By Thom L. Jones
‘It is the theory that decides what can be observed.
If the facts don’t fit the theory change the facts.’
New York Times April 16th 1931:
It took ten years and a lot of shooting to kill Giuseppe Masseria. He was Joe the Boss to the underworld--but his enemies found him with his back turned yesterday in a little Italian restaurant in Coney Island…….
This is where it all happened. Wednesday, April 15th 1931.
Not with a whimper, but more of a bang. A number of bangs in fact……
In a dingy street, in a dingy corner on Coney Island, filled with the stink of fish and the stench of treachery most foul, as Shakespeare or someone would have said.
At various times on this same day:
The Brooklyn Robins went down to the Boston Braves three to nine in Beantown.
King Alfonso and Queen Ena of Spain went into exile.
The first walk backwards across America began in California.
Prince Thomas, Duke of Genoa and the nephew of the first king of a united Italy, died.
As did a man who was claiming to be the first king of the New York Mafia.
His name was Giuseppe Masseria (right, photo credit: New York City Gangland by Arthur Nash), sometimes called ‘Joe the Boss.’
Short, fat, (although at 5’4’ and 155 lbs some might think him more squat than tubby) a bit of a trencherman, which is a polite way of describing a glutton, he had the habit of squinting his eyes when talking, hence the sobriquet ‘The Chinaman’ though never apparently to his face.
Sometime on the afternoon of that long-ago Wednesday, he came to the restaurant, in a building owned or leased by a thirty-two year old man from Angri near Pompei, Italy, called Gerado Scarpato, who lived in the apartment above the restaurant with his wife and mother-in-law.
Just what Scarpato’s place in the New York Italian-American underworld was, has never been satisfactorily explained. He was a restaurateur, but other things as well.
Probably involved in extortion, one of his victims arriving at the restaurant unexpectedly that very afternoon, chased away by Scarpato who was talking to a group of men on the sidewalk, including notorious hoodlum, Anthony Carfano and others of an equal bent. Carfano was tight enough with Masseria to have gone into partnership with him in a horse racing stable and a bookmaking business among other things.
A document in the New York archives indicates that Scarpato had taken over the extortion ring previously run by Giuseppe ‘Clutching Hand’ Piraino, (a close associate of Carfano,) who had been killed the previous August during the mob war that had been taking place in New York since February of 1930.
Whatever he did on the wrong side of the law, he was good at it. He did not have an arrest record of any sort.
Scarpato was married to twenty-seven year old Alvera, whose mother, Anna Tammaro, was the head chef and whose name was above the door on West 15th Street, here on Coney Island.
She may have been busy with her other customers on this day, but for Joe ‘The Boss’ there was little to do. Contrary to all the reports that have been published in the last eighty years that he ‘pigged out’ prior to his demise, his autopsy showed hardly any food content in his stomach - only two ounces of bile.
Mrs Tammaro claimed that she had served coffee, and the men had asked for fish so she had left the building to purchase some.
Whatever he was doing at the Nuova Villa (right), eating was not on the agenda for Joe the Boss.
According to newspaper reports, on this day in the warmest April New York had experienced in 63 years and the driest since 1910, Joe was accompanied to the eating house by three men in his bullet-proof car, but just who these were has never been completely ascertained.
One may have been Saverio ‘Sam’ Pollaccia, who was Masseria’s consigliere, or advisor. Another could possibly have been Nicola Gentile, a Sicilian Mafia Pied-Piper who had been wandering across America for twenty-five years, although he claimed that Joe was already dead when he arrived outside the restaurant. Consequently he never went in. At least he did in one of the versions of his memoirs. In another, he claimed he was there with among others, Vincenzo Mangano.
As to the third?
Was it Charlie Luciano?
His real name was Salvatore C. Lucania (right), and by the age of thirty-four he was, it seems, the right hand of Masseria. A petty criminal and minor drug dealer, he kick-started his career by becoming an informant in 1923 at the age of twenty-six, and never looked back. By the time he came under the wing of Masseria he had established himself as a bootlegger, and operator of betting and gambling rings in Lower Manhattan.
Every book, article or story on this king-hit in Brooklyn, ever published, will tell you:
a) it was orchestrated by Charlie,
b) he was there having lunch and playing cards with his boss, and
c) was taking an interminably long leak in the men’s room when all the action was going down, so he did not see anything. As you do.
