Mafia Souvenirs

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It was the mob’s biggest mistake: a full-scale powwow in a podunk hideaway that blew the cover off their secret society. The 1957 fiasco held the racketeers up to ridicule and touched off a long-term decline in the power of organized crime. It also turned Apalachin, New York, the site of the sit-down, into such a landmark on the crime map that eager crowds turned out last August when the house where the meeting was held, and the belongings of the host, went under the auctioneer’s gavel. So legendary is the Apalachin “convention” that the card table on which some of the nation’s top hoodlums may or may not have played pinochle drew a bid of $18,100.

In 1957 Joseph Barbara was a successful immigrant living near Binghamton. His hilltop estate boasted seven bedrooms and two horse barns. He also was “connected”: He had friends in what would come to be known as La Cosa Nostra. When those friends needed an out-of-the-way spot to get together, Joe’s house seemed perfect. The wiseguys figured the locals were more concerned with roosters than with rackets.

But two sharp-eyed state troopers spotted the plethora of limousines and blockaded the November barbecue. The round-up of Mafia leaders—Profaci, Gambino, Genovese—made headlines around the world. Public outcry, followed by new laws and relentless surveillance, eventually paid off. The tide of organized crime receded from its late-fifties high-water mark.

Joe Barbara died in 1959, a victim of the heart disease that the mobsters offered as an excuse for their visit. His wife left many family belongings behind when she sold the estate; the go-getter who bought it had ideas of turning it into a museum, but the project didn’t pan out.

Devotees of the relics of crime are as avid as any other collectors. When the site of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was demolished in 1967, the bullet-pocked wall was carefully dismantled and sold brick by brick. Not long ago a collector paid $25,000 for the barber chair in which the Murder Inc. boss Albert Anastasia was himself murdered, a hit that was one of the issues on the Apalachin agenda a few months later.

Mary Ann Andrews knew she was paying too much when she offered $100 for a Limoges dish from the estate, but it was nostalgia as much as the aura of criminal celebrity that kept her in the bidding. She had gone to school with Joe Barbara, Jr., and remembered him tooling around in convertibles and taking friends out for Italian dinners at which no check was ever presented.

The Barbara possessions are scattered to the winds now. A week after the auction some had already turned up on eBay. The “Apalachin boys” have pretty much disappeared too, deposed, slain in mob wars, gunned down by old age. The former Brooklyn gang boss Joseph Bonanno, one of the last of the attendees, died in May at age 97. Apalachin itself hasn’t changed much. It remains decidedly rural, and a gathering of fancy cars might still raise an eyebrow.

Not attending the auction was the retired state trooper Vincent Vasisko, who, along with his partner, Sgt. Edgar Croswell, blew the whistle on the mob 46 years ago. He already owned the best souvenir of all, he told reporters: “Memory.”

—Jack Kelly