Although he was once called "one of the 20 most influential builders and titans of the 20th century,"Charles "Lucky" Luciano (1897-1962) was a mobster. His advice was sought after by world leaders, but he was still a kingpin of crime. He eventually died in Italy as a deported criminal.
Luciano was born in Palermo, Italy on November 27, 1897. His parents, Antonio and Rosalia Cuania, brought their four children to New York City in 1907. His father, a sulphur pit worker in Italy, hoped to find a better life for his family. Luciano attended Public School 19, completing sixth grade. Arrested at the age of ten for shop-lifting, he was released to thestody of his embarrassed parents. The arrest neither frightened him nor did it teach him a lesson. He was arrested several more times for minor theft. By 1915, Luciano had become a tough teenage hoodlum on the Lower East Side of New York.
A Natural Leader
Luciano soon had a gang of tough Italian boys following him. He taught his gang the "protection" racket, and they spent their time collecting pennies from local Jewish boys who paid to keep from getting beat up. One young boy, Meyer Lansky, refused to be intimidated and instead laughed at the tough Italians. That bold defiance impressed Luciano. The unlikely pair became best friends and were able to merge the Italian and Jewish gangs on the Lower East Side. Their friendship resulted in a successful crime partnership that would last until their deaths. Lansky would eventually became the architect of Luciano's criminal empire in New York and around the world.
Luciano took a job delivering hats for a Jewish hat maker named Max Goodman. The relatively successful Goodman exposed Luciano to a middle-class lifestyle. But Luciano didn't plan to work as hard as Goodman. He soon realized that if he slipped some drugs into the hatbands, he could kill two birds with one stone. He also learned one of the most valuable lessons of his life, that of making money behind a legal "front." Soon he was making more money than he had ever seen before as a drug dealer. He even served a term at Hampton Farms for selling drugs. It was after his release from this state facility for youthful offenders that he changed his name. He felt that his given name of "Salvatore" or "Sal" was a girl's name, so he became known as "Charlie."
At first Luciano and Lansky, along with friends Frank Costello and Benny "Bugsy" Siegel, committed simple robberies to make ends meet. Eventually the ruthless natural leadership style of each man enabled them to rise to the top of their chosen profession. It was said of the Luciano organization that when they "downsized" some of their colleagues, the move was permanent.
An action by the United States government gave Luciano the idea that propelled him to the top of the underworld. In 1919, the sale of alcoholic beverages was outlawed. It became clear that the demand for alcohol was still large and whoever could provide the drinks would become very rich. By 1920, he and Lansky were supplying alcoholic beverages to all the Manhattan "speakeasies" (bars).
As Luciano's fame grew, a war was being fought between major local gangs in New York. Luciano, at 23, aligned himself with the largest Mafia family, that of Guisseppe ("Joe the Boss") Masseria. He continued with his bootlegging empire, and controlled plants, distilleries, trucks, and warehouses for the sale of illegal alcohol. Some of his partners included Guisseppe ("Joe Adonis") Doto, "Waxey" Gordon, and Arnold Rothstein, who "fixed" the 1918 World Series.
Boss of Bosses
Luciano began to reconsider his alliance with Guisseppe Masseria, who he realized wasn't the most powerful of the two major families. There are many different stories about the attempted murder of Luciano, who was becoming a problem for both bosses. Some reports indicate that gangsters in an Irish mob beat him nearly to death. Other reports claim it was police officers looking for a payoff, or federal officers who caught him with illegal alcohol, or the father of a girl Luciano had impregnated. Whoever was responsible, Luciano was beaten severely, cut across the face with a knife, and dropped off as dead in a river on Staten Island. Having survived this vicious beating, he earned the nickname "Lucky."
Luciano realized that the war had to end, and that he should be in charge of all the gangs in New York City. He had to figure a way to get the two main bosses to kill each other, since Mafia "soldiers" on both sides of the continuing war were being killed every day. He realized that the continuing bloodshed between gangs was attracting more and more of the attention of authorities, and disrupting his lucrative businesses. He contacted the other boss, Salvatore Maranzano, and an arrangement was made to assassinate Masseria. Luciano met with his boss at a Coney Island restaurant to discuss plans to eliminate Maranzano. Masseria was delighted that his top lieutenant was forming such a plan against his old enemy. Luciano excused himself to use the rest room and four men entered the restaurant: Bugsy Siegel, Al Anastasia, Vito Genovese, and Joe Adonis. They shot Masseria to death. When Luciano emerged from the rest room the four men had disappeared and the police had no case against him.
Next on the list was Maranzana, who didn't know that most of his "underbosses" and "capos" had given their loyalty to Luciano. They saw that Luciano was a better businessman, who would bring them more profits. Maranzana invited Luciano to a meeting, where he planned to have him killed. Luciano didn't show up for the meeting, but four "tax men" did. Maranzana had been having tax problems, so the four were brought all the way to his inner offices. By the time his personal bodyguards realized what was happening, Maranzana was dead. They fled in fear, and the way was clear for Luciano to become the most powerful of all crime figures, the New York "boss of bosses."
Luciano adopted the efficient idea of "crime families," appointing faithful supporters to head each one. He wanted to establish order. With the help of his longtime friend, Meyer Lansky, he created "the commission" or "Unione Siciliano." A group of his Sicilian friends sat on the board, and all organized crime activities in the 1930s were decided by this commission.
Top crime bosses were also popular society figures. Luciano was often seen at restaurants and the theater with well known civic leaders, entertainers, and other notables. Although he had bodyguards with him, he didn't really need them. Luciano was clearly in charge of organized crime and nobody dared to challenge his authority.
Law enforcement officials also knew who was the top crime figure in the U.S. In 1936, New York district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, brought charges against Luciano for running a prostitution ring. Even though Luciano had once saved Dewey from an assassination plot, that did not stop Dewey from prosecuting him. Luciano insisted that he was not involved in prostitution. However, a series of witnesses testified against him and the district attorney won his case. Luciano received a 30 to 50-year prison sentence, the longest ever handed down for such a crime. He was incarcerated in Dannemora, the so-called "Siberia" of organized crime.
Deported to Italy
Efforts to secure his release proved futile until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. declared war. The U.S. Navy feared submarine attacks and needed the cooperation of all waterfront workers to prevent this. Since Luciano still maintained complete control over the New York waterfront, even from prison, he was in a position to bargain for his freedom. In exchange for getting the dock workers to help the U.S. Navy and ordering the Italian Mafia to work against Benito Mussolini, back in Italy, Luciano was promised a parole. However, he had to agree to return to Italy and remain there for the rest of his life. When he left prison in 1946, Luciano was taken to Ellis Island and sent back to Italy. Although he promised to return to his adopted country, that never happened. Luciano died of a heart attack in Naples, Italy on July 26, 1962.
Further Reading on Lucky Luciano
Lucky's Dream, http://crimelibrary.com/gangsters/murder/murderlucky.htm
Murder, Inc., http://www.murderinc.com/fam/luciano.html
New York Daily News Online, www.newyorkdailynews.com
New York's Greatest Mobsters, www.laborers.org
Real Hoods, http://www.hoodlumonline.com/History/lucky.html