Abe Reles: A Brotherhood Betrayed
Gary interviews Michael Cannell, the author of four non-fiction books and former sportswriter and editor for the New York Times. His most recent book, A Brotherhood betrayed: The man Behind the Rise and Fall of Murder Inc. tells the story of Murderer Incorporated’s most prolific killer, Abe Reles. The feared Albert Anastasia had turned to a group of young ambitious Jewish gangsters to carry out murders for the Mafia. They were so feared by other gangsters and they committed so many murders that the press dubbed the group Murder Inc.
The Making of a Killer
Abe Reles grew up on Manhatten’s lower east side and like most of his peers, he gravitated to a life of crime. Like most young men, he followed the older gangsters. He even adopted the nickname of “Kid Twist” after hearing about an older Jewish gangster named Max “Kid Twist” Zweiback. The most prominent Jewish gangster of the day was Lepke Buchalter. During the 1930s, chaos among organized crime members ran rampant. the boss of bosses, Lucky Luciano, and the other bosses formed the Commission. In one of their early moves, they created a hit team to handle rebellious young gangsters and bring them in line with the established Mafia Commission. They noticed Abe “Kid Twist” Reles as a man they could trust and picked him to be the anchor of this new hit team that became known as Murder Inc.
Abe Reles: The Canary Who Sang But Couldn’t Fly
Law enforcement and the press noticed the rise in unexplained and unprosecuted murders of gangsters. Thomas Dewey was the crime-busting politically ambitious prosecutor. He chose an aggressive Irishman named William O’Dwyer as his assistant and gave him the job to eliminate this professional criminal culture that had dominated New York City since prohibition. O’Dwyer found a good informant named Harry Rudolph who ratted on Abe Reles. It was not long before Kid Twist realized this only chance to avoid the Electric Chair was to become a cooperating witness against Lepke Buchalter and other mafia bosses. The Mafia Commission put out the word that anyone who killed Abe Reles would be paid $100,000. By 1941 a momentous trial was underway that threatened New York’s most brutal mob bosses, specifically the Lord high Executioner, Albert Anastasia. O’Dwyer based his case on a star witness, Abe Reles. The police stashed Kid Twist in a hotel room at the Coney Island Half Moon hotel and maintained 24 hours a day guard on the door. But before he could testify, the guards found his shattered body on the rooftop of an adjoining building. The first question was whether or not it was a botched escape or murder. They did find several sheets tied together and hanging out the window. The Grand Jury ruled he had tied these sheets to a radiator and when he tried to slide down them, he lost his grip and fell to his death.
Michael Cannell’s A Brotherhood Betrayed documents the rise and all of Murder, Inc. through Reles’ life span from punk gangsters, to a top hitman to stool pigeon, and ending with his death. on a Coney Island rooftop. He colorfully depicts a time when crime became “organized” crime. The time of wise-cracking mobsters with names like Kid Twist, The Mad Hatter, The Prime Minister of the Underworld, and Tick Tock Tannenbaum.
Show Notes by Gary Jenkins
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Hello, welcome while you are tappers out there back here in the studio gangland wire. I have a really interesting story today an interview a guest with
Arthur from New York, the writer writes a story about the canary who could fly but couldn’t sing now, if you’re any kind of a Mob aficionado, and all you know who I’m talking about, and Abe Reles, so it’s Michael Cannell. Well, Michael, welcome. Thank you, Gary. It’s really nice to be here with you. So I don’t remember how I found you. Twitter maybe or something. I don’t know. You know, you just got to keep throwing stuff out there. When you got a book yourself, or a podcast you’re promoting. You just got to keep throwing stuff out there. And notice that I don’t remember how I even got in contact with you. I thought, Well, this sounds interesting here. I’ve never really done a story just about a relative. I’ve done stuff all around even during that time and murder Incorporated. I just did an interview with Alan guy who whose uncle was Charlie workman and the name of his book is Uncle Charlie killed that Schultz. Yeah.
This period of time, and the 30s and 40s. Up to the 50s is is really an interesting time in New York City for mob activity. I mean, they they ruled New York, it seemed that neighborhoods they ruled the neighborhood, it seemed to me like yeah, they certainly did. Abe Reles is the gentleman in question here came from the neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, which was in a way a spin off from the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side was, of course, where all the immigrants settled when they came came in to New York. And it was crowded with crowded really to the rafters with with Jews and Italians in this period in the 1920s and 30s. And so, Brownsville was a way to get out of the Lower East Side. And it was really countryside until the city extended the subway out there and also began to build bridges that made it made it accessible and so Abe Reles’ family, a Jewish family from what we would now call Austria
came to New York and ended up in in Brownsville. A hard working family his father sold clothes out of a street pushcart. But from a very young age he relishes
was headed to crime. I mean even even as a teenager he was a kind of apprentice mobster running running errands for the local mob. So Brownsville would have been really the toughest neighborhood in, in America, I think we can I think we can say that and maybe the toughest neighborhood of all time, and he was maybe the toughest young man in that in that neighborhood.
