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Had this book appeared a few years earlier, the introduction would have focused on the question of whether or not there really was a "Mafia." In previous decades there had been a multi-pronged drive to deny the existence not only of the Mafia, but also, in some cases, of organized crime. Italian-American groups denied the existence of the Mafia. J. Edgar Hoover and many other law officials did the same, and so did a number of scholars. Naturally, the mafiosi agreed with them. But by late 1986 such arguments had all but ceased. Lawyers for leading mafiosi, brought to trial for being bosses of organized crime, went before juries and conceded that the Mafia did exist and that their clients might even have been members of it.
Ethnic Italian-Americans and others have since changed their position. Rather than deny the existence of the Mafia, they argue instead that organized crime is bigger than the Mafia and that by focusing on the Mafia alone, the government and writers on the subject perpetuate anti-Italian sentiment. Certainly bigotry has in the past been a motive in the exposure of the Mafia. There can be little doubt that many politicians since the days of the unsavory New Orleans Mayor Joseph A. Shakespeare in the 1890s have used fear of the Mafia and the Camorra in an attempt to undermine the growing economic and political power of Italian-Americans.
If this is so, why then a book called The Mafia Encyclopedia? Is the glib rationale by Joe Valachi (perhaps spoon-fed to him by his prompters)--"I'm not writing about Italians. I'm writing about mob guys."--really a sufficient response? Of course not. The Mafia has been an integral part of organized crime since the latter's inception in the 1920s. Well then, why not The Organized Crime Encyclopedia? Not a "sexy" enough title? That would be a valid observation except for the inescapable truth, contrary to the long-held views of the few sociologist-scholars who have ventured into studying the field, that the Mafia is not withering away in the face of something called "ethnic succession in organized crime. "Within syndicated crime, the ethnic balance has actually shifted more than ever to the Mafia.
Most crime, save for white-collar crime, springs from ethnic situations, determined almost completely by which ethnics occupy the ghetto, itself generally sub-divided into smaller ethnic areas. There is an ethnic succession in the ghetto--and an ethnic succession in crime. And for this reason any study of crime of necessity becomes an ethnic study. Thus the great criminals of 19th-century America were the Irish. Until the 1880s or '90s almost all the great criminal street gangs were Irish. And the WASP fear of being a crime victim--being mugged, perhaps having one's eyes gouged out, or murdered--was a reflection of the "Irish menace."
In time, as the Irish vacated the worst ghettos, their experience in crime was to be repeated by ethnic newcomers, the Jews and Italians, who, over a period of decades savaged most of the remaining organized Irish gangs and gained dominance. Then, street-crime activities by Jews and Italians dropped when they too vacated many of their ghettos as they gained affluence. Taking their place in the ghettos were the blacks and the Hispanics, and inexorably crime statistics took on a new ethnic flavor, determined by the new have-nots of society.
All such crime, however, has little to do with organized crime. That too had an origin in a sort of ethnicity, but it was an aberation of history and place. Why is the United States the only industrialized country in the world with a pervasive organized crime problem? It was the confluence of three important forces that allowed organized crime to develop and to achieve its power. In fact, before 1920, organized crime, in its truest sense, did not exist in this country; we had huge, organized gangs of criminals, but crime itself was not organized. It did not embrace the vast interplay of a network of gangs with certain territorial rights but an obligation to handle matters within their territory for other gangs--up to and including murders. Such rules, discussed in detail in the "Mafia" entry, were not restricted, in the new picture, to the Italian criminal gangs. For example, the Jewish Purple Mob in Detroit handled assignments in its area for the Capone Mob, and if it needed certain chores taken care of in Cleveland it could rely on the Jewish mobsters under Moe Dalitz or his Mafia allies in the Mayfield Road Mob.
After 1920, in a stunning development, the ethnic criminals of the day--the Italians and Jews (as it happens, the successors to the Irish in the criminal breeding grounds of the ghettos)--were catapulted to new heights of power, accumulating such great wealth that they were no longer the lackeys of the political bosses and their police puppets but rather the new masters. Indeed, Prohibition created something very new in history--the millionaire criminal, the beneficiary of bootlegging.
