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,
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.
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.