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Mobsters in America – Abe "Kid Twist" Reles – The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn’t Fly
He had been a vicious killer since he was 18, but Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, was not human. When push came to shove, he was nothing more than a yellow-bellied canary, calling out his best friends to save his own skin.
Abraham Reles was born on May 10, 1906 in Brooklyn, New York, in Brooklyn. His father was an Austrian Jew, who immigrated to America in search of a better life. But after years of working as a humble worker in a clothing store, he ended up selling knives on the streets of Brooklyn from a mobile stand.
Quickly realizing that his father’s life was not for him, the five-foot-two-inch Reles dropped out of school after the eighth grade. Soon he was working as a gofer for the powerful Shapiro brothers, Meyer, Irving and Willie, who ran rackets in Brooklyn in Brownsville. Reles was reduced to running errands and light jobs for the Shapiros, sometimes for as little as five dollars apiece. One of these tasks consisted of monitoring one of Shapiro’s many automatons, for which Reles took a bullet in the back, causing nothing more than meat, but a massive explosion of Reles’ ego. It was around this time that Reles allegedly took on the nickname “Kid Twist”, in honor of a previous New York Jewish mobster named Max “Kid Twist” Zwerbach, who, oddly enough, was also killed at Coney Island.
Annoyed and unwilling to continue getting the short end of the stick from the Shapiros, Reles formed his own little gang, consisting of childhood friend Bugsy Goldstein and Italian duo Happy Maione and Dasher Abbendado. Sadistic hit man Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss soon joined the crew, and Reles, in his early twenties, announced that he and his boys would take Brownsville and all its rackets from the Shapiros. Reles called his motley crew of killers “Brooklyn Inc.”
“Why do we have to take the leftovers?” Reles asked Goldstein. “We should cut a piece off. To hell with those guys.”
When word reached the Shapirs of what Reles was planning, Meyer, the head of the clan, was furious. “Brownsville belongs to us,” Meyer Shapiro said. “Nobody’s moving in here.”
Meyer Shapiro fired the first salvo in the war for control of Brownsville by kidnapping Reles’ girlfriend off the street, brutally beating and raping her. Now it was personal for Reles, and he and Goldstein walked the streets of Brownsville, looking to kill all three Shapiros, but Meyer mostly for the indignity of defiling Reles’ girlfriend. Throughout the year, Reles and Goldstein shot at Meyer Shapiro nineteen times, but only wounded him once. Then one night, concluding that Meyer Shapiro and his two brothers had been ambushed outside their apartment building on Blake Avenue, Reles was outraged to find that only Irving had bothered to show up. As soon as Irving Shapiro entered his fifth-floor apartment, Reles and Goldstein unloaded their weapons, first hitting Irving twice in the face and then sixteen more times in the back.
A few days later, Reles and his boys cornered Meyer Shapiro on the streets of Brooklyn. A single bullet to Meyer Sharpir’s ear, fired by Reles, ousted Shapiro as the head of the Brownsville racket. It took Reles three years to finally eliminate Willie Shapiro, who had been threatening to kill Reles and his friends all along. After kidnapping Willie Shapiro in a bar, they brought him to a basement in Brooklyn, beat him mercilessly, and then buried him in a shallow sand dune in Canarsie Flats. Vili Shapiro’s body was soon found, and the expert who performed the autopsy found sand in his lungs, which means he was buried alive.
The triumph of Reles and his boys over the Shapiro brothers caught the eye of Louis “Glue” Buchalter, and soon Brooklyn Inc. became a sub-corporation of Murder Incorporated. Lepke was rumored to have several dozen hitmen on his payroll, and in the 1930s, police estimated that Murder Incorporated was responsible for as many as five hundred murders across the country.
However, nothing good ever lasts forever. On February 2, 1940, Reles, Goldstein, and Anthony “Dukey” Maffetore were arrested for the 1934 murder of a small hood named Red Alpert. Maffetore was the first to present state’s evidence against his crew, but the biggest gem of a rat for New York District Attorney William O’Dwyer was Reles, who was the highest-ranking member of Murder Incorporated under Lepke. At Lepke’s trial, which included Mendy Weiss and Louis Capone as defendants, Reles, who had a photographic memory, recounted intimate details of the more than 200 murders in which the defendants were involved. All three of Reles’ former friends were later convicted and burned in the Sing Sing electric chair.
However, the Government is not finished with Reles’ squealing. He was wanted as a key witness in the upcoming trials of Murder Incorporated big beasts Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel. While Reles awaited several more court appearances, O’Dwyer hid Reles at the Half Moon Hotel, located on the sandy beaches of Coney Island. Reles was under constant police guard, with at least six officers guarding him at a time, even while he slept.
Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of November 12, 1941, Reles fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of the hotel. He was found lying sideways on his back, with his jacket on, but his white shirt unbuttoned, revealing his fat stomach. Several sheets were found tied up, and although Reles’ body was found twenty meters from the foot of the hotel, the official cause of death was given as “dying from a fall, while trying to escape”. After Reles’ death, O’Dwyer announced that his future cases had gone “out the window” with Reles.
Years later, Italian crime boss Lucky Luciano said he paid $50,000 to Frank Costello to be spread around the New York Police Department to see if a man who could “sing like a canary” could fly like one too.
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