That that’s an interesting
time when Jewish immigrants their fathers were, were had stores and push carts and a tie in young man, their fathers had stores and push carts. And then they started coming of age during that time during the 30s and and they started kind of taken over from the old guard and for people who are kept out of kind of mainstream jobs government jobs, the Irish already had all the government jobs sewed up and and the Germans had been here for a long time. So these guys and so many of these bright young tough guys turned to crime and in turn they are smart enough to know that organized crime is a way to make money at crime I always find that that fascinating and and he’s he is one of those guys it sounds to me like on and I forgot to mention the name of the book here it is a brotherhood betrayed the man behind the rise and fall or murder Incorporated. And it’s on Amazon and I’ll have links to it in the show notes and in my YouTube Michael I will have a picture of the cover of it right now.
let’s talk a little more about how you know how did he get involved with murder court incorporated and most of us I think know that was you know, an arm if you will of the SE and like Cosa Nostra mafia and and Albert Anastasia was thinking to be like, it’d be kind of like the, the guy that that used them or worked with them from the tie in crime families and, and so kind of how did he get into that? Yeah, I mean, sort of the background to that Gary is as as you know that
At previous generation of, of gangsters, mostly men who had come over from Sicily and Naples, were known as the moustache Pete’s they came to America, not particularly because they wanted to be Americans. They didn’t really care about the American dream. They came to America for the most part because they were fleeing prosecution in Italy and there were no extradition
treaties or laws then. So coming to America living on the in the Lower East Side, living in Little Italy in lower Manhattan was a safe refuge for them. But while they were here,
they never they were never American eyes. They really
they really lived almost as if they were still in Italy, and pursued and pursued their kind of their grievances and vendettas, just as they would have in in Italy. The next generation had a slightly different sensibility. You know, the Bugsy Siegel’s? The Lucky Luciano was the Myers seagulls they had a they had a different notion. They were for the most part born in America, and thought of themselves as American. And they wanted they wanted organized crime. They wanted to Americanize organized crime. And they wanted it to be about profit, that great American pursuit of profit. So they were not concerned with these tribal grievances they really wanted to run. They really wanted to run organized crime as an American corporation, almost. And so Lucky Luciano in particular,
kind of spearheaded this. And he invited his his boss, Joe Masuria, to a Trattoria in a Back Street in Coney Island one day, they had a very big lunch, they played cards. And then at a at a very specific time, Lucky Luciano excused himself and went to the men’s restroom. And when he went to the men’s room, a couple of guys came in and shot Joe Masuria. And that was the beginning of the of this sort of a coup. And so they got rid of the old guys. And now Lucky Luciano. And his friends were in charge. And they they set up a what they call the commission of basically a board of directors that would run organized crime nationally. And they set it up almost like McDonald’s, you know, with franchises the different the different gangs in Chicago or Los Angeles or St. Louis.
You know, they ran, they ran themselves with some autonomy, but they reported to this board of directors, and part of the arrangement that Lucky Luciano and his friends imagined was that that
the commission would have an enforcement arm, it would have a team of assassins who would take care of anybody who was an informant, potentially an informant, or who had otherwise broken the rules. So who was going to do that? Well, Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia Left Buchalter, these men at the top of this organization, look to Brooklyn and particularly they look to a relic as the toughest of the tough in Brooklyn and and Abraham was was clearly a kid on on his way up and he had put together a gang that was half Jewish, half Italian he called his gang the combination but they would come to be called Murder incorporated as they fulfill this role that that Lucky Luciano and others imagined for them they became the assassination squad for for the commission and they traveled all over the country very efficiently murdering informants and and other rule breakers. And they did it almost like middle management they packed a bag they you know with a change of clothes and a gun and a rope. And they flew to they flew to Chicago or Miami or whatever it was did their job and came came back often not knowing the name of the victim by the way.
