The Mysterious Death of Abner Zwillman
John William Tuohy
New Jersey Mob leader. AKA Longy. Born July 27, 1899 in Newark New Jersey. Died February 27, 1959. At over six feet two inches tall Zwillman was, understandably, dubbed Longy. (Originally spelled ‘Longie’) Zwillman grew up in Newark's old Third Ward, on Charlton Street.
He left school at 14, two month before he graduated, to help his mother support his six brothers and sisters after his father died suddenly. For a brief time, he waited tables at a Prince Street café and then selling produce from a rented horse and wagon.
Supposedly, Zwillman’s boyhood gang, The Happy Ramblers, earned the gratitude of local Jewish peddlers because they defended them against marauding bands of Irish thugs who shared the neighborhood with them. Zwillman was well aware of his ancient roots. When an old friend named Heimi Kugel died, Zwillman would not view the body in the casket.
Slightly upset, Kugel’s son asked why and Zwillman, whose mother’s name was Cohen, responded . "I can't, Jerry," long said. "I'm a Cohen". Then explained that as a descendant of the ancient priestly class, he was not allowed to be in the same room with the dead body
Zwillman soon turned to selling lottery tickets and eventually made enough money to open his own gamblers bank, that is, underwriting his own numbers. Within a few years, he ran the numbers racket in Newark.
When prohibition came, he worked for Waxey Gordon and then broke off on his own, buying three World War 1 surplus armored trucks to offload his whisky shipments from Canada. He was arrested several times for assault and battery, and once in 1930 he was convicted of atrocious assault and battery when he beat a numbers runner almost to death.
Zwillman ran one of the biggest and most profitable bootlegging operations in the United States, importing nearly forty per cent of all the illegal alcohol consumed in the United States during prohibition.
The newspapers dubbed him “the Al Capone of New Jersey” but in reality, the intelligent and sophisticated Zwillman was very far from simple and brutish Capone. Unlike most prohibition operation, Zwillman reinvested in his business. He poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into political protection, from Massachusetts to Maryland.
In the 1949 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, Zwillman, through an intermediary, George Kesselhant, assistant to the Democratic leader of Essex County, N. J., offered Democratic candidate Elmer Wene $300,000 in return for the right to approve the man appointed attorney general of the State of New Jersey.
The offer was that "Zwillman would go for $300,000 to Senator Wene because Zwillman does not want the Wene administration to hurt him that is all he asks." Wene, who was running his campaign on virtually no money, turned the offer down without even permitting the proposal to be fully explained to him. Wene was not elected. His Republican opponent received a heavy vote in Hudson County, a county that had always been overwhelmingly Democratic.
On June 26, 1949, a testimonial dinner was given for Harold Krieger, assistant corporation counsel of Jersey City and a close friend of Zwillman's. This dinner was held at the Essex House, Newark, and was attended by about 1,100 people, mainly labor leaders and politicians. Krieger received, among other gifts, a gold-plated typewriter and. money toward a new car. The toastmaster was Harold G. Hoffman, former Governor of New Jersey, admitted he appeared at the dinner because Zwillman asked him to come.
He expanded, in partnerships with Mafia heavyweights like Frank Costello and Charlie Luciano in Manhattan, Joe Adonis in Brooklyn, Willie Moretti in Jersey and Jerry Catena who was building what would become the Genovese Crime Family. Together they owned prostitution rings and labor extortion schemes. Zwillman ran his empire out of a small office/apartment at the Riviera Hotel at the corner of High Street and Clinton Avenue in his old neighborhood. Nor did he ever travel from his beloved Third Ward. As late as 1958, Charles Handler, whose father ran a saloon where the Third Ward Political Club was headquartered, represented several of Zwillman’s legitimate companies. Handler was also corporation counsel of the city of Newark. Zwillman’s inside operator were all New Jersey born as well including "Doc" Stacher, (Rosen) Willy Tiplitz, Danny Zwillman, (Longy’s cousin) and Charles Haber (AKA Charles Haberman)
Zwillman and his gang were part of the so-called Reinfeld Syndicate, which was run by Joseph Reinfeld and financed by the Bronfman family, which ran the Bronfman Distillery of Canada. The government termed described the venture as the "high seas operation." The group brought in liquor from Canada, France, England, Scotland, and Germany to the little St. Lawrence River island of St. Pierre et Miquelon and there transshipping it to "rum runway" 12 miles off Sandy Hook.
At that point, Zwillman’s Mafia partners took over and ran the liquor into the United States. The payment from the Bronfman’s was about $100,000 and $500,000 per shipment and frequently paid in gold, to Cuba "so that in case this country got too hot for them, they would have something if they had to flee."
Years after repeal, in 1942, several members of the Reinfeld Syndicate, including Zwillman, sold their liquor importing business, Browne-Vintners was sold to Seagram’s for $7,500,000. Zwillman was alleged to have had a 50 percent stock interest in the company from its inception, but received only 16 percent of the proceeds of dissolution. He was later paid an additional $308,000 to Zwillman.
After Prohibition, Zwillman expanded west and invested in Hollywood- show business-related rackets. Essentially, Zwillman and his partners controlled most of the blue-collar unions within the motion picture industry.
To raise money, they would threaten the studios with a work slowdown or stoppage. The studios paid, and paid dearly, to avoid the strikes. His front man in most of these dealings was Johnny Roselli, a hood who had been out west since the 1920s and was more or less with the Chicago Outfit.
Zwillman was said to have dated the actress Jean Harlow and used his considerable influence within the studio system to have Harry Cohn, the mobbed up head of Columbia Studios give the actress a two-picture deal. According to the rumor, which is all it is, Zwillman paid off one of Cohn massive gambling debts.
The story is unlikely for several reasons mostly because Harlow had a stellar career with or without Zwillman’s influence. Privately, Zwillman seemed to dislike the actor although he did lavish expensive gifts on her. At about the same time, he married Mary Mendels, the daughter of Eugene Mendels, a founder of the American Stock Exchange.
His income in 1948 was estimated by the federal government to be at least two million dollars a year generated from dozens of partnership in hotels, and restaurants in Europe, Cuba, Los Miami and Los Angeles where he financed several production companies. In New Jersey and Maryland, he controlled the booming cigarette vending machine businesses, which produced several different kinds of profits for him.
During the 1959 McClellan Senate Committee hearings on organized crime, Zwillman was issued a subpoena to testify before the Committee. He was also facing federal charges of jury tampering from his 1956 tax evasion trial.
On February 27, 1959, just before he was to appear before the McClellan hearings, Zwillman killed himself. Several years before, in 1956, Zwillman’s old enforcer and driver James “Niggy” Rutkin committed suicide within a Jersey City jail. Zwillman may have opted to take the same path out of his troubles. Zwillman was found hanging from a ceiling rafter in the basement of his then West Orange home on Beverly Road. Over 350 people attended his funeral.
The death was ruled a suicide, however, in unconfirmed reports, police were said to have found bruises on Zwillman's wrists, meaning, according to some, that Zwillman had been tied before being hanged.
The rumors were that Vito Genovese had ordered Zwillman's death because Zwillman, at age 60, had cut a deal with the government to testify against his partners, most of whom were facing deportation.