14. The Policy That Transformed Minor Gangs Into the Giant Mafia
The small scale and limited reach and horizons of Italian gangs changed dramatically in 1920, with the commencement of Prohibition, and the nationwide ban on the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol. It transformed Italian gangs into the Italian-American mafia. Unfortunately for Prohibition’s advocates, the mere act of declaring alcohol illegal did not reduce the high public demand for booze. What it did was skew societal attitudes, and create an environment of widespread public tolerance of crime in order to provide the masses with the alcohol they craved.
Essentially, Prohibition took the alcohol industry – a major American industry that had operated legally until then – and gifted it, along with its enormous and now untaxed revenue, to the criminal world. Legal and relatively well-regulated (and taxed) enterprises that had operated in the American alcohol industry were driven out of business. Their place was taken by organized crime, which reaped great profit from illegal alcohol. Such lucre enabled the criminals to increase their other illegal activities such as racketeering, prostitution, the growing field of illegal narcotics, gun running, etc. The profits also enabled organized crime, especially the mafia, to corrupt the American political and criminal justice system. By showering bribes upon politicians, officials, cops, and judges, the system was sullied to failed state levels.
13. Old Country Mafia Ties Gave the American Mafia a Competitive Edge
Similar to illegal narcotics today, the profits that could be made from illegal alcohol were astronomical. Seemingly overnight, bootlegging became irresistible to criminal organizations across America. Their task was made easier 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. The end result was a boost to organized crime in general, and to Italian organized crime, the mafia, in particular. In this new environment, Italian gangsters found themselves particularly well positioned to take advantage of the situation and prosper beyond their wildest dreams.
Thanks to the mafia back in the Old Country, ethnic Italian criminals in the US could draw upon a tradition of sophisticated, organized, hierarchical, and disciplined criminal organizations. Unlike their ethnic criminal competitors, Italian gangsters not only had an effective model to replicate, but also experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the Old Country’s system in the US. Prohibition was eventually repealed in 1933, and the American alcohol industry was restored to well-regulated legality. By then, however, modern organized crime, and the Italian-American mafia, had become well established and well-nigh ineradicable. They remain with us to this day.
Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli, better known as Paul Kelly (1876 – 1936), was an early New York City mafia leader who started off as a boxer. He invested his prize money in a string of brothels, then founded the Five Points Gang – the Big Apple’s last dominant street gang. Kelly 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 into the organized hierarchical structure of crime families and the Italian-American mafia.
Kelly had 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 to control and consolidate. He melded his criminal activities with politics, and lent Tammany Hall his support in elections. The most notorious instance took place on a 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 beat up the incumbent’s supporters, blocked polling booths, and voted early and often for the challenger. One gang member boasted of having voted 53 times that day. The incumbent lost.
11. An Early Mafia Beachhead in Labor Racketeering
Paul Kelly’s ability to swing elections helped him greatly. It earned him 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 from Eastman, who was convicted and sent away for ten years in Sing Sing.
That left Kelly as NYC’s uncontested top gang boss. After he survived 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. He moved into labor racketeering, and got himself appointed vice president of the longshoremen’s union – an early beachhead for the mafia in labor unions. From that position, Kelly provided muscle in labor disputes, until he passed from natural causes in 1936.
Just as Prohibition produced a business boom for organized crime in the US in general, and the Italian-American mafia in particular, Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy. Until then, no Italian government had managed to keep the Sicilian mafia and the Camorra in check. Nor did any Italian government since manage to pull that off since. Mussolini crushed the mafia. Farcical buffoon he might have been, but that was one thing the Italian dictator managed to pull off.
The Sicilian Mafia and Camorra throve, and still do, in Italy’s corrupt political culture. They worked the system and mastered its intricacies. Mafiosi subverted politicians, police, and judges with bribes or threats, and bent 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. He simply bypassed the criminal justice system and sent in the army and Black Shirts to round up Mafiosi en masse, and kill any who resisted.
