The Luciano Myth and the Institution of Cosa Nostra

Few criminals have enjoyed the notoriety and fascination that Lucky Luciano has, both in life and in death. Born in Sicily around 1897 as Salvatore Lucania, he, like so many other turn-of-the-Century immigrants, would soon cross the Atlantic for the bustling streets of New York City – a metropolis teeming with both newly found promise as well as the same patterns of intrinsic violence and poverty his family was fleeing. During his relatively short life in America, Lucky would rise to the pinnacle of the North American underworld and contribute to the founding of contemporary mafia families in New York City. However, beyond the accomplishments and criminal accolades of Lucky lies the true story of the institutionalization of the North American mafia, one wrapped in intrigue, ethnicity and opportunism. This piece will attempt to debunk some of the Luciano-Mafia foundation myths and explain the founding of the American Cosa Nostra in the chaotic months following the Castellammarese War (c. 1930-31) within the context of inter-ethnic gang competition.

Perhaps one of the most enduring Luciano myths is his apparent pre-eminent role in the foundation of the mafia in New York City and beyond. According to this gangland legend, Luciano and his top lieutenants became disillusioned with the behaviour of the old-time gang administrations in the United States and sought progress through a violent change in leadership. The second myth, closely connected to the first, is that Luciano wished to reconstitute the Italian gangs to fit the image of a corporate structure – in essence this describes Luciano as merely a good capitalist, seeking his way in America as so many opportunists both before and after him. The final long-standing fable surrounding his criminal proclivities was his desire to use and incorporate other ethnicities into the Italian criminal fraternity. The evidence for this being his friendship with notable Jewish racketeers Meyer Lanksy and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegal, among others. Once again, Luciano here assumes the role of the modern American combating old-world prejudices and racial stereotyping. While conjecture and desires for a well-rounded narrative and relatively likable protagonist have led researchers and journalists to portray Luciano in this dynamic and positive image, these ideas are based firmly in the moral values of today’s America, which seeks to explain all success as the natural evolution of a morally reputable individual – in Lucky’s case, this meant constructing an image of the previous leadership as power-hungry, violent and anti-business, contrasting Luciano and his adherents as the relatively moral and progressive faction. While there are elements of truth in these myths and portrayals, they remain, for the most part, a well-rehearsed fiction that sells books and draws interest from casual contemporary readers (with all of their current values now applied to the recognizable main character) into a profitable niche market. In death, Luciano has now become an allegory for the modern American immigrant; someone who both struggled with opportunity and rose to prominence in his new home through audacity and ingenuity.

Although recent portrayals of Luciano arise from the current social-mores that are active in modern American culture, the characterization of the New York underworld in the 1910s, 20s and 30s as violent and intense is certainly historically correct. However, the supposition labelling it as chaotic and disorganized is far more difficult to prove. In fact, the Italian underworld during the time may have operated with a surprising amount of consistency, depending on the observer. Firstly, Sicilian mafia groups operating in East Harlem and southern Manhattan had ongoing peaceful and profitable interactions with Camorra groups in Brooklyn. Each of these organizations, while eventually coming to blows (1915-1917), would survive internal leadership transfers and, according to the admissions of defecting members, operate with a surprising amount of political patronage from the corrupt  Democratic machine at Tammany Hall, which would subvert police operations in exchange for votes in gang-controlled neighbourhoods. As can be seen, these initial Italian organized crime groups retained a moderate degree of operational sophistication and the loyalty of their ethnically-defined personnel, making them much more akin to their monolithic successor “families” than is often imagined. Because of this clear pattern of power-relationships and operational resilience, these recurrent, ethnically-defined criminal identities – which were intrinsically linked to specific turn-of-the-Century criminal institutions – are much more likely to be the source of the modern American mafia structure than the ingenuity of Lucky or perhaps even his contemporaries, such as Salvatore Maranzano.


