AMBERG, Louis "Pretty"

 (1898-1935): Independent
racketeer and killer
When Pretty Amberg, often said to be the worst Jewish
criminal ever raised in America, departed this world, it
was hard to tell who had done the grisly chore. One
theory holds that the Lucky Luciano-Meyer Lansky
combination, realizing there was no way Amberg
could fit into a syndicate concept of crime, had him
"put to sleep" to allow organized crime to function in
some organized fashion.
If the mob didn't kill Amberg it was only because
someone else may have beaten them to it. Surely
everybody hated Pretty — with the possible exception
of newspaper columnist and short story writer
Damon Runyon. In a number of short stories, a
thinly disguised Amberg stuffs victims into laundry
bags in an ingeniously trussed-up form that causes
them to strangle themselves to death. In reality, Louis
Amberg is believed to have murdered at least 100
people; yet, as he deposited corpses all over the
streets of Brooklyn, he was never so much as hit with
a littering violation.
Amberg came to America from Russia with his
mother and father, a fruit peddler, and settled in the
Brownsville section of Brooklyn. By the age of 10
"Pretty" Amberg, often described as the worst Jewish
criminal ever raised in America, was immortalized by
Damon Runyon in his short stories as the racketeer who
bought a laundry business because he needed bags to
stuff all his corpses in. little Louis was peddling fruit on his own. He had a
unique style of selling, going from door-to-door,
kicking until someone opened up. With his hands
filled with fruits and vegetables, he'd shove them for-
ward and snarl: "Buy." Somehow, after staring into
the wells of madness that were little Louis's eyes,
people bought.
By the age of 20 Pretty was the terror of
Brownsville, not only because he was mean, but also
because he was very ugly. In fact, a representative
from Ringling Brothers offered him a job with the
circus as the missing link. Remarkably, Louis did not
kill the man; instead he bragged about the offer.
Pretty Amberg however had no time for show-
biz. There was too much money to be made in
loan-sharking. Unlike the banks of Brownsville
that hesitated to loan money to new immigrants,
Pretty and his brother Joe never turned down an
applicant. Of course they did charge interest, a
mere 20 percent per week, and as Joe counted out
the money, Pretty would snarl at the borrower, "I
will kill you if you don't pay us back on time." He
wasn't kidding.
The Ambergs were so successful that they
expanded their loan-sharking activities to Borough
Hall in downtown Brooklyn, but Pretty's malicious
heart remained in Brownsville. He was the king of
Pitkin Avenue where his idea of fun was to stroll into
a cafeteria and spit in people's soup. If a diner raised
an objection, Pretty would tilt the whole bowl on his
lap. Even Buggsy Goldstein, who would soon
become one of the more deadly killers in the fledgling
Murder, Inc., silently took Pretty's abuse. Famous
Murder, Inc., stool pigeon Abe Reles later told the
law, "The word was that Pretty was nutty."

Pretty expanded his control of Brownsville to
include bootlegging. The speakeasy that did not take
Pretty's booze got bombed. Soon Pretty was awash
with money, and he became a well-known gorilla-
about-town. Waiters vied to tend him since he never
tipped less than $100. (We owe the following special
intelligence to Damon Runyon, that the first time
New York's playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker, saw
Pretty at his favorite watering hole, the Central Park
Casino, His Honor vowed to stay off booze.)
Amberg further expanded his criminal activities to
include laundry services for Brooklyn businesses.
Although his charges were steep, he offered business-
men a deal they couldn't refuse — they used his laun-
dry and they stayed in business.
Some dark-humored journalists insisted Pretty got
into the laundry racket just so he would have a sup-
ply of laundry bags for all his stiffs. It is a fact that
laundry bags stuffed with corpses started littering the
streets of Brooklyn about this time. One victim
turned out to be an Amberg loan shark client who
was in arrears for $80. Pretty was picked up on a
murder charge, but he laughed it off, stating, "I tip
more than that. Why'd I kill a bum for a lousy 80
Actually that was Pretty Amberg for you. His
credo was to knock off customers who were behind
in their payments for small total sums. That way
their demise would cost him very little on his original
investment and at the same time serve as a powerful
warning to bigger debtors. The police knew all about
this but could prove nothing. Pretty had to be let
Pretty projected his domain from other gangsters
in the early 1930s. The Depression had hit criminal
operations and most crime leaders were looking for
more ways to make a buck. Big-time racketeer
Owney Madden once told Pretty that he'd never
been in Brownsville in his life and suggested he come
out and "let you show me the sights." Ever the diplo-
mat, Pretty, who was carving up a steak at the
moment, replied, "Tell you what, Owney, if I ever see
you in Brownsville, I'll cut your heart out on the
Next, Legs Diamond made noise about moving
into the area. Pretty informed him, "We'll be pals,
Jack, but if you ever set foot in Brownsville, I'll kill
you and your girlfriend and your missus and your
whole damn family."

With the end of Prohibition the financial stresses
got worse. Dutch Schultz, by then down to little
more than a multimillion dollar numbers racket cen-
tered in Harlem, told Amberg, "Pretty, I think I'm
going to come in as your partner in Brooklyn."
"Arthur," Pretty said, "why don't you put a gun in
your mouth and see how many times you can pull
the trigger."
Pithy comments were not enough to put off a
tough like Schultz. In 1935 he put a couple of his
boys, Benny Holinsky and Frank Dolak, in a new
loan office in Borough Hall, just a block away from
the Amberg operation. Within 24 hours the two
Schultz men were bullet-riddled corpses.

The Schultz- Amberg war broke out in earnest, and
the next victim was Joey Amberg, killed in an
ambush. Later, in October 1935, both Pretty Amberg
and Schultz died. Schultz's execution had been
ordered by the Luciano-Lansky crime syndicate. It
may well be that the boys also had Amberg put out
of the way. However, there is a quainter story told by
some observers. According to this version, each man
was responsible for having the other knocked off.
Amberg supposedly paid some hit men $25,000
down to murder Schultz with another $25,000
payable on completion of the contract.

In the meantime Amberg was murdered, suppos-
edly on Schultz's orders. His body was pulled from a
blazing automobile on a Brooklyn street, charred
beyond all recognition. There was wire wrapped
around his neck, arms and legs and it took several
days for an identification to be made. In the mean-
time some gunmen blasted Dutch Schultz in a
Newark chop house. Poor Schultz may have died
never knowing Pretty Amberg had gone to his

Actually, it was never determined whether
Am berg's death was a Schultz job or a Luciano-Lan-
sky caper. There was even a third theory that Amberg
had been murdered by an angry gang of armed rob-
bers with whom he had joined in a major job and
then taken most of the loot for himself.

In Brooklyn, most everyone thought it was about
time somebody did something about Pretty Amberg.