And so that, you know, how many did they kill?
had some people have put the number at 1000? I don’t, I don’t know that it would have been that number, but that many, but we really don’t know have any really have any way of knowing whatever they would get, say their side, but it would be maybe another crime family would would contact Luciano or somebody that knew him and then say, Hey, we’ve got this problem, and then they would, would go to that other city hadn’t really hadn’t really known that before. I think the idea was that if you were in Kansas City, you wouldn’t necessarily want to do it yourself. You wouldn’t want one of your guys to do the job yourself. safer,
less likely to be caught if an absolute stranger comes in, comes in out of nowhere, does the job and then disappears. So part of the reason that it might have been attractive to whoever the mob boss was in Kansas City, or, you know, Los Angeles is is that they didn’t have to expose themselves. They could simply place a phone call to New York. And whoever it was in New York most likely left the book altar or Albert Anastasia would call a candy shop in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a 24 hour Candy Shop, which served as the headquarters for a umbrellas and murder Incorporated. He and his guys would sit in a booth in the back by the payphone. And when the when the phone rang, they would get an assignment to fly to,
you know, to fly to Chicago, or wherever it was probably took a train more than they flew back then. But
I wondered about that. I mean, they talked about flying. I mean, these wouldn’t think the flying would be there.
Today, they would go but I I have reason to believe they did fly, how did they get paid? I mean, lots of times a mob boss will just tell a guy you know, this is your problem, you need to take care of it. If you’ve got to do the deed and do it. In our I had I had this guy want to take care of and and I’m gonna give that job to you by the time so like Sammy the bull, you earn your bones by doing the murder. Now these guys, how did they get paid? That was there? Did you? Could you provide any kind of, you know, rate structure, if you will? I’m always curious about the details how these things work? Yeah, I mean, I can’t I can’t recall the dollar figures. But generally they were put on a retainer. Right. So then they were on a retainer, and then they they were paid some some, in addition to that, in addition to that retainer. So I think that the the, the amount that they were paid, in addition to the retainer would depend on the circumstances of the job that they were, that they were doing.
The you would be surprised, I think, and how little money these these men made, they were paid these sums, but then they had to pay for their travel and expenses out of out of what they they were paid. And there was one, there was one young man who went to upstate New York to the Catskill Mountains, to commit one of these assassinations. And he said that by the time he got back home to his, to his his home to back to his wife, he had made something like $2
Well, I can relate to that doing a whole lot of work in order just a little bit of money. Understand that, basically, at the entertainment business, so they had a retainer like that. And folks, that’s like a lawyer give a lawyer retainer, that’s, that’s just money that you pay that lawyer just to stay open to do your business and not to ever shut you out. So they paid him a retainer, a retainer, just to always be kind of Derek that phone. And then when they did a job, it sounds like they’ve got whoever did the job, got that little extra kit from somebody. And, and so well, interesting. Like I said, I love how these things work out, and they had to pay all their expenses that
their money that they were given to go do the job was there. Remember any particular good stories or like a really creative way because you just give me a name. You know, today, you know, you’re gonna be on the internet, I can go find you. And I can, I can get a picture ova and maybe find out what kind of car you drive or go to your social media and find out you know, pictures of your relatives and pictures of where you work and pictures of your kids. You know, at your house, anything you want practically is available. Was there any particular creative stories you remember how they would locate people and then and then get them set up in a position of where you can kill them, which is important, hugely important, where you could kill them without any witnesses without harming any
and bystanders or family members or anything? Yeah, I mean, just to give you an example, Abe, one of eight Well, relatives, his lieutenants, and his most prolific killer was a man who went by the name of Pittsburgh, Phil Straus. And Pittsburgh, Phil did this for profit. But he also did it for pleasure. I mean, I think he, I don’t know if people would have used the word sadistic in those days, but we would recognize his behavior as as pretty, pretty sick and sadistic. He took, he very clearly took pleasure in these killings. And when a job was available, he put his hand in the air. And if the job was in, say, Miami, whether it will actually was by plane or by by car by by train, he would come to Miami but but as I mentioned earlier, he wouldn’t know the name or really anything about his target.
So as you say, there was no internet or anything, there was no, the way he found out who he was going to kill was by
meeting up with the local gang, whoever that might be the gang, the people who had phoned in this assignment to New York, and so they would meet him at the airport at the train station. And they would take him to surveil his victim to see firsthand his victims see what they look like. You know, they would park outside of a office or a hotel or something, or a restaurant and so he could see his victim and get a read on him.
And then he would he would Pittsburgh, Phil would fly, or take the train back to back to New York, and often wouldn’t find out anything about who this person was until he read, read the newspaper.
