Pittsburgh Phil had it right. He was spotted by some very discriminating experts, men named Louis Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Joe Adonis, and Albert Anastasia. And he achieved great success in his chosen field—murder. In time he became the most prolific killer Murder, Inc.,—and all of syndicated crime—ever produced.
Killing didn't seem to bother Phil, although he worried greatly for his own health. The contract murder of one Puggy Feinstein offers an example. Phil and a few of the boys lured him into a Brooklyn home and there Phil shoved Feinstein down on a couch and went to work on him with an ice pick.
Puggy, fighting for his life, sunk his teeth into Pittsburgh Phil's finger. Irate over such foul play, Phil yelled, "Give me the rope. I'll fix this dirty bum." Phil, with the aid of a confederate, put a loop around his neck and another around his feet and effectively trussed him up. As Puggy kicked he merely tightened the rope around his neck and in time strangled himself to death while the boys watched.
Then they took Puggy's body to a vacant lot and set it ablaze. The boys then adjourned to Sheepshead Bay for a seafood dinner. Phil, however, was not happy. "Maybe I am getting lockjaw from being bit," he worried. Phil was so upset about his finger that he barely managed to finish his lobster.
Born Harry Strauss—he adopted the name of Pittsburgh Phil, although he had never been to the smoky city—the Brooklyn-bred thug became so popular that when an out-of-town mob or crime family needed an outsider for a contract, they almost always requested Phil.
He packed his briefcase with a shirt, a change of socks, underwear, a gun, a knife, a length of rope and an ice pick, hopped a train or plane to his destination, pulled the job and caught the next connection back to New York. Often Phil did not even know the name of the person he had killed, and generally he didn't care to find out.
When investigators cracked Murder, Inc., in 1940, the office of Brooklyn district attorney William O'Dwyer developed solid evidence tying Phil to 28 killings. Law enforcement officers from Connecticut to California came up with a like number in which Phil was positively identified. That of course represented merely the known homicides attributable to him.
A present-day crime historian seriously suggests that Phil bumped off at least 500, but this seems nonsensical. However, there is little doubt that his murder toll well exceeded 100. This is an impressive figure, even by Murder, Inc., standards; the three next active killers in the mob, Dasher Abbandando, Kid Twist Reles and Happy Maione, in combination probably no more than matched Phil.
Pittsburgh Phil was also the dandy of the troop, noted for wearing $60 suits, in Depression times a princely sum. New York's incorruptible police commissioner, Lewis Valentine, once said of Phil in a police lineup: "Look at him! He's the best dressed man in the room and he's never worked a day in his life!"
Quite naturally the tall, lean, handsome Pittsburgh Phil was much-pursued by the young ladies of Brownsville. His love affair with Evelyn Mittleman, a Brooklyn beauty dubbed the Kiss of Death Girl, was one of the underworld's more touching, climaxed by Phil's eradication of a rival for her affection.
It is almost amazing that, between his Beau Brummel and Don Juan activities, Phil had the time for mass murder, yet he always seemed to complete his contracts. Once, at the very moment Commissioner Valentine had Phil in his office for an interrogation, his homicide detectives were slaving unbeknownst over one of Phil's labors. The corpse in question was one George Rudnick, suspected by labor extortionist Louis Lepke of being an informer.
Rudnick had been taking the sun one afternoon along Livonia Avenue when Phil and some of his colleagues snatched him up in a car. It was a short drive to the execution chamber, a garage at Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue. Some hours later Rudnick's body was found in a stolen car at the other end of Brooklyn. The medical examiner gives some indication of Phil's savagery:
This was a male adult, somewhat undernourished; approximate weight 140 pounds; six feet in height. There were 63 stab wounds on the body. On the neck, I counted 13 stab wounds, between the jaw and collar bone. On the right chest, there were 50 separate circular wounds. He had a laceration on the frontal region of the head. The wound gaped, and disclosed the bone underneath. His face was intensely cyanic, or blue. The tongue protruded. At the level of the larynx was a grooving, white and depressed, about the width of ordinary clothesline. When the heart was laid open, the entire wall was found to be penetrated by stab wounds. My conclusion was the cause of death was multiple stab wounds, and also ... asphyxia due to strangulation.When the Purple Gang in Detroit marked a cunning mobster named Harry Millman for execution, they found they couldn't handle the job themselves. One try failed and Millman was on the alert. A hurried call brought Phil to Detroit. Millman moved in crowds and ate in congested restaurants to frustrate would-be assassins, but he could not figure on Phil's daring. Millman was in a packed restaurant one evening when Phil strode in with an assistant. They emptied two revolvers, killing Millman and wounding five other diners in the process, and calmly paraded out.
