Salvatore D’Aquila was born in November 1877 Palermo, Sicily and immigrated to America in 1906 at the age of 29. Before leaving Sicily, D’Aquila was already heavily involved with organized crime. He’s known as a “Mustache Pete”, which unlike the younger Sicilian-Americans known as the “Young Turks”, the Mustache Pete’s’ had usually committed their first killings in Italy. When he arrived in New York, he took up roots with other Sicilians working in a cheese importing business. It didn’t take long for him to lean on his old world connections and juggle the importing business with an underworld career.
D’Aquila aligned himself with another Mustache Pete that had already solidified himself as a boss in New York. Giuseppe “the Clutch Hand” Morello ran a powerful organization in the Bronx and was considered the boss of bosses. In all actuality he did lead the most powerful criminal organization in New York, but it would be short lived. Nonetheless, D’Aquila worked alongside Morello as his confidence man, in today’s terms the position is similar to a caporegime where they lead in instigating criminal activities. The word itself is shortened today to “con-man”.
Although little is known about his level of loyalty to Morello at the time, D’Aquila moved to Brooklyn where he became a powerful lieutenant for the family. He was arrested in 1906 and 1909 but both charges were dropped, a possible testament to his powerful position with the Morello’s.
In 1910 Morello and his second in command Ignazio Lupo were imprisoned on counterfeiting charges. Both were sentenced to 30 years. It’s widely speculated that D’Aquila took over the Morello family after their incarceration but it’s untrue. Before he was imprisoned, Morello was getting squeezed by an up-and-coming Mafioso and former capo of the Morello’s Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. D’Aquila didn’t have the backing to battle against Masseria, so he moved away from the Morello family and started his own gang in East Harlem and the Bronx taking with him several loyal followers. Morello’s half-brother Nicola took over the Morello’s until his murder in 1916.
As leader of his new family, D’Aquila moved to unite all the mafia gangs in New York. He set out killing several low ranking gang bosses in East Harlem but was rebuffed when he tried to take over the Lower East Side. Although his attempt to become boss of bosses failed quickly, D’Aquila didn’t have all his eggs in one basket and had seized control of several ports at the same time. With all the potential wealth to be had in the early years of prohibition, D’Aquila’s family grew as Mafioso flocked to join the family with riches on their mind.
By 1920 D’Aquila had become close to Cleveland boss Joseph Lonardo, and other Brooklyn gang leaders Frankie Yale who was the original employer of Al Capone, and Cola Schiro, whose gang eventually became the Bonanno crime family. D’Aquila also had several top Mafioso working for him in Brooklyn; Alfred Mineo, Giuseppe Traina, and Frank Scalise, who one day would help mobster Bugsy Siegel open the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in 1945.
Later that year Giuseppe Morello was released from prison and rejoined the struggling Morello family.
D’Aquila wanted to stifle Morello’s comeback and set out to have him and several of his top associates’ murdered along with a D’Aquila associate Umberto Valenti. D’Aquila thought Valenti was becoming too powerful and he questioned Valenti’s loyalty. Upon hearing of the order, Valenti talked D’Aquila into giving him another chance to prove his loyalty to the boss. Valenti received the contract to kill the Morello leadership. On May 8, 1922 Valenti and his gunmen murdered Morello cousin Vincent Terranova. On the same day they attempted to kill Masseria but missed. May 10, 1922 Valenti and gunmen Silva Tagliagamba ambushed Masseria again. Tagliagamba was shot in the gunfight, but Masseria escaped. Tagliagamba would die of his wounds in June. On August 9, 1922 Valenti once again attempted to kill Masseria on Second Avenue and, after killing both of Masseria’s bodyguards, followed him into a local millinery store where Masseria managed to escape. It was during his quest to kill Masseria that Valenti began to see a shift in power. Realizing he may never get Masseria and would himself become a target, Valenti set up a meeting to settle the dispute between both gangs. On August 11, 1922 Valenti was the only man to show for the meeting, and fearing a trap turned to run from the area when two men including Salvatore Luciana, who one day would be known as Lucky Luciano, appeared. Valenti dodged bullets as he ran, and jumped on to the side of a moving taxi where he was gunned down.
With Valenti dead, the violence ended, and so did much of D’Aquila’s influence. Several of his closest associates began to defect including a close friend Saverio “Sam” Pollaccia, who became a personal adviser to Masseria. In 1925 D’Aquila was forced to retreat from New York back to the Bronx. He purchased a home directly across from the main entrance to the Bronx zoo. On October 13, 1927, D’Aquila lost another allie as Joseph Lonardo was murdered during a power struggle. In July 1928 yet another allie, Frankie Yale, was slain on the streets, and although D’Aquila was still considered very powerful, Masseria and Morello were determined to end his reign.
On October 10, 1928 D’Aquila left his home for a doctor’s appointment. As he walked down the street several men approached him. One of the men pulled out a pistol and shot D’Aquila two times in the chest. D’Aquila fell to the ground where the man fired another seven bullets into his body. The hit is widely thought to have been organized by D’Aquila underboss Al Mineo who was likely given an ultimatum; set up D’Aquila or be killed with him. Soon after D’Aquila’s murder Mineo was given control of the D’Aquila family where through a series of successions would one day become known as the Gambino crime family.