The epic saga of the Genovese crime family
To realize his dream for a national crime syndicate, Luciano first had to gain control of New York. The old bosses, who cared less for their men's well-being than their own personal enrichment, had to go. Luciano orchestrated a plot to kill "Joe the Boss" Masseria, luring him to a Coney Island restaurant and engaging him in a game of cards after a big meal. When Luciano excused himself to go to the men's room, four gunmen—including the notoriously violent Bugsy Siegel—walked into the restaurant and shot Masseria to death.
Masseria's passing gave rival boss Salvatore Maranzano unchallenged authority over the New York rackets. Luciano made peace with Maranzano and was made his second-in-command, put in charge of Masseria's men. Maranzano was a bit more forward-thinking than Joe the Boss in that he sought to organize the Sicilian gangsters in America into five borghati or family villages. This was a step in the direction Luciano favored, but it wasn't enough to satisfy the ambitious young gangster. Sensing that Luciano would be trouble, Maranzano paid the notorious Irish hitman Vince "Mad Dog" Coll a down payment of $25,000 with a promise of $25,000 more for the rubout of Luciano and his top associate Vito Genovese. But Luciano had a spy within Maranzano's organization, Tommy Lucchese, and when Luciano learned of the contract on his life, he decided to strike first.
On September 10, 1931, Maranzano ordered Luciano and Genovese to come to his office. Fearing that they were being set up for the kill, Luciano dispatched his own team of hand-picked killers: four Jewish gangsters whose faces were unknown to Maranzano's people. The hit team went to Maranzano's office before Luciano's scheduled arrival and told the secretary that they were government agents sent to do a spot-check of the books. Tommy Lucchese made sure he was there to point out Maranzano to the hit men. After disarming Maranzano's bodyguards, two of the hitmen held the guards at bay in the outer office while the other two went into Maranzano's inner office where they shot and stabbed him. Their mission accomplished, the four assassins and Lucchese fled down the staircase. On their way down, they ran into "Mad Dog" Coll who was just arriving to get set up for the murders of Luciano and Genovese. Informed of Maranzano's bloody demise, Coll turned around and left a happy man, $25,000 richer with no "work" to be performed.
(For decades, journalists and mob scholars have cited September 10, 1931, as "The Night of the Sicilian Vespers" when scores of mobsters—as many as 90 by some accounts—were assassinated allegedly on orders from Luciano and Meyer Lansky in a mass purge to clear the decks for their takeover. Jerry Capeci in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia credibly debunks this myth, proving that at most five gangsters tied to Maranzano died that day.)
With Maranzano out of the way, Luciano was now free to put together the crime syndicate of his dreams with tentacles that reached across the country and covered lucrative rackets in labor manipulation, loan-sharking, gambling, drugs, prostitution, and boot-legging. The new syndicate's board of directors included such nefarious non-Sicilians as Frank Costello, Dutch Shultz, Joe Adonis, Louis Lepke, and Meyer Lansky. Luciano even toyed with the idea of dropping the syndicate's Mafia affiliation but was dissuaded by Lansky who felt that the specter of the Mafia would help them keep people in line even though at one point the Jewish members outnumbered the Sicilians.
Under Luciano's leadership, the syndicate might have grown to even more treacherous proportions if he hadn't been convicted on prostitution charges in 1936 and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. Luciano supporters cried foul, claiming that the case was a frame based on the testimony of lying pimps and whores who were plea-bargaining themselves out of prison time. Ironically, Luciano personally found prostitution an odious pursuit, though he didn't seem to have any trouble sharing in its profits.
The special prosecutor leading the charge against Luciano was Thomas E. Dewey who at the time didn't realize that Luciano had saved his life earlier that year when Dutch Schultz vowed to assassinate the pesky prosecutor. Luciano knew that this would be bad for business, bringing down the wrath of the government, but Schultz was unwilling to listen to reason from fellow syndicate members. To stop the "Dutchman" from carrying out the hit, Luciano had Schultz killed. He was gunned down as he stood at a urinal in the Palace Chop House and Tavern in Newark, N.J.
Luciano's involvement with Dewey did not end with Lucky's conviction. Dewey, who was later elected governor of the state of New York, sought out Luciano's help during World War II to get the underworld to help with security on the New York docks. In exchange for his help, Luciano was released from prison but deported to Italy.
Luciano, who had been running the syndicate from prison, knew that he would have a hard time maintaining control over his rackets from Italy, so he clandestinely moved his base of operations to Cuba. Eventually the U.S. government learned of his presence there and forced him to return to Italy. The man he left in charge of what would later become known as the Genovese family was part of the new breed of gangster, an Italian, but not a Sicilian, who preferred negotiation over conflict, and for that reason became known as the Prime Minister of the mob.