The Syndicate was Murder Inc.
Murder Incorporated was interesting because it truly was organized crime. It ran like a business. In fact, this business was conducted in some of the most common places. In Brooklyn, most business was run in the back-rooms of candy stores, or in the back table of an all-night lunch counter. The hit-men would get phone calls from bosses to kill somebody in the candy stores.
The same candy stores that kids grew up going to, were a hot-spot for crime. Even though it consisted of mostly Jews, there were also some Italians, such as Charlie “Lucky” Luciano. There was a board of directors. This consisted of mob bosses. These were people such as Meyer Lansky, Benny Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and Louis Lepke. Murder Inc. specialized in making contracts to murder people. There was a special process for this. First, someone had to request for another person to be killed. Then, it was voted on by the board of directors. They would set up court hearings in place such as hotel rooms. Usually, even after approved by the board of directors, the contract was passed by Meyer Lansky. No one person was killed unless Lansky approved of it. A contract could not be made because of a personal grudge. It purely had to violate the laws of the Combination. Also, you could not kill a government official, a reporter, a civilian, or anyone on the board of directors. Of course, in the case of Dutch Schultz, the rules got so twisted, that he was killed. Murder Inc.’s motto was, “We only kill our own,” which basically meant, they only kill criminals. It was as if Murder Incorporated was a criminal league of crime fighters.
Eventually, Murder Inc. was national and made many contracts across the U.S. Of course, they wouldn’t have been this successful if there wasn’t an exact and fool-proof way to kill. It was a whole special, 8-step process. First, the contract was made. A killer was then selected from a completely different state than where the murder was going to occur. Or, a friend of that person would be hired to kill him. The killer would pack a travel bag for a week’s stay. The hit-man would then keep a close eye on the mark (the victim). This was to figure out his schedule and find a good place and time to kill the mark. Find the mark in a secluded place and murder him. Popular methods were shooting, strangling, or using an icepick. This was mainly because they weren’t very messy methods. They would feel betrayal because a friend killed them, or confusion, having no idea what happened in their last moments of death. The killer would then dispose of the body. A popular way of disposing of it was burning it in a pit or open field. The killer would then get on a train and get out of the state A.S.A.P. The police would have no suspects, motives, or sometimes, not even a single witness.
Usually escape from the mob was impossible. There were rarely any exceptions. If you wanted to become a family man, or found god, you would be murdered because you knew too much. The only exception was if you were a boss. Yet, there were a few successful escapes. One of the rare escapes was that of Gangy Cohen. One day, he just disappeared. But, then a couple of small time gangsters, Pretty Levine and Dukey Maffeatore went to go see the movie Golden Boy. Pretty spotted Gangy as one of the spectators in the movie. Soon Dukey was convinced, and so were Kid Twist and Pittsburgh Phil. Gangy ran away to become a movie star. If you were lucky like Gangy, you could run away, but that was rare. Most of the time, a gangster was murdered, sent to jail, or death-row. Death-row was probably the least punishment of all. You could rot away to nothing in jail, and you have to live your life in paranoia of being killed as a gangster. It's almost as if death-row were doing gangsters a favor.