It is interesting, however, that even though every flatfoot and detective in town knew who he was, according to the press, nobody bothered to speak to him, and he was never detained or officially interviewed after the event. It seems certain though that the cops would have contacted him as they must have known of his connection to Masseria. Any notes they kept would have made interesting reading.
Neither the New York Times or The Herald Tribune in their reports on the shooting make any mention of Luciano being present at the restaurant. Gentile claimed he went straight from the Villa Nuova to the home of Luciano in mid-town Manhattan where a meeting was held between himself, Luciano and Vincenzo Troia an associate of Salvatore Maranzano the man who headed the faction opposing Joe.
If this is true, it might confirm that Luciano was not at the restaurant when the shooting took place.
It has been reported that two men and in some reports, four men, arrived while Joe and his friends were playing cards, walked into the restaurant and shot him repeatedly. The autopsy on his body showed gunshot wounds to the back, and one in the back of the head.
It’s been posited that Joe was swinging around to give these upstarts un occhio, the traditional Italian ’evil eye’ but simply got one there for his efforts. In fact, all the kill-shots came from behind. The eye wound was an exit one.
The day after he was killed, Dr. G.W. Ruger carried out an autopsy on the body of Guiseppe Masseria.
Joe had been dressed to the nines that day:
Light gray three-piece suit by Vincent Balletta matched to a white Madras shirts by Henry and Al, New York. Black leather belt with silver buckle. His dainty size six feet in black Oxfords and blue cotton lisle socks. Underneath, cream, silk underwear.
Dressed to kill!
Two of the four back shots were through and through as was the head shot. Two of the shots to the back had smudged the coat jacket with gunpowder, indicating the shooter was only inches away. Heart, lungs and liver were torn apart. Brain was shredded. Two lead bullets were recovered, both .38 calibre. Although the autopsy does not indicate it, Joe was most certainly dead when he hit the wooden floor.
The men who might have shot him have been identified over the years as:
You could say they are the usual suspects. Whether or not any of these were the two or four shooters that day is open to debate. Why Italians would hire Jews to kill the biggest Italian mobster in town is something to speculate on. Although interestingly, it was done some months later to dispose of Masseria’s opponent, Salvatore Maranzano.
Anastasia and Adonis were very likely members of another gang run by Stefano Ferrigno and Manfredi Mineo which was in support of Masseria in his war on the rest of the New York Italian-American underworld at this time. Albert was a stone killer, with a long list under his belt. Adonis was more a businessman than a hit man. Genovese was definitely another stone-killer and could well have pulled the trigger.
However, it’s highly unlikely Anastasia was one of the killers.
Samuel S. Leibowitz who became a judge in Brooklyn’s King County Court, in 1931 was a young lawyer with a reputation for being a top man in the defense’s corner. He had an office at 66 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. At noon that day, Anastasia walked into the lawyer’s office demanding the receptionist check the time on the office clock. She did and confirmed it was correct. Anastasia asked for Leibowitz and was told he was in court until later in the day. He told the receptionist he would wait, and settled back, thereby creating for himself the perfect alibi.
It would not be the last time Albert arranged a cast-iron alibi at the time a mobster was being murdered. Twenty years later, in October 1951, he arranged to be having an X-Ray in a public hospital as Willie Moretti the infamous little New Jersey hoodlum was gunned down in another restaurant, this time in Cliffside, New Jersey.
Livorsi, Stracci and Coppola were all part of a crew of the Masseria family that operated out of East Harlem under the supervision of Ciro Terranova. His father had married the mother of Joe Morello (who had been the previous head of Masseria’s crime family,) and at forty three, was a senior member of the organization in years and experience. The three soldiers were seasoned gunmen, Coppola even carrying a nick name, ‘Trigger Mike’ as testament to his prowess with a gat, (For more on Coppola, check out Thom's earlier story here) so any of these could have qualified.
Scarpato claimed he went for a long walk that afternoon and returned to find his prize guest gutted on the restaurant floor. But did he? Maybe he was the shooter. Who better to come up behind an unsuspecting customer than the maître d of the establishment?
The only really strong link to the killer though, lies with a man called Johnny ‘Silk Stocking’ Guistra who according to some sources was part of the crew of Vincenzo Mangano, a capo in the Mineo crime family, operating the family’s businesses on the South Brooklyn Piers around Red Hook. Which could have been strange seeing as how he was from Calabria and Mangano was a staunch Sicilian Mafioso and averse to working with non-Sicilians in his crew.
