The History of Organized Crime in America
American organized crime (or the Mafia/Mob as it is known by some) begins not in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago or other big cities as some like to think. It begins as the seemingly innocent protection of Sicilian landowners when they are away from their farms. By the 1800’s, these ‘protectors’ had become corrupt, bullying people for their so-called protection and running other illegal activities all throughout Sicily.
When the laws of Benito Mussolini became increasingly strict, so strict that their illegal activities became hard to run, many of these men moved to the United States where they could continue to bully people and make their money the way they had been doing for years. This is where the ‘American Mafia’ begins.
It is believed that the real start of organized crime in America was with the start of Prohibition, The Eighteenth Amendment, which stated “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. ” This is partially true as this is when many of the crime syndicates began their illegal activities, especially the selling of illegal spirits.
As more Sicilian gangsters immigrated to the U. S. , they expanded their criminal activities from extortion to loan-sharking, prostitution, drugs and alcohol, robbery, kidnapping, and murder. In the beginning, the Mafia preyed mostly on the Southern Italians who had settled in America, though by 1904, they had branches in most parts of the United States and preyed on anyone that they could. They became such a problem that a special police force was formed to try and fight it. The New York police even sent a man to Italy to see how these criminals were getting to the United States illegally.
Every potential criminal that fled to the United States, from Sicily and Italy, knew that there was money to be made in the States. This period in the States established the “American Mafia,” originated from the famous Five Pointers Gang, which many of the strongest members came from, including Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and Alphonse “Al” Capone. Charles Luciano, more famously known as “Lucky” Luciano, was the one of the founders of the national crime syndicate in the 1930’s. Luciano started his prostitution racket in 1920 and by 1925 he had control over most of the prostitution in Manhattan.
In 1929, an attempt to take his life was made but he miraculously survived the brutal attack, which caused him to make a big move. He gathered all his power, and eliminated all opposing “bosses” and by 1935, “Lucky” Luciano was considered “The Boss of Bosses. ” He was now the model mobster, running businesses and controlling crime all across America. He was also very influential in labor and union activities and controlled the Manhattan Waterfront, garbage hauling, construction, Garment Center businesses, and trucking. Luciano also organized “the Commission” in 1931, even now still the governing body of the Mafia in the United States.
It was meant to minimize gang wars and while it did succeed to a point, it didn’t get rid of all rivalries. It was (and still is, in theory) headed by the five biggest crime families in the country, the Bonanno’s, the Gambino’s, the Columbo’s, the Genovese’s, and the Lucchese’s. Ever the businessman, when he was imprisoned during World War Two, he and some other mafia people supposedly teamed up with The United States and the Allies against the Germans and Italians when they tried to take Sicily, ancestral home of many of the bosses.
The “…mafia teamed up with the Allies during WWII, undermining the Axis’ line of bunkers deep within the hillsides…” Luciano’s reign was relatively short-lived though. When he was deported back to Sicily, he continued to try to control the family from afar. On January 26, 1962, Luciano died of a heart attack at Naples International Airport. He was buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens in 1972, more than ten years after his death, because of the terms of his deportation in 1946. Meyer Lansky was never a real member of the Mafia, since he was not Italian but he did however play an important role in the 1920’s with Mafia leaders.
Lansky formed the Bugs & Meyer Mob with friend Bugsy Siegel and also worked with Charles Luciano. The ‘Mob’ “began as an auto rental agency, and developed into a crack corps of gunmen who for a price would protect liquor cargoes or, for another price, hijack a rival’s supply. The group served as a forerunner of Murder Inc. ” Most of the killers in Murder Inc. were Italian and Jewish gangsters from the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill. In addition to crime in New York City and cting as enforcers for New York mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, they accepted murder contracts from mob bosses all around the United States. In the 1940s Lansky and other crime bosses invested in ‘Bugsy’ Seigal’s hotel and casino, the Flamingo. But profits were not to be made there and after two tries by Lansky for his fellow investors to give Siegal another chance, ‘Bugsy’ was shot and killed and the investors took over the operations of the hotel. Lansky spent the last years of his life in what appeared to be quiet and he died in Miami in 1983, of lung cancer.
Joining Meyer Lansky at a young age, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel became one of the strongest and most feared killers ever. Bugsy became close friends with Charles Luciano, and soon began to carry out killings for him. He also became a bootlegger and had operations in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Because of many killings of mob “bosses”, the remaining “bosses” put out contracts on Siegel’s life. Lansky and Luciano convinced him to move out to California, where he ran business for the two other mobsters.