By the early 1930s a purge within organized crime had eliminated the less foresighted among the vastly enriched criminal leaders. The two most important criminals of the day--Lucky Luciano, Sicilian-born, and Meyer Lansky, a Polish-born Jew, but both Americans to the core--successfully unified the great criminal gangs into a vast national crime syndicate. It was they who set up a board of directors of organized crime, who apportioned territories and rights and duties among the gangs, and who even set up an enforcement arm that was to become known as Murder, Incorporated.
Still, the end of Prohibition could have spelled the end to organized crime in America but for the Depression and the law (or frequent lack in enforcement thereof). The syndicate had become so rich it could suffer through some lean Depression years as it moved into other rackets. But, perhaps more important, the economic climate itself helped the organization achieve stability. With Repeal the Italians and Jews should have reverted to their prior condition as ethnics about to step out from the ghettos, but the Great Depression froze these groups in place. Only those talented in the entertainment and sports worlds, and a few through better education, could avoid the realities of a battered economic system. Most youths were trapped in the ghettos and for them the only avenue of escape was crime. Thus organized crime had a steady supply of new recruits from its own ethnic ranks. This allowed organized crime to further sophisticate its own appreciation and understanding of crime.
The wisecracking, loud-dressing, obscene and violent criminals of the 1920s did not disappear but more and more became the followers of more intelligent criminal leaders. Meyer Lansky saw the potentials in new rackets, Luciano had a superb ability to activate such plans. And Frank Costello, Longy Zwillman and others knew how to corrupt a political system to achieve substantial non-interference by the law.
Ironically, some elements of the law itself cooperated, remarkably, without prompting and without bribery. The national syndicate came into being because it had no problem corrupting the criminal justice system on a local or often a statewide basis. And as its tentacles lengthened nationally, it felt little resistance from the federal government. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had only its one sphere of interest. What was required was the energetic employment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to battle organized crime, especially in the infancy of the national crime syndicate. However, under the ironfisted rule of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was nowhere to be found, and it would remain in the main outside the fray for some three and a half decades--an astonishing period of malfeasance (or nonfeasance) in leadership with tragic consequences (see J. Edgar Hoover entry).
Thus Prohibition, the Depression and the invisible Mr. Hoover were all midwives in the birth and nurturing of organized crime in America.
Aiding this growth was a lack of scholarly study and hence understanding of organized crime and particularly of the Mafia's role within the syndicate. Yet scholars had good reason to be faint-hearted since their knowledge of organized crime was culled heavily, as one researcher put it, from "unsubstantiated accounts of informers or the ideological preoccupations of law enforcement agencies." Predictably, journalistic accounts often extended into the sensational, with false "facts" introduced for want of fresh angles. Sociologists John F. Galliher and James A. Cain noted (American Sociologist, May 1974): "There are two troublesome aspects to this reliance on such sources, one empirical, the other political. In arriving at conclusions and statements of fact, the journalist or political investigator is not bound by the canons of scientific investigation as is the social scientist." Still other researchers were frightened off by the realization that their findings might smack of reactionary ethnic bias. Thus most scholars gravitated to a line that one hard-bitten journalist refers to disdainfully as the "there-ain't-no-Mafia school of thought no matter how many corpses litter the streets."
Proponents of the theory that the Mafia is but legend or myth had their heyday in the early 1970s. Some used what can only be described as empirical trivia to "prove" that not only was there no American Mafia but also that there never was one in Sicily. It would take another volume to refute all their claims and sort out all their terms, but history has in its own way resolved the problem. It is now impossible--with the wealth of eavesdropping evidence--to deny the existence of an American Mafia and a national commission. The war declared on the Italian Mafia by Pope John Paul II and the onset of trials for hundreds of mafiosi in Italy in 1986 similarly eliminate the basic argument about the existence of the Honored Society in that country, reducing the claims of critics to a matter of semantics.