Phil always said he could learn more about murder. When he executed Walter Sage, a New York mobster who was knocking down on the syndicate's slot machine profits, he lashed Sage's body to a pinball machine after ice-picking him 32 times and then dumped him in a Catskills lake. Seven days later, the grisly package floated to the surface due to the buoyancy caused by gases in the decomposing body. "How about that," Phil observed sagely. "With this bum, you gotta be a doctor or he floats."
There seems to have been only one contract that Phil failed to carry out. He was sent to Florida and followed the intended victim about until the man went into a movie theater and sat down in the last row. Armed only with a gun, Phil felt it would make too much noise. Then his eyes fell on a fire axe in a glass emergency case. This, he reasoned, was an emergency.
Phil took the axe, but by the time he was poised to kill, the target had moved up several rows. In anger Phil tossed down the axe, walked out of the theater and headed back to Brooklyn, declaring the job was jinxed. As he told the troop back home: "Just when I get him set up, the bum turns out to be a goddamn chair hopper."
Usually, though, Phil could adapt to any situation. On another Florida job, he was to put away an old mafioso who spoke not a word of English. Phil went to him and by sign language showed him a suitcase full of weapons and made him believe he was out to kill someone else. The mafioso, eager to be helpful, picked up a rope and led Phil to a dark street where he indicated the deed could be done. Phil nodded, promptly strangled the man and went home.
Phil's murder career lasted a decade and had not Abe Reles—probably the most important stool pigeon ever to come out of organized crime—started talking he could conceivably still be at his chores, a very lethal senior citizen. Reles turned informer because he saw the law was closing in and was afraid that if someone else in Murder, Inc., informed first, he himself would go to the chair.
Actually, no one important in Murder, Inc., was ratting, only some minor hoods who could really prove nothing. However, there was enough for Phil, Reles, Happy Maione and Buggsy Goldstein to be brought in on suspicion. Then Reles started talking. Before he was finished, Murder, Inc., was out of business. Bigtimers like Lepke, Mendy Weiss and Louis Capone were sentenced to the chair.
Reles's canary act came to an abrupt end when he "went out the window" of a Brooklyn hotel while under what can only be described as remarkably inefficient police guard. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Phil was also doomed. He was indicted along with Goldstein for the Puggy Feinstein slaying. To be on the safe side the prosecution lined up five more homicide indictments against Phil if they proved necessary. They didn't.
The case against him was overwhelming so Phil did the next best thing; he did an insane act. He refused to wash, shave or change his clothes. When asked at his trial to give his name, he merely licked his lips. Returned to the defendant's chair, he spent most of the rest of his trial trying to chew off the leather strap on a lawyer's briefcase. Newspaper readers reveled over Phil's bizarre acts, but the jury was not impressed. They found him guilty of murder in the first degree.
Even in his death cell Phil kept up his insane act, hoping for a commuted sentence. On the last day of his life, he figured out the ploy wasn't going to work and he cleaned himself up and became his dapper old self. He bade farewell to Evelyn, the Kiss of Death Girl. And he further set the record straight by admitting that before his trial he'd offered to turn state's evidence if he was allowed to talk to Reles first.
The authorities knew better than to let Phil get into the same room with Reles. As Phil now admitted, he did not intend to turn informer. "I just wanted to sink my tooth into his jugular vein. I didn't worry about the chair, if I could just tear his throat out first." None of Phil's listeners doubted he would have done so if he could.
On June 12, 1941, Goldstein went to the chair, and a few minutes later, at 11:06 P.M., Pittsburgh Phil followed him. The syndicate had lost its best hitter.