The American Mafia: it might not be the first, it might not be the biggest, but it’s the thing that most people think of when they hear the word “mob.” It earned its renown thanks to decades of dominance of New York City’s criminal underworld, at times holding power over other major cities such as Chicago, New Jersey, and Las Vegas. Then, the secrecy surrounding La Cosa Nostra, the strict rules of the organizations, and the ruthless, larger-than-life characters made the mafia a seemingly-endless source of material for countless books, movies, and TV shows.
Throughout its history that spans well over a century, the mafia has had numerous violent encounters. Today we look at ten of them that helped define La Cosa Nostra.
10. The Assassination of David Hennessy
The origins of the mob are debatable. Many regard the forming of the Commission under Lucky Luciano in 1931 as the beginning of the mafia as we know it today. But doing so would ignore several crucial (and bloody) moments from its early days.
Before the New York Five Families and their associate families decided to play nice together, there were many turf wars between feuding gangs and, seemingly, as soon as one was defeated, another one took its place.
While, undoubtedly, not the first murder committed by these gangs, the assassination of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was the first to gain national attention and cause massive outrage. In 1890, he was killed on his way home by multiple gunmen wielding sawed-off shotguns.
Hennessy first made his name by arresting a notorious Sicilian mobster named Giuseppe Esposito while a detective. At the time of his murder, though, he was caught in a turf war between two gangs known as the Provenzanos and the Matrangas. They were fighting over whose stevedores handled the fruit that came into New Orleans port.
It was never proven conclusively who killed Hennessy, but everyone thought it was the mob. Even the mayor called the police chief a “victim of Sicilian vengeance.” The Matrangas were the main suspects and 19 men were indicted. Nine went to trial, but they were all released on acquittals and mistrials.
The public was furious with the outcome and this resulted in the largest single mass lynching in U.S. history. Over 10,000 people stormed the jail and killed eleven of the alleged gangsters. Moreover, many publications of the time condoned the action and contributed to an ever-growing belief that all Sicilians were involved with the mob.
9. The Mafia-Camorra War
Before the Sicilian mob had a stranglehold on New York City, it competed for territory with the Camorra, a criminal outfit originally based in Naples.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the most powerful Sicilian gang was the Morello crime family based out of Harlem. It was led by Giuseppe “the Clutch Hand” Morello, an immigrant from Corleone, Sicily. He was retroactively referred to by some mobsters as the first “capo di tutti capi” (boss of all bosses). This unofficial title was meant to denote the most powerful crime boss. Technically, it became obsolete once the Commission was instituted, although the chairman was always considered to hold the position, informally.
In 1909, Giuseppe Morello went to prison. His half-brothers took control of the family and, in 1914, started a gang war with the Camorra over control of gambling houses in Manhattan.
This violent power struggle lasted until 1917 and, although the Sicilian side won and drove the Camorra out of New York, it did not happen without heavy losses on both sides. The most significant hit occurred on September 7, 1916, when the leader of the Morello family, Nicholas Morello, and an associate named Charles Ubriaco, were assassinated in front of a Camorra-controlled coffee house. They were lured there under pretense of peace talks, but the Neapolitan gangsters only intended to gather as many top Morello men as possible to take them out at the same time.
Surprisingly, this had a worse impact on the Camorra. Many of their lieutenants were actually convicted of the murder after one of the triggermen, Ralph Daniello, testified against them.
8. The Rise and Fall of D’Aquila
As we said before, when one gang goes away, another quickly takes its place. That is what happened after the Camorra was driven out of New York. Salvatore D’Aquila, a former captain with the Morello gang, had left when Giuseppe was arrested and formed his own crime family.
In 1920, Giuseppe Morello was released from prison to discover that D’Aquila’s power rivaled, even overshadowed that of his family. Not wanting to deal with a new threat, D’Aquila quickly put a hit out on his former boss, prompting Morello to flee to Sicily for a while. His half-brother, Vincenzo Terranova, was the current head of the Morello family, but he was assassinated in 1922 by a ruthless hitman employed by D’Aquila named Umberto Valenti.
Another important name in this war was Giuseppe Masseria. He had also built his own criminal empire and became a target for D’Aquila. However, he proved to be more than a match, and the violent dispute ended with a victory for Masseria. On August 11, 1922, his men killed Valenti. Among the triggermen, allegedly, was a young Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
This hit proved to be the beginning of the end for D’Aquila. Many of his lieutenants started defecting and he was gunned down in 1928. Masseria became known as “Joe the Boss” and was the new “capo di tutti capi.” Meanwhile, Morello wisely realized that his time at the top had passed and had accepted a position as Masseria’s consigliere.
