Vito Genovese – Head of the Family

Vito “Don Vito” Genovese was an early boss and namesake of the Genovese crime family in New York. From Prohibition to Apalachin, he used his wits and reputation for violence to help maintain the organization’s place of infamy among the city’s “five families.”

Born in Naples in 1897, Genovese got an early start in crime. Both he and his two brothers, Michael and Carmine Genovese, would grow up to become members of the mob. A cousin, Michael James Genovese, would one day lead the Mafia in Pittsburgh.

Vito Genovese grew up in Italy, where he earned the equivalent of a fifth-grade education before dropping out. At the age of 15, he immigrated to the Little Italy neighborhood of New York with his family, including his parents, Felice and Nunziata Genovese. It was there that he began his career, lifting fruit and other goods from street vendors, and serving as a gofer for local Italian gangsters.

From that small role, Genovese rose to money collector for mobsters involved in the numbers racket. As a young man he met Charles “Lucky” Luciano, another key player in the early years of the American Mafia and one of Genovese’s close friends.

Genovese was climbing further up the ladder by the late 1920s, after doing a year-long stretch in prison for firearm possession. He joined a Brooklyn bootlegging gang run by Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, where he supplied muscle and other services. Masseria was among the most powerful mobsters in New York and sought to consolidate control over every family in the city.

Never the suave, sophisticated type like his future underboss and replacement, Frank Costello, Genovese was more like notorious Mafioso Alphonse “Al” Capone, known mostly for his violent streak.

In February 1930, Genovese murdered a rival gangster, Gaetano Reina, on Masseria’s orders. Genovese shot Reina in the back of the head with a shotgun outside Reina’s mistress’ house. Masseria quickly used the opportunity to assume control of Reina’s operation. He put a hit out on Maranzano and a bloody gangland feud known as the Castellammarese War erupted.

Not long after Reina’s death and Masseria’s takeover of his outfit, a series of killings began between Masseria and Maranzano, arch-rivals. Allies on both sides of the dispute died in gunfire across New York and as far away as Chicago.

Genovese and Luciano were supposedly on Masseria’s side. But partway through the war, they joined forces, switched sides and secretly plotted with Maranzano to kill Masseria, with the goal of ending the killings – and, as it turned out, taking power themselves.

Masseria was executed on April 15, 1931, at a restaurant in Coney Island, New York. The alleged killers included Genovese and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Masseria’s murder and other elements of the “Castellammarese

Bugsy Siegal

Bugsy Siegel

War” (named after Maranzano’s base of operations in Castellammarese del Golfo, Sicily) have been the basis of scenes in numerous works of fiction, from The Godfather to Boardwalk Empire.

With Masseria gone, Luciano took control of his rackets, with Genovese placed second in command. At the same time, Maranzano took steps to create a permanent Mafia structure that would prevent future bloodshed – a structure still largely in place today.

The so-called “Commission” established New York’s five families (which later came to be known as the Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo, Lucchese and Gambino families) and individual Mafia organizations in cities elsewhere in the United States. It also placed Maranzano at its head, as the “boss of all bosses.”

The particulars of this arrangement, however, didn’t last long. The heart of the Castellammarese War had been a generational conflict: a battle between old Italian traditionalists and “young Turks” who had new ideas about organized crime. Maranzano still stood for the former. Genovese and Luciano represented the latter.

In September, 1931, shortly after the Commission was established, Maranzano summoned Luciano and Frank “The Prime Minister” Costello to his office. They sensed an ambush and turned the tables on him, sending hit men who gunned him down instead.

Luciano, now head of what would become the Genovese family, rose to become unofficial boss of the Commission as well, taking Vito Genovese to new levels of power with him. It was around this time that Genovese married his second wife (his first died of tuberculosis) after her husband was strangled to death.

In 1934, after cheating a gambler out of $150,000, Genovese murdered a fellow gangster rather than pay him his share of the scam. Two years later, when Luciano was sent away for 30 years on a pandering beef, Genovese took over the family as acting boss.

But in 1937, facing prosecution for the murder, he fled to Italy, handing the reins to Costello. There he set up a new Mafia operation and developed a friendship with fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He even ordered the hit of an Italian-American newspaper publisher in New York, possibly on Mussolini’s behalf.

As he had during the Castellammarese War, Genovese switched sides when he saw the tides turning. When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, he offered to help the U.S. Army. They took him up on the offer, though he ended up using his Mafia ring in Italy to steal from the military.

Despite intense pressure throughout the government to let him slide, Genovese was returned to the United States in 1945 to face trial for the 1934 murder. But the witnesses to the crime ended up dead, and he skated.

Anastasia

Albert Anastasia dead on the barbershop floor

Freed in New York in 1946, Genovese was forced to rely on violence to climb back to the top. Willie Moretti, whom he had left second-in-command, was murdered in 1951 for his testimony before Congress, and a botched hit in 1957 convinced Costello to retire. That put Genovese in charge of his own family once again. He then allegedly ordered the hit that killed Albert Anastasia, boss of what is now known as the Gambino crime family, in order to prevent Costello from making a comeback.

Shortly after, he called the infamous Apalachin meeting of well-dressed mobsters at a farm in Upstate New York. When a New York State Police trooper stumbled upon the unusual scene, he called for reinforcements. The gangsters fled in every direction, some running into the woods in three-piece suits and leather shoes. Genovese was stopped and released.

He didn’t stay free for long. Two years later, he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for allegedly selling heroin on what may have been trumped-up charges. He continued to run the operation, ordering several murders from behind bars.

Don Vito Genovese died of a heart attack in prison – specifically, at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri – on February 14, 1969. He was 71. His remains are buried in St. John Cemetery in Queens.

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