An American Dream
When you turn on the news right now in America, you hear of the violence that occurs every day, from beheaded bodies in the Southwest to kids overdosing in the inner cities. If you were to ask certain people, they will tell you through a jail window or a retirement village that things were different in the past and there used to be honor and even a certain degree of respect in crime, not like what you see today. Ironically, it was two major assassinations that very few Americans know about that paved the way for a revolution in how crime was to be conducted and organized in America in the 20th century, which in turn gave birth to the one of the most powerful criminal organizations ever known, “The Commission”. The eventual genesis of this powerful entity paved the way for several events that have had considerable impact on American history while creating a nostalgic view of what crime was and should be, versus what it really is. Depending on a person’s point of view, a lot can be said about crime in America, but one thing is for sure, there was a time when unspeakable violence wasn’t the norm but rather a rare occurrence.
On April 15, 1931, Joe “The Boss” Masseria, an immigrant from Sicily, was gunned down in a diner in Brooklyn (Bonnano 62-63), then a few months later Salvatore Maranzano was murdered on September 10, 1931 in his office (Bonnano 69). Their deaths changed American crime, but what the aftermath actually signified was a changing of the guard. This leadership revolution led to the creation and founding of “The Commission,” a criminal administration comprised of high ranking figures that represented organized “families”.
Both of the men, Masseria and Maranzano, where immigrants from the Italian island of Sicily, were crime was rampant and largely uncontested. They committed several crimes for profit but a lot of it was for protection from the corrupt aristocracy that had exploited the poor on the island for centuries. It could be said that men like these were a “necessary evil” for the poor, who saw them as honorable protectors who would defend you, for a price, however. This led to the creation of the first protection rackets, a tradition that was brought to America at the turn of the 20th century (Bonnano 20).
Unfortunately, a lack of opportunity to gain real wealth and power on the island drove these men to go in search of the “American Dream”. By looking at the origin of these men, you see a similarity to many immigrant groups that have migrated to this country in search of the “Dream” and wanting a piece of it for themselves, whether it was Europeans back then or now, as we see with Latin Americans and Middle Easterners. Just as a logical human being can’t say all immigrants are criminals currently, the same can be said of the Italians who came in droves in the 19th and 20th century. Most were hard working and decent people who were tired of being exploited, but many like Masseria and Maranzano wanted power and respect. They would quickly attain all this through different means whether it was verbal persuasion to using force but always adhering to a dogma of respect and honor, when it was to their advantage.
Watching out for your Paisan was crucial to men like this because they were like brothers and vital to daily livelihood. Never “ratting” to the police was extremely important, as was the fact that children were never to be involved or victims of these activities, which would be punished by death more often than not. Children were innocents as far as these men were concerned, but another rule that they believed had to be respect and followed universally was the banning of selling narcotics. One thing was to offer “protection”, prostitution, or gambling but drugs were a “dirty” business that only brought consequences to everyone involved in its dealings (Bonnano 115).
In America during this period is when crime became more organized, initially starting as small gangs of hooligans to eventually becoming corporate-like organizations with hundreds of members and growing political influence. As more immigrants began arriving, they were segregated into specific areas like Brooklyn and the Bronx in New York City, where people then closely associated themselves with those who had similar backgrounds, especially Italians who formed bonds with countrymen from the same regions. The tradition of “family” in crime was natural in Italy, so immigrants brought that same mentality. Part of that was to stick with those whom you shared a similar native region. No outsiders were ever allowed in the inner circle, and of course, one should never speak to others of the existence of your “family” especially to law enforcement (Olla 54).
The idea of operating crime like a corporation was born during one of the worst periods in American History, the Great Depression. This thought was the brainchild of both Charlie Luciano, the man behind the deaths of the two men that were aforementioned earlier, and also a Jewish criminal who is known popularly as Meyer Lansky. It was these two men, with the help of other Italian-born gangsters, such as Johnny Torrio and the future “founder” of Las Vegas, Jewish mobster Benjamin Siegel. They organized criminals who had before killed each other in the streets of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia into a complex, criminal machine.
