The Canary That Sung, But Couldn't Fly
By: Joseph Giacalone
© J. Giacalone
Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles (1907-1941)
Abraham Reles was born in a poverty stricken area of Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, in 1907 to Jewish-Austrian immigrants. It wasn’t long before young Abe turned to a life of crime. Brownsville was the birthplace and incubator of many Jewish gangsters. Stories of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the garment district kingpin, Benjamin Seigel, the future casino emperor, Meyer Lansky and Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, put young Abe on his path to wealth, fame and ultimately his destruction. Unbeknownst to him, these men would shape and determine the direction his life would take. Abe would become one of the most infamous contract killers ever hired by Murder Incorporated.
Abraham Reles was short, but had long arms and hands like a catcher’s glove. He was given the name “Kid Twist”, a nickname given to a previous vicious killer from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Another myth exists on how Abe got the name “Kid Twist”. It was supposedly after his favorite type of candy. Abe was very adept at using his weapon of choice the ice pick. He was so good at jamming it into the contracts’ ear, that many of his victims’ deaths were deemed as brain hemorrhages
In the 1920’s the Shapiro brothers, led by Meyer Shapiro, ran the rackets of Brooklyn with the Amberg brothers nipping at their heels. Prohibition, a Government experiment gone badly, gave rise to many groups of booze barons and hijackers. If you wanted a slot or vending machine, you had to get it from the Shapiros. Abe and his friend Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein worked for the Shapiro brothers when they were still teenagers. Soon the two boys were committing petty crimes, busting up strikes and causing other distractions for their money-hungry employers. During one such event, Abe was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to a two-year sentence in an Upstate New York juvenile facility. The Shapiro’s never came to the legal assistance of their faithful employee. This inaction, by the Shapiro brothers, would prove fatal.
When young Abe was released from prison he looked up his old friend Buggsy. He found him in their old neighborhood in East New York. Abe and Buggsy renewed their friendship. They were soon heavily into the slot machine business with help from George Defeo, who was linked to Meyer Lansky, the mob’s accountant. Lansky was willing to help because his organization did not have exposure to the poorer sections of Brooklyn. Through this alliance with Reles, Lansky was able to gain a sizeable foothold in the Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill sections of Brooklyn. For Reles, it was the sort of backing he needed to stay in business and to stay alive.
Business was good. It wasn’t long before the two friends, Reles and Goldstein, made the Shapiro hit list. It was time to kill or be killed; you could almost here Abe say, “Time to go to the mattress,” a mob term for starting a war. One night Abe and Buggsy received a call from a friend that the Shapiros had left their headquarters. They jumped in their vehicle, along with George Defeo, and headed for East New York. It was a set up. The three were greeted by gunfire. Abe was shot in the back, Buggsy was shot in the face and Defeo escaped unharmed. To add insult to injury, Meyer Shapiro found Abe’s girlfriend walking on the street. He forced her into the car and took her to an open field where he beat and raped her repeatedly.
It was hours after the attack that Abe’s girlfriend told him what had occurred. Abe tasted blood. He hatched an elaborate scheme with the help from an Italian gang named the Ocean Hill Hooligans. Reles and Goldstein struck up an alliance with Frank “The Dasher” Abbundando and Harry “Happy” Maione who jumped at the chance to get rid of the Shapiro brothers for a piece of the action. Each side made attempt after attempt to kill one another, but to no avail. Abe Reles’s band of killers finally caught wind that Meyer was heading to one of his safe houses on Blake Avenue in East New York. Abe set up inside of the location and waited for him. He sat there motionless in the unlit hallway and waited for his prey to arrive. Unfortunately for Reles Meyer didn’t show up, but his younger brother Irving. Reles wasn’t going to let his disappointment ruin a perfectly executed plan. Abe grabbed a surprised Irving in the hallway of 691 Blake Avenue. He beat, kicked and then shot him numerous times.
Two months later, so intent on revenge Abe shot Meyer Shapiro in the head in a Manhattan tenement. Three years later the last Shapiro brother, William, was abducted off of the street and brought to one of the gang’s hideouts. They beat him unmercifully and stuffed his body in a sack. The Reles’s gang then drove him out to the Canarsie section of Brooklyn where they planned on burying their victim in the flats. Before they could finish, they were spotted them and the killers fled the scene. The curious man began to unearth what the men were burying when he found the sack. When William’s body was brought to Bellvue for an autopsy, the medical examiner made a frightening discovery. William Shapiro had dirt in his lungs. He had been buried alive.
Before there ever was a Sammy “The Rat” Gravano, there was Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. In 1940, under the order of then District Attorney, William O’Dwyer, Abe Reles was picked up on a murder charge. He was implicated in a series of murders. When it was certain that he would be sent to Sing Sing Prison to sit upon “Old Sparky”, Reles decided to become an informant for the District Attorney’s Office and prosecutor Burton Turkus. Reles chose to symbolically spill his guts, like he had done to so many others on Good Friday. Needless to say, Abe’s decision to become a stool pigeon did not sit well with many high-ranking mob officials. Underworld figures scrambled for hiding spots and to terminate those who new too much. The entire Syndicate that Lepke had helped establish was now in jeopardy.
The information Reles gave on May 16, 1940, led to the arrest, indictment, conviction and electrocution of one of his former bosses, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. Lepke’s conviction was a major set back for the Syndicate, however, the most damaging Reles testimony was against Murder Incorporated. One by one, District Attorney William O’Dwyer prosecuted reputed killers from the organization, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein Abe’s childhood friend, Mendy Weiss, Harry “Happy” Maione and put them to death in the Sing Sing electric chair.
|Where the Half Moon Once Stood © J. Giacalone|
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