Frank Costello – Prime Minister of the Mob Part I

Frank Costello was one of the most notorious Italian Mafia bosses in American history, with a reach that covered a vast national racket and extended deeper into politics than any other. He was dubbed the “Prime Minister of the Underworld” and led an organization nicknamed the “Rolls-Royce of organized crime.”

Born in 1891 in Lauropoli, a village on a mountain in Calabria, Italy, Costello was originally named Francesco Castiglia, a moniker he changed years later to avoid the stigma of Italian organized crime. At the age of four, he, his mother and his older brother, Edward, immigrated to the United States to join their father, owner of an Italian grocery in East Harlem.

Frank Costello joined the criminal underworld at a young age: His brother, Edward, introduced him to local gangsters by the time he was a teenager. By the age of 13, Frankie, as he now called himself, belonged to a gang and began committing petty crimes. But he rose fast, and he was soon running the 104th Street Gang.

He skated on several early crimes. At 14 he robbed the landlady of the tenement building where he lived with his parents, but he gave the police a phony alibi, and they bought it. He notched his first arrest in 1908, on charges of assault and robbery. He was charged with the same crime in 1912, but he got off clean both times.

Then in 1915, he did 10 months of a 12-month prison sentence on a firearms beef. When he got out, he made a decision to stop committing violent crime himself and focus on more lucrative enterprises. It was the last time he would be behind bars for 37 years despite a life full of crime, and he later claimed it was the last time he carried a gun.

Costello began making lasting ties in the world of the Mafia as soon as he was released. But they were often unusual friendships involving gangsters outside the closed ranks of the Italian-American mob.

He married a Jewish girl, Loretta Geigerman, almost unheard of for an Italian Mafioso. He would eventually become friends with such Jewish mobsters as Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Louie “Lepke” Buchalter and Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein.

But one of his earliest and most important relationships developed while he was doing work for the Morello family, an early New York Italian gang founded by Giuseppe “The Clutch Hand” Morello. The Morello gang, a predecessor of today’s Genovese crime family, was known for the scope of it power and the ruthlessness of its violence.

It was through that gang that Costello met Sicilian-American Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a racketeer in the Little Italy neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Luciano, who would one day come to run the Morello family, introduced Costello to Vito “Don Vito” Genovese (also a future boss and the namesake of the modern family), Tommy “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese (future boss and namesake of the Lucchese family), Siegel and Lansky.


Costas Mandylor

Frank Costello – (second from right) portrayed by actor Costas Mandylor in the 1991 movie Mobsters.

Luciano’s friendship with Costello – not to mention their partnerships with Jewish gangsters – didn’t sit well with the older, more traditional Mafiosi with whom Luciano associated at the time. They viewed Costello as an outsider because he wasn’t Sicilian, even referring to him as the “dirty Calabrian.”

Nonetheless, these young men formed a tight circle, going to work for themselves in burglaries, extortion, armed robbery, gambling, and drug trafficking. But the real money started flowing with the advent of Prohibition and the Volstead Act, which made alcohol illegal – and immensely profitable. They partnered with Rothstein, who provided the initial funding.

Chicago is notorious for its corrupt ties between pols and organized crime, especially during the 1920s. But there was plenty of crooked money flowing in New York City, too. During the height of Prohibition, Costello and his cronies were forking over an estimated $100,000 a week in protection money to politicians, judges, district attorneys and police.

Even the New York City Police commissioner, Grover Whalen, was in the pocket of the Mafia. When the stock market tanked in 1929, Costello was forced to advance Whalen $30,000 to cover his margin calls.

All told, Costello, Luciano, Siegel and Lansky were pulling down $4 million a year in pure alcoholic profit – nothing compared to the $100 million in annual profit generated by the Chicago Outfit under Al Capone, but plenty when the fragmented nature of New York’s Mafia is taken into account.

Around this time, at Luciano’s urging, Frank changed his name from Castiglia to Costello, which is Irish. “When we got up into our ears in New York politics, it didn’t hurt us at all that we had an Italian guy with a name like Costello,” Luciano later said.

Rothstein was murdered in late 1928 over a gambling debt, and Costello and Luciano decided to leave the freelance life. They signed up with Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, head of the old Morello family.

Masseria had taken over the organization and expanded it while Morello languished in prison, and he was now engaged in a bitter contest with the crime family run by Salvatore Maranzano (later known as the Bonanno family). This feud would soon erupt into outright war and enhance Costello’s place in the New York underworld.

The so-called Castellammarese War (made famous by The Godfather) erupted when Masseria ordered Genovese to assassinate the leader of a Brooklyn gang that was associated with Maranzano’s outfit. Retaliatory murders on both sides soon spread as far as Chicago.

In part to bring an end to the killing and in part because they knew Masseria disapproved of Costello’s non-Sicilian background, Luciano and Costello turned coat and flipped sides along with Genovese and Lucchese. They conspired with Maranzano to execute Masseria.

The deed was done in an Italian restaurant in Cony Island on April 15, 1931. Masseria was playing cards when (according to legend) Luciano got up to use the bathroom. Four men, including Siegel and Genovese, burst in and gunned Masseria down. No witnesses came forward and one was charged.

With Masseria gone, Luciano took the reins of the Morello family. He named Genovese his underboss and made Costello his consigliere.

Maranzano used the opportunity to create the “Commission,” the organization used to this day to manage disputes and handle business among the five crime families of New York City. He also made himself its head, or “boss of all bosses.” But he didn’t hold that job for long.

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