On This Day in 1944: A bad day for Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, a birthday present for Burton Turkus.

Convicted of ordering the murder of candy store owner Joseph Rosen, Buchalter and accomplice Emmanuel ‘Mendy’ Weiss and Louis Capone (no relation) stood before Judge Taylor in the Kings County Courthouse to hear their fate. With no recommendation for mercy there could only be one sentence; Death, and Lepke knew it. Sweating, glaring and with his hands gripping the rail between him and the judge, he kneww their fates were almost sealed.

Taylor wasted little time in handing it down:

“Louis Buchalter, alias Lepke, for the murder of Joseph Rosen, whereof he is convicted, is hereby sentenced to the punishment of death. Within ten days from this date, subject to any legal impediments, the Sheriff of Kings County shall deliver the said Louis Buchalter to the Warden of Sing Sing Prison, where he shall be kept in solitary confinement until the week beginning with Sunday, January 4, 1942, and upon some day within the week si appointed, the Warden of Sing Sing Prison shall do execution upon him, the said Louis Buchalter, alias Lepke, in the mode and manner prescribed by law.”

Weiss and Capone heard exactly the same thing. In under nine minutes Judge Taylor had consigned three men to the death house. The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Burton Turkus, allowed himself a small smile as he received his thirty-eighth birthday present; having sent one of America’s top racketeers and two of his most senior henchmen ‘up the river.’

Initially Turkus didn’t receive the credit he truly deserved. That had been claimed by his boss, the corrupt District Attorney William O’Dwyer. Despite sending seven members of Murder Incorporated to their deaths, numerous others to prison and earning the nickname ‘Mr. Arsenic’ among those he’d prosecuted, Turkus had to wait until O’Dwyer had been exposed to really claim their scalps.

Turkus had defeated some of New York’s finest legal talent to gain his victory. Buchalter had hired former prosecutor Hyman Barshay to lead his defense. Capone had employed Sidney Rosenthal, one of the best lawyers in the state. Leading the charge for Weiss was former Judge Alfred Talley, a master of exposing and destroying any but the most reliable witnesses. Unfortunately for their clients Turkus also had eminent assistance. Eminent in New York’s underworld, anyway.

Although hitman-turned-witness Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles had died with suspicious convenience numerous former colleaguse had decided to trade testimony for avoiding a date with Old Sparky. They were a veritable hit parade of Murder Inc’s assassins and associates;

Allie ‘Tick Tock’ Tannenbaum, so named for killing as casually as a clock ticks. Fellow-hitman Seymour ‘Blue Jaw Magoon, who had to shave several times a day and whose bones were discovered outside Las Vegas in 2003. Philip ‘Little Farvel’ Cohen and Max Rubin, former Lepke associates, were on hand to describe Lepke’s labour and union racketeering that led to Rosen’s murder along with several others lined up to tell their stories. None did the defendants any favours.

Tannenbaum hammered the final nail in their coffins. He testified to hearing Lepke order Rosen’s murder and that Weiss had admitted that he and Capone committed it with Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss. Strauss was already dead, executed on June 12 1941 with crime partner Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein for another murder. They would be followed by other Murder Inc. members, Frank ‘The Dasher’ Abbandando and Harry ‘Happy’ Maione on February 19 1942.

Buchalter, Weiss and Capone, for years among New York’s most fearsome assassins, were about to join Turkus’s own hitlist. It was almost exactly five years after Rosen had been shot dead in his own place of business. The wheels of justice had turned slowly, but with a certain serendipity.

The trio wouldn’t actually die until March 4 1944 after years of appeals, legal wrangling and jurisdictional disputes between State and Federal authorities. Already eld in a Federal penitentiary on drugs and racketeering charges, it remained to be decided exactly when (or even if) Buchalter would die. Weiss and Capone would be kept alive by former prosecutor and then Governor Thomas Dewey, Dewey not wanting to execute them with Buchalter’s fate still undecided.  

With the trio despatched to Sing Sing to join old friends (and on March 4 1944 their old enemies) the Murder Inc. trials were virtually over. Murder Incorprated, the Syndicate’s enforcement arm with a record as bloody as any criminal group in American history, had itself finally been slaughtered.

The careers of Buchalter and members of Murder Incorporated are covered more fully in my new book Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York which, by a handy coincidence, was published in bookstores and online on November 25..  

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