Tommy Lucchese

Tommy Lucchese

Thomas Lucchese (1899-1967) was one of the most successful and powerful mafiosi ever to have lived. What were the relationships that made him who he was?

Tommy Lucchese spent his formative years in a neighborhood dominated by the Morello-Terranova gang of Corleone. At the height of his power, some of the men closest to him were Corleonesi, people who’d worked with Giuseppe Morello, and who Tommy had known and worked with since his teens.

He was born Gaetano Lucchese in the city of Palermo on the second of December, 1899. Multiple sources report that Tommy’s father was an honest laborer who hauled concrete. This is not supported by the vital records. Baldassare Lucchese was a barber in New York City—that is the occupation he reported in census records, and he was a barber back in Palermo. Baldassare’s father, Vincenzo Lucchese, was a barber as well, and the son of a gardener. In Palermo, a gardener was someone who held a position of responsibility in the citrus groves. Gardeners were more like managers than laborers, and worked closely with the Mafia, who dominated the lucrative and fickle citrus industry around Palermo. Barbers were small business owners whose clientele needed to maintain their appearance: in other words, everyone worth knowing.

Gaetano was the second oldest of his parents’ surviving children, and the oldest son, when they emigrated to the United States together in 1911. The year before they arrived, Giuseppe Morello and Ignazio Lupo went to prison for counterfeiting. While the Lo Monte brothers initially ran Morello’s gang on his behalf, one of Morello’s captains, Gaetano Reina, split off from them and started his own Family in the Bronx, with Tommy Gagliano as his underboss.

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(Another nitpicking point to make here is that Gagliano was born “Tommaso” and Lucchese was born “Gaetano.” “Tommy” was a common nickname for Gaetano because the Sicilian nickname was “Tanu,” which sounds a lot like “Tommy” to the English speaker.)

At nineteen, Tommy Lucchese was working in a munitions shop where a workplace accident took his thumb and forefinger; after that, he could no longer work, but continued to appear on census records as a machinist until he married. Prohibition was enacted the following year. Joe “The Boss” Masseria hired “Lucky” Luciano, a promising young criminal who had already made some of the associations that would be a part of his story to the end, including Vito Genovese and Frank Costello. Luciano would go on to mentor some of the most powerful gangsters in New York, and Tommy Lucchese, just two years younger than Lucky, was among them. 

Luciano recruited Lucchese to a burglary ring. As Masseria’s soldier, Lucchese killed an estimated thirty people, using his reputation to intimidate witnesses. Two arrests for homicide would later come to haunt him, when the Mafia endured the scrutiny of federal and state investigating committees. He was caught stealing a car in 1921, sentenced at Riverhead, on Long Island. He served two years, eight months at Sing Sing. Upon his release at the end of 1924, he got right back into business with Luciano and Costello, working for Arnold Rothstein as rum runners. 

He married Concetta Vassallo in Queens in 1927. His parents appear to have followed him there; his father died in Queens in 1936. Thomas and Concetta had two children, a daughter, Frances, born in 1932 and a son, born in 1929, who was named Baldassare after Tommy’s father, as is traditional, but who went by Bobby and later was known as Robert. Frances attended Vassar, and Robert went to the US Military Academy and became an officer in the Air Force.

When he was still living in East Harlem and enjoying the protection of Gaetano Reina’s 107th Street gang, Tommy ran one of his first rackets. His window cleaning business had an aggressive sales tactic: if you didn’t engage them, your windows would be smashed. After his prison stint, he created a live poultry cartel. He controlled every aspect of the business from the suppliers to the slaughterers through a trade group reminiscent of Gagliano’s “information service” on plasterers in the Bronx, or commercial trash hauling throughout New York City for decades. In July 1928, Lucchese was arrested in connection with the murder of Louis Cerasulo.

Joe Masseria began making greater demands on Gaetano Reina, who switched his allegiance to the competing Salvatore Maranzano. Masseria told Luciano to kill Reina, and after some delay, he gave the job to Vito Genovese, who carried it out in February 1930 as Reina left his girlfriend’s place. Tommy Gagliano and Tommy Lucchese were Reina’s top lieutenants and Gagliano, who was sixteen years older than Lucchese, was expected to take over the Reina Family. (Amoruso disagrees and says Lucchese was Reina’s underboss before he was Gagliano’s.) However, Masseria installed his own man, Joseph Pinzolo, who was rejected by most of Reina’s men. Masseria was threatened by Luciano’s power and wanted him gone. He thought he was leading Luciano into a trap, but it was Luciano, with Gagliano and Lucchese, who orchestrated the surprise attack on Joe “The Boss” in April.