In many respects, however, the proof is still sketchy. Written records, especially the self-serving memoirs and reminiscences of criminals, must be scrutinized carefully. Errors and deliberate misrepresentations in such reminiscences are to be suspected. Thus the serious student of crime must constantly search for correllating documentation when drawing from such sources-not always an easy task from material proclaimed to be "exclusive revelations." Not surprisingly, also, there is a certain contentiousness among the authors of rival books and in their critical evaluations of each other's works. The problems in documentation and the confusions of fact are apparent in numerous examples.
Indeed, such confusion surrounds probably the most controversial, yet among the most important, crime books published in recent years--The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, written in 1974 by Martin A. Gosch and Richard Hammer, formerly a reporter for the New York Times. On December 17, 1974, Nicholas Gage, in a front-page article in the Times, questioned the authenticity of the book by citing errors of fact. This creates a serious problem for a crime historian. Is the Luciano testament to be thrown out wholesale or are Gage's and others' criticisms merely limited to specific details, misrepresentations or even lapses of memory by an aging and ill Luciano, or poor research by one or both of the authors? (The claim by many writers of true crime that their subjects had camera-like memories and were never caught in a lie need hardly be accepted at face value. Errors in crime biographies as well as those in books written by law-enforcement officials are probably greater than in any other field.)
Penthouse magazine, which excerpted the Luciano book before publication, made a serious misrepresentation acknowledged in part by the book's publisher, Little, Brown, that the book was based on tapes made by Luciano. Author Hammer (by the time the book appeared Gosch had died) never claimed there were tapes of Luciano talking but rather that Gosch had taped his notes which Hammer found impossible to read. Hammer was quoted by the Times as saying, "Luciano would have had to be out of his mind to sit with a tape recorder. What guy in his position would ..."
As a counterpoint, Gage wrote: "According to Peter Maas, Frank Costello, Luciano's successor as the top Mafia boss, agreed to just such an arrangement shortly before he died in 1973. Mr. Maas, author of `The Valachi Papers' said Mr. Costello agreed to recount his life on tape and sign verifying documents for a prospective memoir Mr. Maas would write.
"Mr. Costello's death cut short the collaboration and Mr. Maas said he abandoned the project."
In any evaluation of Gage's methodology, it must be noted that if there had been any Luciano tapes, the mob boss would have, as the book indicated, admitted complicity in a number of murders--for which there was no statute of limitations. There is nothing contributed on the record by Gage or Maas that puts the Costello tapes on the same qualitative level.
The question remains: Does the Luciano testament, backed up by basically similar reminiscences by such important Jewish syndicate criminals as Lansky and Doc Stacher, as Hammer put it, "hang" together, even though parts of it were angry, scurrilous, defamatory and self-serving on Luciano's part? The answer comes only after a meticulous search through the crime literature.
A major contradiction between the Luciano testament and The Valachi Papers involves the murder of Peter "The Clutching Hand" Morello. While obviously the facts as to "whodunit" are of significance, such contradictions also offer an opportunity for evaluations of sources.
Valachi credits a picturesque gunman he called "Buster from Chicago" as having killed Morello, the top adviser to "Joe the Boss" Masseria. He knew because Buster told him. (Buster was, according to Valachi, a quaint character who lugged his armaments about in a violin case.) Luciano by contrast says the murder was carried out on his orders by Albert Anastasia and Frank Scalise.
Valachi offered a vivid scene of Buster shooting Morello once, only to have his victim jump up and dance about trying to avoid being hit again. Buster took this as a sporting challenge and backed off, trying to wing Morello as though he was an amusement-park shooting gallery target before he finally polished him off. Obviously, the Buster-Valachi account is "exclusive," and not subject to confirmation. Yet a diligent researcher might well come across the older tale of the jumping murder victim, one that involved an unsuccessful attempt against Joe the Boss himself and was well documented in news accounts at the time.
It is possible Valachi made up the story, or the ubiquitous Buster appropriated the old Masseria tale and simply pulled the gullible Valachi's leg. But the story must be weighed against Luciano's version. First of all, Joe the Boss, Morello, Luciano, Anastasia and Scalise were allied at the time. According to Luciano, his two assassins had no trouble penetrating the protection around Morello's loan shark headquarters. Buster, according to Valachi, was a hit man for the enemy forces of Salvatore Maranzano, and he offers no explanation of how Buster, a rival gunman, simply was able to walk into enemy territory and do his shooting.
