Isaac Merritt Singer

Who would have thought that the first international business to operate outside of the US was that of Isaac Merritt Singer’s sewing machine Company – and to cap it all the man himself, along with his family, would settle in little old Paignton, described as a ‘watering place’ in his time.

But without the genius of the man who had started from scratch, earning very little as an apprentice machine shop lad in his early teens, the huge popularity of the sewing machine may never have taken off in a way which made it all the rage, easy to operate and affordable.

He patiently worked on a method to render the sewing machine more practical.

I wonder why a Hollywood blockbuster has never been made of him. Perhaps the subject matter was considered not to be popular among the film going fraternity – but the flamboyant and very amorous life of the man would make for large audiences I feel certain, judging by present day standards. He is described to be one of the most forceful, flamboyant and unscrupulous tycoons in American history.

I remember as a boy thinking how clever a man it was who found a way to machine sew. What a revolution that must have been – after years of hand stitching – all the material needed for example, to make up those beautiful full and flowing dresses and designs of the Tudors through to the early nineteenth century. How ever did they manage!

But Isaac Merritt was the first to admit he never invented the sewing machine, indeed that was accredited to a British inventor, Thomas Saint who patented it in 1790, before Singer was born.

Isaac Merritt Singer, of Jewish ancestry, was born in the hamlet of Johnsonville, in the town of Pittstown, Rensselaer County, NY, on 27 October 1811.

In 1830, he married for the first time. His bride was Catharine Maria Haley. He died in Paignton on 23 July 1875, age 63, after fathering at least 19 children by his five known “wives”: Catherine bore him a son, William – and a daughter, Lillian.

Mary Ann Sponseler bore him 10 including a son, Isaac. He had five more by Mary McGonigal, a daughter called Alice by Mary Eastwood and at least one, Paris Eugene Singer – by his French lover, Isobelle Boyce.

He was a devout womaniser and probably sired at least several more children as well.

He was a tall man for the time, 6ft 4 inches which seemed to match his charisma and genius.

Years after his passing living children, wives and countless lovers were engaged in expensive litigation. He certainly left his mark but none of his descendants lived up to his genius.

In the 1940’s – when it paid to repair clothes and linens and make them too as did my mother, I remember making simple handkerchiefs from partly worn sheets, just by sowing seams along each side of a square. Lot’s of women took to making clothes and repairs for money to supplement the low wage of the bread winner in those austere days, in Isaac Singer’s time too – before electricity and by investing in one of the latest Singer treadle sewing machines , it was the practical thing to do.

The original machine, built without the treadle was fine for the occasional repair, but to be more efficient and productive a treadle was a must, giving the operator the freedom to be able to work with both hands free. Although expensive for the low earners his company made it possible it was possible to purchase a new machine with their newly introduced easy payments hire purchase scheme and a down payment of five dollars (about 25 shillings ) – which proved to be a Godsend at a time when benefit hand out’s had not got off the ground.

I wonder what Isaac would have thought about current plans to convert his former mansion, bought by Paignton Urban District Council in 1946 and used as their offices – into a hotel and transform some of the grounds into a building estate.

But of course the world is so different now. Isaac certainly lived life to the full starting from humble beginnings and to say he was a womaniser is probably an understatement. He simply adored women and of course had the influence and the money to pamper them to their heart’s content.

There are all sorts of anomalies regarding his private life, like his chauffer saying he used to get him to drive around looking for prostitutes in New York. In order to be recognised the girls advertising for business carried school bags which apparently got him into a lot of trouble with the local police.

And when he lived in Paignton, he employed a man who looked very much like him, what was all that about? The mind boggles. Imagine how the Sunday papers would respond now – bad enough then but not many were as literate in those days.

Isaac left an estate of about 13 million dollars in two wills. When he had Oldway Mansion built in the French style it was because of his latest French wife’s persuasion. Isabella was a beautiful woman to behold and although France had become his adopted country he chose to flee when the Prussian war threatened their lives, and he moved with his new young family to safer London.

One of his early vocations was acting but he had an enquiring mind – keen on trying out new inventions, learning the hard way like many a famous author with a drawer full of rejections. His first real success came when he obtained a patent for a machine to drill rock, selling it for 2000 dollars – more money than he had ever had before. He then opted to return to acting for a five year tour of the US forming a group known as the ‘Merritt Players’ calling himself Isaac Merritt.

In 1884 he took a job in a print shop in Fredericksburg Ohio but soon moved to Pittsburgh two years later, he wanted to make something of himself, had several ideas and notions and aimed to put them into practice. He set up a workshop for producing wood type and signage where he developed and patented a machine for carving wood and metal.

