It is commonly assumed that the Italian-American mafia had its roots in New York City, home of the Five Great Crime Families, the Godfather. America’s melting pot extraordinaire was the first destination of millions of Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who disembarked and were processed into the US at nearby Ellis Island. However, what would become the American mafia first emerged not in NYC, or even Chicago, but much further south, deep in the heart of Dixie, in New Orleans.
In 1869, the New Orleans Times reported that the city’s Second District was overrun with “well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and disturbance of the city.” The favored destination of southern Italian immigrants back then was not America, but Argentina and Brazil. Their Latin culture, Romance languages, Catholic religion, and warmer climes were more hospitable and easier to adapt to than the US. New Orleans became a secondary destination in the nineteenth century because of its extensive traffic with those southern locales.
25. An Early Salutary Lesson That the Mafia Heeded Well
By the 1870s, Sicilian immigrants Carlo and Alberto Matranga had established the Matranga crime family in New Orleans, which operated out of a salon and brothel. They expanded their activities from prostitution to labor rackets and a lucrative extortion racket known as the Black Hand. They collected “tribute” from Italian laborers, as well as from another crime family, the Prozenzanos, who monopolized South American fruit shipments. In the 1880s, the Matrangas and Prozenzanos warred over control of the New Orleans waterfront, and each family brought in more and more Mafiosi from the Old Country. The violence spilled over and put pressure on the authorities to act. New Orleans’ police chief launched an investigation into Mafiosi activities, only to be assassinated for his troubles in 1890. Unable to identify his killers, he gasped “the Dagoes shot me“, before he died.
In the resultant backlash, nineteen Mafiosi were arrested and prosecuted. In a first trial, nine defendants successfully tampered with the jury, and despite overwhelming evidence, six were acquitted and three had hung juries. The next day, March 14th, 1891, a mob of thousands, whose numbers included prominent New Orleans citizens, stormed and broke into the prison housing the defendants. Eleven were killed – the biggest single mass lynching in US history. That had a salutary effect on the mafia. It demonstrated that America differed from Sicily and southern Italy, where criminals could act in brazen defiance of the authorities and society, with little to fear from either. In the US, there were limits to what criminals could get away with. Thereafter, the American mafia adopted strict rules against the targeting of law enforcement, and even preemptively killed mobsters who sought to go after cops or prosecutors.
24. The Moral Crusade That Boosted the Rise of the Mafia
By the early twentieth century, Italian criminal gangs had formed in the northeast, most notably in New York City. Their activities were small-scale operations, of no particular distinction to set them apart from other NYC gangs. They generally operate in Italian neighborhoods and prey upon Italian immigrants. That all changed in 1920, after the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, and the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol was banned. Making alcohol illegal did not reduce the high demand for alcohol, however. Instead, it created an environment of widespread tolerance of crime in order to provide a thirsty public with the booze it craved.
The profits that could be made from the sale and distribution of alcohol were astronomical. That was 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 immoral. It 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 Italian gangsters were particularly well positioned to take advantage of the 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 a model but also experienced personnel who could readily duplicate the system in the US.
23. Prohibition Did Not Arise in a Vacuum: America Had a Serious Alcohol Problem
As the history and ultimate fate of Prohibition demonstrate, it was a flawed and misguided attempt to address a problem. However, Prohibition did not occur in a vacuum, and the problem it sought to address was all too real, and quite serious. In a nutshell, America was, collectively speaking, a lush. A straight-up alcoholic country, in which booze was consumed and abused at levels far greater than any we are used to today. The British were never slouches at drinking, but in 1839, British traveler Frederick Marryat marveled at American drinking habits in A Diary in America:
“I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink … If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave“. Or as historian W. J. Rorabaugh put it: “Americans drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn“.
