Ten Most Notorious American Gangsters
The American gangster has been both romanticized and vilified in books, movies and pop culture. Here are ten American mobsters from the Roaring Twenties and beyond who left their indelible mark on criminal history. We begin in Chicago...
Al Capone (1899-1947)
Unarguably the world's most famous gangster, Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 17, 1899. With mobster Johnny Torrio as his mentor, Big Al later became the czar of the Chicago underworld, raking in tens of millions of dollars from the Outfit's illegal activities in bootlegging, prostitution, loan sharking and numbers. Capone could be ruthless, allegedly ordering the infamous 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre in which five members and two associates of the rival North Side Gang were lined up in the garage of the SMC Cartage Company and shot to death. The feds later caught up with the notorious "Scarface," with Capone serving seven years in federal prison, including a stretch in Alcatraz, for income tax evasion. Al Capone died of complications from neurosyphilis in Palm Island, Florida, on January 25, 1947. His simple grave marker reads: "Alphonse Capone 1899-1947, My Jesus Mercy."
Al Capone on the cover of the March 24, 1930, edition of Time magazine (Time, Inc.)
Charles "Lucky" Luciano (1897-1962)
Salvatore Luciano was born in Lercara Friddi, Sicily, on November 24, 1897. A protege of Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein, Luciano hit it big in Prohibition days, grossing some $12 million a year through his bootlegging activities. In time, Luciano ascended to the top of the New York underworld, organizing the Commission, a ruling body overseeing all Mafia operations, where he served as its high priest. Luciano, who had earned his famous nickname of "Lucky" after surviving a beating and stabbing in 1929, eventually ran afoul of crusading New York special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Convicted of running one of the largest prostitution rings in the country in 1936, Luciano was given a 30-50-year prison sentence. Eventually paroled for his assistance in helping the Allies during World War II, Luciano was "voluntarily" deported to his native Italy in 1946. Lucky Luciano died of a heart attack in Naples, Italy, on January 26, 1962.
Frank Costello (1891-1973)
Feted as the "Prime Minister of the Underworld," Frank Costello was born Francesco Castiglia in Lauropoli, Italy, on January 26, 1891. An early protege of Ciro "The Artichoke King" Terranova, an East Harlem Mafioso underboss, Costello later joined Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in the rackets. The alliance prospered during Prohibition, with Costello ascending the underworld ladder, becoming acting boss of the Luciano crime syndicate in 1936 after Lucky was sent to prison. During the televised Kefauver Hearings of 1950-51, Costello became one of the Senate special committee's star attractions. When asked to name one thing that he had done for his country, Costello replied in his trademark raspy voice, "Paid my tax!" The law eventually caught up to Costello, convicting him of income tax evasion. Costello was also the target of an assassination attempt in 1957 when Vincent "The Chin" Gigante wounded him in the head with an errant shot. Frank Costello enjoyed a longer life than many Mafioso bigwigs, finally succumbing to a heart attack at age 82 in New York City on February 18, 1973.
Frank Costello mug shot from 1935 (New York City Police Department)
Arthur "Dutch" Schultz (1902-1935)
The fabled "Beer Baron of the Bronx" was born Arthur Flegenheimer in New York City on August 6, 1902. The teenage Schultz entered the rackets early, working for Arnold Rothstein in his bootlegging operation. Later, Schultz and friend Joey Noe branched out on their own, operating a speakeasy and distributing their own brew. The Schultz-Noe partnership eventually ran afoul of the Rothstein organization, with Jack "Legs" Diamond allegedly eliminating Joey Noe in 1928.
