Before Murder Inc., Fights Over Mob Leadership Had Threatened the Mafia’s Existence
Before Murder Inc., chaos had ruled the Italian-American mafia. In the early 20th century, there had been little to distinguish Italian-American gangs – concentrated mostly in the northeast – from other ethnic gangs. That changed almost overnight, with the arrival of Prohibition in 1920. Notwithstanding Prohibition’s ban on the sale of alcohol, Public demand for alcohol remained high. Since that demand could no longer be satisfied legally, criminals stepped in to satisfy it illegally.
The profits were astronomical, and American organized crime boomed as it never had before or since, as Prohibition took a hitherto well regulated and taxed major industry – alcohol – and gifted it to criminals. Italian gangsters benefited the most, because they had something other criminals did not: a model and tradition, from the Old Country mafia, of an organized, disciplined, and hierarchical criminal structure.
The Old Country’s mafia also furnished experienced personnel, who sought to replicate their mafia in the US. The two most important were Giuseppe Masseria, and Salvatore Maranzano. Their efforts to duplicate the Old Country system in America were initially successful, but they got into trouble because they failed to fully understand, and adapt to, the differences between conditions in the US and in Italy.
Giuseppe Masseria (1887 – 1931), AKA Joe “The Boss”, was born in Sicily, from which he fled as a teenager to escape a murder charge. He made it to America, which had no extradition treaty with Italy, and began his criminal career in the US as a gang enforcer in NYC’s Lower East Side. In 1916, his boss was murdered, so Masseria broke off and formed his own splinter gang, and by the mid 1920s, he was among NYC’s most powerful crime bosses. By 1929, Masseria, now known as “Joe the Boss”, led NYC’s biggest crime family – today’s Genovese crime family.
Masseria’s deadliest foe was Salvatore Maranzano (1886 – 1931), another Sicilian who carved a criminal empire in America. Maranzano had studied to become a priest, but changed his mind and became a mobster instead. He emigrated to America after WWI, and opened a real estate business as a cover for bootlegging, narcotics, gambling, and prostitution operations. He fancied himself an intellectual, and liked to lecture less educated American mobsters about Julius Caesar – which earned him the derisive (although never to his face) nickname “Little Caesar”.
Maranzano prospered, and as his power grew, the Big Apple became too small to contain both him and Masseria. By 1930, Maranzano felt sufficiently confident in his power to openly challenge Joe “The Boss” Masseria for the title capo di tutti capi, or “Boss of All Bosses”. That led to what came to be known as the Castellammarese War, a vicious gang war for control of NYC’s underworld, that had highly disruptive spillover effects on the rest of the mafia across the US.