The Mafia Files: Episode 3 Lucky Luciano

Charles “Lucky” Luciano was the crime boss & leader of the Luciano family. This documentary serves as a biography of the infamous mobster & his role in the Mafia.

Last week we learned about the one & only, Meyer Lansky. But a key person in Lansky’s rise through the Mafia’s ranks was Lucky Luciano. Luciano is considered to be the father of modern organized crime in the United States for his establishment of The Commission. Not only was he the driving force behind The Mafia’s governing body, but he was also the first official boss of what was then called the Luciano crime family. Through this, Lucky Luciano quickly became one of the most influential mob bosses of all time & as such, will be the topic of Episode 3 of our series, The Mafia Files.

November 24th, 1897: Charles Luciano is born in the Sicilian sulfur mining town of Lercara Friddi under the original name, Salvatore Luciana. At the age of 10, Salvatore & his family immigrated to New York like many other Italian families at that time. Unable to speak English, Luciano struggled in school & by 14 years old, racked up an entire record of arrests. One of Luciano’s earliest schemes was convincing schoolmates to pay him for protection. Those who refused to pay would be beaten up themselves. Reports on how Luciano earned the nickname, “Lucky” vary greatly, mainly due to the fact that Luciano himself would provide different accounts when questioned about it. Common belief is that the name stuck after he escaped from & survived multiple murder attempts, some of which Meyer Lansky saved him from. In 1929, Luciano was abducted by a group of men who beat & stabbed him then left him for dead on a Staten Island beach. He was discovered by the police & taken to a nearby hospital where, miraculously, he survived; although it did leave him with a scarred chin & his characteristic drooping right eye. After winning $244 in a street dice game, Luciano quit the only legitimate job he would ever have in his life doing hat delivery & instead, devoted himself to making money on the streets. By 1916, he was a leading member of the Five Points Gang, a violent New York City-based youth gang who’s members were mainly Italian-American. It was at around this time that he also befriended rising Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky. Their paths crossed when Luciano’s gang targeted a skinny Jewish kid whose bold defiance won their respect. That skinny Jewish kid was of course Meyer Lansky. Luciano & Lansky would go on to become friends for life. The two would play a crucial role in the Mafia’s development as Luciano rebuilt the mob with Lansky as its architect.

The 1920s alcohol prohibition created many opportunities for criminals to make large amounts of money. Through this, “Lucky” Luciano became one of the “Big 6,” a group of six men who dominated the illegal liquor trade on the East Coast. Also included in this group was Lucky’s childhood friend Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, & Abner “Longy” Zwillman. By 1927, Luciano was appointed to top lieutenant to Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, head of New York’s largest crime family & the man that controlled Mafia operations in the United States in the 1920s. The late 1920s also saw the breakout of the Castellammarese War, which eventually allowed Luciano to take control of the Genovese family & ultimately establish The Commission. The Castellammarese War was a bloody power struggle for control over the Italian-American Mafia between partisans of Joe “The Boss” Masseria and those of Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano was sent to New York by powerful Sicilian mafioso Don Vito Ferro to attempt to seize control of operations there. Big blows were traded for about a year, with members of both sides being killed on a regular basis. Tensions began rising but in the end, Masseria lost more high-profile members than Maranzano. Because of this, Luciano, Tommy Lucchese, & Vito Genovese—all of whom were high-ranking leaders within the Masseria family—grew tired of the bloodshed & the impact it had on their business. They saw this as a window of opportunity & thus, began communications with Maranzano & in doing so, betrayed Masseria. Betrayals of this kind within Mafia circles always ends in death. In 1931, Luciano arranged to have Masseria killed following a lavish lunch at a Coney Island restaurant. “Joe the Boss” ultimately ate lead that afternoon. With Maranzano’s blessings, Luciano took over Masseria’s gang and also became Maranzano’s lieutenant. This move marked the end of the Castellammarese War, but nevertheless, the bloodshed continued. Lucky had a vision of replacing traditional Sicilian strong-arm methods with a corporate structure, a board of directors, & systematic infiltration of legitimate enterprise. But his vision failed to impress Maranzano. Maranzano found Lucky too ambitious, too enterprising, and all-in-all too dangerous. He planned to have Luciano whacked as well in order to pave the way for him to rule New York with an iron fist as capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses. Maranzano also saw Lucchese and Gagliano as now his own men when in reality, their loyalty was only towards Luciano. So when Lucchese heard of Maranzano’s plans to have Luciano whacked, he tipped off Luciano. On September 10th, Maranzano ordered Luciano & Genovese to come to his office at 230 Park Avenue in Manhattan. Convinced that Maranzano planned to murder them, Luciano decided to act first. He sent to Maranzano’s office four Jewish gangsters whose faces were unknown to Maranzano’s people. They were secured with the aid of Lansky & Siegel, both of whom were Jewish as well. Disguised as government agents, two of the gangsters disarmed Maranzano’s bodyguards. The other two—aided by Tommy Lucchese, who was there to point Maranzano out—stabbed Maranzano multiple times before shooting him. This made Luciano the unofficial leader of the New York Mafia.