Schultz's people retaliated, with Diamond mowed down while sleeping off a bender in 1931. Pursued by Thomas E. Dewey for income tax evasion, Schultz made plans to assassinate the high profile U.S. Attorney, a prospect that didn't sit well with the Mafia's ruling Commission because of the law enforcement heat it would bring. Undeterred, Schultz continued with his plans, only to be assassinated himself by Louis "Lepke" Buchalter's Murder, Inc. The Dutchman, along with two bodyguards and his accountant were attacked by hit men Charles Workman and Emanuel "Mendy" Weiss at the Palace Chophouse in Newark, New Jersey, on October 23, 1935. All four men eventually succumbed to their wounds, with a hospitalized Schultz – muttering mostly gibberish while his wife, mother, a priest, the medical staff and police looked on – lingering for 22 hours before expiring. Dutch Schultz, who was actually of German-Jewish descent, is buried under his real name of Flegenheimer at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.
Carlo Gambino (1902-1976)
Carlo Gambino was born in Caccamo, Italy, on August 24, 1902. Reared in a Sicilian crime family, Gambino started his criminal career early, carrying out hits and becoming a "made man" in the Mafia while still in his teens. Gambino later illegally immigrated to the United States where he worked for several New York crime families. The ambitious but low-key Gambino eventually became "Don Carlo," arranging Mafia don Albert Anastatia's murder in 1957 and becoming the "boss of bosses" in 1962.
By the early 1960s, law enforcement estimated that the Gambino crime family was raking in some $500 million a year from various illegal enterprises. In 1974, a drunken Carmine "Mimi" Scialo of the Colombo crime family publicly disrespected "Don Carlo" at an Italian restaurant. Gambino remained calm throughout the harangue, with Scialo's body later found encased in a "cement overcoat" at Otto's Social Club in Brooklyn. Carlo Gambino died of a heart attack at his Massapequa, New York, home on October 15, 1976. Among the reported 2,000+ people who attended his funeral were judges, police officers and politicians.
Carlo Gambino mug shot from the 1930s (New York City Police Department)
Meyer Lansky (1902-1983)
Duly recognized as one of organized crime's financial whiz kids, Meyer Lansky was born Meyer Suchowljanski in Grodno, Russia, on July 4, 1902. A childhood friend and associate of Lucky Luciano, Lansky's principal business was gambling and money laundering. In time, Lansky's extensive gambling empire included interests in Florida, Cuba, Louisiana, New York and Nevada.
A co-founder of the National Syndicate and the Commission, it was rumored that Lansky gave the final okay to eliminate Las Vegas business associate Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in 1947 when the latter failed to produce profits at the troubled Flamingo Hotel and Casino. In 1974, a jury acquitted Lansky of income tax evasion. Meyer Lansky died of lung cancer in Miami Beach, Florida, on January 15, 1983. Although officially worth very little on paper, Lansky's secreted assets were reported to be in excess of $300 million at the time of his death.
Carlos Marcello (1910-1993)
Born Calogero Minacore to Sicilian parents in Tunis, Tunisia, on February 6, 1910, Carlos "The Little Man" Marcello emigrated with his family to the United States in 1911, settling in Metairie, Louisiana. A life of crime came early for Marcello, who with his teenage crews carried out a series of armed robberies in small towns just outside of New Orleans. Convicted on assault and robbery charges, Marcello did a five-year stretch in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. A business associate of Frank Costello of the Genovese crime family in New York, Marcello eventually became Mafia boss of New Orleans, catching the attention of the U.S. Senate Labor Rackets Committee, whose chief counsel was Robert F. Kennedy.
Later, after his brother John became President, now Attorney General Robert Kennedy had Marcello deported to Guatemala. Marcello's hatred for the Kennedys has led to valid speculation that the New Orleans crime boss may have had a hand in the November 22, 1963, assassination of President Kennedy. According to one informant, Marcello conveyed to him that some type of "insurance" would be needed in carrying out the assassination by "setting up some nut to take the fall for the job, just like they do in Sicily." Following a series of strokes and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Carlos Marcello died at his two-story mansion in Metairie, Louisiana, on March 3, 1993.
Albert Anastasia (1902-1957)
Born Umberto Anastasio in Tropea, Italy, on September 26, 1902, Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia ran afoul of the law at a young age, killing a fellow longshoreman and receiving the death penalty. Anastasia, however, won a new trial, which never materialized as the original witnesses mysteriously failed to come forward. Released from infamous Sing Sing after serving 18 months, the ambitious Anastasia began his ascent to the top of the Mafia hierarchy. On the orders of Lucky Luciano, Anastasia and three other hit men eliminated Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria at a Coney Island eatery on April 15, 1931.
