Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was one of the great Jewish gangsters of the 20th century, a violent goon who led the Mafia’s own private hit squad. He worked with key bosses of his day, helped build the mob we know today, and became the only major Mafia figure sent to the death chamber.
Louis Buchalter was born February 6, 1897, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area with large Jewish and Italian-American populations. He got his nickname, Lepke, because his mother called him “Lepkeleh,” which means “Little Louis” in Yiddish.
Of five children in the family, only Louis went on to a life of crime. When he was a young teenager, his father died, his mother moved to Arizona, and he was left with his sister in New York, where he frequently broke the law.
Buchalter was first arrested in the fall of 1915 on burglary charges, but they were dismissed. He moved in with his uncle in Connecticut but was soon arrested again and sent to a boy’s reformatory in Cheshire, Conn.
He did his first prison stint at age 20. In 1917 he was sentenced to 18 months at Sing state penitentiary in New York for larceny. He finished his term and was back two years later on a two-and-a-half year sentence for attempted burglary.
Buchalter’s criminal jobs and his trips in and out of the Castle paired him up with the mobsters who would make his career. Among them were Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, a friend from childhood.
Together these two infiltrated the unions that represented New York’s garment-industry workers. It was the start of a labor racketeering scheme that would last Buchalter’s entire career: The mob-run unions would threaten strikes unless management paid the union bosses, and the bosses would rob the unions blind.
Buchalter eventually built his labor scam into a small empire, partnering with future Italian Mafia boss Tommy Lucchese to run the garment district. It made him wealthy enough that he was able to set his family up in a luxurious penthouse on Central Park West.
Shapiro and Buchalter were charged with the attempted murder of a bootlegger in 1927. But the police lacked evidence, and the charges were dropped.
By the next decade, Buchalter was an associate of some of the biggest young stars in the mob world. He knew Lucchese, ” Charles ”Lucky” Luciano, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky.
Indeed, he joined them in 1929 as one of the founding members of the National Crime Syndicate, a loose group of Italian and Jewish mobsters that ran organized crime in the United States in the 1930s and ‘40s. And from the start, he played a key role in the Syndicate’s most gruesome duties.
Murder Inc. was a group of hit men who acted as the enforcement arm of the Mafia, acting under the Syndicate. Most of the assassins were Jewish. And they all answered to Lepke Buchalter.
This hit squad, known to gangsters as The Combination, was formed by Siegel and Lansky. But its killers included members of Buchalter’s labor racket and a gang from Brooklyn. Siegel and Lansky were nominally in charge. But as their own rackets grew, Buchalter became the operational chief of Murder Inc.
The group took its directives from the Syndicate itself or from the bosses of the various Mafia families around the country. Buchalter worked with future mob boss Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, and other key gangsters carried out their orders.
Murder Inc. was responsible for as many as 1,000 murders, including hundreds during Buchalter’s time at the helm. They used guns, knives, ice picks and countless other weapons to kill Mafia enemies, witnesses, informants and others who displeased Buchalter or the bosses.
Buchalter’s most famous hit came in 1935, when Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz plotted to kill New York Special
Prosecutor Thomas Dewey. The prosecutor had been called in by an anxious grand jury because the district attorney wasn’t doing enough to fight the mob.
Dewey declared war on Schultz, and Schultz wanted revenge, but the bosses said no. When they realized he planned to disobey them, they sent killers Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss and Charles Workman, both of Murder Inc., to assassinate him.
Ironically, Dewey turned his attention to Buchalter, the man who may have saved his life. Dewey wanted to prosecute Buchalter, like Schultz, for his racketeering ways and ties to the Syndicate.
The pressure mounted. Buchalter was tied to the 1936 murder of Joseph Rosen, a former truck driver who sold his union to Buchalter in exchange for a candy store. Buchalter believed Rosen was ratting him out.
That November, Buchalter and his old partner Shapiro were sentenced to two years in federal prison for violating antitrust laws. A year later, the feds charged Buchalter with conspiracy to smuggle heroin, and he faced serious hard time.
So he simply disappeared. In November 1937, a month before the indictment, a $5,000 reward was posted for information leading to his capture. That was raised to $25,000 two years later, following a massive manhunt that pursued leads in the United States and Europe.
Lepke Rides the Lightning
Finally, in August 1939, Buchalter surrendered to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, in a deal supposedly arranged by radio personality Walter Winchell. Police later learned that he never left New York.
Buchalter was convicted on the heroin beef and sentenced to 14 years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. Soon after, he was hit even harder: He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life in state prison for labor racketeering. But the worst was yet to come.
In 1941, Buchalter was charged with a series of murders in New York, including the Rosen hit. Witnesses included two of his hit men, Albert Tannenbaum and Abe Reles. He was convicted at 2 a.m., after just four hours of deliberation.
In December 1941, Buchalter, along with Weiss and fellow Murder Inc. leader Louis Capone, was sentenced to death in the electric chair. His appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard his case and voted unanimously to uphold his conviction.
On March 4, 1944, Lepke Buchalter became the only major Mafia figure to die by execution. He was buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens.