Today marks the 45th anniversary of Lucky Luciano’s death!!!
Lucky Luciano made the modern mafia. In 1931 he cut New York into five slices and served the rackets up in a form that still exists today. He had his fingers in every slice of the metaphoric mince meat pie that was America in the first half of the twentieth century, and then spent his remaining years ruling the underworld from afar. In the history of organized crime, there has never been a more powerful boss, and unless there is a drastic change in American law enforcement, no one person will ever be able to consolidate so much criminal power again.
In 20 years, with the help of the 18th amendment, Charles Luciano went from being an average pimp to a God amongst thugs. With the help of a number of other famous gangsters, Lucky built a single, business-like crime syndicate with a board of directors and a directed sense of purpose. It would come to rule the entire United States, and eventually, a good portion of the world.
From Humble Beginnings
Born in italy in 1896 as Salvatore Lucania, Lucky Luciano eventually changed his name to spare his family the embarrassment of reading about him in the newspapers. As a kid, he was a thug; he dealt drugs, sold women, and stole anything he could. He was constantly picked up by New York police, who typically smacked him around and dropped him back on the streets due to his age.
Junkies everywhere, take note: Charlie “Lucky” Luciano created the modern heroin trade. Thanks Chuck! In 1915, at the tender age of 19, Luciano was first arrested for dealing heroin on the streets of New York. Upon release, he broke his sales ring into a tiered affair, with thugs standing on street corners dealing out the dope while he stayed upstairs with the women. He was probably one of the first gangsters to use it in his pimping operations to help keep the girls loyal.
In 1920, Luciano joined Joe Masseria’s gang and helped run booze, manage prostitutes, and traffic horse for the Sicilian mafia. Masseria trusted Luciano, who was a great and reliable earner. He eventually became Masseria’s right hand man, making him one of the most powerful gangsters in New York.
Somewhere in the 20’s, Lucky met Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. This three-way introduction is one of the classic underworld myths, and many versions of the story exist. One alleges that Lansky was a heroin addict at the time. Others describe awkward scenes featuring screaming hookers, naked Jews, and Lucky the belt wielding pimp. And still others describe Lansky whacking Luciano upside the head with a plumbers wrench to defend a crying Bugsy. No matter how it went down, the event served as a symbolic destruction of the old racial walls that existed in the New York underground. Previously, Italian and Jewish gangs tended not to associate on the street, but Lucky would be one of the first to cross the cultural lines and forge an alliance between the groups. Siegel, Lansky and Luciano would become the driving force behind the eventual formation of the National Crime Syndicate: Lucky was the heart of the syndicate, Lansky its brains, and Bugsy its fist.
Sicilian Neck Tie
In 1929, Masseria’s gang became embroiled in a violent turf war with Salvatore Maranzano’s mafia. Maranzano was a megalomaniacal don fixated on becoming the one and only ruler of New York. In October that same year, Luciano was on a dock at on the Hudson River inspecting a load of fresh chiba that had just arrived. Four of Maranzano’s men rolled up in a car, grabbed Luciano and taped his mouth shut. They beat the shit out of him for an hour as they slowly drove towards Staten Island. Once there, they slit his throat and cheek, then dumped him in a ditch and left him for dead.
Luciano lived through this attack, earning him the nickname “Lucky.” Luciano saw the attack as a sign that the gang war had to end, and soon. He, along with Siegel and Lansky, went to see Maranzano. They struck a deal with Marazano to divide up Masseria’s empire: Marazano got the liquor turf, Luciano got the girls and the drugs. Luciano set up a dinner meeting with Masseria at the Nuova Villa Tammaro, a spaghetti house on Coney Island. After a few hours of feasting, he excused himself to use the pisser. In walked Bugsy Seigel, Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Meyer Lansky. Out walked Luciano as the new leader of Masseria’s gang.
Only half a year passed before Siegel and Luciano bumped off Marazano. This placed Luciano in charge of New York. Through agreements with Dutch Schultz and other Manhattan turf barons, Luciano was able to consolidate all underworld power and streamline the mafia.
The Syndicate Rises
Despite having dropped out of school in the 4th grade, Luciano had a business savvy unrivaled in the crime world. He set up a board of directors that included all the major players, including millionaire thug Joe Adonis and beancounter extraordinaire Meyer Lansky, who remained on the board until the late 70’s. There was even a trial structure to hear complaints and justly determine if someone should be whacked.