9. Mussolini’s Crusade Against the Mafia in Italy Helped the Mafia in America
To wreck the mafia, Mussolini selected an underling named Cesare Mori, who became known as “The Iron Prefect” for his toughness, and set him loose. For over a century, Mafiosi had intimidated civilians, strutting as scary tough guys. They discovered that soldiers were scarier and tougher than mustache-twirling thugs. Serendipitously for the American mafia, Mussolini’s crackdown on their peers in Italy forced many of them to flee. The push factor at home coincided with a pull factor in the US.
In America, Italian crime families were experiencing an unprecedented boom, and Italian Mafiosi fleeing Italy swelled the ranks of the American mafia just when their services were most needed. Back in the Old Country, 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 used their remnants to help with the occupation. It was wartime, and the exigencies thereof called for using whatever was at hand to help win and save American lives. After what Mussolini and the fascists had done to them, Mafiosi were as committed anti-fascists as they come.
8. The Mobster Who Was America’s Biggest Drug Dealer
Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962) was a visionary crime mafia boss who founded today’s Genovese crime family – one of New York City’s five mafia families. Luciano is considered the founding father of the Italian-American mafia, and the key architect who created modern American organized crime as we know it. He is also credited with establishing The Commission – a committee that ran the Italian-American mafia and arbitrated its internal disputes to avert mob wars and other bloody struggles that could prove disruptive to business.
Less commonly known about Lucky Luciano is that he was America’s biggest drug dealer. A criminal since childhood, Luciano emigrated to America at age nine. By the time he was ten years old, young Luciano was involved in shoplifting, mugging, and extortion. At age nineteen, Luciano 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. In due course, Lucky Luciano became the country’s biggest narcotics trafficker and distributor.
7. The Mafia Was Always Heavily Involved in Drug Trafficking
There is a widespread notion, popularized by movies and works of fiction, to the effect that the mob traditionally avoided narcotics. It is often asserted that the mafia had a long-standing prohibition against drug trafficking – either because of morality or because of the public stigma attached to drugs. That is bunk. The notion that the mafia stayed away from drugs is just a myth, popularized by fiction and Hollywood hits such as The Godfather. Dealing with drugs has always been one of the mob’s biggest moneymakers.
The mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start. Long before the days of Pablo Escobar, pioneering Mafioso Lucky Luciano became America’s – and one of the world’s – biggest narcotics kingpins. 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.
6. Carmine “The Cigar” Galante, a Major Mob Drug Trafficker
Bonanno crime family boss Carmine “The Cigar” Galante (1910 – 1979) earned his nickname because he was seldom seen without a cigar. Diagnosed as a psychopath by prison psychiatrists while incarcerated in the 1930s, Galante had formed a juvenile street gang in the Lower East Side in his early teens, and became a leading mob enforcer by the time he was twenty. He had a cold dead-eyed stare that scared both gangsters and cops, and by 1940, the NYPD suspected him of involvement in over eighty murders.
As seen above, the mafia was the main importer of narcotics into the US until the rise of the South American cartels. By the 1950s, Galante was a major drug trafficker, which earned him a twenty-year sentence in 1962. Released in the mid-1970s, he rose to de facto command of the Bonanno family, but his psychopathic ways alienated everybody. On July 12th, 1979, while having an open patio lunch in a Bushwick restaurant, three hitmen, wearing ski masks, walked up to the patio and opened fire with shotguns and pistols, offing Galante and two underlings. He passed with a cigar in his mouth.
From the early 1930s to early 1940s, the Italian-American mafia’s oversight board, The Commission, kept a coalition of Italian and Jewish gangsters as retained contract killers. Dubbed “Murder Incorporated” or “Murder Inc.”, the hitmen were the mob leadership’s on-call execution squad. During its existence, Murder Inc. enforced The Commission’s will and regulated the underworld by taking out the troublesome, which made them the mob’s literal troubleshooters. Murder Inc. was formed in the early 1930s, after a period of chaotic gang warfare that had greatly disrupted mafia activity.
