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The Story of Charles "Lucky" Luciano

Charles "Lucky" Luciano  born Salvatore Lucania November 24, 1897 – January 26, 1962, was a Sicilian-born American mobster. Luciano is considered the father of modern organized crime in the United States for splitting New York City into five different Mafia crime families and the establishment of the first Commission. He was the first official boss of the modern Genovese crime family. He was, along with his associate Meyer Lansky, instrumental in the development of the National Crime Syndicate in the United States.

Early life

Salvatore Lucania was born on November 24, 1897 in Lercara Friddi, Sicily. Luciano's parents, Antonio and Rosalia Lucania, had four other children: Bartolomeo (born 1890), Giuseppe (born 1898), Filippia (born 1901), and Concetta. Luciano's father worked in a sulfur mine in Sicily. In 1907, when Luciano was 10 years old, the family immigrated to the United States. They settled in New York City in the borough of Manhattan on its Lower East Side, a popular destination for Italian immigrants. At age 14, Luciano dropped out of school and started a job delivering hats, earning $7 per week. However, after winning $244 in a dice game, Luciano quit his job and went to earning money on the street.That same year, Luciano's parents sent him to the Brooklyn Truant School.

As a teenager, Luciano started his own gang. Unlike other street gangs whose business was petty crime, Luciano offered protection to Jewish youngsters from Italian and Irish gangs for 10 cents per week. Around this time, he met Meyer Lansky, his future business partner and close friend.

It is not clear how Luciano earned the nickname "Lucky". It may have come from surviving a severe beating by three men in the 1920s, as well as a throat slashing. This was because Luciano refused to work for another mob boss. From 1916 to 1936, Luciano was arrested 25 times on charges including assault, illegal gambling, blackmail and robbery, but spent no time in prison.[10] The name "Lucky" may have also been a mispronunciation of Luciano's surname "Lucania".


On January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and Prohibition lasted until the amendment was repealed in 1933. The Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. As there was still a substantial demand for alcohol, this provided criminals with an added source of income.

By 1921, Luciano had met many future Mafia leaders, including Vito Genovese and Frank Costello, his longtime friend and future business partner through the Five Points Gang. The same year, Lower Manhattan gang boss Joe Masseria recruited Luciano as one of his gunmen.

At some point in the early 1920s, Luciano left Masseria and started working for gambler Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein. Rothstein immediately saw the potential windfall from Prohibition and educated Luciano on running bootleg alcohol as a business.Luciano, Costello, and Genovese started their own bootlegging operation with financing from Rothstein.

Rothstein served as a mentor for Luciano; among other things, Rothstein taught him how to move in high society. In 1923, after a botched drug deal damaged Luciano's criminal reputation, he bought 200 expensive seats to the Jack Dempsey–Luis Firpo boxing match in the Bronx and distributed them to top gangsters and politicians. Rothstein then took Luciano on a shopping trip to Wanamaker's Department Store in Manhattan to buy high-end clothes for the fight. The strategy worked, and Luciano's reputation was saved.

By 1925, Luciano was grossing over $12 million a year. He had a net income of around $4 million each year after the costs of bribing politicians and police. Luciano and his partners ran the largest bootlegging operation in New York, one that also extended into Philadelphia. He imported Scotch whisky from Scotland, rum from the Caribbean, and whisky from Canada. Luciano was also involved in illegal gambling.

On November 2, 1928, a bookkeeper shot and killed Rothstein over a gambling debt. With Rothstein's death, Luciano quickly pledged fealty again to Masseria.

Rise to power

Luciano soon became a top aide in the Masseria organization. In contrast to Rothstein, Masseria was an uneducated man with poor manners and limited managerial skills. By the late 1920s, Masseria's main rival was boss Salvatore Maranzano, who had come from Sicily to run the Castellammarese clan activities. Maranzano didn't want to pay commission to Masseria, and the ensuing rivalry eventually escalated into the infamous Castellammarese War, which raged from 1928 to 1931 and resulted in the deaths of both Maranzano and Masseria.

Masseria and Maranzano were so-called "Mustache Petes": older, traditional Mafia bosses who had started their criminal careers in Italy. They believed in upholding the supposed Old World Mafia principles of "honor", "tradition", "respect", and "dignity". These bosses refused to work with non-Italians, and were even skeptical of working with non-Sicilians. Some of the most traditional bosses only worked with men with roots in their own Sicilian village. Luciano, in contrast, was willing to work with Italian, Jewish, and Irish gangsters. For this reason, he was shocked to hear traditional Sicilian mafiosi lecture him about his dealings with close friend Frank Costello, whom they called "the dirty Calabrian".

