Charles “Lucky” Luciano
Charles “Lucky” Luciano, without doubt the most important Italian-American gangster this country ever produced, left a far greater impact on the underworld than even the illustrious Al Capone. In 1931, Luciano created what can be called the American Mafia by wiping out the last important exponents of the Sicilian-style Mafia in this country. Together with Meyer Lansky, Luciano was also a founder of the Mafia’s “parent” organization, the national crime syndicate, a network of multi-ethnic criminal gangs that has ruled organized crime for more than half a century, a criminal cartel which has bled Americans of incalculable billions over the years.
Luciano was born Salvatore Lucania near Palermo in Sicily and was brought to this country in 1906. In 1907, he logged his first arrest for shoplifting. During the same year, he started his first racket. For a penny or two a day, Luciano offered younger and smaller Jewish kids his personal protection against beatings on the way to school; if they didn’t pay, he beat them up. One runty kid refused to pay, a thin little youngster from Poland, Meyer Lansky. Luciano attacked him and was amazed when Lansky gave as good as he got. They became bosom buddies after that, a relationship that would continue long after Luciano was deported back to Italy.
By 1916, Luciano was a leading member of the Five Points Gang and named by police as the prime suspect in a number of murders. His notoriety grew through his teen years, as did his circle of underworld friends. By 1920, Luciano was a power in bootlegging rackets (in cooperation with Lansky and his erstwhile partner Bugsy Siegel) and had become familiar with Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese and, most important among Italian gangsters, Frank Costello.
Luciano was amazed by the old-line mafiosi who counseled him to stay away from Costello, “the dirty Calabrian.” But Costello led Luciano astray—by ritual mafioso standards—by introducing him to other ethnic gangsters like Big Bill Dwyer and Jews like Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz and Dandy Phil Kastel. Luciano was much impressed by the way Costello bought protection from city officials and the police, which Lansky had already been telling Luciano was the most important ingredient in any big-time criminal setup. Rather than heed the admonitions of Mustache Petes, Luciano believed instead the old line mafiosi were the problem and should be eliminated.
Although he maintained separate ties with Lansky, Luciano by the late 1920s had become the chief aide in the largest Mafia family in the city, that belonging to Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. Luciano had nothing but contempt for Joe the Boss’s Old World ways, with its mumbo-jumbo of the Sicilian Mafia that stressed “respect” and “honor” for the boss and distrust and hatred of all non-Sicilians. In Luciano’s opinion, Masseria’s prejudice against other gangsters, Sicilian as well as non-Sicilian, created an unconscionable obstacle to making real profits. Joe the Boss passed up extremely lucrative deals by fighting gangsters with whom he could have cooperated for their joint benefit. And Joe the Boss was more intent on waging otherwise long-forgotten feuds with fellow Sicilians based on which town or village they had come from than he was on making money.
In 1928 the Castellammarese War erupted between the numerous forces of Joe the Boss and those of a fast-rising mafioso in New York, Salvatore Maranzano. Over the next two years, dozens of gangsters were killed. Luciano avoided the conflict as much as possible and instead cemented relationships with the young, second-line leadership in the Maranzano outfit. It soon became clear that younger mobsters in both camps were waiting for one boss to kill off the other. Then the second line could dethrone the remaining boss. Luciano soon emerged as the leader of this clique.
The war moved into 1931 with Maranzano winning, but Masseria was still powerful. Luciano finally felt he could wait no longer without imperiling his supporters in both camps. Three of his men and Bugsy Siegel, lent by the cooperative Lansky, shot Joe the Boss to death in a Coney Island restaurant. Luciano had guided him there and stepped into the men’s room just before the execution squad marched in.
The assassination made Maranzano the victor in the Castellammarese War and, in supposed gratitude to Luciano, Maranzano made Luciano the number two man in his new Mafia empire. Maranzano proclaimed himself the “boss of bosses” in New York and set up five crime families under him. That was only the beginning of Maranzano’s plans. He was determined to become the supreme boss of the entire Mafia in the United States. To achieve that end, Maranzano compiled a list of two gangsters who had to be eliminated: In Chicago, Al Capone; in New York, Lucky Luciano. Maranzano understood Luciano had his own ambitions and figured to crush him quickly.
But Maranzano was not quick enough. Luciano and Lansky learned of Maranzano’s plans in advance. Maranzano was going to summon Luciano and Vito Genovese to his office for a conference. He had lined up a murderous Irish gunman, Mad Dog Coll, to assassinate the pair either in his office or shortly after they left. Instead, moments before Coll arrived to set up the ambush, four of Lansky’s gunners, pretending to be government agents, entered Maranzano’s office and shot and stabbed him to death.
