We all have heard about the mafia, and a lot of us have somewhat of a fascination with the lives of mafia members. And when we think about them, we mostly imagine they either died in prison, or they were made to “sleep with the fishes” or were “wacked”. This list however presents those important, but few lucky ones from the Prohibition-era that did not meet the fate reserved for people like them, and who instead were met with a normal end, not dying in some prison cell, on the electric chair, or gunned down, but from natural causes, sometimes even at home surrounded by their “family”.
10. Meyer Lansky, the Mob Accountant
Born on July 4th, 1902 in Grodno, Russia (now Poland), he immigrated to the United States in 1911 under the name of Meyer Suchowljansky and settled in New York City. In 1920 he met Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Together with Bugsy, they formed the “Bug and Meyer Mob”. Later, Lansky came to be known as one of the “Big Six” along with Bugsy Siegel, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Lucky Luciano and Joe Adonis.
His initial “big money” came from the gambling operations he established in Florida, Cuba and New Orleans. He was also the man who suggested Bugsy Siegel to handle the construction and management of the Flamingo hotel and casino in Las Vegas, as an investor.
By the 1960’s, Lansky was involved in numerous criminal activities, such as drugs, pornography, extortion etc. It was estimated that his total holdings were around $300 million. In the FBI files, an informant states on April 26th, 1963 that Lansky is extremely wealthy and has more points in the Las Vegas casinos than anyone else. Those files also state that Lansky was associated with practically every known leading figure in organized crime, and was equal in rank to all of the leading ten La Cosa Nostra figures in the United States.
In 1970 he was risking arrest for income tax evasion, which made him flee to Israel. He however could not escape arrest and was returned to the United States. The charges were later dropped because of his poor health. Meyer died of lung cancer in Miami Beach, Florida on May 15th, 1983, at 80 years old. Even though he was estimated to be worth around $300 million, no money was ever found. His granddaughter told author T.J. English that at his death, Lansky left only $37,000 in cash.
9. Johnny “Papa” Torrio aka. “The Immune”
Born on January 20th, 1882 in Irsina, Italy, Torrio’s mother immigrated with him to the US after the death of his father, when he was two years old. They settled in New York, and his mother later remarried. His stepfather owned a grocery store, which was an illegal liquor front, where he was hired as a porter. This place was the start of Torrio’s criminal career. As a teenager he joined the James Street Gang. The gang was connected to the Five Points Gang, ran by Paulo Vaccarelli.
Torrio saved enough money and opened a billiards hall in Brooklyn. The place soon became a hangout for rising young criminals such as Al Capone. Torrino’s success drew the attention of Paulo Vaccarelli, and who made him his lieutenant. Paulo Vaccarelli also made Torrio his mentee, transforming Torrio from a street thug into a well-dressed “business man”. After a while he moved from New York to Chicago when his uncle by marriage, Big Jim Colosimo, made him second in command. Colosimo controlled much of the Chicago underworld. His organization was known as the Chicago Outfit.
In 1919, when the Prohibition era began, Colosimo didn’t want to be part of illegal distribution of liquor. Two years later, on May 11th, 1921, Colosimo was killed while leaving a meeting. No one was charged, but one of the suspects was Capone. After Colosimo’s death, Johnny Torrio became the leader of the Outfit, and with the help of Capone, the bootlegging operation brought as much as $100 million per year at the height of the Prohibition.
An assassination attempt on January 24th, 1925 sent Torrio into semi-retirement in Italy and left the Outfit to Capone. Later in his life, he returned to the United States to serve as a mentor to Lucky Luciano and the Genovese family in New York. He is credited for the creation of the National Crime Syndicate, which later became the Commission. In 1939, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison. After his release he retired. He died on April, 1957 from a heart attack, at the age of 75, while sitting in his barber’s chair.
8. Paul “The Waiter” Ricca
Born in 1897 in Naples, Italy as Felipe DeLucia, he changed his name to Paul Maglio and fled to the United States via Cuba because of a murder he committed. On his way to America, he met a bootlegger and restaurant owner from Chicago, Joseph “Diamond Joe” Esposito. Once he arrived to the U.S. he changed his name to Paul Ricca and moved from New York to Chicago, and started smuggling whiskey and moonshine liquor. Diamond Joe soon appointed him the head of waiters at his restaurant, thus gaining the nickname “The Waiter”. In his time as head of waiters, he met Al Capone who was a frequent patron of the restaurant. After meeting Capone, he went to work for him.
