It was a grim scene in New York history -- the execution of the chief executioner.
In the days when the lives and deaths of gangsters made big news, Albert Anastasia, known as the Chief Executioner of Murder Incorporated, was mowed down in a Midtown barbershop.
It happened on Oct. 25, 1957, and, as a young reporter, I covered the story.
Anastasia entered the shop on the ground floor of the Park Sheraton Hotel on 56th Street and 7th Avenue. He sat down in the chair and was covered with a striped barber’s cloth. As his long-time barber Joe Bocchino started clipping his hair, a manicurist sat down next to the chair and began working on his nails. Jimmy, the shoeshine boy, slapped polish down on his brown, wing-tipped shoes.
Anastasia was the scourge of the underworld. He dominated the Gambino crime family and the organization called Murder Inc., which took care of hits for the mob. A lesser mobster, Abe Reles, estimated that Murder Inc. had been responsible for 63 killings on Anastasia's orders.
On that October morning at about 10:15, as the barber went to work, two short, stout men wearing fedoras and sunglasses entered the shop. They waved people away from the chair and then blasted away at Anastasia with .38-caliber revolvers. The dozing Anastasia’s eyes popped open just before the first shot was fired. He fell to the floor among his own hair cuttings. As the bullets flew, bottles of hair tonic were shattered.
I got to the scene a few minutes after the news moved on the police scanner. Newspaper and wire service reporters were gathering. I saw Tony Anastasia, brother of the murdered man and leader of the longshoremen on Brooklyn’s docks, arrive. He was sobbing. Then the chief of detectives, James Leggett, known to reporters as "Lefty Leggett," appeared. I was the only newsman with a TV camera to be there.
The newspaper and wire service reporters groused. They didn’t want to be on camera. However, some knew me from my days on the World-Telegram and their muttering subsided. But Chief Leggett wasn’t as kind. He hated TV -- and didn’t want any part of it. He turned his back to our camera and addressed the print reporters huddled in a semi-circle around him. I sneaked my microphone into the crowd.
I was determined to get Leggett to turn around, so I figured I had to ask him a brilliant question. "Chief," I asked, "Do you have any idea of a motive yet?"
In a sarcastic tone he replied, "Yeah, somebody didn’t like him."
So I decided on an equally brilliant follow-up. "Do you have any leads yet?" I asked. In an equally sarcastic tone, Leggett said, "Well, we got a dead body, ain’t we?" He didn’t turn around for the brilliant follow-up either.
Leggett’s inflexible rule at the time, followed by others among the NYPD’s top brass, seemed to be. "Don’t talk to Pressman and don’t talk to his camera either."
Looking back at those days I am amazed at the changes wrought over the years. There came a time when police supervisors and all public officials welcomed the intrusion of cameras. And the procession of gangsters that passed through New York in those years, including Anastasia, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Joey Gallo and many others, has been virtually forgotten.
It's the 52nd anniversary of this gangland assassination. We’re in the era of gotcha journalism and political pontificators. Perhaps it’s a finer form of journalism than the kind with which I grew up. But at least there was no doubt then about who the bad guys were.