Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria – “The Man who could Dodge Bullets”

Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria was born on January 17, 1886 in Menfi, Sicily although he lived most of his childhood in Marsala. Masseria had no siblings, and his father was a tailor by trade.

Masseria immigrated to the United States in 1903 at the age of 17 to avoid a murder indictment in Italy. At the time, the United States and Italy did not have an extradition treaty, so Masseria was able to live freely in the U.S.

With experience as a small time hood in Italy, Masseria looked for similar work in the United States. He quickly found enforcer work for the Morello gang in the Lower East Side of New York. There Masseria gained in power and in 1916 after the murder of Nick Morello, Masseria and several others from the gang broke off and formed their own splinter groups each maneuvering for control of the Morello territory.

Masseria had an early edge after the demise of the Morello’s in the likes of Salvatore D’Aquila, the leader of a Brooklyn-based gang. D’Aquila was extremely powerful at the time and was said to be the consigliere among the top New York mafia families. As consigliere, D’Aquila was thought to be wise beyond his years, and one of the first people the New York mafia families would come to for advice if there was a problem. D’Aquila didn’t have control of any of these families but his assistance was well regarded and he was paid well. With D’Aquila by his side, Masseria quickly became one of the most powerful gangsters in New York.

On August 9, 1922, Masseria escaped death when he was rushed by two men after walking out of his apartment. Masseria hid in a store on 2nd avenue while the gunmen fired several rounds at the store before running out of ammunition. The gunmen then fled down the street to an awaiting getaway car and drove off.

Down the street and at the same time as the shooting a women’s union meeting was ending. Many of the people in attendance witnessed the shooting, and when the getaway car tried to flee in their direction, they tried to stop them. Unfortunately, the gunmen, who had reloaded, began firing on the bystanders. When it was all over and the gunmen had escaped, 6 people were injured and two were killed. A horse was also killed.

When the police found Masseria in his apartment after the shooting they found two bullet holes in his straw hat, evidence that the gunmen were close, and that Masseria was in fact very lucky to have escaped. After hearing about the shooting, gangsters from around New York began describing Masseria as “the man who can dodge bullets.”

In September 1922, one month after the murder attempt, Masseria organized a sit down with the other gangsters fighting for control of the Morello territory. One of those gangsters, Rocco Valenti, and two of his men arrived for the meeting first. They were greeted by three of Masseria’s men. While the men chatted Valenti began to realize that he was being set-up, and the men they were speaking to were Masseria hitmen. He realized Peter Morello, who currently had partial control of the Morello gang and Masseria must have come to an agreement and it didn’t include Valenti.

When it was clear to everyone what was about to happen, each man went for their gun and a shootout began. Both of Valenti’s men were killed while Valenti made a run for it. As he ran, the Masseria hitmen continued firing hitting a street sweeper and an 8 year old girl.  When Valenti jumped onto the side of a moving taxi cab, one of the Massiera gunmen took his time aimed and fired killing Valenti. The gunman who took the shot is thought to be Charles “Lucky” Luciano, one of Masseria’s top men.

With Valenti out of the way, Masseria became the boss of the Morello family with Peter Morello as his number two man. The second spot worked well for Morello who chose to keep a low profile while conducting his business. Law Enforcement was far more likely to go after the top spot.

In July 1928 powerful New York gangster, Frankie Yale died. In October 1928,

Frank Yale

Salvatore “Toto” D’Aquila was murdered by Peter Morello and others. His murdered was contributed to his rise as the consigliere of the New York mafia, and coincided with the Morello gang’s demise. It’s thought that Peter Morello partially blamed D’Aquila for their downfall. With D’Aquila gone, Masseria appointed allies Alfred Mineo and his underboss, also known as enforcer, Steve Ferrigno to head the D’Aquila family.

In the middle of 1929 Masseria took over territories from Cira Terranova and Anthony Carfano, the head of the Yale crime family. Both men were shot and killed in unusual circumstances and after their deaths, their families came under the control of Joe Masseria, now called Joe the Boss, the head of the largest mafia family in New York.

