Jewish Gangsters

Jewish gangsters rode organized crime out of the ghetto to a life of violence and crime.

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Louis Lepke Buchalter

Louis Lepke Buchalter (1897-1944) was nicknamed "Lepkele" (little Louis) by his mother. J. Edgar Hoover called him "the most dangerous criminal in the United States." Born on the Lower East Side of New York, where his family lived In a crowded flat over a small hardware store owned by his father, Louis was the only one of 11 children to embark on a life of crime. One brother became a rabbi, another a dentist, and a third a pharmacist....

By the time Lepke was 18, his family, except Louis, had moved out West. He turned down an older brother's offer to put him through high school and college and, instead, moved into a furnished room on the East Side.

It was in this brawling neighborhood, that Buchalter embarked on his criminal career. He joined a group of local hoods, who rolled drunks, picked pockets. and robbed from pushcarts. His close associate at this time and for the next 30 years, was Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro, a surly, coarse young man. Just after his 21st birthday, Lepke was sent to jail for stealing a salesman's sample case. Paroled in 1917, he was back in prison the next year on a larceny charge and was sent up again for two years in 1920.

Upon his release he turned his talent to labor racketeering. Lepke commanded an army of gangsters who extorted millions of dollars from his victims. Their weapons were destructive acids, bludgeons, blackjacks, knives, fire, icepicks, and guns. For a fee Lepke protected manufacturers from strikers and unionization of their shops by intimidating workers and using strong-arm tactics. He also forced unions to do his bidding by installing his own business agents or by creating rival unions....

Lepke's system worked and he became a legend. The few men who failed to heed the gang's orders or who dared to go to the police with their stories suffered "destruction, acid throwing, mayhem and murder." In the same way that he gained control over the unions through terror, Buchalter moved into legitimate business. Those who tried to fight him found their plants wrecked or their stocks ruined by a special Lepke task force, expert in the art of acid throwing. When a manufacturer surrendered, Lepke would place his men in the factory as managers, foremen, and bookkeepers.

In his private life Lepke was a devoted family man who rarely drank or gambled, and he never raised his voice.

By 1932 Buchalter dominated a wide assortment of industries in New York, including the bakery and pastry drivers, the milliners, the garment workers, the shoe trade, the poultry market, the taxicab business, the motion picture operators, and the fur truckers.

At the pinnacle of his power Buchalter was the feudal lord of New York's underworld. His reputation through gangland was that he never lost his temper but his own men feared him. They called him "The Judge," sometimes "Judge Louie." One associate, Sholem Bernstein, summed it up for all when he said, "I don't ask questions, I just obey. It would be more healthier."

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