Joey Gallo’s toughness was unequaled in a period filled with tough, stone killers. But Gallo thought of himself as more than a thug. He thought of himself as an artist, a poet. He thought of himself as the boss of a multi-ethnic mafia family that ruled New York. The rest of the underworld just thought he was crazy.
Joseph Gallo was what you call an eccentric person. Something was a bit off with him. In 1946 he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy after staff at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital found him “temperamentally unsuited for further military service manifested by restlessness and a nervous disorder.”
His weird behavior landed him in Kings County Hospital four years later. Picked up on burglary charges and ready to go to trial in a zoot suit a magistrate found Gallo incapable of understanding the charges against him and sent him to the psych ward for evaluation. As Joey Gallo spent his twenty-first birthday there, the psychiatrists declared him presently insane.
“Crazy Joe.” It’s not a bad nickname to have. They first called him Joey the Blonde, but with his hair rapidly going on the lam and his behavior only getting stranger Crazy Joe was the way to go. The nickname inspired both ridicule and fear, never at the same time though.
Together with his brothers Larry and Albert Joey went to work to become a powerful force in the underworld. Back then there was no greater power than the American Mafia. Five criminal families divided the New York City rackets among each other. Gambling, extortion, loansharking, drugs, labor racketeering, and any scheme they could dream up were operated by lowly soldiers under control of captains and bosses. It was American organized crime at the peak of its power and influence. And the Gallo brothers were eager to join.
As the oldest sibling Larry Gallo paved the way for Albert and Joey. Growing up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the boys fell under the tutelage of Frank “Frankie Shots” Abbatemarco, a capo in the Profaci crime family. He ran the South Brooklyn numbers rackets, raking in $2.5 million a year. The brothers also started up a bogus union to extort bar owners in the area. With Frankie Shots as their mentor the Gallos started dreaming about a bright future in the mob. All they needed now was a chance to show the bosses they deserved a larger piece of the pie.
When Charles “Lucky” Luciano decided the mob in New York did not need a boss of bosses, he divided the Italian-American underworld in New York into five groups called families. Each family would be run by a boss who would have a seat on the Commission, a national board of mafia bosses who ran the rackets. This was done to ensure peace between the various criminal groups and a smooth way of doing business. But crime never runs smooth and peace is always getting disturbed by gunfire and murder. It wasn’t long before various bosses were “replaced” in not very peaceful ways.
In 1957, the Gallo crew was given the contract to hit crime boss Albert Anastasia. Anastasia was one of the most feared bosses in the United States known for his violent temper and the numerous murders he had ordered or personally committed as one of the founders of Murder Inc., the murder-for-hire and mob hit squad that operated nationwide. The Gallos knew that if they messed up this hit they would not live to see a new year.
Albert Anastasia had no clue that some of his fellow mob leaders had planned his demise as he entered Grasso’s Barber Shop at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan on October 25, 1957. It was to be just another relaxing visit to get a shave and trim, part of his daily routine. As he settled into the barber chair, Anastasia chatted with his nephew, Vincent Squillante, who was involved in the garbage racket, as he took a seat in the chair next to his.
Two gunmen walked up to Anastasia and fired five shots in his head and chest. The blasts dropped the notorious mob boss to the floor where he died instantly. The assassins then disappeared amongst the scared crowd never to be identified in a court of law.
Still, word of who did it quickly spread in the underworld where gossip is as commonplace as at an Oprah Book Club. One informant even told his police handlers he heard it from one of the hitmen himself. The man told him, “From now on, you can just call the five of us the Barbershop Quintet!” That man was Joey Gallo (right).
After hitting Anastasia Gallo and his crew were on cloud 9. They felt they had finally hit the big time. They would rise up through the mob and get more power and money than ever before. Unfortunately for them, their boss Joseph Profaci did not quite agree with them.
As the supreme leader of a crime family, Profaci did not feel the need to appease anyone but himself and those closest to him. It was one of the perks of being the boss of a criminal enterprise. Besides, these were the early 1960s! Back when mob bosses were respected and obeyed at all costs.
How could he have guessed a bunch of soldiers and associates from Brooklyn were planning to start a war just so they could get a pay raise? Who would be so crazy?!
