The Jewish Mafia
Organized crime in America was born of the amalgamation of the two most powerful ethnic crime groups in the underworld of the early 1930s – the Italian mafiosi and the Jewish gangsters. The prime architect of the so-called Jewish or Kosher Mafia, as some journalist referred to it, was Meyer Lansky, who judiciously pulled the strings that brought many powerful Jewish gangsters around the country under the umbrella of the emerging national crime syndicate.
Lansky worked closely with Lucky Luciano and aided him in his fight against the old-line mafiosi then under the competing leaderships of Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. These old-world Sicilians, especially Masseria, hated gangsters of other ethnic derivation, cooperated with them only when absolutely necessary and looked forward to the day they could get rid of them. Luciano and Lansky realized there was no room in the underworld for such counter-productive bigotry, and they plotted to get rid of both Masseria and Maranzano.
After a bloody war and much intrigue that ended in 1931, both Masseria and Maranzano had been eradicated. Now it became necessary for Lansky and Luciano to “sell” their program of “brotherhood” to their Jewish and Italian followers.
Lansky set about the task of uniting the Jewish gangs across the country. His missionary work brought in the Purple Gang from Detroit and the Moe Dalitz forces operating in Cleveland. He followed this up with a momentous convention of East Coast forces at the Franconia Hotel in New York City on November 11, 1931. Those attending included Bugsy Siegel, a longtime partner of Lansky and Luciano; Louis “Lepke” Buchalter; Joseph “Doc” Stacher; Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro; Hyman “Curly” Holtz; Louis “Shadows” Kravits; Harry Tietlebaum; Philip “Little Farvel” Kovalick; and Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg.
Lansky explained to the participants that Luciano had successfully united the Italian mafiosi, and that the Lansky-Luciano “combination” or national crime syndicate was the wave of the future. All the participants agreed, and the Franconia conference established a firm platform: “The yids and dagos would no longer fight each other,” the quotation attributed to the loquacious Siegel.
Jewish gangsters who were thought to be constitutionally unsuited to the new “interfaith” combination of shared spoils with other ethnics, such as the “unsuited” Waxey Gordon, bootleg king of Philadelphia, were eliminated. The combination did this by continuing its business dealings with Gordon and then feeding information to Internal Revenue so that he could be put away on income tax charges. He was then replaced by the far more compliant Nig Rosen and Boo Boo Hoff.
The fact that some in attendance at the Franconia meeting – Big Greenie and Bugsy Siegel – were eventually murdered did not alter the interfaith feelings of the combination. Bugsy might well have appreciated the fact that his murder was approved by a combined vote of, to use his words, “yids and dagos.”
Jack Dragna, the late boss of the Los Angeles Mafia, gave a fairly succinct description of the Jewish Mafia to Jimmy Fratianno, the hit man who later turned informer: “Meyer’s got a Jewish family built along the same lines as our thing. But his family’s all over the country. He’s got guys like Lou Rhody and Dalitz, Doc Stacher, Gus Greenbaum, sharp fucking guys, good businessmen, and they know better than try to fuck us.”
Only on the last statement was Dragna suffering a delusion – or perhaps he was trying to impress Fratianno. The fact is that whenever Lansky gave an order Dragna jumped.
Robert F. Kennedy
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was the first attorney general of the United States to make a serious attack on the Mafia and organized crime. Many hold he was also the last one. As Harry J. Anslinger, former U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, put it:
“Many former attorney generals . . . would let loose a blast against the underworld and then settle back in their chairs and let it go at that. They seemed to think they had performed their duty merely by calling attention to the problem. Not so with Bob. He followed through. He knew the identity of all the big racketeers in any given district, and in private conference with enforcement officials throughout the country he would go down the line, name by name, and ask what progress had been made.”
Quite naturally Anslinger’s opinion differed from J. Edgar Hoover’s, with whom he had a less than cordial relationship. For years, Hoover had asserted there was no such thing as a Mafia or organized crime. Because of the Apalachin Conference bust of 1957, Hoover finally had to alter his line, and when Bobby Kennedy became attorney general in 1961, Hoover was further forced to expand the FBI fight against the Mafia.
On John Kennedy’s assassination, Hoover slacked off on the Mafia investigation. Neil J. Welch, a retired special agents in charge of several top FBI offices, and David W. Marston, former United States attorney from Philadelphia, note in their book Inside Hoover’s FBI: “When Kennedy stepped down as attorney general, Hoover moved immediately to undo all that he had done and perhaps never realized that one Kennedy accomplishment was indelible: When the FBI finally penetrated organized crime, agents gave the credit not to J. Edgar Hoover, but to his nemesis, Robert F. Kennedy.” The assassination of Robert Kennedy came as a shock to everybody, and occurred in 1968 while running for president of the United States in Los Angeles.
Meyer “The Brain” Lansky
National Crime Syndicate Founder
There was a godfather of the national crime syndicate, the parent organization of what became the American Mafia – and thus a real godfather of the American Mafia. He was called with total respect the “little man,” and Lucky Luciano’s advice to his followers was always “listen to him.” He himself would brag with typical quiet elation: “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” And an agent of the FBI would say of him with grudging admiration: “He would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.”
He was Maier Suchowljansky, better known as Meyer Lansky, a Jew from Grodno, Poland. While many mafiosi speak of “our thing” which excludes all but Italians, it is a matter of record that none of the top mafiosi ever excluded Meyer Lansky from anything. Only among the lower-rung levels of the Mafia was there any belief that Lansky, because he was not Italian, was just a money man to be respected and trusted, one who lacked real power to “vote” in the top councils.
Lansky truly had the first and last word in organized crime. When the Big Six dominated the syndicate in the 1940s and 1950s, Lansky voted and all the others followed. Greasy Tumb Guzik from Chicago thought Lansky the genius of the age. Tony Accardo marveled at the money Lansky brought in. Longy Zwillman, head of the New Jersey rackets, followed Lansky’s lead at all times. Ditto Frank Costello, who was Lansky’s partner in New Orleans, Las Vegas and elsewhere. And Joey Adonis was under strict orders from the deported Lucky Luciano to “listen to Meyer.” The voting usually went six-zip Lansky.
Everybody listened to Meyer because it paid. If they listened well, he might, for instance, give them a slice of the pre-Castro Cuban action. Lansky cut in Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, New York. Then the Trafficantes of Tampa tried to go in big on their own in Cuba, Lansky used his Batista connection to squash the move. Then he gave them a slice, smaller than what many other mafiosi got. That was Lansky’s way. Jack Dragna, the Los Angeles Mafia boss, once tried to use muscle on Lansky to get a piece in Las Vegas. Lansky talked him in circles, got him up on tiptoes, and then not only didn’t kiss him but gave him nothing. It was Lansky’s way.
Despite a rash of publicity during the last decade of his life, Lansky remained the most shadowy of the organized crime leaders. Although Luciano technically held the title, Lansky was regarded as equal and perhaps superior to Luciano as the godfather of organize crime as it emerged in the 1930s. Together, they were the successors of the warring Prohibition gangs as well as of the old-line Mafia, headed by the so-called Mustache Petes (particularly, Joe the Boss Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. And the Mafia as it exists today, owes as much to the Jewish Lansky as to the Sicilian Lansky for its shape and prosperity.
They were the perfect match: the well-read, even studious Lansky, who could survey all the angles of a given situation, and the less-than-erudite Luciano (he could make out the New York Daily News or Daily Mirror but he freely admitted the New York Times threw him), who made up for his limitations with a brilliant flair for organization and the brutal character to set any plan in motion.
Throughout the years Lansky built an image of being alien to violence, but it was a myth. In the 1920s he and Bugsy Siegel organized the Bug and Meyer gang, which some described as the most violent of the Prohibition mobs in the East. They worked alternately as liquor hijackers and protectors of booze shipments for bootleggers willing to meet their prices, which were so exorbitant that it amounted to extortion.
Bug and Meyer muscle was also available for “slammings” and rubouts for a fee and was the forerunner of Murder, Inc., the enforcement troop of the national syndicate. Many Bug and Meyer graduates, in fact, moved into Murder, Inc., in the 1930s; Lansky had as much to do with the forming of that outfit as anyone. He proposed the enforcers be put under the command of a triumvirate composed of Louis Lepke, Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel. Other leaders of the emerging national crime syndicate objected to the kill-happy Siegel, feeling he would be too loyal to Lansky and would give Lansky too powerful a hold on the apparatus of the extermination crew should the confederation fall apart in a war of extermination. Lansky agreed to drop Siegel from the murder troop, but his influence was not dented.
Both Luciano and Lansky independently said that they had planned the formation of a new syndicate as early as 1920, when Luciano was in his early 20s and Lansky was only 18. They were greatly influenced in this by the older Arnold Rothstein, the great gambler, criminal “brain” and mentor who, acting on his own plan for a national syndicate, nurtured Lansky’s and Luciano’s development. Rothstein’s murder in 1928 shortened what the pair may have considered too long an apprenticeship. Lansky and Luciano together survived the crime wars of the 1920s by cunning alliances, eliminating one foe after another, even though they lacked the manpower and firepower of other gangs. When they effected the assassinations first of Masseria and the Maranzano, they stood at the pinnacle of power in the underworld. Even Al Capone realized they were more powerful than he.
In remarks attributed to Luciano, he once explained, “I learned a long time before that Meyer Lansky understood the Italian brain almost better than I did. . . . I used to tell Lansky that he may’ve had a Jewish mother, but someplace he must’ve been wet-nursed by a Sicilian.” Luciano often said Lansky “could look around corners,” or anticipate what would happen next in underworld intrigues, and that “the barrel of his gun was curved,” meaning he knew how to keep himself out of the line of fire. Through the years that was Lansky’s way.
Lansky never begrudged Luciano his top role, realizing that the title brought the clear dangers of notoriety and, no matter how many payoffs were made, the hazard of being the target of the law. It was also necessary to sell Luciano as the top man in order to win the support of the Italian mobsters. Lansky had fewer difficulties selling Jewish mobsters like Zwillman or Moe Dalitz, or even the often unpredictable Dutch Schultz, on the value of syndication; they understood the profits involved. The Italian mafiosi were different, many cut adrift by the war of survival that had just been concluded. Lansky told Luciano: “A lot of these guys need something to believe in.” He urged Luciano to keep some of the old-style Mafia trappings used by the Mustache Petes. Luciano had no patience for the nonsense of “made men” and blood oaths but agreed to let those who wanted such rituals have them. He did eliminate the position of “boss of bosses” – and immediately, as Lansky anticipated, gained that position de facto. At Lansky’s suggestion the organization took the name of Unione Siciliano, a corruption in spelling of the old fraternal organization. Eventually Luciano just called it the “outfit” of the “combination.” Luciano imbued in his men that all the traditions really meant little, that the important thing was money-making. (In time, though, Luciano saw the merits of the structure of the Italian wing; it gave him a power base and cemented that power. Even when imprisoned for a decade, his support never eroded and he could issue orders and have his revenues set aside for him.)
