10 Fascinating Things About New York's Black Mafia
10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia

Khalid Elhassan - April 12, 2018

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
Frank Lucas. Harlem World Magazine

Frank Lucas Smuggled Heroin Inside the Corpses of Fallen Heroes

Frank Lucas (1930 – ) is perhaps the most famous African American crime boss, after his criminal career was the subject of Ridley Scot’s 2007 blockbuster, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas. While the movie took artistic license, it got the broad strokes right: he was a big wheel in the heroin trade, and was one of America’s biggest drug dealers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Lucas was born and raised in North Carolina, and claimed he was traumatized into a life of crime after witnessing his 12 year old cousin get his brains blown out by the KKK for his “reckless eyeballing” of a white woman. After a few years of petty crimes, such as mugging drunks outside bars, he got a job at a pipe company when he was 16. His employment ended when his boss walked in on his daughter and Lucas having sex. In the ensuing fight, Lucas knocked out the outraged father with a pipe blow to the head. Then figuring in for a penny, in for a pound, he stole $400 from the company till, and fled to New York City. There, Lucas met and became the protege of Bumpy Johnson, Harlem’s crime boss. However, Lucas was given to stretching the truth, or outright fibbing, so the details of his early life, which are based on his own accounts, should be taken with a grain of salt.

When Bumpy Johnson died in 1968, he left Harlem up for grabs, and Lucas grabbed as much turf as he could. He then took to travelling, and in Thailand he ran into a US Army sergeant who turned out be a distant cousin, and who put Lucas in touch with local heroin dealers. The cousins worked out a plan to import heroin from its source in Southeast Asia, bypassing the Italian mafia which had a near total heroin monopoly at the time. The saving were huge: buying heroin at source cost Lucas $4200 a kilo. Buying the same kilo in Harlem from the mafia would have cost him $50,000.

The main difficulty was getting the drugs into the US. The cousins solved it by smuggling the drugs into the US inside the coffins of American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War. Lucas claimed that heroin bricks were stuffed inside the cadavers of the fallen. His cousin disputed that, however, and contended that the drugs were smuggled in relatively less ghoulish fashion, in the coffins but not inside the corpses.

However he actually smuggled it, Lucas smuggled a lot of heroin into the US. He claimed that he made $1 million a day from heroin at the height of his career. It was an exaggeration, but he did make a whole lot of money from heroin. He used the drug profits to buy real estate all over the country, including ranches in which he raised and bred Black Angus cattle, apartments in Miami and LA, and office buildings in Detroit.

His career ended in 1975, when his New Jersey home was raided by a joint DEA and NYPD task force, and authorities found $584,000 in cash. He was tried on federal and state drug charges, convicted, and sentenced in 1976 to 70 years in prison. As Nicky Barnes would do a few years later, Frank Lucas got out by turning state’s evidence and testifying against his former colleagues. Lucas and his family were placed in the Witness Protection Program in 1977, and between his testimony and evidence he gave the authorities, over 100 drug related convictions were secured.

He was rewarded for his cooperation in 1981 with a sentence reduction to time served plus lifetime parole, and he walked out of prison, a free man. Lucas was back behind bars in 1984, after he was caught and convicted of trying to swap some heroin and cash for a kilo of cocaine. He was sentenced to seven years, and released in 1991. He walked the straight and narrow, or at least has not been convicted of anything major, since then.

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
Frank Matthews. Pintrest

Frank Matthews Went on the Lam, Taking His Girlfriend and $20 Million in Cash

A far bigger and wealthier drug dealer than the better known Nicky Barnes and more famous Frank Lucas, Frank Matthews (born 1944) was in a league of his own. He was America’s biggest narcotics trafficker when he jumped bail in 1973 and disappeared with $20 million. Despite their best efforts, authorities caught neither hide nor hair of him, and he has been at large ever since.

He was born in Durham, North Carolina, and after his mother’s death, he was raised by an aunt and her police lieutenant husband. Being raised in a police household did not stop Matthews from becoming a delinquent, however. He dropped out of school in 7th grade, and soon thereafter did a year in a juvenile reformatory for assault. He moved to Philadelphia after his release and became a numbers runner, before moving to NYC in a deal to avoid prosecution.

A big and muscular man, Matthews became a collector and enforcer in NYC, before getting into the drug trade upon discovering that there was far more money in that. The Italian mafia controlled the heroin trade at the time, but when Matthews tried doing business with them, they rejected him. From then on, he had an antipathy towards the Italian mafia, and avoided working with whenever possible. In lieu of Italian mobsters, he partnered up with a Cuban drug dealer. His partner was forced to flee the US soon thereafter to avoid an indictment, and set Matthews up with his South American contacts and suppliers.

