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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
Apalachin made vito Genovese an underworld laughingstock. His fortunes, never recovered.
The New York legislature assigned a watchdog committee to look into the matter. Grand juries probed for wrongdoing. Paul Castellano, the chauffeur, brother-in-law, and eventual successor to Carlo Gambino, served seven months for his silence before a New York City panel. Liquor and immigration authorities began to examine participants. Joe Barbara, plagued by health problems, never testified about the meeting, but he lost his pistol permit and his beer license and soon after sold both his house and business. When he died in 1959, only four of the hordes of “well-wishers” from two years earlier made it to his funeral.
On the federal level Apalachin came under the magnifying glass of a Senate committee chaired by John McClellan of Arkansas. The Senate Rackets Committee, as it was known, had been digging up dirt on mob infiltration of labor unions for nine months before Apalachin. Twentytwo of the delegates to Apalachin had union or labor-management ties. The hearings were driven by the group’s chief counsel, Robert Kennedy. Genovese appeared before the panel wearing amber-shaded glasses and took the Fifth Amendment more than 150 times. McClellan’s investigation proved to be an important step toward cleaning up mob-dominated unions.
J. Edgar Hoover understood that Apalachin made a mockery of his long-held position that no Mafia existed in America. A few days in the wake of Apalachin, Hoover set up a “Top Hoodlum Program,” using the bureau to consolidate information on leading gangsters.
Various explanations have been put forth as to why Hoover demonstrated such a blind spot when it came to gangland realities, including a theory that the mob was blackmailing him. It’s more likely that Hoover’s reasoning was closer to what he so often stated: a notion that crime was a local problem. He told the Kefauver committee that if state and local laws were properly enforced, gambling would be eliminated “within forty-eight hours.” Having kept his agency clear of the debacle of Prohibition, Hoover had long preached against turning the FBI into a national police force.
Hoover’s instincts as a bureaucrat told him that effective action against organized crime meant cooperation with other federal agencies, a prospect he loathed. It also meant diverting resources from his obsessive hunt for domestic Communists. Whatever the reason, even after Apalachin, Hoover continued to drag his feet on organized crime. He squashed a Bureau report that detailed the history of the underworld because it admitted the existence of a syndicate. In 1959 the Bureau’s New York office still had four hundred agents assigned to domestic security details and only four looking into the mob.
Robert Kennedy lambasted the Eisenhower administration that same year for its failure to prosecute gang bosses. “The proof is the Apalachin convention,” he said. “Sixty top gangsters were there, but no local, state, or federal officer knew about it. It was discovered only by chance.…”
Hoover’s views began to shift even before Kennedy took over the Justice Department, and by 1961 he had plunged into the war on gangsterism with the zeal of a convert.
Convinced by Apalachin, Robert Kennedy remained an intrepid foe of the mob during his tenure as Attorney General. Insisting that the government needed to attack organized crime “with weapons and techniques as effective as their own,” he pushed five anti-mob bills through Congress in 1961 and more than tripled the size of the department’s organized-crime section. Kennedy’s approach was all action. “Don’t define it,” he said, “do something about it.” By 1963 the government had indicted more than six hundred organized-crime figures.
That same year a portly man of fifty-eight with an iron gray crew cut, a gangster for thirty-six years, went before McClellan’s committee and became the first insider to sing publicly about the mob. This was Joe Valachi, a soldier in Genovese’s gang who believed that his boss had betrayed him. Valachi became the Boswell of the Mafia, confirming much of what was already suspected, putting together the bricks of the story with the mortar of terminology and anecdote.
One of the secrets that Valachi confirmed was that mobsters never used the term Mafia. Instead they talked vaguely of cosa nostra, “our thing.” FBI agents liked this. They turned the reference into a proper name, La Cosa Nostra, transformed it into an acronym, LCN, and thereby saved face for their director. There was, as Hoover had always claimed, no Mafia.
Apalachin also passed into the national vocabulary as a synonym for the underworld. Newspaper columnists referred to mobsters as “the Apalachin boys.” Every subsequent gathering of gangsters was inevitably labeled a “little Apalachin.”