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Louis "Lepke" BUCHALTER






A.K.A: "Lepke" ("Little Louis" in Yiddish)
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: American mobster and head of the Mafia hit squad Murder, Inc.
Number of victims: 1 +
Date of murder: September 13, 1936
Date of arrest: August 24, 1939 (Buchalter surrendered to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in front of a Manhattan hotel)
Date of birth: February 6, 1897
Victim profile: Joseph Rosen (candy store owner)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Status: Executed in the electric chair in Sing Sing on March 4, 1944

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Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (February 6, 1897 – March 4, 1944) was an American mobster and head of the Mafia hit squad Murder, Inc. during the 1930s. Buchalter was one of the premier labor racketeers in New York City during that era.

Buchalter became the only major mob boss to receive the death penalty in the United States after being convicted of murder.


Buchalter was born in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan in February 1897. His mother, Rose Buchalter, called him "Lepkeleh" ("Little Louis" in Yiddish), which later became "Lepke". Louis Buchalter had one sister and three brothers; one brother eventually became a dentist, another brother a college professor and rabbi, and the third brother a pharmacist. His father, Barnett Buchalter, was a Russian immigrant who operated a hardware store on the Lower East Side.

In 1909, when Buchalter was 12, his father died. In 1910, Buchalter finished elementary school and started a job selling theatrical goods. Soon after, his mother moved to Arizona for health reasons, leaving Buchalter in the care of his sister Sarah. However, Buchalter was beyond her control.

On September 2, 1915, Buchhalter was arrested in New York for the first time for burglary and assault, but the case was discharged. When arrested as a child for breaking and entering, he was wearing stolen shoes, both for the same foot and an unmatched pair.

In late 1915 or early 1916, Buchalter went to live with his uncle in Bridgeport, Connecticut. On February 29, 1916, Lepke was arrested in Bridgeport on burglary charges and was sent to the Cheshire Reformatory for juvenile offenders in Cheshire, Connecticut until July 12, 1917. After a dispute with his uncle over wages, Buchalter moved back to New York City.

On September 28, 1917, Buchalter was sentenced in New York to 18 months in state prison at Sing Sing in Ossinning, New York, on a grand larceny conviction. After a transfer to Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York, Buchalter was released on January 27, 1919. On January 22, 1920, Buchalter returned to Sing Sing on a 30 month sentence for attempted burglary. He was released on March 16, 1922.

Rise to power

Upon Buchalter's 1922 release from prison, he started working with his childhood friend, mobster Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro. Through force and fear, they began gaining control of the garment industry unions. Buchalter then used the unions to threaten strikes and demand weekly payments from factory owners while dipping into union bank accounts. Buchalter's control of the unions evolved into a protection racket, extending into areas such as bakery trucking. The unions were profitable for him and he kept a hold over them even after becoming an important figure in organized crime. Buchalter later formed an alliance with Tommy Lucchese, a leader of the Lucchese crime family, and together they controlled the garment district.

Buchalter and Shapiro moved into new and fashionable luxury buildings on Eastern Parkway (135) with family who were active synagogue goers (Union Temple and Kol Israel Synagogue of Brooklyn). In later years, Buchalter and his family lived in a penthouse in the exclusive Central Park West section of Manhattan.

In 1927, Buchalter and Shapiro were arrested for the attempted murder of bootlegger Jack Diamond, a criminal rival. However, the charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Buchalter was a quiet man who for years managed to avoid the public spotlight. In conversations with his criminal associates, Buchalter preferred listening over talking. Buchalter generously compensated his gang members and took them to hockey games, boxing matches, and even winter cruises. On August 20, 1931, Buchalter married Betty Wasserman, a British-born widow of Russian descent, at New York City Hall. Buchalter adopted Betty's child from her previous marriage.

Murder, Inc.

In the early 1930s, Buchalter created an effective process for performing contract killings for Cosa Nostra mobsters; it had no name, but the press 10 years later called it Murder, Inc. The Cosa Nostra mobsters wanted to insulate themselves from any connection to these murders. Buchalter's partner, mobster Albert Anastasia, would relay a contract request from the Cosa Nostra to Buchalter. In turn, Buchalter would assign the job to Jewish and Italian street gang members from Brooklyn.