Lucky Luciano around the time of Masseria’s murder

Under Masseria’s command were notable mafioso of that time, such as Charles Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel each of which would one day make names for themselves as the top echelon of the American Mafia. In the meantime, Luciano was made responsible by Masseria to take care of his dirty work and to be the face of the entire family, a job Luciano did not relish.

Although Masseria was notably the most powerful gangster in New York, he soon set his sights on another mafia family known as the Castellamarese from Sicily. The families leader, Nicola “Cola” Schiro, heard about Masseria’s plan to take over their territory, and instead of fighting paid Masseria $10,000 and then “went into hiding”. He was never seen or heard from again.

After Schiro’s disappearance Masseria attempted to install his own leadership to head the Castellamarese family. His name was Joe Parrino; however, shortly after he was shot dead in a restaurant.

Despite Masseria’s attempt to install a man of his choosing, the Sicilian Mafia installed their own new leader. His name was Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano arrived in the United States in 1927 on the orders of Don Vito Cascio Ferro, a Sicilian boss. When Masseria learned of Maranzano taking over as boss, he issued a contract on his life. This event marks the formal beginning of the Castellamarese War.

On April 15, 1931 Masseria, accompanied by Charles “Lucky” Luciano, dined at the Nuova Villa Tammaro, Masseria’s favorite restaurant. They played cards, and ate, and drank until Luciano excused himself to the bathroom, and four gunmen entered the restaurant and opened fired on Masseria killing him. The gunmen were suspected to be Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis, and Vito Genovese.

No one was ever arrested, or tried for the murder of Joe Masseria. Six months later, Salvatore Maranzano was murdered by Luciano’s men as he took control as the boss of bosses.

Meyer Lansky – Money Man to the Mob

Meyer Lansky, one of the great Jewish mobsters, ran gambling in much of the United States and helped build the National Crime Syndicate that ran organized crime in the 1930s and ‘40s. He was known as the “Mob’s accountant,” and he ranks as one of the most powerful gangsters in history.

Lansky, a Jewish immigrant, was by birth excluded from the Italian-American Mafia. But he worked closely with its members for much of his life, especially key early figures such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

Meyer Suchowljansky, as he was originally named, was born in the Belarussian city of Grodno, then part of Russia, on the fourth of July, 1902. His family was the victim of violent pogroms and anti-Semitism, and in 1911 Lansky, his mother and his brother immigrated to New York, where they settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his father.

Lansky made important underworld connections early. He became close friends with Benjamin Siegel as a teenager. Benjamin, known as “Bugsy,” would go on to join Lansky as

Bugsy Siegel

Famous Jewish-American Mobster, Bugsy Siegel

one of the premier Jewish gangsters of the 20th century. Siegel saved Lansky’s life more than once, and Lansky never forgot it.

It was also during this formative period that Lansky met Luciano, a member of the Broadway Mob bootlegging gang. These three men allegedly joined with a number of other prominent mobsters to create a National Crime Syndicate.

The Syndicate, as it was known, was essentially a partnership between Italian and Jewish gangsters in the bootlegging trade. Founding members included Al Capone, Frank Costello, Dutch Schultz and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, among others.

 

During this time, Luciano’s new boss, Joe Masseria, was trying to consolidate power over every underworld organization in New York. His actions led to a major Mafia war. In part to stop the bloodshed, Luciano and Siegel turned against Masseria.

In April 1931, Masseria was assassinated, allegedly with the help of Siegel, Luciano and Lansky. They then joined the crew of their old boss’ rival, Salvatore Maranzano.

But that partnership soon soured. Luciano, Siegel and Lansky were new-fashioned mobsters. They were comfortable crossing ethnic lines if it meant greater profits and more successful crimes. Maranzano and his older generation believed in excluding all non-Italians, even all non-Sicilians.