Luciano soon began cultivating ties with other younger mobsters who had been born in Italy, but began their criminal careers in the United States. Known as the Young Turks, they chafed at their bosses' conservatism. Luciano wanted to use lessons he learned from Rothstein to turn their gang activities into criminal empires. As the war progressed, this group came to include future mob leaders such as Costello, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis, Joe Bonanno, Carlo Gambino, Joe Profaci, Tommy Gagliano, and Tommy Lucchese. The Young Turks believed that their bosses' greed and conservatism were keeping them poor while the Irish and Jewish gangs got rich. Luciano's vision was to form a national crime syndicate in which the Italian, Jewish, and Irish gangs could pool their resources and turn organized crime into a lucrative business for all.

In October 1929, Luciano was forced into a limousine at gun point by three men, beaten and stabbed, and dumped on a beach on Staten Island. He somehow survived the ordeal but was forever marked with a scar and droopy eye. The identity of his abductors was never established. When picked up by the police after the beating, Luciano said that he had no idea who did it. However, in 1953, Luciano told an interviewer that it was the police who kidnapped and beat him. Another story was that Maranzano ordered the attack.The most important consequence of this episode was the press coverage it engendered, introducing Luciano to the New York public.

Power play

1931 New York Police Department mugshot of Lucky Luciano
In early 1931, Luciano decided to eliminate Masseria. The war had been going poorly for Masseria, and Luciano saw an opportunity to switch allegiance. In a secret deal with Maranzano, Luciano agreed to engineer Masseria's death in return for receiving Masseria's rackets and becoming Maranzano's second-in-command.

On April 15, 1931, Luciano invited Masseria and two other associates to lunch in a Coney Island restaurant. After finishing their meal, the mobsters decided to play cards. At that point, Luciano went to the bathroom. Four gunmen – Genovese, Anastasia, Adonis and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel – then walked into the dining room and shot and killed Masseria and his two men. With Maranzano's blessing, Luciano took over Masseria's gang and became Maranzano's lieutenant. The Castellammarese War was over.

With Masseria gone, Maranzano divided all the Italian-American gangs in New York City into Five Families. As per his original deal with Maranzano, Luciano took over the old Masseria gang. The other four families were headed by Maranzano, Profaci, Gagliano, and Vincent Mangano. Maranzano promised that all the families would be equal and free to make money. However, at a meeting of crime bosses in Upstate New York, Maranzano declared himself capo di tutti capi, the absolute boss of organized crime in America. Maranzano also whittled down the rival families' rackets in favor of his own. Luciano appeared to accept these changes, but was merely biding his time before removing Maranzano. Although Maranzano was slightly more forward-thinking than Masseria, Luciano had come to believe that Maranzano was even more greedy and hidebound than Masseria had been.

By September 1931, Maranzano realized that Luciano was a threat, and hired Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, an Irish gangster, to kill him. However, Lucchese alerted Luciano that he was marked for death. On September 10, Maranzano ordered Luciano and Genovese to come to his office at 230 Park Avenue in Manhattan. Convinced that Maranzano planned to murder them, Luciano decided to act first. He sent to Maranzano's office four Jewish gangsters whose faces were unknown to Maranzano's people. They had been secured with the aid of Lansky and Siegel, who were both Jewish.Disguised as government agents, two of the gangsters disarmed Maranzano's bodyguards. The other two, aided by Tommy Lucchese, who was there to point Maranzano out, stabbed Maranzano multiple times before shooting him.

This assassination was the first of what would later be fabled as the "Night of the Sicilian Vespers." Then on September 13 the corpses of two other Maranzano allies, Samuel Monaco and Louis Russo were retrieved from Newark Bay, showing evidence of torture. Meanwhile Joseph Siragusa, leader of the Pittsburgh crime family, was shot to death in his home. The October 15 disappearance of Joe Ardizonne, head of the Los Angeles crime family, would later be regarded as part of this alleged plan to quickly eliminate the old-world Sicilian bosses.The idea of an organized mass purge, directed by Luciano and engineered by Louis Lepke, is a myth, however.

Reorganizing Cosa Nostra

With the death of Maranzano, Luciano became the dominant organized crime boss in the United States. He had reached the pinnacle of America's underworld, directing criminal rules, policies, and activities along with the other family bosses. Luciano also had his own crime family, which controlled lucrative criminal rackets in New York City such as illegal gambling, bookmaking, loan-sharking, drug trafficking, and extortion. Luciano became very influential in labor and union activities and controlled the Manhattan Waterfront, garbage hauling, construction, Garment Center businesses, and trucking.