As late as 1951, when his name surfaced during the investigation of bookmaking czar Grank Erickson, the New York Times, with one of the most reliable news libraries in the world, did not know exactly who Meyer Lansky was. The newspaper identified him as “Meyer (Socks) Lansky,” evidently mistaking him for Joseph (Socks) Lanza, the waterfront racketeer. During the Kefauver investigation (1950-1951) into crime, Lansky was considered so unimportant that he was not even called as a witness to testify. The committee did not even mention him in its first two interim reports. Only in the final report did the investigators correct their oversight and announce: “Evidence of the Costello-Adonis-Lansky operations was found in New York City, Saratoga, Bergen County, N.J., New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, the west coast, and Havana, Cuba.”
Lansky was revealed as “the brains of the combination.” The “little man” became acknowledged as the one who held together Luciano’s crime empire while he was behind bars. Lansky was the money man trusted to hide or invest millions for the syndicate, and he saw to it that Luciano got his share of the profits even after he was deported to Italy. It was Lansky who opened up what was for a time the syndicate’s greatest source of income, gambling in Havana. He alone handled negotiations with dictator Fulgencio Batista for a complete monopoly of gambling in Cuba. Lansky was said to have personally deposited $3 million in a Zurich, Switzerland, bank for Batista and arranged to pay the ruling military junta, namely Batista, 50 percent of the profits thereafter.
In the rise and fall of underworld fortunes, Lansky was immune to replacement because he was too valuable to lose. Thus, he could agree with Vito Genovese that Albert Anastasia should die and then later he could take part in a fantastic conspiracy that delivered Genovese himself to the feds. Despite this duplicity, Lansky faced no retribution.
Lansky’s arrest record over the years was bush-league stuff and it was not until 1970 that the federal government made a concerted effort to get him on income tax charges. Lansky had skimmed untold millions out of Las Vegas casinos which the syndicate secretly owned. The government also sought to deport him as an undesirable alien. In 1970, Lansky fled to Israel where so many of his Jewish underworld associates had retired. Lansky claimed Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which accorded citizenship to anyone born of a Jewish mother. Lansky poured millions of dollars into the country to win public support, but he proved an embarrassment to the Israeli government. Law enforcement officials warned that Lansky was not retiring from organized crime but would use Israel as a base of operations. After a long battle in the courts and bitter debate by the public, Lansky was forced to leave Israel in 1972.
In 1973, after undergoing open-heart surgery, Lansky was put on trial in Miami on the income tax charges that had worked so well against many crime bigwigs since Al Capone. It was a disaster for the government; Lansky was acquitted. In December 1974, the federal government gave up its efforts to put the then 72-year-old organized crime legend behind bars.
Lansky maintained his position in the syndicate right to the very end. In the early 1970s his personal wealth was estimated at around $300 million and by 1980 it must have grown to at least $400 million. Some profilers have tried to explain Lansky’s continuing to make money as an indication of his inner need for power and the ability to exercise it. They tend to overlook the more simple explanation: Lansky felt a man could never have too much. His drive was always more.
However, in 1991 a British writer, Robert Lacey, published Little Man in which he insisted Lansky died hard up. The theory gained few supporters. A New York Times reviewer found the book “banal” and dismissed Lacey’s claim that criminal investigators never pinned anything substantial on Lansky. “But such evidence proves exactly the opposite point, argue those who insist Meyer Lansky was a criminal mastermind who left behind a cast secret fortune. No one ever laid a finger on Lansky precisely because he left no fingerprints anywhere. The more you argue there was no fortune, the more you prove there has to have been,” continued the article.
Similarly, Lacey’s theory would mean that Lansky, who had shown such men as Huey Long and Fulgencio Batista of Cuba the joys of foreign numbered accounts, neglected to set up anything for himself out of the millions he admittedly accumulated.
Lansky had created organized crime in its syndicate form, but he was never interested in creating any dynasty. His children and wife were kept totally away from mob business. And he looked for no successor. In that sense Lansky was the quintessential Jewish-American mobster. They either stayed until they died or else they sold out their positions in the rackets and went into retirement.
Meyer Lansky had outlived Lucky Luciano by 20 years but, in the end, Luciano’s handiwork in the national crime syndicate – the American Mafia – was the portion that survived, simply because it was a structure, an apparatus that needed running, that automatically filled all vacancies because it remained a money-making machine. Yet Lansky in large measure created the American Mafia and was its real godfather.
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Organized Crime’s Promised Land
The first men to gamble in Las Vegas were the Paiute Indians who populated the area before the town existed. When the Mormons ventured down from Utah in the 19th century to try to convert these Indians to Christianity, they were ignored by the Paiutes who had far more interest in playing a kind of roulette in the sand with bones and colored sticks. The Paiutes and the mobsters of organized crime were to enjoy a similar association with Las Vegas. Conceived as a gambling mecca, modern Las Vegas was built almost exclusively by mob money.
During World War II Las Vegas was little more than a dusty jerkwater town in the middle of the desert, with a few gas stations, greasy-spoon diners and some slot machine emporiums. It was popularly said that Bugsy Siegel was the first to visualize the town as a glittering gambling mecca, but the fact is he was pushed at first by Meyer Lansky who in 1941 ordered Bugsy to send a trusted aide, Moe Sedway, to work in Las Vegas. For a time Bugsy thought it was a zany idea that he had little time for – he was far happier being a Hollywood playboy- but Lansky kept pushing, realizing that an area with legalized gambling offered far more profits and less crooked overhead than illegal casinos elsewhere.
When World War II ended, Bugsy warmed to the idea of Las Vegas with glitter. His enthusiasm convinced mob figures to invest big money to develop the town. Lansky now was able to hang back. If the idea fell through Siegel could take the rap; if it succeeded, Lansky would step forward to take credit.
With a bankroll of something like $6 million in mob funds, Siegel built the Flamingo, which turned out to be a monumental bust because he was forced to open early, before public interest could be built up. Bugsy had other woes. He had skimmed off huge sums of construction money, and when the mob discovered this, they gave him a deadline for its return. Siegel’s only hope was to get the Flamingo to succeed. When it didn’t, he was summarily murdered.
Nevertheless, Las Vegas grew. With Lansky now overseeing the Flamingo it turned profitable by the end of its first year. Now the mob really piled in. State officials set up strict rules aimed at keeping the Mafia out, but to little avail. With appropriate fronts, the syndicate simply took over. The Thunderbird became Lansky’s baby although he had slices of many other places. The Desert Inn was largely owned by Moe Dalitz and others of the Cleveland mob.
The Sands was controlled behind the scenes by Lansky, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello and Doc Stacher. Actor George Raft was brought into the deal, and singer Frank Sinatra was sold a 9 percent stake. Sinatra was said to have been extremely flatted, but as Stacher later stated, “The object was to get him to perform there, because there’s no bigger draw in Las Vegas. When Frankie was performing, the hotel really filled up.”
The Sahara and the Riviera were controlled mainly by the Fischetti brothers, Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana, the rulers of the Chicago Outfit. The Dunes was a goldmine for Raymond Patriarca, the top mafioso in New England.
When the Stardust was being built, Dalitz started complaining that it would drain funds away from his Desert Inn. Dalitz looked like he was ready to solve the problem the way a problem was handled during the bootleg wars of Prohibition, but Lansky suggested a meeting to try to iron out the problems. Representing the Stardust interest was mobster Tony Cornero, one of California’s pre-war gambling-boat operators, while Dalitz and his right-hand man, Morris Kleinman, were present for the D.I. Winging in from New Jersey was Longy Zwillman. A deal was hammered out so that each group ended up with an interlocking interest in each other’s hotels, and when the lawyers got through with it, nobody could really tell who owned what where.
When Frank Costello was shot in 1957, police found a tally in his coat pocket that matched the revenues of the Tropicana for a 24-day period. It was apparently a revelation to the Nevada Gaming Control Board that Costello and his longtime partner, Dandy Phil Kastel, were the chief owners of the Trop.
Caesar’s Palace was a case unto itself. Its décor and architecture certainly evoked images of ancient Rome, or as comedian Alan King put it: “I wouldn’t say it was exactly Roman – more kind of early Sicilian.” In any event it had a Roman legion of Mafia investors, among them Accardo, Giancana, Patriarca, Jerry Catena (one of Vito Genovese’s top aides), and Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo (a longtime buddy of Lansky’s). The biggest investor of all may well have been Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union’s pension fund, with at least $10 million sunk into the Palace (and another $40 million sprinkled around town). The money was in the form of “permanent” loans and undoubtedly contributed to the retirement of more aging mafiosi than over-the-highway truckers.
In the 1960s billionaire Howard Hughes started buying up hotels, collecting 17 Nevada casinos in all. The big mobsters got out, but most of their underlings remained in place; it was a matter of maintaining required “expertise.” Things however went wrong for Hughes. He had expected to make more than 20 percent on investments from the lavish joints but never did better than 6 percent, and by 1970 his holdings were several million dollars in the red. After Hughes bailed out of Vegas, the mobsters returned to the scene.
Although the boys suffered some convictions in the late 1970s, the FBI launched the real assault on the Mafia’s hold on Las Vegas casinos in the following decade. As a result numerous casinos that had previously been “mobbed up” were sanitized and taken over by legitimate owners. Among those establishments were the Tropicana, the Stardust, Desert Inn, Circus-Circus, Casesar’s Palace, the Fremont, the Aladdin, the Sands, the Riviera and the Sundance. Two others, the Dunes and the Marina, were torn down.
The biggest loss of all to the mob was the Stardust, which was a gold mine to the Chicago Outfit, the skim being absolutely fabulous. It was taken over by the reputable Boyd family, who were surprised by its huge profits, with every penny of income recorded. Ex-FBI agent William F. Roemer Jr., longtime senior agent of the FBI’s organized-crime squad in Chicago and an expert in Las Vegas doings, said, “The amount of skim had been so heavy that the profit and loss statement did not present a true picture of the gold mine that the Stardust was.”
The FBI investigations into Las Vegas skimming took a decimating toll on the mob. Organized crime control of the Tropicana Hotel was broken with the convictions of several Kansas City mob chiefs. A second more sweeping probe uncovered control of a number of casinos by Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cleveland mobs. Among those netted in the investigation were Joey Aiuppa, the top boss in Chicago; John Cerone, the Chicago underboss; two other Chicago capos; Frank Balistrieri, the boss in Milwaukee, and the top leaders in Kansas City, along with a top figure in Cleveland. All drew huge sentences and probably faced the rest of their lives behind bars.