Maranzano expected trouble from his new underlings, so he set a trap to kill them. But they figured out his plans ahead of time and sprung a trap of their own, sending four men provided by Lansky to murder Maranzano. Lansky’s crucial role in organizing the hit resulted in Luciano’s rise to the head of the family – and, soon after, to the head of the Commission that governs Italian organized crime in America.

 

Lansky got his real criminal start in bootlegging, along with Siegel. Together they ran the Bugs and Meyer Mob, an extremely violent street gang, during Prohibition. Their primary crimes were bootlegging, extortion, murder, hijacking and gambling.

Lansky handled the thinking work while Siegel, known for his sadism and bizarre behavior (which earned him the nickname he hated), took care of the muscle. The Bugs and Meyer Mob eventually morphed into the enforcement arm of the Syndicate, known famously as Murder Inc.

But by the time Maranzano was dead and Prohibition had ended in the early 1930s, the shape of the underworld had changed and focus had shifted from booze to other illicit activities. Lansky now turned his attention to gambling.

He set up operations first primarily in the South and in Cuba. His joints were high-class establishments: Gamblers could rest assured the games weren’t rigged, while police were bought off and competition was kept away. These operations were highly lucrative for Lansky and his partners.

 

By the time World War II arrived in 1941, Luciano was behind bars on a prostitution beef and the hands of his crime family had changed. But he and Lansky saw an opportunity to get him out of jail and back in power, and to help the Mafia in the process.

With Lansky’s help, Luciano arranged a deal with the government that allowed him to leave prison early. In return, the New York Mafia, which controlled the docks and shipyards along the waterfront, agreed to report and prevent sabotage by feared Nazi infiltrators.

Whether the arrangement helped the United States is highly debatable – Luciano himself later claimed it was a sham. But it drew heat off organized crime for several years and made it easier for them to operate.

 

As his gambling empire spread across the country, Lansky joined Siegel in a grand venture: the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In late 1945, Siegel, Lansky and other mobsters bought a two-thirds stake in a lavish property under planning just outside of town.

But Siegel, who was responsible for the project, was in over his head. Construction costs skyrocketed, and once the hotel and casino opened, it started losing its Mafia owners’ money.

Lansky, like other gangsters, suspected his friend Siegel was skimming money from the casino. It was either Bugsy, Lansky charged, or his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, who had run

Virginia Hill

Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill

off to Switzerland with $2.5 million.

After a rocky road, the Flamingo finally started to pull a profit. But it was too late: Soon after the money started flowing, Siegel was shot to death in his Hollywood home. Lansky held off the hit as long as he could, but in the end, it’s believed he was the one who ordered it on his longtime friend.

Twenty minutes after Siegel’s death, Lansky’s associates took over the Flamingo. Lansky himself held onto a large interest in the property for many years.

 

Lansky next moved his sights to Cuba, where he developed close ties to President Fulgencio Batista. Batista allowed the gangsters to run gambling in Cuba in exchange for kickbacks. Lansky even secured a position as an unofficial minister of gaming on the island.

But the Cuban revolution of 1959 soured paradise for the mob, and drove Lansky out. When incoming President Fidel Castro outlawed gambling, Lansky lost an estimated $7 million.

For many years afterward, Lansky lived a life of quiet disguise, running his operations in the United States from Miami Beach while presenting himself as an everyday old man. But in 1970, the government decided to prosecute him for income tax evasion and he fled to Israel.

He didn’t stay long. Two years after his arrival, the Israeli government deported him on the grounds that the Law of Return doesn’t apply to Jews with criminal histories. Nonetheless, Lansky was acquitted at trial after the government’s main witness turned out to have no credibility.

Meyer Lansky died on January 15, 1983, of lung cancer in Miami Beach. Some investigators believed he left hundreds of millions of dollars hidden away. But as far as anyone could prove, the Mob’s accountant died almost penniless.