In the 1730s, Benjamin Franklin compiled a list of contemporary terms for “drunk”, and was able to cite over 200 examples. It was unsurprising, considering how much Colonial America liked alcohol. Even the Puritans loved their booze: In 1630, John Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts aboard a ship laden with over ten thousand gallons of wine, and carrying three times as much beer as water. In the eighteenth century, rum was the most popular drink, and by the 1760s, New England alone had around 160 commercial distilleries. In the countryside, farmers fermented their own hard cider, and most kept a barrel by the door for their family and whoever happened to drop by.
By the early nineteenth century, hard liquor was so plentiful and so cheap, that it actually cost less than tea. For many, Americans’ love of alcohol was accepted as part of the country’s social fabric. John Adams kicked off his mornings with a tankard of hard cider, James Madison drank a pint of whiskey each day, and George Washington kept a still in Mount Vernon. In the early days of the Republic, the tolling of bells at 11 AM and 4 PM was known as “grog time”. Since 1782, US Army soldiers received four ounces of whiskey every day, as part of their ration.
21. Average Alcohol Consumption for Americans Used to be Seven Gallons of Pure Alcohol a Year
In towns and cities, it was commonly understood and accepted that most workers would not show up for work on Mondays, because they were too hungover from a weekend bender. In the countryside, Johnny Appleseed had scattered seeds in Indiana and Ohio that produced apples that were quite inedible. When fermented, however, they were quite drinkable as hard cider. There were at least fourteen thousand distilleries in America by 1810, and they were hardly able to keep up with the demand. By 1830, American adults consumed an average of seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. Seven gallons of pure alcohol is a lot of booze. It is the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of 80 proof liquor per American adult – male or female – per week, or about 90 bottles per year.
Considering that millions did not drink, the alcohol consumption of Americans who actually drank was significantly higher than the national average for all adults. With much of the country tipsy all the time or just about, social reformers sought solutions to the scourge of widespread alcohol abuse. Thus was born the temperance movement. However, when the movement first began, “temperance” did not initially carry the same meaning that it eventually would, and still does today. For example, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, a Declaration of Independence signer, a friend of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and an early temperance advocate, sought to wean drinkers off the booze with an intermediate beverage. So he urged whiskey guzzlers to drink instead what he deemed to be a less harmful alternative: wine, mixed with opium and laudanum.
The anti-drink movement was launched to fight the alcohol abuse that had been a constant in America for a long time. However, the arrival of new waves of immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s, particularly Irish and Germans, ended up linking anti-drink and anti-immigrant sentiments. The new immigrants’ drinking habits differed from those whose American ancestry stretched back for generations. Saloons and bars – establishments where people congregated to drink – had not been common in America before the 1840s. Nor, for that matter, had beer drinking been that big: until then, Americans primarily drank cider or hard liquor. However, the Irish, and especially the Germans, were beer drinkers. Immigrants from those countries brought with them the pub and beer garden culture, which morphed in America into saloons and bars. Those who disliked immigrants soon came to dislike those establishments.
Generally speaking, the movement to ban alcohol was most widespread and accepted amongst those whose ancestors had been in America for generations. They predominated in rural and small-town America, and tended to be traditional and conservative. On the other side, hostility to nascent prohibition was vehement amongst immigrants who began to arrive in ever greater numbers from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Waves of new arrivals from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Eastern Europe, infused America with ever greater numbers of people for whom drinking was not just a social activity, but a traditional part of their culture. Their numbers were greatest in America’s burgeoning cities. From that perspective, the fight over prohibition took on a nineteenth and early-twentieth-century aspect of Red vs Blue America.
19. The Political Victory of a Minority Over a Majority
Prohibition is the best example in American history of a minority that successfully leveraged its clout to ram through laws opposed by a clear majority. The Anti-Saloon League, the country’s premier anti-alcohol lobby, never sought to gain majorities. The ASL knew that “Wets”, those opposed to prohibition in the parlance of the day, greatly outnumbered the “Dries” who wanted to do away with alcohol. Instead, prohibition’s proponents reasoned that by controlling, say, 10% of the vote in any close race, they could decide the election.