Both Luciano and Lansky were raised in immigrant families, Luciano from Sicily and Lansky from a Jewish family native to modern-day Belarus. Luciano in particular was born in the Island of Sicily but came to this country as a young child, and so wasn’t raised in the traditional ways of Sicilian men in comparison to Maranzano for example. People have to understand that the men that ran Sicily’s crime scene had strict rules and morals that allowed them to flourish and maintain a force in everything from politics, economics, and all aspects of everyday life despite being labeled a criminal society. This played a major role later on in America when the Commission was created as they sought to have their hands in everything from gambling rackets to the steel and auto industry. In Sicily these men were part of families as far as they were concerned, families that made money through the black market, extortion, and racketeering. However depending on an individual’s outlook, it could be said that these families protected themselves from abusive law enforcement used by a corrupt government that often exploited them, by looking out for one another and those they deemed “our people” (Olla 65).
Consequently when many of the Italians started arriving in droves, many looked to them to help protect them from these new and unknown rulers. Obviously I must stress only a small number of immigrants became part of such nefarious groups but nonetheless, their future impact could not be ignored. For decades these men remained largely unorganized in New York City and later Chicago. Usually men stuck with fellow transplants from the same towns, distrusting anyone else, Sicilians stuck with Sicilians and so forth. Sicilians later splintered into smaller factions pertaining to a certain part of the island of Sicily. Joe Masseria began to amass great power through intimidation as he armed and united many men who were from a similar background. However as his army grew, there began to be opposition to his autocratic rule from within his own group. It seemed that being ruled by an iron hand was not the “American” way, everyone deserved to get rich because as his minions saw it, there was plenty for everyone.
Case in point, Charlie Luciano, a young and aspiring criminal with his friends, Lansky, Siegel, and later fellow Italian childhood friends Jack Costello and Vito Genovese began to feel disenchanted and wanted more than they were allowed to earn and be. As far as these men were concerned making money was more important than paying tribute to a Caesar-like ruler, while still following their code of course. It was only a matter of time before things began to simmer then finally explode (Bonnano 52).
With the outbreak of the Castellammarese War in 1930, (Olla 54) which was a result of splintering within Italian gangs led principally by Masseria and Maranzano, the young gangsters initiated their master plan. Masseria was the first to go, then after pretending to recognize Maranzano as the “boss of bosses”, he too was murdered in a double cross by Luciano. Effectively taking over the largest family in New York, he moved quickly to establish peace after a period of bloody conflict between Maranzano and Masseria, a conflict whose violence still hasn’t been seen since.
Instead of throwing his new weight around, Luciano with help from Lansky organized the first meeting of the commission to settle any grudges which were squashed in the name of making money and power. The commission compromised of Luciano’s family, along with four others who carried the names of their bosses. These names were Gaetano, Profaci, Mangano, and Bonnano, respectively. While peace was established there were different agendas at play, Luciano family was considered “Liberal”, while the others were “conservative” led by Bonnano. Luciano got this label because of his willingness to distribute narcotics and work with outsiders such as Lansky and Siegel, who were both Jewish. Luciano never really cared for the old world customs, profit came before anything else as he saw it, definitely more Americanized than the other bosses. Meanwhile the others were conservative because they believed in order to preserve their way of life it was crucial to exclude outsiders who did not share their backgrounds much less their views. More importantly the sale of narcotics was to be banned because of its consequences, losing political influence being the most important.
Though Luciano tried his best to keep narcotic distribution under control, going as far as making an African-American organization in Harlem his partners and expanding the Mob to the West Coast by sending Benjamin Siegel out there, it was however, his undoing. He was put on trial and lost during World War 2 then exiled to Italy where he remained until he died in 1962. The Commission’s leadership was hijacked during this time by a new faction of younger mobsters who were led by Carlo Gambino and eventually his brother-in-law “Big” Paul Castellano, these men involved the mafia in narcotics on a much larger scale not even seen during the 30’s. From the 70’s thought the 90s however the Commission was unraveled from within thanks largely to the federal government creating the RICO act and also making the sale and distribution a crime for which you had to serve a life sentence. Members were quick to “rat” on each other eventually landing many top members in prison leading to the disintegration of one of America’s oldest and darkest institutions.
By ignoring its oldest rules from its inception, the Commission sealed its own fate by drowning in its own greed leaving the country’s criminal enterprises wide open and as we see today on the news, the results of that demise. By no means were these men the “good guys” but then again do such men even exist? What we do know is the modern crime epidemic is a far cry from a simpler time when a group of men either controlled or influenced all crime in the United States, safe to say the Commission was very much an American Idea.
“There’s no such thing as good or bad money. There’s just money.”
-Salvatore Lucania aka Charlie “Lucky” Luciano