Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story

Oh, What a Lovely War

Gaetano (Tom) Gagliano was a big, tall man who was going bald. His legitimate facade was in the construction business. Behind this front, he was a trusted lieutenant in a gang of mobsters controlled by a man called Gaetano Reina, 40, who was a successful businessman in his own right. Reina controlled most of the ice distribution in New York City a vastly lucrative business in the days before electric refrigeration.

Since the turn of the century, the underworld in New York had undergone many changes. The strong Irish and Jewish mobs had been largely displaced (although some Jewish gangsters would remain powerful forces in the New York crime scene), and their position occupied by Italians who were mainly from Naples and Sicily. The Morello brothers, hailing from Coreleone in Sicily, had been a potent influence in the criminal world from the end of the nineteenth century into the new millennium. They, in turn, had been replaced by Ciro Terranova, who was assisted by his deadly brother-in-law, Ignazio Saietta, a ruthless Mafiosi, also know as Lupo or The Wolf. By the end of the 1920s, they had been superseded by another mobster, a short, squat, piggish-looking thug called Giuseppe Masseria. He had been born in Palermo in 1886 and emigrated to New York in 1903 when he was sixteen. By 1929, Joe the Boss, as he was also known, was looking to become the dominant figure in the Italian criminal underworld of the biggest city in America.

Masseria had built his power base in Lower Manhattan, but was challenged by a newcomer to the New York area, a man called Salvatore Maranzano, who had landed in the city in 1925. A cultured, erudite Sicilian, he was apparently a close friend and confident of Vito Cascio Ferro, supposedly the boss of bosses in the Sicilian Mafia. Maranzano soon established business interests in import-exporting and real estate, and quickly developed as a major force in the illegal booze business. He became a member of a Brooklyn-based crime group that became known as the Castellammarese Mafia family, which at this time was headed by Cola Schiro.

As the 1920s drew to a close, it was obvious that trouble was brewing as strongly as all of the illegal booze being generated to quench the thirst of the American public that had been officially denied access to it because of the Prohibition act of 1919.

At the time Valachi met up with Tom Gagliano, there were five separate groups of Italian mobsters operating across New York, made up of men from Sicily and Naples. He joined the one operated by Reina, who was murdered on February 26, 1930. It is generally agreed by crime historians that this killing heralded the start of what came to be known as the Castellammarese War. It would last until September 1931. When it was over, both Masseria and Maranzano were dead, along with an untold number of casualtiesmaybe between fifty and one hundred men. It is hard to be specific since some gang members used the war as an excuse to settle private disputes.

Valachis first contract, or hit, happened in November 1930. Along with Santucci, another man called Nick Capuzzi, and an imported gunman from Chicago known only as Buster, he was sent on his first important assignment for the group he had joined, which was now allied to the Castellammarese men.

Their target was a top ally of Masseria called Steven Ferrigino. Valachi rented an apartment in a complex at 760 Pelham Parkway, in the Bronx. The rooms overlooked a courtyard leading to the entrance of Ferriginos residence. The four men spent weeks scoping out their intended victim. Late in the afternoon of November 5th, Ferrigino and another member of Masserias group, Alfred Mineo, were shot dead by three of the four gunmen, who blasted them with shotguns as they walked into the courtyard.

Later in the month, Valachi made his button and became an officially inducted member of the criminal group he knew from then on as Cosa Nostra. Along with Nicky Padora and Salvatore Shillitani, two members of his old burglary ring that he had recommended to Gagliano, he was driven from the city about ninety miles north into upstate New York. Taken to a large, white, colonial-style house, he was ushered into a long room where forty men were gathered around a banquet table. At its head was Maranzano, now the boss of the Castellammarese men.

Joe was introduced to Maranzano as Joe Cago, which thereafter became his nickname in the mob. As a kid, Joe had been an ace scooter builder and this had earned him the sobriquet Joe Cargo. During his criminal career, this nickname was corrupted to Cago. Later on, those in the mob who came to despise Valachi for his treachery were quick to point out that Cago is also Italian slang for excrement.

Valachi and the tall, distinguished looking Maranzano shook hands. Joe, meet Don Salvatore Maranzano. He is going to be the boss of all of us through the whole trouble we are having. This was the first time Joe had ever seen him.

Gee, he recalled, he looked just like a banker. Youd never guess in a million years that he was a racketeer.

Everyone around the table joined hands and Maranzano said, This represents that you live by the gun and the knife, pointing to a revolver and a dagger on the table. Valachi then held a piece of paper in his hands, which Maranzano lit with a match, and he was made to repeat after the boss, This is the way I will burn if I betray the secrets of this Cosa Nostra...The Cosa Nostra comes before everythingour blood family, our religion, our betray the secret of Cosa Nostra means death without a trial.

The ceremony that Valachi participated in was almost identical to the one described by Palermo Chief of Police Giuseppe Alongi forty-four years earlier in 1886, when he described the initiation rituals of La Mafia from what informers had told him over the years.

Joseph Bonanno (CORBIS)
Joseph Bonanno
Joe was then assigned a gombah, or godfather, to be his mentor and immediate boss. From a random selection around the table, the designated man was said to be Joseph Bonanno, also known as Joe Bananas. Over the next thirty-five years, Bonnano was alleged to be a powerful figure among the Cosa Nostra, heading his own group before being deposed in a bloody power struggle that sent him into exile in Arizona. At the age of 95, Bonanno still lives there to this day.