In 1994 Roemer declared organized crime presence in Vegas was nowhere what it had been, although he said “concerns remain” regarding three other hotels.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano
National Crime Syndicate Leader
Charles “Lucky” Luciano, without doubt the most important Italian-American gangster this country ever produced, left a far greater impact on the underworld than even the illustrious Al Capone. In 1931, Luciano created what can be called the American Mafia by wiping out the last important exponents of the Sicilian-style Mafia in this country. Together with Meyer Lansky, Luciano was also a founder of the Mafia’s “parent” organization, the national crime syndicate, a network of multi-ethnic criminal gangs that has ruled organized crime for more than half a century, a criminal cartel which has bled Americans of incalculable billions over the years.
Luciano was born Salvatore Lucania near Palermo in Sicily and was brought to this country in 1906. In 1907, he logged his first arrest for shoplifting. During the same year, he started his first racket. For a penny of two a day, Luciano offered younger and smaller Jewish kids his personal protection against beatings on the way to school; if they didn’t pay, he beat them up. One runty kid refused to pay, a thin little youngster from Poland, Meyer Lansky. Luciano attacked him and was amazed when Lansky gave as good as he got. They became bosom buddies after that, a relationship that would continue long after Luciano was deported back to Italy.
In 1916, Luciano was a leading member of the Five Points Gang and named by police as the prime suspect in a number of murders. His notoriety grew through his teen years, as did his circle of underworld friends. By 1920, Luciano was a power in bootlegging rackets (in cooperation with Lansky and his erstwhile partner Bugsy Siegel) and had become familiar with Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese and, most important among Italian gangsters, Frank Costello.
Luciano was amazed by the old-line mafiosi who counseled him to stay away from Costello, “the dirty Calbrian.” But Costello led Luciano astray – by ritual mafioso standards – by introducing him to other ethnic gangsters like Big Bill Dwyer and Jews like Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz and Dandy Phil Kastel. Luciano was very impressed by the way Costello bought protection from city officials and the police, which Lansky had already been telling Luciano was the most important ingredient in any big-time criminal setup. Rather than heed the admonitions of Mustache Petes, Luciano believed instead the old line mafiosi were the problem and should be eliminated.
Although he maintained separate ties with Lansky, Luciano by the late 1920s had become the chief aide in the largest Mafia family in the city, that belonging to Giuseppe Joe “the Boss” Masseria. Luciano had nothing by contempt for Joe the Boss’s Old World ways, with its mumbo-jumbo of the Sicilian Mafia that stressed “respect” and “honor” for the boss and distrust and hatred of all non-Sicilians. In Luciano’s opinion, Masseria’s prejudice against other gangsters, Sicilian as well as non-Sicilian, created an unconscionable obstacle to making real profits. Joe the Boss passed up extremely lucrative deals by fighting gangsters with whom he could have cooperated for their joint benefit. And Joe the Boss was more intent on waging otherwise long forgotten feuds with fellow Sicilians based on which town or village they had come from than he was on making money.
In 1928 the Castellammarese War erupted between the numerous forces of Joe the Boss and those of a fast rising mafioso in New York, Salvatore Maranzano. Over the next two years, dozens of gangsters were killed. Luciano avoided the conflict as much as possible and instead cemented relationships with the young, second-line leadership in the Maranzano outfit. It soon became clear that younger mobsters in both camps were waiting for one boss to kill off the other. Then the second line could dethrone the remaining boss. Luciano soon emerged as the leader of this clique.
The war moved into 1931 with Maranzano winning, but Masseria was still powerful. Luciano finally felt he could wait no longer without imperiling his supporters in both camps. Three of his men and Bugsy Siegel, lent by the cooperative Lansky, shot Joe the Boss to death in a Coney Island restaurant. Luciano had guided him there and stepped into the men’s room just before the execution squad marched in.
The assassination made Maranzano the victor in the Castellammarese War and, in supposed gratitude to Luciano, Maranzano made Luciano the number two man in his new Mafia empire. Maranzano proclaimed himself the “boss of bosses” in New York and set up five crime families under him. That was only the beginning of Maranzano’s plans. He was determined to become the supreme boss of the entire Mafia in the United States. To achieve that end, Maranzano compiled a list of two gangsters who had to be eliminated: In Chicago, Al Capone; in New York, Lucky Luciano. Maranzano understood Luciano had his own ambitions and figured to crush him quickly.
But Maranzano was not quick enough. Luciano and Lansky learned of Maranzano’s plans in advance. Maranzano was going to summon Luciano and Vito Genovese to his office for a conference. He had lined up a murderous Irish gunman, Mad Dog Coll, to assassinate the pair either in his office or shortly after they left. Instead, moments before Coll arrived to set up the ambush, four of Lansky’s gunners, pretending to be government agents, entered Maranzano’s office and shot and stabbed him to death.
In a very real sense, Maranzano’s death finished the “old Mafia” in the United States. It has long been rumored that Luciano followed up that day with 40 or 60 or 90 other assassinations in an operation given the vivid name of “The Night of the Sicilian Vespers,” but this was utter nonsense. No list of victims was ever compiled and actually no deluge of killings was necessary. During the late 1920s, many of the oldtimers had either died naturally or been assassinated by Young Turks of the same persuasion as Luciano. And, since about half of all Mafia strength was centered in the New York – New Jersey area, the key killings to oust the old line were simply those of Joe the Boss and Maranzano.
The remnants of the old Mafia were incorporated in a new national crime syndicate, a more open society that combined all the ethnic elements of organized crime. The new syndicate included such important mobsters among its governing directors as Lansky, Joe Adonis, Dutch Schultz, Louis Lepke and Frank Costello. There is no way the organization could have been Mafia-dominated; it is actually possible that Jewish gangsters may have outnumbered the Italians.
The boss of bosses position was eliminated in the syndicate, although in fact Luciano became the boss in everything but name in the Mafia division. Luciano’s original idea was to drop the whole Mafia setup, but Lansky prevailed upon him to keep it, as much to keep the peace as to recognize the substantial Italian subculture in crime. Luciano agreed and in time discovered that maintaining an American-brand Mafia gave him a power base that protected him from any wars among other ethnic elements. Similarly, Lansky could not be seriously threatened by Jewish or other mobsters because they knew he had Mafia troops he could call on.
The syndicate moved to control bootlegging, prostitution, narcotics, gambling, loan-sharking and labor rackets. Independent gangsters could have the rest, which in profit meant practically nothing.
Luciano was now at the top, a dandy dresser and well-known sport on Broadway. He looked menacing, however, thanks to a famous scarring he had received in 1929, when knife-wielding kidnappers severed the muscles in his right cheek, leaving him with an evil droop in his right eye. Through the years, Luciano told many stories of the incident. He once claimed he was kidnapped by drug smugglers who, eager to hijack it, wanted intelligence about a big shipment that was coming in. Or he was nabbed by rival gangsters, including Maranzano himself, and rogue cops who tortured him to get information.. or he was kidnapped by a policeman and his sons because he had taken advantage of the cop’s daughter. Whatever the tale, he had survived a “ride” – something few gangsters had; there was a great popularization of his nickname of “Lucky.”
In 1936, Luciano’s doom year as a free power in the American underworld, special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey convicted him on compulsory prostitution charges. The underworld insisted it was a “bad rap,” claiming Dewey framed the case with perjured testimony of pimps and whores who would say anything to avoid going to jail themselves.
The conviction, from Luciano’s viewpoint, was somewhat ironic. In 1936, Dewey was making life miserable for Dutch Schultz and his operations. The Dutchman went before a board meeting of the syndicate calling for Dewey’s execution. Luciano opposed the insane idea, which would obviously only produce more heat, when the adamant Schultz stormed out, saying the would go ahead on his own, Luciano obtained a contract on Schultz. It was carried out.
Luciano, Dewey’s benefactor, got 30 to 50 years on the prostitution charge, far tougher than any other such sentence in legal history. Nevertheless he continued to maintain active leadership of the syndicate from behind bars. In 1946 Luciano was paroled for what was described by Governor Dewey as his wartime services to the country. It was evident that Luciano did order the mob to help in tightening wartime security on the New York docks. Additional later claims that Luciano was instrumental in enlisting the Mafia in Sicily to aid the Allied invasion of the island are more debatable.
When he was released in 1946, Luciano was deported to Italy. He sneaked back to Cuba later that year to run the American syndicate from that off-shore island. From Cuba, Luciano approved the execution of Bugsy Siegel for looting the syndicate’s money in building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. But government agents soon discovered Luciano’s presence in Cuba, and he was forced to return to Italy where he continued to issue orders to the states and got his monthly cut of syndicate revenues delivered by special couriers, including Virginia Hill.
With the assassination of Albert Anastasia (1957) and the forced retirement of Frank Costello shortly thereafter, Luciano’s influence started to wane. Vito Genovese even plotted to have him assassinated, but Luciano was still powerful enough to form a plot with Lansky, Costello and Carlo Gambino by which Genovese was delivered into the hands of U.S. narcotics agents in a rigged drug deal.
Near the end of his life relations between Luciano and Lansky started to sour. Luciano felt he was not getting a fair cut of mob income, but having suffered a number of heart attacks was in no shape to mount a serious protest. Gradually, be began to reveal to journalists his version of many of the past criminal events in the United States and, obviously, some of his revelations were self-serving. In 1962, he died of a heart attack at the Naples airport. Only after his death was Lucky Luciano allowed to come back to the United States, the country he considered his only true home. He was allowed burial in St. John’s Cemetery in New York City.
Capone Mob Lieutenant
Probably no gangster in American history should be more indebted to television than Frank Nitti. He was introduced to the video-watching public as the great Chicago underworld brain, the foe of the intrepid Eliot Ness and The Untouchables.
The post-Capone Outfit has always probed a bit confusing to the law and mob watchers alike. Using “front men” to a far greater extent than other crime families – the conviction of Capone had been a sobering lesson – the boys made it difficult for outsiders to determine the exact power structure. No wonder in later years other syndicate criminals looked at Chicago with unconcealed horror. Informer Vinnie Teresa said, “Chicago is an eat-’em-up-alive outfit . . . everyone is struggling to get on top, and they don’t give a damn who gets it in the back.”
