If you didn't know better, you might think that names like "Dimples" Wolinsky, "Bugsey" Goldstein, "Trigger Mike" Cupola or "Kid Twist" Reles belonged to characters in a gangster movie with all of the usual trappings--a crime syndicate, a murder ring, hard-faced New York gangsters and the city's D.A. going after them with a mission to convict. But before the movies dramatized the fight against organized crime, the prosecution of Murder Inc., one of Brooklyn's most famed crime syndicates in the late 1930's-40's, provided a model for these epic legal battles. Burton Turkus was the Assistant to the District Attorney who brought down nine suspects in the Murder Inc. trials, managing to convict them all of first-degree murder. They would all be sentenced to death.
As an intern at the Brooklyn Collection, I was lucky enough to process the personal papers of Burton Turkus. As a whole the papers reflect a hard-working, dedicated criminal lawyer who cared deeply about the welfare of Brooklynites and the community he defended. After rising to prominence for his Murder Inc. victory, Turkus worked tirelessly in his positions as Chief of the Homicide Division and District Attorney, campaigning as County Judge and for the presidential campaign of his mentor, Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election. He was also a steadfast supporter of New York labor union workers, serving as a member of the board for the New York State Board of Mediation for ten years. He wrote columns for newspapers and magazines and spoke on radio segments on everything from Murder Inc. to juvenille delinquency, and lectured in every corner of the city as shown by the hundreds of promotional flyers left behind in his collection. He even had his own television show for a spell, entitled "Mr. Arsenic." In his day, Turkus was a New York celebrity of the most deserving kind--a real-life crusader and defender of the people of Gotham.
The Murder Inc. trial received considerable press attention. It was more than a murder case, rather, a complex web of crimes with numerous perpetrators and many victims. The syndicate was part of a national crime ring, with the "workers" serving as hitmen and leading racketeering schemes within labor unions. The men who came to be known as Murder Inc. were primarily Jewish gangsters based in Brownsville, Brooklyn which lent them their other alias, "The Brownsville Boys." The gang made its headquarters in a local candy store where they would play craps as they waited for the phone to ring, sending them out on their next job. Meanwhile, New York, Chicago, and other major metropolises were plagued with unsolved murders that baffled the police and law enforcement officials. It was Abe "Kid Twist" Reles who let the cat out of the bag in 1940, turning himself in and telling authorities including Turkus everything he knew about the syndicate, their activities and the more than a dozen murders he had participated in for them. A statement released to the New York Times in 1963 reads,
" ...it was [due to] the testimony, information and leads supplied by Reles...that the pattern of national organized gangland was exposed for the first time along with the technique of of murders contracted and performed to sustain the rackets in every industrialized city from coast to coast."
The contribution of these revelations to the case against the syndicate and the investigation of organized crime thereafter was invualable. Things did not end well for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss, Harry "Happy" Maione, Frank "The Dasher" Abbandando, Buggsie Goldstein and "Pittsburgh" Phil Strauss.
Neither did they end well for Reles, who "fell" out of a sixth-floor window in Coney Island's Half Moon Hotel.
After the Murder Inc. excitement died down, Turkus went on running a private law practice, which he began in 1946. Aside from campaigning, speaking in countless lectures and serving as a chairman of numerous Labor Relations Boards, he also headed the Advanced School for Detectives in New Jersey, which was the "first school of its kind in the nation for instruction in the latest techniques in the apprehension of criminals and their prosecution."
Turkus later contributed his experiences to a book about the famous trials entitled Murder Inc.--The Story of the Syndicate, which was a non-fiction bestseller and was turned into a film in 1960. After spending time with his papers, I understand the fascination. The story is incredibly compelling, and the archive reads like Dick Tracey meets Law and Order, filled with criminal statements, witness testimonies, trial records and the sensational headlines that inevitably followed. It's a Raymond Chandler crime novel meets A Bronx Tale except it's better--it's real, and so were the story's heroes.
Editor's note: Abby Rubin was a Brooklyn Collection Project CHART intern. Project CHART is an IMLS-funded initiative of Pratt-SILS in partnership with Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum, to prepare information professionals as Digital Managers of Cultural Heritage across Museums, Libraries and Archives.