To gather that 10%, the ASL turned to America’s literalist protestant churches, who in turn turned out their congregations to vote for ASL-approved candidates. A small but committed base of single-issue voters could be extremely powerful. It did not take long for politicians, whether Democrats or Republicans – including those who drank life fish – to realize that it was unwise to antagonize the ASL. Soon, politicians were elbowing each other out of the way to demonstrate their fealty to the ASL.
18. Although Most Americans Opposed Prohibition, it Still Became the Law of the Land
On January 8th, 1918, Mississippi’s legislature voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment, making The Magnolia State the first to ratify Prohibition. Ratification by a total of 36 out of America’s then 48 states were needed for national Prohibition to go into effect, but geography and demography made the prohibitionists’ task relatively easy. Generally speaking, America’s cities were overwhelmingly against Prohibition, while the countryside was for it. However, most of the country’s big cities – and most of the population for that matter – were concentrated in relatively few states.
That made it possible for Prohibition’s advocates to completely write off America’s twelve most urbanized states – the New Jerseys, Pennsylvania, and even Connecticut – and still achieve ratification with victories in the less populous and more rural states. It was an early twentieth-century version of a Red America losing a popular vote to Blue America and still winning an election. As seen below, the triumph of Prohibition was also helped by the era’s shockingly unequal apportionment of legislatures.
17. Unequal Voting Representation Secured the Triumph of an Unpopular Law
Today, we take “one person, one vote” as a given. That had not always been the case, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified. Back then, rural citizens were routinely overrepresented in state legislatures, while urban citizens were underrepresented. In New York, for example, an urban legislator might represent seven times as many people as the rural legislator seated next to him. Thus the vote of a single Upstate citizen – most likely protestant, prohibitionist, and Republican – was equivalent to the vote of seven Irish-American anti-prohibition Democrats from Manhattan.
The figures were even more skewed in New Jersey, where each county got a state senator, regardless of population: pro-Prohibition rural Cape May County, population 19,000, had the same representation as anti-Prohibition urban Essex County, population 652,000. Prohibitionists and their leading organization, the Anti-Saloon League, had long understood and accepted that they were a minority. They sought to avoid referendums because they knew that if voters were given the option of a straight up or down vote on Prohibition, Prohibition would lose. Instead, prohibitionists concentrated on leveraging their committed and disciplined followers into disciplined block voting that could swing elections and capture legislatures.
Nothing better illustrates the ability of Prohibition’s advocates to secure legislative victories despite being a minority than the case of Mississippi, the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. When submitted directly to voters, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution was rejected by a majority of Wet voters, 53% to 47%. Just two months later, however, Mississippi’s legislatures approved the Eighteenth Amendment, 75% to 25%. As Prohibition’s advocates had predicted, the lower population and more rural states were the quickest to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment.
The exceptions were Connecticut and Rhode Island, both of which had a majority Catholic population, and both of which refused to ratify. Their votes were neither missed nor needed, however, as the prohibitionists ran up the score in the legislatures of other small and rural states. On January 16th, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, when its lower house voted in favor 98-0. It was official, and Prohibition was automatically scheduled to go into effect a year later.
15. Prohibition Backfired and Led to the Rise of the Mafia
Until the twentieth century, America had next to no history of organized crime as the term is understood today. American cities had plenty of gangs, but they were nothing as powerful as what the mafia would eventually become. Instead, city gangs were local affairs, comprised of street thugs whose reach and influence seldom extended beyond a radius of a few city blocks. Irish immigrants in particular had dominated the street gang scene in the nineteenth century, as dramatized in the 2002 Hollywood epic, Gangs of New York.
As new immigrant waves washed on America’s shores, Irish gangs found themselves rubbing shoulders with, then gradually getting shouldered out of the way, by other ethnic street gangs. By the early twentieth century, Italian gangs, the predecessors of the Italian-American mafia, were established in numerous American cities. Like their Irish predecessors, the Italian gangs were small-scale operations of no particular distinction. Their operations were confined to Italian neighborhoods, where they preyed upon Italian immigrants in a variety of ways, such as extortion, blackmail, protection rackets, prostitution, theft, and robbery.
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.