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Charles "Lucky" Luciano (born Salvatore Lucania; November 11, 1897 – January 26, 1962) was a Sicilian-born American mobster. Luciano is considered the father of modern organized crime. He was the first official boss of the modern Genovese crime family. He was, along with his associate Meyer Lansky, instrumental in the development of the "National Crime Syndicate" in the United Statesmarker.

Time magazine 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 (Cafarella) Lucania, he had 4 siblings: Bartolomeo (born 1890), and Giuseppe (born 1898), Filippia (born 1901), and Concetta (born 1903) in Lercara Friddimarker, Sicily, a town primarily known for its sulfur mines. The promise of a better life led his family to emigrate to the United Statesmarker in 1907. Upon arriving at Ellis Islandmarker, young Salvatore was diagnosed with smallpox, an affliction that pockmarked his face for life.


On January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition remained in force until its repeal in 1933. This gave every gangster on the street a new source of revenue through illegal alcohol sales. Around this time, Lucky worked for Arnold Rothstein.

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 to do this.

By 1921, Luciano had met many 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 $300,000 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 Philadelphiamarker. He imported scotch whisky directly from Scotlandmarker, rum from the Caribbeanmarker, and whisky from Canadamarker. He was also involved in gambling. By this time, Luciano was becoming a big player in the New York mob.

Rise to power

At an early age Luciano had established himself as a creative thug on the Lower East Side and eventually worked his way up to being a top aide to crime boss Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria. In the 1920s Masseria was involved in a prolonged turf war with rival crime boss Salvatore Maranzano.

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 who had "made their bones" in the United States, 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." Luciano began building contacts with Young Turks in both factions, and they secretly made plans to push out the Mustache Petes as soon as possible.

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. However, in an ironic twist, Luciano later cut a secret deal with Maranzano in which Luciano agreed to engineer Masseria's death in return for being made Maranzano's second-in-command. This deal would end the famous Castellammarese War.

The Castellammarese War raged from 1928 to 1932, resulting in the deaths of many mobsters, estimated to be as many as 60. The war was nominally between Maranzano and Masseria, it ended with the assassination of Masseria in a Coney Islandmarker 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.

Maranzano 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 seethed inwardly at being lied to and bilked out of a few dollars, but still feigned loyalty to Maranzano. However, he was secretly planning to eliminate Maranzano. He and his colleagues had planned all along to assassinate either Masseria or Maranzano, then bide their time before killing the surviving Mustache Pete as well.

When Meyer Lansky told him that Maranzano had gotten wind of Luciano's plans, 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, with businesses throughout the country. His longtime friend Meyer Lansky served as his right-hand man, and Luciano always followed Lansky’s advice. When Dutch Schultz tried to kill Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey, in direct violation of Luciano's orders, Schultz was executed instead.

Luciano 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, drug trafficking, 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 omertà, 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 governing 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 Courtmarker, 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 Citymarker, 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 (Later Luciano himself affirmed that the Commission had done everything they could in order for Dewey to become President in exchange for Luciano's return to America), 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 David "Little Davey" 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 Hotelmarker to lie and say that Luciano's gangster friends had often come to his room. It is believed by almost all mob experts that Dewey framed Luciano, since Mafia did not bother with prostitution, and also Luciano meeting with hookers to collect money seemed a bit absurd, considering his position as boss.

Before he could get Luciano into court for trial, Luciano escaped to Hot Springs, Arkansasmarker, 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; 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 and his prison cell, relaying his orders through his first acting boss, Vito Genovese. Genovese had quickly lived up to his feared reputation for violence, and soon fled to Naplesmarker, 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 just who it was that had replaced Costello as the family consigliere. The only hint to the Costello successor came from Joe Valachi. Valachi was a former soldier in the Genovese Family and the first major mafia informer in the United States. Valachi mentions, in the book The Valachi Papers , written by Peter Maas, a certain "Sandino," as the Family counselor. The mysterious "Sandino" was whispered about at a meeting Valachi attends with his Capo, Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo.

Luciano was imprisoned in Clinton Correctional Facilitymarker in Dannemora, New Yorkmarker, 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 Statesmarker 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 supposedly dropped a yellow handkerchief from a plane flying over Sicily 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. Although still a part of Sicilian folklore, it is now believed by the majority of mafia historians that the story of the yellow handkerchief is false.

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 Citymarker 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. During his exile, Luciano used to meet US military men during train trips throughout Italymarker, and he enjoyed being recognized by his countrymen, several times taking photos and even signing autographs for them.

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 Cubamarker, 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, Meyer Lansky 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 Cubamarker 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, Nevadamarker, and pay back what he owed the mafia investors, agreed to postpone the hit.

To placate his investors, Siegel opened Flamingo Las Vegasmarker, his still-unfinished casino, on the star-studded night of December 26, 1946, although he did not have as many Hollywoodmarker 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 murder 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. However, when the Flamingo still failed to turn a profit, Siegel's fate was sealed; he was killed by four shots fired through a window at his California home in June 1947.

The deposed Luciano 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 Caribbeanmarker, 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. Interpol and the US Government believed that 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 Romemarker.

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 Lissoni, an Italian 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 months 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 Naplesmarker. 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.

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, Sicilymarker, to discuss their plan of action.

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 Airportmarker. On January 26, 1962, Luciano died of a heart attack at Naples International Airport. He was buried in St. John's Cemeterymarker in Queensmarker 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 life stories of the characters Vito Corleone and his son, Michael Corleone, featured in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather, share many similarities with Luciano's own biography including Luciano being diagnosed with smallpox upon his arrival in the United States.
  • 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 1981 American TV miniseries The Gangster Chronicles, Luciano is portrayed by Michael Nouri.
  • 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 Harlemmarker 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.
  • The 2002 novel 54, written by the Italian band of novelists Wu Ming, features Luciano and his operations in Naples during the year 1954.

See also



  • 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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