Louis "Lepke" ("Little Louis" in Yiddish) Buchalter was born in New York's Lower East Side in 1897. Despite coming from a family of upwardly mobile, law abiding citizens--his father owned a hardware store, one of his brother's became a dentist, another a rabbi, another a pharmacist, etc.--Buchalter took to a life of crime at an early age.
After finishing elementary school and making impressive grades at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, Buchalter chose a life of crime, which many years later would result in his death in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.
The easiest assumption to make as to why he "went bad" stems from the fact that he was virtually orphaned at an early age by the death of his father when Buchalter was 12 year's old, and soon after his mother moved to Arizona for health reasons, leaving him in Manhattan under the care of his sister. Perhaps he was young enough to have been made angry at the world by the early trauma? Perhaps these events were not causal.
Early scrapes with the law included a 1915 arrest for burglary and assault. In 1916 Buchalter was arrested in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on burglary charges and was sent to the Cheshire Reformatory for Juvenile Offenders for a term. In 1917, Buchalter served his first of three eventual terms at Sing Sing for grand larceny. After his release he was sent back to Sing Sing again in 1920 on a 30 month sentence for attempted burglary. Judging by the impressive rap sheet he was building, at this point Buchalter was both prolific and untalented as a criminal,
During the 1920s with lessons learned from his multiple scrapes with the law, Buchalter began his ascent into the upper echelons of organized crime. He met and partnered with fellow future hall of fame gangster, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro--supposedly given the nickname "gurrah" because it was Shapiro's guttural way of saying "get out of here." Legend is that the two met while trying to rob the same pushcart, which sounds more like the invention of a tabloid newspaper of the day than fact based "truth."
What is true is that the two blazed a trail of larceny from taking over NYC's textile unions and its garment workers through extortion, bribery and strike breaking, to bootlegging, narcotics and illegal gambling. Initially the duo worked for labor racketeer Jacob "Little" Augie Orgen, but once they outgrew their need for his patronage became the main suspects (not convicted) responsible for Orgen's execution on the Lower East Side's Norfolk Street in 1927. Orgen's bodyguard at the time was none other than Legs Diamond.
Eventually Buchalter found himself the peer of the likes of NYC all star racketeers Lucky Luciano, , Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and most ominously Albert Anastasia, who would form his counterpart in what became dubbed as the Murder, Inc. organization.
Murder, Inc. were a rag-tag collective of Brooklyn (and some Manhattan) based racketeers/killers who worked on contract for Buchalter and Anastasia. The idea was that when someone crossed either Buchalter, Anastasia or anyone else within the ruling commission of the rackets, the Murder, Inc. crew would be brought in to eliminate the "problems" in a cold, business-like manner. The expert group of killers were a combination of American Jewish and Italian gangsters who were assigned targets based on their ethnicity. Buchalter served as "leader" of the Jewish killers who mostly killed Jewish targets, while Anastasia led the Italian killers who mainly murdered Italians.
The groups most famous execution was the October 1935 assassination of Dutch Schultz and his colleagues at the Palace Chop House in Newark, NJ. Fearing Schultz's unpredictable actions would bring "heat" on to the members of the ruling elite of NYC crime and no doubt to take his rackets over, Schultz was eliminated by a joint group of Buchalter's killers, which included Charles "The Bug" Workman and Mendy Weiss.
In November 1936, Buchalter and Shapiro were convicted of violating federal anti-trust laws, however both absconded their bail and went "on the lam." While Buchalter was on the run, he was indicted for his part in a narcotics conspiracy that smuggled heroin into the United States. Although Shapiro turned himself into the authorities in 1938, Buchalter stayed outside the confines of the law.
While Buchalter continued to elude authorities, Buchalter undertook a murder campaign during this period against any witnesses who could finger him for his past unlawful indiscretions Twelve men (some were mistaken identity victims) were reportedly murdered collaboratively between Murder, Inc. and Buchalter's "goons" between 1937 and 1939, when Buchalter finally turned himself. During this period then District Attorney of Manhattan, Thomas Dewey, declared that "it was apparent that the Buchalter mob is waging a "war of extermination" against its former and some of its present members."
For most of this period Buchalter hid in "plain sight" within the confines of Brooklyn. Moving from safe house to safe house, while members of Murder, Inc., such as "Tic Toc" Tannenbaum and Abe Reles him him, shuttled him to and fro various safe houses and did his bidding exterminating various witnesses.
As a consequence of criminal operations being hampered by the nationwide manhunt, "The Syndicate" or "Combination" or whatever you would like to call them, ordered Buchalter to turn himself in, although Albert Anastasia vigorously disagreed with this plan. Indeed the hunt for Buchalter was international news and it was increasingly difficult to conduct their respective criminal enterprises with so much law enforcement focus being put into finding him. Many believe that Buchalter was "double crossed" in that he was told if he turned himself in a deal had been made that Buchalter would only have to face the federal narcotics charge (with a reduced sentence) and not face any other serious charges. As it turned out, Buchalter would never see the outside world again.
On August 24, 1939, Buchalter accompanied by gossip columnist Walter Winchell personally surrendered to FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover.
From there Buchalter's fate was sealed. There had been no deal in place. He had been "snookered." He was convicted of the heroin smuggling charge and received 14 years. In March of 1940 he was convicted of multiple extortion charges in the baking and trucking industries earning him another 30 years to life to be served consecutively, in other words, after the first sentence was served. Things were about to get a whole lot worse!
Later on that year, Reles, Tannenbaum and other members of Murder, Inc. flipped, agreeing to help law enforcement solve more than 200 of the gang's murders. One such murder was that of Joseph Rosen, a Brownsville candy store owner who Buchalter had years earlier driven out of business in a labor racketeering dispute. With Buchalter unable to satisfy Rosen's demands, he feared Rosen would go to the DA (not without good reason as Rosen had made multiple threats to do so) to tell them everything he knew about Buchalter's crimes. In corroborating Buchalter's role in the plot, Reles was to testify that he overheard a rage-filled Buchalter order the September 13, 1936, hit on the hapless Rosen. Buchalter was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 1944, after a flurry of legal manuvers, pleas and attempts at extricating himself of his predicament by offering valuable information about his inside knowledge of the rackets --as it turned out, this was an unsuccessful ruse where he offered no valuable information whatsover--Buchalter along with two of his liutenants, Mendy Weiss and Louis Capone, found themselves in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
It is said, Lepke was the only American mob "boss" ever to face death at the hands of the justice system.