Luciano abolished the title of Capo Di Tutti Capi or Boss of All Bosses, insisting that the position created trouble between the families, rather than declare himself the most powerful and make himself a target for other families. Luciano preferred to quietly maintain control through unofficial alliances with other family bosses. Luciano felt that the ceremony of becoming a "made-man", or an amico nostro, in a crime family was a Sicilian anachronism that should be discontinued. However, Lansky persuaded Luciano to keep the practice, arguing that young people needed rituals to promote obedience to the family. Luciano also stressed the importance of omertà, the oath of silence. Finally, Luciano kept the five crime families that Maranzano had instituted.

Luciano elevated his most trusted Italian associates to high-level positions in what was now the Luciano crime family. Genovese became underboss and Costello consigliere. Michael "Trigger Mike" Coppola, Anthony Strollo, Joe Adonis, and Anthony Carfano all served as caporegimes. Because Lansky and Siegel were non-Italians, neither man could hold official positions within any Cosa Nostra family. However, Lansky was a top advisor to Luciano and Siegel a trusted associate.

The Commission

Luciano, on the urging of former Chicago boss Johnny Torrio, set up the Commission to serve as the governing body for organized crime. Designed to settle all disputes and decide which families controlled which territories, the Commission has been called Luciano's greatest innovation. Luciano's goals with the Commission were to quietly maintain his own power over all the families, and to prevent future gang wars.

The Commission was originally composed of representatives of the Five Families of New York City, the Philadelphia crime family, the Buffalo crime family, the Los Angeles crime family, and the Chicago Outfit of Al Capone; later, the Detroit crime family and Kansas City crime family were added. The Commission also provided representation for the Irish and Jewish criminal organizations in New York. All Commission members were supposed to retain the same power and had one vote, but in reality some families and bosses were more powerful than others.

In 1935, in its first big test, the Commission ordered gang boss Dutch Schultz to drop his plans to murder Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey. Luciano argued that a Dewey assassination would precipitate a massive law enforcement crackdown. When Schultz announced that he was going to kill Dewey, or his Assistant David Asch, anyway in the next three days, the Commission quickly arranged Schultz's murder. On October 24, 1935, Schultz was murdered in a tavern in Newark, New Jersey.

Prosecution for pandering

During the early 1930s, Luciano's crime family started taking over small scale prostitution operations in New York City. In June 1935, New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman appointed U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Dewey as a special prosecutor to combat organized crime in New York City. Dewey soon realized that he could attack Luciano, the most powerful gangster in New York, through this prostitution network with the assistance of his aide David Asch.

On February 2, 1936, Dewey launched a massive police raid against 200 brothels in Brooklyn and Manhattan, earning him nationwide recognition as a major "gangbuster". Ten men and 100 women were arrested. However, unlike previous vice raids, Dewey did not release the arrestees. Instead, he took them to court where a judge set bails of $10,000, far beyond their means to pay. By mid-March, several defendants had implicated Luciano. Three of these prostitutes implicated Luciano as the ringleader, who made collections, although David Betillo was in charge of the prostitution ring in New York, and any money that Luciano received was from Betillo. In late March 1936, Luciano received a tip that he was going to be arrested and fled to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Unfortunately for Luciano, a New York detective in Hot Springs on a different assignment spotted Luciano and notified Dewey.

On April 1, 1936, Luciano was arrested in Hot Springs on a criminal warrant from New York. The next day in New York, Dewey indicted Luciano and his accomplices on 60 counts of compulsory prostitution. Luciano's lawyers in Arkansas then began a fierce legal battle against extradition. On April 6, someone offered a $50,000 bribe to Arkansas Attorney General Carl E. Bailey to facilitate Luciano's case. However, Bailey refused the bribe and immediately reported it. On April 17, after all of Luciano's legal motions had been exhausted, Arkansas authorities handed Luciano to three New York City Police Department detectives for transport by train back to New York for trial. When the detectives and their prisoner reached St. Louis, Missouri and changed trains, they were guarded by 20 local policemen to prevent a mob rescue attempt. The men arrived in New York City on April 18, and Luciano was held without bail.