Within a year, Frank Matthews had become one of NYC’s biggest drug dealers, and by the early 1970s, he was the East Coast’s biggest narcotics trafficker. At the peak of his career, he was supplying major drug dealers throughout the US, and had operations in 21 states, from Boston to Alabama, and as far west as Missouri. In 1971, he held a “summit” meeting in Atlanta of the country’s biggest African-American drug dealers, to discuss new supply pipelines to break the Italians’ stranglehold on heroin importation. Reportedly, it was this gathering of black crime bosses that got Nicky Barnes thinking about setting up “The Council” to coordinate the activity of a black mafia.

Matthews savored his success to the fullest, enjoying the high life and living it up with luxury cars, huge fur coats, and trips to Las Vegas where he was treated like a king. His visits to Sin City were not just for pleasure, however. Over the years, Matthews had made frequent trips to Las Vegas, carrying suitcases full of cash to secretly launder at the casinos for a fee.

In early January of 1973, on one of those trips, he was picked up at the airport by DEA agents on an arrest warrant for conspiracy to sell 40 pounds of cocaine. The feds, who suspected Matthews of having millions in cash stashed away, wanted him held without bail as a severe flight risk. A US magistrate however set bail at $5 million bail – the highest bail amount in US history at the time.

Matthews, who was also told by the IRS that he owed taxes on the estimated $100 million he earned in 1971, knew he was in serious trouble. Even if he beat the drug charges, the feds would almost certainly get him on tax evasion, just like they got Al Capone. When his bail was reduced to $325,000, he paid it, got out of jail, then disappeared with his girlfriend and about $20 million in cash.

Over four decades later, Frank Matthews’ fate remains a complete mystery. According to Mike Pizzi, a US Marshall who spent years involved in a futile hunt for the fugitive, it is as if Matthews simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Frank Lucas opined on the disappearance: “Some say he’s dead, but I know he’s living in Africa, like a king, with all the fucking money in the world“.

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
John Torrio, founder of the National Crime Syndicate. Mafia Stories

Black Crime Bosses Joined the National Crime Syndicate, an Umbrella Group For American Organized Crime

En route to establishing “The Council” was “The National Crime Syndicate”, an umbrella group for all organized crime in the US, whose ranks included the country’s major black crime bosses. The Syndicate was the brainchild of Johnny Torrio, (1882 – 1957), who is best known as the founder of the Chicago Outfit – the criminal empire inherited and made infamous by his successor, Al Capone.

Torrio was a visionary. When Prohibition began, he saw the opportunity for fabulous riches in making alcohol and selling it at a steep markup, now that it was illegal. So he came up with the idea of buying breweries, now closed and on the market for pennies on the dollar. He would operate them illegally to supply the thousands of speakeasies, brothels, and nightclubs in Chicago and the surrounding region.

However, his boss, Big Jim Colosimo, rejected the idea on grounds it would drag him into unwanted confrontations with other criminal outfits, all of whom wanted a piece of the illegal alcohol business. The potential profits were too big, however, so Torrio, with the assistance of his protege, Al Capone, bought the breweries without telling their boss. When Colosimo started getting suspicious, Torrio had him killed, took over his empire, and created The Chicago Outfit.

Turf wars with Irish-American gangsters got Torrio ambushed outside his apartment with a fusillade of gunfire, in which he took bullets to the jaw, lung, abdomen, groin, and legs. He was spared from a finishing shot to the head by the killer’s gun jamming. The near death experience convinced Torrio to get out while he still could, and in 1925 he handed the reins to Capone and retired. The retirement did not last long, and by 1928, Torrio was back in the game as a mob consultant and respected emeritus figure.

In 1929, he set up the National Crime Syndicate – a loose confederation of several ethnic organizations. It consisted mainly of the American mafia and the Jewish mob, plus African American crime bosses such as Bumpy Johnson, and Irish-American outfits, among a total of 14 different organization. It functioned until the 1960s, and it was one of the templates, alongside The Commission, that was used to model the black mafia’s “Council” in the 1970s.

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
Founding Members of The Commission. National Crime Syndicate

The Black Mafia Modeled Itself After the Italian Mob’s ‘Commission’

An even greater influence upon the black mafia than The National Crime Syndicate was that of the Italian mafia’s governing body, “The Commission”. When Nicky Barnes set up The Council in 1972 to coordinate the activities of the black mafia and arbitrate disputes between its members, he consciously modeled it after The Commission.