The Italian Underworld in New York prior to 1930


To properly understand the world that produced the modern American mafia families it is important to first briefly discuss the players and organizations that operated in the proverbial volcano at that time. (For a more complete history of the evolution of the five families in NYC please see our previous article on the subject: The first family of Italian organized crime was the Morello organization in East Harlem. Founded by Giuseppe “the Clutch Hand” Morello in the first few years of the 20th Century, Morello should be considered one of the first Sicilian mafiosi in New York and factions of his family would one day spawn in some form into two of the current NYC mafia families: the Genovese and Lucchese crime families, each of which began in Manhattan and the Bronx and retain factions there to this day. (The later Brooklyn faction would also evolve and one day become the Gambino Crime Family). Morello’s control of East Harlem would be shaken by his arrest and incarceration for counterfitting in 1909 along with his other senior members. His contemporaries included a young Salvatore D’Aquila, who would rise in Morello’s place in East Harlem and the various Camorra gangs, called so because their members originated in Naples and supposedly adhered to the Camorra clan system of organization, although how rigidly these groups followed this organizational model has never been accurately established. One of these Camorra gangs was centred in Manhattan and was led by Giosue Gallucci, the proverbial “King of Little Italy;” the other two were based in Brooklyn on Navy Street, under Allesandro Vollero and Leopoldo Lauritano, and Coney Island under the leadership of Pellegrino Morano.

Infighting and competition over Little Italy’s gambling rackets eventually led to the assassination of Gallucci by the remnants of Morello’s gang – led by his half brothers the Terranovas – and the Brooklyn Camorra groups. Once Gallucci was murdered in 1915 the Brooklyn-based Camorra immediately turned their sights on the once mighty Morellos. Many on both sides were killed in what has become known as the Mafia-Camorra wars. Despite apparently winning the conflict militarily, the Brooklyn Camorra was subsequently devastated when key members were arrested for murder and became cooperating witnesses, leading to the dismantlement and imprisonment of the Camorra leadership in 1918. The aftermath of this conflict allowed for the rise of other Italian criminal groups in Brooklyn led by Sicilians and helped to further entrench certain criminal operational models on the streets of New York. These Sicilian groups included the organizations of Franky Uale (Yale) in southeast Brooklyn, Giuseppe Profaci in Red Hook, Gaetano Reina in East Harlem and the Bronx, and Al Manfredi (Al Mineo), who controlled the largest Brooklyn organization and based it close to the buzzing streets of the historically criminally-invested waterfront. The final major organization emerged from a group of Sicilians from the region of Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, who upon their arrival in the first decades of the Century quickly established themselves in cities across the country and were led by Nicola “Cola” Schiro.

In Manhattan, the traditional seat of power for Italian criminals in NYC, the death of Gallucci and Nicola Terranova of the Morello organization allowed for the rise of Salvatore “Toto” D’Aquila and Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, who were once Morello captains. D’Aquila had rackets in East Harlem and southern Manhattan but also moved into Brooklyn and absorbed Al Mineo’s group, Mineo himself serving under D’Aquila. Masseria emerged from the tangled web of tenements in Little Italy and the Lower East Side to control his own successor group to the Morello organization, and it was here that he likely encountered a young Lucky Luciano for the first time. Masseria and D’Aquila would compete on and off for nearly a decade, which included several unsuccessful attempts on Masseria’s life.

Frankie Yale would be killed in July, 1928, his rackets absorbed by Profaci and Mineo in Brooklyn, while Salvatore D’Aquila – the proverbial boss of bosses – met the same fate in October, 1928. While Yale was likely murdered on the orders of Al Capone, D’Aquila was almost certainly murdered on the orders of the Masseria (the shots supposedly fired by Luciano himself), who, with the absorption of D’Aquila’s rackets, now assumed the mantle of top boss. Masseria also now fully controlled the old organizations of both Morello and Al Mineo – whose Brooklyn-based group would one day become the Gambino Crime Family. Interestingly, Mineo likely set up his old superior D’Aquila to be murdered and from that point on would faithfully serve Masseria until his own murder in 1930.


