By the early 20th century, Italian criminal gangs had begun forming in the northeast, most notably in New York City, as the US became increasingly attractive to Italian immigrants, competing with South America as a destination of choice. They were small-scale operations of no particular distinction to set them apart from other NYC gangs, generally operating in Italian neighborhoods and to preying upon Italian immigrants.
That all changed in 1920, after passage of the 18th Amendment and the introduction of Prohibition, banning the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol. Making alcohol illegal did not reduce the high demand for alcohol, however, creating an environment of widespread tolerance of crime in order to provide a thirsty public with the alcohol it craved. Essentially, Prohibition took a major American industry, hitherto operated legally, and gifted it to organized crime.
The profits that could be made from the sale and distribution of alcohol were astronomical, and that, coupled with widespread tolerance by much of the public, as well as many cops and politicians who did not see the sale or consumption of alcohol as particularly venal or morally blameworthy, made bootlegging irresistible to criminal entrepreneurs across the US.
Prohibition thus gave a boost to organized crime in general, and to the Italian mafia in particular, as Italians gangsters were particularly well positioned to take advantage of this new environment. Unlike other ethnic criminal entities, Italian criminals, thanks to the mafia in the old country, could readily draw upon a tradition of sophisticated, organized, hierarchical, and disciplined criminal organizations. They not only had the model but also experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the system in the US.
Mussolini’s Crackdown on Camorra and Sicilian Mafia
Just as Prohibition was producing a business boom for organized crime in the US in general, and the Italian mafia in particular, Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy. No Italian government before had managed to keep the Sicilian mafia and the Camorra in check. Nor did any Italian government since. Mussolini crushed them. Farcical buffoon he might have been, but that was one thing the Italian dictator succeeded in doing.
The Sicilian mafia and Camorra throve, and still do, in Italy’s corrupt political culture, working the system and mastering its intricacies, subverting politicians, police, and judges by bribes or threats, bending them to their will until organized crime became a state within the state. The fascists were not ones to share power or tolerate challenges, however, and Mussolini was neither concerned with nor constrained by legalities in dealing with the Sicilian mafia and Camorra. The dictator simply bypassed the criminal justice system and sent in the army and Black Shirts to round up Mafiosi en masse, killing any who resisted. For over a century, Mafiosi had intimidated civilians, strutting as scary tough guys. They discovered that soldiers were scarier and tougher.
Serendipitously for the American mafia, Mussolini’s crackdown on their peers in Italy forced many of them to flee the old country. The push factor at home coincided with a pull factor in the US, where Italian crime families were experiencing an unprecedented boom, and the Italian Mafiosi fleeing Italy swelled the ranks of Mafiosi in America just when their services were most needed.
Indeed, it was not until WWII and the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy that the Camorra and Sicilian mafia were reborn, when the US Army made use of their remnants to help administer the occupation: it was wartime, and the exigencies thereof called for using whatever was at hand to help win and save American lives, and Mafiosi were committed anti-fascists, after all.
Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli, better known as Paul Kelly (1876 – 1936), was an early New York City Mafiosi who started off as a boxer, invested his prize money in a string of brothels, then founded the Five Points Gang – the Big Apple’s last dominant street gang. He recruited and gave a start in the criminal life to many young men who went on to become the biggest names in American organized crime, such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Seigel, and Meyer Lansky. His career was also significant because it marked Italian organized crime’s transition from street gangs and into the organized hierarchical structure of crime families.
He emigrated to the US as a teenager and took up boxing. When he turned professional, he anglicized his name from Paolo Vaccarelli to Paul Kelly and invested his earnings in brothels in the Italian immigrant district east of the Bowery. He soon added athletic clubs to his properties, which operated as fronts for street gangs that he began controlling and consolidating.
