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Thomas Dewey

(1902-1971)
Gangbuster and Near Assassination Victim

Thomas Dewey was a knight in shining armor, the fearless gangbuster who almost took up residence in the White House. In the underworld, Dewey had a different reputation.

In The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, Luciano portrays Dewey as a man on the take, who demanded and got big bucks as “campaign contributions” to commute Luciano’s 30 to 50-year prison term. (Coauthor Richard Hammer, in his introduction, explains that much in the book “is angry, scurrilous, even defamatory.”)

Although the same charge was raised by Democrats at election time, no hard proof was ever offered to back up Luciano’s claim. However, a thorough analysis of Dewey’s record on crime has never been made and his dedicated biographers have had little interest in doing so. This does not mean that the Dewey record is not somewhat troublesome.

It was Dewey’s crimefighting prowess that moved him along politically — to the governorship of New York and the Republican candidacy for president in 1944 and 1948. Dewey’s career began as a Wall Street lawyer. As a prosecutor of errant industrialists, businessmen and financiers, he showed limited effectiveness. It was against gangsters that Dewey shone. In various enforcement positions — U.S. attorney, special prosecutor, district attorney — he clapped in prison or sent to the electric chair such gangsters as Luciano, Waxey Gordon, Gurrah Shapiro and Louis Lepke.

Before he nailed Luciano, Dewey had targeted Dutch Schultz, the king of Harlem policy rackets and many other illicit enterprises. The Dutchman combined a brilliant criminal mind with the off-the-wall acts of a flake, always fond of solving dilemmas with a gun. When Dewey’s men were closing in on his operations, an angry Schultz went before the national board of the crime syndicate to demand that Dewey be knocked off. This was counter to one of the founding rules of the organization, which Luciano later restated, “We wouldn’t hit newspaper guys or cops or DA’s. We don’t want the kind of trouble everybody’d get.” Led by the forces of Luciano and Lansky, the crime board voted Schultz down. “I still say he ought to be hit,” the mad Dutchman raged in defiance, “and if nobody else is gonna do it, I’m gonna hit him myself.”

If at first the mobsters thought Schultz was just letting off steam, they changed their minds in October 1935 when they learned Schultz had an actual murder plan in place. Dewey’s Fifth Avenue apartment was staked out by a man who posed each morning as the father of a child pedaling a velocipede. That man watched as Dewey and two bodyguards walked by to a neighborhood drugstore, from where the prosecutor called his office each morning from one of several booths. Dewey feared the mob might tap his home phone.

As the Schultz plan was supposed to work, the “caser” with the child would one morning be in the drugstore with a gun and silencer awaiting Dewey’s arrival. He would shoot Dewey as he entered a telephone booth and then walk out past the bodyguards waiting unsuspecting outside. Hurriedly the national board of the syndicate passed a death sentence on Schultz and he was murdered in a chop house in Newark, New Jersey, before he gave final okay to the Dewey rubout.

Dewey did not learn of his “almost assassination” until 1940 when it was revealed to him by Murder, Inc., prosecutor Burton Turkus. His eyes widened when mention was made of the proud papa with the child on the velocipede. After five years he apparently still remembered them.

By that time Dewey had had Luciano sent to prison for 30 to 50 years for compulsory prostitution, the longest sentence ever handed out for such an offense. After World War II, Dewey backed a parole board’s recommendation that Luciano be freed, an action for which Dewey was roundly attacked by political opponents. The move, Dewey insisted, was made because of Luciano’s aid to the war effort. It may well have been influenced by Luciano’s intercession in the Schultz plot. To his dying day Luciano insisted there was another reason — that after considerable negotiations, the mob had contributed $90,000 in small bills to Dewey’s campaign fund.

Although it would be unacceptable to give credence to such a source as Luciano without independent evidence to confirm the charge, there were in later years reasons enough to find Dewey’s actions unfortunate and troublesome. Luciano’s claims that, for instance, a New York police commissioner being on the take can be supported when it is shown that his acts were precisely what the mob wanted. In Dewey’s case this was not clear, although some in the underworld view his sending Louis Lepke to the electric chair in 1944 as having a link with the alleged payoff from the mob. At the time the right wing press, especially the Hearst New York Daily Mirror, speculated that Lepke, one of the top-ranking members of the national crime syndicate, tried to save his own life by offering Dewey “material . . . that would make him an unbeatable presidential candidate.” The thinly veiled reports inferred that Lepke could deliver to Dewey Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and President Franklin Roosevelt’s most important labor adviser, as the instigator of several crimes including one of murder. In any event, Dewey, after granting Lepke a 48- hour reprieve, did not deal with Lepke and let him go to his death.