He rose very quickly in the gang ranks, and soon became good friends with Capone. When Capone was convicted in 1932 for tax evasion and sent to federal prison, Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti became boss, and Paul Ricca the underboss. However, Carl Sifakis, crime historian, claims that Ricca was the real boss in the organization. Sifakis also said that Paul Ricca was one of the most stereotypical gangsters ever produced by The Chicago Mob. When he wanted someone killed, he would say “Make-a him go away.”
After 1950, Ricca started passing responsibilities to Tony Accardo, who was a good friend, but in 1957 he chose to replace him with Sam Giancana, as Accardo was facing tax evasion charges and Ricca may have wanted for Accardo to take a low profile. However, as Ricca aged, Accardo began to make the high level decisions.
In 1959, Ricca was convicted of tax evasion and was sentenced to 9 years in prison, but was mysteriously released after serving only 27 months. Ricca faced another indictment in 1965, again for tax evasion, but he was eventually acquitted. He retired to Detroit, where he died of a heart attack at 75 on October 11th, 1972. He was considered “the brains” behind Al Capone, Frank Nitti and Tony Accardo’s operations.
7. Enoch “Nucky” L. Johnson
As the son of the elected sheriff of Atlantic County, he also joined the force, first as the undersheriff, and later, in 1908, when his father’s term expired, the sheriff. After 1911, when he no longer held the position, he went on holding other various jobs, such as Atlantic County Treasurer, County Tax Collector, newspaper publisher, bank director, brewery director, and after 1945, a salesman for an oil company.
He was a lover of fine things. His trademark was a fresh red carnation on his lapel, and in the winter, he was often seen wearing a raccoon coat. He also had a German personal assistant and valet. His headquarters were on a ninth-floor suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Enoch’s power reached its peak during the Prohibition era, as it was not effectively enforced in Atlantic City, and which allowed for a very lucrative bootlegging business. Johnson’s income came from percentages he took from the selling of illegal liquor and other activities, such as gambling and prostitution. Under Johnson’s rule, Atlantic City was known as one of the biggest ports for importing illegal alcohol. He was the host for the Atlantic City Conference in 1929, which was a national gathering of crime leaders, such as Al Capone, Giuseppe “Joe Adonis“ Doto, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and others. The meeting was instrumental in creating the true organization with which the syndicate thrived in the first half of the 20th century.
His reign would come in 1941, as he was indicted for income tax evasion. He was convicted for evading $125,000 in taxes. His sentence was 10 years in prison. He only served 4 years of his sentence as he was released on parole in 1945. He returned to Atlantic City, but chose not to continue his previous “business”, instead he worked in sales for the Richfield Oil Company.
He died on December 9, 1968 at the Atlantic Country Convalescent Home in Northfield, New Jersey. He was 85 years old.
“I can’t find anybody in the first half of the 20th century who was as dominant a boss in his community.” …“and was a power in two different worlds (organized crime and politics) and was able to make those two spheres one thing.” – Author Nelson Johnson
6. Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, aka “Joe Batters”
Born from Sicilian immigrants on April 26th, 1906 in Chicago, he had no legal troubles until 1922, when he was arrested for a motor vehicle violation. He later joined the Circus Café Gang, name gotten for their hang out at The Circus Café, which was owned by gangster John Moore, also known as Claude Maddox. Tony, as a member of this gang, became close friends with his fellow gang member, Vincenzo DeMora. DeMora was promoted to Al Capone’s personal gang, and as Capone needed more soldiers for his operations, DeMora vouched for Tony Accardo.
Tony became a “made” man in Capone’s gang in the spring of 1926, as he swore the oath of Omerta, the code of silence. Accardo was promoted to personal driver and bodyguard after saving Capone’s life by pulling him down and shielding him as Capone’s rivals fired at them. By 1931, as Capone was jailed for income tax evasion, he became caporegime (captain).
In the 1940’s, Tony Accardo became the 2nd man in the organization, since many of the top mobsters were jailed for their implication in the Hollywood Extortion case, having only Paul Ricca, who was also his friend and counsel, above him.
Tony Accardo always denied any role in the Chicago mob. When Paul Ricca retired in 1968, Tony allegedly became mob chief, and when Paul Ricca died in 1972, he became the ultimate authority. Accardo died at 86 years old on May 27th, 1992, of heart and lung disease. His criminal career spanned over several decades, but he never spent a night in jail.
5. Giuseppe Antonio Doto, known as Joe Adonis, aka “Joey A”, Joe DiMeo”, “James Arosa”, “Joe Adonis”
Born on November 22nd, 1902 in Montemarano, Campania, Italy, he arrived in 1915 in New York City, illegally by boat. Here he made a living by pickpocketing and stealing whatever he could. At a young age he met Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and the two became very good friends. In the 1920, as Luciano went on working for Joe Masseria, Joe Adonis stayed and chose to work for mafia boss Frankie Yale, who controlled much of the criminal activities in Brooklyn.