When he was thirty eight years old he moved on to New York with his two wives and eight children and then to Boston. His fortune was soon about to materialise. He had various problems in funding new patents but an eminent lawyer, Edward Clark saw fit to secure his patents and advance a substantial cash advance He also befriended Orson Phelps, a fellow machine enthusiast. Orson was constructing Leron and Bludgett sewing machines. Feeling a little down when, after inventing a new wood cutting machine in New York, the steam boiler blew up destroyed the prototype, his new friend inadvertently came to his rescue when he asked Isaac to look at the sewing machines.

“They are difficult to use and produce,” Phelps complained, “have you any ideas?”

After close scrutiny and head scratching and miss stitching various thickness’ of material. Isaac saw the problem. The present system was clumsy with the shuttle operating in a circle. He figured a way for the shuttle to operate in a straight line. Isaac was able to obtain patent number 8294 on August 12th 1851 and I.M.Singer & Co. was in business and the rest is history. His first machine was ultimately known as the angle thread chain-stitch machine. Like Hoover was to the vacuum cleaner Singer was to the sewing machine.

His business was accumulating in wealth and success but his personal life and his reputation as a bigamist, least his other relationships – did not go down well in the US. The papers were full of the scandal associated with him and he fled to France in 1860 – and then in 1871, after a spell in London, moved to South Devon with his wife Isabella and their young family.

Isaac purchased the Farnham estate in Paignton in1872 which consisted of two villas, Little Oldway and Fernham, The Rising Sun , some cottages and a large area of parkland – all demolished to make way for Oldway Mansion. He appointed a local architect, George Bridgman to build a home, a building with French design By 1814 Bridgman, following implicitly Isaacs instructions, created the outstanding mansion containing kitchens, offices, servants hall, wine cellars, many fine rooms and a theatre resembling a French villa.

Sadly Isaac died before the mansion and the adjacent ‘wigwam’, the superb circular dance hall was completed.

But Paris Singer, his son by Isabella, was responsible for redesigning Oldway Mansion in the French/Italian Versailles-like splendour. Paris had an affair with Isadora Duncan, the US ‘modern’ dancer and had a son by her who was killed as a child in a car crash. He foolishly spent most of his money on gambling.

Little is known of the silent film studio there situated just beyond the archway near the main entrance.

At Winston Churchill’s prompting, Paris offered his residence at Oldway for use as a fully equipped 250-bed hospital for wounded servicemen. Another son, Washington Singer, was the main donor of the University College of the South West of England which later became the Universes of Exeter and one of the buildings is named in his honour.

The American influence had certainly well and truly made its mark in South Devon and I guess we should be privileged that Isaac Singer chose to be buried in Torquay cemetery. He wanted Paignton but the soil was not deep enough for a white marble mausoleum. His funeral entourage consisted of several black horse drawn coaches and his hearse was pulled by 12 of his black stallions. The funeral possession was led by his three eldest sons, Paris, Washington and Mortimer.

I wonder how many women were there with whom he had been with. There are rumours that he ‘entertained’ several Paignton girls. But never confirmed. It was highly probable because of Isaac’s reputation. When he lived in New York he was often seen riding through Central Park in his yellow coach with his mistresses.

It is said he had been kind and had given many local folk employment ,and many were sad to witness his final journey to the cemetery.

His son Paris had a home built for him adjacent to Paignton Green now transformed into the Palace Hotel and for Mortimer, another son, the building now known as the Inn on the Green.

And the company is still producing the latest in sewing machines under the Singer label.

In 2007 Isaac Singer’s great granddaughter, Rhodanthe Selous attended a historic reunion at the Palace Hotel, Paignton attracting descendents from all over the world.

And in Paignton itself we have the Old Singer Tea Shop and the Witherspoon Isaac Merrit pub/restaurant.

Mobsters in America – Stephanie St Clair – The Queen of the Harlem Numbers Rackets

She was chased out of the Harlem numbers rackets by Dutch Schultz, but when Schultz lay dying from a bullet wound, Stephanie St. Clair had the last laugh.

Stephanie St. Clair was born in 1886, in Marseilles, an island in the East Caribbean. At the age of 26 she immigrated to New York City and settled in Harlem. Almost immediately, she hooked up with the Forty Thieves, a white gang who were in existence since the 1850’s. There is no record of what St. Clair did for the next ten years, but it’s safe to say, considering her ties to the Forty Thieves, a notorious shake-down gang, what she did was anything but legal.

In 1922, St. Clair used $10,000 of her own money and started Harlem’s first numbers rackets. St. Clair was known for having a violent temper and often cursed her underlings out in several languages. When people questioned her about her heritage, she snapped that she was born in “European France,” and that she spoke flawless French, unlike the French-speaking rabble from the Caribbean. In Harlem they called her Madame St. Clair, but in the rest of the city, she was known as just plain “Queenie.”

