“I never met anybody who thought Abe went out that window because he wanted to,” said mob informant Joseph Valachi about Abe Reles’s fatal five-story plunge on November 12, 1941.
Reles, a notorious Jewish mobster and head of what became known as Murder Inc., either jumped or was pushed out of his room in the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island where he was being held in protective custody under armed police guard. Already having provided enough testimony to send several of his former partners in crime to the electric chair, Reles was due to testify against many others before his fatal fall. In 1951, a grand jury declared his death a suicide.
A recently published book, however, questions this official verdict. In The Canary Sang but Couldn’t Fly, author Edmund Elmaleh recounts the storied life of Abe Reles before turning his attention to the strange circumstances surrounding his death and the many unanswered questions about it that persist to the present day.
Tragically, Elmaleh, who spent 10 years researching and writing the book, also died a sudden and mysterious death, just before his labor of love reached bookstores. Only 49 years old, Elmaleh was at home with his wife, Kathi Kapell, when he suddenly suffered a heart attack.
“After he passed away,” said Kapell, “there were several people who asked me, ‘Do you think this could have been a mob?'” In fact, one of Elmaleh’s aunts had pleaded with him when he first started researching the topic not to write the book for fear of stirring up the mob’s anger.
Kapell, however, dismisses the possibility of mob involvement in the death of an author writing about events that took place 70 years ago. The onset of his heart attack, she said, was probably related to a congenital heart condition.
Although her husband’s death came as a shock to her, Kapell said the book at least provides her some measure of comfort. “For me, this is just a wonderful legacy to hold onto. I can actually see something and look at it and know it’s something we worked on together. I’m really proud of it.”
Nonetheless, she said, “I wish he were here to see it.”