Childhood & Early Life
Louis Buchalter was born on February 6, 1897, on Lower East Side, Manhattan, in a Jewish American family. His father, Barnett Buchalter, owned a hardware store. It was his mother, Rose Buchalter, who gave him the nickname ‘Lepkeleh’ meaning Little Louis in Yiddish which later became Lepke the name with which he was universally known.
Buchalter’s father was a Russian immigrant. He and Rose had four other children, one daughter and three sons. One son became a pharmacist, another taught at a college and was also a rabbi, and the third son became a dentist. Louis was known to have been an exceptional student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.
Barnett Buchalter passed away in 1909 when Louis was 12 years old. A year later, he started working selling theatrical goods. Meanwhile, Rose Buchalter suffered from ill-health and decided to move to Arizona. Young Louis was left in the care of his sister Sarah at Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Once their mother left, Sarah had no control over her younger brother. He became a petty thief and started robbing pushcarts. This was when he met Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro. He was arrested for burglary soon enough and sent to the Catholic Protectory where he was labelled “incorrigible”.
Around 1915, he was sent off to live with his uncle in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There he was arrested for burglary again and sent to Cheshire Reformatory for juveniles where he stayed till July 12, 1917.
By the time he had reached his twenties Buchalter was a hardened criminal. By the age of 22, he had served two prison sentences at the ‘Sing Sing Correctional Facility’.
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Life in Organised Crime
In 1922, after Louis Buchalter had served a 30-month sentence at Sing Sing prison, he decided to move into the bigger league. He and Shapiro joined hands with Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen who was part of the Lower East Side gang. They targeted the garment factory industry terrorising the employers and the workers and demanding kickback payments.
Buchalter and his gang went on to capture the entire New York Garment industry. They made big bucks offering ‘protection’ and taking a percentage of the profits from the businesses and also generously helping themselves to the pension funds of the worker’s unions.
The gang then turned to the delivery truck business and started charging bakeries one cent per loaf to deliver their bread to the market. In a few years, Buchalter and Shapiro made enough money to be able to afford a highly luxurious lifestyle. It is estimated that they were making millions each year through the Great Depression years.
In 1927, Buchalter and Shapiro were charged with the murder of Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen and also for attempted murder of their rival Jack Diamond. However, due to lack of evidence they were acquitted.
In the 1930s Buchalter got together with the most powerful man in organised crime, Lucky Luciano, and created a crime syndicate that later came to be known as ‘Murder Inc.’. Very soon this syndicate was carrying out contract killing all over the USA.
Louis Buchalter undertook contract killings from the Sicilian Mafia known as the ‘Cosa Nostra’ and then assign the killings to his Brooklyn gang made up of Italian, Irish and Jewish mobsters. He was assisted in this by the notorious gunman and gangster Albert Anastasia.
In 1935, one of Buchalter’s associates Dutch Schultz suggested that they murder Deputy U.S. attorney Thomas Dewey. The syndicate was against this as they feared that the law enforcement agencies would come down harder. When Schultz threatened to kill Dewey anyway, Buchalter was asked to murder him.
By 1936 the law enforcement agencies started catching up with him. Dewey used force and threats and turned many of Buchalter associates into informers. Buchalter reacted by murdering anyone whom he suspected. Among them was Joseph Rosen, a candy store owner whose trucking business union had been taken over by Buchalter.
By 1937, feeling the heat Buchalter and Shapiro went into hiding. While Buchalter was in hiding, he was accused of smuggling heroin into the country. In 1938 Shapiro surrendered to the authorities. It is said that he too feared being murdered by Lepke.
A huge search was undertaken across the United States and Europe. Buchalter had in fact been hiding all the time in Manhattan. It was getting tougher for him by the day. In August of 1939, Walter Winchell of the Daily Mirror got an anonymous phone call saying that Buchalter wanted to turn himself in.
Winchell who was close to the FBI negotiated with J. Edgar Hoover and announced in his radio program that if a certain person was listening that a deal was possible. In the next few weeks, Buchalter’s made contact with Winchell to negotiate a deal. He finally surrendered to the FBI on August 24, 1939.
Louis Buchalter had hoped for a soft sentence from the FBI. He was however convicted of narcotics charges and then handed over to the New York State and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for labour extortion charges and sent to ‘Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary’ in Kansas.
In 1940 mobster Abe “Kid Twist” Reles turned a witness for the state. Reles had heard Buchalter giving the order for Rosen’s murder. He also gave evidence due to which Buchalter was implicated in four other murders.
Louis Buchalter, along with two other associates Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss and Louis Capone was sentenced to death on December 2 1941. The verdict was upheld first by Appeals Court of New York and then by the U.S. Supreme Court. Buchalter had exhausted all legal options. He was transferred from Leavenworth prison to Sing Sing.
He appealed for mercy several times unsuccessfully. Along with his associates Weiss and Capone, Louis Buchalter was executed on the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on March 4, 1944. He was 47 years old.
Family & Personal Life
Louis Buchalter was a diminutive person. He was also known to have a quiet personality, dressed in suits and did not look threatening at all.
Louis Buchalter married Beatrice Wasserman on August 20, 1931, at New York City Hall. She was a widow and Buchalter adopted her son Harold. The family lived in a luxurious penthouse in the West Central Park area of New York.