No crime organization in the history of the United States has ever struck terror in the hearts of gangsters throughout the criminal underworld like the notorious crime group dubbed “Murder, Inc.” by U.S. media during the 1930s and 1940s.
Murder, Inc was a group of enforcers for the New York Italian and Jewish Mafia that eventually began carrying out its grizzly business on a national scale. The murderous group was once headed at one time or another by the infamous Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Albert Anastasia, who was also known in some circles as “The Mad Hatter.”
It has been reported that Murder, Inc may have been responsible for as many as 1,000 contract murders before the group was publicly revealed by former contract killer turned informant Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Over the ensuing year’s law enforcement, led by prosecutor Thomas Dewey, tracked down and incarcerated and/or executed numerous members of the shadowy organization until it was driven to extinction.
Ironically enough, the informant who turned out to be the catalyst for the eventual demise of Murder, Inc., Abe Reles, was mysteriously killed when he “fell” out of a window.
The core organizers of what was later to become know as Murder, Inc. began as a loosely associated gang of street thugs from Brownsville, New York, committing petty crimes to support their chosen life of crime. At that time they were simply known as the “Brownville Boys,” but their small-time status would change how the Mafia dealt with opposition when they defeated the Shapiro brothers for street supremacy of their turf.
During the 1920s three brothers named Meyer Shapiro, Willie Shapiro, and Jacob Shapiro were behind most of the illegal activities that occurred within the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, New York. They were the kingpins of prostitution, gambling, and illegal alcohol who ruthlessly ruled their territory and kept all the proceeds from their ill-gotten gains within their family. It was only a matter of time before they clashed with the Brownsville Boys.
When the Brownsville Boys decided that the Shapiro brothers stood in their way of climbing the syndicate ladder it was clear that they had to be eliminated. After a long and bloody confrontation, one-by-one the Shapiro brothers were executed and the stature of the Brownsville Boys was elevated as a ruthless gang of hit men who were ready and willing to carry out contract killings against other members of the mob for a price.
The organization was actually dubbed Murder, Inc. by the media in the 1930s to sensationalize their deadly purpose. They were originally founded by the National Crime Syndicate (NCS) under the auspices of gangsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky. The NCS was later run by Louse “Lepke” Buchalter until he was convicted and executed via the electric chair for murder.
Neither the police nor general public believed that a criminal organization whose sole purpose was to carry out contract murders actually existed until an angry member of the gang named Abe Wagner turned informant confirmed its existence to the authorities. Wagner subsequently went into hiding but was tracked down by thugs who worked for Bugsy Sigel and executed.
Secrecy was always the key to the successful operation of the enforcement arm of the Mafia. It was under the leadership of Louis Buchalter that the gang was molded into an efficient killing organization. Buchalter did everything possible to keep Mafia activities away from public scrutiny. Under the cloak of anonymity, the ruthlessness of the organization could be carried out with impunity. Now the secret was out and there were challenges ahead.
How Murder Inc. Worked
Few historians dispute that by eliminating the Shapiro brothers the Brownsville Boys gained their reputation as major players in the world of organized crime and could no longer be brushed off as small-time operators.
With the death of Willie Shapiro, the Brownsville Boys gained respect within the National Crime Syndicate, whose membership at the time included names such as Lucky Luciano, Joe Doto, Frank Costello, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Louis Buchalter. The syndicate gave the Brownsville Boys many contract murder assignments through an intermediary named Louis Capone. In addition to cash payments for carrying out the murders, the gang was given larger amounts of territory within Brooklyn so they could run their own rackets.
The trigger men for Murder, Inc. were mostly Jewish and Italian gangsters who belonged to gangs operating in Brownsville, Ocean Hill and East New York. The efficiency and ruthlessness of the organization became well-know with criminal circles and it wasn’t long before their role as mob enforcers extended beyond the borders of New York. They became the enforcement arm of mob bosses across the United States.
The hit men employed by Murder, Inc. made use of many different types of weapons and tactics to murder their victims. In addition to handguns and shotguns, ice picks and rope for strangulation were favored. One of the most profuse murderer’s in the group was a man named Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, who is reputed to have committed more than 100 murders.
Strauss and others were kept on a monthly retainer and they also received an additional fee ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 for each murder. In addition, the families of the killers were given financial benefits. If one of the hit men were captured by law enforcement, the Mafia would bring in some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country to defend them.
Generally, the hit men were instructed to carry out their murders as discreetly and cleanly as possible. However, in reality most of the murders were as grisly and graphically violent as can be conceived by the human mind. Anyone identified as an informant was lucky if he was merely shot. But many were butchered, tortured and decapitated. Some were held at gunpoint and thrown into coal burning ovens to be burned alive.
These ghastly crimes were frequently difficult to prove. Usually, because the murders took place in cities where the victims were strangers and the bodies couldn’t be easily identified. Consequently, many Mafia killings would go unsolved.
The End of Murder Incorporated
No one in the underworld could have predicted that on the morning of July 25, 1939, that a case of mistaken identity would spell the beginning of the end of the crime organization known as Murder, Inc.
On that fateful day, an innocent civilian named Irving Penn was gunned down in the streets of New York while on his way to work as an executive with publisher G. Schirner, Inc., simply because he was unfortunate enough to live in the same apartment building and look vaguely similar to out-of-favor union crime boss turned informant, Philip Orlovsky.
The murder of an ordinary man who never committed a crime in his life and the devastation it caused his wife and two daughters drew outrage from the public and initiated a series of actions by law enforcement that eventually doomed the crime organization.
Penn was shot in the back multiple times by a .32-caliber pistol by a drive by shooter as he walked toward the subway on his way to work. The car was occupied by five members of Murder, Inc., Seymour Magoon (the wheelman), Jacob Migden (he identified Penn as Orlovsky), Gioacchino Parisi (the trigger man), Buggsy Goldstein and Louis Capone (who organized the hit). Initially, it appeared as if it was just another routine murder ordered by the mob.
Penn was rushed to the hospital and his dying words to the onsite police detective were, “I don’t have an enemy in the world.”
The murder of Penn was splashed across the front-page of every major newspaper. The court of public opinion pressured law enforcement to bring organized crime permanently under control. During the subsequent four years a series of investigations and arrests were conducted that chipped away at the code of silence that protected criminal organizations for so many years. When mobsters realized that once they were captured they were on the fast track to receiving the death penalty, they began to break their silence to save their own lives.
Magoon and Goldstein were quickly arrested and they subsequently fingered Migden and Parisi as the men primarily responsible for murdering Penn. Two years later, Migden was arrested even though he had plastic surgery performed on his face to change his appearance.
By the time Jacob Migden went to trial in February 1943 as the man who fingered Penn, the feared organization once known as Murder, Inc. had been decimated.
It took 10 years to track down Parisi before he was finally arrested in the Poconos. There were few remaining credible witnesses to testify against him, and eventually Parisi was released due to a lack of evidence. Ultimately, he died of natural causes in 1982 at the ripe old age of 83.