On a single day in February of 1961, the Gallo crew made their move, a crazy play for more power and wealth. They kidnapped Profaci’s underboss Joseph Magliocco and four capos and sent out their demands to their boss: A larger share of the rackets.
One can only imagine the face of Profaci (left) as he heard about this insubordination within his own family. Amazed, surprised, and angry as hell at such flagrant disrespect. Yet, in true Mafia fashion he hid these emotions from his enemies. Instead, he told the Gallos he would give in to their demands if they released their hostages.
And, crazy enough, the Gallo brothers believed him.
With his underboss and capos back safely, Profaci gathered his hitters and told them to go after the Gallos. It was time to go to the mattresses as it was called. Both sides armed to the teeth, holed up in barricaded safe houses sleeping on mattresses laid out on the floor, only going outside to hunt their dreaded rivals. The Gallo brothers and their crew assembled at their headquarters on President Street in Brooklyn, where they started planning their next action. There were negotiations between the Gallos and Profaci but those dragged on as the tension built.
The Gallo crew was heavily outnumbered by Profaci’s army. Not only that but old man Profaci also had a war chest that could finance a prolonged battle whereas the Gallos would quickly be on food stamps. Tom Folsom, author of The Mad Ones, described the situation as follows, “After the NYPD got tipped off on the coup against Profaci, eight detectives dubbed the Pizza Squad took over a vacant apartment on President Street across from Gallo headquarters. The squad kept a close watch on Larry, making it tough for him to conduct business. He was so stretched thin on cash that he couldn’t maintain the mortgage payments on his home. The repo man snatched his car.”
Larry Gallo was the crew’s undisputed leader, the man people looked to for relatively levelheaded thinking in these crazy and violent times. Larry also handled the negotiations with the Profaci family, which dragged on for months. Strapped for cash and numbed by spending months on high alert, Larry’s ability to sense danger had diminished. So much in fact, that he didn’t see the ambush he walked into like a lamb going to the slaughterhouse.
A Profaci soldier gave Larry some cash as a gesture of goodwill. All would be well soon, he made it seem. He invited Larry to join him for a drink at the Sahara Club, a known Profaci hangout. As Larry took a seat and grabbed his glass two men came up behind him and pulled a rope around his throat started to choke him. They told him that if he didn’t call his brothers and tell them to come to the bar they would kill him right then and there. For a guy like Larry that choice was easy.
As the rope was pulled tighter and he began to lose consciousness, Larry hit a lucky shot. A police officer was walking his beat, noticed the noise, and decided to take a look. As he entered the bar, the Profaci men fled the scene and left Larry gasping for air. It was probably the only time in his life that Larry Gallo (right) was happy to see a cop.
Asked who had tried to strangle him, Larry upheld omerta, the code of silence, “Nobody would want to do a thing like that to me.” Albert and Joey couldn’t have been prouder of their big brother.
As the war dragged on, it started becoming a problem for the entire New York Mafia. The media attention and heat from law enforcement were causing difficulties for the other four families and the bosses let it be known to Profaci. But, being the stubborn and selfish man that he was, he refused to make peace. With the support of fellow boss Joseph Bonanno, Profaci was able to keep the Commission of his back and continue bleeding the Gallos dry, both in blood as financially.
It is interesting that the bosses called on Profaci to make peace as it would turn out to be a decision that was out of his hands. When he died of natural causes on June 6, 1962, his successor, underboss Joseph Magliocco, was still fighting the Gallos over the same bullshit.
While both sides worked hard on putting rivals underneath the ground, it was law enforcement that dealt the most devastating blows by putting the majority of the Gallo crew in jail. They got Joey on conspiracy and attempted extortion in late 1961, handing him a seven to fourteen year sentence. In 1962 a peace deal was arranged and the Gallos could wander the streets of New York without worrying about getting their heads blown off.
Joey Gallo spent his time in prison reading books and making new criminal connections. Imprisoned at the Green Haven Correctional Facility, he was housed with a variety of crooks. Amongst them drug traffickers like Lucchese mobster Matty Madonna and his protégé, Harlem drug czar Leroy “Nicky” Barnes.