Other information however, implies Johnny was in fact in competition with Mangano and was part of the Masseria crime family. He was apparently involved in rackets linked into the laundry business across New York. It’s been suggested his nick-name indicated his penchant for the opposite sex on the one hand, and also that it represented his favorite tool of destruction as he had, unusually for a mobster, an aversion to blood.
His connection into the hit was an overcoat he left hanging up in the restaurant.
Seemed a strange thing to do though. Walk into a room, take off your coat, kill a man and then walk out leaving behind such incriminating evidence.
Of course if he was there at the moment so to speak, and he was caught unawares, he may well have fled the scene in panic, with obviously no thought for his coat. You’re sitting at a table, talking to your boss, sipping a coffee, when suddenly someone or ones, starts shooting holes in him. It could be cause for extreme concern.
‘I’m outa here!’
Not unlike the comment and action of Jerome Squillante, when sitting next to Albert Anastasia in that barber shop twenty-six years later in mid-town Manhattan, who also found things just a little bit too hot to hang around when two men came in and banged his boss.
Didn’t really matter to Johnny the Silk. Three weeks later he was shot numerous times in the head and chest and died in the hallway of a dingy tenement at 75 Monroe Street on the Lower East Side on May 10th. By his side lay his pearl-handed pistol. He’d been able to get it out, but tests revealed it had not been fired.
Maybe loose ends being tied together? Maybe a double-cross too many? Maybe late on a loan? Never easy to pin the donkey in these tangled tales. All we know for sure is that he or someone wearing his coat, went to that Coney Island food place that afternoon and maybe killed Senor Masseria.
It’s also possible of course that Johnny had left this coat on a previous visit and simply never got around to collecting it, and the fact that it was found had absolutely no bearing on the shooting at all.
There was an interesting by-line to his murder. On May 14th his body was waked at 11 First Place in Carroll Gardens. Two men attending the service, Vincent Gesino and Ettore Zappi were given a message at 5 PM that a man called Joe wanted to see them at 1331 Sixty-ninth Street in Brooklyn. When they got there, they were ambushed in the hallway of the building and both men were shot and seriously injured, although surviving their wounds.
Gesino who worked as a longshoreman, had apparently been involved with Giustra in some kind of business deal, perhaps in relation to the funeral company that Johnny ran from the very premises from where he himself was buried.
Zappi who eventually became a capo or crew boss in the Mineo crime family
was reported to be the ‘boss’ of Gesino and Giustra, although he claimed at the time to be a simple fruit merchant. Were these two men linked into Masseria’s death in some way and had been designated the chop as a result?
‘Silk Johnny’ was not the only one who met an unnatural death following the killing of ‘Joe the Boss.’
Saveria Pollicia (right), one of the ‘great unknowns’ of early mob history was close to Joe as his family counselor. It hadn’t always been that way.
At one time he had worked with Salvatore D’Aquila (they were close enough for D’Aquila to become godfather to one of Pollaccia’s children, his daughter Rosa,) who had perhaps claimed the honorific ‘Boss of Bosses’ title within New York‘s Mafia clans, although this has never been substantiated, until he was gunned down on the Lower East Side in 1928. His group then came under the leadership of Manfredi Mineo who died during the underworld war of 1930-1931. This crime conglomerate, known to-day as the Gambino Family, was then headed by Frank Scalice, before being taken over by Vincenzo Mangano.
Pollaccia was definitely interviewed by the police but was unable to help them in their investigation.
With the death of his boss, Pollaccia became vulnerable to the machinations of Vito Genovese, one of the Masseria family’s more devious and unpredictable killers. For some reason Genovese had a grudge against Saveria, and as a result, sometime in 1932, Genovese arranged to visit Chicago with him, and there arranged with Paul Ricca, a member of Al Capone’s gang to dispose of Sam. His body was never found. He left a wife and five children who lived in Corona, Queens.
Just how Vito Genovese was able to arrange the murder of the family consigliere without approval from Luciano the new family boss is a mystery. Unless of course Charlie gave it for whatever reason. Logic and Mafia politics are strange bedfellows even under the most discerning analysis.
