hauling into court

Lucky Luciano

Charles "Lucky" Luciano (born Salvatore Lucania; November 24, 1897 – January 26, 1962) was a Sicilian mobster. Luciano is considered the father of modern organized crime and the mastermind of the massive postwar expansion of the international heroin trade. He is the first official boss of the modern Genovese crime family.

TIME Magazine once named Luciano among the top 20 most influential builders and titans of the 20th century.

Early life

Salvatore Lucania was born to Antonio and Rosalia (Cafarelli) Lucania, in Lercara Friddi, Sicily, a town primarily known for its sulfur mines. The promise of a better life led his family to emigrate to the United States in 1907. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, Luciano was diagnosed with smallpox, an affliction that pockmarked his face for life.

Upon his arrival in New York, Luciano's parents settled in a Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side. They lived at 265 E. 10th Street in what is now the East Village. This is where Luciano set up his first operation: he shook down young Jewish children on their way to school. This was where he allegedly met Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Luciano attended PS 19 on E. 14th Street, where he bullied his classmates; extorting them for a penny a day for "protection" (from himself and his band of thugs whom he trained). One of the kids he bullied was Meyer Lansky, who stood up to Luciano's threats. The two grew to admire each other and joined forces. Neighborhood legend says they held meetings in the back of DeRobertis Pastry shop on E. 10th Street.

In 1911, Luciano served four months in a Brooklyn correctional facility for truancy. In 1915, Salvatore and his gang were in East Harlem where they were kicked out of a theater for rowdy behavior. It was that same night that Salvatore Lucania met Francesco Castiglia, better known as Frank Costello. Luciano and Costello became close friends.

At 18, Luciano was sentenced to six months at a reformatory for selling heroin and morphine. He began calling himself Charles to remove the shame that he had put upon his family. Upon his release, he resumed his dealings and joined the Five Points Gang with Frank Costello. In 1917, Luciano dodged being drafted into the United States Army and fighting in World War I. Luciano did this by intentionally catching chlamydia.


On January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. The Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages during the period of Prohibition. This gave every gangster on the street a new source of revenue through illegal alcohol sales.

Luciano had plans to expand his territory and expand his profits by collaborating with other gangsters to cut down the cost of political protection and reduce the likelihood of hijacked shipments. But Joe "The Boss" Masseria forbade Luciano from doing this.

By 1920, Luciano had met many of the mafia heavyweights, including Vito Genovese and Frank Costello, his longtime friend, business partner, and eventually Sottocapo through his involvement in the Five Points Gang. Together they began a bootlegging venture using a trucking firm as a front.

By 1925, Luciano was grossing over $100,000 a year; however, he was netting much less each year due to the high costs of bribing politicians and police. Luciano and his partners ran the largest bootlegging operation in New York, one that also extended into Philadelphia. He imported scotch whisky directly from Scotland, rum from the Caribbean, and whisky from Canada. He was also involved in gambling. By this time, Luciano was becoming a big player in the New York mob.

Rise to power

Soon Luciano joined forces with Joe "The Boss" Masseria, then the most powerful mafioso in New York. But the partnership was doomed from the start, as Luciano’s and Masseria’s methods of business differed greatly.

Masseria was a "Mustache Pete," an old-school mafioso who wanted to preserve the old Mafia ideals of "honor," "tradition," "respect" and "dignity" in America. Luciano and his contemporaries, on the other hand, were known as the "Young Turks." Like the original Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire, they formed a young, ambitious, impatient group which challenged the established order. The Mustache Petes would not work with anyone who was not Italian, and were skeptical of working with anyone who wasn't Sicilian. Luciano, however, believed that as long as money was being made, the roots of your partner did not matter. He was therefore shocked to hear old mafiosi lecturing him about his dealings with another mobster, Frank Costello, whom they called "the dirty Calabrian."

One day in 1929, Luciano was forced into a limo at gun point by three men, beaten and stabbed, and dumped on a beach on New York Bay. Luciano survived the ordeal, but was forever marked with the now famous scar and droopy eye.Hence earning him the name "lucky". After his abduction, Luciano found out through Meyer Lansky that it had been ordered by Masseria's enemy, Salvatore Maranzano. Luciano eventually did what Maranzano wanted and killed Masseria, on the condition that Maranzano establish Luciano as an equal boss. This plot would end the famous Castellammarese War.