He melded his criminal activities with politics, lending Tammany Hall his support during elections. The most notorious instance took place on primary day in 1901 when Kelly unleashed 1500 gang members against an incumbent who had campaigned to keep brothels out of his Ward. Kelly’s goons ensured the incumbent’s defeat by beating up his supporters, blocking polling booths, and voting early and often for the challenger, with one gang member boasting of having voted 53 times that day. Such influence won Kelly political favors that kept him out of legal trouble or made it go away and helped lessen its impact when it did arrive.
When a rivalry with another street gang led by a Monk Eastman spilled into street violence, Tammany Hall ordered Kelly and Eastman to settle their differences in a boxing ring. The match ended in a draw, however, and when the street fighting resumed, Eastman was arrested for robbery. Tammany Hall withdrew its protection, and he was convicted and sent away for 10 years in Sing Sing, leaving Kelly as NYC’s uncontested top gang boss.
After surviving a messy assassination attempt in 1905 that entailed a bloody public shootout, Kelly was arrested but soon released because of his connections. Tammany Hall ordered him to tone it down, however, and Kelly reduced his direct street gang involvement. Moving into labor racketeering, he got himself appointed vice president of the longshoremen’s union, for which he provided muscle during labor disputes, until his death of natural causes in 1936.
Born in Calabria in southern Italy, and arriving in the US at age 8, Francisco Iole, better known as Frankie Yale (1893 – 1928), was an early New York mafia leader and hitman, who once employed Al Capone in his operations. As a teenager, Yale joined the Five Points Gang and quickly developed a violent reputation as a ferocious fist fighter and brawler.
He was first arrested in 1912 at age 19 for disorderly conduct. He started his organized crime career running a protection and extortion racket, and in 1913 was arrested for robbery and assault of a dry goods store, but walked after the store owner retracted his identification of Yale. By 1917, he had invested his racket proceeds into opening a bar in Coney Island, which became his base of operations.
Yale’s criminal enterprise typified a new trend in American Mafiosi “families” in its employment of Italians from all regions, not just the boss’ hometown or district, and its willingness to cooperate and work with other ethnic gangs so long as there was money to be made. From protection, he soon branched out into prostitution, running a string of brothels, and when Prohibition arrived, Yale became one of Brooklyn’s biggest bootleggers.
The high profits came with high risks, and in 1921 Yale barely escaped an assassination attempt by rival bootleggers, getting shot in the lung while one of his bodyguards was wounded and another killed. He survived another assassination attempt a few months later, that claimed the life of another bodyguard, followed by yet another attempt in 1923 when he escaped with his life only because the assassins mistook an associate for Yale and shot him dead instead.
In 1924, he traveled to Chicago with a hit team to murder a rival of his former underling, Al Capone. He was arrested after the killing but was released when police failed to shake his alibi. Capone returned the favor the following year when during a visit to NYC he joined Yale in murdering three rivals and wounding a fourth in an ambush outside a nightclub.
The friendship with Capone ended in 1927 when Yale, Capone’s whiskey supplier, got greedy and started hijacking the Chicago gangster’s trucks. A meeting failed to resolve matters, and Capone set plans in motion for his former boss’ downfall. On July 1st, 1928, Yale received a call that something was wrong with his wife. Refusing to wait for his usual escort of bodyguards, he jumped into his armor-plated and sped off, only to be intercepted en route by gunmen who riddled his car and shot him to death with armor-piercing bullets.
Born in Menfi, Sicily, Giuseppe Masseria, better known as Joe “The Boss” (1887 – 1931), fled his homeland as a teenager in 1903 to escape a murder indictment and emigrated to the US, which had no extradition treaty with Italy at the time. In America, he founded what is today the Genovese crime family, and became New York City’s leading crime boss and kingpin from the early 1920s until his murder in 1931.
Masseria began his criminal career in the US as an enforcer for the Morello gang in NYC’s Lower East Side, and when that gang’s boss was murdered in 1916, Masseria broke off and formed his own splinter group. It was a dangerous career, and in 1922 he miraculously escaped an assassination attempt that injured 6 bystanders and killed 2, plus a horse, earning Masseria the nickname “The Man Who Can Dodge Bullets”.