Giovanni “Papa Johnny” Torrio – Chicago Outfit Boss in the 1920’s

Giovanni “Papa Johnny” Torrio ran Chicago’s Mafia in the 1920s, building it from a prostitution racket into an illegal liquor empire. His feud with Irish-American bootleggers led to the worst violence in the history of American organized crime and paved the way for Al Capone. Later in his life, Torrio helped create the Commission that still governs the mob in America.

No one seems to know for sure where Torrio was born, but it was somewhere in southern Italy on January 20, 1882. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother took him to New York City shortly after.

Torrio grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a slum neighborhood populated by immigrants. His mother remarried, and his stepfather, who owned a grocery store, hired him as a porter. But the store was really an illegal liquor front and served as Torrio’s introduction to crime.

He soon joined a group of teenage boys known as the James Street Gang and rose to become their leader. The James Streeters were allied with the notorious Five Points Gang of lower Manhattan.

Torrio saved enough money to open a billiards hall in Brooklyn where his boys could hang out and orchestrate crimes. The parlor drew a number of rising young criminals, including Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, better known as Al.

Before long Torrio’s business success drew the attention of Paulo Vaccarelli, also known as Paul Kelly. Kelly ran the Five Points Gang and, in the early 1900s, made Torrio his lieutenant. Torrio quickly began to take after his new mentor, transforming his image from that of a street thug into that of a well-dressed businessman with legitimate interests. The change earned Torrio the nickname “The Fox.”

Torrio and his men dabbled in a number of rackets, including prostitution and opium trafficking, but their biggest money-earner was gambling, specifically the numbers game. He also had interests in legitimate businesses, including his billiards hall and a Coney Island tavern named the Harvard Inn. It was there that Torrio, along with his associate, Frankie Yale, first hired Capone.

While Torrio was making his rise in New York, his uncle by marriage, Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo, was consolidating control over much of the underworld in Chicago. His enterprise had come to be known simply as the Chicago Outfit.

In 1909 Big Jim was targeted by extortionists, and he called on Torrio to help. Thugs sent Colosimo a “Black Hand” letter, part of a scheme in which immigrants threatened residents with violence unless they paid. Colosimo had engaged in the practice himself, and his wealth now made him a target.

To deal with the problem, he brought Torrio to Chicago to kill the extortionists. A few years later, Colosimo invited his nephew to return and made him second in command.

Torrio put Yale in charge of his New York rackets and moved west, where he and Colosimo continued to build the Outfit’s power and profits, centered around a network of brothels. In 1918 Capone became a suspect in a murder investigation and generated tension in the Brooklyn Mafia by brawling with another gangster, so Yale sent him to Chicago. Torrio put Capone to work in the Outfit.

Then, in 1919, Prohibition arrived and promised millions in profits for organized crime. But Colosimo refused to take part in illegal liquor distribution. He already owned a restaurant that made thousands selling booze to the rich and famous, and he feared interference by the federal government should he expand further into bootlegging.

Torrio was angered by this, and things got worse when Colosimo divorced his aunt. On May 11, 1921, Torrio sent Colosimo to his restaurant to meet with bootleggers. When they never arrived, Colosimo left in anger. On his way out the door, an assassin leapt from the cloak room and gunned him down.

No one was ever charged with the murder, but both Yale and Capone have long been considered suspects. Torrio

Big Jim Colosimo

immediately took over the Outfit and opened the tap on a liquor empire unrivaled in the United States.

Over the next few years, with Capone’s help, Torrio turned the Outfit into a criminal machine. Bootlegging brought in $100 million a year at the height of Prohibition. But it came at a price to both Torrio and Chicago.

The Outfit controlled most of the liquor trade on the South Side, but the North Side was dominated by an Irish-American bootlegging gang led by Dean O’Banion. The two sides fought bitterly for control of the city. At times they managed a tentative peace, but it never lasted.

In 1924, O’Banion sold a brewery to Torrio just before it was raided by police. Torrio, who was arrested and earned a nine-month prison sentence, vowed revenge. On November 10, O’Banion was murdered by gunmen in his flower shop.

