Albert “Lord High Executioner” Anastasia.
Albert Anastasia was boss of one of the original five crime families in New York. Although he was suspected of involvement in many murders witnesses either did not testify or mysteriously disappeared. For a decade he ran the notorious hit squad Murder Incorporated which may have carried out over a thousand executions including the assassination of mobster Dutch Schultz. As a man who was on death row for murder as a teenager Anastasia’s life was defined by his brutality and willingness to kill. This brutality guaranteed him success in the mob but ultimately guaranteed his downfall also.
Born Umberto Anastasio in the Calabria region of Italy in 1902 Albert was one of twelve children, he left school early and started work as a deck hand. Holding his own in this tough working environment at such a young age laid the foundations for the person Anastasia would become. In 1919 at the age of seventeen Albert Anastasia and three of his brothers arrived in New York on a freighter and entered the United States illegally. With few prospects open to them the brothers started working as longshoremen on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Anastasia’s days as a deckhand had prepared him for the hard physical demands of working the docks and also the need to be able to hold his own with other rough and ready individuals. One of the perks of the job was stealing some of the cargo from the ships and Anastasia was always ready to defend his right to steal the best goods. He earned the nickname “terremoto”, Italian for earthquake, because his violent temper could erupt without warning. One day Anastasia got into a dispute over cargo with another longshoreman called Joe Torino, in a fit of rage Anastasia stabbed Torino repeatedly. He was summarily tried and sentenced to execution for the murder in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.
Albert Anastasia was now on death row at the age of nineteen and this could very well have been the end of his story but his life was destined to take a sudden turn. A prison barber and mob associate saw Anastasia fighting in the chow line and told Charles Lucky Luciano that he’d found a ferocious young man who was physically tough and willing to kill anyone without a second thought. Luciano was interested, Anastasia’s lawyer won a re-trial and in the meantime the prosecution’s main witnesses disappeared. In 1922 Anastasia was released and began his career in organised crime, soon becoming a close associate of Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello.
Aftermath of the Castellammare War.
At the behest of Lucky Luciano Albert Anastasia participated in the 1931 assassination of Joe Masseria in the Castellammare War. After the subsequent reorganization of the mafia Anastasia became underboss in the Mangano family, run by Vincent Mangano. After the assassination of Salvatore Maranzano Lucky Luciano established The Commission and Anastasia was one of the principle members.
From the start the relationship between Anastasia and Mangano was tense. Mangano resented the friendship Anastasia had with Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello who would frequently bypass Mangano’s authority and deal directly with their friend. Anastasia also angered Vincent and his brother Philip Mangano by the way in which he often acted without permission. At times the arguments would result in physical fights which had to be broken up.
Murder Incorporated or Murder Inc was the enforcement arm of the National Crime Syndicate. It existed for just under a decade and in that time the squad was responsible for hundreds of murders, although some estimates put the number at over a thousand. The squad was sometimes called “the combination” because it comprised both Italian and Jewish gangsters.
Murder Incorporated was run by Anastasia and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. The squad of hitmen enabled mob bosses across the country to have people killed without connecting themselves to the crimes. Buchalter made extensive use of Murder Inc to further his business interests and later, to wipe out potential witnesses who might talk to the assiduous crime fighting district attorney Thomas E. Dewey.
Careful planning meant that the hits carried out by Murder Inc never resulted in police finding suspects or even connecting the crimes. Based in New York, operating in part from the Midnight Rose candy store, prominent killers within Murder Inc included Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Harry Maione and Charles Workman. Pittsburgh Phil was the most prolific of the Murder Inc killers and his victims suffered the most gruesome deaths.
Although police did not know of the existence of Murder Inc at this time the increased number of unsolved murders in major cities across the country (with the highest numbers in Brooklyn) was cause for concern and law enforcement stepped up their efforts against the mob. In 1941 Abe Reles was arrested and decided that it was in his best interests to co-operate. Abe decided to provide information and testimony in return for immunity from prosecution in the crimes he detailed. Abe Reles began to reveal the structure of Murder Inc, the people involved and all the murders undertaken by the group. The scale was unprecedented.
Law enforcement now had a powerful weapon against the mob. Charges were brought against the principal members of Murder Inc and seven of the hitmen received the death sentence. Lepke Buchalter, already incarcerated, was charged with murder and sentenced to death in Sing Sing prison’s electric chair, known by inmates as “old sparky”. He was the only mobster of his standing ever to be executed by the state.
Albert Anastasia never stood trial for his involvement in Murder Inc. As had so often happened over the course of his criminal career prime witnesses disappeared. The witness who could potentially give Anastasia the most trouble was Reles himself. One morning Reles’ body was found, he had apparently fallen down five storeys from the window of his room in the Half-Moon Hotel on Coney Island where he had been under constant police supervision. Although even today the FBI considers this to have been a suicide Reles’ body landed many feet away from the wall of the building, as though he had been thrown from the window rather than fallen. Murder Inc had been obliterated by the prosecution’s efforts but without Reles they couldn’t make a case against Anastasia.
Murder Incorporated was not reformed and Albert Anastasia went back to running other rackets in the Mangano family. During the time when Reles was exposing the secrets of the enforcement arm the press dubbed the band of hitmen “Murder Incorporated”. As details of Albert Anastasia’s alleged brutality and viciousness appeared in the press he was given the nicknames “Lord High Executioner”, a reference to the Mikado, and the “Mad Hatter”.
In 1951 Vincent Mangano disappeared and his brother’s body was found in Brooklyn marshland, his throat had been cut. Suspicion for the unauthorized assassination of the two brothers naturally fell on Albert Anastasia. When summoned before the Commission Anastasia claimed that the brothers had been trying to have him killed. Frank Costello, acting head of the Luciano Family, backed up Anastasia’s story. The Commission agreed to give Anastasia the benefit of the doubt and made him the head of his crime family. Carlo Gambino, a former capo, was made underboss.
With Luciano having been arrested in 1936 and deported to Italy in 1946 Costello and Anastasia were each other’s allies on the Commission. At this time the former boss of the Luciano Family, Vito Genovese, returned to New York and began to try and regain control of the family. Genovese hated Anastasia since he strongly suspected him of killing the Mangano brothers. Genovese also saw that to remove Frank Costello from power he would need to eliminate Anastasia as well.
Genovese conspired with Anastasia’s underboss, Carlo Gambino. Genovese pointed to Anastasia’s viciousness and unpredictable nature to turn opinion against him. In 1952, only a year after the suspicious disappearance of the Mangano brothers, Anastasia broke the mafia code when he ordered the killing of a civilian. A young New Yorker called Arnold Schuster spotted the fugitive bank robber Willie Sutton and reported his whereabouts to police. Anastasia reputedly ordered the hit on Schuster because he hated “squealers”. This murder was to be his undoing, it eroded opposition to Genovese’s plans.
In May 1957 an assassination attempt was made on Frank Costello. Although he survived Costello got the message and petitioned the Commission for retirement, which was granted.
With the absence of Luciano, Lepke and Costello Anastasia’s position was weak. His attempts to muscle in on Cuban gambling rackets had frayed the relationship with his last strong ally from the old days; Myer Lansky. In October of the same year Anastasia was sitting in a barber‘s chair in the Park Sheraton Hotel when two gunmen burst in and opened fire. Anastasia tried to lunge at his attackers but he mistakenly aimed at their reflections in the barber’s mirror. A second round of fire left him dead on the shop floor.
Saved from execution by the mob Anastasia had now been executed by them and the connection between his death scene and the Sing Sing prison barber so many years earlier was a final irony in his extraordinary story.