I’m sure you’ve heard the term “concrete shoes,” mobsters’ choice of swimwear for fellas with rodent traits and other individuals that ran afoul of them. Is there any truth to it?
When your question came in, Ale, I thought: At last, a chance to have it out with E.L. Doctorow.
You remember the opening of Doctorow’s award-winning 1989 novel Billy Bathgate, right? (Play along here, slackers.) Evil crime lord Dutch Schultz motors across New York harbor in a tugboat while a henchman sticks the feet of doomed underling Bo Weinberg into a tub of concrete in preparation for shoving him overboard. Billy, the narrator, watches this and thinks: “I had of course seen . . . how the tubbed cement made a slow-witted diagram of the sea outside, the slab of it shifting to and fro as the boat rose and fell on the waves.” Cool line, but a little voice in the back of your head, or anyway in the back of mine, is saying: Right, like some mob boss bent on murder is going to wait two hours for the concrete to dry.
However, that was before I assigned the case to my assistant Gfactor, Straight Dope gumshoe par excellence. Having seen the results of his investigation, I realize I’m going to have to cut Doctorow some slack. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying the cement shoes thing actually happened. But it’s solidly grounded in rumor.
As evidence I present an Associated Press clipping from June 3, 1935, on the fate of Danny Walsh, a bootlegging kingpin from Providence, Rhode Island. Danny had disappeared in 1933. The AP now offered an explanation: Walsh “was stood in a tub of cement until it hardened about his feet, and then thrown alive into the sea.” But the body hadn’t been recovered, nor had witnesses to the crime come forward. Rather, the story was a “grisly underworld tale” that authorities were trying to confirm.
They didn’t, at least not exactly. The following month the Sunday-paper supplement American Weekly ran a sensational spread about a police raid on a Rhode Island “murder mansion” owned by a wealthy Walsh associate named Carl Rettich. The money detail was the cops’ discovery of a secret dungeon below the basement, accessible only via a hidden stairway revealed by cranking a phonograph handle in a concealed socket. According to unnamed “stool pigeons,” Walsh had been taken down there and clubbed on the head; his body (maybe dead, maybe not) was laid in a coffinlike box that was then filled with concrete and dumped in the ocean. When Walsh’s girlfriend later got too vocal with suspicions regarding her man’s disappearance, informants said, she was herself hustled down to the dungeon and given the feet-in-wet-cement treatment, the thugs having learned from experience with Walsh that head-to-toe encasement produced a needlessly heavy burden. But no bodies were found.
After that, stories about underworld cementwear became common, and terms like “cement shoes,” “cement boots,” and “cement overcoat” took their place in the crime writer’s lexicon. A news story from later in 1935 cited “underworld report” to the effect that the body of Bo Weinberg (he and Dutch Schultz, I should clarify, were real people fictionalized in Doctorow’s book) had been sealed in a barrel of concrete; in another article police speculated that he’d been given concrete shoes and dumped in the East River. Weinberg’s corpse was never found either. The body of gambler Charles Morris was found encased in concrete beside the Connecticut River in 1938 — but the guy that killed him wasn’t, it happens, a gangland type. A 1940 AP story about Murder, Inc., the famed mob hit squad, claimed gangster Harry Westone had been tossed into a cement mixer; his unrecovered remains allegedly lay somewhere beneath an upstate New York highway. In cases where bodies did emerge, concrete has functioned more as accessory than garment: the corpse of Philadelphia racketeer Johnnie “Chink” Goodman was discovered in a New Jersey creek in 1941, weighted down with a 40-pound block of concrete; hit man Ernest “the Hawk” Rupolo was fished out of Jamaica Bay in New York in 1964, also weighted down with concrete blocks.
So let’s review what we know: (1) Underworld gossips have repeatedly insisted that mob hit men sometimes encase a victim partially or completely in concrete. (2) However, the one confirmed instance of a concretized corpse we’ve been able to turn up wasn’t a mob hit. (3) In cases of mob hits definitively known to involve concrete, we’re not talking concrete shoes so much as concrete anchors, in the form of blocks used to keep the body submerged. We have no evidence of a mob hit in which the killer mixed up concrete, planted a victim in it, and (not to fixate on this, but one has to consider the practical aspects) waited for the stuff to dry. Conclusion: Either custom concretewear is 100 percent effective, and the victim invariably vanishes forever from the ken of man, or the whole thing’s a myth.