In a very real sense, Maranzano’s death finished the “old Mafia” in the United States. It has long been rumored that Luciano followed up that day with 40 or 60 or 90 other assassinations in an operation given the vivid name of “The Night of the Sicilian Vespers,” but this was utter nonsense. No list of victims was ever compiled and actually no deluge of killings was necessary. During the late 1920s, many of the oldtimers had either died naturally or been assassinated by Young Turks of the same persuasion as Luciano. And, since about half of all Mafia strength was centered in the New York–New Jersey area, the key killings to oust the old line were simply those of Joe the Boss and Maranzano.The remnants of the old Mafia were incorporated in a new national crime syndicate, a more open society that combined all the ethnic elements of organized crime. The new syndicate included such important mobsters among its governing directors as Lansky, Joe Adonis, Dutch Schultz, Louis Lepke and Frank Costello. There is no way the organization could have been Mafia-dominated; it is actually possible that Jewish gangsters may have outnumbered the Italians.
The boss of bosses position was eliminated in the syndicate, although in fact Luciano became the boss in everything but name in the Mafia division. Luciano’s original idea was to drop the whole Mafia setup, but Lansky prevailed upon him to keep it, as much to keep the peace as to recognize the substantial Italian subculture in crime. Luciano agreed and in time discovered that maintaining an American-brand Mafia gave him a power base that protected him from any wars among other ethnic elements. Similarly, Lansky could not be seriously threatened by Jewish or other mobsters because they knew he had Mafia troops he could call on.
The syndicate moved to control bootlegging, prostitution, narcotics, gambling, loan-sharking and labor rackets. Independent gangsters could have the rest, which in profit meant practically nothing.
Luciano was now at the top, a dandy dresser and well-known sport on Broadway. He looked menacing, however, thanks to a famous scarring he had received in 1929, when knife-wielding kidnappers severed the muscles in his right cheek, leaving him with an evil droop in his right eye. Through the years, Luciano told many stories of the incident. He once claimed he was kidnapped by drug smugglers who, eager to hijack it, wanted intelligence about a big shipment that was coming in. Or he was nabbed by rival gangsters, including Maranzano himself, and rogue cops who tortured him to get information. Or he was kidnapped by a policeman and his sons because he had taken advantage of the cop’s daughter. Whatever the tale, he had survived a “ride” — something few gangsters had; there was a great popularization of his nickname of “Lucky.”In 1936, Luciano’s doom year as a free power in the American underworld, special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey convicted him on compulsory prostitution charges. The underworld insisted it was a “bad rap,” claiming Dewey framed the case with perjured testimony of pimps and whores who would say anything to avoid going to jail themselves.
The conviction, from Luciano’s viewpoint, was somewhat ironic. In 1936, Dewey was making life miserable for Dutch Schultz and his operations. The Dutchman went before a board meeting of the syndicate calling for Dewey’s execution. Luciano opposed the insane idea, which would obviously only produce more heat. When the adamant Schultz stormed out, saying he would go ahead on his own, Luciano obtained a contract on Schultz. It was carried out.
Luciano, Dewey’s benefactor, got 30 to 50 years on the prostitution charge, far tougher than any other such sentence in legal history. Nevertheless he continued to maintain active leadership of the syndicate from behind bars. In 1946 Luciano was paroled for what was described by Governor Dewey as his wartime services to the country. It was evident that Luciano did order the mob to help in tightening wartime security on the New York docks. Additional later claims that Luciano was instrumental in enlisting the Mafia in Sicily to aid the Allied invasion of the island are more debatable.When he was released in 1946, Luciano was deported to Italy. He sneaked back to Cuba later that year to run the American syndicate from that offshore island. From Cuba, Luciano approved the execution of Bugsy Siegel for looting the syndicate’s money in building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. But government agents soon discovered Luciano’s presence in Cuba, and he was forced to return to Italy where he continued to issue orders to the states and got his monthly cut of syndicate revenues delivered by special couriers, including Virginia Hill.
With the assassination of Albert Anastasia (1957) and the forced retirement of Frank Costello shortly thereafter, Luciano’s influence started to wane. Vito Genovese even plotted to have him assassinated, but Luciano was still powerful enough to form a plot with Lansky, Costello and Carlo Gambino by which Genovese was delivered into the hands of U.S. narcotics agents in a rigged drug deal.Near the end of his life relations between Luciano and Lansky started to sour. Luciano felt he was not getting a fair cut of mob income, but having suffered a number of heart attacks was in no shape to mount a serious protest. Gradually, he began to reveal to journalists his version of many of the past criminal events in the United States and, obviously, some of his revelations were self-serving. In 1962, he died of a heart attack at the Naples airport. Only after his death was Lucky Luciano allowed to come back to the United States, the country he considered his only true home. He was allowed burial in St. John’s Cemetery in New York City.