The Castellammarese War


As the year 1930 dawned, four major Italian crime groups, all led by Sicilians, held sway in New York City: Gaetano Reina’s in the Bronx, Joe Profaci’s in southern Brooklyn, Nicola Schiro’s centred in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg, and Giuseppe Masseria’s group that held territory in Manhattan and under Al Mineo’s faction in Brooklyn. Masseria enjoyed hegemony over all of the major gangs except for Schiro’s in northern Brooklyn, which soon became a major issue. The Castellammarese War was essentially an attempt by Masseria to formally incorporate all of these groups under his banner. Schiro had been run-off by Masseria shortly before the start of the conflict, leaving his successor, a hardened Sicilian mafioso and killer named Salvatore Maranzano to be boss of the Castellammarese. Maranzano would not be bullied and quickly sought support from Castellammarese gangsters across the United States. Gaspar Milazzo, a reputed Castellammarese associate in Detroit, was killed in February 1930, an act that is thought be the official start of the War. Reina – considered disloyal to the top boss – would be killed by a Masseria gunman (rumoured to be Vito Genovese) also in February of that year, with a Masseria puppet by the name of Pinzolo installed in his place. Following Reina’s murder his successors, Gaetano (also recorded as Tommasso) Gagliano and Gaetano Lucchese secretly sided with the Castellammarese against Masseria although ostensibly remained loyal. Profaci’s group also sided with the Castellammarese, establishing a long-enduring alliance between the future iterations of these groups – the Colombo and Bonanno crime families. Interestingly, Giuseppe Morello, former boss of bosses, had emerged from prison in 1920 and, after a brief sojourn to Sicily to avoid the wrath of D’Aquila, he returned to be Masseria’s consigliere and war chief. Morello would eventually be murdered in April 1930 by Maranzano gunmen.

Al Mineo and his Brooklyn faction remained loyal to Masseria until his death in November, 1930. His successor, Frank Scalise, would subsequently separate from the Masseria brand and go his own way with his gang. This increasing strategic isolation and the ongoing attrition suffered by his gang eventually set the stage for Masseria’s own murder at a Coney Island restaurant in April, 1931. Luciano was reportedly his guest at lunch that day and excused himself from the table for a restroom break immediately prior to the shooting. Members of Luciano’s sub-faction within the Masseria family likely assisted with his death, including: Joe Adonis and Vito Genovese. The hit team also reputedly included Bugsy Siegal, a Jewish racketeer and supporter, and Albert Anastasia, who served in the group now run by Frank Scalise, the former supporter of Al Mineo and therefore Masseria. While Luciano apologists describe this murder as a necessary betrayal to establish a new order of criminals and remove the antiquated “Mustache Petes” (old bosses), more accurately, this hit was likely necessary for Luciano to prove his loyalty to the Maranzano organization. As was outlined previously, the various Italian gangs had been actively separating themselves from Masseria’s control beginning with Reina’s Bronx group and later including both the Profaci’s and Scalise’s remnants of the Mineo faction. The notion that this was a battle of the young versus old is therefore a little troublesome. Hitmen in large mafia groups are very rarely older, established members. Rather, most organized crime assassinations are completed by young competent assassins or those who are seeking to ingratiate themselves with or join the regime in question. All of these scenarios more accurately match the Masseria murder and paint Luciano as more of an opportunist seeking to rise in the ranks of the winner than as part of a plan to unseat the established order – which, it will be demonstrated, he enshrined rather than dismantled.


The World post-Masseria


The months between the deaths of Masseria in April, 1931 and Maranzano in September 1931 are perhaps some of the least understood and most important in the long history of Italian organized crime in the United States. Following Masseria’s murder it appears likely that Maranzano established himself, by virtue of his recent victory and the national reach of his Castellammarese network, as the new paramount Italian crime boss in the United States. This move to supreme leader has often been cited as the later reason for his death at the hands of Luciano and his supporters, who apparently resented his age and controlling tendencies. However, Maranzano, more than any other boss in the history of Italian organized crime in the United States, contributed to the establishment of the institutionalized framework that empowers and defines the current American Cosa Nostra today. Firstly, he established the pre-eminence of the Sicilian criminal system of families – remember that the Camorra was a long-standing criminal fraternity in its own right and, if it had won the earlier Mafia-Camorra conflict, its system of clans would likely have come to dominate the New York underworld in place of the Sicilian family model today. As is visible from the brief history provided above, gangs of Italian criminals did merge and split as leaders emerged and fell. This constant fluid restructuring of power was in fact the greatest source of tension between the groups and within the underworld itself. Secondly, in a pragmatic move again based on his Sicilian traditions, Maranzano established five families in New York, and one in each major city across the country. The families were all to be led by Sicilians and each initiate would have to undergo the same ceremony and structure of initiation, colloquially referred to now as “being made.” All criminals of Italian ancestry could join these organizations – which would not include those of non-Italian heritage – but would be required to follow strict codes of behaviour.