In the mid 1920’s, known bootlegger and stone killer Dutch Schultz decided he wanted to take over all the policy rackets in Harlem. Schultz did not ask Queenie to back away too nicely, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Queenie’s numbers runners. Queenie enlisted the help of Bumpy Johnson, an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper, to take care of the Schultz situation. Johnson went downtown and visited Italian mob boss Lucky Luciano. He asked Luciano to talk some sense into Schultz. But there was not much Luciano could do, since at the time, he was one of Schultz’ partners. Luciano suggested that Queenie and Johnson throw in with Schultz, making them, in effect, a sub-division of Schultz’s numbers business. This did not sit too well with Queenie, and even though Johnson tried to convince her this was the smart move, she turned down Luciano’s offer.

Then out of nowhere, Queenie began having trouble with the police, whom she was paying off to look the other way. This was the work of Schultz, who through his connections with Tammany Hall, had several politicians in his back pocket, as well half the police force in New York City. While Schultz’ number runners worked the streets of Harlem with impunity, Queenie’s runners, when they were not being killed by Schultz’ men, were being arrested by the police.

Queenie decided to fight back with the power of the press. In December 1930, Queenie took several ads in Harlem newspapers, accusing the police of graft, shakedowns and corruption. That did not go over too well with the local fuzz, and they immediately arrested Queenie for illegal gambling.Queenie was convicted and sentenced to eight months hard labor on Welfare Island. Upon her release, she appeared before the Seabury Committee, which was investigating graft in the Bronx and Manhattan Magistrates Courts. Queenie testified that from 1923-1926, she had paid the police in Harlem $6000 to protect her runners from arrest, and that the police had taken her money and arrested her number runners anyway. Schultz must have had a good laugh over that one, since $6000 was less than he paid monthly to keep the cops happy in New York City.

Nothing came from her testimony before the Seabury Committee, so Queenie decided to plead her case to New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, who was almost as crooked as Schultz. Queenie told Walker that Schultz was pressuring her to join his gang, or else. Walker, who was being investigated by the Seabury Committee himself, answered Queenie by quitting his job as Mayor and relocating to Europe for the next few years.

Queenie then pleaded with the other black policy number bankers in Harlem to join forces with her in a battle against Schultz. Knowing that Schultz had too much juice in the government, and too many shooters in his gang, they turned her down flat.

Bumpy Johnson soon found out that Schultz had put the word out on the streets that Queenie was to be shot on sight. Queenie then went into hiding, refusing to even go outside to see the light of day. On one occasion, Johnson had to hide Queenie in a coal bin, under a mound of coal, to save her from Schultz’ men. That was the final straw for Queenie. She sent word to Schultz that she would agree to his demands. Schultz sent word back to her that she could remain alive, as long as she gave Schultz a majority share in her numbers rackets. Queenie reluctantly agreed.

Schultz had his own run of bad luck, when he demanded that Luciano and his pals agree to the killing of Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, who was breathing down Schultz’s neck. Schultz’ proposition was turned down, and when he said he would kill Dewey himself, he was shot in the stomach in the bathroom of a New Jersey restaurant. Schultz lingered in a delirious state in a hospital for a few days before he died. As he was laying there mumbling inanities, a telegram arrived saying, “As ye sow, so shall you reap.”

The telegram was sent by the Queen of Harlem — Stephanie St. Clair.

Queenie eventually turned over her rackets to Bumpy Johnson. She faded into obscurity and died in her sleep in 1969.

In the 1997 movie “Hoodlum,” Lawrence Fishburne played Bumpy Johnson, Tim Roth played Dutch Schultz, Andy Garcia played Lucky Luciano and Cicely Tyson played Stephanie “Queenie” St. Clair.

Angus Armanasco: Australian Jockey and Trainer

West Australian jockey, Angus Armanasco, was also well known as a trainer who spent more than three decades training the top two-year-olds that blazed the racetracks across the country.

Armanasco rode in West Australia between the two World Wars and then went on to Melbourne in the 1950s to become one of the country’s most distinguished trainers. Bagging 7 Victorian trainers’ premierships is no mean feat which is why owner Stanley Wootton had full faith in Armanasco’s abilities to turn out champion horses from the Star Kingdom line on a regular basis. Star Kingdom was a successful Australian thoroughbred racehorse purchased by Stanley Wootton for duties as a sire at Baramul Stud.

Armanasco was leading jockey for the last ten years of his riding career. A problem with maintaining his weight forced him to hang up his saddle but marked the beginning of a glorious career as a trainer. After a brief stint with a stable in Mentone, Armanasco caught up with breeder Stanley Wootton who spent most of his time in England training for the royal family. The untimely death of Theo Lewis, Wootton’s trainer in Melbourne, promoted Wootton to offer Armanasco a job as caretaker trainer.

