Monday, 25 January 2010

American Gangsters; part 5: Mafia

Even more so than in the case of Chicago, New York was too big ever to be controlled by a single gang. The city authorities were as corrupt as in Chicago, and the profits to be made from organised crime even larger, but New York never became as famous as a gangster centre. Partly this ws because the city lacked a gangster as fond of self-publicity as Al Capone, but also because the New York gangsters managed to avoid large-scale public shootouts like the St. Valentine's Day massacre. There were of course plenty of killings, but they took place in private, away from the public gaze.

Arnold Rothstein, "the Moses of the underworld", was shot dead in a hotel in November 1928: an unsolved crime probably resulting from a dispute over gambling debts. (His death is brilliantly described in a short story byDamon Runyon: "The Brain Goes Home"). He left a fluid situation, with various gangs active in different parts of the city, Manhattan and the Bronx and Brooklyn, and acros the river in New Jersey, engaging in different operations: bootlegging and drugs and labour racketeering. Their members were mostly Italian or Jewish; the city's police and politicians had traditionally been Irish.

The origins of the Mafia remain obscure. Sicily had long been bandit territory; an island of desperately poor peasants whose rulers were mostly foreigners, where an enterprising and ruthless man could make a living supporting landlords against tenants or vice versa, or more likely playing them off against each other; but as for the Mafia as such, there is no agreement amongst historians as to when it started, or what the name means, or indeed whether it should be regarded less as a body with some organisational structure, more as a code of behaviour and an attitude to life. (Al Qaida would be an interesting modern comparison) When before the First World War G. M. Trevelyan wrote his famous trilogy on Garibaldi and Italian unification, he made no mention of the Mafia in the section on Sicily, though he well aware of the Camorra, the equivalent organisation in Naples.

There was certainly a Mafia in New York before the First World War. It was led by such sordid characters as "Lupo the Wolf" and Pete Morello, "The Clutching Hand". They conducted protection rackets within the Italian community, killed anyone who threatened them, and were also heavily involved in forged currency. There were frequent and violent feuds between Sicilian and Neapolitan gangs, and between Mafiosi originating from different regions of Sicily. Another of these internal wars erupted in the late 1920s, between the followers of Guiseppe Masseria, "Joe the Boss", an uncouth slob of a man, and those of Salvatore Maranzano, a late arrival on the New York scene, whose followers mostly hailed from the Castellamare district. But to the younger generation of Mafiosi such doings were regarded as a dangerous waste of time, irrelevant to the situation in America. The leading light of the young men was Salvatore Luciano, generally known as "Charlie",or as "Lucky", following a mysterious episode when he was savagely beaten and tortured but then inexplicably released alive. Luciano and his friends contemptuously nicknamed the older leaders the "Moustache Petes": they regarded themselves as essentially Americans; they had been initiated into bootlegging by Arnold Rothstein and had forged working relationships with the leading Jewish gangsters, like Meyer Lansky and Benny ("Bugsy") Siegel, and Louis Lepke and Jake Shapiro, the racketeers of the Lower East Side. Their ambition was to take control, stop the stupid feuds, and start making serious money.

In April 1931 Luciano and Masseria had a private meal together in an Italian restaurant on Coney Island. After a while Luciano excused himself to go to the lavatory, at which point four men entered the room, shot dead "Joe the Boss" and then departed. Their identities of course are not known for certain, but theyare believed to be three young stars of the Mafia; Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis and Albert Anastasia, plus Benny Siegel. Following this, Maranzano proclaimed himself to be "Capo di tutti capi", Boss of all the bosses, and held a kind of celebration jamboree. It is said that part of his victory speech was delivered in Latin, since he had been trained for the priesthood and prided himself on being an educated man, unlike the crude thugs who surrounded him. It was Maranzano who divided up Mafia operations in New York between the legendary Five Families. He set up his headquarters in a luxurious and well-guarded apartment near Grand Central Station.

But Maranzano showed dangerous delusions of grandeur, and his reign lasted less than six months. In September of 1931 his offices were visited by men in police uniform, supposedly to examine his tax accounts. In fact they were professional killers: Bo Weinberg of the Dutch Schultz mob and Red Levine, a gunman who, being an Orthodox Jew, would never commit murder on the Sabbath. The Boss of all the bosses was shot and stabbed to death.

Luciano and his friends were now in charge, but he refrained fromtaking the title of Capo di tutti capi, preferring to see himself as analagous to a chairman assisted by a board of directors, and he preached Johnny Torrio's old message of peace between the gangs and the avoidance of open warfare. As early as 1929 a "national crime convention" had been held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, under the protection of the city's boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. Now links were established between the Italian and Jewish gangs of New York and further afield too, with Boston and Detroit, with Abner "Longy" Zwillman of New Jersey and Moe Dalitz of Cleveland (This gentleman had begunhis career smuggling Canadian whiskey across Lake Erie; an operation nicknamed "the little Jewish navy"; and ended up owning much of Las Vegas). Thus the "National Crime Syndicate" was born.

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