None of these contract killers had any connections with the major crime families. If they were caught, they could not implicate their Cosa Nostra employers in the crimes. Buchalter used the same killers for his own murder contracts also. The Murder Inc. killers were soon completing jobs all over the country for their mobster bosses.

In 1935, Buchalter arranged his most significant murder: the powerful New York gangster, Dutch Schultz. Schultz had proposed to the newly created National Crime Syndicate, a confederation of mobsters, that New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey be murdered. Many Syndicate members hated Dewey, but they denied Schultz's request. An enraged Schultz said he would kill Dewey anyway and walked out of the meeting. The remaining attendees decided to murder Schultz instead and assigned the job to Buchhalter. On October 23, 1935, Schultz was shot and killed in a Newark, New Jersey tavern. In 1941, Buchalter killer Charles Workman was charged in the Schultz murder.

In 1935, law enforcement estimated that Buchalter and Shapiro had 250 men working for them, and that Buchalter was grossing over $1 million per year in profit. They controlled rackets in the trucking, baking, and garment industries throughout New York.


On September 13, 1936, Murder Inc. killers, acting on Buchalter's orders, gunned down Joseph Rosen, a Brooklyn candy store owner. Rosen was a former garment industry trucker whose union Buchalter took over in exchange for ownership of the candy store. Rosen had aroused Buchalter's ire by failing to heed warnings to leave town. Although no proof exists that Rosen was cooperating with District Attorney Thomas Dewey, Buchalter nevertheless believed it to be true. At the time, no one was indicted in the Rosen murder.

On November 8, 1936, Buchalter and Shapiro were convicted of violating federal anti-trust laws in the rabbit-skin fur industry in New York. While out on bail, both Buchalter and Shapiro disappeared. On November 13, both men were sentenced while absent to two years in federal prison. The two appealed the verdict, but in June 1937, both convictions were upheld.


Before they could be taken into custody, both Buchalter and Shapiro disappeared. On November 9, 1937, the federal government offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to his capture.

On December 1, 1937, the fugitive Buchalter was indicted in federal court on conspiracy to smuggle heroin into the United States. The scheme involved heroin hidden in the trunks of young women and couples traveling by ocean liner from China to France, then to the port of New York. Lepke bribed U.S. customs agents to not inspect the trunks.

On April 14, 1938, Shapiro surrendered to authorities in New York. However, Buchalter remained a fugitive.

Over the next two years, an extensive manhunt was conducted in both the United States and Europe, with reports of Buchalter hiding in Poland and Palestine. On July 29, 1939, Thomas Dewey requested that the City of New York offer a $25,000 reward for Buchalter's capture, citing a string of unsolved gangland murders.

On August 24, 1939, Buchalter surrendered to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in front of a Manhattan hotel. The surrender deal was allegedly negotiated by the columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell. It was later revealed that Buchalter had been hiding in New York City during his entire time as a fugitive.

After Buchalter was convicted on the federal narcotics trafficking charges, federal authorities turned him over to New York State for trial on labor extortion charges. On April 5, 1940, Buchalter was sentenced to 30 years to life in state prison on those charges. However, Buchalter was sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas to serve his federal sentence of 14 years for narcotics trafficking.

On August 20, 1940, Buchalter was indicted on murder charges in Los Angeles for the killing of Harry Greenberg, a mob associate of casino owner Meyer Lansky and mobster Bugsy Siegel. However, Buchalter never went to trial on this killing.

Murder trial

On May 9, 1941, Buchalter was arraigned in New York state court on the 1936 Rosen murder along with three other murders. Buchalter's order for the Rosen hit had been overheard by mobster Abe Reles, who turned state's evidence in 1940 and implicated Buchalter in four murders. Returned from Leavenworth to Brooklyn to stand trial for the Rosen slaying, Buchalter's position was worsened by the testimony of Albert Tannenbaum.

