Feature Articles

January 2002

The Rough Stuff

By John William Tuohy

     By the mid 1940s, Frank Costello was starting to enjoy the role as the enlightened man of reason within the mob, always careful to ensure that the law understood that he was a gambler and not tied in with "the rough stuff," as his friend Meyer Lansky called it, prostitution, loan sharking and, most importantly, murder. And while it was true that he didn't deal in those realms first hand, he had no aversion to dealing with men who did. Costello understood that in his world, murder was an option. In fact, he had wholeheartedly been behind the formation of Murder Inc., the syndicate's killing machine.

     In early 1940, Costello's incredible contacts in the New York City Police department told him that in the first part of the year, the District Attorney's office in Brooklyn uncovered evidence of a hit squad formed back in 1931, a squad that Costello and everyone else in the rackets financed.

     The D.A. didn't know much at first. He had heard the rumors that the squad was made up mostly of Jewish hoods who worked in loan sharking, bookmaking, running dice games and extortion and that they operated mainly in the Brownsville section over in Brooklyn, but it seemed to be able go where it wanted when it wanted.

     He also knew that they called themselves Murder Incorporated but that they didn't make a dime on any of the murders they committed. The theory was, and it was the right theory, that the squad was an enforcement unit for the mob on the East coast.

     For a while, Costello didn't worry about it, and then his informers told him that the D.A. had turned three members of Murder Inc., and one of them, a crazy hood named Abe Reles, was giving the cops so much information that in one 12-day period, his testimony filled 25 stenographic notebooks. He gave times, dates, places and names and he was talking about a national crime syndicate that included gangs from Boston to Chicago.

     Murder Incorporated, Reles said, was run by two of the toughest punks to come out New York, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, America's leading labor racketeer, and Albert Anastasia, a member of the National Crime Syndicate. He said that the squad was run out of the back room of the Brownsville candy store, Midnight Rose's, and was the official enforcement arm of the syndicate. They only killed under a contract, approved unanimously by the National Commission.

     Reles said that the murders, some 700 in all, took place from New England to California and that they ranged from standard two shots to the back of the head, to rigged car accidents, and strangulation. He said that as far as he knew, no one outside the national syndicate was ever killed.

     When Costello learned that the informant was Abe Reles, he wasn't surprised. He knew Reles, "Kid Twist" they called him, and like everyone else, he feared him.

     Reles was a Brooklyn born professional thief and extortionist who spent most of his adult life in and out of prison, with 42 arrests, six of them for murder. He was brought into the outfit by Albert Anastasia who put him, and a dozen other Jewish madmen, under the control of Lepke Buchalter, and Murder Incorporated was formed.

     Now Reles was talking, and if he kept talking, soon or a later, he would mention everybody in the outfit. He had already tied Meyer Lansky and Jimmy Alo in with Bugsy Siegel, Joe Adonis, Longy Zwillman and Albert Anastasia.

     Costello called in his Caporegimes: Jimmy Alo, Jimmy Angelina, Trigger Mike Coppola, Patty Eboli, Mike Miranda, Tommy Greco and Richie Boiardi. They had to find out, Costello told them, where the D.A. was hiding Reles, because not even his own considerable contacts in city had that information. Furthermore, Costello said, once they found that out, they had come up with a way to kill him.

     The Caporegimes hit the streets and back alleys and emerged with nothing. It was as though Reles had fallen from the face of the earth. People in high places, politicians, judges and policemen, hundreds of them, owed Costello favors and now he was calling those favors in.

     One of the people down town who owed Frank was William O'Dwyer, a former beat cop and the District Attorney for Brooklyn, who had ambitions to be mayor of New York.

     Costello learned that O'Dwyer had placed Reles at the Half Moon Hotel, Coney Island in room 623, on the sixth floor. For decades, O'Dwyer was never able to explain why he placed Reles in a hotel roomin a crime-infested neighborhood instead of a jail cell in a police station where his security would be assured. Nor was he able to explain the disappearance of the transcripts that Reles had given his office or was he able to explain his refusal to send Reles out to California to testify against Bugsy Siegel who was on trial out there for murder, nor did he ever bring Reles before a grand jury.

     The rest was easy but it cost Costello $50,000.

     Five police officers, under the command of a sergeant and a captain, were guarding Reles, yet in the early morning hours, at approximately 6:45 a.m., Reles went out the window. He landed twenty feet away from the window in a sitting position on a kitchen roof extension, 42 feet below. His back was broken. He died instantly.

     When Lucky Luciano heard about the murder, he said, "That bird could sing but he just couldn't fly."

     In 1945, with Costello's financial backing, O'Dwyer became Mayor of New York and Costello's power grew a hundredfold.

     Murder was an option in Costello's world, and sometimes the state did it for him.

     Costello went back to the old days with Louis Buchalter, better known on the streets of New York as "Lepke," Yiddish for "Little Louis." It was Lepke who had organized run Murder Inc. for the outfit.

     In 1937, Lepke got involved with a shipment of heroin from Hong Kong, but the deal went sour, and he became a target of the Narcotics Bureau. He went into hiding, in Brooklyn, and for the next two years managed to avoid a massive city manhunt by city police and the FBI. From his hideout, Lepke watched over his rackets, made even more money, ordered murders of the informants who had turned him in on the drug deal and ruined the government's case against him.

     Still the cops wanted him anyway, and every night, with millions listening, nationally syndicated radio personality Walter Winchell was taking to the airwaves shouting, "Are you listening Lepke? Well come out! Come out wherever you are and give yourself up!"

     Then J. Edgar Hoover sent a messenger, probably Winchell, to see Frank Costello. The message from Hoover was simple. People in Washington were applying pressure down the line and the Director was starting to sweat, if Lepke didn't turn himself in soon, Hoover's boys would move in on Costello's rackets from New Orleans to Florida to Brooklyn.

     Costello was getting pressure from other directions too because Lepke was using his cash reserve to hire goon squads to move in on the Gagliano and Luchese crime families. Lepke, power mad and probably insane, planned to take over the Luchese and Gagliano operations and after that, the entire New York syndicate. While Costello had nothing to do with those plans, Luchese and Gagliano were beginning to suspect that he did. New York was a tinderbox, a long, bloody street war could break out overnight. Costello pressured Lepke to surrender to the authorities on the federal drug charges.

     "I told Lepke the story," Frank said once. "I said that the heat was on and everybody was suffering. But I didn't tell him (give up) "or else." I told him that his chances on the narcotics deal was good. And they were, the trouble was, that guy with the mustache (D.A. Thomas E. Dewey) was looking to run for President. He would have gotten Lepke soon or a later anyway."

     So Lepke surrendered, under the assumption that Costello had put the fix in for him on the drug charge. On August 24, 1939, Lepke surrendered to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell and J. Edgar Hoover and several car loads of heavily armed agents. Within a day, Lepke realized that there was no fix in, he had been set up.

     After his trial and conviction on the narcotics charge, he was handed over to Thomas E. Dewey to be tried for the 1936 murder of Joseph Rosen, a trucking firm operator in the garment industry who had refused to knuckle under and ended up shot 17 times in the head, face and throat. Convicted of organizing Rosen's murder, Buchalter was sentenced to death. On March 5, 1944, he died in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison, swearing with his final words that Costello had set him up.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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