In this context Nitti was valuable as a man to take the heat and, for that matter, even assassins’ bullets. In that gem of prairie corruption, even Chicago mayor, Anton Cermak, could dispatch his own police “hit men” to try to now off Nitti so he could replace him and other Caponeites with his own more subservient gangsters. Yet other mobsters, including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, when establishing the national crime syndicate in the early 1930s, dealt with Paul “the Waiter” Ricca as the leader of the Capones. They gave no thought to Nitti; he didn’t even know what was going on.
Born in 1883, Nitti started out as a barber with a goodly clientele of petty crooks who came to him to fence their stolen goods. This underworld work put him in touch with the Capones at the start of Prohibition; he had ways of peddling some hijacked booze, no questions asked. Within a few years, Capone tabbed him as an efficient organizer and relied on him to see that his orders were carried out.
After Capone went to prison, the newspapers had to have a new Mr. Big. Nitti was very visible. They hailed him as the new head of the Capone mob, and Nitti probably even believed it himself. But it was ludicrous to expect the likes of the Fischetti brothers, Jake Guzik, Tony Accardo, Paul Ricca, Murray Humphreys, and others to follow his orders. Only his front-man role made Nitti important.
In 1932 two police officers invaded Nitti’s headquarters and shot and severely wounded him. They were acting, later testimony indicated, under orders of the new mayor, Cermak, who was determined to take over from the Capone mob and redistribute its territories to more favored criminals, especially those bossed by Cermak’s favorite gangster, Teddy Newberry. Nitti lingered near death for a time but finally recovered, a feat that added to his legend.
When the mob under Willie Bioff and George Browne got into its shakedown rackets against the movie industry, Nitti’s name was used as a terror tactic against the film moguls, who were threatened with his personal vengeance. However, federal investigators succeeded in getting evidence against the Chicago gangsters and with Bioff and Browne both talking, Nitti and Ricca were indicted along with several others. Ricca had by this time more obviously taken charge of the mob, often countermanding a Nitti order by saying, “We’ll do it this way. Now let’s hear no more about it.”
Ricca decided the movie indictments made the time perfect to call in Nitti’s cards as a front man. At a meeting of the top leaders of the mob he ordered Nitti to plead guilty and take the rap for all of them. The thought terrified Nitti who had served 18 months in the early 1930s on an income tax charge. He got the “shakes” at the idea of returning behind bars. That sort of reaction made Nitti a logical candidate to seek mercy from the prosecution by confessing and naming all the others.
“Frank, you’re asking for it,” Ricca raged at him, still demanding he be a “stand-up guy” and take the rap for all. Nitti recognized Ricca’s words as a death sentence. The next day, March 19, 1943, Nitti was seen walking along some railroad tracks. He drew a pistol from his pocket and put a bullet in his brain.
Charles Dion “Deanie” O’Banion
Gang Leader and Capone Rival
He was Al Capone’s toughest competitor in the latter’s struggle for power in Chicago, the gangster capital of the world. Even after he was assassinated in 1924 in a Capone-Johnny Torrio coup, O’Banion’s ghost continued to haunt Capone. O’Banion supporters, enraged by his murder, refused to give in and for the balance of the decade the carnage on Chicago streets reached unparalleled levels.
O’Banion had a kind of perverse charisma; he was as charming a psychopath as one could find. And he would do anything for a laugh. His sense of humor was legendary, although best appreciated by the criminal mind. Among his more innocent practical jokes was giving a friend Ex Lax and telling him it was sweet chocolate. Really thigh-slapping fun was his shotgun challenge. He would surreptitiously fill both barrels of a shotgun with hard-packed clay and then bet some friend or acquaintance that he could not hit the side of a barn some 30 feet away. With the money down, O’Banion made a ritual out of loading both barrels and handing the shotgun to the sucker. He moved back out of the way of the inevitable recoil as the patsy pulled the trigger. The backfire would cause him to lose an arm or an eye or even three-fourths of his face. Dear Deanie would still be howling about it the following day.
Chicago chief of police Morgan Collins labeled O’Banion “Chicago’s archcriminal” and said he killed at least 25 men. Others said Collins was less than half right, that O’Banion had at least 60 murders to his credit as he cheerfully made his appointed murder rounds, always with a rosary in his pocket and a carnation in his buttonhole. He also had three pistols tucked away in special pockets of his expensive made-to-order suits. For years O’Banion had been the darling of the Democrats for his skill at getting out the vote, until he switched to the Republicans at higher pay. The oft-quoted joke of the time was: “Who’ll carry the Forty-second and Forty-third wards?” The answer was, “O’Banion, in his pistol pocket.”
O’Banion grew up in the Little Hell district on Chicago’s North Side. He lived a double life as an acolyte and choirboy at Holy Name Cathedral and as a street punk in a tenement jungle jammed with saloons and whorehouses. Thanks to his training in the church choir Deanie became a singing waiter in the tough dives on Clark and Erie. He brought tears to the customers’ eyes with sentimental Irish ballads, and when they were deep in their cups, he’d pick their pockets.
After-hours, O’Banion labored as a street mugger, becoming partners with a young Lou Greenberg, destined to become the multimillionaire owner of the Seneca Hotel on the city’s Gold Coast. One midnight, each without knowing the other was present, they had pounced on the same victim in an alley, and then over his prostrate body contemplated bashing the other for the loot. Instead, wisdom prevailed. They split the take and became partners. The arrangement continued for several months until in 1909 Deanie was imprisoned three months for robbery. In 1911 he did another three months for carrying concealed weapons. Although he was arrested many times thereafter, it was the last prison time O’Banion did in his life. He quickly learned that Chicago was the city of the fix and always spent the money required to cool the ardor of policemen, prosecutors and judges.
He graduated from street mugging to a form of journalism as a slugger for Maxie Annenberg, Moe Annenberg’s brother. Maxie at the time was in charge of promoting sales of the Chicago Tribune, and O’Banion was used mainly to bop newsdealers to convince them that the Trib was not only the world’s greatest newspaper but for their purposes Chicago’s only newspaper. Later on O’Banion transferred his loyalties to the newer Hearst papers in town. At the same time O’Banion learned the safecracking art under one of the racket’s foremost practitioners, Charlie “the Ox” Reiser. From Reiser he learned the theory that convictions were impossible without witnesses and dead witnesses made for terrible testimony. It didn’t always come to that. On one occasion an executive of Hearst’s American put up $5,000 bail to secure his release on a safecracking charge. There were newspapers to sell, after all.
By the time Prohibition came, and with it the enormous new opportunities for criminals, O’Banion was the leader of a mighty gang on the North Side. Among the senior members were Bugs Moran, Hymie Weiss, Schemer Drucci (the only Italian O’Banion ever trusted and vice versa), Dapper Dan McCarthy, Two-Gun Alterie and Frank Gusenberg. The O’Banions, almost completely Irish in lower-level manpower, formed an alliance with many Jewish gangsters of the old 20th Ward, especially those working with Nails Morton, and the gangs more or less merged. When Morton was killed in a horseback riding accident, the grief-stricken O’Banions exacted the proper underworld revenge by executing the horse.
O’Banion’s approach to Prohibition, even before it went into effect, was to stockpile supplies by hijacking booze from legitimate sources. He tried to continue the same method when the 19th Amendment became effective. “Let Johnny Torrio make the stuff,” he was quoted. “Ill steal what I want of it.” However, even a consummate thief like O’Banion could not steal enough to meet the needs on the North Side, and he started taking over some of the area’s top breweries and distilleries.
This switch in tactics removed a major source of conflict between the Torrio-Capone mob and the North Siders, although Torrio and Capone were deeply upset that O’Banion would not let them operate whorehouses in the North Side, which would have added millions to their income. Deanie’s religious inclinations simply would not allow dealing in bodies – although he seemed totally untroubled about filling bodies with lead. Still, if they won O’Banion’s forbearance about hijacking, Torrio was more than content to let the Irish keep the North Side.
Torrio was more concerned with syndicating the booze and other rackets in the city so that the various elements could function without harassment from other gangs. Given the makeup of the various gangs, the concept in at least some cases bordered on the utopian. In the first place O’Banion couldn’t give up hijacking booze forever; the principles of stealing were too strongly ingrained in him. Then to the Terrible Gennas could not be controlled. A murderous Sicilian family, they had organized moonshining in Little Italy into a veritable cottage industry, with the manufacturing of bathtub booze the chief source of income for many families. Since such rotgut was produced so cheaply, the Gennas could and did invade other areas and undersell other bootleg gangs.
O’Banion for one was not going to stand for that. Neither would Torrio. The O’Banions and the Gennas believed in direct action and warred on each other. Torrio, more cunning than either of them solved his problems by secretly helping Gennas knock off O’Banions and O’Banions knock off Gennas.
Then O’Banion pulled a swindle that victimized Torrio and caused him to lose face in the underworld. He informed Torrio he was quitting the rackets and was heading West as soon as he could sell off an illegal brewery for a half-million dollars. Torrio jumped at this opportunity to be rid of the unpredictable O’Banion and eagerly put up the money. Almost instantly after the deal was closed and Torrio took possession, federal agents swooped down and seized the brewery and charged Torrio with violation of the Prohibition law. Torrio discovered O’Banion had learned in advance of the upcoming raid and dumped off the property on Torrio. Even when Hymie Weiss, O’Banion’s loyal lieutenant, urged him to make amends to Torrio, the gang chief rejoiced contemptuously, “Oh, to hell with them Sicilians.”
Now all-out war was inevitable although Mike Merlo, a power in politics and the head of Unione Sicilana, the now bootlegger-corrupted fraternal organization, kept the peace for a time. Then in November Merlo died of natural causes and Torrio was free to act. O’Banion knew an attack was coming but figured his enemies would wait until Merlo was in the ground. He was wrong.
Deanie ran a florist shop on North State Street, directly opposite the church where he had once been a choirboy. The place was partly a dodge to provide him with a legitimate front, but it also satisfied his love for flowers. And O’Banion got a perverse joy out of making a small fortune from selling his blooms for the many gangland funerals. He did a land-office business for the Merlo affair, some of his creations selling for thousands of dollars. On the evening of November 9, he got a special order by telephone for a custom wreath to be picked up the following morning. At he appointed time three men appeared. “Hello, boys,” O’Banion greeted them. “You from Mike Merlo’s?”
The man in the middle nodded and grabbed O’Banion in a firm handshake. It was an old trick but O’Banion, given the solemnity of the occasion, fell for it. He could not escape the handshake and reach the guns he had on him at the time. The other two men pulled out guns and started firing. O’Banion took a bullet in each cheek, two through the throat at the larynx, and two in the right breast.
They gave O’Banion one of the most flower-bedecked funerals Chicago had ever seen. Naturally the murder was never officially solved, although the killers were later identified as Albert Anselmi and John Scalise. The handshaker was Frankie Yale, a big-shot gangster imported from New York especially for the job by Torrio and Capone.
