His nickname may have been but Harry Strauss did most of his dirt on the streets of Brooklyn.
Throughout the 1930s as one of the more active members of Murder, Inc., that Brownsville-based crew of contract killers, Pittsburgh Phil rang up a staggering body count. By some low-end estimates, Strauss may have murdered 100 marks. However, that death toll may have been as high as 500 killings, not all of them under contract.
To put that tally into perspective, in 2015 the homicide rate for all of New York City was 339, according to statistics kept by the New York City Police Department.
Unlike many killers who prefer specific devices for delivering death, Pittsburgh Phil mastered multiple murder weapons. He’d beat you to death, burn you alive, bury you while you’re breathing, string you up, shoot you, stomp you, smother you, slice you with a razor, stab you with an ice pick, or maybe just strangle you until you stopped squirming.
A psychopath with no regard for human life, Pittsburgh Phil stalked his victims, sometimes staking out future crime scenes for days to avoid detection and arrest. Intensely paranoid, Strauss never carried a weapon, unless he was pulling a job. As a known associate of Murder, Inc., Strauss knew he could be picked up by the police at any moment and brought in for questioning.
While he was arrested nearly 20 times, Pittsburgh Phil was untouchable. The few witnesses who came forward went wide-eyed as soon as they learned they’d be testifying against a homicidal maniac.
Ultimately, like many of his brutal Brownsville brethren, Pittsburgh Phil was done in by gang-leader-turned-snitch Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, providing testimony that helped dismantle Murder, Inc.
In a 1940 trial, based on the song sang by Reles, Pittsburgh Phil and Martin “Buggsy” Goldstein were convicted of six murders, most prominently that of Irving “Puggy” Feinstein. Strauss strangled Feinstein to death, and then set the body on fire in a Brooklyn lot. A party to that crime, Reles revealed that Feinstein was targeted for murder by Albert Anastasia, so-called Lord High Executioner of Murder Inc., when Feinstein ran afoul of Mafia boss Vincent Mangano.
In ghoulish testimony that must have shot a cold chill through the jury box, Reles’s mother-in-law recounted how Pittsburgh Phil once asked her to borrow a clothesline …
… and an ice pick.
Facing execution in the electric chair, at a time when appeals did not drag out for decades, Pittsburgh Phil had his attorney mount a desperate ploy to convince the jury and judge that he was insane. He played the part full tilt, babbling and frothing on the witness stand, gnawing on items at the defense table in the courtroom.
Having murdered perhaps hundreds, there may have been something to his insanity act, but the judge and jury didn’t buy it. On June 12, 1941, with all his appeals exhausted, Pittsburgh Phil went to the electric chair at Sing Sing in upstate New York, along with Goldstein.