Anastasia earned high marks for his "talent" for homicide, later becoming one of the syndicate's valued chiefs of its feared enforcement arm Murder, Inc. From 1951-57 Anastasia headed the Gambino crime family, with his reign coming to a bloody end on October 25, 1957, when two cloaked assassins gunned him down in New York City. "Albert Anastasia, 'Lord High Executioner' of Murder, Inc., was rudely dispatched from his throne yesterday when two gunmen walked into the Park Sheraton Hotel, pumped four bullets into him as he sat in a barber chair and left him for dead. Thus did the gangster who beat the chair five times wind up his career of crime," wryly noted the New York Daily News in its October 26, 1957, edition.
Albert Anastasia mug shot from 1936 (New York City Police Department)
Sam Giancana (1908-1975)
Sam Giancana entered this world as Salvatore Giangana in Chicago, Illinois, on June 15, 1908. Giancana got his start with the Forty-Two Gang, where he served as a getaway driver and hired killer. Giancana, who had a knack for making money, won favor with Windy City Mafia boss Tony Accardo, later succeeding him as head of the Chicago Outfit from 1957-66. In recently declassified government documents, it was revealed that Giancana along with other Mafioso were recruited by the CIA during the Kennedy years to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Both Giancana and Kennedy had shared a mistress, Judith Campbell Exner, only adding fuel to the Castro assassination plot.
While in exile in Mexico, Giancana was arrested by authorities there and deported back to the United States. Now on the outs with his former Mafia associates, Giancana indicated his willingness to cooperate with the government in its continuing investigation into organized crime. Giancana was also scheduled to testify before a United States Senate committee looking into a possible CIA/Mafia connection in the JFK assassination. With his police protection detail mysteriously recalled that night, Sam Giancana was killed at his Oak Park, Illinois, home on June 19, 1975. The killer took no chances in eliminating "Sam the Cigar," shooting him in the back of the head and then turning him over and delivering six more shots to his face and neck. At the time of his death, Giancana had been cooking sausages and peppers.
Paul Castellano (1915-1985)
Born Constantino Paul Castellano in Brooklyn, New York, on June 26, 1915, "Big Paul" cut his teeth in the Mangano crime family. Castellano, who stood 6'2" tall and weighed a hefty 270 pounds, later became an underboss in the Gambino crime syndicate and eventually reigned as "boss of bosses" from 1976-85. Castellano, whose father was a butcher, could be vindictively ruthless, once ordering a hit on Vito Borelli, his daughter's boyfriend, who had "disrespected" him by comparing the Mafioso to the elderly, balding Frank Perdue, owner of Perdue Farms.
Other murders were carried out on Castellano's say, including those of abusive son-in-law Frank Amato, Mafia soldier James "Jimmy the Clam" Eppolitto and mobster Nicholas "Little Nicky" Scibetta, the brother-in-law of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. But what goes around comes around, with an ambitious John Gotti ordering hits on Castellano and capo Tommy Bilotti, both of whom were gunned down outside Sparks Steak House in New York City on December 16, 1985. The official cause of death: a polite sounding "ballistic trauma."
Paul Castellano mug shot from 1984 (Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Ten More Notorious American Mobsters
- John "The Teflon Don" Gotti (1940-2002)
- Charlie Birger (1880-1928)
- Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonnanno (1905-2002)
- Tony "Joe Batters" Accardo (1906-1992)
- Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti (1881-1943)
- Vincent "The Chin" Gigante (1928-2005)
- Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (1906-1947)
- James J. "Whitey" Bulger (1929-)
- Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein (1882-1928)
- Vito "Don Vito" Genovese (1897-1969)
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (gangstersinc.tripod.com)
- Al Capone, czar of the Chicago underworld (telegraph.co.uk)
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.