Insight into Harry "Pep" Strauss
Strauss, better known to his chums as "Pep" or "Pittsburgh Phil," was on a contract job in Jacksonville, Florida but the bum he was supposed to take out wasn’t making it easy.
A fashion conscious man who always traveled with a clean shirt and spent an hour with his barber each morning, Pep had flown down from New York at the request of the Florida mob to take care of a wiseguy who had been causing some problems for the underworld. Phil had been told by his local contacts that it would be an easy job.
"He comes out of his house same time every day," the local hoodlum who met Pep’s plane told him. "You’re lucky, it’s an easy pop." But Phil wasn’t convinced. There was no escape route; no hot getaway car; no plan. The man left his house at the same time each day, sure, but it was 11 o’clock in the morning and his house was on a busy street.
"These guys are farmers," he said to himself after dismissing the local hood. They had no idea how an artist like Pittsburgh Phil liked to work. After all, wasn’t he the guy who had mugged Harry Sage with an icepick and dumped his body in an upstate New York lake? And wasn’t he the one who had buried Meyer Shapiro, the boss of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, while Meyer was still alive?
Yeah, Pittsburgh Phil was a real artist with a taste for blood and a talent for killing. It didn’t matter how the target was killed when Phil was involved. He was an expert with a icepick (that’s how he offed George Rudnick, a New York hood who was suspected of being a stoolpigeon), the gun (he killed Joe Kennedy, another gangster), and rope (he strangled Puggy Feinstein and then set him on fire).
"It’s okay to do murder," Pep once said. "As long as I don’t get caught."
And for a long time Pittsburgh Phil didn’t get caught. He had been arrested 29 times in 13 years and "had never been convicted of so much as smoking on a subway platform," wrote Burton Turkus, the assistant D.A. who finally sent Phil to the chair.
But this Florida bum – gangland victims were always referred to as "bums" by their killers – was making Phil’s job difficult. Phil followed the guy from his house, sat next to him while the man ate lunch and generally turned himself into the guy’s shadow, but the opportunity to do a little murder never presented itself.
It frustrated Phil, but he wasn’t ready to give up. "Even if it takes all day, I’ll tail him and find the right spot," he pledged. Finally, the mark went into a movie theater. It was crowded, but Phil was up to the challenge. He wasn’t carrying his gun on him and this wouldn’t be the right place for an icepick or rope job. Phil looked around...there, against the wall was his weapon: a fire axe. "I take the axe and sink it in the guy’s head in the dark," he thought. That would cause a huge racket and in the ensuing commotion, Phil – who was a stranger in Jacksonville – would just run out with the rest of the panic-stricken crowd. Typical Pittsburgh Phil brilliance.
But, as Pep would later tell his friends, the guy was "a seat-hopper." Just as Phil was ready to do the job, the man jumped up and moved to a better seat. For Phil, that settled it. This was a bad job and he wanted nothing to do with it. He left the theater, flew home to Brooklyn and admitted failure.
Whether that meant a reprieve for the man who had brought down the wrath of the Florida mob will never be known. Phil might have been disappointed on this trip to Florida, but he certainly got more than his fair share of kills. According to Turkus, Phil killed more than 30 men in a dozen cities. He begged for contracts and took great delight in a job well-done. Pittsburgh Phil wasn’t a serial killer, though. He was just another slayer in the stable of Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of America’s crime Syndicate. With mobsters like Bugsy Siegel, Joey Adonis, Albert Anastasia, and Kid Twist Reles, "Pittsburgh Phil" formed the firing squad of a national underworld cartel that controlled gambling, unions, loansharking and narcotics from the end of Prohibition through the 1950s.
This is the story of Murder, Inc. from its beginning as the brain child of Johnny Torrio and Lucky Luciano to the death of Albert Anastasia, the "Lord High Executioner" of the Syndicate in 1950s.
At the height of its efficiency, Murder, Inc. was probably responsible for a thousand killings from coast to coast. Guns and knives were used, of course, but so were more imaginative methods like cremation, slow strangling, quicklime and live burial. Some killers liked the icepick – properly inserted into the ear, a skilled killer could scramble a bum’s brains and make it look like a cerebral hemorrhage. One gangster who had cheated his compatriots out of their take of a gambling operation was stabbed and then tied to a pinball machine and dumped into a lake. Until it was broken by a stool pigeon with first-hand knowledge of dozens of killings, Murder, Inc. operated quietly and ruthlessly, rubbing out gangsters who had run afoul of the cartel and lawmen who threatened its existence.