Louis "Lepke" Buchalter
Thomas E. Dewey built a political career around hounding the Jewish gangster Lepke. His execution in 1944 — the first of a major underworld figure – riveted the attention of a nation and was in doubt up to the last minute.
by Allan May
It was Thursday, March 2, 1944, and time was running out in Sing Sing prison for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and four of his henchmen who were facing execution with him. Condemned to the electric chair with Lepke were Emmanuel "Mendy" Weiss and Louis Capone, for the murder of candy storeowner Joseph Rosen; and Joseph Palmer and Vincent Sallami, for the murder of Brooklyn detective Joseph Miccio.
From the pre-execution chamber that the underworld called the "Dance Hall," Lepke seemed confident that the legal maneuverings of his attorney, J. Bertram Wegman, would pay off. After all, his execution date had already been changed five times. Weiss and Capone were optimistic too that if reprieve came for the boss that they would escape the electric chair too. Palmer and Sallami both sat dejected. Only a last minute word from New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey could save them.
The day before, Wednesday, Federal Judge Clarence G. Galston had declined to issue a writ of habeas corpus to delay Lepke’s execution. Attorney Wegman’s position in seeking the writ from Galston was on the grounds that Lepke’s constitutional rights had been violated. The lawyer contended that Attorney General Francis Biddle had erred in turning Lepke over to the state for execution while he was still serving a 14-year federal sentence for a narcotics conviction.
Judge Galston ruled that Lepke had no right to decide whether he should be allowed to serve his federal term before having to face the state’s sentence of execution. The judge also rejected the argument that Lepke should have received a commutation of his federal sentence by President Franklin D. Roosevelt before being surrendered to the state.
Wegman would now have to appear before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if Lepke’s life was to continue. The only alternatives now being commutation of the death sentence by Dewey or the remote chance of being granted a new trial.
The condemned men were shaved, then they showered, and dressed in the traditional death-night garb of white socks, carpet slippers, and black trousers with a slit in one leg so the electrode could be attached to the bare skin. From the pre-execution chamber the men were just 25 feet from the chair. Set apart by partitions, the prisoners could not see one another but could communicate. Given the traditional choice of selecting their last meals, Lepke had requested steak, french fries, salad, and pie for lunch; and for dinner – roast chicken, shoestring potatoes, and salad. Weiss and Capone, as always following the boss’s lead, ordered the same.
"Something can happen yet," Lepke called out to his death-cell mates. "I can feel it."
Something did happen. Just 70 minutes before Lepke, Weiss, and Capone were to meet their fate, Gov. Dewey granted the trio a two-day extension to allow Wegman an opportunity to apply to the U. S. Supreme Court. Warden William E. Snyder sent Rev. Bernard Martin to deliver the news to the men. Cop killers Palmer, 26 years old, and Sallami, 28, were not included in the extension. They were executed one after the other at 11 p.m. as designated.
How had Lepke arrived at this point after years of successfully running his illegal empire? By the mid-1930s, with Waxey Gordon and Charles "Lucky" Luciano in prison, and Dutch Schultz dead, Lepke was the criminal most on then Special District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey’s mind. Before Dewey could act, a federal district attorney trying to make a name for himself upstaged him. Lepke and his sidekick, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro were indicted for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as it pertained to the restraint of trade of rabbit skins in the garment industry. The trial took place in October 1936 and to the surprise of many, both men were found guilty and given the maximum sentence – two years.
Dewey saw the sentencing as an opportunity. Once appeals were exhausted and the two men were imprisoned he would have time to collect evidence for his own indictment, that, he hoped, if they were found guilty, would send them away for a long time.
The strategy Dewey used was much the same as the one he mounted against Luciano. He exerted pressure on Lepke’s associates, past and present, promising them immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. Those who refused to cooperate were harassed and threatened with imprisonment by the aggressive lawman.
Meanwhile, as Lepke and Gurrah appealed their current convictions, they decided that if the court upheld the decision they would break bail and go into hiding. When the decision came down it was Gurrah’s conviction that was upheld, and Lepke was to be re-tried. Deciding not to wait around, in July 1937 Lepke and Gurrah went underground with the help of close friend Albert Anastasia.
In an effort to combat the case being built against them, Lepke employed killers from the Murder, Inc. gang to eliminate a number of the witnesses that Dewey was gathering to testify against him. Not all the people Dewey interrogated were marked for death. Some were paid to leave the city. One old Lepke associate, Max Rubin, had left the city several times, but kept returning to see his family. Murder, Inc. gunmen tracked Rubin down and shot him in the head. Rubin survived. Dewey used this shooting to exploit his case against Lepke and Gurrah in absentia, and his own campaign to be Manhattan’s new district attorney.