Luciano's memoir raises yet another argument, another stumbling block for serious crime scholars. The "Night of the Sicilian Vespers," taken as a standard article of faith for many popular writers, was, according to The Valachi Papers, "an intricate, painstakingly executed mass execution .... On the day Maranzano died, some forty Cosa Nostra leaders allied with him were slain across the country, practically all of them Italian-born oldtimers eliminated by a younger generation making its bid for power."
Apparently the publicizing of the supposed purge originated with Richard "Dixie" Davis, a corrupt underworld lawyer who worked for Dutch Schultz. In 1939 he related in Collier's magazine details of the Maranzano killing. Davis's source turned out to be Abe "Bo" Weinberg, a top Schultz gunner. According to Weinberg, Maranzano's murder triggered a nationwide attack on the "oldtimers." In fact, "at the same hour ... there was about ninety guineas [Italians] knocked off all over the country. That was the time we Americanized the mobs." Yet, in his memoirs, Luciano wonders why no one ever named any of these victims.
Following publication of the Luciano memoirs, a number of studies were made of the Night of the Sicilian Vespers (or what others called "Purge Day"). In The Business of Crime (Oxford University Press, 1976), a work funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Kentucky Research Foundation, Humbert S. Nelli reports on a survey made of newspapers issued during September, October and November 1931 in 12 cities--Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Evidence was found of only one killing concurrent with the Maranzano murder that could even be remotely connected to him. Nelli himself concluded this murder, in Denver, was actually tied to the Colorado bootleg wars of the period. (According to Virgil Peterson, the respected longtime former head of the Chicago Crime Commission, his organization's records showed only two gangland-type killings in the Chicago area during the month of September, and they were not of top-flight underworld figures and "obviously were unrelated to it [Maranzano's murder] in any way.")
Other researchers in the late 1970s supported the Luciano thesis, pointing out the logistical problems facing such "an intricate, painstakingly executed mass execution." They estimated each murder would have required at least 10 conspirators: hit men, drivers, backup men, spotters, lookouts, and even "shovel men" in case of burials. The idea of 40 or 60 or 90 executions being carried out to precision in such a short time frame is mindboggling, especially when underworld hits frequently take days or weeks to set up.
Clearly, Valachi himself knew nothing about the Night of the Sicilian Vespers and whatever he may have said merely repeated an old refrain made by Dixie Davis. This hardly dismisses Valachi's revelations as trivial, but makes them, like Luciano's, candidates for scrutiny. Valachi was a low-echelon street soldier, and as Peterson notes in The Mob (Greenhill, 1983), "Obviously, his credentials for providing a blueprint of organized crime and its structure throughout America were not overly impressive." In some cases, Peterson further noted, Valachi's Senate subcommittee testimony "was considerably less than forthright."
When other gangster tales are examined, not all of their claims are credible. The revelations made by informer Vincent Teresa in part contradict information from Valachi. Teresa, who served as an aide to New England boss Raymond Patriarca and his underboss Henry Tameleo, certainly had far more knowledge of organized crime than Joe Valachi. As a government informer Teresa gave testimony that resulted in the convictions of scores of mafiosi, and his books, My Life in the Mafia and Vinnie Teresa's Mafia, written with Thomas Renner, contain mother lodes of information for the crime historian. Confirmability of other facts presents problems.
A federal jury acquitted mob genius Meyer Lansky despite Teresa's testimony against him. Teresa said in My Life in the Mafia and later at the trial that he had twice brought money from London gambling junkets, once over $40,000 and the second time over $50,000, and given it to Lansky in Florida. Unfortunately, it turned out that at the time of Teresa's alleged second visit to Lansky--he described Lansky "fingering through" the money--the gangster was actually up in Boston recovering from an operation, a fact confirmed by Lansky's wife, a surgeon, and hospital and hotel records.
Problems develop when Teresa's considerable contributions about the mob's gambling activities are subjected to searches for confirmation. The view expressed in gambling literature is one of doubt and even derision. Gambling expert John Scarne found that Teresa knew "little or nothing about crooked casinos."
