By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
Someone once claimed Plug Shuman said, “Shoot ‘em twice in the back of the neck and they won’t wiggle.” The guy who killed him remembered and faithfully followed the dictum. To the bullet.
Albert Shuman was thirty-four when he died and, according to Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British scientist and philosopher, fulfilled all the criteria for a miserable life lived to the full.
A Jewish gangster, Shuman found crime to be one of the queer ladders of social mobility in the American way of life. For many men in the early part of the 20th century, it was the only way to drag themselves out of an endless cycle of unemployment and lost opportunities in America’s biggest city. Although most sources spell his name with the C, court documents refer to him as Albert Shuman.
New York had plenty of hoodlums who emerged from the endless inflow of immigrants flooding the city: Italian, Irish, Eastern Europeans and Jews. Lots of Jews. The group that became famous or realistically infamous was The Combination, mislabelled by newspapers as Murder Inc.
In a 1958 monograph about the history and activities (and, indeed, the existence) of the Mafia, the FBI also said that:
“......witnesses revealed the existence of a vast criminal syndicate which the underworld referred to as ‘The Combination,’ and to which the press gave the appellation ‘Murder Inc.’”
Harry Feeney of the New York World Telegram is the reporter who allegedly coined the phrase. Sounds a lot more exciting than The Combination.
From about 1930 until 1940, people claim that this gang, or group of gangs, killed hundreds, maybe up to a thousand, in New York and across the country. New York had gangs, and they almost had the city. “Crime is a social, economic and political phenomenon,” according to writer Robert Weldon Whalen.
It’s also a bit of a bother for the men, and occasionally women, who inhabit its neighbourhood.
Life expectancy can be as short as the last conversation, or an insult lost in the wind. It’s not only no place for old men, the young ones often have short, hesitant but inevitable terminal habitation of the streets and bars and cafes they frequented as their social stamping grounds.
A rum-runner during the days of prohibition, a robber who specialized in jewellery outlets and an alleged hit-man for the Jewish gangs, we know little about his background. His claim to criminal fame is more about his death than his sentient existence, and the implications that arose from his murder.
It goes something like this:
Jewish criminals congregated in Brownsville and adjacent Ocean Hill to the north of Canarsie in New York’s most densely populated borough, Brooklyn.
A man called Louis Capone (left, no relation to the other one in Chicago) owned a pasticceria, a cafe serving coffee and pastries in Ocean Hill which around 1928, became the meeting place of Abe Reles, a kind of founding member of The Combination, and a bunch of young thugs eager for jobs and money.
Capone formed a relationship with a man called Albert Anastasia, the underboss of the Mangano Mafia crime family, based in Brooklyn, who was a frequent visitor to the cafe, and who at some stage, became a kind of patron to Reles, and the gang he had gathered.
- READ: A Funeral in Brooklyn.
From then on, it was all barking mad, almost cockamamie gangsterism as Reles and his ever-expanding troop carried out robberies, extortions, and murders, lots of murders for their mob boss, or bosses, and gradually developed into their own self-perpetuating killer organism. And then, they crossed paths with another power syndicate headed by Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter.
He’s a major force in New York’s garment industry. Along with his associates, he dominated the field of criminal labour relations until the end of the 1930s. In the summer of 1937, for various reasons and under many pressures, indicted on federal narcotic charges and especially from the hard-hitting New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, appointed special prosecutor investigating organized crime, who wanted him for murder and racketeering, Buchalter goes into hiding, using initially accommodation at a restaurant owned by Capone at 2780 Stillwell Avenue on Coney Island, and then an apartment on Foster Avenue in Flatbush, nine miles away where he posed as the paralysed husband of his landlady.
“Lepke (right) was probably the greatest criminal in the nation’s history, a tycoon who bossed a veritable General Motors of crime,” according to writer and columnist, Andrew F. Tully in a piece he wrote in 1958, claiming his illegal enterprises in the fur, baking and garment industries enable him to extort $50 million, and that his narcotic smuggling generated $10 million between October 1935 and February 1937.
