A one stop shop for wholesale underworld contract killings run out of a candy shop, welcome to Murder Inc.: The American Mafia’s elite squad of assassins that ravaged the United States gangland during the 1930s. Author Christian Cipollini brought its gritty, morbid stories to the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, and now lays bare its reign of terror for Gangsters Inc. “There’s really never been anything like it before or since.”
Another day, another dead gangster. Each time, police found the victim trussed up, often ice-picked, and dumped in a burlap or sugar sack. Police and press dubbed it the bag- or sack murder-method, eventually settling simply for “trussed up” after yet another such killing.
Though no one realized it at the time, this was the handiwork of Murder Inc. “They basically created their own trademark maneuver,” author Christian Cipollini tells Gangsters Inc. “Oddly it took a decade for authorities to firmly realize this method was being carried out by the same handful of guys!”
Those same handful of guys were part of a group that operated nationwide in the 1930s and 40s and committed hundreds to over one thousand murders – depending on who you ask – while working as the mob’s official enforcement branch. It consisted of a variety of mostly Italian and Jewish gangsters and was led by such prominent racketeers as Jewish mob boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Gambino crime family Mafia boss Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia.
Cipollini studied the murderous crew for his book Murder Inc.: Mysteries of the mob’s most deadly hit squad and has become quite familiar with their brutal modus operandi. “When three plunges of an icepick would do the job, they added sixty more for good measure,” he says.
It’s not hard to see why the public was – and still is – so fascinated with the story of Murder Inc. “It was the most bizarre and morbidly sensational mob-related entity of, arguably, all time,” Cipollini explains. “The entire story was so complex and filled with a veritable who’s who of Depression era gangsters. This was a criminal department that directly and loosely involved everyone who was part of the Syndicate, the Outfit, the Purple Gang, you name it and they were likely tied in somehow. The whole subject, especially the individuals at the core of Murder Inc.’s operations, are fascinating and sometimes mind-boggling. It’s like we all want to try and understand how this went on for so long, but more than that – what made these people tick.”
What made these guys tick, is hard to say. Men like Abe Reles, Phil Strauss, and Harry Maione built a fearsome reputation by viciously taking lives. “Turning a contract hit into an art form goes beyond the call of mob duty,” Cipollini says pensively. “The core members of Murder Inc. didn't just set an example or warning to others, it was bloodlust. Those guys were not serial killer mentality, but pretty damn close, I think. Especially ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss.”
This was evident, Cipollini explains, by their “extracurricular” activities. “Some of them - Gurino, Maione, Abbandando, Reles, Strauss - did some pretty atrocious, outrageous non-work-related things during the 1930s. When the police and psychiatrists would call guys like mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano a sociopath in the mid-1930s for example, they had zero idea what a true sociopath was! Harry Maione, Abe Reles, Martin Goldstein, and Harry Strauss, now those were sociopaths,” he exclaims.
Psychology and Murder Inc.’s surreal and sinister murder methods aside, Cipollini is crystal clear about what makes this mob crew so unique. “The simple fact that it was essentially a one stop shop, literally run out of a small nondescript candy store, for wholesale underworld contract killings,” he concludes. “This was, for the better part of a decade, a well-oiled machine run directly by a small, core group of gangsters, yet it had connections and reach nationwide, which served virtually the entire national underworld. There’s really never been anything like it before or since.”
This makes Murder Inc. an interesting case study for both mobsters and members of law enforcement. What did both learn from these brutal mob hitmen? “Contemporary gangsters should probably take away a lesson in ‘honor among thieves,’” Cipollini says. “Considering that despite the organization having operated for nearly a decade without interference or discovery was proof of that almost mythological concept of ‘honor,’ at the same time, when push came to shove even the most heinous of the group was ready to sing the story to save his neck.”
Furthermore, the prosecution of Murder Inc., Cipollini emphasizes, also showed the importance of the lowly helper. “The gophers, the hang arounds, those kind of guys, well they’re the ones in any organization who see, hear and seem to know more of what’s going on, in an all-encompassing manner, than any executive. And it was a half a dozen such lower tier hoods that really filled in the blanks during the Murder Inc. trials.”
Law enforcement learned a lot from the Murder Inc. cases, Cipollini says. “If a bunch of people end up dead in very similar manner (the icepick and rope technique for example) over a considerable period of time, then there’s probably a connection!” he says with a smile. “Ultimately though,” he continues in a serious tone, “the Murder Inc. investigations and subsequent courtroom revelations exposed the intricately coordinated machine that a criminal organization can be. From the top bosses down to the menial laborer – any outlaw organization has the potential to be as intricate and powerful as any legitimate corporation, mini government for that matter, if allowed to flourish like Murder Inc. and the entire National Crime Syndicate was able to back in the Depression Era.”
On September 13, between 7 and 9 pm, Christian Cipollini shared his vast knowledge on Murder Inc. during an edition of Author Talk at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. During his ‘talk,’ he showcased some extremely rare items. Cipollini: “Some of my especially cool items include the Jacob ‘Jack’ Drucker wanted poster and apprehension letter, a wanted poster for Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter that is contained within a 1939 copy of Finger Print Magazine, and an incredibly rare photograph of the bloody aftermath of a barroom brawl that left Vito Gurino with a split skull in 1934.”
Article and headline updated after Cipollini's visit to the Mob Museum.
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