The Commission had been created by Lucky Luciano after he engineered the 1931 murders of Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, rival mob bosses whose struggle to dominate the Italian-America mob led to a disastrous gang war. Luciano set out to end the old Sicilian mafia structure, headed by a capo di tutti capi, or Boss of All Bosses, and replace it with rule by consensus of the new crime families. So he abolished the Boss of All Bosses position, and established a committee known as the Commission, that acted as a de facto board of directors for the mob. It regulated the mafia’s affairs, settled disputes, and averted ruinous gang wars between rival crime families.

As set up by Luciano, the Commission consisted of the five NYC crime families, the Buffalo family, and the Chicago Outfit. Over the years, membership changed as crime families’ fortunes waxed and waned, but the basic concept of a committee of America’s most powerful mob families was unchanged. Today, it consists of the five NYC families, the Chicago Outfit, and the Philadelphia family.

The Commission did not prevent all gang wars, but it lessened their frequency and intensity by making crime families think hard before going to war: an aggressor family could find itself at war with the Commission and all its firepower. That gave all families a strong incentive to negotiate. When wars did erupt, the Commission often ended them by murdering the offending leaders.

1985 was the last time all the met at the Commission meeting. The federal government finally started pursing the mafia aggressively in the 1980s, zealously investigating its activities and successfully prosecuting its leaders. With the authorities breathing down their necks, and the ever present risk of FBI bugs, in person meetings between bosses became too risky. From then on, the Commission worked through cutouts.

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
Heroin addicts in 1970s New York. YouTube

‘The Council’ Streamlined Harlem’s Drug Trade

Drawing on the models of The National Crime Syndicate and the Italian mob’s Commission, Nicky Barnes in 1972 established The Council, an African-American organized crime syndicate. Comprised of 7 black crime bosses who agreed not to infringe on each other’s territories, The Council pooled its members’ money to buy bulk heroin at lower wholesale prices. The syndicate controlled the Harlem heroin trade, arbitrated criminal disputes, and addressed drug related matters. It remained active for over a decade, from 1972 until 1983.

Until the 1960s, black organized crime had revolved around relatively tame stuff such as gambling dens and bookmaking, protection rackets, brothels and prostitution, fencing stolen goods, extortion, fraud, and soft drugs such as marijuana. Things rapidly changed in the late 1960s, when many soldiers returning from Vietnam brought with them a taste for a hitherto relatively niche drug: heroin.

Heroin quickly spread from Vietnam vets to civilians, and by the end of the 1960s, America had an epidemic on its hands. The number of heroin addicts skyrocketed from about 100,000 in 1959, to over a million by 1969, over half of them in the NYC area. The profits from heroin, and to a lesser extent cocaine, were astronomical, generating quick riches for criminals on a scale not seen since the days of Prohibition. However, the high rewards for trafficking in the increasingly popular hard drugs were matched by high risks. Not just from law from law enforcement, but from other drug traffickers.

The Council worked closely with New York’s Lucchese Italian crime family, which supplied the syndicate with raw heroin. Nicky Barnes and his colleagues then diluted, cut, packaged, and sold it on the streets. In due course, The Council’s operations extended beyond Harlem, and they began distributing their product throughout New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, north into Canada, and as far west as Arizona.

The Council was eventually taken down, in large part by its founder, Nicky Barnes. After he was sentenced to life in prison in 1978, Barnes grew bitter upon learning that his Council colleagues had violated their vows, repeated at every Council meeting, to never break their “oath of brotherhood”. Not only had Barnes’ Council brothers stopped paying his lawyers and mismanaged his assets, but as he discovered, one of them was sleeping with his wife. He got his payback by turning informant and turning on his erstwhile Council colleagues. His testimony led to the dissolution of The Council, and the conviction and sentencing of its members to terms ranging from 35 years to life without parole.

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
NYPD raiding a heroin shooting gallery in 1972. The New York Times

The Black Mafia’s Collapse – External Factors

There was a time when many anticipated that the black mafia would succeed the Italian one, and dominate American organized crime. It seemed like a plausible, or even probable prediction at the time. As things turned out, however, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the black mafia had, to all intents and purposes, vanished.

Prophets of the rise of the black mafia had not anticipated the seismic shifts in the criminal underworld caused by the explosion of cocaine, and the explosive rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s. Nor could they have anticipated the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, and the rise of the Russian mob from the wreckage and rubble of the Eastern Bloc.