7. St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
From New York, we take a quick detour to Chicago to look at, arguably, the most infamous (and one of the bloodiest) events in the history of the mafia – the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Like New York, Chicago was the scene of a turf war between the Italian South Side Gang led by the notorious Al Capone and the Irish North Side Gang led by Bugs Moran.
This rivalry came to a head on Valentine’s Day, 1929. Four unidentified men, two of them dressed as police officers, rounded up seven members and associates of the North Side Gang in a garage in Lincoln Park. They made them line up against the wall, pulled out Thompson submachine guns and peppered them with bullets.
Only one of the victims was still alive when the real police showed up – a triggerman named Frank Gusenberg. Officers asked him who did it but, staying true to the code of silence, he refused to name any of his shooters and died a few hours later.
Bugs Moran was not among the dead because he decided to sleep in that day. Even so, his gang never bounced back after that event. Al Capone was never definitively tied to the massacre, nor were any shooters positively identified. His gang became known as the Chicago Outfit and turned into the only game in town.
6. The Castellammarese War
Back in New York, the reign of Joe the Boss (pictured above) as “capo di tutti capi” did not last long. In the early 1930s, his authority was challenged by Salvatore Maranzano. Their bloody feud became known as the Castellammarese War, named after the Sicilian town where Maranzano was born.
The two factions had been hostile to each other for years so it’s hard to establish a specific start to the feud. Many point to the February, 1930, assassination of Gaetano Reina on Masseria’s orders as the beginning of all-out war. This was followed a few months later by Castellammarese men gunning down the original boss, Giuseppe Morello, in his office in Harlem.
Bodies started piling up on both sides. By the start of 1931, Masseria’s power was slipping and two of his main allies, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Vito Genovese, decided to jump ship. Not only that, but Luciano helped Maranzano orchestrate a hit on Masseria and end the war. On April 15, 1931, Joe the Boss was killed by a hit squad in a restaurant on Coney Island.
5. The Formation of the Commission
Salvatore Maranzano was now the boss of all bosses, but not for long. His reign at the top only lasted for a few months before being taken out by Luciano.
Outwardly, the Castellammarese War was a straightforward power struggle between two similar factions. Underneath the surface, though, there was a second, cultural war taking place between the Old Guard and the New. Guys like Masseria and Maranzano were “Mustache Petes,” men who started their life of crime in the old country and brought their strict Sicilian traditions to America. Mobsters like Luciano were the “Young Turks” who wanted to try new things such as expanding their criminal enterprises and collaborating with non-Italian criminals.
Although a traditionalist, Maranzano did innovate the American Mafia to an extent. He founded several of New York’s Five Families and established the hierarchies within those families. However, his capos were tired of there being a boss above all others.
Both Maranzano and the Young Turks realized the other side had to go, but Luciano ended up being a little quicker. In September 1931, he sent some of his Jewish associates to Maranzano’s offices dressed as police officers where they murdered him.
Afterwards, Luciano reorganized the American Mafia as we know it today. He formed a governing body called the Commission that looked out for the interests of all the mob families. The original members of the Commission were the leaders of New York’s Five Families – Vincent Mangano, Joseph Bonnano, Joe Profaci, Tommy Gagliano and Luciano himself – as well as Al Capone representing the Chicago Outfit and Stefano Magaddino, boss of the Buffalo crime family.
4. The Assassination of Dutch Schultz
According to the new rules established by the Commission, there were no issues with members of La Cosa Nostra doing business with non-Italian associates. In fact, at this time, Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel became some of the most influential players of the New York criminal underworld.
Another high-profile Jewish gangster was Dutch Schultz. Born Arthur Flegenheimer in the Bronx, he made a name for himself during the 1920s with bootlegging and gambling. At one point, his operation was powerful enough to rival that of any Italian family, but the two sides played nice with each other, at least at first.
During the 1930s, Schultz became one of the main targets of U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey. Dewey would later serve as Governor of New York and would also lose the 1944 presidential elections to FDR.
Schultz wanted the prosecutor dead. He went to the Commission to ask for permission, but they vehemently refused due to all the extra attention brought on by assassinating a prominent attorney like Dewey. They would later find out that Schultz planned to carry out the hit regardless of their say-so.
Not left with much of a choice, the Commission ordered the assassination of Dutch Schultz, the first time they did so for a high-ranking mob boss. On October 23, 1935, Schultz and three of his associates were gunned down in a butcher shop in Newark called the Palace Chophouse. Schultz himself survived for another 22 agonizing hours, time during which he only spoke incoherent babble.