The death of Deanie did not end the war, as the remaining O’Banions sought savage revenge for their chief’s death. Weiss and Drucci who in turn succeeded to leadership met lead-filled ends, and Johnny Torrio as well was nearly assassinated. Recovering from his near-fatal wounds, Torrio decided he’d had enough of Chicago and retired back to Brooklyn, taking $30 million with him in consolation. In the meantime Capone took charge and continued the war to win control of Chicago, masterminding the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which wiped out all the top North Siders except for Bugs Moran.
The importance of the fight with the O’Banions was that it kept Capone off-balance for years. He too thought of organizing crime nationally, but, unable to do what had to be done in Chicago, he was forced to leave that promising field open for the New York mobs under Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.
Crime Family Boss
If the average crime family “godfather” is supposed to inspire respect, Joe Profaci, the longtime boss of the Brooklyn crime family, missed the boat.
There probably was not a boss hated by more of his own men than Profaci, precisely because he ran his outfit in the “approved” old Sicilian manner, requiring every member of the family to pay him monthly dues of $25. By contrast, in Buffalo old Stefano Magaddino dispensed family funds every Christmas until he got too penurious to do so in his old age, but Joe Profaci never had suffered any such failing of giving. He simply took and took. Carmine Persico Jr., who later became a successor to the leadership of the family, once complained about Profaci to Joe Valachi: “Even if we go hijack some trucks he taxes us. I paid up to $1,800.”
In theory, the $25 monthly payments were to establish a slush fund to take care of legal fees, bribes and support payments to a soldier’s family if he was imprisoned, but it was a custom long abolished in other crime families. Profaci, although a multimillionaire who lived in a huge mansion on a 328-acre estate on Long Island, which boasted a hunting lodge and its own private airport, just was not going to miss any stray penny. Crime paid for Joe Profaci even if it did not pay as well as it should have for his soldiers. While it was true that all crime family bosses required their men to pay tribute to them in the form of a slice of whatever rackets they ran, it was supposed to be given with “affection” or as a “token of respect.” Profaci leaned very hard on his men to get his, and he ruled with an iron hand, ordering the execution of anyone objecting to his methods. For years the streets of Brooklyn were dotted with the corpses of those not following Profaci’s rules of the game.
The personal life of Profaci presented an entirely different picture of the crime boss. He has often been described as the most devout Catholic of the Mafia leaders, although there were those in the underworld, among them the Gallos and their followers, who said Profaci embraced religion most fervently after he developed cancer. Profaci attended St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn and even had a private altar constructed in his basement so that mass could be celebrated at family gatherings by a priest who was a close friend of the Profacis. In 1949 a group of leading Italian Americans, including some priests, petitioned Pope Pius XII to confer a knighthood on Profaci, a “son of Sicily” who, they said, had become a benefactor to the Italian-American community. Profaci was the leading importer of tomato paste and olive oil in the country, owned more than 20 other businesses and was known as the kindly employer of hundreds of fellow countrymen. These citizens also pointed out the Profaci was a most generous donor to many Catholic charities.
Profaci’s dream of papal approval was shattered however when the Brooklyn district attorney, Miles McDonald, protested to the Vatican that Profaci was a leading racketeer, extortionist, murderer and Mafia leader.
But the rebuff did not dampen Profaci’s desire to demonstrate his religious zeal – if in a somewhat murderous fashion. A young independent thief had the effrontery to steal a jeweled crown from St. Bernadette’s. Profaci took it as an insult not only to the Lord but also to the godfather himself. He passed the word that the crown was to be returned forthwith or blood would flow. The thief had no choice but to return the crown – no fence would dare handle it without the sure punishment of the mob. It was restored to the church, with a few of the jewels missing, and Profaci still ordered the death sentence. The thief was strangled with a rosary. Whatever Profaci’s judgements would be in the hereafter, the incident did much to solidify his exalted position on earth, in the mob world, demonstrating how might his wrath could be.
Despite Profaci’s ironfisted rule, he faced strong opposition within his family. The most determined opposition came from the Gallo brothers, who waged war against Profaci from 1960 until 1962 when Profaci died of cancer. The cause of the Gallo revolt was money – and the lack of it dispensed to their group by Profaci. The Gallos were willing and eager to by loyal to Profaci, a matter which they demonstrated when they killed a leading Brooklyn policy banker, Frank “Frankie Shots” Abbatemarco. The Gallos and their top gunner, Joe Kelly, had worked for Frankie Shots for several years, but when Profaci ordered him killed, they eagerly complied. Frankie Shots’s offense was to deny Profaci a $50,000 tribute, and the Gallos were promised a good portion of his racket for dispatching him. However, after the rubout, Profaci sort of forgot his promise and divided up the Shots’s empire among his family and friends.
The Gallos joined forces with other dissidents, including Jiggs Forlano, a high-powered loan shark operator, and Carmine Persico Jr., originally a Gallo trainee. The anti-Profaci forces kidnapped several of the enemy and barely missed snatching Profaci himself, who was tipped off and fled to Florida where he checked into a hospital for safekeeping. The kidnappers figured to hold the Profaci men until the crime boss agreed to deal with them fairly. Profaci secured the release of his men by making such promises and then split the enemy by promises of rewards to Forlano and Persico and some others if they would turn on the Gallos. The result was the bloody “mattress war” between the Profacis and the Gallos. The contest was still unresolved at Profaci’s death.
If Profaci died hating the Gallos, that was nothing compared to his hatred for two fellow crime family godfathers, Carlo Gambino and Tommy “Three Fingers Brown” Lucchese. They like Profaci were members of the national commission and, noting the troubles in the Profaci family, “suggested” that Profaci “retire.” Profaci, not unjustifiably, saw the Gambino-Lucchese ploy as an attempt to take over the Profaci empire and refused. All-out war threatened to take up arms on Profaci’s side if outsiders tried to depose him. Bonanno realized that if Profaci fell, Gambino and Lucchese would next turn on him.
Despite his many woes, Joe Profaci managed to die still in command of the crime family he had ruled for over three decades.
Today Arnold Rothstein is remembered by students of crime as the so-called mastermind of baseball’s worst gambling disgrace, the Black Sox scandal of 1919 when the World Series was fixed. Rothstein was a multimillionaire gambler, but he was much more than that. Indeed, he stands as the spiritual father of American organized crime.
He was known by many nicknames – Mr. Big, the Big Bankroll, the Brain, the Man Uptown, the Fixer. All were accolades to his importance in the world of crime, to his connections with the underworld and the underworld of police, judges and politicians. Although he operated strictly in the background, Rothstein may well have been the most important criminal of his era. At various times he financed the criminal activities – in fact, usually masterminded them – of the likes of Waxey Gordon, Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond. He was the early tutor of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Johnny Torrio. (Torrio never returned on a visit to New York from Chicago without having discussions with Rothstein.) It is generally acknowledged that Torrio, and later Lansky and Luciano, learned from Rothstein the joys of forming alliances, regardless of ethnic considerations, not only with underworld confederates, but also, above all, with those who could perform the political fix. The dollar, Rothstein pointed out, had only one nationality, one religion – profit.
Rothstein became known to all as the man who had influence everywhere and could fix anything. He could clear virtually any illegitimate activity through his political and police contacts. During Prohibition, a later study showed, Rothstein intervened in literally thousands of bootlegging cases that went to court. Of a total of 6,902 liquor-related Rothstein-era cases, 400 never even came to trial while another 6,074 ended in dismissal. Most of the credit had to go to Rothstein whose credentials with Tammany leader Charles Murphy were impeccable. Rothstein’s record in prostitution and gambling cases was equally as impressive.
Rothstein and Murphy altered the way graft was collected in New York. Up until their time the standard procedure was to use police as major graft collectors, allowing the politicians to remain somewhat aloof from the process. This was possible when the politicians, the hub of all illegal activities, bought the criminals and used them as they wished. With the new wealth of Prohibition, the central power shifted to the criminals – and above all, Rothstein. He could buy the political leaders, and insisted on direct payoffs to eliminate possible police defections. The police got separate grafts but they now became secondary to the power of the criminals and the politicians. When the criminals wanted changes in police procedures, the politicians saw that those changes were made. Is it any wonder that Rothstein in 1925 served as the inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby and later on for Nathan Detroit in the musical Guys and Dolls?
The Rothstein style was to hang back, to remain in the background while still seizing a major portion of all loot. Prohibition, he realized, was too immense a field to be dominated by one man or even one gang, so he moved himself into the safest part of the racket, importation, the area most insulated from arrest. Through aides, he made agreements with European distilleries for supplies. In that fashion he made himself immune to gangland assassination – if he was killed, the flow of good liquor would slow. He was simply too valuable to be allowed to die. (This was a lesson Meyer Lansky learned well, especially in gambling and the movement of money. The Mafia’s later dependence on Lansky allowed him to move freely among the carious gangs, indeed to be recognized as the ultimate power. The “Meyer is a Jew and has not vote” was a fiction maintained in the lower ranks of crime. The fact was that when the “Little Man” spoke, all the mobsters listened.)
Rothstein learned how to keep the various gangs content by apportioning supplies among them. By the mid-1920s, he had already started tapering off his interest in the booze racket, realizing Prohibition had to end some day. He was already laying the groundwork for a number of criminal empires – gambling, labor racketeering, diamond and drug smuggling. In fact, Rothstein was thinking in terms of a national syndicate. Lansky and Luciano, who instinctively leaned that way, heard his message clearly.
But Rothstein, the Brain, self-destructed. Gambling obsessed him and he bet compulsively. He made huge bets, won some and lost more. In 1928, Rothstein played in one of Broadway’s most fabulous poker games, one that lasted nonstop from September 8 to 10. At the end, Rothstein was out $320,000. That Rothstein could lose shocked the wise guys of Broadway, but not nearly as much as the fact that Rothstein welshed on the debt. He declared the game had been fixed.
On November 4, Rothstein was murdered at the Park Central Hotel. The prime suspects were the two California gamblers who had beat him in the game, Nigger Nate Raymond and Titanic Thompson. The case was never solved, and there have long been reports that the debt was merely a cover for the real motive of the murder, that an ambitious Dutch Schultz saw a chance to increase his own empire vastly by knocking off Rothstein.
Ironically, no suspicion ever rubbed off on Lansky and Luciano who profited most by Rothstein’s demise. It was they who moved on his ideas for a new syndicate. They developed close ties with labor racketeers Louis Lepke and Gurrah Shapiro, who in turn reached understandings with Schultz and other Jewish gangsters. And they gained the support of the young mafiosi and other Italian criminals who eventually purged the old-line Mafia leaders Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano.