Grey Ghost was Armanasco’s first taste of success as a trainer which was enough to instill confidence in Wootton who in turn rewarded him with a choice of horses. Star Kingdom was one of the stallions to reshape the breeding industry in Australia, and played a major role in Armanasco’s success. Among the horses from Star Kingdom’s line to bring success to the trainer were The Judge, Biscay, True Version, Bletchingly, Full On Aces (winner of a Golden Slipper Stakes), and Zeditave, a winner of five Group 1 races. Tolerance, winner of three Blue Diamond Stakes at Caulfield was trained by Armanasco. Forina was next in line in 1974, while Zeditave brought his tally of Blue Diamond Stakes wins to six.

Armanasco’s strategies as a trainer were different. According to former stable jockey Roy Higgins, the trainer never overworked or over-raced any of the horses. Neither did he believe in medications. Most of the brilliant sprinters from Wootton’s stable never let him down, which is one of the main reasons why Armanasco finished his career as a trainer with 7 Victorian trainers’ premiership titles to his credit.

His faith in the horses allegedly made him well known in the gambling circuit where he was known to bet significantly on his own horses.

Angus Armanasco retired from training in 1998. His achievements on the racetrack brought him the highest honor in racing as an inductee into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2002.

The Group 2 Angus Armanasco Stakes is held each year at Caulfield during the Autumn Carnival, in honor of the great trainer who passed away in 2005.

The Boys From Brownsville Morphed Into Murder Incorporated

American Criminals

(The) Boys from Brownsville

They started out as punk kids looking to make a small score anyway they could. But the Boys from Brownsville advanced to being the right arm of Murder Incorporated, the most blood-thirsty organization in the history of America.

In the early 1920’s, the Shapiro brothers controlled the illegal activities in the Brownville section of Brooklyn with an iron fist. Meyer was the second oldest and he ran the show. Nothing was beneath Meyer, and he once claimed he owned fifteen brothels in Brownville, with no partners, except his brothers, to share in the proceeds.

“I’m the boss of Brownsville,” Meyer said to anyone who doubted his clout.

Irving was the oldest Shapiro brother; not as bright or as tough as Meyer, but still considered the second-in-charge. Willie was the youngest of the three, not too bright and not too tough; not a good combination in the means streets of Brownsville. Willie was basically considered a joke, and lucky to have been born into the Shapiro family.

Besides running broads, the Shapiros cornered the market in Brownsville on illegal booze, and illegal slot machines. To continue to operate untouched, Meyer was smart enough to pay tribute to the bigger mob bosses from the other parts of Brooklyn (Meyer didn’t consider them partners; just the cost of doing business).

“We got everything straightened out our way,” Meyer told his brothers. “As long as we stay in our own backyard, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Then a young street punk named Abe “Kid Twist” Reles began having ideas.

Reles’ father, Abraham, was an Austrian Jew; a humble man who had come to America to seek a better life. Upon his arrival in the “Mountain of Gold,” Abraham Reles supported his family by doing piece work in Manhattan’s Garment Center. Soon, he had saved enough money to start his own business: selling knishes on the streets of Brooklyn with his mobile stand, which Abraham Reles pushed from street corner to street corner, looking for the busiest spot.

Abe Reles was a stocky five-foot-two-inch menace, with the long and powerful hands of a six-footer, and he abhorred his father’s honorable way of life. Reles quit school after the eighth grade, and went to work as a go-fer for the Shapiros. Reles was used for the most menial of jobs; running errands and maybe sometimes keeping an eye on one of the many Shapiro-brothers-owned slot machines. One day, Reles took a bullet to his back while minding a Shapiro slot machine (a mere flesh wound). But this got Reles to thinking.

He told his childhood pal Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein, “Why do we have to take the left-overs?” Reles said. “We should cut a piece. The hell with those guys.”

(It was about this time that Reles took the nickname “Kid Twist,” in honor of a previous New York City Jewish mobster named Max “Kid Twist” Zwerbach, who was killed in front of a Coney Island dance hall in 1908.)

Goldstein was a follower and Reles was his pied piper. Whereas Reles was a tough runt who could kill with the best of them, the hulking Goldstein was the definition of street muscle. Reles snapped his fingers, and Goldstein jumped to attention and did what Reles told him to do. Reles decided that he and Goldstein should go into business for themselves. Nothing big; maybe a few slot machines, and a single house of prostitution for starters.

However, Reles knew the Shapiros had too many men on the streets, and that he needed to make alliances with other street toughs in order to bring his plans to fruition. Reles told Buggsy they should pay a little visit to Happy and the Dasher.

Harry “Happy” Maione and Frank “Dasher” Abbandando were two Italian good-for-nothings who headed the “Ocean Hill Hooligans,” a ruthless street gang who ran the bookmaking and loan-shaking operations in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, which was adjacent to Brownsville. Maione, the elder of the two, was the boss; Abbandando — his second-in-command.