After Luciano arranged the murder of Masseria in 1931, with the contribution of Joe Adonis, Luciano took control of Masseria’s family and formed the National Crime Syndicate (The Commission). Joe Adonis was appointed on the board of directors for this organization, and thus he received a great deal of power.
Adonis established his headquarters at his restaurant, Joe’s Italian Kitchen. From here he managed to net millions of dollars in profit from all kind of operations such as prostitution, gambling etc., and by 1932 he was controlling Brooklyn. In 1944, Adonis moved his headquarters from Brooklyn to New Jersey, another restaurant called Duke’s Restaurant, located in Cliffside Park.
Adonis managed to avoid prison until 1951, when he was forced to plead guilty to violation of state gambling laws. In 1956, as he was facing charges for perjury, Adonis agreed to be deported to Italy. Adonis lived a life of luxury in his Milan villa, occasionally meeting with his life-long friend Charles Luciano. He attended a requiem mass for Charles Luciano’s death, where, with tears in his eyes, he presented a final floral tribute to his friend with the message “So long, Pal!”
On June 20, 1971 hew was exiled by a Milan court to the town of Ancona. Six months later, on November 26, he died of natural causes at the age of 69. His remains were returned to the U.S.A.
4. Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca, Sr.
The boss of the Patriarca Family in New England for nearly 30 years was born in Massachusetts, 1908, to Italian immigrants. His criminal career started from an early age, and by the 1930’s he was given the status of “Public Enemy No. 1”, but by using his political connections he was able to get a pardon. During the 1940’s, Patriarca was on a power rise, and after Philip Bruccola, the boss of the family, fled the country to avoid prosecution, Patriarca took his place as the boss.
During his career he was arrested more than 30 times for charges raging from bootlegging to conspiracy and even murder, and he served several prison sentences. The last charges he faced were in 1983 for ordering the murder of burglar Ray Curcio, the man who broke into the home of Patriarca’s brother, Joseph. One year later, he was arrested for another killing, that of Robert Candos, another robber. He was not convicted for this one, as he died of a heart attack before the start of the trials. He was 76 years old. The power was inherited by his son, Raymond Patriarca Jr.
3. Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno
Bonano was born on January 18th, 1905 in Castellammare del Golfo, Italy in a powerful Sicilian family, so he got “front row seats” in observing the men of honor – “men of the old Tradition” – the name referring to the Sicilian mafia members.
Bonano moved to the United States when he was 3, but only for a short while, because 4 years later his family had to move back to Italy due to rising tensions between his family and the rival Buccellatos. Bonano lost both his parents by the time he was a teenager. He then went to become a sailor, but the rise to power of Benito Mussolini got him suspended for his anti-fascist activities. As a result, he had to leave the country and went back to the U.S.
Not before long, Bonano got involved in bootlegging, and he went on working for Salvatore Maranzano as an enforcer. Bonano was a great help for Maranzano in the Castellammarese War, but as the war ended with the murder of Maranzano, Bonano took over his crime family (which later became to be known as the Bonano family). Over the years, Bonano strove for respectability by investing in a number of legitimate businesses that helped him with his illegal activities.
After serving eight months in 1983 for obstruction of justice, his biography “A Man of Honor” was released, which angered the other New York Mafia leaders, as it was considered he broke the omerta code (code of silence). His autobiography drew the attention of then-U.S. district attorney Rudy Giuliani, who wanted Bonano to testify about his criminal connections. As Bonano refused to comply, he received a 14 months term in a federal medical facility. After his release in November of 1986, he moved to his home in Tucson. He is one of the few mafia members that got to retire from the Mafia.
He died of a heart attack in May 11th, 2002 at the age of 97 in Tucson. His funeral was attended by 300 people. Bonanno is credited with creating the “double coffin”—a coffin with a special compartment for disposing of a corpse beneath another body prepared for burial. Also, it is believed that he was one of the inspirations for the character Vito Corleone in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather
2. Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone, aka Scarface
Born on January 17th, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York, Capone was not like the usual gangster from the early 20th century who came from impoverished backgrounds. He was from a respectable, professional immigrant family, and we believe that the career that followed couldn’t have been easily foreseen.