Once he got to Los Angeles, Siegel recruited gang boss Mickey Cohen as his lieutenant and began using syndicate money to set up a national wire service to help the East Coast mob quicken their returns. In the spring of 1946, and he had “not waited a moment longer than necessary. At a time when veterans couldn’t get material for housing, Bugsy called upon the black market resources of the Syndicate to begin construction of the Flamingo on the road to Los Angeles. ” He became involved in the large scale development of Vegas and the strip during this time as well.
Sadly the Flamingo didn’t make the money that he and his investors had planned and in June of 1947, Siegel was shot by an ex-mobster while he was sitting in his living room. No one was ever charged with the murder and the crime is still unsolved. The Flamingo was taken over by his investment partners because “…it was later discovered, because he [Siegal] was planning to cheat his colleagues in the syndicate…” Alphonse “Al” Capone was another organizer of the early American Mafia. At the early age of 11, he was already involved in organized crime, like most of the other gangsters.
After his initial work with small-time gangs, including The Junior Forty Thieves, Capone joined the Five Points Juniors, and then the notorious Five Points Gang. He was mentored by and employed as a bouncer in a Coney Island dance hall and saloon called the Harvard Inn by racketeer Frankie Yale. Capone moved to Chicago with his family around 1921, called there by an acquaintance of his, Johnny Torrio, who was second in command of the Colosimo enterprises. Torrio was to take over the enterprises and eventually was to hand over Chicago to Capone.
Capone prospered and within three years he had around seven hundred men at his disposal. “But his conquest of power did not come without bloodshed. As the rival gangs – the O’Banions, the Gennas, and the Aiellos – disputed his growing domination, Chicago was afflicted with such an epidemic of killings as no civilized modern city had ever before seen…” Capone organized one of the most notorious gangland killings of the century, when in 1929, the St Valentine’s Day masscure took place in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side.
This was by all definitions, a gang war, as Capone was trying to take out a rival boss and his crew. He failed in taking out the boss but did eliminate many of his henchmen in the killings. In May 1932, Capone was sent to Atlanta, a federal prison, but he was able to take control and obtain special privileges. He was then transferred to Alcatraz, where tight security and an uncompromising warden ensured that Capone had no contact with the outside world. Capone entered Alcatraz with his usual confidence, but his isolation from his associates, and the repeal of Prohibition, meant his empire was beginning to wither.
He attempted to earn time off for good behavior by being a model prisoner and refusing to participate in prisoner rebellions. When Capone attempted to bribe guards he was sent to solitary confinement. Capone’s health deteriorated while in prison due to syphilis, which he had contracted when he was younger. He spent the last year of his term at Alcatraz in the prison hospital and was then sent to another, lower security prison to serve a one year misdemeanor charge. He was released in 1939, spent a short time in a hospital, and then returned to his home in Palm Island, Florida.
He no longer had interests in the crime families when he was released, mostly because of his physical and mental decline. In early January of 1947 he suffered a stroke, but appeared to be improving after that. In a month though, he had contracted pneumonia which caused cardiac arrest and led to his death on January 24, 1947. What can be determined from these four men is that their desire to thrive in their new home was strong. Though going the criminal route may not have been the route most immigrants would have gone, many did, and it obviously served these men well in the short run.
In the long run, it was bad for more than half as the only one to survive into his “golden years” was Meyer Lansky. Put these men and others together and they were a formidable force to be messed with. Even apart, you would do well to not get on their bad sides. Organized crime has continued to this day, becoming more and more complex as the years passed. Never just confined to the Italians in the first place, it expanded even more, eventually incorporating more races into its ranks.
In the 50’s, these families of crime turned more to drugs, more gambling, unions and prostitution. They are said to have to do with the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Many had (and might still have) a hand in Las Vegas and casinos. The Gambino family is still one of the most well known crime families in the United States because of the media savvy of Don John Gotti, and the subsequent media attention that his family (most notably his daughter Victoria) has received by way of the popular media and an A&E reality show, Growing Up Gotti.
Popular culture has always had an interest in the mafia and as long as the American culture is interested, it probably will continue to glamorize organized crime. In the end, though not as prominent as they have been in the past, the mafia is still around, to the credit of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegal, and Al Capone, men of their times and, in their own way, an important part of American history.