From Al Capone to John Dillinger, America has a long list of legendary gangsters that have become the subjects of books, films and morbid curiosity for centuries. But one among them has the distinction of having introduced a sort of governmental structure into the unlawful mobster world: Charles "Lucky" Luciano.
"Charles 'Lucky' Luciano was originally an immigrant from Sicily called Salvatore Lucania who arrived in New York with his parents in 1907," says Tim Newark, author of "Lucky Luciano — the Real and the Fake Gangster," in an email interview. "Over the next three decades, he rose from being a teenage hoodlum to mob hitman to head of organized crime in New York."
According to organized crime historian and creator of ganglandlegends.com, Christian Cipollini, Luciano's upbringing in a particularly diverse part of the Big Apple set the scene for his future. "His family settled in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where it was a mix of Jewish and Italian immigrants," Cipollini writes via email. "It was there he met other young future stars of the underworld, such as Benjamin Siegel and Meyer Lansky."
"Because of his childhood friendships with Jewish mobsters, he was able to see the benefit of working with diverse individuals," says Claire White, educational programs manager at The Mob Museum, via email. "This allowed him to consolidate power not just among Italian American mobsters, but across Manhattan and then the nation — an important step in the Commission's [the centralized syndicate of New York crime families] creation and ascendency."
"His family immigrated to the United States when he was 10," White says. "He developed a reputation in the Five Points Gang in Manhattan before graduating to a position of power in one of the five New York Italian American Mafia families. In 1931, after powerful bosses Giuseppe 'Joe the Boss' Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano were assassinated, Luciano inherited the organization that would eventually become known as the Genovese family."
A Bully From the Beginning
But long before he was recognized by the big bosses, Luciano was apparently ruling the schoolyard. Luciano conned his classmates into paying for protection from bullies, and if they didn't fork over the cash, he'd bully them himself. After he dropped out of school in 1914, he worked as a hat company clerk and began befriending local gang members like Lansky and Siegel.
In 1916, Luciano was caught selling heroin and served six months at a reformatory. But it was in the 1920s when he hit his criminal stride, thanks to the prohibition of alcohol. Luciano became one of the "Big Six," a group of bootleggers who were considered top brass in the East Coast illegal liquor trade.
"By introducing a new, corporate mentality to organized crime at the end of Prohibition, Luciano set the stage for the mob's control of gambling and other rackets throughout the 20th century," White says. "Luciano is regarded as the founder of modern organized crime in America. In 1931, he ousted the old Sicilian bosses and formed the Commission, a national syndicate of crime families centered in New York."
When prominent mobster Salvatore "The Duke" Maranzano was assassinated, Luciano inherited the crime family that would eventually become known as the Genovese family. "A natural organizer, Luciano continued the committee of Five Families, which was established by Maranzano and would control East Coast rackets for decades," White says. "But rather than naming himself 'Boss of Bosses,' as Maranzano had, Luciano called himself the chairman of the board."
Formation of the Syndicate
In 1931, Luciano and Meyer Lansky established a board known as the national syndicate or "combination," composed of non-Italian Jewish members. "Luciano was notable and successful for modernizing organized crime in New York in the 1920s and '30s," Newark says. "He ran it along more effective business lines, put an end to disruptive gang fighting between the old Sicilian mobsters, and left behind their old-world Catholic prejudices of not working with Jewish gangsters."
"The most important contribution of Lucky Luciano to the Italian-American Mafia was organizational," Federico Varese, professor of criminology at University of Oxford, says via email. "He was the brain behind the creation of the Commission, where the Five Families have a seat. He understood that the Italian-American Mafia would continue to fight if a single boss wanted to be the capo di tutti I capi [i.e., 'boss of all bosses' or 'The Godfather']."
In 1936, a New York prosecutor named Thomas Dewey led raids on brothels throughout the city, and in the arrests of over 100 people, gathered information on Luciano's illegal dealings. On June 6 of that year, Luciano was convicted of 62 charges of compulsory prostitution and was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in state prison.
Luciano During World War II
While you might expect that to be the end of Luciano's story, the global crisis that soon ensued altered the gangster's seemingly set path. During World War II, the government sought assistance from the mob in keeping New York docks safe from strikes and sabotage. Authorities came to Luciano and he agreed to help, in hopes that his aid would lead to a sentence reduction. After all, by that time, former prosecutor Dewey had become New York governor and was in the position to grant Luciano clemency.
"Luciano's role in World War II was fascinating," Newark says. "Despite being in prison, he assisted U.S. Naval Intelligence by securing the New York docks against Nazi sabotage, but my archival research has revealed that his much-vaunted help for the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 was not as significant as has been claimed. Much as his postwar reputation as an international gangster was largely exaggerated by the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to justify their own budgets. There is, however, tantalizing evidence that Luciano may have been a useful Cold War asset in Sicily in 1947 helping the CIA foil a Communist takeover of the island."
And after the war, Dewey did indeed lessen the severity of Luciano's punishment on the terms that the mobster would leave the U.S. Luciano agreed and returned to Italy as a deportee but eventually wound up in Havana, Cuba (hanging out with the likes of Frank Sinatra, no less). The U.S. government then forced the Cuban government to deport Luciano back to Italy where he spent the rest of his life. Luciano died of a heart attack in 1962 at the Naples airport while on his way to meet with a movie producer to discuss making a screen adaptation of his life.
"Luciano possessed an innate aura of leadership, charm and savvy street smarts," Cipollini says. "Such qualities proved to be a split of good and bad though. Not only did these characteristics help establish him as a figurehead among his peers and within the restructured underworld of America, but [they] also made him a ready-made 'poster boy' representation of the vice and crime problem, which the authorities exploited fully from 1936 up to and including the day he died in 1962."
So where did the name "Lucky" come from? Luciano reportedly got the nickname after surviving an abduction and attack in 1929. A group of men beat and stabbed him and left him for dead on a Staten Island beach, but a police officer found him at the scene and took him to a nearby hospital.