Lansky and Luciano became fathers of the national crime syndicate, and in many respects Rothstein’s pivotal role was forgotten. Instead, his name is more widely recalled in constant retellings of the Black Sox scandal, and how he was alleged to have planned the fix by bribing several players of the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. Supposedly, Rothstein financed the great baseball betting coup through ex-featherweight boxing champion Abe Atell, although no firm evidence supports this. It is known that he was approached for financial backing, and it is also known that, at least at first, he withheld agreement. Rothstein probably didn’t put up any money, realizing the deal was so good it would go through with or without him. So why should he pay out bribe money? Instead, Rothstein remained aloof, simply bet $60,000 on his own on Cincinnati, and won $270,000. That version surely reflects the real Arnold Rothstein.
Many Americans felt that Arnold Rothstein and his cronies contaminated the game of baseball in 1919; attorneys attempted to find justice for those who were wronged. Today, the same effort is put forth on behalf of those who have suffered because of water contamination, benzene exposure and asbestos-related disease. Contact a mesothelioma attorney if you feel you have been unlawfully exposed.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel
Syndicate Leader and Victim
In superlatives about members of organized crime Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel certainly stands out in the most precocious category. When he was 14 years old he was running his own criminal gang and soon became a power on the Lower East Side. He teamed up with Meyer Lansky and the two formed the Bug and Meyer Mob, which handled contracts for the various bootleg gangs operating in New York and New Jersey – doing so almost a decade before Murder, Inc., was formed to handle such matters. The Bug and Meyers also kept themselves busy hijacking the booze cargoes of rival outfits. While Lansky clearly was the brains of the operation, Siegel was no flunky and stood on equal footing with him. Siegel frequently bowed to Lansky’s wishes out of a genuine affection and high regard in which he held Lansky.
By the time Siegel was 21 it would have been hard for him to mention any heinous crimes he had not committed. He was guilty of hijacking, mayhem, bootlegging, narcotics trafficking, white slavery, rape, burglary, bookmaking, robbery, numbers racket, extortion and numerous murders.
Along with Lansky he hooked up with some rising Italian mobsters – Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, Albert Anastasia, Tommy Lucchese, Vito Genovese and others – and with them would become one of the founding members of the national crime syndicate. Along the way, Siegel carried out a number of murders for the new combination to bring it to fruition. (Siegel was one of the gunmen who cut down Joe “the Boss” Masseria in a Coney Island restaurant in 1931.)
Siegel was always a man of the gun, feeling that a few homicides could clear up most any problem. And he was a “cowboy.” Years later a deputy district attorney in California explained why Siegel almost always had to lend a hand personally in mob murders: “In gangster parlance Siegel is what is known as a ‘cowboy.’ This is the way the boys have of describing a man who is not satisfied to frame a murder but actually has to be in on the kill in person.”
In the 1930s Siegel was sent from New York to California to run the syndicate’s West Coast operations, including the lucrative racing wire to service bookmakers. The Los Angeles Mafia was bossed by Jack Dragna. Siegel soon made it clear who was in charge. Considering Siegel’s reputation for violence and the fact that he had the backing of Lansky and Luciano who, from prison, sent word to Dragna that he had best cooperate, Dragna had to accept a second fiddle role.
Just because Siegel was a bit of a psychopath didn’t mean he wasn’t a charmer. As the saying went, he charmed the pants – and panties – off Hollywood, while at the same time he functioned as a mob killer. He was so enthused about killing, he was called “Bugsy,” but not in his presence. Face to face, he was just plain Ben. A suave, entertaining sort, Siegel hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities, including Jean Harlow, George Raft, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Wendy Barrie (who once announced her engagement to Bugsy and never gave up hoping) and many others, some of whom put money into his enterprises. Siegel could be at a party with his “high class friends” and then slip away for a quick murder mission with a longtime murder mate of his, Frankie Carbo (who later became the underworld’s boss of boxing). Siegel played his cowboy role in 1939 when he knocked off an errant mobster named Harry Greenberg on orders from New York.
While a busy man about Hollywood, running the mob rackets and committing murder, Siegel still had time for some truly bizarre stunts. There was the time he and one of his mistresses, Countess Dorothy diFrasso, traveled to Italy to peddle a revolutionary explosive device to Benito Mussolini. While staying on the diFrasso estate, Siegel, the wild little Jew from New York’s Lower East Side, met top Nazis Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels. Underworld legend has it that the Bug took an instant dislike to the pair, for personal rather than political reasons, and planned to bump them off. He only relented because of the countess’s anxious pleas. The explosive device proved a failure and Bugs and his lady returned to Hollywood where he took on the added mob chore of setting up a narcotics smuggling operation out of Mexico.
In the early 1940s Lansky had Siegel scout out Las Vegas as the possible site for a lavish gambling casino and plush hotel. At first Siegel thought the idea was loony, regarding Las Vegas as little more than a comfort station in the desert for passing travelers. However, the more Siegel looked at the possibilities the more he liked the idea, and he became the enthusiastic booster for a legal gambling paradise. He talked the syndicate into putting up a couple of million dollars to build a place, and the figure soon escalated to $6 million.
Siegel dubbed the place the Flamingo, the nickname of another Siegel mistress, Virginia Hill. At one brief time after the Flamingo opened Siegel had four of his favorite women lodged in separate plush suites. They were Virginia Hill, Countess diFrasso, and actresses Wendy Barrie and Marie McDonald. Whenever she saw Wendy, Virginia went wild and once at the Flamingo punched the English actress, nearly dislocating her jaw.
However, woman trouble was not Bugsy’s main worry. The syndicate was upset about its $6 million. When the Flamingo first opened, it proved a financial disaster. Reportedly, the mobs from around the country demanded their money back. What really upset them was the accurate suspicion that Bugsy had been skimming off the construction funds, as well as some of the gambling revenues, and having Hill park it in Switzerland for him.
The syndicate passed the death sentence on Siegel at the famous Havana conference in December 1946. Despite his later denials, the key vote was cast by Meyer Lansky and affirmed by Luciano. Siegel knew he was in deep trouble but got what he thought was an extension of time to turn the Flamingo around. By May 1947, it was making a profit and Bugsy started to relax.
On June 20, Bugsy was sitting in the living room of Virginia Hill’s $500,000 mansion in Beverly Hills. Virginia was in Europe at the time. Siegel was reading the Los Angeles Times when two steel-jacketed slugs from an army carbine tore through a window and smashed into his face. One crashed the bridge of his nose and drove into his left eye. The other entered his right cheek and went through the back of his neck, shattering a vertebra. Authorities later found his right eye on the dining room floor some 15 feet away from the body.
Some thought Jack Dragna, nursing his longtime hatred for Bugsy, had carried out the hit personally, but this was almost certainly not true. The most informed guess was that Frankie Carbo handled the chore on direct orders from Lansky, who doubtless grieved that such an old and dear friend had to go.
In the grim months before Siegel’s murder, construction tycoon Del Webb had expressed nervousness about his personal safety with so many menacing types around the Flamingo. In a philosophical mood, Bugsy told him not to worry. He noted he himself had carried out 12 murders, all of which had been strictly for business reasons. Webb, Bugsy said, had nothing to fear because “we only kill each other.”
That was certainly true in the Bug’s case.
Mafia’s Favorite Singer
Sinatra and the mob – it’s an old and long, long story and perhaps less significant than one might think. Some feel there is much to be made of it. Sinatra himself felt too much was made of it. He was in showbiz, he said, and there is no way to avoid gangsters all of the time.
Still, it’s closer to the truth to say that Sinatra went out of his way to be with them than to avoid them. He flew to Havana in 1946 to attend a big underworld bash for Lucky Luciano (who had only months before been deported back to Italy after being paroled from his organized prostitution conviction). Later, when Luciano was away from his home in Naples, Italian police found a gold cigarette case with the inscription: “To my dear pal Lucky, from his friend, Frank Sinatra.”
During the Kefauver investigation, Sinatra was questioned in advance by committee counsel Joseph L. Nellis to determine if he should be called to testify. At a 4a.m. meeting held in an office atop Rockefeller Center, Sinatra was asked about mobsters he knew, and he acknowledged “knowing” or “seeing” or saying “hello” and “goodbye” to an impressive – but possibly incomplete – list of them: Lucky Luciano; the brothers Fischetti, Joe, Rocco and Charles, cousins of Al Capone and powers in the Chicago Outfit; Meyer Lansky; Frank Costello; Joe Adonis; Longy Zwillman; Willie Moretti; Jerry Catena and Bugsy Siegel. Ultimately the Kefauver Committee did not call Sinatra. With Sinatra’s career then in decline, the committee felt no real purpose would be served by lambasting him in public and perhaps finishing off his career. Implicit in that decision was the fact that Sinatra, even if the senators didn’t know it at the time, was little more than a Mafia groupie. Joe E. Lewis and Jimmy Durante would qualify just as readily.
After the hearings Sinatra’s career revitalized, and he continued to be linked with mafiosi, but it would be hard to tell whether Sinatra was more entranced with mobsters or they with him. Each at various times may have gained something from the other. Ralph Salerno, a specialist on organized crime formerly with the New York Police Department, quoted by Nicholas Gage in The Mafia is not an Equal Opportunity Employer, was upset that people, knowing Sinatra was an acquaintance of presidents and kings, would figure his other pals were okay. “That’s the service Sinatra renders his gangster friends,” says Salerno. “You’d think a guy like Sinatra would care about that. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t give a damn.”
Actually the mob was able to use Sinatra and his P.R. clout many times. When Doc Stacher, Meyer Lansky’s close associate, was building the Sands in Las Vegas, he told interviewers years later, “we . . . sold Frank Sinatra a nine percent stake in the hotel. Frank was flattered to be invited, but the object was to get him to perform there, because there’s no bigger draw in Las Vegas. When Frankie was performing, the hotel really filled up.”
Sinatra’s first gangster friend appears to have been Willie Moretti, the New Jersey extortionist, narcotics trafficker and murderer. Moretti, also known as Willie Moore, took a liking to the young fellow New Jerseyan and helped him get some band dates when he was struggling in local clubs and roadhouses for peanuts.
Then Sinatra recorded his first hit song with Harry James in 1939, “All or Nothing at All,” and eventually went to work for Tommy Dorsey for what seemed an astronomical salary of $125 a week. A myth built up after Sinatra and Dorsey had parted that they remained warm friends. “Hot enemies” would have been a better description. Sinatra’s popularity had soared. Bobbysoxers followed him everywhere. He desperately wanted to dump Dorsey, and the underworld story has long circulated that Willie Moretti came to the rescue. Moretti was said to have obtained Sinatra’s release from the band leader in convincing Mafia style, jamming a gun in Dorsey’s mouth. The hard bargaining that followed called for Dorsey to get $1 in compensation for selling him Sinatra’s contract.
