Contract killers, better known to you and I as hitmen, must have skipped one or two religious studies lessons in their day because, instead of dusting down their CV and getting themselves a good ol’, honest-to-God 9-to-5, they took the rather unscrupulous decision to sell their labour in the form of killing some poor sod – all because some other morally-bankrupt shitbag told them (and OK, paid them) to do so. We’d have preferred it if they’d just thrown one or two white lies into their ‘Responsibilities I’ve Been Entrusted With’ section and nailed that data entry position they were secretly after.
Nonetheless, they made their choices, so off they went to find some work. You wouldn’t imagine there’d be many companies advertising the open role of ‘We need a guy offed, pronto!’ so I’m sure hitmen unions around the world rejoiced when the mafia started outsourcing some of their whacking and clip-ing requirements to freelancers. Hoorah! Who says the gig economy is a modern development?
The most famous hitman nowadays is probably Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski, but no matter how good he claims to have been, having a TV show and film made about you is surely not as covert as he would have liked his career to remain. The guys on this list can’t have done a much better job – let’s face it, the truly great hitmen are the ones we have no idea about whatsoever – but there’s a chance you haven’t heard of some of them, so read on.
15 Abraham ‘Abe’ ‘Kid Twister’ Reles
Abe ‘Kid Twister' Reles was widely considered to be the most feared hit man for the enforcement contractor Murder, Inc. In his early life, he classed Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein and Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss as childhood friends and they soon teamed up after leaving school, rising to power in the enforcement arm of the National Crime Syndicate.
Despite his small size, he was not averse to perpetrating merciless acts of violence. His preferred weapon was an ice pick that he’d thrust through the ear of the victim until it reached the brain, oftentimes causing a cerebral hemorrhage. Though he was no a stranger to cold-blooded outbursts too – he was thought to have killed a valet parking attendant who was a little slow in returning the lunatic’s car to him.
He supposedly got the nickname ‘Kid Twister’ as homage to an earlier Jewish gangster by the name of Max ‘Kid Twist’ Zwerbach, but it has also been claimed it came from his unorthodox method of strangling people.
14 Umberto ‘Albert’ Anastasia
Another one who can claim to be ‘the most feared of all hitmen’, Albert Anastasia was a ruthless killer during the Italian-American Cosa Nostra’s golden era. Garnering the nicknames ‘Lord High Executioner’ and ‘The Mad Hatter’, Anastasia was a founder of both Murder, Inc. and the American Mafia as a whole and later became boss of the modern Gambino family.
For his involvement in the Cosa Nostra, Anastasia was unsurprisingly doomed to meet a violent end. While sat in a barber’s chair one morning, he was left unprotected by his driver who’d chosen to take a walk outside, when two men rushed in, barged the barber off his feet and began to open fire. Anastasia’s fighting spirit led to him leaping from the chair to attack his assailants, but in his daze he actually attacked the reflection he could see in the barber-shop mirror and the killers duly fired upon him again, this time killing him.
13 Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss
Another Murder, Inc alumni (trust me, there’s plenty more to come from this conveyor-belt of cold-blooded murderers), Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss supposedly killed more than one hundred people and some claim the real number is actually as high as 500. He famously refused to carry a weapon at any time (in case he was picked-up by police) which often meant he would improvise the method of murder based on the spot he chose for the crime, opting for drowning, stabbing with an ice pick (a popular choice, it would seem), strangulation and even live burial.
Despite being arrested 18 times, he was not convicted until a fellow Murder, Inc. hitman – one Abe ‘Kid Twister’ Reles, found elsewhere on this list – turned informant and indicated that Strauss, and associate Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein, had been involved in at least six murders, including that of Irving ‘Puggy’ Feinstein. Despite attempts to avoid conviction by feigning insanity, Strauss and Goldstein eventually rode the lightning in 1941.
12 Salvatore ‘Sammy Bull’ Gravano
Salvatore Gravano, better known as ‘Sammy Bull’ is thought to have committed at least 19 murders during his time under crime bosses Joe Colombo and John ‘The Teflon Don’ Gotti. He became a protégé of the former, having worked his way through the ranks by carrying out petty theft and administering physical violence when needed, where he would execute a great deal of his hits.
After developing an irrevocable issue with a fellow Colombo associate however, he was obliged to part ways with the family to avoid conflict and joined-up with the Gambino crime family. Here, he climbed to the rank of underboss under Gotti and also became an incredibly wealthy mobster.
He was able to practically evade justice entirely when he became the highest-ranking Mafioso to turn government witness when testifying against ‘The Teflon Don’. He was sentenced to just five years imprisonment for his role in the 19 killings and, because he’d served four at the time of sentencing, he was forced to serve just one more.