The Castellammarese War raged from 1928 to 1931, resulting in the deaths of many mobsters, estimated to be as many as 60. The war ended with the assassination of Masseria in a Coney Island restaurant by Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese, and Joe Adonis. It is rumored that Luciano was having lunch with Masseria and stepped into the men's room just as the gunmen stormed the restaurant. Luciano then took over Masseria's crime family.

Salvatore Maranzano, Masseria's rival in the Castellammarese War, then made Luciano his number two man, and set up the Five Families of New York under him, promising that they would all be equal and all be free to make money. However, at a meeting of all the heavy-hitting gangsters in Upstate New York, Maranzano declared himself capo di tutti capi (Boss of all Bosses), which meant every Don in the country had to pay up to him. He also whittled down the rackets of the rival families in order to strengthen his own family.

Luciano could tolerate being lied to and cheated out of a few dollars, but when Meyer Lansky told him that Maranzano had plans to kill him, Luciano could no longer stand still. Lansky assembled a hit squad to pose as government agents. On the day Maranzano was to hire Luciano's assassin they stormed Maranzano's office, who thought he was being arrested. The squad cut Maranzano to ribbons with a volley of gunfire and repeated stabbings. On the way down the stairs, they met Mad Dog Coll, Luciano's would-be assassin.

Reorganizing Cosa Nostra

Luciano was now the model mobster, he had businesses throughout the country. His longtime friend Meyer Lansky served as his right-hand man, and Luciano always followed Lansky’s advice. During the years of Luciano's rule, they made the pact that they would only kill each other. When Dutch Schultz tried to kill New York attorney Thomas Dewey, in direct violation of the pact, Schultz was executed instead.

Charles Luciano was a young, powerful and influential gangster who had finally reached the pinnacle of America's underworld, directing its criminal rules, policies and activities along with the other top Bosses. He sat atop the most powerful crime family in America, which now bore his name and controlled the most lucrative criminal rackets in New York such as gambling, bookmaking, loan-sharking, and extortion. Luciano was very influential in labor and union activities and controlled the Manhattan Waterfront, garbage hauling, construction, Garment Center businesses, and trucking.

Luciano — seeing that the position only created tension and trouble between the families — abolished the title of Capo Di Tutti i Capi. Luciano felt that the ceremony of being "made a soldier" in a family should be done away with; however, Meyer Lansky urged him against it, saying that young people needed rituals to cling to. Luciano also stressed the importance of the omerta, the oath of silence, and kept the organizational structure that Maranzano had instituted.

The Commission

Luciano, under the urging of Johnny Torrio, also took it upon himself to set up the Mafia's ruling body.

Luciano organized the Commission with the Mafia's top men, and was its undisputed leader. The Commission was the gangster equivalent of the Supreme Court, and settled all gangland disputes. It has been called Luciano's most important innovation. The Commission decided who received what rackets and which territories. If an individual was to be a "made man," their Don had to go before The Commission and clear their sponsorship into the honored society.

The Commission was originally composed of representatives of the Five Families of New York City, the Buffalo crime family, and the Chicago Outfit of Al Capone; later, the Detroit crime family, the Los Angeles crime family and the Kansas City crime family were added. All bosses who sat in the Commission were supposed to retain the same power and had one vote, but in reality Luciano was the first among equals.

The original Luciano family

Luciano elevated his most trusted and loyal family members to high-level positions in the Luciano crime family. The feared Vito Genovese became his Underboss, while Frank Costello was his consigliere. Michael Coppola, Anthony Strollo, Joe Adonis, and Anthony Carfano all served as caporegimes. Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel were both unofficial advisors to the Luciano family.

Prosecutions and prison

Luciano's reign was relatively short-lived. Special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, a future Republican presidential candidate, singled out Luciano as an organized crime ringleader and targeted him, along with others. Luciano had previously voted against Dutch Schultz's proposal to assassinate Dewey after Schultz became the repeated target of Dewey's investigations. In a raid by Dewey of 80 New York City bordellos, hundreds of arrested prostitutes agreed to turn state's evidence in exchange for not receiving prison time. Three of them implicated Luciano as the ringleader, who made collections, although Dave Betillo was in charge of the prostitution ring in New York, and any money that Luciano received was from Betillo. But Dewey had also managed to persuade the staff at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to testify that Luciano's gangster friends had often come to his room.