Four hours into deliberation, at 2 am on November 30, 1941, the jury found Buchalter guilty of first degree murder. On December 2, 1941, Lepke was sentenced to death along with his lieutenants Emanuel "Mendy" Weiss, and Louis Capone. Buchalter's lawyers immediately filed an appeal.

In October 1942, the New York Court of Appeals voted four to three to uphold Buchalter's conviction and death sentence. (People v. Buchalter, 289 N.Y. 181) Two dissenting judges thought the evidence was so weak that errors in the judge's instructions to the jury as to how to evaluate certain testimony were harmful enough to require a re-trial. The third dissenter agreed, but added that, in his opinion, there was insufficient evidence to sustain a guilty verdict, so the indictment should be dismissed altogether (failure of proof means no retrial). Buchalter's lawyers now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court granted Buchalter's petition to review the case. In 1943, the Court affirmed the Buchalter conviction seven to zero, with two justices abstaining. (319 U.S. 427 (1943)). His appeals were now exhausted.


When the US Supreme Court confirmed Buchalter's conviction, he was serving his racketeering sentence at Leavenworth Federal Prison. New York State authorities demanded that the federal government turn over Buchalter for execution. On January 21, 1944, after many delays and much controversy, federal agents finally turned Buchalter over to state authorities, who immediately transported him to Sing Sing prison. Buchalter made several pleas for mercy, but they were rejected.

On March 4, 1944, Louis Buchalter was executed in the electric chair in Sing Sing. A few minutes before Buchalter's execution, his lieutenants Weiss and Capone were also executed.

Louis Buchalter was buried at the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, Queens.

In popular culture

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Buchalter was portrayed by David J. Stewart in the 1960 film Murder Inc., Gene Roth and Joseph Ruskin in the The Untouchables television series of 1959, as well as by John Vivyan and Shepherd Sanders in The Lawless Years television series.

The 1975 film Lepke, starring Tony Curtis, was based on Buchalter's life. Other portrayals include the 1981 film Gangster Wars by Ron Max. Buchalter was also mentioned in The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti, episode eight of the first season of the popular HBO television series The Sopranos.

The poet Robert Lowell encountered Buchalter in prison during the 1940s, when Lowell was incarcerated for being a conscientious objector. Lowell described Buchalter (whom he calls "Czar Lepke") in his poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke", published in his book Life Studies (1959).


Louis Lepke: Boss of Murder, Inc

Jewish-American Gangster Headed the Mafia's Assassination Bureau

By Jon C. Hopwood -

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (the nickname Lepke means "Little Louis" in Yiddish) was one of the top Jewish-American gangsters of the Depression Era and the only major mob boss to ever have been executed by government authorities for his crimes. Lepke was born on February 12, 1897 on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His introduction to crime was pushcart shoplifting, and he had already served two prison terms by 1919.

Lepke and his friend Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro strong-armed their way to control of the unions representing garment workers on the Lower East Side, enabling him to shake down factory owners by threatening to hit them with strikes. Control of the unions also guaranteed income and capital by diverting union dues and bank accounts. From their base in the garment industry, Buchalter branched out into shaking down other area businesses with his protection racket. Though he was later to enjoy greater power and income from his ventures after becoming a major Mafia player, he kept control over the garment industry unions as they were so highly lucrative.

In the early 1930s, Buchalter and Italian-American gangsters Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Johnny Torrio, the former boss of the Chicago Outfit and mentor of New York native Al Capone, allied themselves into an axis of Sicilian and Jewish criminal gangs. Luciano's Jewish-American associates Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky formed "Murder, Inc.", a group of button men who would be on call 24/7 to handle any "problems" that afflicted la Cosa Nostra.

Murder, Inc., originally was a group of mostly Jewish-American hit-men from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Operating out of the back of a candy store, they proved highly effective in maintaining mob discipline and eliminating problems such as eye-witnesses and recalcitrant marks. The band of brothers-in-arms eventually were used to fulfill most murder "contracts."

As Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky (the latter widely regarded as the financial brains of organized crime in America) had moved on to other, larger pastures, control over Murder Inc. was ceded to Buchalter and Albert Anastasia (known in underworld circles as "The Mad Hatter" and, more ominously, "The Lord High Executioner"). The group of killers was credited with carrying out many contract killings throughout the country, including the slaying of Jewish-American bootlegger and northern New York State crime boss Dutch Schultz at the Palace Chophouse, on October 23, 1935.

