Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Charles Lucky Luciano was born Salvatore Luciana on November 24th 1897 in Lercara Friddi, Sicily. At the age of ten he moved to the United States with his parents and siblings perhaps unaware then that he was destined to change the face of the Mafia (or La Cosa Nostra) in America. He would also eventually be head of what was to become the Genovese crime family, one of the “Five Families” which control organised crime in New York City.
Luciano, his parents and brother and sisters settled into the Lower East Side in the New York City borough of Manhattan where Luciano quickly swapped school and work for involvement in gangs. At the time the ghettos of New York, where most immigrants lived, were a tough environment that offered few prospects. Although some famous success stories came out of these neighbourhoods perhaps more famous still are the men who took a different path to success. Crime and gangs were rife and some young men, like Lucky Luciano, decided to aim for success in the criminal world that so readily surrounded them.
At some point during his youth Luciano met a young Jewish boy who would become his future business partner and close friend, Myer Lansky. Legend has it that Luciano and his gang tried to extort protection money out of the small, skinny Lansky who promptly told Luciano “go f*ck yourself”, something the fledgling gangster wasn’t used to hearing! Luciano was also a good friend of the Jewish gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Luciano worked for Arnold Rothstein during the Prohibition era along with other men such as Frank Costello and Vito Genovese who would go on to hold top positions in the mafia. Prohibition was a golden age for organised crime; it gave men who would never have been anything other than street thugs a chance to excel at business, albeit illegal business. When the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933 this source of income dried up.
Rothstein was shot dead in 1928 at which point Luciano had pledged allegiance to Joe Masseria. Masseria was involved in a war with his rival Salvatore Maranzano, this conflict lasted from 1930 to 1931 although the hostilities leading up to it had been raging for two years before Maranzano officially declared war.
Masseria and Maranzano were of an older, more traditional mindset with strong beliefs in terms of honour and vengeance. Young Lucky Luciano and many of his contemporaries came to view this as an inefficient waste of time, money and blood. Murder between mobsters was bad for business. Luciano wanted to apply the business knowledge he’d gleaned from Rothstein to the mob as a whole and developed a vision of a unified Mafia. The old guard, sometimes known as “Mustache Petes” also preferred to work only with Italian, ideally Sicilian, gangsters. Lucky Luciano had no such pretentions and chose his associates based on business and money making opportunities. Those gangsters who opposed the old guard came to be called the Young Turks.
In October of 1929 Luciano was abducted, beaten and stabbed by a group of men. The attack left him with a droopy eyelid and a slash across his chin. Although the reason behind the attack is not now definitively known one theory is that Maranzano was punishing Luciano for not switching his allegiance when it was requested. Some say that Luciano surviving this attack resulted in his nickname “Lucky” but other theories abound.
What is known is what came next. Luciano decided to bring the war to an end by having his boss, Joe Masseria, assassinated. Lucky invited Joe to lunch at a favourite Coney Island restaurant. After the meal Lucky excused himself and when he left the room four gunmen, including Albert Anastasia, burst in and shot Masseria. As Maranzano was the victor in the war it became known as the Castellammare War, after the Sicilian town where he was born; Castellammare del Golfo.
The assassination gained Luciano favour with Maranzano but Luciano wasn’t finished yet. Alerted by Tommy Lucchese that Maranzano wanted him killed Luciano acted first and in September 1931 Luciano sent four gangsters disguised as IRS officers to kill Maranzano, since the assassins were Jewish they were not recognised by Maranzano’s bodyguards.
After the death of Maranzano Lucky Luciano rearranged the criminal underworld into a syndicate with himself at the head of the organisation, much like the CEO of a major company. This “National Crime Syndicate” was governed by a board of directors known as “The Commission”. Within this body each of the most powerful families was represented, Luciano felt that this was a better approach than giving himself the traditional title of “Boss of all Bosses”. One of the rules laid down by Luciano was that no boss could be killed without the approval of the Commission, a convenient afterthought considering his brutal ascent to power. The syndicate divided power in New York among the “Five Families” that dominated organized crime in the city at the time and which still exist today.
In 1936 Charles Luciano fell prey to the assiduous legal efforts of special prosecutor Thomas E Dewey. Dewey managed to convict Luciano on the basis of his involvement in prostitution rings. As with so many mobsters the gap between Luciano’s declared income and his lavish lifestyle played a crucial role in his legal demise. In June Luciano was convicted and sentenced to thirty to fifty years in state prison. Whilst incarcerated Lucky continued to run the Luciano crime family but his arrest sent a signal to other mobsters that New York was becoming a risky place to operate.
During World War II the American government sent a message to Luciano via Myer Lansky. They knew that the Sicilian mafia controlled the waterfront and they felt Luciano was the best hope of keeping the docks free from Nazi saboteurs. Luciano resisted but Lansky, whose own family had fled anti-Semitic pogroms back in Russia, pushed the case and eventually Luciano agreed to assist the war effort.
In return for his co-operation Luciano’s long sentence was commuted to deportation to Italy. For the rest of his life Lucky Luciano maintained that he was an American citizen and readily embraced any opportunity in Italy to socialise with US military officers and American tourists. In Italy Luciano lost some of his influence over the syndicate he created and was always under intense police surveillance. Police were not entirely paranoid, Luciano was actively involved in trafficking heroin during his time in Italy, coming up with increasingly ingenious ways to move the drug through the country.
After Luciano’s mistress, Igea Lissoni, died of cancer in 1959 Luciano’s life began to take a downward turn. In 1957 Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino had arranged the assassination of Luciano’s ally, Albert Anastasia. Luciano’s acting Boss, Frank Costello, was also attacked but conceded power before his persecutors could make another attempt on his life. These moves re-structured the mafia in a way that Luciano was powerless to stop.
With his position in the American mob in debate and with Lissoni gone Luciano agreed to make a film of his life with the American producer Martin Gosch. There was strong opposition from the Cosa Nostra upon hearing of his decision and Lucky Luciano was told in no uncertain terms that if he tried to go ahead with the plan the consequences would be severe. Charles Lucky Luciano died of a heart attack at Naples International Airport on his way to meet with Gosch. Although speculation still exists about whether his death was natural or a mob hit, Luciano had suffered greatly from a weak heart and his death was therefore not unusual or inexplicable.
Luciano’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people and his body was drawn through the streets of Naples in a horse-drawn black hearse. In death Luciano got his wish to return to America, his remains were transported there by his family and interred in St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.
Charles Lucky Luciano had the vision and ambition to take the bloody warfare and chaos of 1930s criminal New York and remake it in line with his vision and goals, with himself at the head of it. To this day he is considered by many to be the father of modern organised crime in the United States and to have been the most powerful American mafia boss of all time.
Author : Stefanina Hill