The Long Arm of Murder, Inc.
Gangsters on the lam presented no problem for the gunmen of Murder, Inc. Even when the law couldn't find a hoodlum, the tenacious killers from Brooklyn could track down anyone who was hiding out — either from the police or from fellow gangsters.
Witness the death of New York bootlegger Abe Wagner.
In 1932, Wagner and his brother Allie controlled a modest, yet profitable bootleg operation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Faced with rising competition from the upstart Mazza Gang, Wagner had survived a blistering barrage of gunfire on crowded Suffolk Street and was anxious for peace.
"Wagner was not a trigger-happy gangster who would immediately start a gory underworld war because of such pointed animosity," wrote Turkus. "His maxim was that it was better to be a live coward than a dead gang boss."
Wagner decided to sue for peace and sent his brother Allie to meet with the Mazzas who had the backing of Luciano. Instead of peace, Allie turned up dead and Abe decided to take it on the lam. He packed up a few possessions and with his wife, Goldie, decided to head west.
Ironically, the police gave the Mazza gang its first tip about Abe's whereabouts. While searching for clues about the Lindbergh kidnapping, New Jersey State Police commander Norman Schwartzkopf (father of the Gulf War general) made it known that Wagner had been seen around Hopewell, New Jersey. The Mazzas sent a gunman to finish the job on Wagner, but the bootlegger was wary and spotted the killer first. Instead of making a contract, the Mazza killer wound up dead himself.
Abe and Goldie then fled to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Wagner changed his name and occupation. He was found by Murder, Inc. operating a fruit stand in the Midwest capital and slain while he ate dinner in the Midway, between St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"Deliberately, the gunmen pumped seven bullets into the incognito bootlegger," Turkus wrote. "And as he lay there, they clobbered his head with pistol butts. They were unhurried. They had orders to get the job done; get it done, they did."
The gunmen — reportedly members of the Bugs and Meyer Mob — were so intent on their work that they were caught in the act by local police. A fortune was spent on saving the men from the electric chair and they both received life terms in Stillwater Penitentiary.
Murder, Inc. is also responsible for the first "real" organized crime slaying in Southern California. The killing of Big Greenie, nee Harry Greenberg, demonstrates the inherent danger of a gangster knowing too much for his own good. Lepke's admonition that "investigations collapse when no witnesses are around," is a double-edged sword in gangdom, for many times the only witnesses to crimes are criminals themselves. This is good if the witnesses can be trusted to keep their mouths shut, but when powerful mobsters realize that the small fry can be convinced by law enforcement to spill their guts, odds are that the small fry will pay with their lives.
The 1939 slaying of Big Greenie was one such case. Greenberg — who also went by several other aliases, including Harry Schacter and Harry Schober — had been an insider in Lepke's union operations and was a Bugs and Meyer gang alumnus. When Dewey began his probe of Lepke's operations, Big Greenie was sent underground and was hiding out in Montreal. But the cost of lamming is expensive. If the reward posted by the law is high, there is a great incentive on the part of cohorts to sell out their hidden brethern. Big Greenie started to run low on money and warned his gangland buddies not to forget him.
Mendy Weiss, who had taken over the day-to-day operations while Lepke hid, viewed Greenberg's note as a threat — pay up, or else. He ordered his gang to take out the union goon. Allie Tannenbaum took the contract and headed to Canada to rub out Big Greenie.
But the bird had flown. Perhaps Big Greenie realized that his note had not been well-received, or he had heard that Lepke was ordering a general purge of prospective witnesses. Nevertheless, Greenberg fled west to Detroit, where he had friends in the Purple Gang. The Motor City mobsters gave Greenie a warm welcome, a little too warm for his tastes; he suspected a set-up.
Greenie fled further west to Southern California, where Bugsy Siegel had established a Syndicate franchise. Allie boarded a plane in Newark and headed to Hollywood, where Greenie had been spotted. Frank Carbo, a former boxing manager and mobster was asked to help out and Bugsy added his own specialist, Whitey Krakow, Siegel's brother-in-law.
Things went well this time, and "Big Greenie, lamster, became Southern California's first important gang cadaver," according to Turkus. Despite eyewitnesses and corroborating testimony, no one was ever convicted in the Harry Greenberg killing.