Mur­der, Inc. and the Moral Life

Robert Wel­don Whalen
  • From the Publisher
September 22, 2016

In 1940 and 1941 a group of ruth­less gang­sters from Brook­lyn’s Brownsville neigh­bor­hood became the focus of media fren­zy when they – dubbed Mur­der Inc.,” by New York World-Telegram reporter Har­ry Feeney – were tried for mur­der. It is esti­mat­ed that col­lec­tive­ly they killed hun­dreds of peo­ple dur­ing a reign of ter­ror that last­ed from 1931 to 1940. As the tri­al played out to a packed court­room, shocked spec­ta­tors gasped at the out­ra­geous rev­e­la­tions made by gang leader Abe Kid Twist” Reles and his pack of crim­i­nal accomplices.

News of the tri­al pro­lif­er­at­ed through­out the coun­try; at times it received more news­pa­per cov­er­age than the unabat­ed war being waged over­seas. The heinous crimes attrib­uted to Mur­der, Inc., includ­ed not only mur­der and tor­ture but also auto theft, bur­glary, assaults, rob­beries, fenc­ing stolen goods, dis­tri­b­u­tion of ille­gal drugs, and just about any ille­gal activ­i­ty from which a rev­enue could be derived.” When the tri­al final­ly came to a stun­ning unre­solved con­clu­sion in Novem­ber 1941, news­pa­pers gen­er­at­ed record headlines.

Once the tri­al was over, tales of the Mur­der, Inc., gang became leg­endary, spawn­ing count­less books and mem­oirs and pro­vid­ing inspi­ra­tion for the Hol­ly­wood gang­ster-movie genre. These men were fear­some brutes with an aston­ish­ing abil­i­ty to wield pow­er. Peo­ple were fas­ci­nat­ed by the gang­ster” fig­ure, which had become a sym­bol for moral evil and con­tempt and whose pop­u­lar­i­ty showed no signs of abat­ing. As both a study in crim­i­nal behav­ior and a cul­tur­al fas­ci­na­tion that con­tin­ues to per­me­ate mod­ern soci­ety, the rever­ber­a­tions of Mur­der, Inc.” are pro­found, includ­ing ref­er­ences in con­tem­po­rary mass media.

The Mur­der, Inc., sto­ry is as much a tale of moral­i­ty as it is a gang­ster his­to­ry, and Mur­der, Inc., and the Moral Life by Robert Whalen mesh­es both top­ics clear­ly and metic­u­lous­ly, relat­ing the gang­ster phe­nom­e­non to mod­ern moral the­o­ry. Each chap­ter cov­ers an aspect of the Mur­der, Inc., case and reflects on its eth­i­cal ele­ments and con­se­quences. Whalen delves into the back­ground of the crim­i­nals involved, their motives, and the vio­lent death that sur­round­ed them; New York City’s immi­grant gang cul­ture and its role as Gang­ster City”; fiery politi­cians Fiorel­lo La Guardia and Thomas E. Dewey and the choic­es they made to clean up the city; and the role of the gang­ster in pop­u­lar cul­ture and how it relates to real life.” Whalen puts a fresh spin on the two top­ics, pro­vid­ing a vivid nar­ra­tive with both his­tor­i­cal and moral perspective.

Discussion Questions