Before he could get Luciano into court for trial, Luciano escaped to Hot Springs, Arkansas, the renowned gangster haven established by famous gangster Owney Madden. An Arkansas judge remanded Luciano to a state prison for extradition, but a local paid-off police detective bailed Luciano out of jail after only four hours. Dewey then sent detectives to Arkansas to spirit Luciano back for trial.

Dewey's efforts succeeded in Luciano being convicted on charges as leader of one of the largest prostitution rings in American history in 1936 and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison, along with Dave Betillo and others. Dewey exposed Luciano for lying on the witness stand, through direct quizzing and records of telephone calls, as well as getting Luciano to admit that he himself had once turned "stool pigeon" on a fellow drug dealer in order to get a lesser sentence; Luciano also had no explanation for why his federal income tax records claimed he made only $22,000 a year, while it was obvious to onlookers that he was a wealthy man.

Luciano continued to run the Luciano crime family from prison, relaying his orders through his first acting boss, Vito Genovese, who quickly lived up to his feared reputation for violence, and fled to Naples, Italy, in 1937 to avoid a murder indictment. The Family's third most powerful member, Consigliere Frank Costello became the new Sottocapo and overseer of Luciano's interests. It is a mystery to most organized crime historians who replaced Costello as the family consigliere. The only hint to the Costello successor is that former Genovese Family soldier, and the first mafia informer in the United States, Joe Valachi, mentions in the book The Valachi Papers, a certain "Sandino" as the Family counselor at a meeting he attends with his Capo, Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo.

Luciano was imprisoned in Clinton County Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, where co-defendant Dave Betillo prepared special dishes for Luciano in a special kitchen set aside by authorities. He would use his influence to help get the materials to build a church at the prison, which became famous for being one of the only freestanding churches in the New York State correctional system and also for the fact that on the church's altar are two of the original doors from the Victoria, the ship of Ferdinand Magellan.

World War II, freedom and deportation

During World War II, the U.S. government reportedly struck a secret deal with the imprisoned Luciano. United States Army Military Intelligence knew that Luciano maintained good connections in the Sicilian and Italian Mafia, which had been severely persecuted by Benito Mussolini. Luciano considered himself to be a loyal American who was devoted to Sicily, the Mafia, and the United States alike. His help was sought in providing Mafia assistance to counter possible Axis infiltration on U.S. waterfronts, during Operation Avalanche, and his connections in Italy and Sicily were tapped to furnish intelligence and ensure an easy passage for U.S. forces involved in the Italian Campaign. Albert Anastasia, who controlled the docks, promised that no dockworker strikes would arise. Luciano dropped a yellow handkerchief with his crest to signal friendly faces were approaching; this allowed for the Sicilian Mafia to arise from underground and participate in the liberation of Sicily. Both during and after the war, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies reputedly also used Luciano's Mafia connections to root out Communist influence in resistance groups and local governments.

In return for his cooperation, Luciano was allegedly permitted to run his crime empire unhindered from his jail cell. During the 1940s, Luciano used to meet US military men during train trips throughout Italy, and he enjoyed being recognized by his countrymen, several times taking photos and even signing autographs for them.

In 1946, as a reward for his wartime cooperation, Luciano was paroled on the condition that he depart the United States and return to Sicily. He accepted the deal, although he had maintained during his trial that he was a native of New York City and was therefore not subject to deportation. He was deeply hurt about having to leave the United States, a country he had considered his own ever since his arrival at age ten.

Luciano's confederates saw him off at the docks with envelopes stuffed with cash, reportedly as much as $100,000 or $150,000.

The Havana Conference

Although Luciano was paroled from prison on the condition that he permanently return to Sicily, he secretly moved to Cuba, where he worked to resume control over American mafia operations. Luciano also ran a number of casinos in Cuba with the sanction of Cuban president General Fulgencio Batista. Batista naturally received a percentage of the profits. As Luciano's Cuban revenues grew and the tourism and gambling business blossomed, Lansky, himself, started investing heavily in a Cuban hotel project.

