Most discussions of Prohibition-era mob bosses focus on Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and Joe Masseria, the kingpins who thrived off booze and blood. Less remembered, but equally important was Frankie Yale, a murderous leader who straddled two underworlds and played a key part in the early Mafia.
Francesco Ioele, also known as Frankie Uale and Frankie Yale, was born January 22, 1893, in Longobucco, Italy. His family immigrated to New York about 1901.
Like most gangsters, Yale got an early introduction to crime. His future mentor, the flashy gangster John “Papa Johnny” Torrio, got him admitted to the Five Points Gang, the dominant street gang in Lower Manhattan.
Yale was renowned from an early age for his abilities as a street fighter and petty thief. He never shied away from violence: One of his earliest arrests, in 1912, was on suspicion of murder.
Torrio left Yale and New York for the Chicago underworld in 1909. But he imparted his approach to crime before he left: Yale, like Torrio, came to believe in business above all. The young man quickly set about real racketeering, infiltrating and dominating the ice delivery trade in Brooklyn.
He used the money from that scheme to buy a bar on Coney Island that he called the Harvard Inn. It had no connections whatsoever to Harvard or to anyone who had ever attended that school, but Yale liked the Ivy League feel of the name and hoped it would attract a classy crowd.
By now he had Americanized his Italian last name to Uale. Upon opening the Harvard Inn, he took the next natural step and started calling himself Yale.
It was through the Harvard that Yale came into contact with the second of his great underworld connections: Al Capone, who worked there as a bouncer. Scarface, as Capone hated to be called, earned that nickname at Yale’s bar one night when he insulted the sister of a patron and the patron cut him across the face. Capone eventually moved on from Yale’s bar to join Torrio in Chicago.
Yale and his gang dipped their fingers in several criminal pies. They carried out the Black Hand extortion scheme popular among Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, sending citizens letters that threatened physical harm unless money was paid. And they ran a set of brothels in the city.
Yale also engaged in protection and labor racketeering. As a front, he sold cigars and ran a funeral home across the street from his own house.
With the advent of Prohibition, Yale, like his friends, turned his sights to booze. He became one of the biggest bootleggers in New York.
Yale, like many larger-than-life gangsters, presented two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, he could be highly charming and showed a soft spot for the down and out. When a local deli owner was robbed, Yale paid him what he lost, and when a fishmonger lost his cart, Yale gave him $200 and told him to get a horse as well.
On the other hand, Yale never hesitated to assault or kill when it suited his purposes. He was responsible for numerous murders in New York, and he was called to Chicago to handle at least two high-profile killings.
In 1920, Torrio and his acolyte Capone called Yale to the Windy City to assassinate Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo. He ran the city’s underworld, but Torrio wanted him out of the way so the Chicago Outfit could make more money in bootlegging. Yale was suspected in the murder but never charged.
Four years later, Yale returned to Chicago for another hit – this time at the behest of Capone, who had taken over the Outfit when Torrio retired. Yale and two other men allegedly walked into the Schofield Flower Shop on the North Side of Chicago and gunned down Capone rival Dean O’Banion.
Yale had his own share of enemies, and attempts on his life were frequent. Assassins tried to kill him twice in 1921, the first time while he was outside a banquet, the second while he was driving down a street in a car full of men. A third murder attempt came two years later, when hit men shot his chauffeur by mistake.
Rivalries within the New York underground were constant. Yale spent much of his time in conflict with the White Hand Gang, a group of Irish-American mobsters. The dispute came to a head in 1925, when the leader of the White Hands was killed at the Adonis Club in Brooklyn by Capone, who was in town, and men working for Yale.
At his peak, Yale was one of the most important gangsters of the day. The modern Mafia structure was still evolving, but Yale was one of the most powerful players in it. He was not, however, the most powerful, and he made the mistake of displeasing the man who was.
Yale smuggled Canadian whiskey during Prohibition, and he oversaw the trucks that shipped it on to Capone in Chicago. Capone began to suspect Yale was hijacking the trucks, so he sent a spy, who told Capone he was right.
The two tried to patch things up, but it didn’t work. On July 1, 1928, Yale received a strange phone call saying there was a problem with his wife at home. He ran outside and sped off in his Lincoln coupe.
He was ambushed by a Buick sedan with four armed men inside. The Lincoln had armor plating, but the windows hadn’t been bullet proofed, and Yale was killed by the gunfire. Capone was suspected in the murder, but no charges were ever filed. It was the first time a Thompson submachine gun was used in a New York Mafia hit.
Yale’s funeral was one of the most lavish in mob history. Thousands poured into the streets of Brooklyn to watch his coffin pass. His silver
casket cost $15,000. It took 38 cars to carry his flowers. And two women showed up at Holy Cross Cemetery claiming to be his wife.