The so-called “beer wars,” the most violent episode of organized crime in American history, followed. Mobsters, police, public officials and innocent bystanders were murdered across the city over the next decade. Politicians were bought off, voters beaten, jurors intimidated and almost every element of the political and judicial systems undermined.

Two months after the assassination, on January 24, 1925, O’Banion’s men struck back.  Torrio was returning to his apartment with his wife, Anna, when North Side gangsters Hymie Weiss, George “Bugs” Moran and Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci met him and unloaded their guns into him. Torrio survived, but only barely.

Following surgery and a long recovery, he decided to go into semi-retirement. He handed the Outfit to Capone. His final words as boss: “It’s all yours, Al. Me? I’m quitting. It’s Europe for me.” Torrio left for Italy.

He returned to the United States to testify at Capone’s trial for tax evasion in 1931 and went on to serve as a mentor to Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano and the Genovese crime family of New York. He also came up with the idea behind the National Crime Syndicate, an organization of Italian and Jewish mobsters that operated during the 1930s and ’40s. The Syndicate eventually became the Commission, the governing body of the Italian Mafia in America.      In 1939 Torrio pleaded guilty to tax evasion, the same crime that brought down Al Capone. Upon his release from Leavenworth prison two years later, he left crime and went into the New York real estate business.

Torrio suffered a heart attack on April 16, 1957, while sitting in a barber’s chair, and died a few hours later. He had become so obscure since leaving the Mafia that his death went unnoticed by the press until his will was probated three weeks later.

Roy Albert DeMeo – Leader of the Gambino Family Murder for Hire

Roy Albert DeMeo was born on September 7, 1942 in Bath Beach Brooklyn to working class Italian immigrants. In 1959 DeMeo graduated from James Madison High School with an accomplished loan shark business bringing in hundreds of dollars each week.

After leaving James Madison High School DeMeo married and fathered three children. He also continued his loan sharking business and by 1966 caught the attention of the Gambino crime family and in particular Nino Gaggi, who was a very accomplished racketeer.

Gaggi saw the potential in having DeMeo work for him. He told DeMeo he could make even more money with his business if he came to work for the Gambino’s. DeMeo accepted and Gaggi and DeMeo immediately set up their own loan sharking business. Once that was running, the two branched out and formed a crew for DeMeo that specialized in car theft. His crew would become known as the DeMeo crew and the Gemini crew and included Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski, Chris Rosenberg, Joseph Guglielmo,

DeMeo Crew

Anthony Senter, Henry Borelli, and Joey Testa.

As DeMeo grew his illegal business, he also developed himself as a legitimate businessman. He joined the Brooklyn Credit Union as a member of the board of directors and used his position to launder money for Rosenberg who had a healthy income from dealing in drugs. Before long, DeMeo had several loan sharking businesses running from the credit union and was making hundreds of thousands each year.

In 1973 at the age of 30 DeMeo committed his first murder. DeMeo and Gaggi were slient partners in a porno lab. The proprietor, Paul Rothernberg was arrested by the police and DeMeo believed he would fold under pressure and talk to the police. Once he was released on bail awaiting trial, DeMeo summoned him to a meeting at a local diner, and then shot him to death in a nearby alley.

The following year DeMeo was involved in another murder when a young bodyshop owner Andrei Katz began to cooperate with the police after an altercation with DeMeo. In June 1975 Katz was lured and confronted by DeMeo and some of his crew. Katz was abducted stabbed and dismembered. A woman who had a role in luring Katz confessed to the police and Joseph Testa and Henry Borelli were arrested. The stood trial in 1976 and were acquitted.

After the Katz murder, DeMeo and his crew began committing mafia sanctioned hits. The DeMeo crew would lure their targets to the Gemini Club where they would kill them, bleed them dry, and then cut them into pieces to be disposed of. There exact method of murder was explained by soldier turned informant Frederick DiNome who said, the target would be lured into the back of the Gemini club at which point someone, usually DeMeo, would shoot them and quickly wrap a towel around their head to prevent blood loss. Then another of his crew would stab the person in the heart to lessen the flow of blood from their head. After letting the body bleed in the bathtub, they would cut the body into pieces and drop it in several location.