“Dasher” got his nickname because he was been such a dashing baseball player for the Elmira Reformatory, where he had spent most of his youth. In fact, people said the hulking Abbandando could have been a hell-of-a professional baseball player if that had been his desire. The movie-star handsome Dasher also had a slight problem concerning woman; he liked to rape them. Years later, as he awaited his murder trial, Dasher admitted he had participated in dozens of rapes, but he denied one rape in particular.

“That one didn’t count,” Dasher said. “I married her later.”

Dasher’s usual mode of murder was the ice pick because, “It didn’t make too much noise.” But Dasher did admit you had to hold your hand over the victim’s mouth while inserting the icepick, to muffle any screams that might be imminent.

Happy Maione, on the other hand, was short and mean, with beady eyes that seemed to bore a hole into the forehead of the person he was berating. In fact, Happy was called “Happy” because a smile rarely crossed his protruding lips. Once, in order to kill someone who Murder Incorporated said needed to be killed, the slender Maione dressed up like a sexy woman and knocked on the apartment door of his mark (after removing the light bulb in the hallway, of course). The sucker eyed what he thought was an attractive dame in the peephole of his door (for once Maione was smiling; his fake-eye-lashed eyes were fluttering too). As a result, the mark opened the door with the glee of a schoolboy panting for his first date. As soon as the door flung open, Maione and his accomplice filled the victim with several bullet holes, rendering him quite dead.

Abe Reles figured mean thugs like Happy and the Dasher would be swell partners in a takeover of the Brownsville rackets. He approached the Dasher first.

“How about we get together for a little booking?” Reles told the Dasher. “We could handle some betting; you here, and me and Buggsy in Brownsville.”

The Dasher was not too sure this was the right thing to do.

“I don’t know. Me and Happy are okay here,” the Dasher said. “And what about those Shapiros? They won’t like it.”

“Let me worry about those bums,” Reles said. “I’m for Kid Reles from here on in.”

Reles set up a meeting between himself and Buggsy, and Happy and the Dasher. Reles got right to the point.

“Those bums can be taken,” Reles told Happy.

Happy was willing to listen, but was not too eager to join forces.

“What’s on your mind?” Happy said.

“Listen, if we put a mob together we could take everything over,” Reles said.

Happy was still unconvinced. He said, “Look, I’m the boss of Ocean Hill, and I get left alone. Why should I stick my neck out?”

“You throw in with us, and we all move in,” Reles said.

“Where do I fit in if I do?” Happy said.

“Simple,” Reles said. “We take care of the Shapiros; then we take over. Everything goes into the pot. Brownsville, East New York, Ocean Hill – everything. Then we cut down the middle.”

Happy, who secretly hated Reles (and he knew deep inside Reles hated Happy too), told Reles he’d think about it. Happy then approached his mentor Louis Capone about Reles’ proposition. Capone (no relation to Al Capone) was ostensibly a Brooklyn restaurateur, but was in fact a big-time gangster with close ties to Mafioso like Joe “Adonis” Doto, and Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia. Capone was knee-deep in loan-sharking and was also a force in several labor union rackets too.

New York City District Attorney William O’Dwyer told the New York Times that, “Capone had his fingers dipped in every dirty crime committed by the murder syndicate (Murder Incorporated, which we’ll get to later in this book). He was the contact between lesser lights like Reles, Straus, Maione and Goldstein, and bosses like Anastasia and Buchalter (Louie Lepke). But he was not a real head of the mob.”

Happy figured if Capone gave his blessing for a marriage between Happy and Reles, it must be the right thing to do. So Happy laid out Reles’ plan to Capone.

Without hesitation, Capone told Happy. “It sounds real good, Hap.”

Capone even convinced Happy to take in another Capone protégé, Vito Gurino, a five foot-six-inch, 265-pound ox, who could kill as easy as eating a meatball sandwich. This gave the Reles-Maione crew one more valuable assassin in their war against the Shapiros.

So the alliance was made, and Abe Reles’ and Happy Maione’s gangs merged into one formidable group of killers. The Shapiros had a few proficient gunslingers of their own, but with the addition of his new torpedoes, the tide seemed to be turning in Reles’ favor.

Word spread quickly around Brownsville about Reles and Maione’s ambitions, and Meyer Shapiro was not too happy.

“Brownsville belongs to us,” Meyer told his brothers. “Nobody moves in here.”

Reles first order of business was to approach a young punk named Joey Silvers (Silverstein), who was one of the dupes the Shapiros used for their small stuff. Reles paid Silvers, and he paid him well, to tip off Reles whenever they was an opportunity to ambush the Shapiros, and kill all three brothers in one place at one time. Soon, Silvers contacted Reles and told him that all three Shapiros were holed up in a gambling house, and would be leaving shortly, making them naked to a sneak attack.

Not having time to assemble the rest of the crew, Reles and Buggsy brought along a new confederate named George DeFeo. When they arrived at the gambling house, sure enough, the Shapiros’ cars was parked right out front. Reles’ plan was to ice pick the tires, and then nail the Shapiros as they approached their car. But before Reles could even pull out the icepick, the Shapiros opened fire from the safety of the house. Buggsy took a bullet in his nose, and Reles absorbed another one in his stomach. DeFeo was shot dead instantly.