In New York the new bosses would be: Maranzano himself, as boss of the Castellammarese borgata or crime family (now referred to as the Bonanno Crime Family); Salvatore Lucania, who, as a reward for his treachery, would get the Morello/Masseria borgata (now the Genovese Crime Family); Vincenzo Mangano, who replaced Frank Scalise as the leader of the Mineo faction of the old Morello/Masseria group, (now the Gambino Crime Family); Joe Profaci, who would retain his control of his south Brooklyn borgata (now the Colombo Crime Family); and Gaetano Gagliano from the old Reina group (now the Lucchese Crime family) in the Bronx and East Harlem, which would also absorb some of the old Morello rackets. In fact, beyond the establishment of the “families” themselves, perhaps Maranzano’s greatest accomplishment was the diversification of the regional territories controlled by the various borgatas, which would undoubtedly have been exceedingly difficult to manage peacefully. The Bronx-based Reina group under Gagliano came to have territory in both New Jersey and Brooklyn, as occurred with the Morello/Masseria/Luciano family. And, under Maranzano, the three Brooklyn-based borgatas of Maranzano, Profaci and Mangano all acquired territory in Manhattan and other boroughs. This ingenious division of crews and territory removed the rigid geographical framework that each family in New York operated under (with the possible exception of the old Morello/Masseria group that was always more diverse) and created a more fluid state of interaction that was designed to diffuse power between individuals, crews and families while at the same time institutionalizing the roles that granted this same power to the groups. Luciano likely recognized this distribution of power as good thing to emulate and again continued Maranzano’s policy.

Finally, beyond the procedures for membership and the establishment of permanent families, Maranzano also brought over the Sicilian traditions controlling the internal institutionalized aspects of each crime family’s organization. At the bottom would be uninitiated associates or wannabes. Above them would be the fully initiated soldiers or button-men, who would each belong to a crew or regime that was controlled by a caporegime or captain. The captains of each crew, usually consisting of at least ten fully initiated members would then report to a faction head, or even the supreme leadership. Finally, the leadership roles were the established administration positions of the boss, underboss and consigliere, with certain families eventually adding the positions of messenger and street boss. This system is based rigidly on the Sicilian system of organized crime and was not instituted by Luciano but rather by Maranzano himself. These organizational changes and the institutionalization of families, roles and administrative positions ensured the survival of these groups beyond the arrest or death of top members and further guarded against internal divisions and conflict.


Lucky’s Legacy Today


There are several stories surrounding the cause of the murder of Salvatore Maranzano. Under the most pro-Luciano scenarios Maranzano became jealous of Luciano’s prominence and sought to remove him. Other possibilities include that Maranzano double-crossed Luciano because he feared Lucky’s obvious talents and that his former treachery with Masseria would be visited upon himself. For Luciano’s part, he was supposedly tired of the old-world ways of the Mustache Petes and their adherents and sought a more business-like, capitalistic or peaceful form of organized criminality. The final nail in Maranzano’s proverbial coffin is the oft-repeated accusation that he sought to become the boss of bosses, a position held previously by Morello, D’Aquila and later Masseria. Regardless of motivation, Maranzano was finally shot and stabbed to death in his office in September, 1931, by Jewish criminals loyal to Meyer Lansky and therefore Lucky.

These popular scenarios surrounding Maranzano’s death and Lucky’s grand ascension possess several logical hurdles that many crime historians have not adequately answered. Firstly, Lucky, upon the death of Maranzano, did not repeal the criminal legislation passed by the old boss before his death. In fact, he further entrenched it. His Jewish compatriots did not receive invitations to join his borgata and the institutionalized administrative positions of boss, underboss and consigliere remained along with the Sicilian system of capos, soldiers and “being made”. Ultimately, the evidence suggests that Lucky seems to have embraced the organizational and cultural tenets that were introduced by Maranzano, thereby creating the modern mafia subculture.

Secondly, as mentioned earlier, besides the clearly over-emphasized cultural issues between Maranzano and Luciano, there was also apparently the issue of age. Lucky and his adherents reportedly hated the old-world intensity by which Maranzano and his contemporaries controlled their organizations. However, this notion again does not really stand up to analysis. As far as age, Maranzano was only 13 years older than Lucky and many of his supporters, such as Vito Genovese, making Luciano 34 at the end of the Castellammarese War while Maranzano would have been at the ripe old age of 47. Even in a world of regular infant mortality and early death due to preventable disease, as was the case in 1930s NYC, this difference in age would not be considered all that important by any stretch. At 34, Luciano would have been considered middle-aged while Maranzano, at 47, would have also enjoyed a similar ageist label. Both were also Sicilian immigrants. Perhaps a more important piece of evidence debunking the importance of age is Lucky’s apparent blessing for the promotion of Vincent Mangano to lead the family that had once been the Mineo faction in the Masseria gang. Mangano was an old world Sicilian gangster in the mould of Maranzano, and was also at least 43 at the time. Clearly, Lucky did not have a problem with promoting older members and therefore, as this information makes clear, the supposed cultural differences between the Mustache Petes of Maranzano and Luciano’s young Turks were not all that apparent. This conclusion does not mean that Maranzano did not have supporters or that Lucky’s ascension was not accompanied by violence. Rather, instead of a generational conflict it was likely more a conflict between those still loyal to the old boss and those who sought to gain more power and influence under the new one.

