This story is an excerpt from The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014), available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and other book websites.
Chapter 2: PROHIBITION AND THE RISE OF THE SICILIANS
“I am not rich.”
—Joe Masseria on trial for burglary in People against Masseria, May 15, 1913
“The police declare that both [Umberto] Valenti and [Joe] Masseria were millionaires.”
—New York Evening Telegram, August 11, 1922
SUNDAY, APRIL 13, 1913, HOLDING CELL, POLICE STATION HOUSE, MULBERRY STREET, MANHATTAN: JOE MASSERIA’S BURGLARY RING
“What was I to do? Shoot?” said the burglar, in Italian, to his three partners. They were stewing in the holding cell of the Twelfth Precinct Station House in Little Italy, Manhattan.
“Yes, you should have taken a ---” responded one of the men.
“Why, they only found one gun,” the burglar said.
“No, they found two,” corrected the other man.
“No, I know positive he only found one,” the burglar insisted defensively.
The leader of the ring tried to calm everyone down. “We were to get diamonds and we get backhouse,” he lamented, referring to the poor man’s toilet. He then sounded a note of unity: “Four we were and four we are.”
Joe Masseria and his three partners in crime had been arrested that Sunday morning, April 13, 1913, on the charge of burglary of Simpson’s pawnbrokers at 146 Bowery Street in Lower Manhattan. With him in the cell were Pietro “Pete the Bum” Lagatutta and the brothers Salvatore and Giuseppe Ruffino of Brooklyn. None of the “four we are” would flip and give evidence to the police about anyone else in the hope of reducing their charge. They would soon go on trial for first-degree burglary.
Looking at him in the prison cell that Sunday, no one would have predicted that Joe Masseria would someday become the capo di capi or “boss of bosses” of the Mafia. It would have not been considered much of a title anyway. In the 1910s, the Italian gangs were near the bottom of the underworld. Within a decade, however, Joe Masseria would be one of New York’s most powerful gangsters, and the Mafia families were on their way to becoming the dominant crime syndicates in Gotham.
THE HUMBLE BEGINNINGS OF GIUSEPPE “JOE THE BOSS” MASSERIA
Giuseppe Masseria (right) had been looking for a big score since coming to America. Born January 17, 1886, in the southwest province of Agrigento, Sicily, he immigrated to New York City as a teenager in 1902, and lived in the rough-and-tumble Mulberry Bend on the Lower East Side.
A natural leader, Masseria was aggressive, fearless and physically agile. A stout 5 feet’, 4 inches”, Masseria had black hair, puffy cheeks and several gold teeth. Good work in the rackets was sparse for young Italians, however, and he struggled to make it on high-risk, strong-arm crimes. He racked up arrests for assault and extortion; in 1909, he was convicted of burglary and given a suspended sentence.
Masseria had his sights on Simpson’s pawnbroking establishment near Little Italy. Simpson’s was no low-rent pawnshop. It was a three-story building with a Holmes electric security system and a safe deposit vault holding $300,000 worth of diamonds and other valuables (about $7 million in present dollars). Pietro Lagatutta rented an apartment which shared a backyard with Simpson’s. During a rainstorm on the night of Saturday, April 12, 1913, the burglars used a ladder to scale a dugout behind the Simpson’s building, and drilled a hole in the rear brick wall. Once inside, they planned to crack the vault.
Unfortunately for them, a beat cop saw a blanket stuffed in the wall of Simpson’s. Early Sunday morning, police on surveillance stopped the men as they tried to leave Lagattuta’s apartment. While Masseria was dressed in a brown suit and derby hat, the other men had raincoats with wet brick dust. They were all arrested and charged with burglary.
MAY 15, 1913, COURT OF SPECIAL SESSIONS, MANHATTAN: THE TRIAL OF MASSERIA
Masseria testified on his own behalf at trial. Although his English was good enough for the judge to dispense with the interpreter, Masseria was out of his element in the staid courtroom. “Before I speak to you and Mr. District Attorney I want to tell something to the judge,” said Masseria bursting, with energy. “Now, you sit perfectly still and just answer questions,” the judge instructed.
“I am not rich,” Masseria later testified. This was embarrassingly true. Masseria lived with his mother until she passed away, then moved his wife and children into a room in a tenement owned by his brother-in-law and sister at 217 Forsythe Street on the Lower East Side. Masseria was the barkeep for his sister’s saloon across the street.