In the 1930 census, Tommy Lucchese’s family lived in Corona, Queens, and he claimed to be the manager of a plumbing business. He had rackets in the garment district in Manhattan, which he developed by lending money to business owners and selling them high-end liquor for entertaining their clients. When his borrowers couldn’t repay him, Lucchese became their partner. 

Another of his businesses, in partnership with Joseph Pinzolo, was California Dry Fruit Importers on Broadway. The company imported “wine bricks,” which were dried grapes that could be used to produce wine. Joseph Pinzolo was found dead in a room leased by the import business on 5 September 1930. Critchley suggests that Lucchese set Pinzolo up to be killed; Hunt says Lucchese and Gagliano appear to have worked together to carry out the assassination; YouTuber Jeff Canarsie says Lucchese carried it out himself.

Salvatore Maranzano was pressing forward with his ambition to control the entire Mafia throughout the United States. Lucchese pretended to be disaffected with Luciano and ingratiated himself with Maranzano. He learned Maranzano had set hit man Vincent Coll on the job of killing Luciano, to whom Lucchese was personally loyal because of the help he’d offered, particularly when he got out of prison. He also knew that Maranzano was expecting his own import-export business to be investigated by the IRS. On 10 September 1931, Jewish gangsters entered Maranzano’s offices posing as IRS agents and assassinated the boss, ending the Castellammarese War.

Although Luciano generally gets the lion’s share of the credit for taking down both Masseria and Maranzano, Hortis says that Gagliano and Lucchese immediately began plotting revenge for Reina’s murder, and led the effort to kill Maranzano. They went regularly to his offices on Broadway and were in the waiting room outside to prevent interruption by Maranzano’s men while their assassins, disguised as the IRS, were inside.

Lucchese continued to be Gagliano’s second under the new Commission structure. In those days before street bosses took the heat off leadership, it was underbosses like Lucchese who ran daily operations for their Mafia gangs. Gagliano was the first boss of his Family to serve on the Commission. He held the position for twenty years. The Gagliano Family was considered one of the more conservative of the Five Families because their upper ranks were almost entirely Sicilian. However, they were closely allied to Luciano, who was famously progressive in his willingness to work with gangsters of all ethnicities.

Lucchese’s appearance and demeanor were cultivated to fit the mold of a legitimate and successful businessman. He was the vice president of Braunel Ltd., a garment manufacturer. He had his rackets in workers’ unions, police corruption, the garment district, poultry, night life, sports betting, and “window cleaning,” but the real money maker was narcotics. Mariano Marsalisi, a Corleonese, was moving heroin into New York for the Gagliano Family as early as the 1930s. Another Family member, Joseph Rao, trafficked drugs through the prison in which he was incarcerated. After World War II ended, there was a resurgence in narcotics sales in the United States. Most of the country bought their illegal drugs wholesale from the Mafia in New York City.

In the 1940 census, the Lucchese family lived in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a short walk from the last place Giuseppe Morello lived. (Masseria’s consigliere at the end of his life, Morello was killed in 1930.) When he registered for the draft, he gave his occupation as secretary of the Fordham Hoisting Equipment Company of the Bronx. Critchley writes that Lucchese partnered with Nunzio Pomilla, a construction and lathing investor and partner in several Bronx businesses with Tommy Gagliano, who was married to Nunzio’s sister.

Lucchese attracted business-savvy gangsters who, like himself, didn’t shy away from using violence. As he had been groomed by Luciano and Gagliano, Lucchese in his turn cultivated Johnny Dioguardi, Vincent Rao, and Antonio Corallo. He made close friends among politicians in the mode of his close associate, Frank Costello, and in this way managed to expunge his youthful record for robbery and gambling. This cleared the way for his naturalization petition to be granted early in 1943. What Lucchese didn’t know was that he’d attracted the attention of federal law enforcement. 

In 1945, Lucchese promoted Vincent Impellitteri for New York City Council president, positioning him to succeed Mayor O’Dwyer when he resigned in 1950. This set Lucchese against the powers of Tammany Hall, which rejected the incompetent Impellitteri in favor of Judge Ferdinand Pecora. The following year, Lucchese secretly supported Impellitteri in his anti-Mafia campaign against Pecora, who was backed openly by Costello. The ruse was discovered soon after Impellitteri’s win. Impellitteri didn’t last long, and when he was gone in 1954, the direct line between the Mafia and City Hall was apparently severed.