Not that Moretti didn’t also chastise the singer at times. When Sinatra’s marriage to his first wife, Nancy, was busting up and he was planning to marry Ava Gardner, the mobster wired Sinatra: “I AM VERY MUCH SURPRISED WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING IN THE NEWSPAPERS BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR DARLING WIFE. REMEMBER YOU HAVE A DECENT WIFE AND CHILDREN. YOU SHOULD BE VERY HAPPY. REGARDS TO ALL. WILLIE MOORE.”
As it turned out, Sinatra had little more time in which to offend Moretti. The mafioso was executed by the mob. His advanced syphilis affected his brain, and it was feared he was revealing too much about Mafia operations.
In later years Sinatra was frequently linked with a number of other top mafiosi, especially Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli, the Chicago mob honchos. Sinatra was embarrassed with a news photograph showing him with an arm around Luciano at the time of the infamous Havana gathering. In more recent years another widely published photograph, taken in Sinatra’s dressing room at the Westchester, New York, Premier Theater, shows the star grinning widely in the company of such mafiosi as the late Carlo Gambino, hit man-cum-informer Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno, and three others later convicted and sentenced for fraud and skimming the theater’s box office.
In 1985, cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted a tribute to Sinatra by President Ronald Reagan and followed it in the next panel with the Westchester theater photo. Outraged, Sinatra issued a statement through his personal public relations firm: “Garry Trudeau makes his living by his attempts at humor without regard to fairness or decency. I don’t know if he has made any effort on behalf of others or done anything to help the less fortunate in this country or elsewhere. I am happy to have the President and the people of the United States judge us by our respective track records.”
Over the years Sinatra was as thick with presidents and presidential candidates as with mafiosi. He had close ties with John Kennedy (until barred from the White House by Robert Kennedy after he checked Sinatra’s background), Hubert Humphrey (who scheduled him for a series of fund-raising concerts but quietly dropped him from the campaign in 1968 after a Wall Street Journal piece listed some of his underworld relationships), Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford and, of course, President Reagan.
Jimmy the Weasel, after he turned informer, was apparently quite upset when the Federal Strike Force didn’t go ahead with a case that had what he clearly regarded as Sinatra star quality. According to Fratianno Sinatra “gofer” Jilly Rizzo approached him and complained about a former Sinatra security guard the singer had fired; he was supposedly supplying the weekly tabloids with material about Sinatra. The word was that the man, Andy “Banjo” Celentano, was about to write a book about Sinatra. The Weasel quoted Rizzo as saying: “We want this guy stopped once and for all,” meaning that Celantano should have his legs broken and be put in the hospital. “Let’s see if he gets the message.” Fratianno accepted the assignment to watch Celentano, but neither he nor other California mafiosi could locate their target. Celentano solved their problem altogether by suffering a fatal heart attack on October 8, 1977.
Clearly, the Weasel saw a delightful show trial in his revelations and was disappointed when the Federal Strike Force showed little interest in the matter. There was no evidence tying in Sinatra, and certainly federal lawyers weren’t wild about pursuing Jilly Rizzo. Not when, as one told Fratianno, “you’ve got a chance to put bosses in prison. Those are one-in-a-lifetime chances. With an informant-type witness, overexposure is a terminal disease.” Politely, the government was telling Fratianno that there was no legal case and they were not going to let him grab headlines for scandal purposes.
Unlike with cartoonist Trudeau, Sinatra expressed no outrage when deadly hit man Fratianno recounted the details of the alleged incident in his book The Last Mafioso.
Syndicate “Brain” and Capone Sponsor
His contributions to the fathering of syndicate crime were enormous. Johnny Torrio taught Al Capone all he ever knew. Yet that hardly measures Torrio’s impact on organized crime. He was nicknamed “the Brain,” a sobriquet borne, significantly, by two other men – Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lanksy. Crime historians agree that this trio, often working in tandem and certainly conferring frequently, laid out the basic strategy for organizing crime in America. Lucky Luciano, similarly, is recognized as the “doer” who ultimately carried out the plan.
If there is any knock on Torrio it is that he failed to develop a doer to carry out his plans to the fullest. His protégé, Capone, did not organize crime in America and, in fact, never completed the chore of organizing Chicago although he was nearing that goal when he went to prison in the early 1930s. Experts agree Chicago was the toughest place of all to bring under organized control; by comparison Luciano, with strong assistance from Jewish mobsters, had a relative breeze in New York.
Even after Luciano and Lansky succeeded in genuinely organizing crime, they frequently sought out the advice of the then-retired Torrio. (By that time Rothstein had been murdered.)
Born in Italy in 1882 and brought to New York at the age of two, Torrio grew up in the ghetto of the Lower East Side. He was still in his teens when he rose to the positions of subchief in Paul Kelly’s huge Five Points Gang, one of the city’s two most powerful (the other being the Eastmans), and of head of his own subgang, the James Streeters. Torrio managed in this period to avoid ever being arrested although his reputation as a tough young gangster grew. Known as Terrible Johnny, he took part in a number of gang battles and was adept with fists, boots and knives. As an opponent, he was regarded as cold, cruel and above all calculating. He was extremely short but his natural meanness qualified him as a bouncer at Mike’s on Pell Street, regarded as one of the roughest and wildest joints in Manhattan, where, incidentally, Irving Berlin got his start as a singing waiter.
By 1912 the Bowery was no longer a big-money center, and Torrio shifted his personal interests to a bar and brothel for seamen in an even tougher section near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Now and then he offered strongarm employment to one of his James Street gang, a big, bullying teenage hoodlum name Al Capone.
Torrio felt the rewards of the whoring business were limited; he got into hijacking and narcotics. He expounded on how crime could be made into a big business. Those who listened to him, including Capone started calling him “the Brain.”
As early as 1909 Torrio was trekking west to Chicago from time to time to do mob chores for his uncle by marriage, Big Jim Colosimo, the biggest whoremaster in that city. Around 1915, when Torrio was 33, Big Jim offered Torrio a full-time job with him. Torrio turned over most of his Brooklyn racket operations to his partner, Frankie Yale. In Chicago Torrio took over running most of Big Jim’s whore joints, everything from such landmarks as the House of All Nations to the low-cost joints on what was known as Bedbug Row. Under Torrio all of these places upped their revenues handsomely.
Late in 1919 Torrio brought Capone out to Chicago, after he was informed Capone was having some troubles concerning a couple of murders. Technically, Capone was to help out in the whorehouses, but actually Torrio wanted Capone as his link for Prohibition and the bootlegging that would follow, knowing the racket would be worth a mint. The only trouble was the Torrio couldn’t interest Big Jim in the booze business. He had made the mistake of making Colosimo so rich that he was lazy and couldn’t see the need for more money. Torrio understood that Big Jim was a hindrance to his own ambitions and to the operation in general. He resolved that he had to go. By this time Capone was Torrio’s number one aide, but he knew neither of them could assassinate Big Jim without coming under immediate suspicion. Frankie Yale came west to handle the job.
Once Colosimo was erased, Torrio simply moved in and took over the entire organization. Anybody objecting had to deal with Capone. However, Torrio didn’t see himself merely as the head of Big Jim’s old empire. He wanted to build a new kind of empire in Chicago, one that brought all the gangs under a single confederation. Each gang would have its own area to milk without any competition. He called all the gangs together – the Italian gangs, many of whom were mafioso, the North Side Irish, the South Side Poles, etc. He promised them that they’d all make millions and, what was more important, actually live to enjoy their wealth. Torrio did not believe in the veiled threat; the alternative, he said softly, was war and he would win that. It was join the new syndicate setup or, sooner or later, die.
The various gang leaders were tough men who’d made it to the top because they could shove better than others, but most of them were persuaded, by Torrio’s logic and perhaps as well by his threats. Some of the others, especially among the Irish gangs, said they would join up but didn’t. War soon raged, with the tough North Siders headed by the murderous and erratic Dion O’Banion. The Italian Genna gang joined but never stopped double-dealing, continuing to invade other territories with its lower-priced rotgut. The wars that raged often were multisided and marked by double crosses, with henchmen bribed to kill their own leaders.
Several Genna men fell, but O’Banion remained a thorn. Then suddenly O’Banion sent word to Torrio that he wanted to quit the rackets and get out. If he could sell his Seiben Brewery for a half-million dollars, he would be through. Torrio jumped at the offer. It was a cheap price to pay to have O’Banion go away. A week after the deal was finalized and O’Banion got his money, federal agents raided the brewery and confiscated everything. Torrio realized O’Banion had suckered him. He discovered O’Banion had been tipped off that the federal action was in the works and had cunningly let Torrio take the loss.
Torrio stormed about his office, brandishing a gun and screaming he’d have vengeance on the Irish mobster. It was an uncommon reaction from Torrio who seldom let his emotions show. Torrio made good on his threats. Frankie Yale, Colosimo’s assassin, was sent for again. Yale and two hoods, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, murdered O’Banion in the flower shop he ran.
Capone was overjoyed by O’Banion’s murder, but Torrio knew it would only produce more gang conflict. O’Banion’s gang, now bossed by Hymie Weiss, would fight and the longer it took Torrio to subdue them, the greater the chances other gangs would start revolting. As expected, Weiss and some of his boys tried to ambush Torrio as he was riding in his limousine. The chauffeur and Torrio’s dog were shot to death, but Johnny escaped with just two bullet holes in his gray fedora. Torrio and Capone and his gunners went looking for Weiss but Hymie stayed undercover. Then on January 24, 1925, Torrio was ambushed in front of his apartment building. He was cut down with a shotgun blast and then a second gunman pumped four slugs into him. Hit in the chest, arm and stomach, Torrio hovered near death for a week and a half while Capone kept a troop of 30 hoods stationed around the hospital to ward off any further tries at him.
After Torrio recovered, he did a lot of thinking. His dream for a syndicate setup in Chicago was far from realized and any hope for a national syndicate was still far in the future. And there was an excellent chance he’d be killed. He’d survived five years at the top in Chicago gangland, no easy task. He was 43 years old and had $30 million. Torrio’s pioneering was done. He told Capone: “It’s all yours, Al. I’ve retired.”
Torrio walked away from what was up until then the greatest setup ever established. It was he rather than Capone who had first said, “I own the police force.” Now he was going to retire in Brooklyn after lazing around for a year or two in the Mediterranean sun.
