Top Hoodlum: Frank Costello, Prime Minister of the Mafia

Top Hoodlum: Frank Costello, Prime Minister of the Mafia

by Anthony M. DeStefano

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The definitive book on the ultimate mob boss—featuring new FBI revelations, rare family photos, and never-before-published material . . .
To authorities, Frank Costello was “The Prime Minister of the Underworld” and “one of the most powerful and influential Mafia leaders in the U.S.” To friends and associates, he was simply “Uncle Frank.” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony M. DeStefano sets out to answer who Frank Costello really was in this definitive portrait of one of the most fascinating figures in the annals of American crime . . .
Using newly released FBI files, eyewitness accounts, and family mementos, Top Hoodlum takes you inside the Mafia that Frank Costello helped build from the ground up. These are the riveting stories and stunning revelations that have inspired American crime classics like The Godfather, Casino, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos. This is the man who made the Mafia such a powerful force in our nation’s history. The man who refused to admit his crimes long after he retired. This is Top Hoodlum.
Praise for ANTHONY M. DESTEFANO and His Books on the Mafia:
“Thrilling American crime writing.”
—Jimmy Breslin on King of the Godfatherss
“Terrific. . . . A fitting end to the murderous story of the 1978 Lufthansa heist.”
—Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy on The Big Heist
“The best and last word on the subject . . . DeStefano brings the story to life.”
—Jerry Capeci, creator of the website "GangLandNews"

“DeStefano tells Costello’s story well.”
Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806538693
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 06/26/2018
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 610,969
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony M. DeStefano has covered organized crime for over three decades, including the crime beat for New York Newsday for the past twenty years. His books on organized crime include Gangland New York, King of the Godfathers, Mob Killer, and Vinny Gorgeous among others.

Read an Excerpt


"Come to America"

Fortune and history have not been kind to the Italians of the Mezzogiorno. During much of the nineteenth century, the southern region of the Italian peninsula had been the scene of constant battles between warring factions in the great struggle to unify the various kingdoms into one nation. The south at that time still didn't have a unifying Italian language, with dialects spoken in different regions.

The fighting and the oppressive policies of some leaders and feudal landowners spawned bands of brigands, a veritable army of dispossessed who, disappointed with failed agrarian reforms, took to terrorizing the landowners and creating a state of lawlessness in the region. In turn, the landowners put together their own small armies to resist the brigands. The strife added to the difficulties of the poor trying to eke out a living in areas like Calabria where the land already was difficult to till.

Luigi Castiglia had been part of the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the generals leading the fight for unification, and had been mustered out of the service with a small pension, reportedly two dollars a month, upon returning to civilian life around 1870. Historical research by Robert Golden indicated that Luigi likely fought with Garibaldi in his later campaign beginning around 1866. Luigi settled in Lauropoli, a hardscrabble Calabrian town about ten miles from the Ionian Sea. He had been preceded by about one hundred years by a Giuseppe Castiglia from Sicily. Records show Luigi Castiglia took a job as game keeper, a position with some responsibility in the local feudal culture.

Historical research, by none other than Frank Costello's close friend and confidante Frank Rizzo, known as Il Professore, holds that the town was formed around 1776 by the Marchioness Laura Serra of Naples. Marchioness Laura, sometimes known as the Duchessa, was the Italian version of "to the manor born." She married a prominent landowner, a Marquis, and when he died, she decided to live in the south permanently. With a decree from the King of Naples, she was granted land permitting her to set up a town that she named after herself, calling it "Lauro-poli." The setting was inland from the ancient city of Sybaris, an old Greek outpost close to the Ionian Sea.

The Marchioness invited anyone with a problem with the law to settle in Lauropoli, which — given the way history played out for at least some of the Castiglia family and its progeny — proved to be an interesting bit of foreshadowing. Luigi worked as a game warden for one of the landowners and tried a stint at farming by working a vineyard. The locale had the ruins of an old Grecian temple, and if Luigi cared to, he would have taken his family there on outings.