The next day, of course, some of the victims were right in New York. And I mean, there was a case where
some of relatives as crew had observed a kind of low level loan shark named Why do you run neck, getting out of a police car? Or getting out of a police car was like a death sentence. If you’re getting out of a police car, it means you’re probably talking to the police. You’re probably an informant. So relatives and his guys knew that they were going to have to kill Whitey redneck. They did have a hard time finding him for almost a week. They drove around the neighborhood spots late at night, waiting to spot Whitey redneck. They eventually did find him on the street. They sent one of his friends to pick them up. I mean, that was part of their technique was to get somebody’s best friend or close friend to pick them up. Right? Because they’re not they’re not likely to get into a car with a umbrellas. But they would get in they will get into their best friend’s car. And then the bed the friend delivered them to a relative’s house, in this case, the house that he shared with his wife, his children and his mother in law. And then they did this thing that they often did, which is they tied? What he Rudnick up with rope behind his back from his neck to his feet in such a way that when he struggled he slowly strangled himself to death
and then when they thought he was dead they dragged him out to a car turn out he wasn’t dead so why do you redneck got a meat cleaver to the head and then they put him in the car and left the car a stolen car and then and then then left the the abandoned the stolen car on a random on a random street so that’s that’s how they operate it Wow. Like they were all a little bit sadistic and so just to kill somebody like that. You know, just get it over with
I guess it was has to be quiet. Use a knife to the throat but get with fast man. Yeah. That’s brutal. It’s brutal. It really is. And in Pittsburgh filled with often they would they would say the Pittsburgh Phil would you know sit around with a drink or with his lunch and watch the person slowly
strangle and he would he would like kind of giggle as it was happening. So I guess Tell me a little bit about your research. How did you find some of these stories was a lot of it was reported from court cases in the paper the New York New York Times
I’ve covered these cases pretty well. And they usually back in those days would print a lot of lured accounts. And they’d have their own sources, their own sources from the police or in the within the police department and find out that is that was that kind of your primary research method was there’s other books too. So certainly the New York Times, but I’m fortunate because New York, like, like most cities, was
the newsstands were filled with newspapers in those day days. And really, every, practically every neighborhood had its own newspaper. Brooklyn had a bunch of newspapers. And so
I don’t know how accurate they were.
But they were certainly colorful, and like, they were not afraid to report on lurid details. They reported rumors and gossip.
They were you know, not I don’t think necessarily, always
factual. I relied heavily on material that came out of the district attorney’s office,
much of which is on microfilm in the in, in an archive as a government city archive in, in New York and I, the depth of depositions, and notes taken by the district Assistant District Attorneys are all there.
And that was, you know, the depositions and interviews that law enforcement conducted, were invaluable to me because they were almost, they felt almost as if I had conducted the interviews, myself, you know, the direct accounts, from people who are players in that in that world.
And it was, you know, as you can imagine, it was fun to read those aside from the fact that I was using microfilm, which meant many, many of people in your audience won’t even remember.
But for those of us who use them in school, it’s always a struggle, right? Yes, it is.
Yeah. So Abe Reles caught a case, that turning, tell me a little bit about tell us a little bit about that case. And did he give like a good long statement or several statements that you’re able to access also?
Yeah, what happened was that throughout his life, the police were constantly
I mean, this is the way the police worked in those days. And as far as I know, maybe they’d still do to some extent, they would pull Abe Reles and his men off the streets, on trumped up charges just to get get them off the street, just to harass them.
They call the tickling. And they would tickle Abe Reles. They would bring him in Abe Reles would get out almost immediately. Partially because the charges were just, you know, loitering was what they would often Yeah, they would often charge him with but he you know, he had no trouble pay, you know, posting bail. The system was so corrupt that sort of the, the the the, the mob infrastructure
was gonna see to it that he never he didn’t get
kept in in jail for long. Yeah.
But there came a time when he and a few of his men were brought in by the Brooklyn district attorney.
And the the
the D A
did something shrewd. He put he put
relatives and his men in separate jails.
And he sort of probably like a classic police interrogation technique. He he kind of led them to believe that if they didn’t talk, their friends might talk. Oh, yeah, that’ll work. That’ll work. Yes. Classic, right. So
so Abe Reles is back up for a second April is at this time, had developed a medical condition. It was a kind of like a cyst on his lungs. And he was spitting up blood. And over the course of the day, he would fill up like a drinking glass with sort of with with blood. He believed that he had cancer. He believed that
He was gonna die. And so he
you know that that sort of changed his thinking about this he wanted to, he was inclined to make a deal with William O’Dwyer, the District Attorney in order to
see to it that his family was taken care of, before he died.
