In the golden age of New York's mafia, Murder Inc. was the most relentless force out there.
When I first watched Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, one of the things that amazed me the most was how, despite their criminal activities, they always tried to preserve their honor and family values. It was extremely important to them. For me, it was pretty contradictory, especially if we consider that, despite being fictional characters, the families in the movie were based on the actual mafia that controlled New York in the 1930s. I first thought, how could these renowned criminals keep up such an honorable image in spite of the crimes they committed? Well, just like Vito Corleone never lay a hand on his enemies, the main mafia families, especially the most important members, didn’t even bother to do the dirty work. That’s what Murder Inc. was for.
Janice Drake, a former Miss New Jersey who was murdered with gangster Anthony Carfano. Source: New York Daily News
Mafia car captured by the police. It was used to warn the people about these criminal groups. Source: New York Daily News
Anytime you hear about or see one of the mafia's gruesome murders, it’s most likely that Murder Inc. was behind them. Unlike mafia groups, Murder Inc.’s loyalty wasn’t defined by family values or honor, but rather by the highest bidder. As their name (given by newspapers) suggests, they saw themselves as a business specializing in killing. Their "work" sent a clear message to their clients' enemies, who mostly belonged to the Italian-American mafia or the Jewish Mob of New York.
Police found the corpse of Michel "The Bat" DeBatt, a mobster from the famous Gambino family. Source: New York Daily News
Crime scene of Joseph Rosen's murder. Source: Burton B. Turkus Papers/Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections/John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)
Although they weren’t the only criminal group specialized in killing, they became known for tainting New York’s streets with the blood of about 1,000 people in under ten years. Murder Inc. was based on the Bugs and Meyer Mob, created by Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in the 1920s. However, it gained strength and its infamous name a decade later, when it was headed by Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, who was part of the Jewish-American mafia, and Albert Anastasia, who belonged to the Mangano family, one of the city’s Five Families of Italian-American gangsters. When this (literally) killer duo headed Murder Inc., it became an unstoppable death machine.
The burnt corpse of Irving Feinstein, one of Murder Inc.'s victims. Source: Burton B. Turkus Papers/Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections/John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)
Walter Sage tried to defy Murder Inc. His corpse was displayed as a warning from the criminal group. Source: Bettmann
Perhaps what made them so feared by many, besides their lack of loyalty and code of honor, was their modus operandi. Murder Inc.’s hit men weren’t afraid to use the most gruesome methods to kill their targets. They could give them a quick but bloody death while they were having dinner with their friends at a restaurant, or on the contrary, they could recur to cruel and slow ways of killing them, like setting them on fire or using ice picks to destroy their bodies. The more shocking the death, the more powerful the message from their clients. People were so afraid of them that they were sure they could kill people with hundreds of witnesses and no one would do anything to stop them. However, to hire their services, their clients had to pay the average amount of 1 000 to 5 000 USD per killing.
Dutch Schultz' murder crime scene. Source: Bettmann
The body of George Rudnick, a police informant. Source: Burton B. Turkus Papers/Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections/John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)
As if this wasn’t blood-curdling enough, these mobsters’ headquarters were in a candy shop in Brooklyn, so while children were paying for the chocolates they saw on the display window, in the backroom of the shop, a gangster was paying hitmen to destroy his enemies in the bloodiest way possible. Their most famous murder was Dutch Schultz', a mobster who wanted to kill the city’s District Attorney Thomas Dewey. However, the Commission, the ruling group of all mafias, didn’t allow him to do it because they thought that would unleash the authorities against them. When they said Schultz was willing to kill Dewey, with or without the Commission's green light, the latter sent Murder Inc.’s hit men Mendy Weiss and Charles Workman to stop him.
Police discover the body of Harry Millman, a Detroit mobster killed by Murder Inc. Source: Bettmann
Bugsy Siegel's crime scene. He avoided the police, but was later murdered by hired hitmen. The crime remains unsolved. Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Ironically, it was Murder Inc.’s lack of loyalty that marked their end. When three of their hit men, Abraham Reles, Martin Goldstein, and Anthony Maffetore were convicted, Reles decided to cooperate with the police, knowing it would save him from the electric chair, as it didn’t happen with the rest of the Murder Inc. members that were apprehended after Reles’ testimony. Nonetheless, it seems that Reles didn’t save himself from the cold vengeance of the mafia, as he died from an “accidental” fall on November 12, 1941.
Louis "Lepke" Buchalter smiles as he is handcuffed by the police. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Buchalter is informed that he has received the death sentence. Source: Library of Congress
Although New York’s gangsters are not as strong as they were then, their intriguing legacy lives on, not only through film and literary masterpieces they inspired, but also through all these photographs. All of them are remnants of a time when the mafia could leave trails of blood and violence on the streets without facing any consequences because they were the greatest force on the streets. After seeing these images, it’s no wonder why they were so feared and respected at that time.
Do you want to check out more historical photographs? Take a look at these: