Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Gotti, the Last Mafia Icon


The American gangster has become as American as say - apple pie! For decades people have both marveled at and been reviled by this genre of criminal activity in the United States.

Few organized crime figures have completely captured the attention of the public as John Gotti has over the past 20 years. We have had our celebrity mobsters in the past. Underworld figures like Al "Scarface" Capone and Jack "Legs" Diamond captured the public's fascination during the 1920s. In the 1930s it was a different brand of criminal that became popular. Bank robbers like John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and "Baby Face" Nelson were the rage of what was known as the Mid-West Crime Wave.

The 1940s brought us Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and the killers of Murder, Inc. Along with the glamour these individuals provided, their murders made for exciting front-page headlines, not to mention sensational photographs.

While there were no prominent names during the 1950s, that decade nevertheless brought organized crime to the forefront, due to the efforts of law enforcement.  It began with the televised Kefauver hearings in the early 1950s and made a big splash with the infamous Apalachin conclave in 1957.

The turbulent 1960s passed none too quickly with its political / sociological upheaval and in gangland we saw for the first time warring within the various crime families - the Gallo / Profacci War and the Banana War. As the 1970s dawned gangsters began not only vying for newspaper headlines, but now television airtime. Mortal mob enemies "Crazy Joe" Gallo and Joseph Colombo were the media targets of New York City and the city knew how to promote them. Both flamboyant characters would meet brutal, albeit well-publicized endings.

John Gotti (CORBIS)

By the mid-1980s federal law agencies, with the help of local law enforcement, began to dismantle organized crime families across the country. In the midst of this effort, John Gotti stepped forward and captured the public's attention in what seemed like the final gasp for the Hollywood-style gangster to leave his mark in the annals of American criminal history. Gotti became the darling of the New York media. With his habit of coming through criminal trials unscathed and penchant for expensive and fashionable attire, he became the icon of the American gangster.

As Gotti rose to the top he left behind a bloody trail of bodies, as well as an assortment of embarrassed law enforcement agencies. Putting him away became an obsession that would cause the government to go after him with no holds barred . In 1992 the man who had gone from the Dapper Don to the Teflon Don was convicted of RICO charges in Brooklyn's federal district court. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Looking back at Gotti's reign one can see that his only true achievement as a Mafia chieftain was to captivate the public's attention. At this, Gotti had few equals. But as a leader he was quite lacked the ability that characterized the careers of such mob luminaries as Capone, Luciano, Lansky, Torrio, Costello and Gambino. In the end it was Gotti's ego and carelessness that led to his downfall.

At the end of his first decade in prison, the 61-year-old Gotti died on June 10, 2002 from complications of head and neck cancer.  It seems almost ironic, as if Gotti were having the last laugh at the federal government by cheating them – having spent only 10 years behind bars. If there is anything positive that can be said for Gotti, it's that he took his punishment like a man. Still defiant of the government, one is left to wonder if John Gotti, the Dapper Don, would have wanted it any other way.

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