originally published December 26, 2013
“I’m not mad, I’m proud of you. You took your first pinch like a man, and you learn two great things in your life. Look at me. Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
So said Jimmy Conway to a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Being a rat among organized criminals is the lowest of the low – a lawbreaker who won’t even respect the notion of honor among thieves. Any devotee of the gangster genre of cinema and television knows there are only two possible endings to a rat’s story: government protection or a swift and sudden final curtain. But opting for rat-ism is an act of desperation, of self-preservation. Sometimes it’s the only road a guy can take.
Abe Reles felt so snugly crammed into an inescapable corner, ratting out his friends seemed like the only possible route to salvation. But the consequences of those beans he’d spill would shake loose the foundations of a lot of lives, because Abe Reles was no common hood. He was Hit Man #1 for the most gruesome of all organized crime syndicates: Murder, Inc.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1920’s, Abe Reles quit school after the eighth grade and started living the good life: hanging out in pool halls and candy stores and fraternizing with local wannabe-hoodlums and aspiring gangsters. He was busted in 1921 for swiping two bucks’ worth of gum (which back then was probably a full bucket) from a vending machine. He was a little guy, but he had a crew: Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein and Harry Strauss. Three Jewish hoods looking to make a living on the grisly side of the law.
They went to work for the Shapiro Brothers: Meyer, Irving and Willie, three men who ran the rackets in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It was the Prohibition era, and while the Shapiros were raking in the bucks through selling illegal hooch, Abe Reles and his buddies were committing low-level crimes at their request. For one such transgression, Abe got caught and sent to an upstate juvenile detention center. He expected the Shapiros might step in and help him out. Two years passed and Abe received nothing.
Upon his release, Abe was pissed off and hungry for a little slice of revenge.
There was a lot of money to be made in the slot machine business, and Abe dove right in, along with his childhood friends Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein and Harry Strauss. This was stepping on the Shapiros’ toes, business-wise, but with the protection of Meyer Lansky from Manhattan, they were safe. Plus, nobody really wanted to mess with Abe Reles, who had earned the nickname ‘Kid Twist’ either because he liked the candy with that name, or else because of the way he strangled people who pissed him off.
One car wash worker missed a smudge on Abe’s fender, and Abe beat him savagely in broad daylight. A parking lot attendant who failed to retrieve Abe’s car with the appropriate promptness of service found himself violently terminated due to his dawdling. Abe and Buggsy were both charter members in Murder, Inc., the mafia’s enforcement arm and the most feared group of murderers in the world. And as their reputation ballooned, they found themselves on the hit list of the Shapiro brothers, their former employers.
Meyer Shapiro hatched a plan. He lured Abe and Buggsy to his headquarters and had them ambushed. Meanwhile, Meyer kidnapped Abe’s girlfriend, raping and beating her before letting her go. Unfortunately for him, both Abe and Buggsy survived. A war was on between the Shapiros and Murder, Inc.
There was no contest – Murder Inc. won. Irving Shapiro was dragged from his home into the street where he was beaten and shot. Abe ran into Meyer Shapiro walking along a Brooklyn sidewalk a couple months later, plugging a vengeance-flavored bullet into the meaty pastry of Meyer’s face. Three years later, William Shapiro was captured, driven out to the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, and buried alive.
Abe Reles and his Murder, Inc. crew enjoyed several years as the most feared men in New York City. Then in 1940, it all caught up with him.
In 1940, the police picked up Abe and dangled the rattling blade of multiple impending murder convictions over his neck. They had his case sewn up – Abe knew he was facing the electric chair when he was convicted. There was only one thing Abe could do: he needed to give up his friends. And boy, did he ever.
- Louis Buchalter, head of Murder, Inc. was found guilty of murdering a local candy store owner.
- Louis Capone (no relation to Al), a supervisor for the organization, was found guilty of murdering Joseph Rosen, who had owned a trucking business.
- Mendy Weiss was also convicted for the Rosen killing.
- Harry Maione had killed a guy with a meat cleaver.
- Frank Abbandando killed a loan shark named George Rudnick.
Each of these men were arrested, tried and convicted thanks to the testimony of Abe Reles. Also on their way to the big house were Harry Strauss and Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein, Abe’s childhood friends. He had sold them all out, and every single one of them were executed for their crimes.
Six full-time police bodyguards kept watch over Abe at the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island. The next name on the docket awaiting Abe’s testimony was Albert Anastasia, the co-chief of operations for Murder, Inc. Mobsters had put together a $100,000 bribe to offer the officers on Abe’s watch in hopes that one of them would be shady enough to help Abe disappear.
Then, on the morning of November 12, 1941 – the same day Anastasia’s trial was to begin – Abe Reles fell to his death from one of the hotel windows. No one knows for certain whether he jumped, fell, or was pushed. But come on, here’s a guy who sent his best friends to their deaths in an effort to save himself. I find it highly unlikely that he was overcome by a wave of suicidal guilt. And nobody falls out of a hotel window.
Anastasia walked, and Abe Reles became known as “the canary who could sing, but couldn’t fly.” A grand jury ruled in 1951 that Abe’s death was ‘accidental’, an act of slippage as he was trying to escape his sixth-floor room by climbing down to the next floor using bedsheets tied to the radiator. I don’t buy it.
Never rat on your friends, Henry. It won’t end well.