By the late 1970s, the traditional props upon which black organized crime had rested for decades were getting knocked out, one after the other. The illegal numbers rackets were losing in popularity and market share to the state lotteries, whose huge payouts were more tantalizing to casual bettors than the street numbers. Brothels, another mainstay of black organized crime, were getting shuttered by increased community policing, putting a dent into prostitution’s profits. Protection rackets suffered when big department stores and corporate franchises, largely impervious to extortion, displaced the mom and pop businesses whose owners were much easier to shake down. By 1980, all that was left to black organized criminals was drugs, and as seen in the next entry, that was bad news for them.

Even as other ethnic players from Asia, South America, and Russia were appearing on the scene, the feds were winning convictions against major black crime bosses, and taking them down one by one. Unlike the Italian mafia, which worked City Hall and bought enough judges and politicians to fend off law enforcement until the 1980s, black organized crime lacked such insider connections. Part of it was a failure to make serious efforts to suborn the system, unlike the Italians who invested heavily in bribing officials. But part of it was that most dirty officials would not have taken their money anyhow: racism extended even to bribery.

10 Fascinating Things About New York’s Black Mafia
Frank Lucas in 2012. NY Daily News

The Black Mafia’s Collapse – Internal Factors

As seen in the previous entry, outside factors were sufficient in of themselves to doom the black mafia. However, black organized crime did not help itself with internal flaws that would have doomed any similar enterprise. Perhaps the biggest factor that did in the black mafia was that it was built on a flawed business model, that was doomed to failure: drugs. Large scale drug operations are guaranteed to attract the attention of the feds, and the attention of the feds and the assets at their disposal, from FBI to DEA to RICO, is very bad news for criminal enterprises. Also, the flamboyance of some black mafia figures, such as Nicky Barnes who sat down for an interview with the NY Times Magazine, guaranteed extra attention from law enforcement, state and federal.

The Colombian cartels could get away with it, at least for a while in the 1980s and 1990s, because they were headquartered in a foreign country. Like the Mexican cartels today, that put them beyond the immediate reach of the feds, who had to jump through foreign bureaucratic and diplomatic hoops to get at them. That cushion or separation from the immediate reach of the massive resources available to the feds is what allowed those cartels to survive and thrive.

The black mafia anticipated the Latin American large drug enterprises, but had the misfortune of being headquartered in US soil. That meant that their operations, and all levels of their enterprises, from street level dealers all the way up the chain to the highest black crime bosses, were readily accessible to the feds. Moreover, unlike the Latin Americans or Italians, black drug traffickers never controlled the wholesale end, but were limited instead to distribution. Distribution is always the most vulnerable and legally exposed part of the drug trade. Once the feds targeted them, taking down black mafia operations was as simple as flipping street level drug dealers, working up the chain to ever bigger fish, and using RICO to roll up the entire enterprise.

Additionally, the absence of a regimented criminal culture built over generations, of the type that made the early Italian mafia a tough nut to crack, helped doom the black mafia. It lacked both a solid organizational structure, and a long term plan. Instead, the criminal enterprises constituting the black mafia seem to have simply lived in and operated in the moment, in an ad hoc manner. The black mafia did not have a criminal visionary, such as Lucky Luciano who created a structure that brought America’s Italian crime families into a single organization.

Most importantly, the “black mafia” might have been more theoretical than an actual coherent enterprise. The various criminal enterprises and crime lords that were collectively described as a black mafia often cooperated, but just as often were at loggerheads. Quite frequently, their connections were nominal and ad hoc, and their alliances were temporary. Thus, other than in the imagination of contemporary criminologists, the various criminal enterprises making up the black mafia were never integrated into a single organized criminal entity.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

All That is Interesting – Frank Lucas and the True Story of “American Gangster”

Biography – Frank Lucas, Drug Dealer

Biography – Nicky Barnes

Black Then – The Dossier: The Council

Guardian, The, November 17th, 2007 – Original Gangster

Mob Museum, The – Did Frank Matthews Get Away With It?

National Crime Syndicate – What Was The Commission?

New York Times Magazine, June 5th, 1977 – Mister Untouchable

New York Times, October 18th, 1983 – Barnes Testifies About ‘Council’ of Drug Dealers

New York Times, January 13th, 1984 – 4 Drug Dealers Sentenced to Life; Barnes Helped in the Prosecution

New York Times, March 4th, 2007 – Crime’s ‘Mister Untouchable’ Emerges From Shadows

Salon, December 28th, 2017 – The Long Rise and Fast Fall of New York’s Black Mafia

Wikipedia – Bumpy Johnson

Wikipedia – The Council (drug syndicate)

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