Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (February 6, 1897 – March 4, 1944) was a Jewish American mobster and head of the Mafia hit squad Murder, Inc. during the 1930s. After Dutch Schultz' request of the Mafia Commission for permission to kill his enemy, U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey, the Commission decided to kill Schultz in order to prevent the hit. Buchalter assigned Calabrian immigrant Albert Anastasia to assassinate Schultz.
In 1936, Murder Inc. killers, acting on Buchalter's orders, gunned down a Brooklyn businessman named Joseph Rosen. Buchalter became the only major mob boss to have received the death penalty in the United States after being convicted of that murder.
Buchalter took the nickname "Lepke" at an early age. The name was an abridgment of the diminutive "Lepkeleh" ("Little Louis" in Yiddish) that his mother had called him as a boy. After his father died, his mother's health began to fail. The doctors recommended she move to Arizona to improve her health; Buchalter was left as his sister's responsibility. The day his mother boarded the bus to leave the city was the last time his sister ever saw him. He began, at an early age, to control the streets of New York City. When arrested as a child for breaking and entering, he was wearing stolen shoes, both for the same foot and an unmatched pair. He was sent to the Catholic Protectory and labeled incorrigible. By 1919, at 22, he had served two prison terms in Sing Sing Prison.
Upon Buchalter's release, he started working with his childhood friend, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro. Through force and fear, they began gaining control of the garment industry unions on the Lower East Side. He then used the unions to threaten strikes and demand weekly payments from factory owners while dipping into union bank accounts. His control of the unions evolved into a protection racket, extending into such areas as bakery trucking. The unions were profitable for him, and he kept a hold on them even after becoming an important figure in organized crime.
They moved into the new and fashionable luxury buildings on Eastern Parkway (135) with family were active synagogue goers (Union Temple and KolIsrael)
In the early 1930s, Buchalter joined Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and other mob bosses to form the "National Crime Syndicate". Luciano's associates Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Meyer Lansky formed Murder, Inc., a name given by the media in the 1940s. Originally a band of Brooklyn killers, they were effective and were used to fulfill many mob murder contracts. Buchalter and Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia would take control over Murder Inc. when Siegel and Lansky's business endeavors became national. Buchalter was responsible for contract killings throughout the country, including that of famous mob boss Dutch Schultz.
Buchalter's downfall began in the mid-1930s, when he went underground to elude the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which wanted him on a narcotics charge, and New York City special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who wanted him tried for syndicate activities. He surrendered to the federal government in exchange for not being turned over to Dewey. An urban legend spread that he surrendered to both columnist Walter Winchell and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Buchalter was sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas for 14 years for narcotics trafficking. The sentence was extended to 30 years on account of Buchalter's union racketeering.
Even more serious legal problems and consequences followed in 1940. The state of New York indicted him for a murder committed four years earlier, on September 13, 1936. On that day, Murder Inc. killers, acting on Buchalter's orders, gunned down a Brooklyn businessman named Joseph Rosen. Rosen was a former garment industry trucker whose union Buchalter took over in exchange for ownership of a Sutter Avenue 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 the District Attorney, Buchalter nevertheless believed it to be true.
Buchalter's order for the Rosen hit had been overheard by Abe Reles, who turned state's evidence in 1940 and fingered Buchalter for 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 after they were handed the case, the jury arrived at a verdict at 2 am on November 30, 1941, finding Buchalter guilty of first degree murder, the penalty for which was death by electrocution. Also convicted and sentenced to death for the same crime were two of Buchalter's lieutenants who had participated in the planning and commission of the Rosen murder, Emanuel "Mendy" Weiss, and Louis Capone (no relation to Al Capone).
Conviction and execution
Buchalter's conviction took place in December 1941, and the New York Court of Appeals, on review of his case, upheld his conviction and death sentence in October 1942 by a vote of 4-3. (People v. Buchalter, 289 N.Y. 181) Two of the 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). The United States Supreme Court granted Buchalter's petition to review the case and in a full opinion affirmed the conviction, 7-0, with two justices abstaining. (319 U.S. 427 (1943)) In the Supreme Court, Buchalter was represented by Arthur Garfield Hays, a leader of the trial bar who was general counsel for the ACLU and had a private practice consisting of wealthy, powerful clients.
At the time of the affirmation of his conviction, Buchalter was serving his racketeering sentence at Leavenworth Federal Prison, and New York state authorities demanded he be turned over to them for execution. Buchalter resisted, managing to remain in Kansas and out of New York's hands until extradited in January 1944. After his last appeal for mercy was rejected, Louis Buchalter was executed on Saturday, March 4, 1944 on the electric chair in Sing Sing. On the same day, 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 Queens, New York.
In popular culture
The 1975 film Lepke, starring Tony Curtis, was based on his life. 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 television series. Other portrayals include the 1981 film Gangster Wars by Ron Max.
Robert Lowell describes seeing Buchalter in his poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" (Life Studies, 1959) whilst incarcerated for being a Conscientious Objector during the Second World War.
Siegel was active during the 1910s until the 1940s. New York mobster associated with Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Charles Lucky Luciano during Prohibition. Credited for the creation of syndicate casinos in Las Vegas during the 1940s.
Zwerbach was active during the 1890s-1900s. New York gangster and head of the Eastman Gang after the arrest of Monk Eastman in 1904. Engaging in a feud with the Five Points Gang, he and his bodyguard were gunned down by Louie the Lump at Coney Island in 1908.
Abe Reles, known as Kid Twist, was active from 1921-1940. He was one of the most feared hitmen of Murder Incorporated during the 1930s, he later became a government witness and was responsible for sending many of his former partners to the electric chair. Relse died under suspicious circumstances while in protective custody in 1941.
Active during the 1920s-1930s. New York mobster and enforcer for labor racketeer Nathan Kaplan, and later Louis Buchalter and Jacob Shapiro during the 1920s and 30s.
Tannenbaum was an active gangster during the 1920s until the 1950s. He was the enforcer and hitman for Lepke Buchalter during the 1920s and 30s. As member of Murder Inc., he was responsible for the 1939 murder of Harry Greenberg.
Lepke was an active mobster during the 1910s until the1940s. New York labor racketeer who dominated the Lower East Side with Jacob Shapiro during the 1920s and 30s. Later headed Murder Inc. and was eventually sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing for his role in the organization. He is the only major mobster to be executed by the state.
Bernstein was an active gangster during the 1910s to the 1960s. He was a Detroit mobster and leader of The Purple Gang. After the end of Prohibition, he ran syndicate gambling operations in Miami up until his death in 1968.
NY multi-millionaire who made his money on parking garages. In 1999, Hirschfeld stood trial for tax evasion and hiring a hitman to kill his partner. Juries deadlocked. New charges have been filed. This has not stoppped Abe from running for Senate from NY--stating "Hillary Clinton couldnt please one man; how can she please the State?". Puts a whole new spin on the phrase "pressing the flesh".
Active during the 1920s-1930s. Lieutenant of New York mobster Dutch Schultz.
Active during the 1910s-1950s. Prohibition gangster. Popularly known as the "Al Capone of New Jersey", he was a founding member of the "Big Seven" Ruling Commission. He was also associated with Murder Inc.