Even if we quarter that based on journalistic hyperbole, Buchalter was still a very serious and successful gangster.
By the dawn of 1939 he is enduring one crisis after another and exacerbating things, is under pressure from his gangland peers to hand himself in to the authorities to take the heat off them.
He’s part of this story as the man who points the finger at Plug Shuman, using Reles to organize the hit through third-party killers.
According to court testimony in an appeal judgement in 1941, “Upon the first trial one Abraham Reles, a self-confessed accomplice in the killing of Shuman, testified in effect that his ‘business’ was murder in Brooklyn, that he was told by one of his bosses in such business that Shuman was giving the police information about him and that Shuman must be killed; that the witness then enlisted the services of this defendant as an aide in the killing; and that, pursuant to a prearranged plan, the defendant shot and killed Shuman.
Two other men who were members of the same gang conducting the ‘business’ of murder, and who were accomplices in the killing, also testified against the defendant. The defendant denied their story and testified that he had no connection with the gang and was not acquainted with any of the men who, according to the testimony of their accomplices, were members of the gang.”
That’s it in a nutshell. Plug was a squealer. Ergo Plug needed to be plugged. One of the bosses was Buchalter.
In the December 1938, Reles (right) and another gang member, Mendy Weiss, had visited Buchalter at Foster Avenue where Mendy "told Buchalter that Pug Shuman was speaking to Inspector McDermott, giving him information against him." Lepke said, "If he is giving information against me, go out and take him.”
Dorothy Walker, who acted as Buchalter’s housekeeper while he lived in the apartment, was also a witness to this conversation among the gangsters.
McDermott, head of detectives at Brooklyn police headquarters, had confirmed that at least on three occasions during the fall of 1938, Shuman had approached him seeking “a job”. In cop-speak, being a stool pigeon.
The stage was set. The actors were assembled. Everything was go.
The killers were to be Albert Tannenbaum (left), designate driver, and Irving Nitzberg, the shooter. They selected him as he was a friend. He knew the guy. Reles would confirm in due course, “Whenever they got kill somebody, they tell a guy from The Bronx or the East Side or Brooklyn, whoever knows the guy. Nitzberg got the contract. He knew him. If I knew him, I would have got the contract. That is how it worked.”
The Yiddish expression, “Man Plans and God laughs” was the perfect idiomatic expression to illustrate the ultimate futility of the murder of Shuman, which in the end, achieved nothing, but brought down even more heat on everyone involved.
Tannenbaum, nickname “Tick-tock” because of his constant nervous clock-like banter, was a protégé of Buchalter and a proficient killer, with at least six hits under his belt. Nitzberg, a Bronx-based pool hall owner and gun for hire. Knadles, his Yiddish nickname, referred presumably to his love of the Matzah balls beloved by so many Jewish people.
Late on the evening of January 9, 1939, Shuman gets picked up in Ocean Hill by the two men driving a Black Buick that had been stolen the previous year from a garage in Long Island carrying plates looted from another car later. Plug had been promised a part in a robbery, and he believed he was being taken to an apartment in Brooklyn to set up the heist. Tannenbaum drives down Buffalo Avenue, across Eastern Parkway, then down Rockaway, passing the Bethell Hospital and then pulling into East 95th Street. Tailing them is Reles, ready to collect the killers when the job is done.
When the driver gives the signal, Knadles, in the back seat, leans forward and shoots Plug twice in the neck. Powder burns on the victim’s skin show the gun’s muzzle was less than three inches away. As Schulman sumps to the right, “Tick-tock” pulls the car over and parks opposite a vacant lot at number 628. The two gunmen leave the car and join Reles, who drives off into the night.
Murder Inc. turned their potential energy into kinetic force through their willingness to murder on command. The morally ambivalent hit-men-for hire could earn a retainer between jobs, and receive substantial fees for the one carried out. And there were plenty of them as Lepke directed a purge, killing off anyone he deemed a threat to his security.