There was a third man who died of unnatural causes who may have been part of the plot to kill Masseria: Camello (sometimes referred to as Carmelo) Li Conti. He was with Guistra the night he got the chop, but through sheer, blind luck missed that hit and survived to live another day. Not for long though.
His body was found, beaten, stabbed and slashed to death in the bathroom of a room at the Hotel Paramount on West 46th Street in mid town Manhattan. Two months to the date of his friend’s murder, on Friday, July 10th.
Li Conti may have been a business partner with Guistra and it has been suggested he had been at loggerheads with Masseria over mob affairs. Li Conti was also an undertaker according to his family, with a business in Brooklyn. He in fact handled the burial arrangement for Guistra’s corpse. Li Conti had emigrated to New York in 1904 from Reggio Calabria at the age of sixteen to join his father who was already established in Brooklyn.
In one of the many ironic links into the men of the Mafia, Vincenzo Mangano sailed into New York a year later at the age of seventeen on the very same boat that Li Conti had embarked on, the SS Gerty.
Like so many of the characters that move in and out of this story, little is known about Camello other than that according to his wife, Antonina Irato, he buried people, (probably good at that,) and that he died a messy death at the age of forty-three.
Last, but probably not least was the restaurant owner, Scarpato.
Following the murder of ‘Joe the Boss’ Gerardo Scarpato gave off all the signs of a dead man walking. After police had questioned him, he demanded they take his fingerprints and keep them on file. ‘I think you may need them,’ he said. ‘I may be next.’ He was so certain he was to be killed, he had his full name tattooed on the inside of his right forearm.
After the killing of Masseria, Gerardo Scarpato and his wife left New York and travelled back to Italy. They returned in June, 1932.
Gerardo became interested in the sport of cycle racing in the Velodrome at Coney Island and visited professional boxing matches here also, in the complex at West 12th Street and Neptune Avenue. He also became an executive of the Coney Island Surf Democratic Club. With his background, probably all of these interests were outlets for his extortion ring or some other nefarious activity.
Alvira then went for another holiday, apparently on her own, to Acra, near Cairo in the Catskills. Just why she went to this tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere is just another tantalizing mystery, especially considering that Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond the infamous bootlegger and gunman had an estate here at this time.
She returned from the holiday late on Friday September 9th to find Gerardo was not in the restaurant or their apartment above it. He had not returned on Saturday either.
The unknown man who appeared at the beginning of this story, waiting for Scarpato outside the Villa Nuova Tammaro, may have been one of the last ‘legitimate’ persons to have seen him before his death. He claimed he met with Scarpato to hand over money on the night that Scarpato was murdered. After passing the money to him, Scarpato then left, promising to return soon. An hour later, Anthony Carfano (right) appeared and told the man, ‘listen, no matter what happens, you never knew Scarpato. Get the hell out of here and keep your mouth shut.’
This was between eight and nine in the evening, on the corner Fourth Avenue and Union Street in Park Slope in Brooklyn. Hours later Gerardo Scarpato was dead.
He was last seen officially, at a small café he owned on the corner of Surfside Avenue and West 15th Street on the island. Teddy Sallini, the bartender, told the police Scarpato left the place at about 1:AM..
Five hours later, early in the morning of Sunday, September 11th, someone reported a car parked under a tree at 216 Windsor Place, two block south of Prospect Park. Just what was suspicious about this has never been disclosed, but when the police attended, they discovered his body in the back seat of the black sedan, wrapped in a burlap sack. He had died a particularly hard death. He had been knocked unconscious then trussed up with rope in such a way that as he awoke and started to struggle, the more he did, the tighter the rope around his neck strangled him. It would have been slow and very bad.
For some reason, never disclosed, the police believe he had been murdered in the Bath Beach area.
Just why he was killed in this particularly gruesome way is a mystery, like almost all of this story. The Mob would normally kill by pistol or shotgun, or sometimes by a knife in the back. Scarpato died in a way that was surely designed to send a message.
Captain John McGowan, head of the Brooklyn Homicide, remembered when he interviews Scarpato after the killing of Masseria he was afraid that friends of Joe might have believed he had put him ‘on the spot.’
But was his murder about Joe the Boss, or something much more mundane-greed?
Felix Di Martini a private investigator operating from offices in Beekman Street had been a NYPD officer from 1905-1919. He had worked major crimes for the District Attorney’s of Manhattan and Brooklyn and had operated under Joe Petrosino in the famous ‘Italian Squad’ investigating high-profile murders, Black Hand extortionists and gang crimes. He claimed information that indicated Vito Genovese was the man behind the killing of Masseria. He also stated that Gerardo Scarpato was a ‘confidential lieutenant’ of Genovese.
