Frank Costello, born Francesco Castiglia (January 26, 1891—February 18, 1973) was a New York gangster who rose to the top of America's underworld, controlled a vast gambling empire across the United States and enjoyed political influence like no other La Cosa Nostra boss.
Nicknamed the Prime Minister of the Underworld, he became one of the most powerful and influential Mafia bosses in American history, eventually leading a criminal organization dubbed by law enforcement as the "Rolls-Royce of organized crime", the Luciano crime family (later called the Genovese crime family).
While working for the Morello gang, Castiglia met Charlie "Lucky" Luciano the Sicilian leader of Manhattan's Lower East Side gang. The two Italians immediately became friends and partners. Along with Italian-American associates Vito Genovese and Gaetano "Tommy" Lucchese and Jewish associates Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the gang became involved in robbery, theft, extortion, gambling and narcotics. The Lucania-Costello-Lansky alliance prospered even further and with the passage of Prohibition in 1920, the gang went into bootlegging, financed by criminal financier Arnold Rothstein.
The success of the young Italians let them branch out and make business deals with the leading Jewish and Irish criminals of the era, including Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer, Owney "The Killer" Madden and William "Big Bill" Dwyer. Rothstein became a mentor to Castiglia, Luciano, Lansky and Seigel while they conducted bootlegging business with Bronx beer baron Schultz. In 1922, Castiglia, Luciano, and their closest Italian associates joined the Sicilian mafia crime family led by Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria, a top Italian underworld boss. By 1924, Costello had become a close associate of Hell's Kitchen's Irish crime bosses Dwyer and Madden. Costello became deeply involved in their rum-running operations, known as "The Combine"; this could have prompted his name change.
In 1926, Combine boss Bill Dwyer was convicted of bribing a United States Coast Guard official and was sentenced to two years in jail. After Dwyer was imprisoned, Costello took over the Combine's operations with Owney Madden. This caused friction between Madden and top Dwyer lieutenant, Charles "Vannie" Higgins. Higgins, referred to as Brooklyn's "Last Irish Crime Boss," believed he should be running the Combine, not Costello. Thus, the "Manhattan Beer Wars" began between Higgins on one side, and Costello, Madden, and Schultz on the other. At this particular time, Schultz was also having problems with gangsters Jack "Legs" Diamond and Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll. With Higgins' help, these two hoodlums had begun to rival Schultz and his partners. Eventually, the Costello-Madden-Schultz alliance was destroyed by New York's underworld.
In spite of losing the gang war, Frank continued to be a very influential gangster throughout the 1920s. Frank kept close associates Luciano, Lansky and Siegel involved in most of his gambling rackets, which included punch cards, slot machines, bookmaking and floating casinos. Frank eventually became known as the "Prime Minister of the Underworld" for his cultivation of associations and business relationships with New York's criminals, politicians, businessmen, judges, and police officials. As he followed the "Big Three" ideology of mixing crime, business and politics, Costello's underworld influence grew. His fellow gangsters considered Frank to be an important link between the Mafia and the politicians of Tammany Hall, New York's Democratic Party organization. This relationship gave Costello and his associates, including Luciano, the opportunity to buy the favors of politicians, judges, district attorneys, cops, city officials and whoever else they needed to bribe in order to freely run their criminal operations.
In 1927, Costello, Luciano, and former Chicago gangster John "Johnny the Fox" Torrio organized a group of top East Coast rumrunners into a large bootlegging operation. This gang was able to pool their Canadian and European liquor sources, maximize profits, minimize overhead, and gain an advantage over their competition. The operation was known as the "Big Seven Group", the first concrete move in organizing the American underworld into a national crime syndicate. In May 1929, Costello, Luciano, Torrio, Lansky, and Atlantic City/South Jersey crime boss, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson hosted a crime convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This convention included the members of the "Big Seven Group" and the top crime leaders from across the nation. This was the first true underworld meeting and the biggest step in forming a National Crime Syndicate that would control criminal operations, dictate policy, enforce rules, and maintain authority in the national underworld. Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano were not invited because their Old World ideology and philosophy ran counter to the convention's goals.
