Louis Buchalter


6 February 1897 Lower East Side of Manhattan


4 March 1944 New York's Sing Sing prison




Once head of Murder Inc



Cause of death

Electric chair

Resting place

Mount Hebron Cemetery

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (6 February 1897 – 4 March 1944) was an American mobster who operated during the 1930s. He is the only major mob boss to receive the death penalty in the United States.

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, (the nickname Lepke means "Little Louis" in Yiddish), 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, 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. He 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.

Murder.Inc[edit | edit source]

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 together. 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 hitmen from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Opeating 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 Siegel and 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 Schultz killing was a major event for Buchalter 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, Buchalter arguably was the most violent, if not the most feared. Buchalter 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 the movie Murder, Inc. (1960), which brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod) 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 Buchalter during the early 1930s, but he maned to avoid arrest due to the bribing of federal judges and the Mafia's political connections. (Until the Nixon Administration, the Mafia was associated with the Democratic Party. Gore Vidal, in one of his essays, estimated that organized crime provided approximately 15% of the Democratic Party's budget in the 1960s. In mobbed-up cities like Chicago, a Democratic Party ward headquarters was synonymous with local Mafia headquarters/clubhouse.) 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 Buchalter as one of many targets of the "Syndicate" he was dedicated to obliterating. Fearing the implacable 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), Buchalter 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.

Downfall[edit | edit source]

After being arrested for murder, "Kid Twist" Reles turned informant for New York State in 1940 and fingered Buchalter for four murders, including ordering the 1936 murder of Brooklyn candy store owner Joseph Rosen, a former garment industry trucker. The hitman Reles, seeking to avoid the electric chair for his own crimes, said he overheard the order for the Rosen hit given by Buchalter himself. New York City District Attorney William O'Dwyer, who planned to run for mayor, arraigned 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, Reles - 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 Anastasia, 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 the Kid, bringing them to ensure that he would never get to the courtroom to testify. 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 Buchalter of first degree murder four hours after being handed the case for their perusal and judgment. Buchalter 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 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. Governor Dewey was forced to grant his former nemesis 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 was 47 years old.

Trivia[edit | edit source]

  • The only mob boss ever to die in the Electric Chair, he was convicted of the murder of a trucking firm operator on the testimony of Abe Reles, a gunmen for Murder, Inc., who cut a deal the Brooklyn District Attorney. On 12 November 1941, before he could testify against mob boss Albert Anastasia, Reles, while in police custody, "fell" from the 6th-story window of his hotel.
  • Had a son, who was 21 at the time of his father`s execution.
  • "Lepke" is Yiddish for "Little Louis"
  • Head of Murder, Inc., the national crime syndicate's enforcement arm. As many as 100 deaths were attributed to Lepke himself, while those under his control may have slain 1,000.
  • The 1975 film Lepke, starring Tony Curtis, was based on his life story. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he would also be portrayed by David J. Stewart in the 1960 film Murder Inc., Gene Roth and Joseph Ruskin in The Untouchables as well as John Vivyan and Shepherd Sanders in The Lawless Years tv series. Other portayals include the 1981 film Gangster Wars by Ron Max. Robert Lowell's seminal poetry collection Life Studies (1959) contains the poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" , supposedly recording the poet seeing Lepke while in prison.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.