Despite his new, yet arguable position as the new capo di tutti capi, Luciano was not interested in this position at all as it automatically implied having a bounty on your head. Instead, what Luciano was interested in was restructuring the Mafia by using the advice of his trusted friend Meyer Lansky along the way. Along with pressure from former Chicago boss Johnny Torrio, Luciano set up The Commission to serve as the governing body for organized crime. It acted as a regulatory body designed to settle all disputes & decide which families controlled which territories. The Commission has been called Lucky Luciano’s greatest invention. His goals with this newly-formed organization were to quietly maintain his own power over all the families & to prevent future gang wars by preserving peace between criminal organizations nationwide. Its board of directors included leaders of both Jewish & Italian criminal groups. The syndicate moved to coordinate control of narcotics, prostitution, bootlegging, loan sharking, & labor union rackets. A stable distribution of power was also established between five newly formed families, all led by veterans of the Castellammarese War. The families took their names from the men in charge: Vito Genovese, Joe Profaci, Joe Bonanno, Carlo Gambino, and Luciano. The FBI describes Luciano’s ascendancy as the watershed event in the history of organized crime.

During his reign of the Luciano family, he became well-known figure in Broadway social circles. He was always smartly dressed & stayed in a permanent room at the Waldorf-Astoria. It was also common to see him with a beautiful woman, a showgirl, or a nightclub singer under his arm. Frank Sinatra and actor George Raft were close pals of his. Of course, it didn’t take long for Luciano to draw attention to himself as his flashy lifestyle caught the eye of special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. In late March of 1936, Luciano received a tip that he was going to be arrested and therefore fled to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Unfortunately for Luciano, a New York detective in Hot Springs on a different assignment spotted him then notified Dewey, who had him arrested for facilitating prostitution. The direct evidence against Luciano wasn’t strong though, mainly because prostitution was not an important portion of the family’s operations. But during the trial, Luciano was disastrously cross-examined by Dewey, who asked how he lived so well on a reported $22,500 yearly income. In reality, Luciano actually earned about $10 million per year. Luciano was convicted & sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. But Luciano was an incredibly powerful man & still managed to run both the prison and much of his empire while incarcerated. He had a personal chef & was responsible for building a church at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, which became famous for being one of the only freestanding churches in the New York State correctional system.

During World War II, the U.S. government struck a secret deal with the imprisoned Luciano along with the help of Lansky, who operated as his liaison. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence was concerned about German & Italian agents entering the United State through the New York waterfront. They also worried about sabotage in these facilities. Knowing that La Cosa Nostra controlled the waterfront, they made a hefty proposition to Luciano. His sentence would be reduced if he helped protect the New York harbor, which he did. Luciano also ended u using his criminal connections in Italy to advance the Allies’s cause. After the war in 1946, Dewey & Luciano stuck a deal as well. He would be released if he agreed not to fight his deportation back to Italy. Luciano reluctantly agreed & on February 10th, 1946, his Italy-bound ship set sail form Brooklyn Harbor.

Even though residing in the States was no longer an option, Luciano stayed involved with the Mafia. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case in 1938, Frank Costello took over as boss of the Luciano family. Costello & Luciano had always been close friends & the transition was voluntarily & went smoothly. By the time Luciano was released 1946, his old friend Lansky controlled many of Havana’s racetracks and casinos. In October of that same year, Luciano secretly moved to Havana, Cuba to assist Lansky with the ultimate goal of resuming control over American Cosa Nostra operations & eventually returning to the United States. A Mafia conference took place later that year on December 20th to discuss several important issues on their agenda, including: the heroin trade, Cuban gambling, and what to do about Siegel & the floundering Flamingo Hotel project in Las Vega. It was during this conference that Genovese tried convincing Luciano to become a titular boss of bosses & let Genovese run everything. Luciano calmly rejected Genovese’s suggestion, stating: “There is no Boss of Bosses. I turned it down in front of everybody. If I ever change my mind, I will take the title. But it won’t be up to you. Right now you work for me and I ain’t in the mood to retire. Don’t you ever let me hear this again, or I’ll lose my temper.” This bold statement proved Luciano’s lasting influence & power despite being banned from the U.S. His plan to return to the States never came to fruition because the U.S. government wouldn’t allow it & they even went out of their way to force him back to Italy. Additionally, the U.S. started putting pressure on the Cuban government to expel him. On February 21st, 1947, U.S. Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger notified the Cuban government that the United States would block all shipment of narcotic prescription drugs to Cuba while Luciano was there. Two days later, the Cuban government announced that Luciano was in custody and would be deported to Italy within 48 hours, which he was. He was not allowed to leave Naples, where he spent the remainder of his days. According to some reports, he was still involved with narcotics trafficking despite losing most of his power & no longer being a key figure in the Mafia in the US, Cuba, or Italy. On January 26th, 1962, Luciano died of a heart attack at Naples International Airport. But despite his death, Luciano left a long-lasting legacy by restructuring the Mafia in a way that allowed it to operate smoothly for decades to come.


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