The modern American Mafia took form under the leadership of Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897-1962). Born in Sicily but raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Luciano facilitated the killings of the city’s top two Mafia bosses and brought about fundamental changes to organized crime, setting up the Five Families to rule New York and establishing a National Crime Syndicate. Luciano was convicted on prostitution charges in 1936 but was paroled and deported at the end of World War II. Exiled in Italy, Luciano spent his last years helping the Italian and American Mafias make a coordinated push into narcotics.
Lucky Luciano’s Early Years
Luciano was born Salvatore Luciana in 1897 in the Sicilian sulfur mining town of Lercara Friddi. When he was 10 his family immigrated to New York, where by age 14 Luciano had racked up a record of arrests.
By 1916 he was a leading member of the Five Points Gang and a friend of the rising Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. He ran bootlegging rackets with Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, and by 1927 had been appointed the top lieutenant of Gieuseppi “Joe the Boss” Masseria, head of New York’s largest crime family. But Luciano chafed against Masseria, a traditional mob leader who spoke little English and harbored prejudices that got in the way of profits.
Lucky Luciano and the Castellammarese War
In 1928 a feud broke out between the Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano crime families. Dubbed the Castellammarese War after the Maranzano’s Sicilian home town, the two-year struggle left dozens of mobsters dead.
Luciano formed connections with second-tier leaders and in 1931 arranged to have Masseria killed following a lavish lunch at a Coney Island restaurant. Maranzano, who became New York’s criminal “Boss of Bosses” after Masseria’s death, made Luciano his lieutenant but soon planned to have him murdered. When Luciano learned of the plot he sent his own men to assassinate Maranzano.
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Lucky Luciano, the Five Families and the National Crime Syndicate
With Maranzano dead, Luciano became the top leader in the New York Mafia. He worked for a stable distribution of power between five newly formed families, all led by veterans of the Castellammarese War. The families took their names from the men in charge: Vito Genovese, Joe Profaci, Joe Bonanno, Carlo Gambino and Luciano.
A new National Crime Syndicate was spearheaded by Luciano to maintain peace between criminal organizations nationwide. Its board of directors included leaders of both Jewish and Italian criminal groups. The syndicate moved to coordinate control of narcotics, prostitution, bootlegging, loan sharking and labor union rackets.
Lucky Luciano’s Downfall
Luciano became a well-known figure in Broadway social circles; he was always smartly dressed and kept a permanent room at the Waldorf-Astoria. His lifestyle caught the attention of special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, who had him arrested in 1936 for facilitating prostitution. The direct evidence against Luciano wasn’t strong (prostitution was at best a side business for the family), but during the trial Luciano was disastrously cross-examined by Dewey, who asked how he lived so well on a reported $22,500 income. (His actual take was about $10 million.) Luciano was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 50 years.
While incarcerated, Luciano managed to run both the prison (he even had a personal chef) and much of his empire. In 1946 Dewey—by then the governor of New York—announced that Luciano would be paroled early due to his “wartime services” in enlisting the mobs who ran the New York docks to watch for saboteurs.
Luciano was released in 1946 and immediately deported to Sicily. He made his way to Havana and attempted to set up operations there, but the United States pressured the Cuban government to force him to return to Italy.
Lucky Luciano’s Legacy
From his base in Naples, Luciano’s American influence slowly waned. In 1957 Vito Genovese took over and gave his name to the Luciano crime family. The same year Luciano convened a meeting in Palermo between Italian and American mafiosi. They planned a new push to sell narcotics in white and black blue-collar communities, with the Italian gangs (who lacked American criminal records) paying “rent” to operate in the American families’ territories.
Luciano died of a heart attack in the Naples airport on January 26, 1962. He was finally allowed to return to his beloved United States for burial.