Dewey won the election in a landslide and immediately intensified his pursuit of Lepke and Gurrah. Although sightings of the two mobsters came from as far away as Poland, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Canada, the pair never left Brooklyn. Lepke was resigned to remain in hiding for the long haul, Gurrah, on the other hand, was ill and turned himself in on April 14, 1938.
With the focus of the manhunt solely on Lepke, the reward for his capture reached $50,000. His face appeared on posters, movie screens, and in newspapers across the country. Lepke had become the most wanted man in America. The publicity Lepke generated also provided good exposure for Dewey as explained in the book, The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America, by Albert Fried:
"And as Lepke’s notoriety rose, so did Dewey’s status. It was apparent to state and nation that Lepke was escaping from Dewey, and for good reason. Dewey was convicting everyone in sight, including Tammany’s own Jimmy Hines, the partner of Dutch Schultz and many another racketeer. But Lepke was Dewey’s meal ticket to higher office, perhaps to the highest; Lepke was the best Republican hope to come along in years and Dewey was going to exploit him for all he was worth. And so within a year of making his promise to break the underworld’s grip on New York City Dewey became the Republican candidate for governor."
Dewey lost in his first bid for the governor’s seat. This made him go after Lepke with even more determination. Meanwhile, the toll in human lives, as the two played their deadly cat-and-mouse game, continued to rise. It was believed the Murder, Inc. killers dispatched 13 men to their graves during this period, including the candy storeowner Joseph Rosen.
During the summer of 1939, the pressure on the underworld reached a peak and something had to give. The "give" was for Lepke to give himself up. This of course followed assurances by his underworld associates that the "fix" was in. Lepke surrendered himself in spectacular fashion by using nationally known radio personality Walter Winchell as an intermediary to turn himself into J. Edgar Hoover on the night of August 24, 1939. Lepke soon realized that the fix was not in, and that he had been betrayed.
The federal government was given first crack at Lepke. It indicted him on narcotics offenses for his involvement in a drug smuggling ring involving Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg (See my article Yasha "The Wandering Jew," March 29, 1999).
Lepke then learned that when the federal government was done with him he would be turned over to his nemesis Dewey. In December 1939 the federal narcotics trial of Lepke began. It was short and sweet. With Katzenberg testifying against his former partners, Lepke and three co-defendants were quickly found guilty. Lepke was sentenced to 14 years in Leavenworth Federal Prison; this sentence was on top of the time he already owed the government for breaking his bail in 1937.
Dewey hustled Lepke back to the state court, trying him on charges of racketeering in the baking industry. Lepke was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 30 years, which would not begin until after his 14 years for the federal sentence. The worst was yet to come however. Before Lepke could catch his breath, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, one of the top guns of Murder, Inc., revealed the gang’s operations and leadership.
Brooklyn District Attorney, and mayoral hopeful, William O’Dwyer was credited with breaking open the Murder, Inc. syndicate. In April 1941, he announced the indictments of Lepke, Weiss, and Capone for the murder of Joseph Rosen. By the time the trial was underway that summer, O’Dwyer had removed himself from the case to focus on running for mayor.
On Nov. 30, the three defendants were found guilty of murder. Two days later they were sentenced to death, the execution to be carried out at Sing Sing during the first week of January, 1942. Five postponements had brought the trio the additional time up to March 2, 1944. In the meantime, O’Dwyer was elected mayor of New York City and Thomas Dewey had become governor of the state. Lepke had served them both well.
Late on the afternoon of March 2, Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan received a message from Warden Snyder that Lepke wanted to talk to him. That Lepke was convicted in Brooklyn and Hogan was from Manhattan was a fact not lost on the newspapers. Hogan and two assistants drove to Sing Sing where they spoke to Lepke in his cell for 90 minutes. Hogan returned to the city and telephoned Dewey. Later that night the two-day reprieve was ordered. Whatever Lepke said to the district attorney, Hogan never revealed publicly.
A spokesperson for the governor insisted the delay was only granted to give Wegman the opportunity to apply for Lepke’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. This did not stop rumors from running rampant that Lepke was willing to talk. With Dewey already a candidate for the presidency, the information Lepke was rumored to have disclosed was so sensitive in nature that it could propel Dewey into the White House.
While Lepke was imprisoned from 1939 to 1944, stories persisted about what he might be willing to reveal about "men in high places." People in and out of law enforcement speculated on what he would say. Many believed if Lepke had opened up he would "blow the roof off the country" exposing:
--A nationally prominent labor leader on a murder charge.
--A noted public official of New York City on a conspiracy charge.