In 1946, Lansky called together the heads of all the major Families, claiming that they were going to see Frank Sinatra perform. Luciano had three topics to discuss: the heroin trade, Cuban gambling, and what was to be done about Bugsy Siegel. The Conference took place at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and lasted a little more than a week.

One of the main topics for discussion at the Havana Conference was ordering a hit on Siegel, who was unaware of this meeting. Meyer Lansky, who several times owed his life to Siegel when they were young, took a stand against the hit. He begged the attendees to give Siegel a chance by waiting until after the casino opening. Luciano, who believed Siegel could still turn a profit in Las Vegas, Nevada and pay back what he owed the mafia investors, agreed to postpone the hit.

To placate his investors, Siegel opened Flamingo Las Vegas, his still-unfinished casino, on the star-studded night of December 26, 1946, although he did not have as many Hollywood celebrities with him as he had hoped. Soon the Flamingo ran dry of entertainers and customers; it closed after only two weeks in order to resume construction. The fully operational Flamingo re-opened in March 1947. Still dissatisfied, the casino's gangster investors once again met in Havana in the spring of 1947 to decide whether to "liquidate" Siegel. Luckily for Siegel, the Flamingo had just turned a profit that month. Lansky again spoke up in support of his old friend and convinced Luciano to give Siegel one last chance.

But when the Flamingo still failed to turn a profit, Siegel's fate was sealed; he was assassinated in June 1947.

The deposed Luciano, hungry for fame once again, asked that he be declared Capo Di Tutti i Capi. His old friends and business associates agreed that he deserved the title; all except Vito Genovese, who wanted the title for himself and is rumored to have leaked Luciano's whereabouts to the government. Luciano reportedly took him into a room and beat him severely for his betrayal.

When the US government learned of Luciano's presence in the Caribbean, he was forced to fly back to Italy. The US government threatened to stop all shipments of medical drugs to Cuba, unless Luciano left.

Operating in Italy

In his later years, Luciano came into conflict with Lansky over the amount of money he was receiving from Mafia operations in the early 1960s. Luciano's failing health hampered him from putting up much of a fight in the matter.

Luciano, however, was not willing to give up without a fight. He bought out the major interest in an Italian candy company that sold confetti. This was little more than a way for Luciano to ship heroin under the radar of the government. The government, not willing to believe that Luciano retired, smashed sixty crates of confetti without finding a single gram of heroin. After the unsuccessful raid, Luciano was exiled from Rome. Living in Naples, Luciano immersed himself in the high life of Italian culture, dining in the finest restaurants and living in luxurious apartments with the love of his life. In old age, Luciano also became a charitable man, financially helping many poor Italians before he set up a medical supply store as a front for his illegal businesses. But no matter how much success he achieved, Luciano was homesick. He would often talk with G.I.s and tourists in the California restaurant for the sole purpose of speaking to people in the English language.

Personal life

After being deported to Italy, Luciano fell in love with Igea Manzianno, a beautiful brunette Sicilian dancer 20 years his junior. They lived together peacefully until they learned that there was a hit contract on Luciano, and the two went into hiding. They changed apartments many times throughout the month and moved from hotel to hotel before the hit was called off.

Barred from Rome after the hit was called off, the two lived together in Luciano's 60-room house on Via Tasso in Naples. Igea was reportedly the center of Luciano's life, so when she died of breast cancer, he began to go to pieces, as did his control of the American syndicate and his own projects based out of Italy. After living together for 11 years, there was never any confirmation that the two ever married. If they had, it would have been illegal, since Luciano's deportation barred him from marriage.

The Couple had three children, that lived in secrecy in the hills of Sicily, One named Avelino Lucania, and two girls Constanza Manzianno & Angela Lucania. They used the different and original last names of both the parents to hide their identity, also this children bonded two of the strongest Coscas in Sicily, The Lucania Cosca from Bagheria and the Manzianno Cosca from Palermo.

American power struggle

During his exile, Luciano missed a major power shift in America. Vito Genovese, who was at one time the Luciano Family Sottocapo, had decided that he wanted to take over the Luciano Family. After a botched 1957 assassination attempt on Costello's life by Vinnie "The Chin" Gigante, Costello stepped down as Don and let Genovese take over. But Genovese wanted to take out his competition.

