On November 12, 1941, contract murderer-turned-government witness Abe “Kid Twist” Reles fell – or was pushed – to his death, the night before he was scheduled to testify in court against a former colleague. It was a demise that led Reles, who had provided the authorities with precise details about the workings of a criminal organization that came to be known as Murder, Inc., to go down in history as “the canary who could sing, but couldn’t fly.”
Abraham Reles was born May 10, 1906, to parents who had emigrated to the United States from Galicia. His father Sol worked for some time in the garment industry, though his last occupation was reportedly peddling knishes in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which is where Abe grew up.
Abe Reles left school after eighth grade and was incarcerated for the first time in 1921, in a juvenile facility, for stealing gum from a vending machine. After returning to Brownsville, Reles went to work for the Shapiro brothers – William, Meyer and Irving – who controlled most of the bootlegging, slot and vending machines, and prostitution in that part of Brooklyn.
The relationship with the Shapiros soured when Reles was arrested again, while in their employ, and imprisoned for two years, during which time the brothers cut him loose. On his release, in 1930, Reles was determined to avenge their treatment of him.
He began by muscling in on their slot-machine business, with the aid of his friends Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein and George Defeo.
The Shapiros’ responded by trying to kill Reles and his colleagues; in addition, Meyer Shapiro kidnapped, raped and badly beat Reles’ girlfriend. That naturally enraged Reles further, and he resolved to personally kill each brother. He succeeded: He shot Irving and Meyer to death in short order, but it was several years before he caught up with William, whom he garroted and then buried – alive, a post-mortem revealed – at Canarsie Beach, Brooklyn.
Some say that Reles, who was short in both stature and temper, earned the epithet of “Kid Twist” because of his ability to strangle victims with his meaty, bare hands, although his preferred method of killing was with an ice-pick through the ear.
In 1933, he met with Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, who saw in Reles a man who could be relied to carry out – first in the New York area, but eventually nationwide – contract killings for him and other syndicate chiefs, including Albert Anastasia and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Thus was born Murder, Inc., a name probably coined by the press.
Reles begins to sing
In 1940, Reles was picked up after an informant linked him to a murder seven years earlier. After his arrest, his wife approached the Brooklyn district attorney and said that Reles would be willing to turn state’s evidence, if the government could promise him immunity from prosecution for any murders he had committed.
He was asking a lot: When he began to sing, Reles provided details about 85 murders in which he had played a role. Assistant district attorney Burton Turkus later noted that everything Reles told him (his confessions filled up 25 stenographers’ notebooks) checked out, down to the last detail.
Reles’ testimony helped to convict and send to the electric chair such former colleagues as Buchalter, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Frank “The Dasher” Abbandando, and even his friend Buggsy Goldstein. But Abe Reles' luck ran out just hours before he was to testify in the murder trial of Albert Anastasia.
Reles was being housed, with a contingent of police guarding him, in the Half Moon Hotel, in Coney Island. It was there, on the morning of November 12, 1941, that he fell five stories to his death, with a chain of tied-together sheets by his side when he was found, as if he had been trying to escape.
His death, and the question of whether crooked police had abetted it, was investigated several times over the following decades. But it has never been credibly established just who or what was responsible for the defenestration of Abe Reles.