--A close relative of a very high public office holder as a ‘front’ for at least two of the gang lords who are credited with controlling crime in the United States.
Lepke once claimed, "If I would talk a lot of big people would get hurt. When I say big, I mean big. The names would surprise you."
During the two-day reprieve, the New York newspapers ran wild with speculation as to what Lepke had to reveal. Chief among the rumors was that the mob boss could provide information on Sidney Hillman, the president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Hillman was a member of President Roosevelt’s wartime administration, and his inner circle. With Hillman’s connections to organized labor, Dewey, it was believed, could link him to Lepke and parlay this information into a corruption scandal to hang over the Democrats in the November 1944 elections.
Before 1 p.m. Saturday, March 4, the U. S. Supreme Court rejected, without comment, Wegman’s plea that Lepke was wrongly released from federal prison. Lepke’s fate, along with Weiss’ and Capone’s, was sealed.
Shortly after the rejection, a hasty meeting was called at the Depot Square Hotel located in Ossining, New York, a mile from the prison. There, in a crowded combination bar and restaurant, appeared Mrs. Beatrice Wasserman Buchalter, Lepke’s wife. Wearing sunglasses, she pulled a yellow piece of notebook paper from her purse and stated, "My husband just dictated this statement in his death cell. I wrote it down, word for word."
"I am anxious to have it clearly understood that I did not offer to talk and give information in exchange for any promise of commutation of my death sentence. I did not ask for that!" (The exclamation point was Lepke’s.)
"The one and only thing I have asked for is to have a commission appointed to examine the facts. If that examination does not show that I am not guilty, I am willing to go to the chair, regardless of what information I have given or can give."
In Burton Turkus’s book, Murder, Inc. he claims:
"By releasing the statement through his wife, Lepke also was, I am convinced, giving an unmistakable signal to the mob. He was broadcasting to his Syndicate associates that he had not and would not talk of them or of the national cartel. About politicians and political connections and the like – yes: the crime magnates would seek no reprisal for that. But not about the top bosses of crime. It was pure and simple life insurance. No member of his family would be safe if the crime chiefs believed he had opened up on the organization itself."
The last attempt to delay the execution came from an unlikely source. Rabbi Jacob Katz was the Jewish chaplain at the prison and served as Lepke and Weiss’s spiritual advisor. Executions at the prison traditionally took place on Thursday nights at 11 p.m. These electrocutions would be the first death sentences performed on a Saturday night since 1917. Katz telephoned the governor Saturday morning, asking him to not conduct the executions that evening because it was the Jewish Sabbath. Due to holding services on the Sabbath, Katz said he could not leave his responsibilities in the Bronx until sundown, which would only give him "a scant three hours" with his two charges.
"It has been the custom for the chaplain to be with the condemned the whole day long on the last day of his life," he said. "It creates a very human feeling between the condemned and the chaplain and society, and with his God. So much so that whatever nervousness, whatever tension has been created is reduced to a state of resignation and submission to one’s fate on the part of the condemned."
Request denied! I doubt this consideration had been extended to any of the 13 condemned victims Lepke had ordered dispatched.
Having had their last meals for the second time in three days, the trio realized when no word from the governor’s mansion was received by 10:45 p.m. that all hope was lost. With the witness room packed with 36 on-lookers, Louis Capone was the first to take his turn in the hot seat. Flanked by two guards, and following Rev. Martin, Capone was strapped in at 11:02 p.m. and pronounced dead three minutes later.
Weiss came next. Walking behind Rabbi Katz, he was the only one to speak. "Can I say something?" he asked meekly.
"I’m here," he slowly stated, "on a framed-up case." Chewing hard on a piece of gum he seemed to lose his train of thought for the moment, but then concluded with, "And Governor Dewey knows it."
He finished with, "Give my love to my family…and everything."
At 11:10 p.m. Weiss was declared dead.
Lepke quickly walked in with Rabbi Katz. His step was described as brisk and defiant. He almost threw himself into the chair.
Frank Coniff, a reporter for the New York Journal American, was one of the witnesses. He wrote, "You look at the face…you cannot tear your eyes away. Sweat beads his forehead. Saliva drools from the corner of his lips. The face is discolored. It is not a pretty sight."
At 11:16, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was declared dead.
Burton Turkus wrote as a conclusion to the executions:
"A kingpin of national crime was gone, a czar of the rackets. The Syndicate that rules the underworld and has connections in the highest political places had lost its first major figure to the Law. Ironically, for all his power and his killings, it was the murder of a little man that caught up with Lepke, and ended him. Justice proved she plays no favorites; she works for the man who pulls the strings as well as the one who pulls the trigger. Before then, no executive of organized crime ever sat in the chair. Since Lepke, there has been no other."