Martini believed Scarpato had been murdered because he had sided with a Paulie Merchione (there was a Paul Marchione listed in the crew of skipper Jimmy Angelina in the Genovese family chart set up by Joe Valachi in 1963) in a dispute involving a loan of $5000 to Sam Maraglia, sometimes known as Tony Meddeo, also known as Samuel Medal, and that he had conspired with Merchione to abduct and kill Medal over the dispute regarding this loan. Medal was a beer baron of some substance, apparently worth over $250,000, operating in the Bronx. It was also claimed that he worked under Ciro Terranova whose place in the Masseria family has already been documented.
Medal disappeared on September 6th 1932 sometime after 7:PM after visiting the ‘Wolverine’ a club owned and operated by Steve LaSalle, on Lexicon Avenue.
Within a week Scarpato was dead.
Di Martini believed:
‘The supposition in that Scarparto took sides with Paulie and the Sicilian faction in bringing about Medal’s disappearance. It is probable that Scarparto’s death was brought about by Genovese hearing that Scarparto had betrayed his trust and for that reason Genovese would figure that Scarparto’s death was coming to him.’ The photo below shows his funeral.
Two days after Masseria was murdered another killing took place in Brooklyn. Late on the evening of April 17th, Ernesto ‘Hoppy’ Rossi was shot dead as he sat at the wheel of a car outside the home of Police Captain Lewis J. Valentine, 1642 Sixty-eight street. Information about the shooting was sketchy, but it seems two men left the car and then started shooting, before leaving in a another car that was found to have carried false plates.
Rossi had been part of the crew operated by Frankie Yale, the notorious gangster who had himself been gunned down in Brooklyn in July 1928-the first mobster to become a victim of the Tommy-gun in New York.
Yale (his Americanized name) was a Calabrian who was a group leader in the Masseria family before his death.
It has been suggested that Rossi may have worked for a time as the chauffeur of Joe the Boss. Rossi, born in Manhattan of first generation immigrants from Naples, had a father, Pasquale who himself had been arrested by the police as early as 1907 for extortion. So the pedigree was good.
Rossi’s murder is not a direct link into the case of Joe the Boss, but is still an interesting diversion in this tangled web of who killed whom and for why.
Just why these men died following the killing of Masseria has never been explained to any degree of satisfaction. Pollicia, Guistra and Li Conti seemed certain to have been part of the Masseria crime family. Scarpato? There is no evidence to indicate one way or the other, but it seems highly likely that he was at least associated with them.
So why were they clipped?
Pollicia as mentioned, is believed to have died because of an internal struggle within the Masseria crime family. The other three were all killed for the same reason, or three different ones.
If it was the same reason, then logic indicates it was to do with the death of ‘Joe the Boss.’ But were they killed by the opposition that saw them as future problems in the making, even though they had done a great service by killing off their chief? Or were they murdered in retribution by men still loyal to the memory of Masseria?
If each man died an individual death for an individual reason, then the choices seems almost limitless.
There’s the rub, as the aforementioned Will Shakespeare would have it.
Why did Joe find himself so unpopular after having reached the pinnacle of his chosen career?
He had been born around 1887 in a small, rural town in the province of Agrigento, Sicily, and immigrated to New York some sources claim to avoid a murder charge at the age of seventeen. This is conjecture, as there has been no evidence produced to conclusively prove why he left the island. In his late teens he may have been involved in Black Hand activities including kidnapping gangs and for almost two years ran a burglary ring operating in and around the Bowery. He worked for a time as a tailor during the day and went thieving at night. In 1913 he was caught and convicted, receiving a four to six year prison sentence. On his release he lived in the Forsythe Street area of Lower Manhattan with his wife, Maria, before moving to various other addresses in East Houston and East 16th Streets, running a pool room, working in the ice distribution business and operating gambling dens until he moved to an apartment on 2nd Avenue and with the advent of Prohibition, began his climb up through the ranks of the New York underworld.
Coming from an area in Sicily which had no traditional Mafia history, Masseria it’s safe to assume, held no preconceived ideas as to the place of ‘The Honoured Society’ within the framework of criminal gangs that infested the streets of the biggest city in America. By the early 1920s reports indicated that he was already calling himself’ Joe the Boss’ on the lower East Side of Manhattan.