Gallo wasn’t like most of the guys behind bars, Barnes told author Tom Folsom. “Joey didn’t give a shit what you were. You’d see him walk around the yard, stopping whenever he’d want and talking to whoever he wanted to.”
He especially liked talking with Barnes. Gallo saw a partnership with Barnes in the near future. “He wanted to form a tight-knit cadre to stick up trucks. Joey loved hijacking,” the drug boss remembered. But Gallo was also looking past simple crimes and teaching Barnes how the mob worked, how it was organized, and how Barnes could operate in a similar manner and how the both of them could make lots of money working together.
As Gallo was dreaming up new schemes and rackets, outside, his brother Larry was fighting a losing battle against cancer. In May of 1968, he died in his sleep at the age of 41. The responsibilities of the crew now fell on Joey, who had just turned 39. With all that both brothers had been through, they probably felt thirty years older.
Gallo was not confined by his mob environment. As Nicky Barnes described Gallo’s behavior behind bars, Joey acted the same on the other side of the fence. He went out and mixed with celebrities, poets, artists, singers, anyone he deemed interesting in one way or the other even if that person was the total opposite of himself. It gave him a folk hero image and would later earn him the song “Joey” by Bob Dylan, an ode to his life and death. As he impressed his hippy friends Gallo’s already big ego grew even more. It wasn’t long before it started another mafia war.
When Joey Gallo was released from prison, Joseph Colombo (left) had taken over the family. Colombo was one of the captains the Gallo crew had held hostage during the war with Profaci. Now he was in charge of hundreds of men around the country, including Joey Gallo and the members of his crew. Colombo welcomed Gallo back with a gift of $1,000 dollars, seeing it as a nice gesture. Gallo, in turn, felt he should’ve killed the guy when he had him tied up and held hostage. Gallo had trouble accepting his position within the mob. He wasn’t a boss, nor a capo, he was a soldier. A soldier who successfully executed one of the most feared mob bosses in the country, but a lowly soldier nonetheless. The boss of his family owed him nothing. He was just another employee who needed to prove his worth.
But Crazy Joey felt he had passed that stage a long time ago. He ordered his crew to prepare for war. Joseph Colombo had to go.
Italian-Americans, and Italians in general, have had problems with being cast in a negative light due to the actions of a criminal minority among their society. Just because the Mafia is made up out of Italians doesn’t mean every Italian is a gangster. Mob boss Joseph Colombo felt a strong urge to send that message out into the world and to do so he set up the Italian-American Civil Rights League. The irony was lost on Colombo.
He organized pickets in front of FBI offices, muscled the producers of The Godfather to leave the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” out of the film, and put together large rallies where Italians voiced their displeasure with how police and society treated them.
On June 28, 1971, Colombo attended an Italian Unity Day rally at Columbus Circle in New York. As he was getting ready to speak to the crowd an African-American gunman shot him from close range. The gunman, Jerome Johnson, was disguised as a photojournalist and was shot and killed by one of Colombo’s bodyguards immediately after firing at the Mafia boss.
To the mob it was clear Jerome Johnson had not acted alone. And they quickly came up with a reasoning why and for whom Johnson had shot their now comatose boss (right). They figured Crazy Joey Gallo had used some of black soldiers for the job. There had been rumors he was secretly making black men into his own Mafia family, wanting to create a Sixth Family in New York. It sounded ridiculous but after Colombo got hit, no one was laughing and they felt perhaps Gallo was indeed capable of such actions.
For Gallo, meanwhile, life went on.
On April 7, 1972, at 4:30 a.m., Gallo and his family entered Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, Manhattan, to celebrate his 43rd birthday. The mood was light and joyous as they sat down for a hearty meal. Little did Gallo know it was to be his last supper. Gunmen entered the restaurant guns blazing and left him no other chance but to lure the assassins and their bullets away from his beloved family. Mortally wounded Crazy Joe stumbled out onto the street where he collapsed.
Finally, after two wars, the crazy kid had been eliminated.
- Give a man a gun: The story of Carmine DiBiase
- 5 of the dumbest moves in Mafia history
- The Colombo Crime Family section
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