The Dutch Schultz killing was a major event for Lepke and Murder Inc., signaling their arrival as a major force in organized crime. (Louis Amberg was murdered by the group the very same day.)

Among the Jewish-American gangsters, Lepke arguably was the most violent, if not the most feared. Lepke reportedly killed as many as 100 men himself, and he may have ordered a thousand more hits, nationwide, from his underlings, which included Abe "Kid Twist" Reles' (played by Peter Falk in an Oscar-nominated turn in the 1960 movie Murder, Inc.) and Frankie Carbo, who later established himself as "The Czar of Boxing." (The Mafia, via Anastasia and Carbo and Carbo's partner, Mafiosi Blinky Palermo, took over the sport of boxing and manipulated the odds and fixed the fights according to abet their bookie operations. Carbo ran New York boxing, which was boxing until the 1960s - when he and Palermo were convicted and sentenced to prison - from his New York bookie operation.)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (whose director `J. Edgar Hoover' denied the existence of the Mafia until 1957, possibly as he may have been open to being blackmailed due to his alleged homosexual proclivities), investigated Lepke during the early 1930s, but he managed to avoid arrest due to the bribing of federal judges and the Mafia's political connections. The F.B.I. continued to hound Little Louis, anxious to convict him on a narcotics trafficking charge, while New York City special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey went after Lepke as one of many targets of "The Syndicate" he was dedicated to obliterating.

Fearing the implacable Tom Dewey (who would use his fame as the country's most successful crime-buster, the man who put away Lucky Luciano and other organized crime bigwigs, to the state house in Albany and two bids for President as the Republican nominee in 1944 and '48), Lepke was tricked by a childhood friend into surrendering to the federal authorities on a narcotics trafficking charge on the stipulation he would not get turned over to Dewey. Convicted, he was sent to Leavenworth for 14 years, later extended to 30 years on account of Lepke's involvement in union racketeering.

After being arrested for murder, "Kid Twist" Reles turned informant for New York State in 1940 and fingered Lepke for four murders, including ordering the 1936 murder of Brooklyn candy store owner Joseph Rosen, a former garment industry trucker. The hit man Reles, seeking to avoid the electric chair for his own crimes, said he overheard the order for the Rosen hit given by Lepke himself. New York City District Attorney William O'Dwyer, who planned to run for mayor, arraigned Louis Buchalter and other of his Murder, Inc. associates on the basis of Kid Twist's testimony to the grand jury.

The trial of the Murder, Inc. boss was scheduled for November 12, 1941, and Lepke was transported from Leavenworth to New York City to stand trial for the Rosen murder. However, on the morning of the trial, Kid Twist -- who was being by guarded by six police in Room 623 of the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island -- fell from the sixth floor window to his death.

The detectives said it was a suicide, but the angle of trajectory of Kid Twist's body indicates that had been pushed or thrown out of the window. Albert Anastassia, the "Lord High Executioner" himself, had allegedly put a $100,000 bounty on The Kid's head, though it was widely believed that Mafia boss Frank Costello "touched" the detectives guarding Kid Twist, bribing them to ensure The Kid would never enter the courtroom and testify. This is conjecture: What is known is that Kid Twist, the would-be "stool pigeon", became known after his death as "The canary who sang, but couldn't fly."

Lepke had run out of luck, however. O'Dwyer obtained a conviction based on the testimony of another Murder, Inc. turncoat, Albert Tannenbaum. In December 1941, the jury convicted Louis Buchalter of first degree murder four hours after being handed the case for their perusal and judgment. Lepke was sentenced to death by electrocution in the electric chair. In October 1942, the conviction and sentence was upheld by the New York State Court of Appeals, and New York City requested that Louis Buchalter be turned over by the federal government for execution of sentence.