Meyer Lansky was one of the most influential men in Murder Incorporated. He was a man of many myths. One of those was that he first met Benny “Bugsy” Siegel and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano at the same time. Bugsy and Lucky were arguing. For some reason, Lansky showed up, so he hit Lucky over the head with a tool or blunt object to end the fight. Another time, but this time it actually happened, Lansky was confronted by Lucky and his gang. Lucky offered protection. It was then that Lansky defiantly told Lucky to “go (fork) yourself.” So Lucky then offered Lansky protection for free, when Meyer Lansky obstinately told Lucky to “shove your protection up your (where the sun don’t shine)” Meyer Lansky did have these two people as enemies at first, but he soon became quick friends. In fact, they were all head members of Murder Inc. Lansky was considered the “Mastermind of the Mob”. He took care of mostly the business aspect of the mob. There were many inspirations for Meyer Lansky to go into a life of crime. As a child, Lansky’s family didn’t have a big enough oven to cook the Sabbath chloent. Meyer’s mother would give him a nickel to go to the local bakery. At the bakery, the owner would let Meyer use the oven to cook the Sabbath meal. While on his way to the bakery every Friday, he would pass kids gambling and playing craps. Well, one day, curiosity got the best of young Meyer. He decided to gamble the nickel on a craps game. But, not surprisingly, he lost. That Sabbath, the Lansky family would have no chloent. He felt he let his whole family down. Especially, his mother, whom he loved dearly. He also let himself down, and swore never to lose ever again. It was pretty ambitious, and probably every young kid in history has said that at one point or another. But Meyer was actually determined to make it happen. Meyer studied the craps games carefully every chance he got. He learned the tricks and the cheats. Well, another Sabbath, he took that nickel his mother gave him, and he bet on the craps game again. He won. After that one successful time, he never gambled with Sabbath money again. He was able to gamble with his own money. He gambled all over the Lower East Side, and never lost again. Meyer was so successful, he started to keep a big wad of money in the hole of his mattress. A big wad of money was pretty good when your parents are Russian immigrants just getting by. Heck, a big wad of money was good for anyone in the 1920’s. Also, the history of Jews compelled Lansky to lead a life of crime. Jews were always being pushed around. Meyer Lansky felt it was his obligation to get back at society and make sure no one pushed Jews around in America. Meyer Lansky was also bullied by older Italian and Irish boys. This was such as the time when Lucky offered protection. Meyer felt he had an obligation.
Meyer Lansky controlled everything that went on in the Combination. No one was killed until it was passed by Meyer Lansky. Meyer was close friends with both Salvatore Luciano (a.k.a.: Charlie “Lucky” Luciano) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. In fact, at one time, they were arch-enemies, but for some reason, Meyer Lansky had a way of making enemies into his friends. Lansky was a rather short man. He earned his nickname “Little Man” because he only reached a height of about 5 foot. Even though Meyer Lansky was mainly the head of Murder Inc., he also greatly dealt with illegal gambling and other money laundering schemes. Meyer Lansky, like all other prominent figures in the Jewish mob, was taught the tools of the trade by the infamous Arnold Rothstein. Without Rothstein, Lansky would probably have no idea how to operate organized crime. Rothstein also taught Lansky good fashion taste and etiquette. Rothstein wanted to make Lansky a gangster and a gentleman. Meyer Lansky had a historic meeting with Arnold Rothstein in 1920. It was actually two parts, but in the same day. First Rothstein met Lansky at a Bar Mitzvah. Rothstein told Lansky that he had interest in the kid’s skills. So then, they went to Rothstein’s apartment at the Park Central Hotel to have a six hour chat. Rothstein explained to Lansky that he wanted Lansky to be part of a scheme in which they would illegally import premium alcohol from various countries during the prohibition time. Lansky would be paired with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was star-struck by Rothstein the whole time, and it was an offer that he couldn’t refuse. This was before the Bugsy and Meyer mob. This was the first big time scheme of Lansky’s career. Some major gambling operations were in Havana, Cuba and Las Vegas. In Havana he operated the Montmartre Club; in Las Vegas he helped fund the Flamingo.
Under the Law of Return, in 1970, Meyer Lansky moved to Israel. Even though Meyer Lansky gained a new appreciation for Jewish culture and religion, he really moved to get away from the FBI, who had him under surveillance. Meyer Lansky successfully convinced Israeli officials that he did not lead a life of crime and was able to be “just another face in the crowd”. This was until word got out that he resided in Tel Aviv. The Press found him and stalked him. The FBI also found out and started to go after him. Lansky traveled across Europe, trying to outrun the Feds. He then tried to run to Paraguay, but they would not accept him. So then, Meyer Lansky, for the first time in his life, surrendered. He flew to Panama City, Florida. He was then arrested and tried in Miami. But surprisingly, he was tried for tax evasion, and not racketeering. He was acquitted. Lansky then resided in Miami. Later, he would be tried again for tax evasion and illegal gambling, but always acquitted. Meyer Lansky died of natural causes in his home in Miami on January 15, 1983. On his deathbed, he claimed that he never personally killed a man.