11 Thomas ‘Tommy Karate’ Pitera
The quite and brilliantly named ‘Tommy Karate’ – owing to his adept fighting skills and obsession with martial arts – Thomas Pitera was a notorious hitman for the Bonanno family in the 1980s. Renowned for acquiring trophies from his victims (think more jewellery and watches rather than ears and fingers) which is a trademark sign of serial killers, he is believed to have been responsible for upwards of 60 murders. He would also bury his victims in suitcases, having dismembered them first.
He frequently murdered drug dealers so that he may resell their products – a business venture that eventually got him caught as he was indicted in 1990 for his role in a drug-dealing operation. He is presently serving a life sentence for this misdemeanour, in addition to his role in multiple killings.
10 Giovanni ‘The Pig’ Brusca
Unoriginally called ‘The Pig’ because he wasn’t really bothered about his appearance (well, with an alleged 200 killings under his belt, would you fancy giving him a clip round the ear and telling him to sharpen up?) Giovanni Brusca is a former member of the Sicilian Mafia and an unhinged sadist.
He was responsible for the kidnapping, torture and eventual murder of an 11-year-old boy who was the son of a mobster-turned-informant in an attempt to have him retract his testimony – the torture reportedly lasting an unimaginable two years.
It was the murder of Giovanni Falcone (plus his wife and bodyguards), a magistrate and anti-Mafia activist, that led to ‘The Pig’s’ downfall in 1996, but he is yet another example of one who opted to save his own skin by turning informant, even ratting out Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s ex-prime minister, as having ties with the Mafia.
9 Frank ‘The Dasher’ Abbandando
Murder, Inc. entry #4 – Frank ‘The Dasher’ Abbandando was another proponent of the oddly popular ‘death by ice pick’, though he was also partial to using a meat cleaver from time to time. In a gang that included Abe ‘Kid Twister’ Reles, Abbandando was reportedly involved in the murder of the three Shapiro brothers – two of them were shot while the third was beaten to within an inch of his life and then, after the assailants were disturbed by passers-by, hastily buried alive.
He was thought to be responsible for around 30 murders and was sentenced to death in 1942. The verdict came as something of a surprise to ‘The Dasher’ as he was convinced throughout the case that the mob would be able to fix the trial in his favour. It was the testimony of his own former associate, ‘Kid Twister’ that would seal his fate.
8 Harry ‘The Hook’ Aleman
Harry ‘The Hook’ Aleman was a mob enforcer for the Chicago Outfit in the 1970s. According to the Chicago Crime Commission, ‘The Hook’ (nickname deriving from his high-school boxing career rather than any affections towards Peter Pan’s arch nemesis) was responsible for 13 murders between 1971 and 1976, with Richard Cain (who was a corrupt Chicago police officer and close associate of boss Sam Giancana) among his victims.
He famously got acquitted of murder, but was retried for the same crime after it came to light that the trial was corrupted. The Chicago judge who acquitted Aleman was recruited specifically for that purpose, and Aleman later became the first ever person in US history to be convicted of a crime that had previously been thrown out (the case was not classed as double jeopardy as the previous acquittal had been achieved via corrupt means). Aleman was sentenced to 100 – 300 years imprisonment.
7 Roy DeMeo
The DeMeo crew – led by Roy DeMeo himself – were a gang of hitmen who carried out contract killings for the Gambino crime family in the 1970s and early 80s. They favoured offing their victims inside a local establishment called the Gemini Lounge and the precise methodology they used became known as the ‘Gemini Method’.
After having lured the victim into the Lounge, one gang member would shoot the unlucky fellow in the head and promptly wrap a towel around the wound, to prevent blood-flow. A second member would then thrust a blade into the heart, stemming the blood-flow further. The body would then be hung upside down and drained of all blood, before being dismembered and transported to a local dump in Brooklyn.
They are alleged to have committed somewhere between 75 and 200 murders this way, but the exact number is unknown as it proved to be incredibly effective. It was only when the FBI became suspicious of the number of people who went missing from the Gemini Lounge did they begin to unravel the goings-on. As a result of the raid, several of DeMeo’s associates were arrested and he lived his final days looking over his shoulder until January 1983 when his body was discovered in the trunk of a car.
6 Joseph ‘The Animal’ Barboza
Some of the nicknames on this list are interesting, while other are pretty damn boring. The derivation of ‘The Animal’ moniker gained by Joseph Barboza is downright brutal. While heavily intoxicated on evening, Mr Barboza was admonished by an elderly gentleman for being too loud and brash. Barboza didn’t take kindly to the advice of being better behaved and slapped the old man across the face. This caused his underboss, Harry Tameleo to step in, telling Barboza, in no uncertain terms, that he should never have slapped the man. In fact, he informed him that he should never touch the man with his hands ever again. So Barboza improvised, and proceeded to bite the man’s ear and chew on his cheek. You have to give him points for thinking on his feet.