It seems that the Castiglia family struggled in Lauropoli. Farming was not an easy occupation at that time. Luigi's wife Maria Castiglia worked as well as a "spinner" or weaver of cloth, and since she was more of an entrepreneur than her spouse likely took on work as a seamstress as well. A friend once described her as stout, illiterate, but intelligent — a country woman who had black hair pulled back with hairpins. By early 1891, the couple already had five children — four daughters and a son — when Maria gave birth again to another boy named Francisco, the child who would grow up to become Frank Costello.

Right from the start, there was an issue with Francisco. For years there were questions about when exactly he was born. His birth certificate records a date of "ventidue, di Febbraio" or February 22, in the year 1891. But researchers have uncovered a baptismal certificate date of February 17, 1891, for one "Francisco," the son of "Luigi" and "Maria Saveria Aloise," (which was the maiden name of Frank Costello's mother). What explains the discrepancy? It was common in rural Italy that a birth was recorded on the day officials were notified, and not on the actual birthday, which would have been earlier than the date of baptism. The FBI files don't help clear up the confusion since an agency dossier has noted three different years — 1891, 1893, and 1896 — for Francisco's birth, along with birthdays of January 23 and January 26. The date that seems settled, based on Social Security Administration records, immigration records, and Costello's own burial place is January 26, 1891.

Of course, by the time he was born, Francisco's accurate date of birth wasn't the Castiglia family's main concern. Luigi's prospects were not getting any better the longer he stayed in Lauropoli. The family was in debt, and even Maria was said to have run up tabs with the local flour mill, which she couldn't pay. So, in 1895, Luigi Castiglia, accompanied by his oldest son Eduardo and at least some of his daughters, Concetta, Sadie, and Saletta, did what many in that part of Italy were doing, crossing the ocean to the United States as part of the early wave of Italian immigrants bent on trying their luck in New York.

Once in New York, Luigi Castiglia found himself in a labor market saturated with workers, mainly immigrants. In the Italian community, men known as padrones became crucial links in doling out jobs, arranging travel, and sending remittances bank to Italy, although it is doubtful given his struggles that Luigi sent anything back to Lauropoli. Controlling resources the way they did, the padrones wielded a great deal of power. It is very likely that Luigi got work from the padrones, but he had no great success in making financial headway. He was a laborer. For him the streets weren't paved with gold. Yet, he had nothing to look forward to back home in Italy. He finally wrote Maria. "Sell everything," Luigi told her, "even the bed sheets, if necessary, even if you have to borrow some lire from someone, but come to America."

It was a move of desperation, and one relative remembered that the family vineyard was also sold off. With prospects non-existent in Lauropoli, the only chance for the family was in Manhattan. With young Francisco and daughter May in tow, Maria Castiglia traveled to Naples where she boarded a vessel with third-class tickets bound for New York. The exact date of her arrival with her youngest son hasn't been found on any shipping manifests, but as Francisco Castiglia, later to become known as Frank Costello, would note years later on his application to become an American citizen, they arrived on U.S. soil on April 2, 1895. He would have been four years old.

East Harlem is a section of Manhattan near the East River. The area today encompasses a neighborhood roughly bounded by 107th Street to the south and 125th Street to the north, then stretching a few blocks west to Park Avenue. Back when the Castiglia family first arrived, the tenements attracted so many of the Italian immigrants who arrived in this period that the newspapers labeled it "Little Italy," a designation that would shift decades later to the more well-known area farther south near Chinatown. As often happened, immigrants from particular areas of Italy tended to settle in certain neighborhoods and for those from Lauropoli like the Castiglia family the small block of 108th Street between First and Second Avenues was a magnet.

FBI records indicated that the Castiglia clan first settled in Astoria, Queens, but then took up residence in a tenement building at 222 East 108th Street with other Lauropolitano, bouncing around the block and sometimes taking boarders to help pay the rent. Luigi found work as a laborer, breaking stone at the reservoir system in Westchester County. Meanwhile, Maria helped start a small store on the same street selling what newspapers would describe as "Italian products," as well as codfish, ice cream, hot peppers, and all kinds of sundry items. She put in long hours and one surviving photograph showed both Maria and Luigi posing stiffly outside the store. It was never clear how the family got the capital to open the business, although it wouldn't have been unusual for them to have relied on a loan from one of the landlords, who may have also been a Lauropolitano. Working as hard as they did, the couple didn't have much time for parental supervision, particularly of their sons Eduardo, who became known as Edward, and Francisco, known on the street as Frank.