After the meeting was over, Valachi returned to New York and moved into an apartment in the Bronx. He was designated as one of the shooters who were to be on call twenty-four hours a day. They waited to respond to messages from the spotters, who were tracking down members of Masserias mob. His first forays were noticeable for their ineffectiveness: The targets he and his partners chased after all managed to escape, and although guns were fired, few if any bullets found their targets. That is, until February 3rd, 1931.

On that day, Valachi, another man named Buster from Chicago, and two other gunmen were staking out an office at 467 Crescent Avenue, in the Fordham area of the Bronx. They were trying to pin down Joseph Catania, a Masseria lieutenant, and a nephew of Ciro Terranova, the man Valachi hated. Catania had hijacked some of Maranzanos trucks carrying illegal liquor, and the Castellammarese boss was determined to have him eliminated.

At about 11:30 a.m., Catania and his wife entered the office. A few minutes later, he kissed her goodbye and left. As he walked down the street, Buster was waiting for him. He fired six times. I dont think I missed him once, he said later to Joe. You could see dust coming off his coat when the bullets hit. Valachi had gone off to organize the getaway car, which was parked around the block, and he and the three gunmen sped away.

According to Valachi, in the weeks following the killing of Catania, the winds of war blew in favor of the Maranzano men. There were many defections to him from the side of Masseria, and in addition, those who stayed with Joe the Boss found they were facing an economic crisis. The war was stifling their rackets and hitting them where it hurt mostin their pockets.

Sometime in March or early April, two of Masserias top aides, Charlie Luciano and Vito Genovese, met up with Maranzano and some of his key men in a meeting held in the Bronx Zoo. In return for their promise to eliminate Masseria, Maranzano agreed to end the war.

At about 3:30 p.m. on April 15th, Giuseppe Masseria was shot dead in a restaurant on Brooklyns Coney Island-a killing masterminded by Luciano. A few weeks later, Maranzano hosted a meeting attended by hundreds of mobsters in a big hall on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. There have only been two recorded references to this assembly: one by Valachi and the other by Charlie Luciano in his biography, which was published twelve years after Joe began his testimony. The recollections of the two men more or less follow similar lines: their description of the hall, the way it was decorated and the speech that Maranzano made to the gathering. Speaking in Italian, Maranzano gave a brief background of the war and why it had started, and then he outlined the way things would be in the future.

First of all, Maranzano would be the top boss, calling himself Capo di Tuti Capi. He would share in the wealth of all the families, a term he used to replace the pejorative gang or mob. He then announced who would be the boss of each family:

Luciano would head the group that had been under Masseria; Gagliano would take over the former Reina interests; and Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci and Vincent Mangano would head the other families based on gangs they had controlled in the past. Each family boss would be supported by an under-boss, and beneath them would be the backbone of the families-the soldiers. These men would be grouped into crews or regimes, each controlled by a lieutenant or caporegime. Everything would be businesslike and there would be strict lines of communication between soldiers and bosses. There would also be rigidly enforced rules. The organization, this Cosa Nostra, would come first above everything, no matter what. Anyone who broke the code of omerta, the vow of silence, would die. No one was to ever strike another member, regardless of provocation. No man could covet anothers wife. These were the rules of survival and they served them well for years to come.

Genovese, Luciano and Joe Profaci 1958 (CORBIS)
Genovese, Luciano and Joe Profaci
1958 (CORBIS)
After the gathering had dispersed, Joe decided on the spur of a moment to shift his allegiance. He wanted to work under Maranzano as part of his palace guard. He renounced his ties to the Gagliano family and went to be a chauffeur and bodyguard for the man with aspirations to be the most powerful criminal in America.

On the evening of September 9th, he was called over to the Brooklyn home of Maranzano and told that there was to be more conflict ahead. The boss had decided that Luciano and Genovese, along with a group of men allied to them, had to be removed. That way he could consolidate his position as head of all the families and exercise control over the Italian lottery, the unions, bookmaking and bootlegging businesses that formed the backbone of the underworlds money-making machine.

Maranzano told Joe that he had called a meeting in his office on Park Avenue for the next day with Genovese and Luciano. Unknown to Valachi, his boss had paid a fee of $25,000 to a hot-headed Irishman called Vincent Mad Dog Coll to be at the building to gun down the two men. Unknown to Maranzano, the intended targets had already pre-empted his strike. At 2:50 p.m. that day, four of their killers strolled into the office building and shot and stabbed Maranzano to death.

Blissfully unaware of the drama taking place in midtown Manhattan, Joe had spent the day with his friend, The Gap, in Brooklyn, entertaining two young ladies. He learned of the killing when he picked up a newspaper in the early hours of September 11th. He was, to say the least, wetting his pants. Petrilli had probably saved Joes life by making sure he was out of the office that afternoon. Valachi immediately went into hiding, especially afraid when he learned that three of the men whom he had recruited into Maranzanos palace guard had almost been gunned down while walking along Lexington Avenue.

The Castellammarese War might be over, but for Joseph Valachi the peace had yet to be made.


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