The underground began to flourish, and the organization became known as the National Crime Syndicate. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, liquor, and guns could all be had from the Syndicate, and everyone in the underworld had to pay tribute to the organization by giving it a percentage in all takes.
Even assassinations became big business thanks to Lucky. With the help of Bugsy Siegel and Albert Anastasia, Luciano formed Murder Inc., a professional grade killing company staffed mostly with Jewish hitmen. Mobsters in need of a hit simply called Murder Inc and bought themselves some prescreened contract killers. It was much like 1-800-dentist, but with guns and piano wire instead of drills and laughing gas. This establishment was responsible for hundreds of hits throughout the late 30’s, including the killings of Dutch Schultz, Abe Wagner, and even it’s founder, Bugsy Siegel.
Luciano was on top of the world by 1936. He had a different woman every night, a habit he had picked up early on. By 1936, his empire of whores caught up with him. The state of New York had amassed enough evidence and testimony to put Luciano in jail for pimping by years end.
Thomas Dewey, special prosecutor in the case, paraded a near endless stream of witnesses before the jury. Over 28 of them were hookers, and Luciano was incensed by this fact. He claimed that the government had coerced the testimony of these whores by offering them free trips to Europe and a steady supply of drugs. One of these hookers was permitted by the judge to take a shot of bourbon while on the stand to help keep the morphine shakes off long enough to finger Luciano. Initially, most people believed Luciano was grasping at straws, but some documents from Deweys offices confirm that a large number of tickets to Europe were purchased by the office in the same year as the trial.
Luciano was sentenced to 30 years in jail for his alleged masterminding of the New York flesh trade. Prison didn’t dwindle Luciano’s influence. He remained firmly in charge, even under lock down. So great was his influence that when the US government was searching for German saboteurs in the ports of New York during World War II, they came to Luciano to ask for help. Luciano agreed, and used his power to bring the Nazi conspirators to the surface. Luciano also helped the government find contacts on Sicily and in Italy before the Allied invasions.
In 1946, Thomas Dewey, now governor of New york, gave Luciano a pardon and deported him to Italy. There, Luciano lived out the rest of his days entertaining the like of Frank Sinatra Sr. and other celebrities. He remained active in Syndicate business, however, even in exile. In 1946, he flew to Cuba to meet with fellow mafiosos about turning the island into a floating Las Vegas.
In December of 1946, Luciano arrived in Cuba to discuss the realization of plans for the island. All the biggest names in the mafia were there: Vito Genovese, Meyer Lanksy, Joe Adonis, and Santos Trafficante Jr., relative of the infamous senator James Traficant. Aging gangsters arrived one after another, all there to pay respects to Luciano and affirm that he was still in control.
Of those in attendance, Vito Genovese was the only real troublemaker. Genovese initially asked Luciano to step down from power, a request which infuriated the aging mobster. Eventually, after a few days of meetings, Genovese again asked Luciano to step down, and to retreat to Italy. Luciano was sure that Genovese had tipped off Washington to his presence in Cuba. Luciano leaped on Genovese and beat the living shit out of him, breaking three of the man’s ribs.
Aside from wupping up on Gevovese, there were other issues to be discussed at the Havana conference. One issue was narcotics sales, something Luciano thought was becoming too hot for the mob to remain in. He pleaded with his underlings to get out of the business, but no one seemed to care. Meyer Lansky informed Luciano that Genovese was orchestrating much of the trade now, and his followers, as well as his enemies, were making too much money off of drug trafficking to back down now.
Another issue was Bugsy Siegel. Bugsy had purposely been left out of the conference because his Flamingo hotel, by then $6 million in the hole, was a sticking point for many in the group. By the end of the conference, Siegel was marked for death. His old friend, Meyer Lansky was unable to help him because he was not allowed to vote in any conference matters. Only Italians could vote, and Lansky was a Jew.
In 1962, Luciano was planning to help produce a movie about his life. A Hollywood producer flew to meet the aging gangster in Naples, Italy on January 26th. As Luciano was walking across the runway to shake the producer’s hand, he dropped dead suddenly of a heart attack.