In discussing the mob's deal with Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Teresa declares the dictator's cut was "10 percent of all the money bet--not just the profits, but the money bet--and it was to be delivered to him each night by one of his secret policemen." This author failed to find a single gambling authority who gave any credence to such an arrangement. Experts point out that no major gambling casino game offers an edge of ten percent, and that paying off bribes at ten percent of the money bet becomes a mathematical impossibility.
Similarly professionals did not take seriously Teresa's account of some of the fixes he said took place at foreign casinos under mob dominance.
Of one on Antigua Teresa stated: "Everything at the casino was in the bag. Card sharks, dice manipulators, all kinds of crooks worked for [mob boss] Charlie the Blade. They had women dealers handling the Twenty-One card games with marked cards; switchmen who moved mercury-loaded dice in and out of the game to control it."
Gambling expert John Scarne pointed out, "Mercury-load dice ... don't work and ... casinos all over the world use .750-inch transparent dice." Mercury loads can only be used, if inefficiently, with opaque dice. No high roller, and certainly not a losing one, would play in a casino using anything but transparent dice, which are infinitely harder to fix.
Confirmation becomes crucial when dealing with possible whitewashes of the protagonist in crime "confessions." If skepticism should characterize the approach to Luciano's memoirs, it is equally important in evaluating the content of A Man of Honor, the autobiography of crime family boss Joe Bonanno, a source relied upon by the federal government in the mid-1980s to make its case in the so-called "Commission Trial" of a number of New York crime-family bosses. The Bonanno book is remarkable in its omissions. There is, for instance, no acknowledgement of Bonanno's longtime underboss, Carmine Galante.
How reliably can a researcher trust Bonanno's descriptions of machinations within the national commission? Factual confirmation of his narrative of the dethroning of Frank Costello and the assassination of Albert Anastasia is not forthcoming. In Bonanno's account he is the self-proclaimed hero, author of what he termed "Pax Bonanno"--which kept underworld peace for more than two years. The Pax began with the attempted assassination of Frank Costello in 1955 at the instigation of Vito Genovese. Enraged by this, Anastasia prepared to have his crime family make war on Genovese. Instead, Bonanno claimed, he himself rushed into the breach, warning Anastasia, "If war breaks out, there'll be no winners. We're all going to lose." Bonanno assures his readers he thus brought about peace and "Albert and Vito kissed each other on the cheek."
In August 1956 Bonanno's son, Salvatore (Bill), married Rosalie Profaci, daughter of New York don Joe Profaci. Mob bosses from all round the country attended, including Genovese and Anastasia. Bonanno said he saw to it that they were seated at opposite sides of the hall. "But at least they came. They were making an effort to be nice." He complimented himself on the Pax Bonanno he had established after the attempt on Costello's life.
Pax Bonanno broke down in October 1957 when Anastasia was murdered. Bonanno at the time had been on what he described as a sentimental trip to Italy, and he adds, "In fact, if I had not gone off to Italy I doubt whether anyone would have felt bold enough to make an attempt on Albert's life."
It was a sad ending for Pax Bonanno. But was there any Pax Bonanno at all?
The facts do not confirm Bonanno's statements. The two-year-old Pax Bonanno hangs on the attempt on Costello's life which is dated as 1955 in Bonanno's book. Actually, the attempt occurred in May 1957. The Anastasia assassination took place a little over five months later. Thus there could have been no Pax Bonanno, no Bonanno handwringing, at the time of the Bonanno-Profaci wedding in 1956.
In fairness to Bonanno and his collaborator, the 1955 date for the Costello murder try pops up regularly in many accounts. After they were so led astray, it is easy to see how Pax Bonanno could represent a sort of historical revisionism.
If A Man of Honor, like The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, suffers from some inaccuracies, it does not render the book valueless to the serious student of crime. It is enlightening to discover how important clairvoyance can be within the Mafia--that is, the ability of certain crime bosses to be far away, often thousands of miles, even continents away, whenever a major mob hit occurs.
