Albert Anastasia, chief executioner of Murder, Inc., found his unbridled brutality could land him leadership of one of the most important Mafia families in the country. But, preoccupied with killing, he was not really a competent godfather, a fact decisively indicated by the efficient and prosperous operation of the family under Anastasia’s underboss and successor, Carlo Gambino.
One of nine brothers, Italian-born Anastasia jumped ship in the United States sometime between 1917 and 1920. He became active in Brooklyn’s dock operations and rose to a position of authority in the longshoreman’s union. It was here that Anastasia first demonstrated his penchant for murder at the slightest provocation, killing a fellow longshoreman in the early ’20s. Nor was his executioner’s behavior pattern altered by a consequent 18-month stay in the death house in Sing Sing. He went free when, at a new trial, the four most important witnesses turned up missing, a situation that proved permanent.
Dead witnesses forever littered Anastasia’s trail. In the mid-1950s Anastasia was prosecuted for income tax evasion. The first trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial was scheduled for 1955. Charles Ferri, a Fort Lee, New Jersey, plumbing contractor who had collected $8,700 for work he had performed on Anastasia’s home, was expected to be a key witness. In April, about a month before the retrial, Ferri and his wife disappeared from their blood-splattered home in Miami, Florida, suburb. Some time earlier Vincent Macri, an Anastasia associate, had been found shot to death, his body stuffed in the trunk of a car in the Bronx. A few days after that, Vincent’s brother Benedicto was declared missing, his body supposedly dumped in the Passaic River. The erasure of the two Ferris and the two Macris was seen as part of a plot to eliminate all possible witnesses against Anastasia. At Anastasia’s trial the crime boss suddenly entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to one year in federal prison. It was unlikely the government would have accepted what amounted to a plea bargain had it still had a full arsenal of witnesses against him.
Considering Anastasia’s lifelong devotion to homicide as the solution to any problem it was not surprising that he and Lois “Lepke” Buchalter were installed as the operating heads of the national crime syndicate’s enforcement arm, Murder, Inc. Some estimates have it that Murder, Inc., may have taken in a decade of operation a toll of between 400 and 500 victims. Unlike Lepke and many other members of Murder, Inc., Anastasia was never prosecuted for any of the crimes. There was a “perfect case” against him, but the main prosecution witness not surprisingly disappeared.
Anastastia was always a devoted follower of others, primarily Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. His devotion to Luciano knew no bounds. When in 1940 Luciano finalized plans to take over crime in America by destroying the two old-line Mafia factions headed by Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, he outlined his plot to Anastasia. He knew the Mad Hatter, as Anastasia had become known, would enthusiastically kill for him. Anastasia responded by seizing Luciano in a bear hug and kissing him on both cheeks. “Charlie,” he said, “I been waiting for this day for at least eight years. You’re gonna be on top if I have to kill everybody for you. With you there, that’s the only way we can have any peace and make the real money.” Anastasia was personally part of the four-man death squad that mowed down Maseria in a Coney Island restaurant in 1931.
During World War II Anastasia appeared to have been the originator of a plan to free Luciano from prison by winning him a pardon for “helping the war effort.” To accomplish the goal, Anastasia set out to create problems on the New York waterfront so the Navy would agree to any kind of deal to stop sabotage. The French luxury liner S.S. Normandie, in the process of being converted into a troopship, burned and capsized in New York harbor. Anastasia was credited with ordering his brother, Tough Tony Anastasio (different spelling of the last name), to carry out the sabotage. Afterward, a deal was made for Luciano to get lighter treatment in prison, and Anastasia was informed to cease waterfront troubles. Lansky years later told his Israeli Biographers: “I told him face to face that he mustn’t burn any more ships. He was sorry – not sorry he’d had the Normandie burned but sorry he couldn’t get at the Navy again. Apparently he had learned in the Army to hate the Navy. ‘Stuck-up bastards’ he called them.”
Anastasia’s violent ways could be contained as long as Luciano and Costello pulled the strings. In 1951 Costello may well have been the prime mover in Anastasia’s rise to boss of the Mangano crime family in which he was technically an underling. Through the years, boss Vince Mangano had fumed at Anastasia’s closeness to Luciano, Costello, Adonis and others and that they used him without first seeking Mangano’s approval. Frequently Mangano and Anastasia almost came to blow over family affairs, and it was considered only a matter of time until one or the other was killed. In 1951, Vince’s brother, Phil Mangano, was murdered and Vince himself became another in Anastasia’s legion of the permanently missing. Anastasia then claimed control of the Family with Costello’s active support. At a meeting of all the bosses of New York families, Costello backed up Anastasia’s claim that Mangano was planning to kill Anastasia and that Albert had a right to act in self-defense. Faced with a fait accompli the other bosses could do nothing but accept Anastasia’s elevation.
