It’s never a good thing when a femme fatale is called the “The Kiss of Death.” Yet never has this moniker been more appropriate than in the case of Evelyn Mittelman, a little lass from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
Little is known about Mittelman’s early life except that at the tender age of 16, she was already one of the most sought-after broads in the entire borough of Brooklyn. In 1941, after Mittelman had been thrust into the spotlight as a material witness in the trial of her boyfriend, Murder Incorporated’s Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, veteran New York Daily Mirror columnist Eddie Zeltner said, “I knew Evelyn ten years ago, when she was barely sixteen. She was a gorgeous blond who used to come from Williamsburg to Coney Island to swim, and dance in the cellar clubs which are grammar schools for gangsters.”
Two years later, Evelyn surfaced in California with a beau named Hy Miller. Hy was crazy about Evelyn, but Evelyn was not so crazy about Hy. One night, Hy took Evelyn to a dance and she met another young chap who thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Because she was obviously flirting with the newcomer, whose name is unknown, Hy said something to this fellow, and something even worse to Evelyn. The anonymous chap took umbrage at Hy insulting Evelyn, and the final result was that Hy became very dead. It is not known if Evelyn took up with the victor for any period of time, or not. Still, Hy was the first notch on the “Kiss of Death’s” garter belt.
A few years later, Evelyn showed up in Brooklyn with her new love: Robert Feurer. It was at a dance she attended with Feurer that she met up with a nasty piece of work named Sol Goldstein, known in the rackets as “Jack.” Goldstein was famous on the docks of New York City as one of the biggest fish wholesalers in the business. Of course, in order to keep being prosperous on the docks, Goldstein went up against, and aligned himself with, people as nasty as he was; some even nastier. But we’ll get to that later.
As Goldstein cozied up to Evelyn at the dance, smoke began to blast from Feurer’s ears. One word led to another, and soon Feurer said a few things to Evelyn that were not quite so nice. Goldstein burst to Evelyn’s rescue, and when the dust settled, Feurer was now quite dead too (see a pattern here?).
This is getting a little tiresome, but one night Goldstein brought Evelyn to another dance, where she met Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss (called “Pep” by his friends). Strauss, considered a tall, dark and handsome lug by the opposite sex, was the top killer in a cozy little group called Murder Incorporated, run by Louis “Lepke Buchalter and Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastasia. It was said, that although Strauss was paid tidy sums for killing people, whom his bosses said needed to be killed throughout America, he was so good at what he did because, as Brooklyn District Attorney William O’Dwyer once said, “Strauss killed people just for the lust to kill.”
When an out-of-town killing was assigned to Lepke, it was usually Strauss whom Lepke entrusted to do the job. When these occasions arose, Strauss packed a bag with a shirt, change of socks, underwear, a gun, length of rope, and an ice pick, just in case. Most times, Strauss didn’t even know the name of his target, and he didn’t care either. As long as the dude wound up dead, that was enough for Strauss.
On the night Strauss met Evelyn at the dance, he told both Evelyn and Goldstein that he considered Evelyn to be his new girlfriend. Evelyn didn’t protest too much, but Goldstein did. Strauss told Goldstein they shouldn’t fight in front of a woman, and would Goldstein agree to go with Strauss to a nearby poolroom to settle the dispute of who should be the top man in Evelyn’s life. Goldstein agreed, and the next thing he knew, Strauss was re-arranging the features on Goldstein’s face with a mean pool stick. The result was — Goldstein was out, and Evelyn was the girlfriend of one of the most sadistic killers in America. For some reason, Strauss let Goldstein live on that occasion, but he would rectify that situation later on, as part of his daily duties for Murder Inc.
Goldstein’s mother was quite happy her son was away from the likes of Evelyn Mittelman. Mom Goldstein was plain giddy, when soon after the dust-up with Strauss, Goldstein met a nice young girl named Helen, who was the daughter of a Cleveland used-car dealer.
Goldstein’s mom told his sister, “Sol is away from the tough boys at last.”
Well, not quite mom.
In the summer of 1936, Mom Goldstein received the wonderful news that her son and Helen had tied the knot and were honeymooning at Glen Wild, a small, romantic place in the Catskill mountains in upstate New York. Weeks went by without hearing from the newlyweds again, and after three months, Mom Goldstein began to fret a bit. After much sleuthing, Mom Goldstein finally found Helen.
“What happened, I haven’t heard from Sol in months,” she said to Helen.
Helen started dripping crocodile tears. “I don’t know,” she said. “We were in our room getting dressed for a Saturday night dance, when the phone rang and he answered it. A little while later some men drove up. Sol said he’d be back in a few minutes. I haven’t seen him since.”
Mom Goldstein decided to make a trip to the Catskills to see if she could find any trace of her son. When she arrived in the Catskills, Mom Goldstein could not find a trace of her son, but she did find Helen hosting a gay party not far from Glen Wild where she had honeymooned with Sol. Mom Goldstein told Helen that Helen was not behaving like an aggrieved wife should behave.
Helen coldly told Mom Goldstein, “Sol is dead. He was thrown in a lake.”
It wasn’t until four years later that Mom Goldstein and the government found out exactly what happened to Sol “Jack” Goldstein.
It all started with Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, one of the higher-ups in Murder Incorporated, becoming a government informer. Abe knew who killed who and how, and with his photographic memory, he told the government about scores of murders, including the untimely demise of Sol Goldstein. Two other Murder Incorporated killers, Allie “Tick Tock” Tannenbaum and Pretty Levine corroborated everything Reles said about the Goldstein hit.
