Starting with the Prohibition era in cities like New York and Chicago, alliances formed between Italians and Jewish gangsters. These groups understood the power of cross-ethnic mergers and were willing to put aside ethnic differences in pursuit of more lucrative business practices.
In Chicago, Al Capone’s right hand man was Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, a Jew. Bugs Moran, the target of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, headed a virtual rainbow coalition of gangsters with members who had names like O’Banion, Weiss and Drucci.
Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, legends of organized crime who grew up in the Lower East Side and Little Italy respectively, were such close friends and business partners that, according to Luciano, they “didn’t even have to explain things to each other” as they considered each other “blood brothers.”
At the beginning of Prohibition, southern Italians Luciano and Joe Adonis along with Jews Lansky and Bugsy Siegel started a bootlegging operation in Brooklyn. This operation soon began supplying large amounts of alcohol to the show-business community in the Broadway district of Manhattan.
A mixed group of Jewish and Italian gangsters were operating out of the Brownsville and neighboring Ocean Hill sections of Brooklyn. These men included notorious killers Harry “Happy” Maione (Italian), Frank “The Dasher” Abbandando (Italian), Louis Capone (Italian), Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss (Jewish), Abe Reles (Jewish), Allie “Tic Toc” Tannenbaum (Jewish), Seymour “Blue Jaw” Magoon (Jewish) and Martin “Bugsy” Goldstein (Jewish).
These goons formed the core of the group dubbed Murder, Inc. and became the nationwide execution arm of what was known as The Syndicate, whose leadership included at various times Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Dutch Schultz and Joe Adonis.
Soon the group expanded to include Lepke Buchalter’s (Jewish) and Albert Anastasia’s (Italian) personal killers, Charlie Workman and Emmanuel “Mendy” Weiss. It’s proven that Workman has been responsible for more than 20 murders. Workman and hitman Weiss shot Dutch Schultz and three of his men on Oct. 23, 1935. Schultz had angered the Syndicate by ordering a hit on his prosecutor, Thomas Dewey.
It’s believed that the group of about nine principal goons were responsible for at least 1,000 murders, including one war of extermination waged on behalf of Buchalter, who was attempting to eliminate any witnesses who could possibly testify against him.
Harry Strauss was the most prolific and was frequently sent on out-of-town hit jobs for regional crime organizations; who correctly reasoned that, since he was not affiliated with those hiring him and a stranger to the local police, the hit man and his hires would not be linked to the killings.
One such job was the 1937 execution of the Purple Gang’s Harry Millman (Jewish) in a crowded diner in Detroit. Strauss and another man had entered the establishment with pistols blasting and, along with killing their target, wounded five other diners.
Strauss purportedly killed over 100 men, but some historians put the number as high as 500. He used a creative variety of methods, including shooting, stabbing with ice picks, drowning, live burial and strangulation.
Abe Reles turned informant and began to reveal the inner workings of Murder, Inc. to Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Burton Kaplan. With his testimony and his amazing recollection for details, the police were able to close the book on 85 murders in Brooklyn alone. He also testified at trials in Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey.
Seymour “Blue Jaw” Magoon, another cooperating witness, disappeared, but his remains were recovered in the desert outside of Las Vegas in 2003.
Along with members of his own gang, Reles implicated Buchalter and Albert Anastasia in countless homicides and detailed the inner workings and structure of the murder organization. Until then, the authorities had been unaware of the mafia’s streamlined contract killing system, let alone its scope and extent.
A fine internet find was the classic and nicely produced 1960 TV dramatization “The Witness” in which Peter Falk portrays Abe Reles in the process of beginning to sing like a canary.
In the early morning of Nov. 12, 1941, with police guarding the door, Reles “fell” to his death from a window of Room 623 at the Half Moon Hotel. The newspapers dubbed him “The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn’t Fly.”
Reles had shown no inclination to escape from protective custody, and indeed had demonstrated a fear of even being out of earshot of the police. On the day of his death, he was to have testified against Anastasia, a high-ranking member of the Cosa Nostra, and the trial was based solely on Reles’ testimony.
His testimony sent most of his associates to the electric chair. They included Lepke Buchalter, Harry Strauss, Emanuel Weiss, Louis Capone, Harry “Happy” Maione and Frank Abbandando.
Targets of assassinations were informants, those who stole from the mob, other gang members or those who crossed Murder, Inc.’s members at the wrong time.
While other American-Jewish gangsters worked within cross-ethnic alliances, the Jewish Purple Gang dominated Detroit entirely on its own. Like its criminally minded contemporaries, the Purple Gang was engaged in various criminal enterprises, including bootlegging, hijackings, gambling operations, narcotics and kidnappings. And plenty of homicides were committed along the way.