On March 4, 1944, murderer and racketeer Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, in Ossining, New York. It was a Saturday, and the Jewish chaplain at the penitentiary, Rabbi Jacob Katz, requested that the electrocution be postponed for a day, as the Sabbath was a busy day for him. According to the next day’s Daily News, however, “His appeal failed to move the Governor,” Thomas E. Dewey.
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Louis Buchalter was born February 6, 1897, on New York’s Lower East Side, one of 11 children. His father, the Russian-born Barnett Buchalter, owned a hardware store on Henry Street, and died when Louis was a teenager. His mother, Rose Buchalter, who was in poor health at the time, moved with her younger children to Arizona; Lepkeleh (Yiddish for “Little Louis”), as Rose affectionately called him, remained in New York with an older sister, from whom he soon ran away.
Lepke is said to have been the only one of the siblings who went “bad.” One of his brothers, in fact, became a rabbi, another a dentist, and one sister was a teacher. The teenage Louis, however, became involved in petty street crime. During one of his early arrests, for breaking and entering, he was even wearing stolen shoes – two shoes that not only did not match, but that also were for the same foot. By age 22, he had already served two brief prison terms.
In the 1920s, the deceptively soft-spoken and gentle-faced Lepke began working with childhood friend Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro,” an ill-tempered, brutish enforcer type. Together they developed a thriving labor protection racket. Not only did they extort both manufacturers and union organizers for money, they also took control of their organizations by placing gang members in key positions within those organizations. Victims who refused to pony up suffered physical damage to their property and also were likely to have acid thrown on them, or worse. As one colleague said of the boss, “Lep loves to hurt people.”
By 1932, Buchalter was said to have a hand in a number of New York industries – controlling both management and labor – including bakery drivers, garment and hat makers, the poultry market and movie projectionists. He also became involved in drug trafficking, importing and selling heroin and other hard drugs to the United States.
Buchalter was a key figure in two organizations that the press dubbed, respectively, the National Crime Syndicate and Murder Incorporated. The former was a loose confederation of the heads of a number of Italian and Jewish crime families, while the latter was an enforcement arm of the syndicate. To this day, crime historians are divided about just how real these organizations were.
Leaders of Murder Inc. – Buchalter, Gurrah Shapiro, Joe Adonis and Albert “the Mad Hatter” Anastasio – were said to hold court in a 24-hour candy shop in Brownsville, Brooklyn, called Midnight Rose’s. Probably their most notorious hit was of their own fellow (Jewish) outlaw, Dutch Schultz (real name: Arthur Flegenheimer), who threatened to bring the wrath of the law on them when he resolved to assassinate Manhattan prosecutor Thomas Dewey – later the governor and a presidential candidate – who was pursuing Schultz on tax-evasion charges. When Schultz refused to back down from his plan, the syndicate ordered Buchalter to whack him.
Ironically, it was the same Dewey whose life was spared, who went after both Buchalter and National Crime Syndicate colleague and friend Lucky Luciano. In the case of the latter, Luciano spent a decade in prison after being convicted on various pandering charges. For Buchalter, the end came after he turned himself in to the FBI in 1939, in the hope that the feds would not subsequently turn him over to the State of New York. They did. His conviction in federal court on racketeering charges was followed by conviction in a New York court on four murder charges, leading to his death sentence.
Buchalter appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but without success, clearing the way for his execution in 1944. It was reported at the time that his wife, the British-born Betty Buchalter, pleaded with him in his final hours to become an informant for federal prosecutors, but he refused.
Buchalter died a little before midnight on March 4. When the mask that covered his face was removed, one of the reporters present described in the next day’s New York Journal American, “You look at the face you cannot tear your eyes away It is not a pretty sight.”