Lepke put up the greatest fight of his life to avoid his fate, calling in favors from the Mafia's friends in the U.S. Justice Department and the court system, managing to remain at Leavenworth until January 1944, when he was turned over to New York. His execution was slated to take place on March 2nd, but it was postponed when the state's highest court of appeal decided on one final review. Tom Dewey, now the Governor of New York State, was forced to grant his former nemesis Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, along with fellow defendants Emanuel Weiss and Louis Capone, a 48-hour reprieve. Ultimately, the court confirmed the conviction and sentence.

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter one of the most powerful figures in organized crime history, was executed at the state penitentiary in Ossining (the fabled Sing Sing) in the electric chair affectionately dubbed "Old Sparky" on March 4, 1944. He 47 years old.

After his conviction, Albert Anastassia was the sole boss of Murder, Inc., but with the incarceration and deportation of Lucky Luciano, he moved up in the Mafia ranks, eventually taking over the Magano Family (later known as the Gambino Family), after the family don, Anastassia's nemesis, Vincent Mangano, disappeared. With Frank Costello's support, he was elevated to boss of the Magano Family after The Mad Hatter successfully claimed he had hit Mangano in self-defense as the don was determined to kill him. Costello wanted Anastassia as a don in order to counter the ambitions of Vito Genovese, the real-life model for Don Corleone in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.

As the boss of a family, Albert Anastassia's brutal ways eventually undermined him. In 1952, Anastasia violated a cardinal rule against killing outsiders, ordering the murder of a Arnold Schuster, a young tailor's assistant, after seeing Schuster on television taking credit for fingering fugitive bank robber Willie Sutton (the man who said he robbed banks as "That's where the money is"). In a rage, Anastasia ordered the hit, telling his men, "I can't stand squealers! Hit that guy!"

The murder of an outsider opened up the Mafia to unwanted public scrutiny. Vito Genovese used the incident to begin undermining Anastassia, but it wasn't until Anastassia' own ambitions alienated Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky (the inspiration for character Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II (1974)) that Genovese could act. When Anastassia horned in on Lansky's highly lucrative Cuban gambling operations, Lansky gave Genovese permission to eliminate the interloper, which Genovese arranged as part of his greater plan to undermine Frank Costello's role as "Prime Minister of the Mob" and establish himself as "Capo di tutti capi" ("Boss of Bosses").

On the morning of October 25, 1957, Anastasia was assassinated in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton Hotel (now the Park Central Hotel, on 56th Street and 7th Avenue) in New York City by two men wearing scarves. Anastasia's bodyguard was not on the scene, having decided to go for a walk after parking the boss's car in an underground garage. The Anastasia hit was carried out with an efficiency of which the Lord High Executioner's former Murder, Inc. partner, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, surely would have approved.


The Last Days of Lepke Buchalter

By Allan May

It was Thursday, March 2, 1944, and time was running out in Sing Sing prison for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and four of his henchmen who were facing execution with him. Condemned to the electric chair with Lepke were Emmanuel "Mendy" Weiss and Louis Capone, for the murder of candy storeowner Joseph Rosen; and Joseph Palmer and Vincent Sallami, for the murder of Brooklyn detective Joseph Miccio.

From the pre-execution chamber that the underworld called the "Dance Hall," Lepke seemed confident that the legal maneuverings of his attorney, J. Bertram Wegman, would pay off.

After all, his execution date had already been changed five times. Weiss and Capone were optimistic too that if reprieve came for the boss that they would escape the electric chair too. Palmer and Sallami both sat dejected. Only a last minute word from New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey could save them.

The day before, Wednesday, Federal Judge Clarence G. Galston had declined to issue a writ of habeas corpus to delay Lepke’s execution. Attorney Wegman’s position in seeking the writ from Galston was on the grounds that Lepke’s constitutional rights had been violated.

The lawyer contended that Attorney General Francis Biddle had erred in turning Lepke over to the state for execution while he was still serving a 14-year federal sentence for a narcotics conviction.

Judge Galston ruled that Lepke had no right to decide whether he should be allowed to serve his federal term before having to face the state’s sentence of execution. The judge also rejected the argument that Lepke should have received a commutation of his federal sentence by President Franklin D. Roosevelt before being surrendered to the state.

Wegman would now have to appear before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if Lepke’s life was to continue. The only alternatives now being commutation of the death sentence by Dewey or the remote chance of being granted a new trial.

The condemned men were shaved, then they showered, and dressed in the traditional death-night garb of white socks, carpet slippers, and black trousers with a slit in one leg so the electrode could be attached to the bare skin.

From the pre-execution chamber the men were just 25 feet from the chair. Set apart by partitions, the prisoners could not see one another but could communicate.

Given the traditional choice of selecting their last meals, Lepke had requested steak, french fries, salad, and pie for lunch; and for dinner – roast chicken, shoestring potatoes, and salad. Weiss and Capone, as always following the boss’s lead, ordered the same.

"Something can happen yet," Lepke called out to his death-cell mates. "I can feel it."

Something did happen. Just 70 minutes before Lepke, Weiss, and Capone were to meet their fate, Gov. Dewey granted the trio a two-day extension to allow Wegman an opportunity to apply to the U. S. Supreme Court. Warden William E. Snyder sent Rev. Bernard Martin to deliver the news to the men. Cop killers Palmer, 26 years old, and Sallami, 28, were not included in the extension. They were executed one after the other at 11 p.m. as designated.

How had Lepke arrived at this point after years of successfully running his illegal empire? By the mid-1930s, with Waxey Gordon and Charles "Lucky" Luciano in prison, and Dutch Schultz dead, Lepke was the criminal most on then Special District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey’s mind. Before Dewey could act, a federal district attorney trying to make a name for himself upstaged him.

Lepke and his sidekick, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro were indicted for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as it pertained to the restraint of trade of rabbit skins in the garment industry. The trial took place in October 1936 and to the surprise of many, both men were found guilty and given the maximum sentence – two years.

Dewey saw the sentencing as an opportunity. Once appeals were exhausted and the two men were imprisoned he would have time to collect evidence for his own indictment, that, he hoped, if they were found guilty, would send them away for a long time.

The strategy Dewey used was much the same as the one he mounted against Luciano. He exerted pressure on Lepke’s associates, past and present, promising them immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. Those who refused to cooperate were harassed and threatened with imprisonment by the aggressive lawman.

Meanwhile, as Lepke and Gurrah appealed their current convictions, they decided that if the court upheld the decision they would break bail and go into hiding. When the decision came down it was Gurrah’s conviction that was upheld, and Lepke was to be re-tried. Deciding not to wait around, in July 1937 Lepke and Gurrah went underground with the help of close friend Albert Anastasia.

In an effort to combat the case being built against them, Lepke employed killers from the Murder, Inc. gang to eliminate a number of the witnesses that Dewey was gathering to testify against him. Not all the people Dewey interrogated were marked for death. Some were paid to leave the city.

One old Lepke associate, Max Rubin, had left the city several times, but kept returning to see his family. Murder, Inc. gunmen tracked Rubin down and shot him in the head. Rubin survived. Dewey used this shooting to exploit his case against Lepke and Gurrah in absentia, and his own campaign to be Manhattan’s new district attorney.

Dewey won the election in a landslide and immediately intensified his pursuit of Lepke and Gurrah. Although sightings of the two mobsters came from as far away as Poland, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Canada, the pair never left Brooklyn. Lepke was resigned to remain in hiding for the long haul, Gurrah, on the other hand, was ill and turned himself in on April 14, 1938.

With the focus of the manhunt solely on Lepke, the reward for his capture reached $50,000. His face appeared on posters, movie screens, and in newspapers across the country. Lepke had become the most wanted man in America.

The publicity Lepke generated also provided good exposure for Dewey as explained in the book, The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, by Albert Fried:

"And as Lepke’s notoriety rose, so did Dewey’s status. It was apparent to state and nation that Lepke was escaping from Dewey, and for good reason. Dewey was convicting everyone in sight, including Tammany’s own Jimmy Hines, the partner of Dutch Schultz and many another racketeer.

But Lepke was Dewey’s meal ticket to higher office, perhaps to the highest; Lepke was the best Republican hope to come along in years and Dewey was going to exploit him for all he was worth. And so within a year of making his promise to break the underworld’s grip on New York City Dewey became the Republican candidate for governor."

