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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
Anastasia’s nickname—“Il Terremoto,” the Earthquake—gives a clue to his disposition. In 1952 he watched a young Brooklyn man named Arnold Schuster being congratulated by police officers on television. Schuster had spotted and turned in the bank robber and prison escapee Willie Sutton. “I can’t stand squealers!” Anastasia supposedly bellowed. A few days later Schuster was shot three times in the head as he walked home from work.
Such antics raised questions in the underworld about Anastasia’s stability. His alliance with Costello made him a threat to Genovese. Also, he had lately been trying to force an opening into the lucrative Havana casino business that Lansky and others gangsters had neatly divided up.
Anastasia paid for these sins in a spectacular way. Three weeks before the Apalachin meeting he sat down in chair number four of a barbershop in the Park Sheraton Hotel on New York’s Seventh Avenue and asked for a trim. Two masked men entered and started shooting. Il Terremoto heaved himself from the chair, breaking the footrest. He lurched toward the image of his killers in the mirror. Half the shots went wild before one finally caught him in the head.
Because the gun is the ultimate source of power in the underworld, competition always has the potential of exploding into unrestrained violence. Such a danger was now at hand, and there was a consensus among mob bosses that a meeting was needed to clear the air.
Genovese wanted to hold the conference in Chicago, neutral ground for the contentious New York gangs. “Big Steve” Magaddino, the Castellemmarese boss of Buffalo and a man of considerable clout among the mob’s top echelons, convinced him that the Barbara estate would be a more secluded site. The Mafia Commission had held a meeting in nearby Binghamton the year before with no disturbances. For Magaddino the 1957 conclave was a chance to demonstrate his influence and further boost his prestige. Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana was later heard on a wiretap chewing out Magaddino for the fiasco. “I hope you’re satisfied,” he said. “Sixty-three of our top guys made by the cops.”
Magaddino replied, “I gotta admit you were right, Sam. It never would have happened in your place.”
Indeed, the carefully planned event was now going terribly wrong. One of the enduring questions about the Apalachin incident is why these men, veterans of bloody mob wars and of numerous encounters with the law, panicked. They were committing no crime; the police never closed in. Maybe the unfamiliar wide-open spaces threw them off. Maybe the dynamics of the crowd took over. Whatever the reason, they ran.
Croswell knew now that he had uncovered something big. As additional troopers arrived, he sent them to track down the men who had scurried into the woods. Other officers helped ferry the carloads of gangsters to the station. After the first flurry the participants of the thwarted meeting tried to exit a few at a time. Each car was detained as it left.
In one was Joe Profaci, the “Olive Oil King” and top man in one of the five New York families. Another held Carlo Gambino, whom Genovese had installed as head of Anastasia’s faction, a reward to Gambino for betraying his boss.
Croswell’s men picked up some of the nation’s most notorious hoodlums in humbling circumstances. The long-time Brooklyn mob boss Joe Bonanno was nabbed in a cornfield. He would later claim that it wasn’t him at all but someone who happened to have his driver’s license. The Tampa kingpin Santo Traffkante, Jr., was more at home in the nightclubs of Havana, where he played a key role in the mob’s gambling empire, than in the dank woods of upstate New York. He emerged from the woods with a couple of confederates only to see a State Police car approaching. The group turned tail; the troopers fired several warning shots; the gangsters gave up.
Police took all the detainees to the substation in nearby Vestal. “We gave them a rough time at the station house,” Croswell said. “But we couldn’t even make them commit disorderly conduct there.” The gangsters had to empty their pockets and take off their shoes. Police found no guns or contraband on any of the participants. The men did carry a great deal of cash, a total of around three hundred thousand dollars (one man, who had a roll worth close to ten thousand, listed his occupation as “unemployed”).
The final tally wasn’t complete until one o’clock the next morning, an hour after the last of those who had run for the woods was brought in from the rain. “One by one we rounded them up,” Croswell said, “bedraggled, soaking wet, and tired.” He added, “There are no sidewalks in the woods.”
Sixty-five gangsters were taken at the roadblock or in the surrounding area, and speculation placed as many as forty more men on the attendance list. Barbara’s house was never searched; any who did not flee could have waited out the raid inside. About the reaction of those nabbed, Croswell noted, “These guys are never indignant.” All of them answered questions politely and left the station quietly.