Murder, Inc., and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia's New York

Murder, Inc., and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia's New York

Murder, Inc., and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia's New York

Murder, Inc., and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia's New York


In 1940 and 1941 a group of ruthless gangsters from Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood became the focus of media frenzy when they - dubbed "Murder Inc.," by New York World-Telegram reporter Harry Feeney - they were tried for murder. It is estimated that collectively they killed hundreds ofpeople during a reign of terror that lasted from 1931 to 1940. As the trial played out to a packed courtroom, shocked spectators gasped at the outrageous revelations made by gang leader Abe "Kid Twist" Reles and his pack of criminal accomplices.News of the trial proliferated throughout the country; at times it received more newspaper coverage than the unabated war being waged overseas. The heinous crimes attributed to Murder, Inc., included not only murder and torture but also auto theft, burglary, assaults, robberies, fencing stolengoods, distribution of illegal drugs, and just about any "illegal activity from which a revenue could be derived." When the trial finally came to a stunning unresolved conclusion in November 1941, newspapers generated record headlines.Once the trial was over, tales of the Murder, Inc., gang became legendary, spawning countless books and memoirs and providing inspiration for the Hollywood gangster-movie genre. These men were fearsome brutes with an astonishing ability to wield power. People were fascinated by the "gangster"figure, which had become a symbol for moral evil and contempt and whose popularity showed no signs of abating. As both a study in criminal behavior and a cultural fascination that continues to permeate modern society, the reverberations of "Murder, Inc." are profound, including references incontemporary mass media.The Murder, Inc., story is as much a tale of morality as it is a gangster history, and Murder, Inc., and the Moral Life by Robert Whalen meshes both topics clearly and meticulously, relating the gangster phenomenon to modern moral theory. Each chapter covers an aspect of the Murder, Inc., case andreflects on its ethical elements and consequences. Whalen delves into the background of the criminals involved, their motives, and the violent death that surrounded them; New York City's immigrant gang culture and its role as "Gangster City"; fiery politicians Fiorello La Guardia and Thomas E. Deweyand the choices they made to clean up the city; and the role of the gangster in popular culture and how it relates to "real life." Whalen puts a fresh spin on the two topics, providing a vivid narrative with both historical and moral perspective.


New York at night is cruel, brutal, human, and
humorous. Come ready to be shocked.

—1941 Photo League Show, “Murder Is My Business”

In 1940 and 1941, New Yorkers, especially, but Americans, generally, were shocked, fascinated, and vastly entertained by a series of murder trials in Brooklyn. Reporter Harry Feeney nicknamed the defendants “Murder, Inc.,” and the name stuck. The trials were a sensation. Brooklyn’s courthouse was packed for each of the trials; spectators alternately gasped and guffawed at the outrageous defendants and witnesses, with names like Kid Twist, Pittsburgh Phil, Happy, and the Dasher, and their bizarre stories of mayhem and murder. Newspapers published hundreds of stories about the trials and sometimes the Murder, Inc., stories even pushed reports from the world war raging in Europe and Asia below the newspapers’ front-page folds. The shocking conclusion of the Murder, Inc., story, in November 1941, won banner headlines across Gotham and the country.

The Murder, Inc., story is part gangster history, part morality play. This book addresses both, within the context of New York City during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. In this book, gangsters and philosophers from Dutch Schulz and Lucky Luciano to Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas jostle each other for space on a crowded stage.

Who or what was “Murder, Inc.”? Murder, Inc., refers to a gang of hoodlums, led by Abe Reles, that flourished in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood from 1931 until 1940. Reles and his gang, there were maybe twenty or so full-time members of the gang, engaged in a whole range of criminal activities, including murder. No one knows how many people the gang killed; the best guess would be several hundred. Their . . .

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