Charles “Lucky” Luciano was by far the most influential and important criminal boss in American history–even Al Capone could not match Luciano’s organizational skills. At a time when the American Mafia was more like a Sicilian secret society than an actual organization, Lucky Luciano turned it into a business–a single corporate entity that soon became bigger and more powerful than any Fortune 500 company.
Salvatore Lucania was born in Sicily, near Palermo, in November 1897, and moved to New York with his parents in 1906, where they changed the family name to “Luciano” (and Salvatore’s name to “Charles”). Within a year, at age 10, little Charlie was already shaking down his neighborhood kids for protection money to avoid being beaten up. One of the local Jewish kids, named Meyer Lansky, refused to pay up, and when Luciano tried to strongarm him, Lansky fought back, earning Luciano’s respect–the two would remain friends and crime partners for the rest of their lives.
By 1916, Luciano was a prominent member of the Five Points Gang (other members were Johnny Torrio and Al Capone), and was already suspected by the cops of several murders. When Prohibition took effect, Luciano joined forces with his pal Meyer Lansky and another Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, to set up a bootlegging operation in the area that is now Chinatown. By 1920, at the age of 23, Luciano had caught the eye of the local Mafia organization, including Vito Genovese and Joey Adonis. He also became friends with Frank Costello–which caused some friction between Luciano and the Genovese clan. Criminal gangs at this time were organized largely along ethnic lines, and the Mafia at this time was dominated by Sicilians who distrusted outsiders. The Genovese gangsters counseled young Luciano to stay clear of Costello, who was Calabrian, not Sicilian. But Luciano learned much at the knee of Frank Costello, including how to buy protection by paying off the local cops and politicians, and how to work effectively with the Jewish and Irish gangs in the area. Over time, Luciano rose to higher and higher levels in the Mafia “family” of Joe “The Boss” Masseria–but at the same time, Luciano had a growing contempt for the old-line “Moustache Petes” like Masseria, whose strict avoidance of cooperation with other ethnic groups was, Luciano concluded, costing everybody money.
There was a rising generation of young mafiosi who thought the same way as Luciano, and in 1928 the conflict between these two worldviews became an actual rebellion. In what became known as the Castellammarese War, the rising young generation in Mafia families all over the city, led by Salvatore Maranzano, struck at the old bosses. During the War, Luciano was snatched by a group of three men and taken to a wooded area in Staten Island, where he was beaten, slashed, and left for dead. He survived the attack, earning himself the nickname “Lucky”. The Castellammarese War finally ended in 1931, when Luciano struck a deal with Maranzano and arranged for hitmen to kill Masseria–Luciano himself arranged a meeting with Joe the Boss in a local restaurant, and excused himself for a convenient trip to the bathroom just before the gunmen entered. Luciano then took over Masseria’s rackets and became second only to Maranzano himself. Maranzano, however, saw the threat in the ambitious Luciano and ordered him killed. Lucky Luciano once again lived up to his name by arranging a hit on Maranzano first, leaving himself as the unchallenged boss in New York. Maranzano supporters in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh were subsequently killed too, in what later became known (melodramatically) as “The Night of the Sicilian Vespers”.
Now with absolute power, Lucky Luciano put his remarkable organizational skills into action. From now on, he decreed, the gangland rackets would be run as a business; there would be no more destructive turf wars and no more violent disputes over successorship. In each major city, there was already a particular “family” in charge. Because New York loomed so large in the rackets, it had been divided by Maranzano himself during his reign into five separate families, but Maranzano had placed himself above all of them as “Boss of all Bosses”–something Luciano now refused to do. Instead, each family would now be given free reign in their own territory, including the ability to work together with all the other ethnic gangs in the area. Each family was to become more tightly organized, with a boss at the top, an underboss beneath him, a number of “capos” under that, and the foot soldiers of the family at the bottom. Nationwide, disputes between families would be handled by a “Commission” made up of the heads of the largest families. Replacing a boss of the family was still done the old-fashioned way–with guns–but now it could not be done without explicit sanction by the Commission.
Shortly after, Luciano found that he had a new enemy, as New York Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey set his sights on Charley Lucky. Dewey had made a career out of prosecuting mobsters (a career he would ride almost all the way to the White House), and in 1936, he obtained a conviction against Luciano for running a prostitution ring. Luciano was given the extraordinary sentence of 30-50 years. Ironically, Luciano had himself already saved Dewey’s life: when Dutch Schultz complained that Dewey was making things too hot for him and wanted permission from the Commission to have Dewey killed, Luciano argued against it, on the grounds that it would just bring about more heat from the authorities. Schultz stalked out of the room after angrily declaring that he’d do the job by himself–but the Commission acted first, and Schultz was shot to death in October 1935.
Luciano continued to run his rackets from jail, but when World War Two began in 1941, he saw his chance. Through various contacts, Luciano let it be known that he’d be willing to direct his Mafia operatives in the nation’s ports to protect shipping against Axis saboteurs–perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, just as Luciano was making his offer, the ocean liner Normandiecaught fire and burned at her New York dock as she was being converted into a troopship. By some reports, Luciano also directed his Mafia contacts in Sicily to give every possible help to the American troops who landed on the island in July 1943. In response, Luciano was released from jail in 1946 by then-Governor Dewey, for “wartime services to his country”. But Luciano’s luck was not total–he was still deported to Italy and banned from entering the US. Through his 1950’s exile, Luciano’s influence in the American Mafia began to decline. He wandered from Italy to Cuba and back. At one point, New York boss Vito Genovese reportedly planned to have Luciano killed, but was stopped by a Federal narcotics conviction (set up, it was speculated by some, by Luciano and his allies).
In 1962, while waiting for a plane in Naples Airport, Luciano had a fatal heart attack. American officials consented to having his body brought to the US, and Lucky Luciano, the man who “organized” the Mafia, was buried in a marble mausoleum in New York.