There were other members of the Castiglia family who lived on 108th Street and among them were Frank's uncle, also known as Francesco Castiglia, and his son Domenico, both of whom emigrated from Lauropoli. Francesco died in 1902, but his son would later move to Connecticut and establish a farm that would become a family retreat. But before that move, both father and son lived in a building with young Frank and his family — as well as a troublesome parrot, which caused the family some legal problems.

The bird, who had the rather unimaginative name of Polly, did what parrots normally do and imitated the human speech it heard. In the building also lived an opera singer who was in the chorus of a local opera company and would practice during the day, singing the scales as part of a vocal warm-up. The singer could be heard throughout the building and Polly sang the scales along with the singer in a very loud voice, which ended in a screech. The lady singer took offense at what she thought was someone mocking her and knocked on the apartment door. She got no answer and finally in frustration went to the police, who issued a citation.

The Castiglia family showed up in court with the parrot and explained to the judge what had happened. It was a story that amused courtroom spectators, who started to laugh. The judge pounded his gavel and demanded, "Order in the Court, Order in the Court." Polly, again doing what parrots do, imitated the judge with a squawking, "Order in the Court, Order in the Court," causing more laughter. Polly, who lived to the age of about ninety-seven, never forgot the phrase and repeated it whenever she heard singing.

But life on 108th Street was not all humor and conviviality. East Harlem may have been part of New York City and subject to its laws and the power of the police. But in reality, the law on the street that the Castiglia family had to deal with was quite different. The area, as well as other Italian sections of the city, were under the influence — you could say control — of several powerful criminal combinations of Sicilians, Neopolitans, and Calabrese who lived in close quarters for years in uneasy truces. One focal point of crime was about a block east of the Castiglia apartment on 108th Street, a slender alley known in the history of crime in New York City as the "murder stable." It was a passageway that went from 334 East 108th Street south through to 107th Street. It most certainly was a working stable and it was partly owned by a woman named Pasquarella Spinelli, described as "a tall woman with unruly red hair, a square, strong face, and masculine stride." Her clothes were described as unkempt, and it was said that she seldom washed, which must have made life unbearable for those doing business with her in the summer when combined with the reeking odors of horse manure and sweat.

Horses were a significant method of business and personal transportation around town. The city had a small army of sanitation workers to shovel up the piles of manure on the streets. In sweltering summer months, the newspapers featured stories about how overheating steeds would have to be watered down to keep them from dropping dead from exhaustion. Stables were a necessary part of commercial life, and Spinelli did house the working animals in her facility.

But in reality, Spinelli was a horse thief and her stable was something like a modern-day chop shop where thieves wouldn't dismember the hapless animals but instead make deals for the best price to pay before they spirited the animals away. Although, like Costello's mother, Spinelli could neither read nor write, she was a shrewd and violent person, the closest thing to a padrone for someone of her sex. She would keep track of debts people owed her by making lines with a piece of coal on a white board and wasn't above roughing up someone who was late in making payments. In short, she was a cagna, or bitch. Still, she always found time to pray and make donations to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

Stories circulated that victims of mob violence were buried under Spinelli's stable ground, and although there is no proof uncovered that any bones were ever found, the urban myth persisted. Over the years at least a dozen men were either killed in or near her horse sheds. Spinelli was labeled by the newspapers as "the wealthiest woman in Little Italy" a widow who some pundits likened to Hettie Green, the "wicked witch of Wall Street" known for her miserliness and success in a man's business.