Many Dewey sycophants lionized him for that act. Prosecutor Turkus said, “To the credit of Dewey, he did resist and he did reject. He would not do business with Lepke, even with the greatest prize on earth at stake — the presidency of the United States.” But had Dewey granted clemency to Lepke, it more than likely would have guaranteed his defeat. If he had gotten Hillman — assuming Lepke could deliver him — the price essentially would have been letting such men as Luciano, Shapiro, Adonis, Costello, Lansky and Anastasia off the hook on murder charges. Indeed, Lepke indicated he would leak no mob information. To let Lepke live for the price of Hillman alone (although Hillman was never directly named) would appear a politically motivated effort to dethrone FDR by nailing his chief labor adviser.

There are other explanations to the incident, especially that Lepke might not have been able to hand Dewey the labor leader because he had no evidence. When Lepke was strapped into the electric chair, it was likely that the biggest sighs of relief came not from Hillman or the White House, but from the ruling board of the crime syndicate. They inherited Lepke’s racket empire and none of the headaches he might have given them.

By the early 1950s, Dewey, disappointed at the end of his White House hopes, also exhibited considerable disinterest with his racket-busting past. His actions regarding the Kefauver crime investigation hearings in 1950 and 1951 were disturbing even to Republicans on the committee and in Congress. Dewey refused to appear at the New York City sessions although he said that if given enough advance notice he might offer the senators a few minutes of his valuable time in his private office. The offer made no allowances for the committee’s staff or counsel, investigators, court stenographers and so on, and under these circumstances, they declined leaving New York City for Albany. In refusing to appear — a remarkable position for a racketbuster who had constantly hauled witnesses in for questioning and declared an innocent man would want to help official inquiries — Dewey’s behavior differed little, many held, from the actions of mobsters thumbing their noses at the U.S. Senate.

The committee wanted to question Dewey about the facts surrounding Luciano’s pardon, an action he had never been obliged to answer in an official forum, and also about the wide-open gambling in Saratoga in upstate New York, where evidence indicated the rackets and the fix were operated by Meyer Lansky. From the evidence the committee did hear, Governor Dewey was just about the most uninformed man in the state on gambling in Saratoga. His superintendent of the state police, John A. Gaffney, said it was not his responsibility to do anything about gambling there or pass along information about it to Dewey. However, even deprived of police intelligence, Dewey undoubtedly had to know what was going on in Saratoga, a watering hole for the social set in which Dewey mixed. Yet Dewey’s ignorance about gambling was not repeated concerning bailiwicks other than in his own state, if the words of gambling expert John Scarne are to be accepted. Scarne related he once asked Dewey at a Republican rally in the Waldorf Astoria why he had cold-shouldered the committee. Dewey responded, according to Scarne, more or less in the following words: “Scarne, I knew that when I issued that invitation to Kefauver and his four Senate stooges, they would never show up in Albany. They knew that I knew that the Committee members’ five states had more political corruption, gambling, casinos, bookies and houses of prostitution than any other five states in the country.”

Thus we are left with a governor of New York knowing more about crime and corruption in such states as Tennessee, Maryland, Wisconsin, Wyoming and New Hampshire (of all places) than in his own.

Had the Dewey misadventures ended with Kefauver, his acts still might be construed as nothing more than political competitiveness, even though a number of other governors from both parties — Stevenson of Illinois, Lausche of Ohio and Youngdahl of Minnesota — had eagerly cooperated. By the early 1960s, however, Dewey had become more accommodating than ever about mob gangsters and the way they operated in the new gambling scene. The former racketbuster became a major stockholder in Mary Carter Paints, which somehow just seemed to have an interest in gambling in the Bahamas. And on Grand Bahama the man pulling the strings for Mary Carter Paints (later renamed Resorts International) was none other than Meyer Lansky, who had long before learned how to invest secretly in companies through the wonders of Swiss bank accounts. While this did not disturb Dewey, it appears to have upset reporters for the Wall Street Journal who uncovered the seamy story of political payoffs on the islands and won a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts.

Despite considerable turmoil Mary Carter still went ahead. The casinos that opened were filled with familiar racket faces behind the tables and in the management offices, and the manager of one of the clubs was Lansky’s man Eddie Cellini (brother of Dino Cellini who ran Lansky’s interests in England).

It was a rather sorry finale for Tom Dewey. “From racketbuster to racketbacker,” someone said. It may have been a harsh verdict, but in a field where some behavior is required to match that of Caesar’s wife, Dewey could not be said to have won a cigar.