Reles and Buggsy somehow made it to safety, and with the help of a mobbed-up doctor, they slowly licked their wounds and began figuring out how to take out Silvers for his betrayal, along with the Shapiros.

However, Reles had underestimated the depravity of Meyer Shapiro.

One cool autumn night, Meyer Shapiro jumped into his jalopy and scanned the streets of Brownsville, looking to hurt Reles where it hurt most: below the belt. He spotted the pretty young girl while she was window shopping at a local clothing store. The girl was the 18-year-old girlfriend of Abe “Kid Twist” Reles.

Shapiro swerved his car to the curb, and before the girl knew what was happening, she was inside Shapiro’s car, kicking and screaming, but no match for a hardened thug like Shapiro.

Shapiro drove with one hand, and with his free hand he slapped and punched the girl into submission. Then he sped to a secluded area on the outskirts of Brownville and raped Abe Reles’ girlfriend. And if that wasn’t enough, as an added message, Shapiro pummeled the young girl’s face with both fists as if she were a man. When the girl’s face was a grotesque mask of blood, bumps, and bruises, Shapiro opened the passenger door and kicked her out onto the darkened street. She lay there for a while, then was able to drag herself to her feet and make it back to Brownsville. She told Reles what had happened, but her face told everything.

Reles was incensed. Women were off limits.

Reles slowly plotted his revenge.

Reles’ first order of business was to recruit another strong-arm for his crew. He picked a dilly in Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, destined to be the most deranged killer in the history of Brownsville, if not in the entire United States of America. Strauss, who had never been to Pittsburgh (he just liked the name), was called “Pep” by his friends. It was later said Strauss liked committing murder so much (it was reported he killed anywhere from one hundred to five hundred people), he often volunteered for murder contracts because, as District Attorney William O’Dwyer once said, “Just for the lust to kill.”

Strauss was a connoisseur in the art of killing. He used whatever weapon available, but his favorites were the ice pick (like his compatriot Dasher), and a length of rope, which Strauss used to truss up his victims from ankles to throat, and let them linger there as he watched them strangle themselves to death.

Reles later said, “When we got Pep it was like we put on a whole new troupe.”

Reles also recruited a nasty Irishman killer named “Blue Jaw” Magoon, who got his moniker from the fact that he had a five o’clock shadow all day long.

Healed from his wounds, Reles called for a meeting with Happy and both crews.

“Now what happens?” Happy said.

“Well, the Shapiros have to be hit,” Reles said. “We can’t just muscle them out; they got to go. And remember, the first one is Meyer. I got something to square him for.”

The Shapiros knew they were hunted men, but they were lucky that Reles and his crew couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a shotgun at ten paces. For the next year, Reles and his boys stalked the streets of Brownville looking for the Shapiros, but especially Meyer Shapiro. They spotted Meyer eighteen times, and eighteen times their bullets missed their mark. On the nineteenth try, Reles finally wounded Shapiro and two innocent bystanders, but the wound was superficial and Meyer Shapiro escaped, still very much alive.

In early July of 1931, Irving Shapiro convinced Meyer that maybe they should relax and take a ride to Monticello in the Catskill Mountains for the day to visit old pal Jack Siegal, who was on trial for running illegal slot machines.

“You look a little jumpy, Meyer” Irv said. “We can run up and see if we can do anything for Jack. The ride will do you good.”

Since he was tired of being a clay pigeon for Reles’ inept shooting gallery, Meyer agreed to take the day off and breathe in some of that clean country air.

By this time, Abe Reles had his long tentacles throughout Brownville, and his ears firmly to the ground. Minutes after Irv and Meyer Shapiro left town, Reles knew about their country excursion. He quickly assembled his crew and presented his plan.

“There’s a card game at the Democratic Club on Sheffield Avenue tonight,” Reles said. “Those rats are sure to be back for it. They figure to leave Monticello around four-five o’clock. That would get them down here about eight. They’ll eat and be at the club say, ten-eleven o’clock. We’ll be there when they come out.”

Reles was almost exact in his calculations. At about 1 a.m., with Reles and his crew loaded for bear outside, Irv and Meyer Shapiro exited the Democratic Club and headed for their cars. The only problem was, about a dozen other card players exited at the same time, forming a shield around the Shapiro brothers. Before Reles and his crew could get off a shot, the Shapiro brother were safely in their car, and gone.

Reles was steaming mad, but he would not be deterred.

“Quick, over to their house,” Reles told his crew. “They’ll head there.”

Reles and his men sped over to 691 Blake Avenue; the apartment building where the Shapiros lived. The Shapiros’ car was nowhere in sight.