That year, he consolidated his control over the old Morello gang, and by the mid-1920s, he was among NYC’s most powerful crime bosses. After Frankie Yale’s murder, Masseria took over his territory, and by 1929, now called “Joe the Boss”, Masseria was the head of the largest crime family in New York. His chief deputy by then was Lucky Luciano, and his crime family included notable Mafiosi such as Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Seigel, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese.
In early 1930, rivalry with a rising competitor, Joe Maranzano, erupted into a gang war, and in the ensuing bloodletting, which came to be known as the Castellamarese War, over 60 Mafiosi were slaughtered. The conflict finally ended when Masseria was betrayed by his own men after they had cut a deal with his rival, Maranzano. On April 15, 1931, Masseria was gunned down in a restaurant by a hit squad that included future crime bosses Vito Genovese, Bugsy Seigel, and Albert Anastasia, organized and led by Masseria’s chief deputy, Lucky Luciano.
Born in Castellammare, Sicily, Salvatore Maranzano (1886 – 1931) was a powerful kingpin who founded what became the Bonanno crime family and instigated the Castellamarese War against Joe Masseria for control of New York’s criminal world. Winning that war, Maranzano declared himself capo di tutti capi, or “Boss of All Bosses” – the last such occurrence in the American mafia’s history.
Maranzano had initially studied to become a priest before opting to become a Mafiosi instead. Emigrating to the US soon after WWI, he started a legitimate real estate business, which acted as a front for his bootlegging and other criminal activities such as narcotics, gambling, and prostitution. He was a huge fan of Julius Caesar, whom he sought to emulate, and had a habit of lecturing his less educated American mafia peers about the Roman dictator, earning him the nickname “Little Caesar” – which was not meant as a compliment.
In 1930, he waged what came to be known as the Castellamarese War against Joe Masseria, and after Masseria’s assassination by his own lieutenants, Maranzano reorganized the American mafia, establishing a basic hierarchical structure that survives to this day: each established family would henceforth have a boss and underboss, and beneath them would be captains, or caporegimes, in command of soldiers. Above them all, Maranzano declared himself Boss of All Bosses.
An old school “Mustache Pete” who grew up and rose in the old country’s mafia culture, he tried to impose traditional Italian Mafiosi customs and norms upon American Mafiosi raised in the US, and only succeeded in alienating and rubbing them the wrong way. As a result, Maranzano’s reign as Boss of All Bosses proved to be farcically brief, and 5 months after Masseria’s murder, Lucky Luciano had Maranzano assassinated and abolished his grandiose title. In the ensuing weeks and months, Maranzano’s allies across the US, the remaining Mustache Petes, were purged on Luciano’s orders. In lieu of a single boss, Luciano created a committee, which came to be known as The Commission, to oversee the American mafia.
Years of mounting tensions between the criminal organizations of Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano finally came to a head and broke out into a bloody struggle for control of the Italian-American mafia that came to be known as The Castellamerese War, from February, 1930, until April, 1931, when Masseria was assassinated and Maranzano declared himself Boss of All Bosses.
Joe Masseria had been the dominant Italian-American mafia figure in the 1920s, running a powerful crime family, whose ranks included future mob bosses such as Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, and Frank Costello. However, a Don Vito Ferro, a mafia chieftain from Castellammare, Sicily, decided to reach out and wrest control of the American mafia. To that end, Ferro sent Salvatore Maranzano to establish the rival Castellamerese faction, whose ranks would include future bosses such as Joe Profaci, Joe Bonano, and Stefano Maggadino.