Inaccuracies, errors, misstatements and whitewashes are par for the course in works on crime, whether the story is told by a criminal or a lawman. The reality the crime historian faces is rather akin to a situation faced by Canada Bill Jones, the celebrated 19th-century gambler and conman who was himself a sucker at losing his money at faro.
Marooned in a small Louisiana river town before the Civil War, he diligently hunted up a faro game at which he proceeded to lose consistently. His partner tried to get him to stop. "The game's crooked," he whispered.
"I know it," Canada Bill replied, "but it's the only one in town."
Mafioso confessions are not the only game in town, but buggings and wiretaps are subject to various interpretations, and stool-pigeon accounts tend to reflect what the informer feels investigators want to hear.
The crime historian has to deal with uncertain material, recognize biases, and reach certain conclusions based on the relevancies.
Valid analysis of crime facts is seldom possible in quickie interpretations and with only partial knowledge. Information and facts are to be culled from material that "hangs together." In the case of the Luciano book, other sources have since confirmed many of the facts contained therein. Interviews given to three highly respected Israeli journalists by Jewish mobster Doc Stacher and the same writers' biography of Meyer Lansky, who gave them a number of interviews, back up a number of facts in the Luciano book, such as the role of Frank Costello, the mob's chief briber, in seeing to it that Murder, Inc., informer Abe Reles "went out the window."
Fitting together this jigsaw of twists and turns in organized crime and the Mafia makes it possible to understand the deep changes that continue to develop within the syndicate. There has been a marked decrease of Jewish gangsters in the top echelon of the mob--not due to an ethnic purge, but rather to the simple dying off of top Jewish mobsters. In the early 1930s the syndicate may have been more Jewish than Italian; despite individual flare-ups, the combination was highly peaceful, even affectionate.
There is little need to hammer away at what every Mafia entry says about the lack of nepotism on the part of Jewish mobsters. They were empire builders, not dynasty builders. The same in large measure was true about the individual mafioso, as far as nepotism was concerned. But the Mafia's very structure, its organization, automatically engendered a dynasty. Whether we call it the combination, the Mafia or even Cosa Nostra is unimportant. What matters is that by its very nature, with crime families and a system of bosses, underbosses, capos, soldiers and associates, the Mafia became a dynamic organization existing in a sense on its own, independent of its own members--indeed in spite of them.
And as their Jewish compatriots--using the term in a most generic sense--retired or died off, the Mafia was forced to fill the vacuum in order to carry on the more sophisticated aspects of syndicate operations. The mafiosi were ready, having spent several decades learning the ropes. This has led to what may be called Lansky's First Law: Retreat to the background, turn over the high-visibility street activities to others. Let the blacks and Hispanics work the streets, sell the dope, peddle the female flesh. In New York the pimps of Manhattan are virtually all black, but how many blacks own the massage parlors? Similarly it is the Mafia that collects "franchise fees" for those ghetto gambling rackets it does not actively run. It is the Mafia that provides the protection for such operations.
Today, "ethnic succession in organized crime" seems the banner of only a small band of confused observers and, of course, the Mafia itself. Mob guys are the first to say they aren't there.
And it does not appear that the Mafia is a dying institution. Many a hoodlum still clamors to become a "made man" or "wise guy." He hangs around the mob, doing their chores and hoping for the big break that will propel him to the top. As former New York Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman put it, a mob hopeful still labors at "fencing stolen goods for family members with only a small cut for himself, or even dirty work like burying bodies." His goal: being made a hijacker instead of a peddler, a hit man instead of a mere shoveler. And as a reward he might even get a loansharking or numbers territory where, as a "made man," he will have no fear of competition.
Not even the worst sort of treachery can sour eager new recruits for Mafia duty. New York hoodlum Tommy DeSimone never gave up hope of making it. He figured he had the credentials, having been involved in major robberies at Kennedy Airport and in handling a number of hits. But he wasn't in; he wasn't a "made man." Then at last he got the good word; he was going to be inducted into the Honored Society.
Posted January 9, 2000
If you love reading about the mafia or true crime, you'll love this book. It takes you through the entire underground world. It mentions infamous mobsters, such as Al Capone, to their famous associates, such as Frank Sinatra. This a good read and I highly recommend it. I found it highly informative.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.