Arnold Rothstein was the single most influential man in not only Murder Incorporated, but also organized crime in America. He made it the way we know it today. When you watch any movie that has to do with any gang in America that takes place in the 20th century, Arnold Rothstein made it the way it is in those movies. He talked the talk and walked the walk. He had the etiquette of an aristocrat when his parents were just poor, Jewish immigrants. Rothstein was pretty versatile when it came to crime. He dealt in almost everything. Arnold Rothstein was famous for illegal gambling and importing alcohol during Prohibition. Also, before it was a major problem, Rothstein dealt illegal drugs. Arnold Rothstein had various nicknames. Each of them had a valid reason for them being nicknames. He was called “The Big Bankroll” because he always carried a huge wad of cash with him everywhere he went. If he went to go buy an apple from a street vendor, he would leave a tip of $50. He was called “The Brain” because he made the mob what it is known as today. Finally, he was called “A.R.” as an abbreviation of his name. But this was also a show of respect. It included his first and last name. It was just easier than saying Arnold Rothstein all the time. Rothstein was an exceptional pool player. He was a pool shark on and off. One day, a few gamblers seeking vengeance on A.R. decided to bring in a true pool shark from Philly. So they brought in Jack Conway. He challenged A.R. to a game of pool. A.R. got to chose the hall. He chose John McGraw’s Billiard Hall. The game would take place Thursday evening. The stipulation was first to get 100 points wins. Like any good pool shark, A.R. let Jack Conway win. Rothstein challenged Conway to another game. He won that one, and the one after, and kept on a winning streak. By the morning, he was up by $3000. They played until Saturday morning. Jack Conway was about to challenge A.R. to another game, when John McGraw, owner of the pool hall told them to stop. By that time Jack and A.R. were both delirious, and giggled like little girls after just about every other word they said. Rothstein then put his arm around Conway and took him to the Turkish Bath. It just goes to show how much money gangsters made.
Arnold Rothstein was constantly looking for new blood. If A.R. saw you, and thought he could make you an exceptional gangster, he took you in. He always paired up people, such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Being recruited by Arnold Rothstein was like being sent from the minors to the majors. You were now playing with the big players. A great attribute of Rothstein was that he was racially indifferent. In his gang, there were definitely a variety of races. There were Jews, Irishmen, Blacks, Italians, even women. If A.R. liked what he saw, he would take you in.
One thing that gave Arnold Rothstein his fame was the 1919 World Series. He was single-handedly responsible for the Black Sox scandal, fixing the World Series. Or, rather, so the myth goes that he fixed the World Series. The story goes that to win a bet, Arnold Rothstein paid 8 members of the starting line-up of the Chicago White Sox a large sum of money. In return, the players would throw the game. Ban Johnson convicted Rothstein of fixing the World Series. The real story is that Rothstein had nothing to do with it. The 8 players were just really mad at the cheapskate owner of the White Sox. So they threw the game. Game 7 of the World Series. Rothstein ended up suing Ban Johnson for Libel.