Capone’s career is tied to meeting John “Papa Johnny” Torrio, who became a mentor to Capone, teaching him the “tools of the trade” in organized crime, especially in the racketeering business. Capone joined Torrio’s James Street Boys and later the Five Points Gang, becoming a bouncer at premises such as brothels. In his early 20’s, he moved to Chicago, being called for by Torrio, who moved there in 1909 to help him run the Chicago brothel business. It is not exactly known, but it might have been Capone who assassinated Torrio’s boss, Big Jim Colosimo, in 1920, helping Johnny Torrio becoming the new boss.
The rise of Capone started as the Prohibition era began, and so new bootlegging operations opened which drew immense wealth. By 1927, Capone wealth was estimated at around $100 million. In 1925, in retaliation to an assassination attempt, Johnny Torrio was attacked and was greatly injured by the North Siders Gang. Recovering slowly from this attempt, he handed power over to Capone and he moved to Europe.
After the new found power, Capone moved his headquarters to the luxurious Metropole Hotel, as he wanted to become more visible and somewhat of a celebrity. Capone, dressing in custom made suits, having gourmet food and drinks, making donations to various charities, started to have an image that appealed to the people. But his image was to suffer greatly, with influential citizens demanding action from central government, after the multiple assassinations of 6 North Siders and a mechanic in 1929; assassinations that were named “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre”.
Al Capone’s activities attracted the attention of President Herbert Hoover, who told his secretary of Treasury, Andrew Mellon, in March, 1929, that he wanted Capone in jail. In June 1931, Capone was indicted for federal income-tax evasion, tried, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. His seven-year reign as crime boss ended when he was 33 years old.
He entered Atlanta penitentiary in May 1932, but was transferred to Alcatraz. From the early period of his sentence, Capone started showing signs of syphilitic dementia. Capone’s health deteriorated and he became confused and disorientated. He was released after 8 years and moved to Baltimore Hospital, and later to his estate in Florida. In 1946, his physician and a Baltimore psychiatrist concluded Capone had the mentality of a 12-year-old child. He died on January 25, 1947 in Palm Island, Florida at the age of 48 due to a stroke and pneumonia with none of his former power and influence.
Due to his publicized image, he became the most famous mobster in American history, but not our number one on the list.
1. Salvatore Lucania (Known as Charles “Lucky” Luciano)
Born on November 24, 1897, in Lercara Friddi, Italy, Luciano moved to New York City with his parents in 1906. It took only one year for Luciano to get involved in crime. So at the age of 10, he was mugging, shoplifting and extorting people. He was also 10 years old the first time he saw life behind bars, was when he spent 6 months in jail for selling heroin.
The scars on his face were from the injuries he sustained in 1929 from surviving a “one-way ride”. He was abducted by four men in a car, beaten, stabbed, had his throat slit, and was left for dead on a beach in Staten Island.
The nickname “Lucky” was earned for his luck at the craps games and for the success of evading arrest. Teaming up with Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky and other young gangsters, he later joined the crime boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria in 1920, and by 1925, at 28 years old, he beame chief lieutenant, responsible for bootlegging, prostitution, narcotics etc.
But Luciano is not known in history for his starting age in crime business, or for surviving the “one-way ride”, but for the role he played in the war between Giuseppe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. The war was instigated by Salvatore Maranzano in his attempt, which succeeded for a brief while, to become “Boss of Bosses”. The war was named the Castellammare war, named after the birth place of Salvatore Maranzano, and the end of it led to the establishment of the Modern Mafia.
But the idea of Maranzano being the new “Boss of bosses” did not fit well with Luciano. So six months later (September 10th, 1931) he had Maranzano murdered with the help of Meyer Lansky and 4 other gunmen. Luciano was now, without direct seeking of the title, the “Boss of bosses”.
Luciano did not want the title, so, for preventing future wars like the Castellammare, he established a power-sharing arrangement called “The Commission”, a group of five Mafia families. The Genovese family (Lucky’s family), Profaci (now Colombo), Gagliano (now Lucchese), Maranzano (now Bonano), and the family of Vincent Mangano (now Gambino).
The second conviction came in 1936. He was indicted, tried, and convicted for his call-girl empire and extortions. The sentence was for a 30 to 50 year term. Luciano continued to rule from inside the prison, and in 1946, after he helped the Navy intelligence in 1942 to end the sabotage on the docks that blew up the luxury airliner Normandie, his sentence was commuted and he was deported to Italy, where he settled in Rome.
He died at the Capodichino Airport in Naples in 1962 where he was to meet with Martin Gosch about a film based on his life. He was 64. More than 2000 mourners attended his funeral. In 1998, Time Magazine named Charles “Lucky” Luciano a “criminal mastermind”, and included him in the top 20 most influential builders and titans of the 20th century.