It seemed that the contract on Goldstein was put out by Joe “Zocks” Lanza, the big boss on the Manhattan docks, and the highly-profitable Fulton Fish Market. Lanza had been indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for the “monopolistic control of fish sent to New York City from Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Canada.” Lanza was tried and found guilty, but he won an appeal to have a second trial on the same charges. While planning his defense, Lanza realized that Goldstein, who had some pull on the docks himself, knew enough information about Lanza’s waterfront rackets to put Lanza away for a very long time, if not land Lanza right into the electric chair. Lanza contacted Louis Capone, another Murder Incorporated big shot, to put the process in motion of eliminating Goldstein from the possible witness list at Lanza’s second trial.
At this point in time, Goldstein and Helen were experiencing their first few days of married bliss in the Catskills. Capone (no relation to Al Capone) contacted Pretty Levine and told him, “Go up to Loch Sheldrake in the mountains, where Pep is staying to do some work. Pep will tell you.”
Levine jumped into a car with another Murder Inc. operative named Dukey Maffetore, and drove to the Catskills, where they located Strauss and two more Murder Inc. killers — Mikey Syckoff and Jack Cutler. Strauss knew since his face and reputation were well known to Goldstein, he could not be in on the snatch. But Goldstein had never met Levine, Syckoff, and Cutler, so Strauss told them what to do.
“Just snatch the bum and bring him here,” Strauss told them. “Don’t knock him off.”
It was approximately 9 p.m. on August 3, 1936, when Goldstein received a phone call in the honeymoon cottage he was sharing with wife Helen. Even though Goldstein was dressed to the nines, as was Helen for that night’s dance, whatever the caller told Goldstein was enough for him to leave the side of his lovely bride, for what he thought would only be an few minutes at most. At least, that’s what Goldstein told Helen. Helen spotted a car driving up to the cottage with three men sitting inside. She watched as her husband got into the back seat next to Levine.
Within a few seconds, Levine had laid Goldstein out cold with a hammer. Soon, the three men deposited Goldstein at Strauss’ lakeside cottage, where Strauss personally killed Goldstein, tied him up with rope, and wrapped him in a blanket. The men then dragged Goldstein’s dead body to the lake’s shore, where Tannenbaum and Jack Drucker, another Murder Inc. operative, were waiting in a rowboat. The two men rowed out to the deepest part of the lake and dropped Goldstein’s body into the drink.
In cases like this, it was quite unusual for a man like Strauss to order the murder victim be brought to him alive, so that Strauss could finish him off personally. But this was personal to Strauss, not just business. Goldstein had been Evelyn’s boyfriend, and Strauss liked it better when Evelyn’s ex-boyfriends were rendered quite dead. Not that Strauss feared Evelyn would ever go back to Goldstein, but why not eliminate the possibility anyway?
Chalk up Goldstein as Evelyn Mittelman’s dead boyfriend number three.
The next five years passed by without any more dead boyfriends. Evelyn was quite devoted to Strauss, so much so, to please Strauss, she dyed her blond hair to raven brunette.
In 1940, Strauss was arrested on information given to the feds by Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. District Attorney Burton Turkus had enough evidence to implicate Strauss in at least six murders, but the most solid case Turkus had on Strauss was the murder of a nobody named George Ruddick, who was rumored to have been talking to the law.
While Strauss stewed in jail, he received repeated visits by a woman described by Turkus as “a striking brunette,” who signed herself in as Strauss’ sister “Eve.” Turkus as his crew noticed absolutely no family resemblance between Strauss and “Eve,” so on her next visit, they picked her up and found out that “Eve” was none other than Evelyn Mittelman. At the time of her arrest, Evelyn was wearing three diamond rings and a diamond bracelet.
“Pep (Strauss) gave them to me,” Evelyn told Turkus. Then she said something so remarkably stupid, Turkus couldn’t believe his ears. “And I have several more trinkets like this in a bank vault.”
Turkus checked, and sure enough, there was enough jewelry in the safety deposit box to open up a small jewelry store. Turkus immediately held Evelyn as a material witness, with bail set at $50,000, and he commenced getting as much information out of her as he could. However, Evelyn immediately lawyered up, and subsequently clammed up. Turkus figured, with all she knew about Strauss and his pals at Murder Incorporated, she was as good as dead if she were set free on the mean streets of Brooklyn.
At her bail haring, her lawyer argued fiercely for a bail reduction.
“She’s a good decent girl,” her lawyer said.
Turkus told the judge, “She knows all there is to know about how the syndicate works.”
Her lawyer countered with, “Can’t your honor conceive that this young lady, even though she may be the sweetheart of this man, might be the one person in the whole world who would know nothing at all of what he is doing?”
The judge said he could conceive of no such thing, so Evelyn’s bail stood at $50,000. No one rushed to put up the money to get her out, so Evelyn stood in jail a full six weeks while Turkus cemented his case against Strauss.
As Strauss’ trial neared, Evelyn realized that the only way she could save her man was to convince Strauss to do what Reles had done: become an informant. Evelyn asked Turkus for permission to speak to Strauss to try to convince him to turn canary. Amazingly, Strauss agreed to do exactly that, on one condition: “I got to walk out clean.”
Turkus knew it was impossible to set a man free after he had committed as many as 50-100 murders himself, so Strauss’ offer to sing was rejected.
During Strauss’ trial, he acted like a lunatic. Strauss refused to shave and came into court with a long, scraggly beard, looking like a bum on the Bowery.
Strauss even went so far as to chew on his lawyer’s briefcase straps. But it was to no avail. Strauss was found guilty of the murder of George Ruddick (Turkus said he could have tried Strauss and have him found guilty of at least six other murders). And as a result, Strauss was sentenced to sit in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.
On June 12, 1941, the day of his execution, Strauss’ last visitor was Evelyn Mittelman. Evelyn kissed Strauss goodbye, and soon he was dead too.
And as far as we can determine, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss was the fourth and final victim of “The Kiss of Death.”