Arnold Rothstein was shot dead November 4, 1928, in the lobby of the Park Central Hotel in New York City. It's ironic that Rothstein gave birth to a great gang when talking to Meyer Lansky in the Park Central Hotel, and he died in the same place. Rothstein was shot dead, but his legacy lives on to modern pop culture.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was the gangster associated with starting Las Vegas. He was a pure hothead, someone who would shoot then ask. Siegel was also a grade “A” sociopath. He could be your best friend one minute, and shoot you the next. It was for these reasons that he earned the nickname “Bugsy”. Specifically, he would “go bugs” when trouble came about. It was a derogatory nickname that he hated with a passion. Some people were shot for calling him “Bugsy”, which is sort of ironic. Even though he was a hothead, it wasn’t his only weakness. Bugsy loved the ladies. He would do anything for them. One of Bugsy Siegel’s best friends was Meyer Lansky. The were founding members of Murder Inc. They started the Bugsy and Meyer Mob. They weren’t really a gang, but more of a two-man power-trip. Meyer was the brain and Bugsy was the muscle. Even though the myth says that Bugsy made Las Vegas, he really didn’t. It was mainly his idea to put a casino in Nevada, because at the time Nevada was one of the only places you could legally gamble. He also pushed to get funding for the Flamingo Casino, which was named after his wife, Virginia Hill. But, nothing happened until after he died. The myth was made popular by the 1991 movie Bugsy. It was a great movie, and was nominated for many Oscars, but popularized the myth. Then again, the truth never stands in the way of a good story. Bugsy Siegel was the epitome of the gangster as we know it today. Like how A.R. made the mob as we know it today, Bugsy Siegel made the gangster as we know it today. He was short tempered, suave, had good taste, and was a gentleman with the ladies.
One of the great true stories about Bugsy Siegel was that he had the opportunity to kill two major Nazis. They were Hermann Goring and Joseph Goebbels. One of Bugsy’s many mistresses was Dorothy DiFrasso. Her husband was close to Mussolini. The husband also invited various Nazis to stay at his house. DiFrasso invited Bugsy to stay while these two Nazis were there. Bugsy was just about to kill them when DiFrasso convinced Bugsy if he killed them, then she would be killed. Like Lansky and Luciano, Bugsy was taught style and crime by Arnold Rothstein. Bugsy Siegel mainly dealt in money laundering, gambling, and murder, even though he wasn’t a hit-man (remember, he’s called “Bugsy”, he would kill people anyway). Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was shot dead in his home June 20, 1947. The murder is unsolved.
Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was probably one of the more troubled souls of Murder Incorporated. He grew up a rough childhood. His nickname is actually short for the Yiddish word “Lepkelah”. This means “Little Louis”. Louis was a boss of Murder Inc. The only thing he really bothered with was the labor rackets. He was also taught by Arnold Rothstein. In fact, Lepke inherited the labor rackets from Rothstein. During the fall of Murder Inc., Lepke went into hiding. J. Edgar Hoover talked to one of Lepke’s reporter friends. The reporter convinced Lepke to come out of hiding. Lepke figured out it was a trick when he was sentenced to death-row. Lepke was the only mob boss ever in America to be sent to death-row. He was sent with his accomplices Mendy Weiss and Louis Capone, who had no relation to Al Capone. He was the first to go to the chair on March 2, 1944. Normal procedures went through, shaving their heads, sponging off the sweat, pouring salt on their heads to absorb sweat, and sticking electrodes on the body. A rabbi was reciting kiddish while Lepke was being electrocuted.
Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles was by far the most significant hit-man in Murder Incorporated. He was born and raised in Brooklyn. Reles took his nickname from a 19th century gangster. This gangster got his name because he would twist the life out of people. Reles preferred an ice-pick, he just liked the nickname. Reles was one of the most trustable men in Murder Inc. It was against his principals to rat on anybody. But one day, he had an epiphany. He thought, I can kill, or be killed; I can rat, or be ratted on. So he decided to confess to the police. The police brought him in. He confessed about everything he could think of about anybody he could think of. This filled up 75 notebooks. During the trials that these confessions led to, Reles had to be protected. He was guarded in the Half Moon hotel in Brooklyn with other rats such as Dukey Maeffatore, Sholem Bernstein, Allie Tannenbaum, Pretty Levine, and Mickey Sycoff. Reles kept himself entertained by playing bad practical jokes on his roomies and listening to the radio. He was getting sicker and sicker. One thing he did to irritate his roomate was coughing up tons of phlegm which was full of blood, and keeping in a glass by a window. He would wait until the glass was full to empty it out.
