How America Met The Mob

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe day was mild for November; the blanket of sodden clouds promised rain. By noon the hilltop estate was fragrant with the prehistoric aroma of roasting meat. The visitors, dressed in silk suits, white-on-white shirts, gleaming shoes, and lush camel’s hair coats, looked distinctly out of place in the tiny upstate New York hamlet of Apalachin. “A meeting of George Rafts,” an observer would note.

The dozens of men standing around the barbecue were preparing to feast. A week before, their host had ordered $432 worth of fancy steaks, veal chops, and hams from Armour & Company in Binghamton. The 220-pound shipment had to be sent in specially from Chicago.

As the men circulated and renewed acquaintances, a car containing two police officers and two U.S. Treasury agents rolled up the dirt road toward the open compound. Neither the lawmen nor the houseguests realized that the events about to unfold that day in 1957 would stamp the name Apalachin on the history of crime in America and shape for all time the public’s perception of the underworld.

Sgt. Edgar D. Croswell was a tall, severe forty-two-year-old State Police veteran. Divorced, he lived in the trooper barracks and devoted himself to his work. He was a meticulous and thorough investigator. The day before, he and his partner, Vincent Vasisko, had stopped by the Parkway Motel in the town of Vestal to follow up on a bad-check investigation. While Croswell conferred with the motel manager in a back room, a young man entered the lobby. Croswell made sure he was out of sight and listened to the customer reserve three rooms for that night and the next, requesting keys but not naming the occupants.

Croswell saw a stranger sight: a dozen sharply dressed men running across a field.

Croswell recognized the young man as the son of Joseph Barbara, who owned the local Canada Dry Bottling Company. Barbara had a reputation as a bootlegger and a man of shady associations. On a hunch, Croswell and Vasisko, patrolling in an unmarked car, drove past Barbara’s lavish home a few miles away in Apalachin (pronounced Ap-a- LAY -kin by the locals). They noted two cars unusual for small-town New York, a coral-and-pink Lincoln and a blue Cadillac with Ohio plates. Croswell, his instincts honed by twelve years in the Criminal Investigation Division, checked the Barbara place again after dark. He talked the matter over with two investigators from the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division in nearby Binghamton. He resolved to inquire further in the morning.

Gangsterism has added a subterranean stream to the course of American history from the nation’s earliest days, and more particularly since the rise of urban society in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the brash saloon culture of the cities, street and youth gangs, like the Five Pointers of New York and the Valley Gang in Chicago, became allied with ward politicians, canvassing for votes in exchange for protection from the police.

One element in this stew of corruption, vice, and violence was a faction known as the Mafia. In Sicily the word referred to an attitude that included defiance of authority, loyalty to kin, and the settlement of disputes by vendetta or by the arbitration of a village strongman. It was a state of mind that had developed over centuries of misrule by Spanish and Bourbon conquerors. Mafia was also applied to bands of brigands that terrorized local peasants, at first at the behest of landowners, then for their own benefit. They established a solid base of power in Sicily during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

In America, Mafiosi mainly extorted money from vulnerable Italian immigrants, a technique known as the “black hand.” The public was suspicious of this secret, alien society but saw no cause for general alarm.

The onset of Prohibition in 1920 marked the continental divide in the history of organized crime. Lacking the will to enforce the Volstead Act, Congress effectively assigned an entire industry to the underworld. Prohibition served as the gangsters’ higher education, demanding as it did management skills, cooperation, planning, and high-level political contacts. It moved the gangs far beyond their neighborhood haunts. It eroded public respect for the law and turned street thugs into millionaires. By the mid-1920s the gangs, rather than serve the politicians as minions, were giving orders to mayors and congressmen.

Endicott sits shoulder to shoulder with Binghamton and Johnson City along the Susquehanna River near New York’s border with Pennsylvania. In the early decades of this century, the town attracted large numbers of Italian immigrants with jobs in its shoe industry, which included the big Endicott Johnson plant. One of the Sicilians who landed there was Joseph Barbara, in whose activities Sergeant Croswell took such an interest.