Joe Masseria became an underworld dictator, requiring absolute loyalty and obedience from the other four New York families. In 1930, Masseria demanded a $10,000 tribute from the leader of Maranzano's crime family and got it. The Castellammarese Clan leader, Nicola "Cola" Schiro fled New York in fear, leaving Maranzano as the new leader. By 1931, a series of killings in Detroit, Chicago and New York involving Castellammarese clan members and associates caused Maranzano and his family to declare war against Joe Masseria and his allies. These allies included Costello and his associates, Luciano, Vito Genovese and Joe Adonis. Another Masseria ally was the large Mineo crime family (formerly D'Aquila), whose members included Costello associates Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia, Carlo Gambino, and Frank Scalice. The Castellammarese clan included Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno and Stefano Magaddino, the Profaci crime family which included Joseph Profaci and Joseph Magliocco, along with former Masseria allies the Riena family, which included Gaetano "Tom" Riena, Gaetano "Tommy" Gagliano and Gaetano "Tommy" Lucchese.
The Castellammarese war raged on between the Masseria and Maranzano factions for almost two years. This internal war devastated the Prohibition era operations and street rackets that the five New York families controlled with the Irish crime groups. The Castellammarese war cut into gang profits and in some cases completely destroyed the underworld rackets of crime family members. Gang members started realizing that if the war did not stop soon, the Italian crime families could be left on the fringe of New York's criminal underworld while the Irish crime bosses became dominant. The war and the Old World crime bosses, Masseria and Maranzano, were counter productive to the aspirations of the Atlantic City delegates, Costello, Luciano and their group of "Young Turks".
Costello, Luciano, Vito Genovese, Anastasia, Adonis, Lucchese, Lansky, and Seigel decided to end the Castellammarese War and form a National Syndicate. On April 15, 1931, Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria was gunned down at Scarpato's restaurant in Coney Island by Luciano associates and gunmen, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis and Bugsy Seigel. Salvatore Maranzano served as boss of bosses until September 10, 1931, when he was killed in his 9th floor Helmsley Building office in Manhattan by gunmen posing as IRS agents. Hired by Lansky and Luciano, the shooters allegedly included Schultz gang lieutenant, Abraham "Bo" Weinberg and Murder, Inc. gunman, Samuel "Red" Levine. It has been estimated that the Castellammarese War led to about 60 deaths among gangsters.
In 1936, Luciano was convicted, in one of the biggest frame-ups of the times, of running a prostitution ring and sent to Dannemora prison, known as "Siberia," in Upstate New York, for 30 to 50 years. Luciano attempted to rule the crime family from prison with the help of Costello and Lansky, but it was difficult to do far away from the streets of New York. Luciano finally named underboss, Vito Genovese as the acting boss of the Luciano family. However, Genovese was himself indicted for murder in 1937 and had to flee to his hometown of Naples, Italy. Genovese ingratiated himself with Benito Mussolini and the Fascists by donating $250,000 to them from a cash hoard of $750,000 carried in a suitcase. Luciano then appointed Frank Costello acting boss.
During World War II, Lucky Luciano, while still in prison, allegedly helped the US military protect the New York waterfront from sabotage through his control of the docks. Luciano is also said to have helped the Allied invasion of Sicily by contacting Sicilian mafia boss, Calogero "Don Calo" Vizzini and procuring his help. For assisting the war effort, Luciano's prison sentence was commuted (it was said to be a frame up) and he was deported to Italy in 1946. Frank Costello then became undisputed boss of the Luciano crime family.
From May 1950—May 1951, the US Senate conducted a large scale investigation of organized crime, commonly known as the Kefauver Hearings. The entire country was held in awe by the parade of over 600 gangsters, pimps, bookies, politicians and shady lawyers testifying before congress while being show cased on America's newest fascination, television. The hearings were called by a Special Committee of the United States Senate chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who had been appointed to investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce."
By this time, Frank Costello had become a powerful and respected underworld figure; however, Costello stilled craved the respectability of high society. Costello allegedly consulted a psychiatrist on achieving this goal, but ultimately failed to gain legitimate respectability. During the Kefauver hearings, Frank Costello became the star attraction, being billed as America's #1 gangster and the de facto leader of Tammany Hall. As the underworld grapevine put it, "Nobody in New York City can be made a judge without Costello's consent."
Costello agreed to testify at the hearings and not take the Fifth Amendment, in contrast to all the previous underworld figures to take the stand. The Special Committee and the TV networks had agreed not to broadcast Frank Costello's face, only his hands. During the questioning, Costello nervously refused to answer certain questions and skirted around others. When asked by the committee, "What have you done for your country Mr. Costello?", his reply was, "Paid my tax!" Costello eventually walked out of the hearings.