It was at the famous Appalachian Summit Meeting, later in 1957, that he planned to propose to The Commission that Luciano be stripped of his title as Capo Di Tutti i Capi, and that he be crowned Boss of all Bosses. But Vito Genovese did not count on Carlo Gambino, one of Luciano's protégés, to hold loyalty to his old Boss.

Costello, Luciano, and Gambino met in a hotel in Palermo, Sicily to discuss their plan of action. Luciano decided that the only way to stop Genovese was to incarcerate him. Gambino tipped off the authorities back in the United States about the meeting itself, while Costello and Luciano worked with their fleeting political connections to send Genovese away on charges of heroin smuggling.

Their plans were successful in the short run, but broke one of Luciano's commandments: "No one knows who we really are." The Appalachian Meeting led to the incarceration of several high-ranking men, as well as the first high-ranking man to become an informant.

Death and legacy

Luciano was reportedly told not to promote or participate in films about his life, as it would have attracted unnecessary attention to the mob. He relented after Igea Lissoni died of breast cancer and was scheduled to meet with a movie producer arriving by plane at the Naples International Airport. On January 26, 1962, Luciano died of a heart attack at Naples International Airport. He was buried in St. John's Cemetery in Queens in 1972, more than ten years after his death, because of the terms of his deportation in 1946. More than 2,000 mourners attended his funeral. His longtime friend, Carlo Gambino, spoke at the funeral. Carlo Gambino was the only other boss besides Luciano to have complete control of the Commission and virtually every Mafia family in the United States.

Media portrayals

  • Telly Savalas portrayed Luciano on an episode of the 1960s TV series The Witness
  • The character Michael Corleone, featured in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather, shares many strange characteristics and similarities with Luciano.
  • The 1973 Italian/American film production Lucky Luciano, starring Gian Maria Volonte as Luciano and featuring Vincent Gardenia, Rod Steiger and real-life Federal Agent Charles Siracusa, is the best known film biography of Luciano.
  • In the 1984 film, The Cotton Club, Luciano is portrayed by Joe Dallesandro.
  • The 1989 book Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow, a retelling of Dutch Schultz's last days from the point of view of a young boy he befriends, features Luciano as a minor character whom the narrator is too afraid to identify by name. He was played by Stanley Tucci in the film adaptation.
  • The 1991 film Mobsters is about the rise of Luciano, Lansky, Frank Costello and Bugsy Siegel. It takes several liberties with historical accuracy. It stars Christian Slater as Luciano, who narrates the film. Many spectators commented with amazement on Slater's strong resemblance to the real Luciano.
  • In the 1991 film Bugsy, the role of Luciano is played by Bill Graham.
  • In the 1991 TV movie White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd, the role of Luciano is played by Robert Davi.
  • The 1997 film Hoodlum, about the gang war in Harlem between Dutch Schultz and Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, co-stars Andy Garcia as Luciano. Arguably it is the most accurate physical portrayal of Luciano, showing all his scars and malformities.
  • The Jack Higgins novel Luciano's Luck recounts a (heavily fictionalized) version of Luciano's involvement in the liberation of Sicily during the Second World War.
  • A biographical film about the life of Lucky Luciano, based on the book, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano by Martin Gosch and Richard Hammer, is currently in the works.



  • Johnson, Richard. H'Wood Eyes Luciano Tale, Publisher: New York Post 2007
  • Gosch, Martin A. and Hammer, Richard. The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974. ISBN 0316321400
  • Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires Publisher: St. Martin's Press 2006 ISBN 0312361815
  • Klerks, Cat. Lucky Luciano: The Father of Organized Crime (True American Amazing Stories Series) Publisher: Altitude Publishing, Ltd. 2005 ISBN 1552651029
  • Powell, Hickman. Lucky Luciano, his amazing trial and wild witnesses. Publisher: Barricade Books, Incorporated 2000 ISBN 0806504935
  • Feder, Sid and Joesten, Joachim. Luciano Story. Publisher: Da Capo Press 1994 ISBN 0306805928
  • Ferrara, Eric. Gangsters, Murderers & Weirdos of the Lower East Side; a self-guided walking tour 2008

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