Dewey lost in his first bid for the governor’s seat. This made him go after Lepke with even more determination. Meanwhile, the toll in human lives, as the two played their deadly cat-and-mouse game, continued to rise. It was believed the Murder, Inc. killers dispatched 13 men to their graves during this period, including the candy storeowner Joseph Rosen.

During the summer of 1939, the pressure on the underworld reached a peak and something had to give. The "give" was for Lepke to give himself up.

This of course followed assurances by his underworld associates that the "fix" was in. Lepke surrendered himself in spectacular fashion by using nationally known radio personality Walter Winchell as an intermediary to turn himself into J. Edgar Hoover on the night of August 24, 1939. Lepke soon realized that the fix was not in, and that he had been betrayed.

The federal government was given first crack at Lepke. It indicted him on narcotics offenses for his involvement in a drug smuggling ring involving Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg (See my article Yasha "The Wandering Jew," March 29, 1999).

Lepke then learned that when the federal government was done with him he would be turned over to his nemesis Dewey. In December 1939 the federal narcotics trial of Lepke began. It was short and sweet. With Katzenberg testifying against his former partners, Lepke and three co-defendants were quickly found guilty.

Lepke was sentenced to 14 years in Leavenworth Federal Prison; this sentence was on top of the time he already owed the government for breaking his bail in 1937.

Dewey hustled Lepke back to the state court, trying him on charges of racketeering in the baking industry. Lepke was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 30 years, which would not begin until after his 14 years for the federal sentence. The worst was yet to come however. Before Lepke could catch his breath, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, one of the top guns of Murder, Inc., revealed the gang’s operations and leadership.

Brooklyn District Attorney, and mayoral hopeful, William O’Dwyer was credited with breaking open the Murder, Inc. syndicate. In April 1941, he announced the indictments of Lepke, Weiss, and Capone for the murder of Joseph Rosen. By the time the trial was underway that summer, O’Dwyer had removed himself from the case to focus on running for mayor.

On Nov. 30, the three defendants were found guilty of murder. Two days later they were sentenced to death, the execution to be carried out at Sing Sing during the first week of January, 1942.

Five postponements had brought the trio the additional time up to March 2, 1944. In the meantime, O’Dwyer was elected mayor of New York City and Thomas Dewey had become governor of the state. Lepke had served them both well.

Late on the afternoon of March 2, Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan received a message from Warden Snyder that Lepke wanted to talk to him. That Lepke was convicted in Brooklyn and Hogan was from Manhattan was a fact not lost on the newspapers. Hogan and two assistants drove to Sing Sing where they spoke to Lepke in his cell for 90 minutes.

Hogan returned to the city and telephoned Dewey. Later that night the two-day reprieve was ordered. Whatever Lepke said to the district attorney, Hogan never revealed publicly.

A spokesperson for the governor insisted the delay was only granted to give Wegman the opportunity to apply for Lepke’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. This did not stop rumors from running rampant that Lepke was willing to talk. With Dewey already a candidate for the presidency, the information Lepke was rumored to have disclosed was so sensitive in nature that it could propel Dewey into the White House.

While Lepke was imprisoned from 1939 to 1944, stories persisted about what he might be willing to reveal about "men in high places." People in and out of law enforcement speculated on what he would say. Many believed if Lepke had opened up he would "blow the roof off the country" exposing:

--A nationally prominent labor leader on a murder charge.

--A noted public official of New York City on a conspiracy charge.

--A close relative of a very high public office holder as a ‘front’ for at least two of the gang lords who are credited with controlling crime in the United States.

Lepke once claimed, "If I would talk a lot of big people would get hurt. When I say big, I mean big. The names would surprise you."

During the two-day reprieve, the New York newspapers ran wild with speculation as to what Lepke had to reveal. Chief among the rumors was that the mob boss could provide information on Sidney Hillman, the president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Hillman was a member of President Roosevelt’s wartime administration, and his inner circle. With Hillman’s connections to organized labor, Dewey, it was believed, could link him to Lepke and parlay this information into a corruption scandal to hang over the Democrats in the November 1944 elections.