The final apocryphal myth associated with Luciano was his apparent role in modelling organized crime after American capitalism. This foundational myth is an important one as it adds credence for the classification of Luciano as modern and progressive, and those he replaced by violence as outdated and racist. But, like the others, it holds very little water when pressed. As discussed earlier, the leadership system adopted by the modern Cosa Nostra is Sicilian in origin and is not an attempt to bring the boardroom into organized crime. The mafia does rely on capitalism, but it fundamentally rejects the notion of competition – the supposed moral and economic lynch-pin of the ideology. Cosa Nostra is about establishing entrenched and monolithic monopolies that are intensely controlled and protected. When examining it through this lens, the modern mafia system embraced by Lucky more closely resembles a communist state than truly capitalist one. Lucky is likely responsible for one extremely important institution within the American Cosa Nostra: the Commission. This organization, which was founded after Maranzano’s death, was created to resolve disputes within the Cosa Nostra fraternity and did exist in this fashion until the mid-1990s. (It is unclear at this time if it the institution is still functioning in New York). While its name has added weight to the Lucky the capitalist myth, this institution was about enshrining the control exercised by the top bosses rather than a diffusion of power to some sort of board. It was a pragmatic and effective managerial creation and does much to reveal Lucky’s gifts at organization and control.

Luciano was undoubtedly a dynamic and charismatic personality whose participation in organized crime transpired at some of the most chaotic and interesting times in the history of the Cosa Nostra subculture in the United States. However, the mythologization of his role has led to misunderstandings regarding the operational paradigm of contemporary Cosa Nostra groups. Lucky was an innovator, but he did not create the criminal family model. As Maranzano adopted it from Sicily, so did Lucky, and had the Camorra not been pre-emptively wiped out by law enforcement and internecine warfare at the turn of the Century it is likely that the Camorra model would now be present in NYC over the Sicilian one, whether Lucky existed or not. Also under the popular narrative, Luciano – the supposedly capitalist American – is considered to have stood against racial identities and had many Jewish business partners and friends; however, in this he once again seems to closely mirror Maranzano and Masseria. During his heyday, Maranzano actively utilized other non-Sicilian criminals, including Luciano supporter Vito Genovese – who was himself from Camorra-infested Campania – to commit murder. Maranzano also had no problem, for instance, using at least one of Lucky’s Jewish gunmen on the Masseria assassination. Tellingly, once Lucky had assumed the role of princeps civitatis within the Cosa Nostra following Maranzano’s demise he did not move to further incorporate other ethnic groups into the fraternity, instead choosing to again follow Maranzano’s and Masseria’s earlier lead and allow only Sicilian and non-Sicilian Italians into their ranks. This similarity in outlook should be expected given the fact that they were contemporaries rather than of different generations – again another enduring and obfuscating myth; Lucky only ever further entrenched the Sicilian modus operandi begun by Maranzano. This mafia system is one of strict hierarchy and organizational control, it is not a manifestation of modern capitalism. While it is true that certain capitalist obsessions with wealth produced trends within the modern mafia and potentially undermined its existence in the United States, Luciano certainly did not think of himself as simply an American capitalist businessman. He was a gangster’s gangster who fought and betrayed his way to the pinnacle of the American Cosa Nostra using the same old-World structures of power, authority and influence he is now considered to have stood against. The ongoing fascination with Lucky Luciano and the recurring desire to paint his story as one of capitalist innovation and a triumph of progressive values over outdated tendencies continues to influence the current discourse on the American Cosa Nostra families. Perhaps it is time to accept that Luciano’s role was that of his ancestors and contemporaries: a dangerous man who contributed to making the World in which he lived more dangerous.


By: Scott Paulseth


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