In appears Costello had other motivation for wanting Anastasia in control of the crime family. Costello at the time was facing a concentrated challenge from Vito Genovese for control of the Luciano family now that Luciano was in exile. Up until 1951 Costello had depended for muscle on New Jersey crime family boss Willie Moretti, but Moretti was in the process of losing his mind and would soon be a rubout in a “mercy killing” by the mob. That meant Costello needed new muscle and Anastasia, with a family of gunmen behind him, would make a strong foil to Genovese.
Unfortunately, as a crime boss Anastasia turned even more kill-crazy than ever. In 1952 he even ordered the murder of young Brooklyn salesman named Arnold Schuster after watching Schuster bragging on television about his role as primary witness in bank robber Willie Sutton’s arrest. “I can’t stand squealers!” Anastasia raged to his men. “Hit that guy!”
In killing Schuster, Anastasia had violated a cardinal crime syndicate rule which ran, as Bugsy Siegel once quaintly put it, “We only kill each other.” Outsiders – prosecutors, reporters, the public in general – were not to be killed. Members of the general public could only be hit if the very life of the organization or some of its top leaders were threatened. This certainly was not the case with Arnold Schuster, a man whose killing generated much heat on the mob. Like other members of the syndicate, even Luciano in Italy and Costello were horrified, but they could not disavow Anastasia because they needed him to counter Genovese’s growing ambitions and power. Genovese cunningly used Anastasia’s kill-crazy behavior against him, wooing supporters away from Anastasia on that basis. Secretly over a few years time Genovese won the cooperation of Anastasia’s underboss, Carlo Gambino. Gambino in turn recruited crime boss Joe Profaci to oppose Anastasia.
Still, Genovese dared not move against Anastasia and his real target, Costello, because of Meyer Lansky, the highest-ranking and most powerful member of the national syndicate. Normally Lansky would not have supported Genovese under any circumstances, their dislike for each other going back to the 1920s. But in recent years Lansky was riding high as the king of casino gambling in Cuba, cutting in other syndicate bosses for lesser shares. When Anastasia leaned on him for a piece of the action, Lansky refused. So Anastasia started working on plans to bring his own gambling setup into Cuba. That was not something Lansky took lightly. Anyone messing with his gambling empire went. That applied to Lansky’s good friend Bugsy Siegel and it certainly applied to Anastasia. Up until then Lansky had preferred to let Anastasia and Genovese bleed each other to death, but now he gave his approval to the former’s eradication.
Anastasia’s rubout was carried out with an efficiency that the former lord high executioner of Murder, Inc., would have approved. On the morning of October 25, 1957, Anastasia entered the barbershop of the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York for a quick going over. Anastasia’s bodyguard parked the car in an underground garage and then most conveniently decided to take a little stroll. Anastasia relaxed in the barber chair, closing his eyes. Suddenly two men, scarves covering their faces, marched in. One told the shop owner, Arthur Grasso, who was standing by the cash register: “Keep your mouth shut if you don’t want your head blown off.”
The pair moved on Anastasia’s chair, shoving the attending barber out of the way. Anastasia still did not open his eyes. Both men shot Anastasia , who after their first volley jumped to his feet. Anastasia lunged at his killers or what he thought were his killers, trying to get them with his bare bands. Actually he attacked their reflection in the mirror. It took several more shots to drop him, but he finally fell to the floor dead.
Like virtually all gang killings, the Anastasia murder remains unsolved. It is known, though, that the contract was given to Joe Profaci who passed it on to the three homicidal Gallo brothers from Brooklyn. Whether they did it themselves or let others handle the actual gunning was never determined.
The double-dealing did not cease with Anastasia’s death. Gambino now secretly deserted Genovese and joined with Lansky, Luciano and Costello in a plot that would entrap Genovese in a narcotics conviction and send him away to prison for the rest of his life. In that sense Anastasia was avenged, but it was not with the abrupt finality that the kill-crazy executioner would likely have preferred.