At the time the police were not aware the DeMeo crew was a killing machine, however after testimony from other Mafioso in the 1990’s they learned the DeMeo crew was responsible for over 200 hundred murders; more than Anastasia’s Murder Inc.

In 1977 Roy DeMeo officially became a member of the Gambino family. The current boss of the family, Paul Castellano reluctantly agreed to “open the books” for DeMeo after DeMeo arbitrated an agreement with the Westies gang who was feuding with the Gambino’s.

In November 1978 DeMeo and his crew murdered one of their own, Danny Grillo. Grillo, who has fallen into heavy debt with DeMeo, was killed after both DeMeo and Naggi felt Grillo would run to law enforcement for safety.

The following year, DeMeo struck again killing the very first member of the DeMeo crew, Chris Rosenberg. Rosenberg was involved in a drug deal with a Colombian drug cartel. Instead of conducting business as usual, Rosenberg murdered all of them, taking the money and the drugs. When Naggi found out about the killings, he feared the Colombian drug cartel would start a war, so to keep them calm, he ordered DeMeo to murder Rosenberg.

After stalling for weeks, DeMeo thought a young college student Dominick Ragucci who was parked outside DeMeo’s house, was a Colombian hitman. DeMeo approached Ragucci and a car chase ensured. DeMeo fired several shots at the student until his car was disabled, then DeMeo walked up to Ragucci and fired several shots into his head killing him. DeMeo son later wrote in his book For The Sins of My Father, when DeMeo found out he murdered a college student just trying to make a living as a door to door salesman, he started crying.

After hearing of the murder, Naggi again ordered DeMeo to kill Rosenberg. On May 11, 1979 Rosenberg, who had no idea he was a target arrived at a meeting with DeMeo and others from his crew. DeMeo shot Rosenberg in the head at point blank range. When Rosenberg rose from one knee, DeMeo couldn’t pull the trigger again and Anthony Senter fired four shots into the back of his head. Rosenberg’s body was left in his car parked out in the open to be found and squash the bad blood with the Colombians.

By 1982 the FBI had been conducting surveillance on DeMeo trying to gather enough evidence to convict him for several murders. During their surveillance they picked up a conversation between Gene and John Gotti, that Gambino boss, Paul Castellano had put a hit contract out on DeMeo. Castellano, who was more of a businessman than a thug, was tired of the DeMeo crew, and wanted to disband them. The problem he was having was he couldn’t find anyone who would take the contract. Most in the family feared DeMeo and his crew should they not succeed.

Police photo of Roy DeMeo after he was found shot to death and his body placed in the trunk of his car.

John Gotti was eventually put in charge of the DeMeo contracted and handed it to DeMeo crew members Joseph Testa and Anthony Senter. On January 10, 1983, DeMeo went to Patty Testa’s house for a meeting with his men. His body was found on January 20th in the trunk of his car. It was said that Joseph Testa and Anthony Senter fired the shots that killed DeMeo, however due to the FBI surveillance; Paul Castellano was indicted on murder charges among other charges. Castellano never made it to trial and was murdered along with his underboss on the orders of Gambino capo John Gotti.

Joe Valachi – The First Rat

Joseph M. “Joe Cargo” Valachi ranks as one of the most notorious Mafia informants, the first mobster to acknowledge, in public, on television, under oath, that Cosa Nostra is real. Long before Sammy “The Bull” ratted out John Gotti, Valachi’s turncoat testimony gave a face to a Mafia the public knew nothing about.

Joseph Valachi, who also used the aliases Charles Charbano and Anthony Sorge, was born September 22, 1903, in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. His parents were Italian immigrants and his father was a mean drunk.

