Thursday, 25 February 2010

American Gangsters, Part 6: The Big Heat

The death of Dutch Schultz (see below). I think this is one of the greatest press photographs of all time! Note the blood on the tablecloth and the bullet-holes in the mirror behind, with the refection of the policeman!

For reasons still much debated, J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. refused to believe in the existence of organised crime in America's cities. Hoover spent his time in pursuit of bank robbers like Dillinger, or investigating the Communist sympathies of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson or even Frank Sinatra. The fight against the gangsters was left in other hands. We have already seen how the I.R.S. (the income tax authorities) finally brought Capone to book. In 1931 a new face was seen in this battle when a young lawyer from Michigan took up his post in the office of the District Attorney of New York, from which humble beginning he eventually rose to be the Republican candidate for the Presidency. His name was Thomas E. Dewey.

Dewey's first success came in 1933 with the conviction for tax evasion of a pickpocket-turned-bootlegger known as Waxey Gordon, who was sentenced to ten years in prison. Next, Owen Madden, owner of the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, and incidentally the only major gangster to have been born in England, was forced to flee New York and take refuge in Hot Springs, Arkansas. (He lived there till 1964, long enough to have met the state's most famous son, Bill Clinton, though there is no evidence that they ever did meet)

In 1953 came a bigger target, when Dutch Schultz was prosecuted on tax charges. Schultz by this time was making enormous sums through his control of the "Numbers" game: a form of gambling not unlike our National Lottery, and very popular amongst the Negro community. Ingenious footwork by Schultz's lawyer resulted in anunexpected acquittal, but Dewey pledged to try again. Schultz, furious, called a meeting of the new York gang leaders to demand Dewey's assassination. The project was vetoed by Luciano and Lansky, and when Scultz then threatened to do the deed himself regardless, they decided he was a dangerous loose cannon who must be eliminated. In October 1935 Schultz and three of his lieutenants were gunned down in a restaurant in Newark, New Jersey by Mendy Weiss and Charlie Workman, two of the most efficient professional killers in Lepke Buchalter's organisation. Schultz took several hours to bleed to death, gabbling unintelligible nonsense while police stenographers strove to take down his every word in the hope of finding clues.

Next year Dewey was appointed Special Prosecutor. The city had a new mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, who vowed to wipe out the gangs. Dewey began to investigate prostitution in New York, and in a sudden swoop hundreds of girls were arrested and encouraged to name their controllers. This led to Dewey netting his biggest fish yet: in autumn 1936 Luck Luciano himself was arrested and charged with running brothels. Ironically enough, this must have been about the only offence Luciano had never committed, and he seemed genuinely shocked by the allegations: extorting money from prostitutes was the behaviour of a low-grade punk, and he was a serious businessman of crime! But Dewey's witnesses had benn well-rehearsed; Luciano was convicted on a great many counts and sentenced to no less than fifty years in prison.

All the gang leaders now felt under pressure. Jake Shapiro gave himself up, and eventually died in prison, Benny Siegel retreated to California, and Lepke went into hiding, from where he sent out orders for the elimination of anyone who might be able to give evidence against him. Finally in August 1940 he also turned himself in, believing he had negotiated a deal with the authorities whereby he would only be charged with lesser offences. But Lepke's hope were to prove illusionary, because in the spring of next year the forces of law and order were provided with their biggest break ever.

Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles had been the leading light of "Murder Incorporated", professional executioners from Brooklyn who carried out contract killings on behalf of Lepke and the other gang leaders. In March 1940 Reles, who was already under arrest, decided to tell all to Burton Turkus, Assistant District Attorney of Brooklyn. And what a lot it was! He was able to give detailed information about more than a thousand murders; who was involved and where the bodies had been hidden. From his evidence the killers of Murder Incorporated were sentenced to death and executed, and in September 1941 Leke himself was put on trial for having ordered the killing of an insignificant shopkeeper called Joe Rosen, whom he probably didn't even remember. Lepke, who had not anticipated facing a capital charge, found himself convicted and sentenced to death. It was now hoped that more big names of the underworld could follow, for Reles promised to provide information against Benny Siegel, Albert Anastasia and others. But it was not to be.

Reles was kept under round-the-clock police guard on the sixth storey of a hotel on Coney Island. On November 12th 1941 he fell out of the window and his mangled body was found below. How this happened remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps some light could be shed by a reported comment from Frank Costello, Luciano's closest associate, "It cost us a hundred grand, but Kid Twist has gone to meet his maker". Out of the window with Reles went most of the cases against other gangsters, and since that day no major underworld figure has gone over to the police.

But it was too late to save Lepke. He remained in prison till March 1944 (during which time the poet Rober Lowell met him, during his own term of imprisonment, and wrote a poem on the subject), when finally he went to the electric chair in Sing Sing. He remains the only top gangster to suffer execution.

Of his contemporaries, Benny Siegel and Albert Anastasia were eventually gunned down by rivals, but Moses Dalitz went on to own much of Las Vegas, and Meyer Lansky set up casinos in Florida and the Caribbean before dying peacefully as an old man. Lucky Luciano never served out his gaol sentence. After the war he was released from prison and sent back to Italy, apparently as a reward for using his connexions to ensure the Mafia in Sicily came out on the side of the Americans in the Allied invasion of 1943. He became a heroin trader on a large scale, and eventually died of a heart attack at Rome airport in 1964. It is said that at his bedside there was found a gold cigarette lighter inscribed "To my dear pal Lucky, from Frank Sinatra". But that, as they say, is another story.

This concludes my essay on the American gangsters. For further general reading, I can recommend "The Mobs & the Mafia" by Messick & Goldblatt, and "Playboy's History of Organised Crime" by Richard Hammer