When the dust settled, the Italian-American mafia was reorganized into a more streamlined structure. The goal was to enable the mafia to pursue its illicit activities in a business-like manner, with as few disruptions as possible. That was accomplished by setting up what came to be known as “The Commission” – a collective leadership council, akin to a board of directors – to oversee broad strategy and settle disputes. Murder Inc. was the muscle that did the actual dispute settling.
Murder Inc. was the brainchild of Jewish-American labor racketeer Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. It was a streamlined contract killing system, intended to isolate mafia members from any connection with the necessary murders that went with their line of business. Murder Inc. operated out of a 24-hour Brownsville coffee shop called Midnight Rose. There, the killers whiled away the time, ready at a moment’s notice to go out on a job once word came down. After it was founded in the early 1930s, Murder Inc. was initially led by its creator, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, until he was arrested in 1936.
The execution squad was then taken over by the colorful Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, also known as the “Lord High Executioner”. Much of Murder Incorporated’s work took place in and around New York City, but the retained killers’ reach was nationwide, and they carried out hits as far away as Detroit, southern Florida, and Los Angeles. The organization existed for barely a decade, from its founding in the early 1930s to its exposure in 1940. In that relatively brief period, the Murder Incorporated’s hitmen carried out an estimated 1000 contract killings.
3. When the Mob’s Streamlined Murder Machine Began to Come Apart
Murder Inc. began to unravel in 1940 when Harry Rudolph, a career criminal and police informant, was held as a material witness in a 1933 murder of a minor teenaged gangster. Rudolph implicated three Murder Inc. hitmen, and one of the trio, Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles, was flipped by the authorities. He agreed to testify against his colleagues in over 200 murders. Until then, the authorities had been unaware of the mob’s streamlined contract murder system, let alone its scope and extent.
Abe Reles’ flipping was thus the moment when the smelly stuff hit the proverbial fan. Worse, for Murder Incorporated’s leaders and contract killers, Abe Reles turned out to be some kind of savant, with a freakish photographic memory of nearly every moment of his entire life. As applied to Murder, Inc., it meant that Reles could provide detailed testimony of every murder he had been involved in or heard of. That included dates, participants, where the killings had occurred, and how they had been carried out.
Omerta, the mob’s code of silence, was always a myth. Once Abe Reles began to sing, other Murder Inc. killers saw the wisdom of cutting a deal with the authorities. Eventually, four other hitmen turned state’s evidence, and joined Reles to testify against their former colleagues. The first trials began in May of 1940, and with the testimony of Reles and the other canaries singing, the convictions came in quick succession. They included the conviction and condemnation of Louis Buchalter, Murder Incorporated’s founder, his chief lieutenants, and other hitmen. Within a few years, Murder Inc. had vanished, with most of its members executed or imprisoned.
Reles and the other hitmen who had turned state’s evidence were stashed by the authorities in a secure location, the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Early in the morning of November 12th, 1941, shortly before he was to testify against Murder Incorporated’s second leader, Albert Anastasia, Reles fell to his demise out the window of his sixth-floor hotel room. Police explained it as an accidental death. However, the circumstances were such that it was clear that the mob had gotten to Reles’ police bodyguards, and that one or more of them had pushed him out. As one mobster put it: “The canary could sing, but he couldn’t fly“.
Mafia boss Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano (1915 – 1985) was head of NYC’s Gambino crime family from 1976 until his passing. The son of a mobster in the Mangano family – forerunner of the Gambinos – who ran a numbers game, Castellano dropped out of school in eighth grade to become a hoodlum. By the 1950s, he had risen to become a capo. Although up to his neck in mob rackets, Castellano acted as if he was a legitimate businessman – an affectation that annoyed many of his hoodlum underlings, who had no delusions about their careers.
The disgruntled underlings of the Gambino boss included an ambitious capo named John Gotti. When Castellano failed to attend a prominent subordinate’s funeral in 1985, it offended many Gambinos, and disgruntlement soon grew into rebellion. On December 16th, Gotti organized a hit squad that waited for Castellano’s outside one of his favorite restaurants, Sparks Steak House, in midtown Manhattan. As Castellano exited his car, Gotti watched from across the street as the hitmen rushed the mob boss, and gunned him down.