History of La Cosa Nostra
Mugshot of Charles "Lucky" Luciano
Italian organized crime groups evolved over the course of 3,000 years during numerous periods of invasion and exploitation by conquering armies in Italy. Over the millennia, Sicilians became more clannish and began to rely on familial ties for safety, protection, justice, and survival. An underground secret society formed. They initially started as resistance fighters against the invaders and to exact frontier vigilante justice.
In Sicily, the word Mafia tends to mean “manly.” A member was known as a “man of honor,” respected and admired because he protected his family and friends and kept silent until death. These secret societies eventually grew into the Sicilian Mafia, and changed from a group of honorable Sicilian men to an organized criminal group in the 1920s. Within Italy, there are now four active groups: Cosa Nostra (Sicilian Mafia), Camorra, ’Ndrangheta, and Sacra Corona Unita.
The American Mafia has evolved over the years as various gangs assumed, and lost, dominance. For example, the Black Hand gangs around 1900, the Five Points Gang in the 1910s and ‘20s in New York City, and Al Capone’s Syndicate in Chicago in the 1920s. But it was not until 1951 that a U.S. Senate committee determined that a “sinister criminal organization,” later known as La Cosa Nostra, operated in this nation.
La Cosa Nostra
La Cosa Nostra evolved from the Sicilian Mafia and is one of the foremost organized criminal threats to American society. Translated into English it means “this thing of ours.” It is a nationwide alliance of criminals—linked by blood ties or through conspiracy—dedicated to pursuing crime and protecting its members.
The LCN, as it is known by the FBI, consists of different “families” or groups that are generally arranged geographically and engaged in significant and organized criminal activity. The major threats to American society posed by these groups are drug trafficking and money laundering. They also are involved in illegal gambling, political corruption, labor racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, fraud, counterfeiting, murders, bombings, weapons trafficking, and the infiltration of legitimate businesses.
The LCN is most active in the New York metropolitan area and in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and New England. The major LCN families include the five New York-based families—Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese; the Newark-based DeCavalcante family; the New England LCN; the Philadelphia LCN; and the Chicago Outfit. They have members in other major cities and are involved in international crimes.
Early Mafia Bosses
By the end of the ‘20s, two primary factions had emerged in the Italian criminal groups in New York. Joseph Masseria, who controlled the groups, sparked the so-called “Castellammarese War” in 1928 when he tried to gain control of organized crime across the country. The war ended in 1931 when Salvatore Maranzano conspired with Masseria’s top soldier, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, to have Masseria killed. Maranzano emerged as the most powerful Mafia boss in the nation, setting up five separate criminal groups in New York and calling himself “Boss of Bosses.”
Maranzano was the first leader of the organization now dubbed "La Cosa Nostra." He established its code of conduct, set up the “family” divisions and structure, and enacted procedures for resolving disputes. Two of the most powerful La Cosa Nostra families—known today as the Genovese and Gambino families—emerged from Maranzano’s restructuring efforts. He named Luciano the first boss of what would later be known as the Genovese family. Luciano showed his appreciation less than five months later by sending five men dressed as police officers to Maranzano’s office to murder him.
Luciano, Costello, and Genovese
With Maranzano out of the way, Luciano become the most powerful Mafia boss in America and used his position to run La Cosa Nostra like a corporation. Luciano set up the “Commission” to rule all La Cosa Nostra activities. The Commission included bosses from seven families and divided the different rackets among the families.
In 1936, Luciano was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison for operating a prostitution ring. Ten years later, he was released from prison and deported to Italy, never to return. There, he became a liaison between the Sicilian Mafia and La Cosa Nostra. When he was convicted, Frank Costello became acting boss because underboss Vito Genovese had fled to Italy to avoid a murder charge. Genovese's return to the states was cleared when a key witness against him was poisoned and the charges were dropped.
Costello led the family for approximately 20 years until 1957, when Genovese took control by sending soldier Vincent “the Chin” Gigante to murder him. Costello survived the attack but relinquished control of the family to Genovese, who named it after himself. Attempted murder charges against Gigante were dismissed when Costello refused to identify him as the shooter. In 1959, it was Genovese’s turn to go to prison following a conviction of conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. He received a 15-year sentence but continued to run the family through his underlings from his prison cell in Atlanta.
Valachi Sings—and Lombardo Leads
About this time, Joseph Valachi (pictured right), a “made man,” was sent to the same prison as Genovese on a narcotics conviction. Labeled an informer, Valachi survived three attempts on his life behind bars. Still in prison in 1962, he killed a man he thought Genovese had sent to kill him. He was sentenced to life for the murder.
The sentencing was a turning point for Valachi, who decided to cooperate with the U.S. government. Recruited by FBI agents, he appeared before the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on September 27, 1963 and testified that he was a member of a secret criminal society in the U.S. known as La Cosa Nostra. He revealed to the committee numerous secrets of the organization, including its name, structure, power bases, codes, swearing-in ceremony, and members.
In 1969, several years after Valachi began cooperating with the FBI, Vito Genovese died in his prison cell. By then the Genovese family was under the control of Philip “Benny Squint” Lombardo. Unlike the bosses before him, Lombardo preferred to rule behind his underboss. His first, Thomas Eboli, was murdered in 1972. Lombardo then promoted Frank “Funzi” Tieri as his front man.
La Costra Nostra member Joseph Valachi testified before Congress about the inner workings of the organization.
Throughout the 1980s, the Genovese family hierarchy went through several changes. Tieri, recognized on the street as the Genovese family boss in the late 1970s, was convicted for operating a criminal organization through a pattern of racketeering that included murder and extortion. Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno then fronted as boss until 1985, when he and the bosses of the other four New York families were convicted for operating a criminal enterprise—the LCN Commission. Lombardo, his two captains in prison and his health failing, turned full control of the Genovese family over to Gigante—the man who tried to kill Costello 30 years earlier.
Fish on the Hook
In 1986, a second member turned against the Genovese family when Vincent “Fish” Cafaro, a soldier and right-hand-man to Anthony Salerno, decided to cooperate with the FBI and testify. According to Cafaro’s sworn statement, Gigante ran the family from behind the scenes while pretending to be mentally ill. Cafaro said this behavior helped further insulate Gigante from authorities while he ran the Genovese family’s criminal activities.
Gigante’s odd behavior and mumbling while he walked around New York’s East Village in a bathrobe earned him the nickname “the Odd Father.” After an FBI investigation, Gigante was convicted of racketeering and murder conspiracy in December 1997 and sentenced to 12 years. Another FBI investigation led to his indictment on January 17, 2002, accusing him of continuing to run the Genovese family from prison. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2003. Gigante died in prison in December 2005 in the same federal hospital where Gambino family leader John Gotti had died three years earlier.
The Genovese crime family was once considered the most powerful organized crime family in the nation. Members and their numerous associates engaged in drug trafficking, murder, assault, gambling, extortion, loansharking, labor racketeering, money laundering, arson, gasoline bootlegging, and infiltration of legitimate businesses. Genovese family members also were involved in stock market manipulation and other illegal frauds and schemes, as evidenced in the FBI's “Mobstocks” investigation.