One fateful day, Abe Reles was found dead on the ground ten stories below than the window to his bedroom. Many theories arose of how he ended up there. One was he couldn’t live with the guilt, so he jumped to his death. Another was one of his irked roomies pushed him out the window. Yet another was a guard pushed him out for various reasons. But, the reason the police department came up with was completely different. They said he was trying to pull a prank. He was probably drunk. He made a rope of bed sheets. When the guards weren’t there, he would use the rope to climb down the side of the building. He would then go through one of the windows and knock on the door of the guarded hotel room. It would be a great prank. But the rope couldn’t support his weight, so it broke. Abe Reles was found on the ground with a smirk on his face.
If you have ever heard of the Beer Baron, Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer was that man. He was the only boss of Murder Incorporated to be killed by Murder Inc. During prohibition, he bootlegged beer and sold it on the black market. He got his nickname from a 19th century German ganster. Like Abe Reles, he just liked the name, so he used it. In his time as a boss, he became so paranoid that he branched off of Murder Inc. and made his own gang, purely for protection.
As result of his paranoia, he wanted Tom Dewey to be killed. Tom Dewey was the Attorney General of the USA at the time and he wanted to crack down on organized crime. Dutch Schultz had the right idea. But in turn he broke Murder Inc. rule number one. That was “We only kill our own”. Tom Dewey was not their own, a criminal. He was a government official. For that, Dutch Schultz had to be killed. The funny thing is, everyone else was so scared of Tom Dewey, they didn’t notice that a rule was broken until about 24 hours before Dewey was supposed to be killed. The hit-man for killing Dutch Schultz would be Charlie “The Bug” Workman. Schultz was killed in the Palace Chop House, a steak house in Hoboken, New Jersey. His body guards were shot dead, but miraculously, after being shot three times in the stomach, Dutch Schultz crawled to the bathroom. An ambulance came and rushed Schultz to the hospital. On his death bed, he converted to Catholicism. When a detective came to ask Dutch Schultz what happened, he spoke incoherently and nonsensically, and sometimes complete gibberish. The detective took all of this gibber-jabber down in his note pad. This has become a local legend. He died three days after he was shot.
This was a very interesting topic to research. It was like a story, but real and true. I didn’t find this topic, it found me. The movie Gangs of New York just came out. At the time, I heard about the story about Dutch Schultz on his deathbed. I thought, “that would be a cool topic, maybe Jewish crime.” Literally the next day, my mom suggested that I do a report on Jewish gangsters. I thought it was a really good idea, so I chose to do it.
They were very bad men, yet fascinating people. Its really amazing how fictional these characters were, yet how real they were. There were key characters such as Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, Lepke Buchalter, Abe Reles, and Dutch Schultz. They struck fear into the hearts of all who passed them. They made organized crime what we know it today. They were bad men. They were Jewish gangsters.
Cohen, Rich. Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Turkus, Burton. Murder, Inc. New York: American Book-Stratford Press,Inc., New York, 1952.
“Buchalter, Louis”, “Lansky, Meyer”, “Murder, Inc.”, “Prohibition and Organized Crime”,
“Reles ‘Kid Twist'”, “Rothstein, Arnold ‘The Brain'”, “Schultz, Dutch”, “Siegel, ‘Bugsy'”
Encyclopedia of Organized Crime in the United States: From Capone’s Chicago to the New Urban Underground, 1st ed. 2000; 1:39, 1:181, 1:?, 1:245, 1:?, 1:264, 1:277, 1:282.
“Meyer Lansky”, “Arnold Rothstein”, “Dutch Schultz”, “Bugsy Siegel” Mob Bosses
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“Murder Inc” Unique Gang Organizations
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