Tensions started building up in 1928 when the factions started hijacking their rival’s alcohol trucks and otherwise encroaching on and disrupting their bootlegging operations. The struggle broke out into the open in February 1930, when Masseria ordered the killing of a Castellamarese Detroit racketeer. The Castellamarese retaliated a few months later by murdering a key Masseria enforcer in Harlem, and a few weeks later, got a Masseria ally whom he had earlier betrayed, the Reina family, to switch sides, killing a key Masseria loyalist on their way out. Masseria responded in October 1930, by sending one of his key lieutenants, Alfred Mineo, to kill a key Castellamerese ally, Joe Aiello, in Chicago.
In November, Mineo and another key Masseria henchman were murdered, and Mineo’s successor defected to Maranzano, after which the tide swiftly turned, with other Masseria allies defecting and switching to the Castellamarese. With his ship clearly sinking, Masseria’s remaining key henchmen, led by Lucky Luciano, approached Maranzano, offering to defect and seal the deal by murdering Masseria. On April 15th, 1931, Masseria was duly murdered.
On the surface, the conflict had been a power struggle between Masseria and Maranzano. An underlying current, however, was a generational struggle of their younger underlings, who grew up American, against the rival bosses and their entire generation of leadership, derided as “Mustache Petes” – insular and set in their Old World ways, and unwilling or unable to adapt to American realities.
Having won, Maranzano went on to reorganize the Italian-American mafia, setting up the basic structure that survives to this day. However, Maranazano, an egomaniac with delusions of grandeur who fancied himself a Julius Caesar of the criminal world, did not enjoy his victory for long. Five months after declaring himself capo di tutti capi, Lucky Luciano had him murdered, after which he abolished the Boss of All Bosses title, and set up a collective mafia leadership council to avoid future gang wars.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962) was a visionary crime boss who founded today’s Genovese crime family, and with his establishment of The Commission – a committee running the Italian-American mafia and arbitrating its internal disputes to avert bloody struggles disruptive to business – is considered the godfather of modern American organized crime.
A criminal since childhood, he emigrated to the US at age 9, and by age 10, was involved in shoplifting, mugging, and extortion, and at 19, he was sentenced to six months for selling heroin. In 1920, he joined Joe Masseria’s crime family, and became his chief lieutenant, running his bootlegging, prostitution, and narcotics operations – the notion that the mafia stayed away drugs is just a myth popularized by The Godfather. In reality, the mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start, and Luciano would go on to become America’s biggest narco king, long before Pablo Escobar. For decades, the mafia was the biggest importer of hard drugs into the US, particularly heroin. It was not until cocaine supplanted heroin as the hard drug of choice, and the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, that the mob lost its top billing as America’s biggest drug trafficker.
In 1929, in the runup to the outbreak of the Castellamarese War between Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, Luciano was abducted by Maranzano’s men, tortured for hours, stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick, had his throat slit from ear to ear, and was then dumped and left for dead on a Staten Island beach. Miraculously, he survived – earning him the nickname “Lucky”.
The 1930 – 1931 Castellamarese War was anathema to Luciano, who decried the publicity and disruption of business. When the tide turned against Masseria, Luciano cut a deal with Maranzano, then had Masseria killed. Five months later, he had Maranzano killed as well, after which he established The Commission – a committee to regulate mafia operations in the US and avert similar wars.
Luciano’s downfall came after he ignored advice to step back from direct involvement in his prostitution operations. That left him vulnerable to prosecution by reformist New York crusader Thomas Dewey, who won a conviction of forced prostitution against Luciano in 1936 and got him sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was serendipitously saved by WWII, whose outbreak gave Luciano’s friend and associate Meyer Lansky an opportunity to negotiate a deal with the US Navy to commute Luciano’s sentence in exchange for mob assistance in protecting New York’s harbor. After the war, Luciano was freed on condition that he agree to deportation, and in February 1946, he sailed from Brooklyn to Italy, never to see the US again.
