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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 won Sergeant Croswell high praise for his diligence and established him as an organized-crime expert. He toured the nation talking about the underworld. After retiring from the State Police as a captain in 1966, he helped investigate corruption in the New York carting industry, and during the 1970s he served as head of the state’s Organized Crime Task Force.
The names of Apalachin’s attendees—Genovese, Gambino, Profaci, and Bonanno—became touchstones of organized crime. Carlo Gambino rose to become gangland’s big cheese. His successor, Paul Castellano, who also enjoyed a steak sandwich at Barbara’s home that day, was among a bevy of mob leaders who in 1985 were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Their crime was membership in the Mafia Commission itself, the once-secret Grand Council, whose membership changes were now reported routinely in The New York Times. When the conspirators were duly convicted and sentenced to hundred-year terms, Castellano wasn’t around to join them; he had been shot down in front of his favorite New York steakhouse, a victim of his ambitious successor, John Gotti.
By the mid-1990s Vito Genovese’s outfit, which could boast Lucky Luciano among its succession of leaders, had passed into the hands of a man who prosecutors alleged had become the dean of mobsters. Convicted in 1997 for racketeering and conspiracy to murder, he was none other than Vincent (“The Chin”) Gigante, the onetime boxer whose 1957 attempt to plug Frank Costello was a major item on the Apalachin agenda.
In spite of the many revelations since Apalachin, the exact nature of the underworld remains elusive. Like the blind men with their elephant, observers perceive an organized crime of their own construction. Government officials find a second government. Law enforcement people see a paramilitary structure not unlike their own. Experts draw up organization charts with rigid chains of command. Reformers find corrupt politicians, nativists ethnic conspirators, moralists sinners.
None of the models exactly fits what Meyer Lansky’s biographer Robert Lacey calls “the confused, fluid, and essentially entrepreneurial character of most criminal activity.” In a sense Apalachin left a false impression of a distinct and easily definable mob ruled from the top. It fixed in the public mind the image of shady men meeting to direct a vast conspiracy. If that picture had been accurate, perhaps we would not still be wrestling with a stubborn organized-crime problem more than forty years after the event. In reality the underworld, with its matrix of personal influence, blood loyalties, intimidation, ad hoc enterprise, and political connections, defies both categorical description and easy remedy.