Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Poems of Dylan Thomas
New Directions Publishing Corp.

Joseph Valachi (AP)
Joseph Valachi (AP)
At the end of the day, when all was said and done, Joe was basically a bum. The only thing he ever did that was worth a tin of beans was to kill the wrong guy, and getting all remorseful about it, blow the lid off a group of criminals. Until then, they had been so secretive about their existence they made the order of Masons appear to be a bunch of blabbermouths.

He spoke about a secret criminal organization that had existed in America for over seventy years. In major metropolitan areas such as New York, its members had held society ransom as they went about their business of thieving, extorting, union manipulation and murder. Valachi's view was not from the top but was more a worms eye view, as he was never involved in the corporate decisions that formed its policy. As a foot soldier in the ranks of organized crime, his job was to turn policy into practice.

At his defection, Joseph Michael Valachi was up to that point the most famous apostate in the criminal underworld. Although his revelations provided the public and law enforcement with a wealth of information, it did have its limitations. His minor standing in the pecking order of organized crime precluded him from the macro picture. In many ways, Valachis viewpoint was like asking a gas jockey at a Shell station about the strategy of the board of directors. A barely literate, low-ranking member of the Mafia whose first-hand experiences were frankly limited to less important events, Valachi was often obviously talking beyond his personal experience. Additionally, Valachi was not always the most discerning observer. In his mob world, the telling of false tales between mobsters, and the claims of credit not deserved for important incidents, are common. When another criminal bragged to Valachi that he did this or shot so-and-so, Valachi tended to believe it. As a result some of his information is false and some strains credulity.

Basically, Joe was a loner who went his own way whenever he could. Shrewd, cunning and cagey, he never really trusted anyone and this distrust often colored his thinking. He was a rebellious troublemaker with a single-minded determination to show his independence, a cocky and self-assured man who often made his views known. He didnt care what the consequences were.

However, his information helped to focus enforcement agents' investigation of organized crime, and it allowed many of them to test out their hypotheses and assumptions against his disclosures.

Valachi was not the first to disclose the can of worms that most refer to as the Mafia.

The official recognition of the existence of the Mafia in America dates back to 1890 when one of the two grand juries in New Orleans that investigated the murder of police chief Peter Hennessey stated: The range of our research has developed the existence of the secret organization styled Mafia.

In 1903 the New York Herald published details of the Black Hand extortionists that were operating in Brooklyn under the control of Annuziato Cappiello, a member of the ndrangheta often referred to as the Calabrian Mafia.

As early as 1918, a "made" or inducted member of the Mafia had spoken publicly about the organization and its structure when a New York gangster called Tony Notaro gave evidence at the murder trial of another hoodlum called Pelligrino Morano. One year later, McCann published what was the first book on the Mafia in America: William J. Flynns The Barrel Mystery.

In the Justice Department files were the records of Nicolo Culicchia Gentile, also known as Zu Cola. A notorious Mafiosi from Siculiana, in Sicily, he had moved into the USA in 1907 when he was a young man of twenty-one, and over the next thirty years had created a niche for himself by traveling across America as a troubleshooter for the mob. He was there during the New York gang wars of 1930-31, and apparently had access to, and the confidence of many of the top players in the formation of the Americanization of the Mafia. It was rumored that he may have been a serving member of the Commission, the arbitration tribunal that was set up to mediate in mob disputes to try to keep things under control when the Ying and Yang of the American Mafia got out of kilter.

He fled America in 1939, under investigation for drug trafficking, and returned to live in Sicily. There, during the Eisenhower Administration, the Justice Department had sent a special investigative unit on organized crime to interview him. He had recounted his memoirs to this team, outlining in detail names and dates, but the information was filed away and never acted upon.

Then there was J. Richard Dixie Davis, the smooth, soft-talking attorney for Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as Dutch Schultz. Sentenced to prison for a year on a charge of conspiracy to operate the numbers racket and then released, Davis wrote a series of articles in 1938 for Colliers magazine about the birth of the American Mafia. He also gave dates and named names, but no one listened.

In 1940 Abe Reles, a heavy hitter for a group of killers that became known as Murder Inc., turned informer to save his neck when under arrest. He boasted that he would make the Brooklyn District Attorney the biggest man in the country.

In addition to supplying information that helped solve scores of murders, Reles had asserted that in the early 1930s an alliance of underworld bosses resulted in the creation of a nation-wide crime syndicate. He named names and gave dates just like Gentile and Davis, and his testimony resulted in the successful prosecution of numerous organized crime figures in New York. Yet no law enforcement agency followed through, with the exception of the prosecution of Louis Lepke Buchalter, the only gang boss in American history who in 1944 paid the ultimate penalty for his crimes in the electric chair.

There had been at least three bureaucratic attempts to investigate and attempt to understand what the problem was, starting in 1915 when the Chicago Crime Commission tried to define just what organized crime was. This was followed in 1929 by the Wickershaw Commission, which studied the impact of prohibition on criminal activity. In 1950 the Kefauver Committee was formed to investigate organized crime in interstate gambling, and its members found that certain crimes bore the earmark of the Mafia. They exposed a pervasive network of organized criminals operating in alliance with local political figures, but never actually established proof that the Mafia existed.

Then Joseph Valachi came along at just the right time in history and the wrong time for the mob.

In 1950-51, there had been the Kefauver Committee Hearings on Organized Crime. Also in 1950, the Mayor of New Yorks Joint Committee on Port Industry exposed the New York waterfront for the cesspool of lawlessness it had been for decades. Throughout the 1950s, there was also a series of high-profile gangland killings or assassination attempts. In November of 1957, the state police caught the mob well and truly with its pants down at a convention they were holding near Apalachin, in upstate New York. They arrested dozens of men, including many of the family Dons (bosses) from New York and other parts of the United States.

Valachis revelations were certainly the biggest single blow against organized crime following the debacle at Apalachin. The really significant danger to the mob was the pattern of connection that Valachis testimony furnished. He made it possible for organized crime investigators to at last realize the dimensions of syndicated crime and to stop seeing it as a series of unconnected incidents. Until Valachi's confessions, the FBI had steadfastly refused to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia. Although police departments and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics operatives had long realized that many underworld figures where often seen together, they had not comprehended that these were formal relationships ranked through a system governed by rules and regulations.

Valachi and his testimony changed all that.

Although just a foot soldier, Valachi had served the mob loyally for over thirty years. Even though he was in prison and facing a long sentence for drug trafficking, there was no reason to suppose his fidelity to his crime family would change. That was, until they found what was left of Al Agueci in a field in Monroe County.

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