Later that year, he moved to Cuba to be closer to the US and his operations therein, and in December 1946, a conference was held in Havana between Luciano and major crime bosses to discuss mafia plans for expanding gambling operations in Havana and Las Vegas and its booming narcotics trade. Soon after the Havana conference, American authorities caught wind of Luciano’s presence in Cuba and pressured the authorities to deport him, which they did in February of 1947.
Thereafter, he was kept under close surveillance by Italian police and had various restrictions placed upon his freedom of movement within Italy, including a prohibition against entering Rome, and revocation of his passport to prevent his travel abroad. Luciano remained in Italy, until his death of a heart attack in 1962. The US government granted his relatives permission to return his body to America, where it was buried in a Queens cemetery.
After engineering the murders in a relatively quick succession of the Castellamarese War’s rival leaders, Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, Lucky Luciano set out to end the old Sicilian mafia regime and establish rule by consensus for the new crime families. To that end, he abolished the position and title of capo di tutti capi, or Boss of All Bosses, and set up a committee known as the Commission to govern and regulate the affairs of the mafia in the US, settle disputes, and avoid ruinous gang wars between rival crime families.
As set up by Luciano, the Commission was comprised of the five NYC crime families, the Buffalo family, and the Chicago Outfit. Over the years, the makeup changed as varying crime families’ fortunes waxed and waned, but the basic concept of a committee comprised of America’s most powerful mafia families has stayed the same. Today, it is comprised of the five NYC families, the Philadelphia family, and the Chicago Outfit.
Formation of the Commission did not prevent all gang wars, but it did lessen their frequency and intensity by making crime families think twice before instigating a war: an aggressor family often found itself at war not only with its immediate rival but with the Commission and other families as well. That provided all families with a powerful incentive to negotiate their disputes. When wars did break against rival families or in internal power struggles, the Commission frequently resolved them by assassinating the offending boss or usurper and appointing a new one.
The last Commission meeting attended by all the bosses in person occurred in 1985. The 1980s, however, were when the federal government finally started to seriously go after the mafia, zealously investigating its activities and successfully prosecuting its leaders. With the government breathing down their necks, and the ever-present risk of FBI bugs, face to face meetings between bosses became too risky, and the Commission functioned thereafter via cutouts.
Johnny Torrio, AKA “The Fox” and “Papa Johnny” (1882 – 1957), is best known as the founder of the Chicago Outfit – the criminal empire inherited and made infamous by his protege and successor, Al Capone. He started his criminal career in a street gang, became its leader, and steadily worked his way up the criminal world’s ranks with gambling and loansharking, before catching the eye of Paul Kelly, leader of NYC’s Five Points Gang, who took him on as a protege.
He was invited to Chicago by his aunt’s husband, “Big Jim” Colosimo, who owned over 100 brothels, to deal with extortionists preying on his businesses. Torrio did and stayed on as Colosimo’s right hand and muscle. As soon as Prohibition was declared in January of 1920, Torrio recognized the opportunity for fabulous riches to be made in making alcohol and selling it at a steep markup, now that it was illegal. A criminal visionary, he came up with the idea of buying breweries, now shuttered and thus readily purchased for pennies on the dollar, and operating them illegally to supply the thousands of speakeasies, brothels, and nightclubs in Chicago and the surrounding region.
However, when he ran the idea by his boss, Colosimo rejected it, reasoning that all of Chicago’s criminal outfits were thinking the same thing, and involvement would invite troubles and drag him into confrontations he would sooner avoid. When Torrio proposed running it on his own, assuming all the risk and splitting the proceeds with Colosimo, his boss prohibited him, decreeing that nobody in his organization was to participate in bootlegging.
The potential profits were too lucrative, however, and Torrio, with the assistance of his protege, Al Capone, went ahead and purchased breweries without informing Colosimo, and began operating them and raking in the profits. However, juggling the books, which were regularly inspected by Colosimo, started getting tricky, and when Colosimo started getting suspicious, Torrio struck first, calling in Frankie Yale from NYC, who shot Colosimo dead in May 1920. Within hours of Colosimo’s death, Torrio took over his empire, creating what became known as The Chicago Outfit, and becoming that city’s biggest Mafiosi and one of its most powerful kingpins.