“Good, we beat them here,” Reles said. “Now we go in the hall and wait. Remember, Meyer goes first.”

They snuck into the hallway of the apartment building, removed the over-head light bulb, and waited in the dark. Luckily, no other residents entered the apartment building, and luckily for Meyer Shapiro, he had decided he needed a good rubdown at a nearby bath house.

“I don’t think I’ll go home,” Meyer told Irv in the car. “I’m still jumpy. Drop me off at the Cleveland Baths. I’ll stay there overnight. Maybe it will loosen me up.”

Irv Shapiro did as his brother requested, and after he parked his car near the entrance to his apartment building, Irv entered the darkened vestibule. Reles hesitated, realizing it was Irv and not Meyer Shapiro, whom he wanted badly. But the rest of his crew commenced firing. When the smoke cleared, Irving Shapiro, hit eighteen times, and was splattered dead on the tiled floor.

Scratch Shapiro brother number one.

Nine days later, on July 19, 1931, Meyer Shapiro was strolling down Church Avenue and East 58th Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn, when a dark sedan pulled up next to him and three gunman started firing. Shapiro jumped into his car and tried to escape, with the sedan chasing after him.

Policeman Harold Schreck was driving nearby when he heard gunfire. He sped to where the shots had come from, and he spotted the dark sedan careening straight toward him. Not seeing Shapiro speeding away for his life, Policeman Schreck ordered the driver of the sedan to pull over, but the sedan whizzed past him. Policeman Schreck made a U-turn and gave case, one hand driving, and the other hand firing his gun at the speeding sedan. Schreck soon was joined by another police car occupied by policemen Joe Fleming and Harry Phelps. The two police cars chased the sedan onto the street car tracks. The sedan skidded all over the road, almost tipping over several times, but it always regained its balance. At one point, Policeman Schreck spotted a pistol being flung from the car into an empty lot on Sutter Avenue.

The chase ended at Livonia and Howard Avenues, where the three occupants sprung from the car and tried to flee on foot. The cops jumped out of their two cars and caught all three men before they could get very far. The three men turned out to be Abe Reles, Harry Strauss, and Dasher Abbandando, who had obviously lost his skill at “dashing.” The cops also found a sawed-off shotgun near the sedan (which had been stolen six days earlier at the corner of Pitkin and Stone). It was obvious the hot shotgun had recently been discharged.

The three thugs were arrested, but they refused to talk. The police had information that Reles and his boys were “out to get” Meyer Shapiro, but Shapiro, only slightly wounded, went into hiding. With no dead body, and no one to issue a complaint, Brooklyn District Attorney Geoghan was forced to let Reles and his men go.

That made it twenty times that Shapiro had survived a Reles-led attack.

As a consolation prize, a few days later, Reles and Happy Maione cornered Joey Silvers on a Brownville Street corner, and up close, they blew his head almost completely off his shoulders. But, Meyer Shapiro was still on the loose, with “Deadeye” Reles and his boys in hot pursuit.

Meyer Shapiro decided Brooklyn was too hot for him, so he holed up in Manhattan where he thought he was safe. And he was – for a while.

While in Manhattan, Shapiro, his gang shrinking quickly, figured maybe he could establish himself in Manhattan; a little loansharking, a few slot machines, and maybe even little speakeasy which he could call his own. While attempting to set up shop in Manhattan, Shapiro exposed himself to the underworld element; not a smart thing to do for a man with a bull’s eye on his forehead.

On September, 17, Shapiro stopped in a Manhattan speakeasy for a drink. It’s not clear who spotted him, but soon Kid Twist, Happy, and Buggsy (sounds like three of the seven dwarfs) abducted Shapiro and took him to a Lower East Side cellar located at 7 Manhattan Avenue. The next morning a newsboy found Shapiro’s body in that cellar. He had been shot once behind the left ear at extremely close range, which was verified by deep powder burns where the bullet had entered Shapiro’s skull.

Scratch Shapiro brother number two.

As was his plan, Reles fired the fatal shot himself, and even Reles couldn’t miss with his gun pressed up against Shapiro’s head.

Now all that was left of the Shapiro gang was Willie Shapiro, who had been making noise that he was out to get Reles and his crew, despite the fact that Willie had all but disappeared from the streets of Brooklyn.

Willie Shapiro was considered the weakest of the Shapiro brothers and not a top priority on the Boys from Brownsville’s list of things to do. Reles and Maione were too busy strengthening their organization to put much effort in locating Willie, who by this time had embarked on a career as a prize fighter, and not a very good one at that.

By 1934, Willie Shapiro knew he was dead in the water if he insisted on going after the men who had killed his two brothers. He told his sister Rose, “What’s the use? I can’t make it alone. I’m out of the rackets. I’m going to forget about those bums.”