The law and the press often expressed doubts that he really retired, but basically he did except for occasionally playing elder statesman. Luciano and the emerging national crime syndicate often sought his advice, as did Capone. Torrio attended the underworld’s landmark 1929 Atlantic City Conference, and it is know that his counsel was sought before the decision was voted to hit Dutch Schultz because of his dangerous plan to assassinate prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. It was said that several Murder, Inc., hits also required his approval. Torrio said it wasn’t so at all, that he was a has-been who just wanted to die in bed.
In April 1957 Johnny Torrio sat down in a Brooklyn barbershop chair and suffered a heart attack. He lingered long enough to die in bed. He was 75.
Ironically, a few months later, Albert Anastasia was assassinated in a barber chair in Manhattan. Anastasia had been relaxing with his eyes closed when the assassins struck. Torrio, on the other hand, had not been an assassination victim and hadn’t expected to be. But in the barber chair, he had been sitting Chicago-style – with his eyes wide open and the chair facing the door so that he could see who was coming. Johnny Torrio was the cautious one right to the very end.
Despite its notoriety, Joe Valachi’s testimony before a Senate committee never led – directly – to the jailing of any criminal. That was not the importance of Valachi’s testimony about organized crime, what he called “Cosa Nostra.” A barely literate, low-ranking member of the Mafia whose first-hand experiences were frankly limited to less-important events, Valachi was obviously talking beyond his personal experience. Additionally, Valachi was not the most discerning observer. In the underworld the telling of false tales between mobsters, the claims of credit not deserved for important incidents, are common. When another criminal bragged to Valachi that he did this or shot so-and-so, Valachi tended to believe it. As a result some of his information is false and some strains credulity.
Yet Joe Valachi remains one of only a few Mafia members who violated omerta, the code of silence. In September and October 1963 the gravel-voiced, chain-smoking killer enthralled much of the national television audience as he told Senator John L. McClellan and the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee about the inner structure of the Mafia and organized crime.
“Not since Frank Costello’s fingers drummed the table during the Kefauver hearings,” the New York Times editorialized, “has there been so fascinating a show.”
The Valachi revelations were often chilling, including the details of a number of murders in which he took part. Even though he functioned mainly on the street level, he still offered an inside view of the struggle for power within the Mafia and of the double-dealing that is part of the Honored Society. While it is true that many of the incidents and facts that Valachi described were known to police, he still filled in some gaps and provided a rationale linking one development to another and added to an understanding of the dimensions of syndicated crime.
Valachi joined Salvatore Maranzano’s organization in the late 1920s and was indoctrinated officially in the organization in 1930. He served Maranzano until his assassination in 1931 and thereafter spent most of his time under Vito Genovese in the Luciano family. His criminal record dated back to his teens. As a “soldier,” or “button man,” in the mob his duties included that of a hit man, enforcer, numbers operator and drug pusher until 1959, when he was sentenced to 15 to 20 years on drug trafficking charges.
Confined to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, Valachi was a cellmate of Genovese, who had become head of the Luciano crime family and, after Luciano’s deportation to Italy, according to Valachi, the “boss of bosses” within the Mafia. Clearly, Valachi was in no position to comprehend the workings of the national crime syndicate or gauge the vital importance to organized crime of men like Meyer Lansky, Longy Zwillman, Doe Dalitz and others. He was only the Italian end of the racket, which was typical among lower-echelon Mafia soldiers. (The lower one goes in the Mafia structure, the more one finds the will to believe in the all-powerfulness of the Italian society.)
In 1962, Valachi later revealed, Genovese wrongfully came to suspect Valachi of being an informer and gave him the “kiss of death,” a sign to Valachi that Genovese had ordered his assassination. Valachi was terrified and in his terror later mistook a prisoner named Joe Saupp for Joe Beck (Joe DiPalermo), whom he identified as the man assigned to kill him. Valachi killed Saupp with an iron pipe and after he got a life sentence for that killing, he decided to turn informer and get federal protection.
By the time he sang for the McClellan Committee, he was guarded by some 200 U.S. marshals, which at least indicated how highly the federal agents regarded his revelations. The Mafia itself thought highly of them too, putting a $100,000 price tap on Valachi’s head. Valachi himself was not surprised by that. “You live by the gun and the knife,” he said, “and you die by the gun and the knife.”
In all it was said that Valachi helped to identify 317 members of the Mafia, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called Valachi’s testimony “a significant addition to the broad picture” of organized crime. “It gives meaning to much that we already know and brings the picture into sharper focus.”
This did not prevent disparagement of many of Valachi’s claims. Quite a few law enforcement officials found much of Valachi’s testimony little more than good theater, much of it erroneous and even ludicrous. Many considered the idea of Genovese as the boss of bosses from 1946 on as absolutely silly. The most important voice within the American Mafia in 1946, at the Havana conference in December of that year and for many years thereafter, remained Luciano, even in exile. Otherwise the most important voice was the “little man,” Meyer Lansky. As Luciano himself put it to his Italian associates, “listen to the little man” or “listen to Meyer.” But poor Valachi could never have comprehended a Jew telling mafiosi what to do. There is no doubt Genovese wanted to become Boss of Bosses, but he never made the grade, even after he had Albert Anastasia murdered in 1957. More powerful hands than his doomed him after that.
Although the underworld sought to disparage Valachi, he was never considered very highly. Another Mafia informer, Vincent Tresca, later confined with Valachi, came to like him but said he was a small-timer and a mob gofer. “To the mob, Joe was a facci-due – two-faced in Italian. No one trusted him in the mob long before he talked.” There is ample suspicion in the case of Eugenio Giannini, whose murder Valachi arranged, to indicate that Valachi may well have been an informer long before he went to Atlanta.
Quite naturally the mob itself sought to discredit Valachi, and his nickname may be a case in point. In The Valachi Papers, Valachi explained that in his youth, he built makeshift scooters out of wooden crates. “This earned him the nickname Joe Cargo, which later in his criminal career was corrupted to Cago.” However, the mob told it different, pointing out jocularly that “Cago” was an Italian word for excrement. Perhaps a better illustration of the fact that Valachi was not highly thought of in the Mafia was revealed by some of his own testimony which was not reported in The Valachi Papers. It turned out that the highly placed Paul Gambino, Carlo’s brother, came to see Valachi shortly after the Anastasia murder when it looked like war could break out in the crime family. Paul Gambino said, “I have a lot of respect for your opinion regardless of how other people feel. What should we do?” it was obvious that Gambino really was not seeking Valachi’s advice but rather was pumping him if he knew of any plot against the Gambinos. The key words of course were “regardless of how other people feel.”
There is need, in a historical sense, to compare, Valachi’s many disclosures to the later revelations in the memoirs or reminiscences of such syndicate higher-ups as Luciano, Lansky and Doc Stacher, among others. Certainly these throw considerable doubt on Valachi’s versions of who killed such victims as Peter “the Clutching Hand” Morello, a job he credited to “Buster from Chicago.” Luciano credits the murder to Anastasia and Frank Scalise, a claim that also fits far more logically. Apparently Buster was pulling Valachi’s leg. Similarly, Valachi really had no inside information on who was in on Joe the Boss Masseria’s murder and had the names in several cases wrong.
Then too there was a feeling that Valachi had been coached to refer to “Cosa Nostra” as a proper name rather than as merely a generic term meaning “our thing” used by mafiosi in casual conversations. The Cosa Nostra label proved very important to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who for decades insisted there was no such thing as a Mafia or organized crime – the better not to have to fight them. With disclosure of a “new” crime group, suddenly, with a straight face, Hoover could assert the FBI knew all about the Cosa Nostra and the “agents have penetrated its workings and its leadership” for “several years.”
On balance, there can be no doubt that Valachi’s testimony, supplemented by “The Valachi Papers, had a devastating effect on the Mafia. At the end of 1966 a survey by the New York City Police Department showed that in the three years since Valachi talked more members of the syndicate in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area had been jailed than in the pervious 30 years.
The Valachi revelations sank Vito Genovese as well. Up till then he had ruled the Luciano-Genovese family from behind bars, but now his influence started to collapse. Indeed the family, long the most important in the country, lost influence, and the previously much smaller Anastasia family under the shrewd Carlo Gambino grew in numbers and power and became the foremost outfit.
War of the Jews
Before modern organized crime could be established in America, it was necessary to bump off those Italian and Jewish gangsters who were not responsive to the notion of a national syndicate. In the case of the Italians, Lucky Luciano solved the problem, exterminating the leading Mustache Petes, old-line mafiosi who were set in their ways and incapable of cooperating with other ethnics, and often loathe even to ally themselves with mafiosi from other Sicilian villages. The Jews were the responsibility of Meyer Lansky, who not only brought Jewish gangsters into the fold, but also achieved for himself supremacy among his coreligionists. (Most already accepted his primacy, due to his obvious intellectual superiority and the muscle effectively supplied by his chief aide, Bugsy Siegel.)
Lansky’s plan was opposed principally by Waxey Gordon, the bootleg king of Philadelphia. Both he and Lansky had been “brought up” by Arnold Rothstein, perhaps the finest criminal organizer of the 1920s, not illogically nicknamed “the Brain.” After Rothstein’s murder in 1928, ill feelings between Lansky and Gordon erupted. Gordon suspected, rightly, that Lansky (and Luciano) had frequently hijacked his liquor shipments while Lansky suspected, rightly, that Gordon sought to make deals with Luciano’s enemies within the Mafia.
The feud turned bitter and violent and each side suspected the other, undoubtedly rightly, of several gang murders. Luciano for a time tried to act as peacemaker, but by 1931, Lansky and Gordon had come to blows in what became known as the “War of the Jews.”
Luciano realized that one or the other of the Jewish mob leaders would have to go, and that leader would not be Lansky. Just as Lansky had helped solve Luciano’s Mustache Pete problems, Charley Lucky now took care of Lansky’s. it was Luciano who decided the solution lay with the government. Internal Revenue was, at the time (1931), trying to levy tax evasion charges against Gordon, but their case was weak and sketchy. Luciano saw to it that all sort of incriminating documents reached officials. Gordon was sent to prison, never realizing the true cause of his woes.
Lansky saw that, with the end of Prohibition, the future in booze lay in controlling legitimate trafficking of imports. His natural rival would undoubtedly prove to be Charles “King” Solomon of Boston who handled much of the scotch whiskey entering the country. Solomon’s murder took care of that detail, and shortly after that, Lansky’s ethnic creation, the Jewish Mafia, finely honed by him in the early 1930s, became the dominant element in syndicate crime along with the Luciano forces.
The “War of the Jews” had ended in a momentous victory for organized crime.
Copyright © 2000 CarpeNoctem. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 2003.
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