On the night of November 12, 1941. Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, once a senior member of Murder Inc. and now one of the most important canaries in American history, prepared a makeshift ladder from the sixth floor of the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island, New York. He was in protective custody preparing to turn state’s evidence against perhaps New York’s most vicious mobster, Albert ‘Lord High Executioner’ Anastasia.
The rope supposedly snapped, plunging him six floors to his death. The most important witness in the country at that time is dead and nobody can be blamed. Or can they? It’s unlikely, with the passing of time and those who really knew, that the full story will ever be known. What is known is that the official versions of events conflict. Some call it murder, others an accident, some call it suicide. We’ll probably never know which.
According to godfather ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Mafia turncoat Joe Valachi, Reles was thrown or pushed while either asleep or having been knocked unconscious by his guards. According to Luciano the boss of the NYPD Detective Bureau, Captain Frank Bals, supervised the murder. In The Life and Times of Lepke Buchalter by Paul Kavieff (Barricade Books, 2006), Luciano is quoted saying as much:
“The truth of the whole thing was that the whole bunch of cops was on the take and Bals handled the whole thing … We paid him 50 grand and set aside some more money for the other guys in case they hadda take a rap. The way I heard it was that Bals stood there in the room and supervised the whole thing. Reles was sleepin’ and one of the cops gave him a tap with a billy and knocked him out. Then they picked him up and heaved him out the window. For Chrissake, he landed so far from the wall he couldn’t’ve done that even if he jumped!”
Valachi was just as firm according to writers William Balsamo and George Carpozi Jr. in their book Crime Incorporated:
“The police threw him out.”
Assistant D.A. Burton Turkus, the prosecutor so effective Murder Inc members called him ‘Mr. Arsenic,’ was equally categorical. In the epilogue to Kill the Dutchman!, Paul Sann quotes Turkus stating:
“Abe Reles was thrown out of that window. I never knew who did it, but he was thrown out. I know he wasn’t risking his life on a bed sheet and some wire.”
In short, Reles literally knew where the bodies were buried. The date of Reles’s death is significant because it came on the eve of his giving testimony against the Mafia’s “Lord High Executioner” (and one of the bosses of Murder Inc.) Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia. Anastasia was facing trial over the murder of Morris Diamond, a partner of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter in the flour trucking rackets.
Later that same day, Reles was due to give evidence that could have sent Anastasia to the electric chair. Anastasia, having been to Sing Sing’s death house twenty years earlier for a previous murder, had no intention of going back. He’d been lucky that senior mobsters had seen him as worth saving and used their influence to do so. Without Reles the charges against Anastasia had to be dropped.
Reles also had another major enemy Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. After personally murdering Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg in California in 1940 Siegel had been indicted. Reles could have corroborated fellow turncoat Allie “Tick Tock” Tannenbaum’s account of the murder, putting Siegel in San Quentin’s gas chamber. Siegel too was only too happy to see Reles dead. Without Reles to corroborate Tannenbaum’s testimony Siegel went free and the case was dismissed.
Reles also had personal dealing with Murder Inc’s biggest customer, racketeer Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. Reles acted as Lepke’s go-between and bodyguard when Lepke fled drugs and racketeering charges in 1939. Reles also handled murder contracts and daily business of Murder Inc. He knew some of Murder Inc.’s many victims, the motives for their deaths and could also find other witnesses needed under New York State law to corroborate both his evidence and that of his fellow informants.
He knew about the 1936 murder of Joseph Rosen in particular, being well acquainted with Rosen’s killers (Emmanuel “Mendy” Weiss, Louis Capone and Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss) and their motive, namely that Lepke had ordered them to do it. When Tannenbaum said as much in court it was reles who corroborated Tannenbaum’s evidence.
Convicted of Rosen’s murder and sent to Sing Sing on December 2 1941 only days before Reles died, Buchalter, Capone and Weiss were executed in 1944. To this day Buchalter remains the only top-level American mobster to receive the death penalty. Legally, anyway. It may have been some small consolation to the trio as they adjusted to death house routine that Reles had gone before they would.
Buchalter, Weiss and Capone hadn’t been Reles’ only victims. Finally executed on March 4 1944 they had been preceded by Reles’ crime partner and childhood friend Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein and Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss on June 12 1941. They had been followed to the electric chair by Frank ‘The Dasher’ Abbandando and Harry ‘Happy’ Maione’ on February 19 1942 and finally Buchalter, Weiss and Capone. In addition to the seven members electrocuted numerous others had been imprisoned for decades.
Prosecutor Burton Turkus (who was in court when Buchalter, Weiss and Capone were convicted on November 30 1941, Turkus’s 38th birthday) really had earned the name ‘Mr. Arsenic.’.
Reles’ betrayal also encouraged others to talk their way out of the electric chair. Sholem Bernstein, a Murder Inc. associate, had made up his mind after talking to Reles. So had Allie ‘Tick Tock’ Tannenbaum, Seymour ‘Blue Jaw’ Magoon, Myer ‘Mikey’ Sycoff and others. An example would have to be made to stop the rot spreading and protect the Syndicate bosses, and who better than the most prominent of them all?
Nowadays, in a time of Sammy Gravano, Henry Hill, Jimmy Fratianno and others, many indicted gangsters are perfectly happy to trade information for leniency. In 1941 it was very different. It may have seemed like a growing trend that the Syndicate bosses, for whom murder was merely a business practice, would do anything to stop. Hence, ‘Kid Twist’ Reles earned a new nickname from the press and the underworld;
‘The canary who could sing, but couldn’t fly.’
The story of Murder Incorporated is covered in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York’ out in bookstores on November 25. It can be pre-ordered now.