It turned out that Willie had waited too long to announce his retirement from a life of crime. Although Reles and his boys were not actively seeking Willie, he was still unfinished business, and Reles hated unfinished business

On July, 18, 1934, the day after Willie had spoken to his sister Rose, Vito Gurino met Reles and Strauss on a Brownsville street corner. He told them, “I just spotted Willie going into a place near Herkimer. You know, we’ve got nothing to do now (meaning killing). Why don’t we take him tonight and be done with it?”

Reles and Strauss agreed with Gurino’s assessment, and a few hours later, they abducted Willie from a Brownsville bar and brought him to the basement of a bar and grill on Rockaway Avenue that Gurino owned with Happy Maione and Happy’s brother-in-law Joe Daddonna. In the basement working over Willie were the hulking Gurino, Happy, Strauss, and the Dasher. The beating was most brutal, and when Willie was finally rendered unconscious, Happy put a stop to the festivities; at least for a while.

“This bum is done for,” Happy said.

That was the cue for Strauss to perform his neat rope trick. “Pittsburgh Phil” trussed up Willie like a Thanksgiving turkey; then watched Willie’s dance of death. When Willie stopped struggling and fell limp, signaling he had choked himself to death, the killers stuffed Willie into a laundry bag, to make it easier to transport his body. They flung the laundry bag into the trunk of their car and drove to the sand dunes, in a secluded area in Canarsie Flats. They dumped the laundry bag with Willie onto the sand, and commenced digging.

Shortly after, a Canarsie resident, who was having trouble sleeping, decided to go for a stroll near the sand dunes. Suddenly, he was startled when he thought he detected movement on top of one of the sand dunes. He walked closer and he spotted four men digging in the sand. Suddenly, one of the men lifted his head and spotted the witness. It was Happy and he yelled, “Somebody made us.”

The four men sprinted to a waiting car and sped back to Brownsville, presumably to have a celebratory meal in the bar and grill on Rockaway Avenue.

The witness ran over to where the men had been digging and he spotted the laundry bag in the half-dug hole. He bent down, pulled the top of the bag open, and there was Willie, all trussed up, and not looking to good. The man ran to the local police station, and when the police arrived soon after, Willie Shapiro was indeed dead.

Scratch Shapiro brother number three.

Willie’s body was brought to the Medical Examiner, who discovered sand in Willie’s lungs, meaning Willie had been buried alive.

With Louis Capone as the intermediary to keep peace between Reles and Happy, the Boys from Brownsville thrived. When Albert Anastasia needed someone murdered, he relayed this information to Capone, who gave the contract to Reles and Maione, who then used their stable of killers, including themselves, to do the dirty deeds.

However, the Boys from Brownsville’s main source of income was shylocking (loaning money out at usurious rates), bookmaking (taking illegals bets on sporting events), and floating craps (dice) games. The “floating” craps games took place on street corners, and in vacant lots. The more expensive games were run in car garages, or in any building that was vacant for the night.

The shylocking and bookmaking businesses were run from the backroom of a Brownsville candy store called “Midnight Rose’s.” The store was owned by a cranky old lady named Rose, who was the mother of one of the minor members of the crew, known only as the Dapper. Rose was hassled several times by the law over the type of people who frequented her establishment.

“Why do you let hoodlums hang out in your store?” she was asked by detectives.

“Why don’t the police keep them out?” she said. “Can I help it who comes into my store?”

One she was asked by the police if she knew anyone named “Pittsburgh Phil.”

“Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco… what do I know about them?” she said. “I was never out of Brooklyn in my life. All I know is I got ‘syracuse’ veins. I’m a sick woman.”

It was stated in a 1942 corruption report to New York Governor Herbert Lehman by Special Assistant Attorney John Harlan, that in 1938 alone, more than $400,000 dollars in loans were handled by Midnight Rose herself.

There was also a Brownsville Boys’ “stolen-car department,” run by the younger members, who were basically go-fers for Reles, Happy Maione, Pittsburgh Phil, and the rest of the higher-ups. Teenagers like Dukey Maffetore and Pretty Levine stole cars on a regular basis, as did “Blue Jaw” Magoon, and stolen-car specialist Sholem Bernstein. Some cars were broken down and sold as parts, but most were used as transportation in murder contracts, which we will discuss later in this book under “Murder Incorporated,” a syndicate of killers which tapped the Brownsville Boys as their most efficient torpedoes.

It was around the time of the Willie Shapiro murder that the Brownsville Boys moved up in stature in the National Crime Syndicate, which included Italians Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Joe “Adonis” Doto, and Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Louis Lepke Buchalter, and Buchalter’s partner Jacob “Gurah” Shapiro. Through intermediary Louis Capone, the Brownsville Boys were given numerous murder contracts, which culminated in the Brownsville Boys being given more territories in Brooklyn in which to run their rackets.

There is no doubt that the Brownsville Boys elimination of the Shapiro brothers spurred their transition from strictly small-timers into the major leagues of organized crime.