It’s highly likely that he was never himself, formerly inducted into the Mafia, although he came in due course to be recognized as a mover and shaker within its ranks. He gathered around him a disparate group of Italian-Americans from all over the Mezzorgiono, the ‘poor south’ of Italy-Sicilians, Calbrians and Napolitans. The one thing they had in commons was that they were criminals or criminals by inclination, and eager to buy their way out of the poverty of their miserable lives.
Some of these men, such as Charlie Luciano, Vito Genovese, Vincent Alo, Anthony Carfano and Michele Miranda would go on to have major careers in the world of American Mafia crime across the next thirty to forty years.
Through a series of astute moves and fortunate circumstance, by the late 1920s, Giuseppe Masseria was a major force in the Italian-American crime framework of New York. Joe Bonanno believed his success was simply based on the fact that he rose to his power base through take-overs and merges of a number of small criminal units engaged in illegal alcohol manufacture and distribution. It’s claimed he sought out the role of Boss of Bosses, which title he may well have shouldered for a brief period prior to his death on Coney Island, although this position seemingly was bestowed on Gaspare Messina the Mafia boss of Boston, at a council meeting of Mafia family heads from around America, sometime in December 1930, presumably replacing the mantle which had sat with Salvatore D‘Aquila before his murder.
Masseria had gotten involved in a messy gang war between his crime family and his allies, the gang headed by Mineo, and another group across in Brooklyn headed by a man called Salavtore Maranzano who was supported by a mob based out of Harlem led by Gaetano Reina. This had dragged on for over a year, and although the casualties were relatively light, with probably a lot less than fifty deaths, shoot-outs on city streets that sometimes created civilian casualties, was not something the city council was too excited about.
The only ‘inside’ information at a management level we have of the events leading up to the death of Joe the Boss comes from the memoirs of Nicolo Gentile.
Joseph Valachi the Genovese Family informant of the early 1960s clued us into a lot of meat and potato stuff, but as a foot-soldier his viewpoint was somewhat limited.
Joseph Bonanno another of the protagonists fighting on the side of Maranzano has also dropped tit-bits, although his biography was more self-serving than unveiling when it came to the truth of the matter.
Gentile in fact produced two versions of his life-a document which was translated into English for the FBI, which was followed a few years later by a book published in Rome called ‘Vita di Capo Mafia,’ Life of a Mafia Boss. As self-serving as the other books, this one at least overdoses on details and trivia although its major drawback in the investigation into the death of Masseria is that Gentile was actually in Italy during most of the Castellamarese War, as the conflict became known, returning to New York in November 1930.
Born in Siculiana, Agrigento, in the south west of the island in 1885, Gentile (right) had moved to America as a youth in 1903 and travelled back and forward across the country and back and forth to Sicily over the next 35 years before fleeing the country while on bail for narcotic trafficking.
He tells us among other things that Masseria was ‘stained with the most horrible vileness.’ That he had ordered the assassination of Salvatore D’Aquila in 1928 and that prior to Christmas 1930, Joe the Boss had been called before the New York Police Commissioner, Grover Aloysius Whalen, and told in no uncertain terms that if he did not stop the shooting on the streets, he and all of his men would be arrested and thrown in the jug.
According to Gentile, at this point Joe threw in the towel and called the war off.
This, however, was obviously not good enough for someone or ones, which leads us to that Wednesday afternoon on Coney Island. There had been too much damage created, too many people disturbed by the events of the previous year.
Winston Churchill said, ‘Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount.’
That afternoon in April, Joe Masseria made the fateful mistake of getting off, and suffered the consequences.
The day after his murder, his twenty-four year old son, Joseph Junior, identified the body in the Kings County Morgue at Clarkson Avenue in Brooklyn. Junior had travelled from the family home in the famous Art Deco apartment building at 15 West 81 Street, across from Central Park. It had opened the previous August and Joe senior had purchased Penthouse E on the 15th floor, at some stage before his murder.
His funeral on April 20th was as to be expected, big, lavish and gaudy. The solid silver casket was said to have cost $15000 ($204,000 in today’s currency). Sixteen automobiles alone were needed to carry the thousands of wreaths; although most were anonymous, one, a heart of roses, was believed to have been sent by Al Capone. Sixty-nine cars made up the funeral cortège which left the penthouse and made its way to the Italian Church of Mary, Help of Christians, at 436 East 12th Street for the requiem mass, held at noon by three priests.
