Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (6 February 1897 – 4 March 1944) was an American mobster who operated during the 1930s. He is the only major mob boss to receive the death penalty in the United States.
Early career Edit
Buchalter took the nickname "Lepke" at an early age. The name was an abridgement of the diminutive "Lepkeleh" ("Little Louis" in Yiddish) that his mother had called him as a boy. After his father died, his mother's health began to fail. The doctors recommended she move to Arizona to improve her health; Lepke was left as his sister's responsibility. The day his mother boarded the bus to leave the city was the last time his sister ever saw him. He began, at an early age, to control the streets of New York City. When arrested as a child for breaking and entering, he was wearing stolen shoes, both for the same foot and an unmatched pair. He was sent to the Catholic Protectory and labeled incorrigible. By 1919, at 22, he had served two terms in Sing Sing Prison.
Upon Buchalter's release, he teamed with his childhood friend, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro. Through force and fear, they began gaining control of the garment industry unions on the Lower East Side. He then used the unions to threaten strikes and demand weekly payments from factory owners while dipping into union bank accounts. His control of the unions evolved into a protection racket, extending into such areas as bakery trucking. The unions were profitable for him, and he kept a hold on them even after becoming an important figure in organized crime.
In the early 1930s, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Lepke, and John "Johnny The Fox" Torrio, (former Chicago boss and mentor of Al Capone), formed a loose alliance. To deal with any problems, Luciano's associates Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Meyer Lansky formed Murder, Inc. Originally a band of Brooklyn killers, they were effective and eventually used to fulfill most murder contracts. Control soon passed to Lepke and Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia, as Siegel and Lansky had nationwide concerns. Murder Inc., the name given by the media in the 1940s, was credited with contract killings throughout the country, including Dutch Schultz.
United States Department of Justice mugshot of Louis Buchalter.Buchalter's downfall began in the mid-1930s, when he went underground to elude the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which wanted him on a narcotics charge, and New York City special prosecutor Dewey, who wanted him tried for syndicate activities. He surrendered to the federal government in exchange for not being turned over to Dewey. Buchalter was sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas for 14 years for narcotics trafficking. The sentence was extended to 30 years on account of Buchalter's union racketeering.
Even more serious legal problems and consequences followed in 1940. The state of New York indicted him for a murder committed four years earlier, on 13 September 1936. On that day, Murder Inc. killers, acting on Buchalter's orders, gunned down a Brooklyn businessman named Joseph Rosen. Rosen was a former garment industry trucker whose union Buchalter took over in exchange for ownership of a Sutter Avenue candy store. Rosen had aroused Buchalter's ire by failing to heed warnings to leave town. Although no proof exists that Rosen was cooperating with the District Attorney, Lepke nevertheless believed it to be true.
Buchalter's order for the Rosen hit had been overheard by Reles, who turned state's evidence in 1940 and fingered Buchalter for four murders. Returned from Leavenworth to Brooklyn to stand trial for the Rosen slaying, Buchalter's position was worsened by the testimony of Tannenbaum. Four hours after they were handed the case, the jury arrived at a verdict at 2 am on 30 November 1941, finding Buchalter guilty of first degree murder, the penalty for which was death by electrocution. Also convicted and sentenced to death for the same crime were two of Buchalter's lieutenants who had participated in the planning and commission of the Rosen murder, Emanuel "Mendy" Weiss, and Louis Capone (no relation to Al Capone).
Buchalter during his sentencingBuchalter's conviction took place in December 1941, and the New York Court of Appeals, on review of his case, upheld his conviction and death sentence in October 1942. At the time, Buchalter was serving his racketeering sentence at Leavenworth Federal Prison, and New York state authorities demanded he be turned over to them for execution. Buchalter resisted, managing to remain in Kansas and out of New York's hands until extradited in January 1944. Buchalter and his lieutenants, Weiss and Capone, were electrocuted within minutes of each other at New York's Sing Sing prison on 4 March 1944.
In popular culture Edit
The 1975 film Lepke, starring Tony Curtis, was based on his life. During the late 1950s and early 1960s,
he was portrayed by David J. Stewart in the 1960 film Murder Inc.,
potrayed by Gene Roth and Joseph Ruskin in The Untouchables.
portayed by John Vivyan and Shepherd Sanders in The Lawless Years television series.
Other portrayals include the 1981 film Gangster Wars by Ron Max.
Louis Buchalter is also mentioned in The Sopranos Season 1 Episode 8, "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti." Dr. Sam Reis recounts how his mother's uncle was Lepke's driver.
Robert Lowell describes seeing Buchalter in his poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" (Life Studies, 1959) whilst incarcerated for being a Conscientious Objector during the Second World War.
In TV series The West Wing, season 4, episode 11, 'Holy Night', Toby Ziegler's father is revealed to have worked as a hit-man for Louis Buchalter in Murder Inc. during the 1940s.