The trial went badly. The prosecutor had a lot of physical evidence, including the new technology of a “finger-print” impression of Lagattuta inside Simpson’s. Masseria tried to explain his presence at Lagattuta’s apartment at 7:00 Sunday morning, testifying he just stopped by for help “to work in the saloon on Sunday.” The jury convicted after only ninety minutes of deliberation. The judge sentenced Masseria to the maximum security prison at Ossining, New York—the infamous Sing Sing—where he would spend the next four-and-a-half-years. On January 17, 1916, Masseria turned thirty-years-old in prison. He had two felony convictions, three young children and few prospects in sight.
SALVATORE LUCANIA: PETTY CROOK LIVING AT HOME, 1910–1919
Another young Sicilian immigrant was struggling to get by as a petty crook in New York during the 1910s. Born Salvatore Lucania on November 24, 1897, Charles Luciano was the middle child of a family from Lercara Friddi, a depressed mining town southeast of Palermo. His father was among the waves of Sicilian men who left for work in the manufacturing metropolis of New York City, bringing over nine-year-old Salvatore and the rest of the family in 1907. They lived in a tenement on East 10th Street, a polyglot area of Russian Jewish, Southern Italian and other later-arriving immigrants.
Recently rediscovered prison reports, which were based in part on interviews with Luciano himself, provide insight on his “formative years.” Luciano’s parents were a respectable, working-class married couple with no history of criminality, mental illness or major alcoholism. Nevertheless, they found themselves with an incorrigible son, who was sent to reform school for truancy and juvenile delinquency. He dropped out permanently at the age of fourteen in 1912.
Charlie then went through jobs like a tour of Manhattan’s manufacturing industries. He stuffed dolls in a doll factory, labored alongside his father in a brass factory, pressed dresses in a garment shop, worked in the fish market, and prepared shipments for the Goodman Hat Company. “He admits he did not like to work so never held a job for any length of time,” read a prison report. Luciano would learn how to extract money from such industries through racketeering.
But for now, he simply wanted to find easier ways to make money. Luciano’s psychiatric evaluations found he was an “egocentric, antisocial type,” and “rather a socio-path than a psychopath” who chose the criminal life. Aptitude tests found him to have “bright intelligence,” and a report noted his “calmness at times of stress” and “reserve and strength.” (Essentially, the exact opposite of his portrayal as a hotheaded buffoon in HBO’s™ Boardwalk Empire). These traits eventually brought him respect in the underworld.
There was something else: Luciano’s coolly indifferent, nihilistic view of life. “He manifests a peasant-like faith in chance and has developed an attitude of nonchalance.”
This good time Charlie said he “liked luxury,” spending freely on high-class hotels and nightclubs, platinum jewelry and beautiful women. Unlike most mafiosi, he never married or had children. At age fourteen, he lost his virginity and caught gonorrhea, the first of seven cases of gonorrhea and two cases of syphilis. Luciano did have common-law relations for six years with a special woman, but they never married because he “couldn’t get along with the girl.”
Luciano’s drooping right eye, caused by a vicious cutting of his face by assailants, reinforced this appearance of indifference. His nickname “Charles Lucky,” was a play on his surname and his fortunes. Luciano later admitted to a psychiatrist that he had been arrested dozens of times (including several never made public), but was able “to free himself from most of these charges and because of this was nicknamed Lucky.”
“Charles Lucky” saw himself as a gambler. Though he would later become a bootlegger and labor racketeer controlling trucking in the Garment Center, when Luciano was asked about his profession, he usually said “bookmaker” or “gambling.” He would purchase a place in upstate New York and spent summer months at the Saratoga Springs racetrack betting on the ponies. To avoid the fate of Al Capone, Luciano’s lawyers filed federal income tax returns in which he listed “miscellaneous” income. “I’m a gambler. That’s my profession,” he brashly told IRS examiners. Like any good gambler, Luciano was at ease taking huge, calculated risks in the underworld.
These traits would come in handy in the years to come. But that was all in the distant future. Through the late 1910s though, Salvatore Lucania was just another petty crook with a record. At age twenty-two, he was still living at home with his parents on East 10th Street.
Author Alex Hortis (Photo © by Amy Jones) is a graduate of New York University School of Law. He has written extensively on the Mafia and organized crime. The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York is based on years of research at archives across the country. For more information, see the book’s website at http://www.alexhortis.com. Facebook. The book is available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and other book websites.
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