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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
Things, were out or hand, If Costello and Anastasia could be shot, no one was safe.
If the public was primed for the revelations that would surface at Apalachin, it was mainly due to groundwork laid seven years earlier. In 1950 Estes Kefauver, a freshman senator from Tennessee with a nose for publicity, decided that probing a nationwide criminal conspiracy would further the public good even as it boosted his own political fortunes. The Kefauver Committee traveled to fourteen cities during 1950 and 1951, compiling voluminous amounts of testimony, fact, and opinion. The senators uncovered bookmaking, numbers rackets, and illicit casinos everywhere they went, and with the vice came the inevitable political corruption.
The larger issue that emerged from the hearings was the existence of a syndicate that controlled criminal activity across the country. But Attorney General J. Howard McGrath saw no evidence of a centralized conspiracy, and neither did J. Edgar Hoover; the FBI director insisted that the Mafia was pure fantasy.
Kefauver wavered at first, but in the end he declared flatly, “A national crime syndicate does exist in the United States of America.…” The mob was, in fact, a “second government” of pervasive power. “The Mafia…is no fairy tale.”
The fifties were the golden age of organized crime. Mobsters had invested their Prohibition lucre in gambling enterprises; casinos in Las Vegas and Havana promised steady streams of cash. The mob had leveraged its muscle through labor and industrial rackets in fields like trucking, construction, and apparel, extracting a private tax on a wide range of products and services. Narcotics importation yielded further treasure. Political contacts from the twenties and thirties had matured: Mob lawyers had become judges, judges senators. The underworld had enjoyed its pax Luciano for more than twenty years. Two shootings would break the peace and set the stage for Apalachin.
In the 1940s Virgil W. Peterson, head of the Chicago Crime Commission, had called Frank Costello “the lord of the underworld of the entire United States.” Born Francesco Castiglia, Costello had turned a fascination with coin-operated devices into a slot-machine empire. His notoriety hastened his downfall. After being raked across the coals by Kefauver, Costello became a sitting duck for government prosecutors and served more than a year in jail for contempt. In the spring of 1957 he was out on appeal and still trying to keep his hand on the tiller of his criminal conglomerate. As such he represented a threat to Vito Genovese, another long-time gang leader, who had taken charge of Costello’s crime family two years earlier.
On the night of May 2, 1957, as Costello entered his Central Park West apartment building, a man leaped at him, shouted “This is for you, Frank,” and shot him in the head. Costello dropped, his assassin ran.
The bullet, though, had only creased Costello’s skull. When confronted with his alleged assailant, Vincent (“The Chin”) Gigante, Costello claimed he had seen nothing. But he heeded the eloquent message and retired from his underworld business.
At Apalachin, Croswell was now watching a strange sight: a dozen sharply dressed men running from Barbara’s house across an open field, heading for a stand of pine trees. At the same time, the small truck of a local fishmonger that had been leaving Barbara’s property suddenly turned and rushed back to the house. The driver, Bartholo Guccia, a retired Endicott Johnson tanner with a criminal record and, like Barbara, a Castellammare native, later explained that he had returned to clarify a fish order, not to raise an alarm.
Then a 1957 Chrysler Imperial approached the road-block. Croswell ordered the car to stop and asked the men inside to identify themselves and submit to a search. Among the occupants was Vito Genovese. Croswell knew the name; the newspapers called him “King of the Rackets.” He was one of the most powerful gang leaders in the country.
A week shy of sixty at the time, Genovese had paid his gangland dues. In the 1920s and 1930s, when Luciano had supplied the underworld’s organizational acumen, Lansky the brains, and Costello the political connections, Genovese’s department had been the muscle. Early photos show him with a square countenance of concentrated ferocity, and even as a grandfather he retained a face that could frighten. In 1957 Genovese was angling for undisputed sway in the New York underworld.
Once Costello had been scared off, the major obstacle to Genovese’s hegemony was another mob leader, Albert Anastasia, who had also come up through the mayhem department of the business. Anastasia, who ran a Brooklyn-based Mafia family, exerted an iron control over New York’s waterfront, and his gang had its fingers on a majority of the imports into the U.S. East Coast.