Valachi got started as a criminal by joining a gang known as the “Minutemen” because its members could execute burglaries within a minute. He drove the getaway car, and he was prized for his fast escapes.

 

Valachi earned a few early beefs. He was charged with grand larceny in 1921 and in 1923 he served nine months in jail for attempted burglary after a robbery went bad. When he got out, the gang had moved on, so he started a new one.

During the final years of Prohibition, Valachi found work with the Reina crime family, one of the five families of New York City (it’s now the Lucchese family). He became a soldier and was there during the Castellammarese War, one of the bloodiest periods in U.S. Mafia history.

The war started when Salvatore Maranzano, head of one New York family, resisted attempts by another boss, Joe Masseria, to consolidate all families under his control.

Charles "Lucky" Luciano

Charles “Lucky” Luciano

Valachi picked the winning side, fighting for Maranzano. Masseria was murdered at a Coney Island restaurant in 1931, likely at the decision of Charles “Lucky” Luciano and his associates.

Maranzano appointed Valachi one of his bodyguards, but the job didn’t last. Maranzano was also killed, again on the word of Luciano, who immediately took his place as head of the new Luciano crime family.

 

Valachi stuck around. Unlike other famous names in organized crime history, he was never much of a climber. He remained a soldier in the Luciano family (now known as the Genovese family) for almost 30 years after his boss’ rise.

In 1959, that streak ended and Valachi was sented to 15 to 20 years in prison on a narcotics conviction. He was sent to the same prison where fellow mobster Vito Genovese was incarcerated. In 1962, while they were serving there together, Genovese supposedly gave Valachi the “kiss of death” because he suspected Valachi of informing.

Most notorious Mafia figures make headlines and live in memory because of what they do while they’re in the mob. Valachi won his fame for what he did outside Cosa Nostra.

No one knows for sure why he decided to turn on his Mafioso friends. Valachi claimed he did it because he wanted to help the public and because the mob had ruined his life. But he may have had ulterior motives based on his own criminal history.

 

According to Valachi, he panicked when Genovese kissed him and murdered a fellow inmate he mistakenly believed had been sent to kill him. Now, facing the death penalty, Valachi may have agreed to testify in order to secure a life sentence and protection instead.

In any event, he squealed to everyone: the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Justice Department, the FBI and, in testimony broadcast on radio and television, to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

The information was moderately useful in investigations and prosecutions of Mafia figures, and it helped solve several murders. More significantly, it painted a detailed picture of the mob in America and revealed far more than anyone else had ever dared to share about organized crime, including its Italian name, Cosa Nostra (translated: “Our Thing”).

Valachi described the history of the mob, its membership, its inner workings and its language. He also described its organization, from soldiers on the bottom to caporegimes (lieutenants) in the middle to bosses at the top, with the so-called Commission moderating disputes between the nation’s major crime families.

Above all, he served as vivid evidence to a skeptical public that the Mafia is a very real thing. Robert Kennedy cited Valachi’s testimony as “the biggest single intelligence breakthrough yet in combating organized crime and racketeering in the United States.”

 

Valachi spent the rest of his life in prison, fearing for the $100,000 contract Genovese put out on his life. He wrote his memoirs, initially with the encouragement of the U.S. attorney general. But the Justice Department changed course and ultimately blocked publication of the book, in part because of protests by Italian-American groups.

Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson played Joe Valachi, in the 1972 film The Valachi Papers

Another writer, who had interviewed Valachi in prison, used much of the same information as the basis for a biography, The Valachi Papers, published in 1968. That was later made into a movie starring Charles Bronson.

Prison life was difficult for Valachi, who tried to hang himself with an extension cord three years after his testimony. But no one ever carried out the anticipated hit: He died of a heart attack at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna in Anthony, Texas on April 3, 1971.

The name “Valachi” still evokes images of his blunt testimony and revelations. Mafia rats became more common after his appearance, though it took many years before the feds were regularly able to turn mob informants.

Joseph Valachi’s remains are buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Lewiston, N.Y.


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