As the 1930s come to a close, there are bodies falling everywhere- vacant lots, ditches, backseats of auto's, street corners- nowhere is safe. At least a dozen men are murdered in the months leading up to 1940 as part of Murder Inc’s busy itinerary
Early on the morning of January 10th, two New York Police, officers Reardon and Eifler discover the well-plugged body of Plug Shuman slumped over to his right against the passenger-side window, buttoned up in a big overcoat and gloves and still wearing his fedora.
The murder scene, a block from Linden Boulevard that linked into Grand Central Parkway and the Triboro Bridge with quick and easy access into upper Manhattan and The Bronx, was in an area often used by the gang to dispose of their victims. At least ten had been dumped over the years within a half a mile radius of the abandoned Buick. According to the head of the Brooklyn Detective Division.
Albert Shuman was a gangster of little consequence in a dark world filled with heavyweights, operating in a social environment consumed by complexities, uncertainties and lots of terror. His death cements his place in mob history, which in due course, will help trigger events that bring down, not his killer, but the hierarchies that help create him.
Investigators finally broke the ring in 1940, when they arrested Abe Reles for the murder of Alexander Alpert, a minor hoodlum aged nineteen, in 1933. Reles, who was concerned by the very strong possibility of a death sentence after his arrest on several murders, volunteered to become a state witness against virtually anyone he could incriminate. He admitted to eleven murders, and helped to resolve many more, dozens, some the police did not even know about. Opening a box to reveal not Schrödinger's cat, but an entire underworld filled with more thuggery and sudden death than Cape Flats in Cape Town.
In due course, other gangsters talked as well, including trigger-man Tannenbaum, Joe Liberto, and Angelo Catalano, who were relatively minor players in the Combination along with Max Rubin who was an important associate and close confidant of Buchalter. The Kings County District Attorney kept the witnesses under twenty-four-hour police guard at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island.
Somehow, even with these precautions, in November 1941 Reles fell to his death from the sixth-floor window of the hotel. Despite the incident suggesting that Reles had tried to escape from his locked-down sixth floor room, suspicions immediately arose that someone had "assisted" him out the window to prevent his testimony against Albert Anastasia and others.
Reles' testimony forms the basis for indicting and trying Irving Nitzberg for the murder of Shuman, not once, but twice, and he gets acquitted both times.
The authorities executed Buchalter, Capone, and four other members of the mob at Sing Sing Prison in up state New York between June 1941 and August 1944. Lepke goes down in American mob history as the first and so far, only boss ever to be legally executed.
Murder Inc, the Combination, the Brownsville Troop, whatever name appeals, vanished, absorbed by the frenzy of New York’s endless social upheaval as new or more dominant criminal syndicates emerged.
By the 1950s, areas of Brooklyn slowly started to vanish. Blocks would pack up and move to Long Island, or Jersey, even to Florida. In 1957 even the Dodgers left Brooklyn. All the way to California.
Their baseball ground became a housing project, the ultimate testaments to the ultimate change.
The tough Jews were gone, replaced by street gangs, and drug cartels, with the odd Mafioso lurking in the shadows. Murder as the informal method of conflict resolution remains the pillar that supports all criminal endeavours in Brooklyn and across America’s biggest city. The good old days are long gone, and yet.
William Faulkner claimed “the past isn't dead, it isn't even past.”
The life of a man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short
Joselit, Jenna Wiseman. Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community 1900-1940. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1983.
Whalen, Robert Weldon. Murder Inc and the Moral Life. Fordham University Press. 2016.
Block, Alan. East Side-West Side. University College, Cardiff. 1980.
Tyler, Gus. Organized Crime in America. The University of Michigan Press. 1962.
Cohen, Rich. Tough Jews. Random House, London. 1998.
People v. Nitzberg. 289 N.Y. 523, 530-531
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. January 11, 1939.
Daily News. January 11, 1939.
The New York Times. November 13, 1941.
New York Times. January 4, 1951.
Time Magazine. April 4, 1940.
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