Before 1 p.m. Saturday, March 4, the U. S. Supreme Court rejected, without comment, Wegman’s plea that Lepke was wrongly released from federal prison. Lepke’s fate, along with Weiss’ and Capone’s, was sealed.

Shortly after the rejection, a hasty meeting was called at the Depot Square Hotel located in Ossining, New York, a mile from the prison. There, in a crowded combination bar and restaurant, appeared Mrs. Beatrice Wasserman Buchalter, Lepke’s wife. Wearing sunglasses, she pulled a yellow piece of notebook paper from her purse and stated, "My husband just dictated this statement in his death cell. I wrote it down, word for word."

"I am anxious to have it clearly understood that I did not offer to talk and give information in exchange for any promise of commutation of my death sentence. I did not ask for that!" (The exclamation point was Lepke’s.)

"The one and only thing I have asked for is to have a commission appointed to examine the facts. If that examination does not show that I am not guilty, I am willing to go to the chair, regardless of what information I have given or can give."

In Burton Turkus’s book, Murder, Inc. he claims:

"By releasing the statement through his wife, Lepke also was, I am convinced, giving an unmistakable signal to the mob. He was broadcasting to his Syndicate associates that he had not and would not talk of them or of the national cartel.

About politicians and political connections and the like – yes: the crime magnates would seek no reprisal for that. But not about the top bosses of crime. It was pure and simple life insurance. No member of his family would be safe if the crime chiefs believed he had opened up on the organization itself."

The last attempt to delay the execution came from an unlikely source. Rabbi Jacob Katz was the Jewish chaplain at the prison and served as Lepke and Weiss’s spiritual advisor.

Executions at the prison traditionally took place on Thursday nights at 11 p.m. These electrocutions would be the first death sentences performed on a Saturday night since 1917.

Katz telephoned the governor Saturday morning, asking him to not conduct the executions that evening because it was the Jewish Sabbath. Due to holding services on the Sabbath, Katz said he could not leave his responsibilities in the Bronx until sundown, which would only give him "a scant three hours" with his two charges.

"It has been the custom for the chaplain to be with the condemned the whole day long on the last day of his life," he said. "It creates a very human feeling between the condemned and the chaplain and society, and with his God. So much so that whatever nervousness, whatever tension has been created is reduced to a state of resignation and submission to one’s fate on the part of the condemned."

Request denied! I doubt this consideration had been extended to any of the 13 condemned victims Lepke had ordered dispatched.

Having had their last meals for the second time in three days, the trio realized when no word from the governor’s mansion was received by 10:45 p.m. that all hope was lost.

With the witness room packed with 36 on-lookers, Louis Capone was the first to take his turn in the hot seat. Flanked by two guards, and following Rev. Martin, Capone was strapped in at 11:02 p.m. and pronounced dead three minutes later.

Weiss came next. Walking behind Rabbi Katz, he was the only one to speak. "Can I say something?" he asked meekly.

"I’m here," he slowly stated, "on a framed-up case." Chewing hard on a piece of gum he seemed to lose his train of thought for the moment, but then concluded with, "And Governor Dewey knows it."

He finished with, "Give my love to my family…and everything."

At 11:10 p.m. Weiss was declared dead.

Lepke quickly walked in with Rabbi Katz. His step was described as brisk and defiant. He almost threw himself into the chair.

Frank Coniff, a reporter for the New York Journal American, was one of the witnesses. He wrote, "You look at the face…you cannot tear your eyes away. Sweat beads his forehead. Saliva drools from the corner of his lips. The face is discolored. It is not a pretty sight."

At 11:16, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was declared dead.

Burton Turkus wrote as a conclusion to the executions:

"A kingpin of national crime was gone, a czar of the rackets. The Syndicate that rules the underworld and has connections in the highest political places had lost its first major figure to the Law. Ironically, for all his power and his killings, it was the murder of a little man that caught up with Lepke, and ended him.

Justice proved she plays no favorites; she works for the man who pulls the strings as well as the one who pulls the trigger. Before then, no executive of organized crime ever sat in the chair. Since Lepke, there has been no other."



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