Today the shores of Coney Island are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.
Millions of investment dollars are washing in, with plans for hotels and modern amusements and attractions envisioned. A new 5,000-seat semi-outdoor amphitheater opened in the summer of 2016, complementing the 7,500 MCU stadium unveiled in 2001, home to the New York Mets farm team the Brooklyn Cyclones. And the famed New York Aquarium is undergoing a massive renovation.
Nearly gone is the gritty, rough-and-tumble destitution of the 1970s, the vacant storefronts of the 1980s, the homeless encampments under the boardwalk of the 1990s.
Yet this latest makeover is hardly Coney Island’s first reclamation. The Depression years of the 1930s sullied the former seaside mecca in a “Sodom by the Sea.” Sure the droves still drove down to its shores in the summertime. But Coney Island’s concessions suffered as Luna Park slid into bankruptcy.
Lording over the beach was Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel, a once-magnificent Spanish Colonial-style monolith perched seaside just off the well-trodden boardwalk. It was there that occurred such a notorious gangland episode, it seemed to sum up the full scope of neglect and corruption plaguing not just Coney Island and Brooklyn, but that entire era.
In fact, nowhere in gangland is there an unsolved mystery as ingrained into the cartoonish noir mythos of the mobster as the events that occurred at the Half Moon Hotel. It revolved around Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a gangster despised as much by the public — for his prolific career as a hitman for Murder Inc. — as by the underworld — he flipped for the feds and became an informant after being indicted on a murder count in 1940.
Keep in mind that this was decades before turning informant was a viable career option for Brooklyn gangsters. Rarely did the cops and robbers cooperate, even though the death penalty was not only legal in New York State, it was used more frequently. Apparently appeals did not drag out indefinitely as they do today.
You might say the fate of Kid Twist was a cautionary tale for his peers.
Born into poverty in 1906 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to Austrian-immigrant parents, Reles and his family barely survived on what his father made, first in the garment industry, later selling knishes on the streets of Brooklyn. Leaving school at a young age, the young Reles bullied his way through the back alleys and gambling dens of Brownsville, linking up with future Murder Inc. all-stars Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein and Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss.
The diminutive Reles made up for his small size with outrageous violence and was most certainly a psychopath, with a predilection for ice picks. Reles favored this weapon, as death could be misconstrued as a naturally caused brain hemorrhage. Prone to random acts of violence for the most minor offenses (he once murdered a parking lot attendant for not retrieving his car quickly enough), Reles stepped up in the Brooklyn rackets working for the Shapiro brothers.
When Reles was busted and sent away for two years to a juvenile facility and the Shapiro brothers abandoned him, casting the die for an epic gangland rivalry.
Reles cut a back-alley deal with Meyer Lansky propelling Reles to the top of the food chain in Brooklyn. He expanded into labor racketeering, loan sharking, extortion and a wider portfolio of criminal activities — not to mention taking a leadership role in Murder Inc.
By the 1940s, though, the law caught up with Reles, and facing insurmountable evidence on multiple murder counts sure to land him in the electric chair at Sing Sing, Kid Twist turned informant.
Reles’ testimony was critical in the indictment and prosecution of numerous key crime figures of that period, including Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Harry Strauss, Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss, Harry Maione, Frank Abbandando, Irving “Knadles” Nitzberg, and his longtime partner “Buggsy” Goldstein.
With the help of damning testimony provided by Reles, all these members of Murder Inc. were convicted and executed by electric chair.
Next up in the crosshairs: Albert Anastasia.
Anastasia was not only a co-leader of Murder Inc., he was (more importantly) a high-ranking made member of the Mafia. Among the many hats worn by “The Mad Hatter,” Anastasia coordinated contract killings for the mob.
With this epic trial set for November 12, 1941, Reles was the most-wanted criminal in the underworld. With a massive murder-contract hanging over his head, Reles was stashed by authorities out of sight, under constant watch by no less than six officers.
The Half Moon Hotel seemed like an ideal spot for safekeeping until the trial.
And then the expected happened.
On the morning of November 12th, Reles fell to his death from Room 623 on the sixth floor.
As the cover story went, Reles was trying to escape, and had tied bedsheets together, before accidentally plunging to his death.
Sure he did.
The next day the five New York City policemen guarding Reles were busted down in rank, but not removed from the force. Years later, in 1951, a grand jury found Reles’ death to be accidental, as a result of his escape attempt.
The case against Anastasia fell apart.
Years later, infamous mob turncoat Joseph Valachi, stated: “I never met anybody who thought Abe went out that window because he wanted to.”
In a fitting epitaph, the newspapers named Reles “The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn’t Fly.”