As the Outfit expanded its operations from its base in Chicago’s South Side, it came into conflict with the Irish-American North Side Gang. After initial attempts at peaceful coexistence failed, Torrio ordered the murder of the North Side boss in November 1924, sparking a bloody gang war. In retaliation, Torrio was ambushed outside his apartment with a fusillade of gunfire, taking bullets to the jaw, lung, abdomen, groin, and legs. Severely wounded, he was spared from a finishing shot to the skull by the killer’s gun jamming. The near-death experience frightened Torrio, and convinced him to get out while he still could, and in 1925 he handed control of the Outfit to Capone and moved to Italy.
His retirement did not last long, however – Mussolini’s crackdown on Mafiosi forced Torrio back to the US in 1928, where he became a mob consultant and respected emeritus figure. A visionary and one of the American mafia’s most talented and intelligent leaders, Torrio branched out from traditional crime and went into the boardrooms, becoming the godfather of corporate crime. He also set up the National Crime Syndicate – a loose confederation of several ethnic organizations, mainly the American mafia and the Jewish mob, and to a lesser extent, Irish-American outfits and African-American gangsters, among a total of 14 different organization, which cooperated from 1929 until the 1960s. He died peacefully, of a heart attack on a barber’s chair in 1957.
America’s most famous gangster, Alphonse Capone, generally known as Al Capone or Scarface (1899 – 1947), dominated Chicago’s organized crime from 1925 to 1931, flamboyantly flaunting his power with impunity, having subverted that city’s political, judicial, and law enforcement establishments to ensure de facto immunity from criminal prosecution.
Born in Brooklyn, Capone joined a street gang in his childhood, that was run by Johnny Torrio, who became his lifelong friend and mentor. He followed Torrio into the Five Points Gang, and when Torrio moved to Chicago, he set Capone up with a job working a bar for Frankie Yale in Coney Island. It was while working that bar that Capone earned the “Scarface” nickname after making a pass at the sister of a gangster, who retaliated by slashing Capone’s face.
He asked Yale to move him from working the bar to joining his criminal enterprise, but when Yale sent him to collect a late debt owed Yale, Capone flubbed the opportunity and shot the debtor dead. He then moved to Baltimore and got a legitimate job as an accountant, until Torrio invited him to join him in Chicago. There, Capone became Torrio’s right-hand man as he exploited Prohibition to become a bootlegger and Chicago’s leading mob boss. After Torrio miraculously survived an assassination attempt that left him severely injured in 1925, he retired and appointed Capone his successor in running the Outfit.
As Chicago’s crime czar, Capone ran bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution rackets, ruthlessly expanding his territory by gunning down rivals. By 1927, Capone was worth an estimated $100 million – billions, in today’s money. That year, he had to go into hiding for a few months after killing a prosecutor who had tried but failed to indict him for a murder after Capone got to the witnesses, but re-emerged a few months later and went unpunished.
His most notorious act was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 when his gunmen machine-gunned members of a rival Irish-American gang in a North Side garage. He went unpunished for that crime as well, although he did serve 10 months behind bars that year for carrying a concealed handgun in Philadelphia. His notoriety and impunity made him a criminal celebrity and an object of fascination, regularly featured in newspaper gossip columns as well as front pages.
He was finally brought down not for his sundry murders and acts of violence, but for cheating the IRS. In 1931, he was indicted for federal income tax evasion, and in October of that year was tried, convicted, and handed an 11-year sentence. Initially sent to an Atlanta penitentiary, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1934. Deteriorating from late-stage syphilis, he was released in 1939 and retired to Florida, where he died in 1947.