Interestingly five cars which had been nominated to carry the honorary pallbearers remained empty as none of them showed up.
He was buried, later in the afternoon, in a mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens County. Fresh flowers are still left there to this day.
Detectives from Brooklyn’s 60th Precinct, opened a file on Masseria, Number 113, noting his death at approximately 3:30 pm. They finally shelved it as a cold case, 27th November 1940. No one has ever been officially accused of the murder of Joe Masseria.
According to Gentile, Charlie Luciano claimed he had arranged the killing of his family boss, not to appease the opposing forces of Salvatore Maranzano, but ‘for personal reasons.’
It’s generally assumed that Luciano saw the writing on the wall, and that he believed the ‘Americanization’ of the Mafia was long overdue. That despotic ‘Moustache Petes’ like Joe had long passed their use-by date. His successor, Salvatore Maranzano would come to the end of his long-run thing five months after Joe went down. Luciano was a man who saw the purpose of the Mafia as a way to make money, but preferably by the truck-load, not in the dribs and drabs of localized mob extortion rackets which had governed much of the early mob’s social calendar.
He saw ahead into the future, a future of unions controlled and milked dry. Of gambling and numbers rackets on a grand scale like never before. The domination of every industry and business that kept commerce running. Of political corruption that would help racketeers worm their way into the very fabric of society and eventually enable them to achieve the most noble of holy grails-legitimization.
Sol Gelb, a New York criminal attorney in the 1920s, said . . . ‘a hoodlum was a hoodlum. A fellow who committed crimes never mixed with respectable people. [After Luciano] they began to look and act the same as respectable people.'
And so, these hoodlums would aim to scam and rob and steal their way into the very heart of American society until they could achieve this-and many of them did in the years to come.
But in order to do all of this, the fighting had to stop; peace had to return to the underworld. The boss had to go.
They had first in the grand scheme of things, to kill the Chinaman.
During the first three days in August, 1931, men representing Mafia families from across the country gathered in New York. They were here to attend a kind of convention. One that would help celebrate the return of peace and order to the New York’s underworld and also to honor the ascension onto the throne of Salvatore Maranzano as the big boss.
The scores of men who gathered here were ostensibly to be part of a celebration held by the Society Sciacca Maritima which had been formed in 1899 as a charity. Money raised was supposedly to go towards the annual Madonna del Soccoroso day held each year on August 15th on Elizabeth Street, in Lower Manhattan. The Madonna was one of two patron saints worshipped by people from Sciacca.
The function was held in the Nuova Villa Tammaro and New York Police were on hand to check everyone going in to make sure they were not armed.
It was an interesting choice of venue for the function, and the function itself, as the Maranzano crime family had apparently passed a death sentence on all Mafioso from Sciacca, who had traditionally supported Masseria in the underworld war that had ended with his death.
Joe Valachi claimed that as the men entered the restaurant, they threw a donation onto a table, the money being collated and stacked by Frank Scalice. The amount collected varied between $100,000 and $150,00 depending on who was telling the story.
A New York newspaper reported that Salvatore Maranzano waited in the restaurant on a chair positioned over the very spot where Masseria had been killed, receiving homage from the throng assembled.
The King was dead. Long live the King. For now at least.
This gathering of the clans so to speak, was not the only one. Following the killing of Masseria in April 1931, Nicolo Gentile claims that a general assembly was called under the auspices of Al Capone, at the 1000 room Hotel Congress on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, again, attended by hundreds of mobsters. It’s possible that at this time Capone actually owned the hotel which would have obviously guaranteed security.
Joe Bonanno in his biography talks about a mob meeting in Maranzano's Wappinger Falls estate in Upper New York State in June, attended by 300 men from all over America. This one apparently followed the Chicago one which it seems was held towards the end of May. He also refers to the Coney island meet, but gave the wrong date, i.e. June, not August.
Then Joseph Valachi revealed details of yet another meeting, this one in a hall off Washington Avenue, in the Bronx attended by 400-500 people. This was probably held for the benefit of the men who made up the five Mafia crime families of New York, keeping them in the loop, so to speak. A criminal shareholder’s meeting presided over by a board of directors of one-Salvatore Maranzano.