And, of course, he was also concerned that his, his friends were were talking and that he would they would testify against him. So he,
he came in, as they say, in law enforcement. And, and he, he came in to the district attorney’s office, and he
made a deal with them. The witness protection program did not exist at that time. But essentially, he had agreed to tell what he knew in exchange for his family’s protection. And what he knew was a lot a brella, as was a kind of a strange looking man and a strange sounding man. In addition to the classic Brooklyn accent. He also had a very severe speech impediment. He was very short, he was five for something. And
I think people may have thought he was a little dim witted, but in fact, he was he had a
Yeah, like an encyclopedic memory for all of the murders. And so
to everyone’s astonishment, when he started talking about the murders, he could recall them in exact detail, when they took place where they took place who was there, why those people were there. And
the stenographers in attendance filled 20 books of transcripts of those of those
of those debriefings and and
by the account of one assistant, da, the stenographers had to occasionally call for a recess and leave the room because these accounts were so gruesome they had to leave the room to, you know, to compose themselves.
Wow, that’s, that’s amazing. So
one last story, of course, now,
the canary who could fly who could sing but couldn’t fly? What’s your opinion? I think most of you guys know that he was being held and guarded by New York City policemen or was it district attorney’s officers are in New York city policeman. And he was found the next morning or later that night or next morning on the pavement underneath the hotel room now. I read accounts that he thought it would be funny to shimmy down some sheets that he died together and go back out in the hallway and come back up and surprises guards. And what was that story kind of rings true to me? I put I know, I’d have I’ve read your book and know a lot more about his personality if he had a personality. So what do you think about the death of Abraham as well? I mean, there are a lot of possibilities there was he trying to commit suicide some people suggested he was trying to commit suicide because he thought he was going to die. And he knew that the mob was coming after him. He thought that the mob would might kill him. He may have been trying to shimmy down to the window below him. He went out the window with two bedsheets tied together. So he wasn’t if he did go out the window voluntarily, he wasn’t going to get very far because the two bedsheets wouldn’t have gotten them down to the ground. In the past, he had done stuff stunts like this, like you’re describing where he, he people thought maybe he was going to try to come in the window below his room, and then go back upstairs and surprise the guards to make fools out of them. He played a lot of pranks. He played a lot of pranks on the guards. So that’s a possibility.
The next day he was he was supposed to testify against Lepke Buchalter, one of the very top mob figures in in New York. Probably not a coincidence that he died the night before testifying against Lepke Buchalter. Did the did the mob. I mean, if I had to guess I would say that the mob got into that room. How would they have gotten into that room there was there was literally a locked steel door installed in the hallway of this half abandoned hotel in Coney Island. So the mob mob would have had to get in with police cooperation. Remember that the police when Abraham has talked to
The police and city officials
had a lot to lose because he He not only knew about mob activity, he knew about police corruption, corruption, judges, corrupt judges, corrupt district attorneys, and maybe even higher up in the, in the in the ranks of the of the city. And the reason I say that is that the then district attorney who was holding him, William O Dwyer, later became mayor. And when questions about what Abraham was new and who killed a Barelas began to percolate up in the newspapers. William O’Dwyer resigned as mayor very abruptly and her President Harry Truman appointed him, Ambassador to Mexico. So he got out of town and got out of the country very quick, like, suspicious, right. So
I don’t I’m giving you sort of a rambling answer to your question. I don’t know that the forensics points to any one answer. It would be very surprising if if the mob was not involved in his death, and it would be very surprising if the police were not involved in his guests. I have no proof of this. But if I had to guess I would say that the that the police and the mob cooperated in relative’s death. What happened to those coppers regarding that night? I mean, that’d be really hard to explain. Explain that what?
Well, I think it was sort of as a matter of routine these cops would often sleep on, you know, in their shifts. They, they were I believe they were reassigned. And they were not they were not prosecuted, but they were. They were reassigned, and they had the foot patrol.
Undesirable place that you could find that latest Dogwatch but patrol. I think that’s exactly what happened.
I don’t know works when we’re pushing, you know, posting in the hotel and
no more plainclothes uniform and the dog whites way out somewhere.
Well, this has been great. I tell you what the name of the book is a brotherhood betrayed.
The man behind the was that the man behind the rise and foul of murder Incorporated. And it sounds like fascinating book Michael, I know you got a ton more stories just like that. And interesting stories from all those details that just from from his confession alone, there’s gonna be a lot of great stories in this book, bless he was touch up a part and parcel of and it’s such an important time of pre war and post war.
La Cosa Nostra mafia in New York City. I mean, that’s, you know, that was their glory days as they came from the Black Hand. We talked about an organized and to prohibition and the gambling and loan sharking. And the more modern criminal activities, that’s that’s when they got really organized during those years. And he was part of it, as I said, be a fascinating book, Michael. Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate you coming on the show and pokes we’ll have links to this book in the show notes and see a picture of it right now. If you’re on YouTube. And Michael,
I look forward to talking to you again on your next mafia book. Maybe Yeah.