Costello found the 1950s to be very trying, as the high visibility he received during the Kefauver Hearings brought additional law enforcement and media scrutiny. However, Costello's greatest troubles began with the assassination of Willie Moretti, his right hand man. His mental condition had prompted Moretti to reveal some embarrassing details at the Kefauver hearings. As a result, the Commission ordered Moretti's elimination, which happened October 4, 1951 in a New Jersey restaurant. In addition to Moretti's death, Costello was convicted on contempt of Senate charges in August 1952 for the hearings walkout, and went to jail for 18 months. Released after 14 months, Costello was charged with tax evasion in 1954 and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Costello served 11 months of this sentence before it was overturned on appeal. In 1956, Costello was again convicted and sent to prison. In early 1957, he was again released on appeal.
Vito Genovese had patiently waited 10 years after his deportation from Italy to make his final move against Frank Costello, and time had finally arrived. On May 2, 1957, soon after Costello's release from prison, an attempt was made on his life. As Costello was walking to the elevator in the lobby of his Manhattan apartment building, he was shot in the head by Genovese driver and protege, Vincente "The Chin" Gigante. Before making the shot, Gigante called out "This is for you Frank!". On hearing this, Costello turned his head and the bullet entered the right side of his scalp, traveled around his head, and stopped over his left ear. Gigante fled the scene thinking the fallen Costello was dead. However, Gigante's unintentional warning had saved Costello and left him with only a scalp wound. After the abortive hit, Gigante went on the lam and lost a great deal of weight from his 6'2, 300 pound frame to conceal his identity. However, Gigante finally turned himself in to face mob trial, hoping that Costello would adhere to the mafia code of secrecy, "Omertà". Gigante was eventually acquitted.
Vito Genovese now ordered all the Luciano crime family members loyal to him to show their support by attending a meeting at his New Jersey mansion. All the family's capos showed up except Costello loyalist Anthony Carfano (who was murdered for this insult on September 25, 1959). Even though the attempt on Costello's life had failed, Vito Genovese went on to appoint himself boss of the Luciano crime family. He then called for a national Commission meeting to discuss mafia affairs in New York and other important issues. The Luciano crime family, the most powerful, influential and wealthy crime family in America, was now officially renamed the Genovese crime family.
After recovering from the assassination attempt, Frank Costello and Vito Genovese made peace before the 1957 Appalachin meeting. Costello abdicated as family boss in favor of Genovese. In return, Genovese let Costello keep all of his gambling operations in Louisiana and Florida, and his legitimate business interests. Officially, Costello was demoted to the rank of soldier within the crime family, but he was never looked at as less than a top level boss in the criminal organization he helped build, "La Cosa Nostra" or "This Thing of Ours."
At this time, Vito Genovese was leery of the murderous Albert Anastasia, who was still furious over the Costello assassination attempt. Vito Genovese called upon Lucchese crime family Boss, Tommy Lucchese and his close ally, Anastasia crime family Underboss, Carlo Gambino to eliminate Anastasia. Anastasia's death would give Genovese majority control of the New York mafia and Gambino the status of boss and Commission member. On October 25, 1957, Albert Anastasia, New York mafia Boss and the former chieftain of Murder, Inc. was shot and killed in the barber shop of the Park Sheraton Hotel. The gunmen allegedly were the Gallo brothers, members of the Profaci crime family working under orders from Carlo Gambino.
After the Anastasia murder, Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino took control of their crime families and began to recover from the publicity and law enforcement scrutiny from the ill-fated Apalachin Meeting. However, peace for Genovese was short-lived. A new conspiracy was reportedly hatched by Costello, Luciano, Carlo Gambino and Meyer Lansky to avenge the Costello and Anastasia hits, and to eliminate Genovese. The resulting power structure would make Gambino the new boss of bosses, just as Luciano had once predicted.
In 1959, the conspirators arranged the framing of Genovese, Vincent Gigante, and future Bonanno Family boss Carmine Galante on a drug charge. Vito Genovese was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, where he died in 1969. Carmine Galante received 20 years in 1962, was paroled in 1974, and assassinated in 1979.
As a testament to Frank Costello's fame and influence, Carmine Galante ordered the bombing of Frank Costello's burial site soon after his release from prison in 1974. By blasting the bronze doors off Costello's mausoleum, Galante announced his return to the New York mafia scene and finally achieved revenge on his old nemesis.