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How America Met The Mob
Organized crime? Mafia? A lot of people, including J. Edgar Hoover, said it was mere folklore—until one day in 1957 an alert New York state trooper set up a roadblock in a small town. What followed was low comedy with high consequences.
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
Barbara had been born in Castellammare del Golfo, a Sicilian coastal town that gave rise to an entire clique of the American mob. He came to America in 1921. His several arrests on suspicion of murder in the early 1930s mark him as a trigger-puller during the underworld turmoil of the time.
Barbara’s record had been pretty clean since 1933, but Croswell suspected he was using his soft drink and beer operation to mask involvement in illicit alcohol. “Somehow I felt he was the big mobster in our area,” Croswell said.
Barbara was known locally as a businessman with connections. He gave heavily to charity. He lived in an eighteen-room quarry-stone house. The Endicott police chief had personally recommended him for a pistol permit. His franchise to distribute Canada Dry soft drinks and Gibbons beer was a lucrative one. During 1956 Barbara, at fifty-one, had been weakened by heart disease. His son Joseph, Jr., was overseeing the Canada Dry plant while another son attended college.
Barbara’s background was typical of many of those who gathered in Apalachin that day: early brushes with violence and rumrunning, a later pose of respectability buttressed by an interest in one or more legitimate businesses. It was a path that paralleled the evolution of the underworld as a whole. The twenties and early thirties were marked by bloodshed as Irish, Jewish, and Italian gangs fought over the bonanza of Prohibition. The violence peaked in 1931, when Salvatore Maranzano scrambled to the top of the heap in New York and declared himself “boss of all bosses.”
Maranzano was the leader of the Castellammarese faction, which included the gang leaders Joseph Bonanno and Joseph Profaci of Brooklyn and Buffalo’s Stefano Magaddino. Maranzano, who spoke six languages and was an avid student of the works of Julius Caesar, viewed himself in the tradition of the old-style Mafia strongmen. He envisioned a gangland dominated by Italians, in which territorial bosses, their followers ordered on the pattern of Roman legions, would maintain a stable realm, honoring their emperor.
Maranzano’s plan to organize the gangs into “regimes” of “soldiers” headed by “capos” has long outlived him, as has his arrangement of New York’s Italian gangs into five “families.” Maranzano himself paid grievously for his ambition.
His Cassius was Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano. The young, forward-thinking Luciano saw the advantage in alliances with non-Italian gangs and the need for a high-level “commission” of gang bosses to replace violence with arbitration; the disputes that arose in a world without written contracts perpetually threatened underworld stability. This rational New World view clashed with Maranzano’s notions. Each man plotted against the other. In September 1931, as Vincent (“Mad Dog”) Coll was arriving at the New York Central Building on Park Avenue to lay ambush for Luciano, killers hired by Luciano and disguised as policemen walked into Maranzano’s office there and left him lying dead.
The early years of the Depression saw a continued shake-out in gangland. Other recalcitrant mobsters—Jack (“Legs”) Diamond, Dutch Schultz, and Coll himself—died in the bloodshed, but Luciano’s ideas soon caught on. By the mid-1930s Luciano, along with his boyhood pal Meyer Lansky and the veteran gangster Frank Costello, had brought a relative peace to the underworld that would last two decades. Says the historian John H. Davis, author of Mafia Dynasty : “What Luciano accomplished was to Americanize and democratize the old Sicilian Mafia,” turning it into “a huge, and fearsome, moneymaking machine.”
At noon on Thursday, November 14, Sergeant Croswell, Trooper Vasisko, and the two Alcohol Tax men drove up to the Barbara home to pursue what they continued to think was a bootlegging investigation. They found a number of vehicles parked next to Barbara’s four-car garage. As they wrote down license numbers, a dozen men strolled from behind the building, where they had been eating sirloin sandwiches, and stared at the officers. A few more broke into an anxious trot as they headed for the big ranch-style house.
Croswell and his men started to leave, but their curiosity was further piqued by the sight of another almost two dozen cars parked in a field behind Barbara’s horse barn. What was going on here? They retreated down the hill to an intersection a half-mile from the house and stopped to talk over the situation. Because a bridge was out, the road past Barbara’s place was a dead end.
Croswell decided to set up a roadblock and check anyone who left. He sent Vasisko and one of the federal men back for reinforcements.