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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
By the time Croswell processed the last of the men, he was being swamped by calls from reporters. The following day headlines blossomed in newspapers throughout the country. Here at last was proof of what Kefauver had warned about. Here was the “Grand Council” of the Mafia, the nerve center of crime in America. The enemy had finally been flushed into the open.
The police were immediately excoriated for releasing the biggest catch of mobsters in history. Croswell’s critics ignored the fact that the men, none of whom was a wanted fugitive, were peacefully assembled on private property. The police action was itself of questionable legality, since there was no legitimate cause for suspicion.
Almost all the men stated that they had dropped by to pay a sick call on Barbara, that their simultaneous arrival on a Thursday morning had been sheer coincidence. John C. Montana, a taxi-company owner and former city council-man from Buffalo, was one of the few to give a more complete explanation. He later testified that he had been on his way to Pittstown, Pennsylvania, when his car’s brakes had failed in Ithaca. He thought Barbara or someone at his house could help fix them. While drinking tea in Barbara’s home, he had noticed “some kind of party” going on but didn’t inquire about it. At the shout of “Roadblock!” he ran for the woods. He explained, ”…it was just human nature that I would say to myself: what am I doing here?”
Others were more accustomed to police roundups. Only 9 of those captured had no record. The remainder boasted more than 275 arrests among them, 100 convictions. Their sheets contained busts for gambling, narcotics, weapons violations, bootlegging, and union rackets.
The list of attendees gave a snapshot of the underworld of the time. The mob was aging. Al Capone had reached the pinnacle of power while still in his twenties. The men at Apalachin were survivors, wily veterans of Prohibition, many of them in their fifties and sixties.
The meeting was emblematic of the ascendancy of the Italian gangs in postwar organized crime. About half of the guests were natives of southern Italy or Sicily; the rest had been born in America of Italian heritage. Apalachin also illustrated the degree to which kinship formed a glue that held the underworld together—twenty-five of those picked up were related to one or more of the other guests—and provided a clue to the movement of the mob into legitimate business. The garment trade was the most common occupation detainees gave to police. State investigators reported that Natale Evola, a Brooklyn cousin of Joe Barbara’s wife, “is believed to exercise control over the shoulder pad industry.” He was later indicted as a major narcotics dealer. Eleven men listed their occupation as olive oil and cheese importation; others operated bars and restaurants, beer distributorships, and funeral homes.
While Apalachin was the most famous mob convention ever held, it was far from the first. What made Apalachin different from the earlier gatherings was its wholesale discovery. “Secrecy,” Elias Canetti declares, “lies at the very core of power.” Apalachin set in motion events that would gradually strip the underworld of much of its secrecy. That was what made the event a turning point and in many senses a high-water mark for the mob.
“Apalachin was of enormous importance,” says the veteran mob watcher Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguys: Life in a Mafia Family . “It proved that this wasn’t the fantasy that many had thought. It made it harder for the lawyers and apologists to deny the existence of organized crime. After Apalachin the mob’s political support began to crack. Gangsters are still active today in hijacking, loan-sharking, and other activities; the difference is that they’ve lost the official clout. They no longer appoint judges or state senators.”
The power of the gang bosses rested on rispetto , the mixture of respect and fear that the old Mafia dons had employed to further their extortions. Ridicule was a peril. The opera buffa of Apalachin made Vito Genovese a laughingstock in the underworld. His fortunes never recovered. Seventeen months after the meeting, the government hit him with a fifteen-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. He died in jail ten years later.
In 1957 organized crime was suddenly news. Each of the Apalachin participants became the focus of publicity and potential official action on his home turf. Attendance at the meeting was taken as proof of involvement in a malignant conspiracy. The public demanded to know why this “second government,” now no longer invisible, was allowed to exist. The authorities began to die for answers.