A highly skilled chef, ‘The Animal’ somehow found himself entrenched in the New England Mafia in the 1930s where he executed contract killings on behalf of the Patriarca family. He is yet another hitman who decided his own life was worth more than his loyalty, entering into the Witness Protection Program after ratting on his former employers. Not that it did him much good – he was killed by four shots from a shotgun at close-range.
5 Jose Manuel Martinez
After being arrested and charged with executing nine contract killings, Jose Manuel Martinez must have thought ‘to hell with it’ and confessed to as many as 40 murders from 1980 to 2014. He is alleged to have worked as an enforcer for a Central California drug cartel.
Giving the impression of being “a polite and likeable individual” to authorities, his claims are nonetheless believed to be credible by investigators, given the intricate details he was able to divulge regarding some of his claimed crimes.
He is believed to have been involved in the shooting of a man who was driving to work one morning in 1980, two men who were shot (one of which survived) in 1982, and later that same year authorities believed he was responsible for a man who was discovered shot and stabbed to death after being missing for two days.
4 Carlos ‘Cumbamba’ Aranga
In the 1970s and 1980s, a crime epidemic swept Miami, Florida as a result of the rising cocaine trade. The Miami Drug War stained the city with a lawless and corrupt backdrop and was primarily created by ‘The Cocaine Godmother’ (also known as ‘The Black Widow’) Griselda Blanco.
She had an array of hitmen at her disposal, but one of those she favoured was Carlos ‘Cumbamba’ Aranga – a man the Miami Herald called ‘one of the most feared hitmen of Miami’s cocaine wars.’ His career history is reportedly peppered with machine-gun attacks, chainsaw killings and draining the blood from dismembered body parts.
His time as a contract killer was to come to an acrimonious end after he made a comical error of judgement during one particular hit. After he and his hit squad had unloaded 12 bullets into the head of Barry Seal, a key witness against Colombian cocaine Chief Jorge Ochoa, Cumbamba changed from the green surgical bottoms he was wearing into more casual trousers. For some reason, the casual trousers he chose were also green and, considering one witness had noticed the colour of the bottoms during the shooting, the killer was soon picked-up by the police after he’d had the misfortune to hit a deer during his getaway.
3 Harry ‘Happy’ Maione
It’s been a while since we took a visit to Murder, Inc. so let’s return there now with Harry ‘Happy’ Maione. As the Italian liaison to his Jewish associates within Murder Inc., he was well respected and demanded larger pay-outs than some of his lower-ranked colleagues.
Despite his apparent riches, he wore a constant scowl of disapproval, earning him the ironic and rubbish nickname ‘Happy’. He was thought to have committed around 12 killings personally, although placing an exact figure was often difficult for prosecutors due to the fact that many hitmen were present at the scene of most of their deadly deeds.
Having had a first degree murder charge overturned upon appeal, prosecutors were able to make a second charge stick and ‘Happy’ got to sit in Old Sparky, alongside his buddy Frank “The Dasher” Abbandando, in 1942.
2 Chester Wheeler Campbell
Chester Wheeler Campbell is unlike any other man on this list. Throughout his active years in Detroit during the 1970s, he assembled surveillance equipment that police departments would be envious of and artillery that could put task-forces to shame. He worked for the drug lords and mob factions of Motor City and became a man feared by both criminals and authorities alike.
After a seemingly innocuous near-miss collision with an on-duty police car in 1975, the power of information that Wheeler Campbell had gathered in a multitude of notebooks and photo albums was cracked wide open. A master manipulator who was able to adroitly extrude information (and even persuade others to do his work for him), he had gathered intel on virtually every judge, prosecutor, police officer and criminal in the Detroit area and beyond.
Described as equal part narcissist, ladies-man, spy, dealer and strong-arm, nobody is entirely sure how many murders he was involved in, but the notebooks alone alluded to 10 unsolved killings.
1 Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel
The handsome and charismatic Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel is not exactly an unknown quantity in the annals of mafia history. The Jewish American hoodlum, responsible for large parts of the Las Vegas strip development, is considered to be one of the most ‘infamous and feared gangsters of his day’ and was probably the first real celebrity mobster. Knowledge that is less widely known however, is the fact that he was a prolific gunman and personally involved in numerous killings himself.
During his time as a mobster – before he began to run his own operations and way before he helped to develop the famous Flamingo Hotel in Vegas – Siegel spent his time as a hitman and muscle-for-hire. Of his numerous misconducts, he allegedly took part in the infamous killing of Joe ‘The Boss’ Masseria – a big-time rival of his close friend Lucky Luciano and head of what is now called the Genovese crime family. And, returning to a running theme within this list, the very establishment and driving force of the deadly hit squad Murder, Inc. can be traced to Bugsy Siegel himself.