Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Charles Workman "A Bugs Life"
By Allan May
When I read the biographies of criminals in Jay Nash’s “World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime,” and Carl Sifakis’s “Mafia Encyclopedia,” I was amazed at the number of murders attributed to certain individuals. I sometimes think that if all these murders were really committed there wouldn’t be anyone left on the planet (a slight exaggeration). One of the first things I teach in my classes is my definition of Organized Crime – “It is a history its participants would rather see left unwritten.” With all the uncertainty, rumor, and speculation that’s reported about organized crime history, it is difficult at times to determine fact from fiction.
One of the prolific murderers, who supposedly racked up an impressive body count, was Charles (Charley or Charlie) Workman. Known as “The Bug,” “The Powerhouse,” and “Handsome Charlie,” this curly-haired, “casual” killer was rumored to have dispatched twenty individuals.
Workman, like many other criminals of the early 20th Century, was from Manhattan’s teeming Lower East Side. Born in 1908, he was the second of seven children. He quit school in the ninth grade at the age of seventeen. Workman earned a reputation as a neighborhood bully and was feared for his “rough tactics.” At eighteen he was arrested for stealing a $12 bundle of cotton thread from a truck parked on Broadway, one year later he was arrested for shooting a man in a dispute over $20. The victim of the shooting refused to identify Workman as his assailant, however; he was sent to the New York State Reformatory for violating parole in the cotton theft case. Released seven months later, he found himself on his way back to prison for parole violations after he was found in the company of “questionable characters,” and had failed to get a job. After three more months in stir, he was out and back again for the same reason. This stint in prison would be his last serious jail time for the next twelve years.
This didn’t mean that Workman had become a model citizen. He was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in 1932. The following year he sucker punched an off duty police officer after a traffic altercation. He was even nailed with the popular “vagrancy” charge in 1939 when the police wanted to question him on the whereabouts of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Jake Shapiro.
At some point during this period, Workman became a gun-for-hire on the Brooklyn killing squad that became infamous as Murder, Inc. According to Paul Sann in his classic tale of, “Kill the Dutchman,” Workman was paid a stipend of $125 a week, and enjoyed the fringe benefit of being able to “sweep out the pockets” of his victims. He states Workman was one of the “cartels” top killers.
In July 1935, New York Governor Harry Lehman appointed Thomas E. Dewey Special Prosecutor, with orders to cleanup New York. The effort began, according to Dewey, “with no staff, no office, no police, no budget appropriation, and … no sense whatever.” Dewey’s spirited attack took the underworld by surprise and by October they were discussing a plan to kill him.
Harlem number’s kingpin, Dutch Schultz, was one of the first hoodlums to get into Dewey’s cross hairs. When Schultz insisted that the commission carry out their plans to kill Dewey, or he would, Lucky Luciano, afraid of drawing to much legal heat from the hit, decided to do away with the Dutchman instead.
When the assignment came down to eliminate Schultz, Workman, with his yeoman reputation, was selected over other gang stalwarts such as Abe Reles, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, Allie Tannenbaum, Buggsy Goldstein, or Happy Maione. It was never clear how Workman had earned his “yeoman” reputation. I have only seen one other murder attributed to him, outside of the Schultz crew slaughter, and that occurred almost four years after the Dutchman’s demise.
Workman’s partners on the hit were Murder, Inc. lieutenant Emmanuel “Mendy” Weiss, and a driver identified only by his nickname, “Piggy.” On the night of the murders, October 23, 1935, we only know what happened through second hand knowledge of the killings. Workman and Weiss never revealed the events of that evening, but they had conversations with other members of Murder, Inc. who later ratted out their compatriots to the authorities.
According to Burton Turkus, the assistant prosecutor who wrote “Murder, Inc.,” and prosecuted several of the members, Workman “strolled” into the Palace Chophouse in Newark, while Weiss provided cover and “Piggy” sat poised at the wheel. Workman walked the length of the bar and flipped open the door to the men’s room. Inside was a man washing his hands who Workman thought was a Schultz bodyguard. He shot the man who immediately dropped to the floor.
Workman then darted into the back dining room and opened up on the Schultz men – Lulu Rosencrantz, Abe Landau and Abbadabba Berman – killing all three. Not seeing Dutch on the floor, Workman realized he must have been the man washing his hands. He then went back to rifle Schultz’s pockets.
Paul Sann had a different description of the shooting. He states that both Weiss and Workman first blasted away at the three men in the dining room. Then, after not spotting Schultz, Workman went into the men’s room and found Dutch relieving himself at the urinal. Workman fired twice and one bullet hit Schultz causing a mortal wound.
There are some amazing discrepancies in both stories that I will cover in a later column. However, when the gunfire stopped, another gangland saga was created.
After Workman supposedly rifled the Dutchman’s pockets for cash, he ran back to the getaway car. Weiss, “Piggy” and the car were no where in sight. This left Workman the task of making it back to the city alone, which he claimed to have accomplished by escaping through back yards and following the railroad tracks home.
Workman was livid and demanded Weiss’s life for abandoning him. In a sit-down with Buchalter, each man pled his case. Weiss’s argument for leaving was that the shooting was mob business and when it was over it was time to split. Workman’s robbing of the dying Schultz was personal business and he and “Piggy” should not have put themselves in jeopardy by having to wait for Workman to profit from the kill. Buchalter sided with his lieutenant, Weiss.
In 1940, Abe Reles began ratting out the Murder, Inc. gang, One of the first trials to get underway was Workman’s. The trial, held in Newark, started on June 2, 1941 and began with testimony from Reles and Tannenbaum. It came to an abrupt halt eight days later. On June 9, Louis Cohen testified that he had employed Workman from 1935 to 1937 as a manager and car dispatcher at his funeral home. This was Workman’s alibi for the Schultz murder planning sessions he was said to be at. After Cohen left the witness stand, he was “shadowed” by Prosecutor William O’Dwyer’s men and taken to the police department where he admitted to the false testimony.
Cohen was then driven home by a police officer who remained with him the entire night and returned him to the courthouse the following morning. As Cohen was called back to the witness stand, Workman jumped up and shouted, “Mr. Cohen! I don’t want you to…” Workman didn’t finish his sentence as courtroom attendants pounced on him.
“May I take the stand your honor,” Workman yelled out. “Please let me take the stand.”
“Not now,” replied the judge.
Once back on the stand, Cohen revealed that he had lied the previous day.
When court reconvened after lunch, Workman’s attorney announced that his client wanted to change his plea to “no defense.” Common Pleas Judge Daniel Brennan accepted the plea, dismissed the jury, and promptly sentenced Workman to life in prison.
As he was being taken away, the guards gave him a moment with his brother Abe. While Abe sobbed in his arms, Workman told him, “Whatever you do, live honestly. If you make 20 cents a day, make it do you. If you can’t make an honest living, make the government support you. Keep away from the gangs and don’t be a wise guy. Take care of Mama and Papa and watch ‘Itchy’ (a younger brother). He needs watching.”
Workman was sent to Trenton State Prison. He was back in the news in 1942, when he offered his services to the United States Navy to go on a suicide mission to hit Japan and avenge Pearl Harbor. His patriotic request was denied. A model prisoner, Workman was transferred to Rahway State Prison Farm in 1952. When he was paroled in 1964 after almost 23 years in prison, his brother Abe and his wife Catherine met him at the prison. He found work, of all places, in the garment district that Lepke once ruled.
Workman never discussed his past life, except to say, “if I knew then, what I know now.” He kept the details of the Schultz murders to himself, and apparently the 16 other killings that were attributed to him.
Copyright A. R. May 1999