3. The Downfall of Bugsy Siegel
Bugsy Siegel rose through the ranks by acting as muscle whenever Luciano needed an extra gun. That plus his longstanding relationship with Meyer Lansky secured him an influential position with the Mafia. However, it was his expansion into Las Vegas that cemented his legacy. Siegel is often hailed as “the man who invented Las Vegas.” That is incorrect, but he certainly convinced the crime families that there was plenty of money to be made there.
In 1945, Siegel got involved with the development of a resort and casino – the Flamingo Las Vegas. It was one of the first hotels on the Strip and, currently, the oldest still in operation.
The problem was that Siegel didn’t know anything about construction so he began spending way over budget and most of the money came from crime bosses that he persuaded to invest in this new endeavor. When the Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946, it was a flop, mostly because it was only half-finished.
Around the same time, an important meeting of all the top Cosa Nostra leaders took place. It occurred in Havana, Cuba, so that Charles Luciano, by then exiled to Italy, could also attend. Siegel was one of the main topics discussed. Besides the fact that his operation was bleeding money, there was suspicion that he or his girlfriend (or both) were also skimming off the top. Although Meyer Lansky initially defended his longtime friend, he eventually relented and approved a hit on him.
On June 20, 1947, Benjamin Siegel was in the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend, reading the Los Angeles Times when a gunman shot him several times through the window with an M1 carbine. Two bullets hit him in the head, creating enough pressure that Siegel’s left eye blew out of its socket. Allegedly, this inspired the memorable death of Moe Greene in The Godfather.
According to former Philadelphia crime boss-turned-state’s witness, Ralph Natale, the shooter was Murder Inc. member Frankie Carbo, acting on the orders of Meyer Lansky.
2. The Undoing of the Philly Mob
The Philadelphia crime outfit had been one of the most powerful non-New York families, even obtaining a seat on the Commission in the late ’50s and early ’60s. However, its glory days went away in the 1980s, shortly after the assassination of family boss Angelo Bruno.
Bruno had a reputation of being far less bloodthirsty than his colleagues. He earned the nickname “the Gentle Don” because he preferred to solve problems with bribes and favors instead of murder. He was no saint, but he operated using the philosophy that violence is bad for business.
Under Bruno, the Philadelphia organization had a 20-year period of relative stability and growth. This was helped by the fact that the family also controlled South Jersey, including Atlantic City which proved to be a huge moneymaker.
Despite Bruno’s thriving reign, not everyone agreed with his policies. Specifically, many of his underlings felt that they were missing out on a lot of money because the Don didn’t want to get involved in the drug trade. Eventually, his demise came courtesy of his own consigliere, Antonio Caponigro aka “Tony Bananas.” On March 21, 1980, Bruno was found dead in his car, killed by a shotgun blast to the back of the head.
Some stories say that Caponigro thought he had the blessing of the Commission to kill Bruno when, in fact, he did not. This may have been part of a plot by Genovese family boss Frank Tieri to gain access to lucrative Atlantic City. Less than a month after the Don’s murder, Caponigro’s naked body was found in the trunk of a car, having been beaten, stabbed, and shot numerous times.
The new boss was Philip “The Chicken Man” Testa who lasted almost a year before being killed by a nail bomb. His violent demise was immortalized in the Bruce Springsteen song “Atlantic City” which opened with the line “Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night.”
1. The Murder of Paul Castellano
In 1976, mob boss Carlo Gambino enjoyed a rare fate for people in his profession: he died at home of natural causes. Everyone expected his underboss, Aniello Dellacroce, to become the new Don but instead, Gambino named Paul Castellano as the head of the family. This created a rift in the organization between the men loyal to the new Don and the ones who still supported the underboss.
Castellano ruled over the most powerful criminal organization in New York and even served as Chairman of the Commission. However, he drew the ire of many of his capos for demanding larger payments than normal and restricting their drug trades.
One of these capos was John Gotti, one of Dellacroce’s protégés. He was told to stop dealing drugs, but he ignored Castellano and did it anyway. Word eventually reached the Don and, when Dellacroce died, Gotti knew that he was a target. He decided to get Castellano first.
On December 16, 1985, the Don and his bodyguard, Thomas Bilotti, were driving to Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. They were ambushed outside by four men who gunned them down while Gotti and his associate, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, were watching the whole thing from a limousine.
What was truly amazing was that Gotti escaped the wrath of the Commission. Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese family, wanted him dead for assassinating a boss without permission. There was an attempt on Gotti’s life with a car bomb, but it only killed his associate Frank DeCicco. From there, the two sides called a truce and John Gotti became the new Gambino boss. His various close calls with other gangsters and with the law earned him the moniker “the Teflon Don.” It wasn’t until 1991 when Gravano turned state’s witness that Gotti was put away for life.