To make her money, cops believed that Spinelli recruited neighborhood youths to work as toughs and thieves, enforcing the payment of debts. Police raided her stable but never found any indication that the horses there had been stolen. The Costello boys were right in her territory and Frank himself spent his time sitting under the trees outside Spinelli's stable entrance, no doubt watching and learning the ways of the street and those who tried to rule it. But it remains unclear if the Costellos did anything more than sit around the stable. Historian Giuseppe Selvaggi, citing a source he gave the pseudonym "Zio Trestell" but who claimed to be a close associate of Frank Costello, reported that Maria Costello didn't allow her young Frank to hobnob with Spinelli or other street criminals when he first arrived in New York.

Spinelli's serious rival for power in this part of East Harlem was a man known as Giosue Gallucci. Dubbed "The King of Little Italy" and "The Mayor of Little Italy," Gallucci was the closest thing to a crime boss in the area. He ran an extensive policy operation, also known as the Italian lottery, in which bettors attempted to pick three digits to match those that would be randomly drawn the following day. Galluci was also a money lender and was believed by police to have a hand in prostitution operations in East Harlem and elsewhere in Manhattan. His operation was a block north of the Spinelli stable. A corpulent man with a waxed, handlebar moustache, which seemed wide enough to almost touch his cheeks, Gallucci sometimes took to riding horses on the streets. Although he protested that he was only a successful businessman who owned real estate, a bakery, coffee houses, and saloons, Don Gallucci was notorious for shaking down fruit and vegetable peddlers for a dollar a week.

Gallucci, who also bore the sobriquet of "The Boss," also had a reputation, burnished by reports in the newspapers, that he had significant political clout. The Herald in particular said he had long been the head of several political organizations. This made Gallucci in the eyes of some the "most powerful Italian politically" in the city. "His enemies said that his political activities gave him a certain measure of immunity from police interferences," noted The Herald.

At a time when criminals like Spinelli, Gallucci, and other bosses ran the rackets in East Harlem, dealing with bands of extortionists known collectively as the Black Hand or Mano Nero, Frank Costello was a mere babe in the woods at the age of fourteen getting up the nerve to pull his very first solo job. This was a period where everyone had to hustle in East Harlem and Frank had to grow up quickly. According to attorney George Wolf, Frank injured his leg while visiting his aunt Concetta's farm in Astoria, then a semi-rural part of Queens. The doctor had asked that he stay at the farm in bed. But Frank knew that his mother was behind in the rent for the apartment and was getting screamed at by the landlady for payment. As related by Wolf in his book Frank Costello: Prime Minister of the Underworld, his future client one night boarded the ferry across the East River from Queens, limped to his apartment building in East Harlem and mugged the landlady, grabbing money she kept in her bosom and fled into the night. It was a reckless scheme and could have easily backfired.

"The landlady recognized Frank," said Wolf. "She cried out 'Thief!' and rushed to Frank's mother's door, which was on the first floor. Maria Saveria was stunned. "Your're a liar, my son hasn't been home since Sunday." Sure enough, when police investigated, they in fact found Frank asleep with a bandaged leg at the Astoria farm.


Excerpted from "Top Hoodlum"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Anthony M. DeStefano.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents

Also by,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
CHAPTER ONE - "Come to America",
CHAPTER TWO - No More Guns, Thank You,
CHAPTER THREE - The Boom of Prohibition,
CHAPTER FOUR - Whiskey Royalty,
CHAPTER FIVE - A Woman Scorned,
CHAPTER SIX - "The Greatest Roundup",
CHAPTER SEVEN - "King of the Bootleggers",
CHAPTER EIGHT - "Personally, I Got Drunk",
CHAPTER NINE - The Great Bloodletting,
CHAPTER TEN - "The Most Menacing Evil",
CHAPTER ELEVEN - "You're a Hell of an Italian",
CHAPTER TWELVE - "I Know Everybody",
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - "Punks, Tin Horns, Gangsters and Pimps",
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - "I Never Stole a Nickel in My Life",
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - "What the Hell are You Fellows Doing Here?",
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Go West, Young Man,
CHAPTER NINETEEN - "I'm a Neighbor of Yours",
CHAPTER TWENTY - The Ballet of the Hands,
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - "Get Frank Costello",
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - "Someone Tried To Get To Me",
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - "This Means I'm Next",

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