After being arrested Abe Reles agreed to trade information on his fellow Murder Inc. hitmen. Then, he was found dead outside his jail cell – but did he really kill himself, like the police said?
Today Manhattan’s Lower East Side is a favorite haunt of revelers in search of eclectic dive bars or low-key clubs, but less than a century ago it was one of the city’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods.
During the 1930s and 40s, Murder Inc. did the dirtiest work the New York mob had to offer, providing hit men for the most famous criminals of the day, while ensuring the big bosses were never linked to the actual crimes. Consisting of Italian and Jewish gangsters, the organization founded by Bugsy Siegel and Meyers Lansky is estimated to have been responsible for 1000 murders during their reign of terror; which would eventually come to an end thanks to one of their own.
Abe Reles was one of Murder Inc.’s most feared killers; he had already been arrested 42 times by the time he was thirty-four.He’d somehow manage to skirt a murder conviction (despite six arrests for murders), but after yet another arrest in 1940 he found himself in hot water. Seeing that the noose had finally started to tighten around his neck, Abe Reles decided to save himself by giving up some of his former associates.
An Investigator’s Dream
Abe Reles was an interrogator’s dream: not only was he willing to sing, but he also had a photographic memory that provided thousands of pages of evidence. He was extremely valuable because he was a high-ranking member of Murder Inc. and had a lot of information that could bring down other big names. With Reles’s help, the police were able to locate dozens of bodies and gather enough evidence to lock up some of his former buddies and send several of his old friends straight to the electric chair.
The biggest fish Abe Reles had to offer the police was Albert Anastasia, one of New York’s most prominent gangsters and the head of Murder Inc. The authorities had never been able to pin anything directly on him until Reles came along.
Anastasia had become involved with the murder of a local teamster, Morris Diamond, himself. Although he had dozens of hitmen (who Reles could have provided) to take care of the killing for him and ensure he could never be directly implicated, for reasons that are still unknown Anastasia planned out Diamond’s death himself; unfortunately for him, Reles had overheard the details.
A Mysterious Death
Due to his value as a witness and the possibility that some of his old friends were likely trying to silence him, as he was getting set to testify against Anastasia, Abe Reles was placed under constant guard by the NYPD at the Half-Moon Hotel on Coney Island. Despite the fact that a whopping 18 men were assigned to guard the single prisoner in 24-hour shifts, on the morning of November 12th, 1941, Reles’s crumpled body was found on the sidewalk six stories below.
The former gangster was found with “two sheets partially entwined around him,” as well as a length of wire. Up in his room, investigators found more wire tied to his radiator and leading out the window, where it had snapped. The officers assigned to watch him all claimed that they had been asleep when their prisoner evidently decided to make a desperate bid for freedom.
The newspapers delighted in reporting the suspicious circumstances surrounding Reles’s death, with one reporting “the only law that got him was Newton’s law of gravity.” After an official inquiry was made in 1951, a grand jury ruled that the stool pigeon died during an escape attempt.
However, there were a few problems with this theory; namely that Abe Reles’ body was found quite some distance from the wall he had supposedly been trying to scale. Lucky Luciano later stated that the policemen had been paid a whopping $50,000 to ensure they “picked [Reles] up and heaved him out the window.” After Reles’s death, the case against Anastasia was dropped, with the DA bemoaning that his “perfect case…went out the window with Reles.” The mob boss would walk free this time, but would eventually be brutally murdered himself in 1957.
Next, read about the time that the FBI hired hitman Gregory Scarpa to threaten the KKK. Then, take a look at the work of photographer Letizia Battaglia, whose work takes you inside the bloody heart of the mafia.