Reles later turned government witness and sent several members of Murder, Inc. to the electric chair. It is widely believed that Reles' death from falling through a window while in police custody was a hit placed by the American Mafia, as he was set to testify against Mangano crime family underboss and future boss Albert Anastasia.
Abraham Reles, the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants, was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, on May 10, 1906. His father worked in one of the garment trades until sometime during the Great Depression. His father's last known occupation was peddling knishes on the streets of Brownsville. His full formal Hebrew name was Elkanah ben Shimon.
Reles attended school through the 8th grade. After leaving school, he began hanging out at pool rooms and candy stores in and around Brownsville. He soon teamed up with two of his childhood friends, Martin "Buggsy" Goldstein and Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss, who eventually rose to power with him in the group conventionally known as Murder, Inc. His first arrest came in 1921 for stealing $2 worth of gum from a vending machine, and he was sent to the Children's Village at Dobbs Ferry, New York, for four months.
Reles's small physical size did not deter him from committing ruthless acts of violence. When carrying out murders, his weapon of choice was an ice pick, which he would ram through his victim's ear right into the brain. Reles became so adept at using the ice pick that many of his murder victims were thought to have died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Reles became known as a particularly cold-blooded and psychopathic murderer. On one occasion, in broad daylight, he attacked a worker at a car wash for failing to clean a smudge from the fender of his car. Another time, Reles killed a parking lot attendant for failing to fetch his car fast enough. On another occasion, he brought a guest to his mother-in-law's home for supper. When his mother-in-law retired after the meal, Reles and another gang member murdered the guest and then removed the body.
Reles reportedly got the nickname "Kid Twister" after an earlier New York City Jewish gangster, Max "Kid Twist" Zwerbach. Another theory behind the moniker is that it was the name of his favorite candy. Yet another theory is that the nickname described his method for strangling people. Reles was a bootlegger who rarely touched alcohol. Reles lived at 649 East 91st Street in Brooklyn, before moving to 9102 Avenue A, also in Brooklyn.
During the Prohibition days of the 1920s, while still teenagers, Reles and Goldstein went to work for the Shapiro brothers, who ran the Brooklyn rackets. Soon Reles and Goldstein were committing petty crimes for the brothers. On one such occasion, Reles was caught and sentenced to two years in an upstate New York juvenile institution. The Shapiro brothers failed to help Reles, prompting Reles to plan revenge.
After his release, Reles, Goldstein, and George Defeo entered the slot machine business, the province of the Shapiro Brothers. Through Defeo's connections, Reles and Goldstein were able to make a deal with the influential crime lord Meyer Lansky, who wanted access to the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn and thus agreed. Both parties prospered: Lansky was able to get sizable footholds in Brownsville, East New York, and Ocean Hill, while Reles gained the backing he needed to keep both his business and himself alive.
Reles, Goldstein, and Strauss were partners in all of their criminal activities, which had primarily been the slot machine business and quickly expanded to include loan sharking, crap games, and labor slugging in connection with union activities, especially the restaurant union.
The slot machine business thrived and soon Reles and Goldstein were on the Shapiros' hit list. One night, the two men received a phone call from a "friend" saying that the Shapiros had left their East New York headquarters. Hopping into a car with Defeo, they headed to East New York. However, when they reached the Shapiro's building, the three men were ambushed. Reles and Goldstein were wounded, but all three managed to escape. In the meantime, Meyer Shapiro abducted Reles' girlfriend and dragged her to an open field, where he beat and raped her.
To avenge the ambush and his girlfriend's rape, Reles enlisted the help of fellow Murder, Inc. killers Frank "Dasher" Abbandando and Harry "Happy" Maione. The two killers were glad to help: they hoped to kill the Shapiro brothers and take over some of their operations. After several futile attempts by each side to eradicate the other, the Murder, Inc. group finally caught up with Irving Shapiro.
On that occasion, Reles dragged Irving from the hallway of his home out into the street. Reles beat, kicked, and then shot Irving numerous times, killing him. Two months later, Reles met Meyer Shapiro on the street and killed him by shooting him in the face. Another three years elapsed before Reles finally got the last Shapiro brother, William. William was abducted off the street and taken to a gang hideout. Once there, he was beaten nearly to death, stuffed into a sack, and driven out to the Canarsie section of Brooklyn and buried. Before the gang could finish burying William, a passerby spotted them and they had to flee the scene. William Shapiro's body was exhumed shortly thereafter, and after being autopsied it was determined that he had been buried alive.
In 1940, Reles was implicated in a number of killings. Realizing that he faced execution if convicted, Reles became a government witness. Reles implicated his boss Lepke Buchalter in the murder of Brooklyn candy store owner Joseph Rosen; Buchalter was eventually convicted and executed for this crime. Reles's information also implicated Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss, Harry Maione, Harry Strauss, Frank Abbandando, Irving ("Knadles" and "the Plug") Nitzberg, and even his own childhood friend "Buggsy" Goldstein, who were all convicted and executed. Reles' next target was Albert Anastasia, who had been co-chief of operations of Murder, Inc.
Reles was to implicate Anastasia in the murder of union longshoreman Pete Panto. However, unlike other members of Murder, Inc., Anastasia was a high-ranking member of the Cosa Nostra. The trial, based solely on Reles' testimony, was set for November 12, 1941. Until then, Reles was under constant guard by police detectives at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island.
In the early morning of November 12, 1941, with police guarding the door, Reles fell to his death from a window of room 623 at the Half Moon Hotel.
It appeared he may have been trying to lower himself to the fifth floor window underneath using two bedsheets tied together and then to a four-foot length of wire that had been attached to a valve in his room. However, the wire knot to the valve became undone, and he fell to a second floor outdoor landing, and newspapers dubbed him "The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn't Fly".
The following day, five police officers who had been guarding him were demoted.
There was widespread speculation that he had been thrown or pushed out of the window and the room had been arranged to look like he was trying to escape. Reles had shown no inclination to escape from protective custody, and indeed had demonstrated a fear of even being out of earshot of the police.
On the day of his death he was to have testified against Anastasia, a high-ranking member of the Cosa Nostra, and the trial was based solely on Reles' testimony. Frank Costello reportedly raised $100,000 to bribe these guards to kill Reles. It is alleged that Charles Burns, one of the police bodyguards, was also involved in the disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater in 1930.
However, in 1951, a grand jury concluded it was an accidental death during an attempted escape.
Reles is buried in Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in Glendale, Queens.