On May 13, 1936, Luciano's pandering trial began. He was accused of being part of a massive prostitution ring known as "the Combination". During the trial, Dewey exposed Luciano for lying on the witness stand through direct quizzing and records of telephone calls; Luciano also had no explanation for why his federal income tax records claimed he made only $22,000 a year, while he was obviously a wealthy man. Dewey ruthlessly pressed Luciano on his long arrest record and his relationships with well-known gangsters such as Ciro Terranova, Louis Buchalter, and Joseph Masseria.

On June 7, 1936, Luciano was convicted on 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. On July 18, 1936, Luciano was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in state prison, along with Betillo and others.

Many observers have questioned whether there was enough evidence to support the charges against Luciano. Like nearly all crime families, the Luciano family almost certainly profited from prostitution and extorted money from madams and brothel keepers. However, like most bosses, Luciano created layers of insulation between himself and criminal acts. It would have been significantly out of character for him to be directly involved in any criminal enterprise, let alone a prostitution ring. At least two of his contemporaries have denied that Luciano was ever part of "the Combination". In her memoirs, New York society madam Polly Adler wrote that if Luciano had been involved with "the Combination", she would have known about it. Bonanno, the last surviving contemporary of Luciano's who wasn't in prison, also denied that Luciano was directly involved in prostitution in his book, A Man of Honor.


Luciano continued to run the Luciano crime family from prison, relaying his orders through acting boss, Vito Genovese. However, in 1937 Genovese fled to Naples, Italy to avoid an impending murder indictment in New York. Luciano appointed his consigliere, Costello, as the new acting boss and the overseer of Luciano's interests.

Luciano was first imprisoned at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, but was moved later in 1936 to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, far away from New York City. At Clinton, co-defendant Dave Betillo prepared special dishes for Luciano in a kitchen set aside by authorities. Luciano was assigned a job in the prison laundry. Luciano used his influence to help get the materials to build a church at the prison, which became famous for being one of the only freestanding churches in the New York State correctional system and also for the fact that on the church's altar are two of the original doors from the Victoria, the ship of Ferdinand Magellan.

Legal appeals of Luciano's conviction continued until October 10, 1938, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case.[38] At this point, Luciano stepped down as boss, and Costello formally took over the family.

World War II, freedom and deportation[

During World War II, the U.S. government struck a secret deal with the imprisoned Luciano. In 1942, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence was concerned about German and Italian agents entering the United States through the New York waterfront. They also worried about sabotage in these facilities. Knowing that the Cosa Nostra controlled the waterfront, the Navy contacted Lansky about a deal with Luciano. To facilitate negotiations, the State of New York transferred Luciano from Clinton prison to Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York, which was much closer to New York City.

The Navy, the State of New York and Luciano eventually concluded a deal. In exchange for a commutation of his sentence, Luciano promised the complete assistance of his organization in providing intelligence to the Navy. Luciano ally Albert Anastasia, who controlled the docks, allegedly promised no dockworker strikes during war. In preparation for the 1943 allied invasion of Sicily, Luciano allegedly provided the U.S. military with Mafia contacts in Sicily.

The value of Luciano's contribution to the war effort is highly debated. In 1947, the naval officer in charge of Operation Underworld discounted the value of Luciano's wartime aid. A 1954 report ordered by Governor Dewey stated that Luciano provided many valuable services to Naval Intelligence. The enemy threat to the docks, Luciano allegedly said, was manufactured by the sinking of the SS Normandie in New York harbor, supposedly directed by Anastasia's brother, Anthony Anastasio. However, the official investigation of the ship sinking found no evidence of sabotage.

On January 3, 1946, as a presumed reward for his alleged wartime cooperation, now Governor Thomas E. Dewey reluctantly commuted Luciano's pandering sentence on condition that he did not resist deportation to Italy. Luciano accepted the deal, although he still maintained that he was a U.S. citizen and not subject to deportation. On February 2, 1946, two federal immigration agents transported Luciano from Sing Sing prison to Ellis Island in New York Harbor for deportation proceedings. On February 9, the night before his departure, Luciano shared a spaghetti dinner on his freighter with Anastasia and five other guests.

On February 10, 1946, Luciano's ship sailed from Brooklyn harbor for Italy. This was the last time he would see the United States. On February 28, after a 17-day voyage, Luciano's ship arrived in Naples. On arrival, Luciano told reporters he would probably reside in Sicily.

Luciano was deeply hurt about having to leave the United States, a country he had considered his home ever since his arrival at age 10. During his exile, Luciano frequently encountered US military men and American tourists during train trips in Italy. Luciano enjoyed these meetings and gladly posed for photographs and signed autographs.


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