Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story


Joseph Valachi testifies  (AP)
Joseph Valachi testifies (AP)
In September 1963, Joseph Valachi appeared as the star witness before a government inquiry into the mob. Officially known as The Hearings Before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee Operations, United States Senate, 88th Congress, Organized Crime & Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, it was generally referred to as The McClellan Committee because Democratic Senator John L. McClellan chaired it.

In the Old Senate Office building in Washington D.C., as the television cameras turned, Joseph Valachi went before the committee and told his story. The American public had their first view of the real article: a mob stone-killer, testifying about his life in Cosa Nostra

A short, bandy-legged little man, standing only five foot six and weighing 188 pounds, he had a face like a cracked walnut under a military style crew cut. As he gave his evidence in a low, gravely voice, he chained smoked each day through three packs of Camel cigarettes. Day after day he spoke about his life, tearing away the Mafias veil of mystery and exposing its secrets. For the first time the American public heard about omerta and blood oaths, soldiers and buttons, capos and consiglieri, and all the details of a vast, organized criminal syndicate, told by a man who had admitted to being involved in 33 underworld murders.

He revealed the existence of five crime families in New York and one in New Jersey. He placed other families in Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa, Boston and Providence, identifying bosses and senior men in each group. He confirmed that there were at least 2000 made men in New York, and personally identified 289 of the 383 hoodlums that had been profiled by investigators. It had been 13 years since America had been exposed to the Kefauver hearings, but at that time the object had been for the interviewees to disclose as little as possible and take the 5th Amendment as often as possible.

There was an interesting exchange between Joe and the committee that illustrated his lack of moral reprehensibility in connection with his life-long career. In his subculture of crime, there was no concern over acts committed over the years. Well, he said, after you get used to burglarizing or committing crimes, you dont think these things are crimes. For instance, I had been in some machines. I dont think that was a crime; everybody else had them. I dont know how to explain them. I had dress shops. I had horses. Everyone was selling stamps. How am I going to explain it to you, senator?

Following his appearance in Washington, Joe was transferred to the District of Columbia jail. There, under the urging of the Department of Justice, he started to write his memoirs. When finished, they comprised an astonishing 1180 pages. It was hoped that, when published, they would be used by law enforcement agencies across the country to develop their knowledge of organized crime, an enemy they had been fighting with little success for over 30 years.

However, early in 1966, a massive campaign was instigated by an article in the Italian-American newspaper, Il Progresso, to stop the publication of the manuscript. They claimed that it was perpetrating the kind of image of criminality associated with the many Italian names in Valachis testimony. It was a slur on all Italian-Americans. By May 10th, under heavy political pressure and supported by such well-known Italian-Americans as Frank Sinatra, the Attorney General initiated proceedings to ban the book. It was the first time that action of this kind had ever been taken.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached. A third-person book could be produced using Valachis writings as source material, along with personal interviews between Valachi and the selected writer, Peter Maas. This resulted in the 1968 publication of The Valachi Papers. It was the definitive account of the life and times of Joseph Valachi.

Following the furor over his writings, Valachi was removed from the relative comfort of the D.C. prison and transferred to a miserable jail in Milan, Michigan, forty miles south of Detroit. There on April 11th, 1966, Valachi attempted suicide by trying to hang himself in a shower. Despondent over the governments action on his book and confused by the move to Milan, he finally broke. The final straw appeared to be the removal from his cell of a small, portable hot plate and grill he used to cook himself a few delicacies.

Joe suffered from the cold weather in Michigan, so he was eventually transferred to the federal penitentiary at LaTuna, Texas, twenty-one miles from El Paso. Set on a flat, open landscape of Halopena peppers, corn and grass fields, populated by roadrunners and jackrabbits, the adobe prison became Joes home for the rest of his life. He was housed in a large cell near the prison hospital that had its own bathroom, rug, television set, small stove and several electric heaters. Even in the hot, dry, barren atmosphere of the Texas desert, Joe was forever cold.

Towards the end of his life, his health was letting him down. He suffered from arthritis, high blood pressure, gall bladder problems and prostate cancer.

On Saturday, April 3rd, 1971, Joe suffered a gall bladder attack. The prison doctor sedated him with a shot of morphine and he died late in the afternoon.

According to Vincent Teresa, a mob informant from Boston who served time at LaTuna and became Joe's friend, Joe had corresponded for years with a woman from Buffalo. She was the one who claimed his body. She had the authorities ship it and she buried him in a cemetery in Niagara Falls. She left the grave unmarked, in case the mob might try to desecrate Joes final resting place.

He survived Vito Genovese, his old enemy, by two years and two months. The man who was still the titular head of the biggest Cosa Nostra family in America had died in a Springfield, Missouri prison in 1969 from a heart problem.

Joseph Valachi and his revelations did not destroy the Cosa Nostra. In fact, it hardly put a crimp in their style. He was an acute embarrassment to Genovese, who no doubt smarted under the humiliation of it all. He also caused J. Edgar Hoover all kinds of heartburn by forcing him to finally bite the knuckle in admitting that perhaps crime was being committed in a big way by a bunch of gangsters who did not conform to the agencies stereotyping, al la Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson.

It was not long after Valachis appearance at the McClellan hearings that Hoover instituted the Top Hoodlum program at the agency. Better late than never, and the FBI have been one of the more effective enforcement weapons over the last thirty years, doing significant damage to the mob nationwide. Cosa Nostra in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose has almost completely disappeared. Denver, Kansas City, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester are non-existent. New Orleans, Tampa, Buffalo are shadows of their former selves. The mob in Detroit, Philadelphia and New Jersey are on their knees and almost out. The once powerful syndicate of Chicago is greatly reduced in numbers and effectiveness. What is left of organized crime in Boston, Providence and Rhode Island struggles to compete with the rapidly expanding and developing crime groups made up of blacks, Asians, South Americans and biker gangs.

Only in New York does the mob maintain momentum, although they operate under pressure. The faces of the five families have changed dramatically over the last fifteen years. Relentless pressure from all government agencies makes it a lot harder for organized crime to stay organized. Of them all, the Genovese Family (as they are still referred to after all these years in memory of Vito) remains the biggest and the strongest. With their power over labor and the unions almost totally abrogated, they have resorted to their staple business of gambling, money lending and extortion.

There are soldiers and captains in the family who will still remember Joe Cago, and they no doubt wince whenever his name is mentioned-not because of the damage he did them but more for the fact that he brought it all out in the open.

During the Second World War, British fighter pilots used an expression to denote their tactical superiority when attacking German aircraft. Coming down on the enemy from above, with the sun behind them, they called it: Catching the Bounce.

Cosa Nostra had been Catching the Bounce for over thirty years. Then Joe came along and the ball went out of play.



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