Seems that following the killing of Masseria, all that was happening was meetings. It’s interesting to speculate just why there were so many, and all taking place in approximately four months, and in different parts of the country. Mafia USA was certainly in a bit of a turmoil once Joe the Boss was demoted.
The building where Joseph Masseria met his violent end still stands to this day, at 2715 West 15th Street, although modified and altered over the years. It now houses Banners Smoked Fish, owned by Alan Levitz, a business involved in fish smoking, curing and importing; a company that services the hospitality trade across the five boroughs of New York.
The only thing you will find dead there today are a wide variety of aquatic vertebrates awaiting shipment to restaurants.
At times in New York, mobsters would send the relative or friend of a man they had murdered and disposed of, a parcel of dead fish, signifying the deceased was ‘swimming with the fish, or sleeping with the fish.’
It seems ironic that the building that once housed Villa Nuova Tammaro, today still connects into mob lore through such a myth, when it once played host to the creation of one of the Mafia’s greatest myths and mysteries-who killed Joe the Boss.
There is little more to add to this story. The history of the Mafia, at home and abroad, is intersected over the years with examples of men in charge murdered by their subordinates or enemies:
Dr. Michele Navarra, Paul Castellano, Carmine Galante, Salvatore Inzerillo, Gaetano Reina, Rosario Riccobono, Joe Lombardo, Cesare "Chester" Lamare, Albert Anastasia, Thomas Eboli, Vincenzo Mangano, Giuseppe Calderone, and the most recent, in November, 2010, Mafia Don Nicolo Rizzuto, shot dead in his own kitchen in Montreal.
An endless list of death by violence because of a life lived by violence.
Giuseppe Masseria was not the first Mafia boss to die by the gun, and no bookmaker worth his salt, would give odds on how many more will die the same way in the future.
The so-called ‘Honoured Society’ is a culture infused with greed, duplicity, and all the rest of the seven deadly sins. The greatest myth about the Mafia is the Mafia itself. It is simply a criminal organization composed of criminals, nothing more or less. Its perception in our minds, in our times, is often closer to the mythology created by the media than hard facts that sustain concrete conclusions.
The Mafia is brand name criminality only in the context of the predatory criminal society based historically and predominantly in western Sicily. Otherwise the term should be regarded as a shorthand generic label for the criminal and racketeering activities of persons with predominantly Italian surnames. The Mafia of Sicily was never transplanted to America. What grew and developed there was simply a recreation in its own form of a culture based on the concept, not the concept itself.
Most of the Mafia myths come from the United States and not Sicily. The myth, most persuasively created in Hollywood but also enlarged and developed in numerous government reports of the 50s and 60s, is of a virtual underground state of crime headed up by the godfathers or dons of Sicilian American crime families.
Donald Cressey was wrong to infer that the Mafia stole America. They only ever stole substance, not fanciful theory. There was never an exchange rate for that on the streets of New York.
The reality, as determined by to-day’s more dispassionate, investigative historians and criminologists, is more prosaic. Dissected, analysed, squeezed dry of every fanciful hyperbole, to-day’s Mafia in America is being presented less as a work in progress, more of an historical phenomena long past its use-by date. Its ranks filled with dissolute and ineffective soldiers with little or no real understanding of the heritage they are supposed to be promulgating, its future is as bleak as it once was promising.
In America the Mafia grew from a wave of ethnic succession, especially in the New York area-Irish, followed by Jews, followed by Italian-Americans who found outlets for their unique talents in the social whirlpools of the big cities across America. Congressional committees and Presidential commissions have tried hard over the years to pin down just what is the Mafia in American society, and generally fell short every time. Generations of writers, reporters and law enforcement officers are all guilty of creating something out of nothing. It was, and never will be the sum of its parts; more like a part of its sum.
Giuseppe Masseria tried hard to control something that was in fact uncontrollable.
Catching falling stars is only for songwriters.
‘A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim,
One was more wise than the other.’
Some of the information and one image in this story was sourced from:
The Origin of Organized Crime in America by David Critchley which I acknowledge.
New York City Gangland by Arthur Nash which I acknowledge.
I also acknowledge the web site Gangrule as the source of the autopsy report on Masseria . Go visit for more information on the early days of the New York Mafia: http://www.gangrule.com/
Copyright © Thom L. Jones 2011