In 1950, Thomas Lucchese and his wife had returned to Queens: this time, across Flushing Bay in Malba. Gagliano died early in 1951 at his Long Island home, and Lucchese succeeded him. He made Vincent Rao his consigliere and Stefano LaSalle his underboss. Both men were born in Corleone (Vincent is of no relation to the trafficker, Joseph Rao) and had histories with the old Morello-Terranova Family that Luciano took over. LaSalle left with Reina and took over Giosue Gallucci’s East Harlem rackets when the camorrista was killed in 1915. When Rao, who controlled the plastering cartel put together by Gagliano, retired to Florida in the 1960s, Mariano Macaluso, another Corleonese, replaced him as consigliere. Mariano’s father, Marco, was one of the first officers in Morello’s Ignatz Florio building cooperative.

Tommy Lucchese

With Gagliano gone, Lucchese found himself in the crosshairs of federal investigators and newspaper journalists. The Kefauver hearings exposed him as a leader of the criminal underworld, and the successor to Costello as a kingmaker in New York. His private testimony was read into the public record at a hearing of the New York State Crime Commission. Immediately, Attorney General James P. McGranery moved to have Lucchese denaturalized and deported to Italy. Lucchese had been admitted as a US citizen in 1943, McGranery charged, by not reporting his arrests for murder—in 1928 for Cerasulo, and in 1930 for Pinzolo.

After Luciano was deported in 1946, the balance of power shifted to the more progressive Mafia Families in New York. Lucchese’s crime family was not the largest or most powerful in New York. He made concessions when it benefitted him—he quietly backed Genovese’s 1957 power play to put himself and Carlo Gambino in leadership—but he didn’t forget the hatred Joe Profaci inspired with his greed, and took a different tack, which won the loyalty of his own captains.

In 1962, Tommy Lucchese’s daughter, Frances, married Tommy Gambino, son of Carlo. Lucchese cut Gambino into one of his most lucrative rackets, hijacking freight from Idlewild Airport (renamed JFK in 1963) by controlling the freight handlers’ union.

In the summer of 1965, Lucchese went into the hospital and remained there for more than a year. He had heart trouble and more seriously, a brain tumor which would cause his death. In September 1966, a meeting nicknamed “Little Apalachin” was held at La Stella Restaurant in Queens to discuss the division of his rackets.

Lucchese went home to Lido Beach in April 1967 and died on 13 July 1967. He was 67. He was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens. His wife and son both died in the early Aughties and are interred with him.

Sources

A&E. (2020, December 27). Mobsters: Tommy Lucchese and The Mafia [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRiiWSonP0s 

Amoruso, D. (2001). Profile: Lucchese crime family boss Gaetano Lucchese. Gangsters, Inc. [Website]. https://gangstersinc.org/profiles/blogs/lucchese-boss-gaetano-lucchese 

Atto di nascita, Vincenzo Lucchese. (1828, August 8). Palermo (Sezione Oreto) (oggi Palermo). Record no. 103. https://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/ark:/12657/an_ua592935/LezeGMW  Image 107

Cipollini, C. (2017, July 13). Don’t dare call him ‘Three Finger Brown.’ The Mob Museum [Website]. https://themobmuseum.org/blog/lucchese-three-finger-brown-death-anniversary/ 

Critchley, D. (2009). The origin of organized crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge.

Hortis, C. A. (2014). The mob and the city: The hidden history of how the Mafia captured New York. Prometheus Books.

Hunt, T. (2007). White-collar mafioso: Tommy Lucchese (1899-1967). The American Mafia [Website]. https://mafiahistory.us/a010/f_tommylucchese.html

The Jeff Canarsie Podcast Network (MTR-TOTNHP). (2022, October 25). MTR, The Lucchese crime family history parts 1-3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP0wFg4YBsI 

M’Granery acts to deport Luchese to his native Italy. (1952, November 18). The New York Times. Pp. 1+ https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1952/11/18/92676362.html 

Maas, P. (1968) The Valachi Papers. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Marzlock, R. (2011, November 23). Tommy Lucchese, the quiet don in Malba. Queens Chronicle.

https://www.qchron.com/qboro/i_have_often_walked/tommy-lucchese-the-quiet-don-in-malba/article_35483f16-cd56-5fe1-be03-340aa3ccfc45.html

Raab, S. (2005). Five families: The rise, decline, and resurgence of America’s most powerful mafia empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books).

Sing Sing Receiving Blotter, Thomas Luckese. (1922). No. 73617. New York State Archives; Albany, NY, USA; Sing Sing Prison, 1852-1938; Box: 32; Volume: 75 Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

10 year index of births, 1896-1905 Palermo. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSMZ-Y931-8?i=615 

10 year index of marriages, 1886-1895 Palermo. https://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/ark:/12657/an_ua877206/0Mx1nqv Image 323

Underworld king dies. (1967, July 14). The Express (Lock Haven, PA). P. 4. https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/5797503/ 

Chicago Joe Aiello

Chicago Joe Aiello

While Al Capone’s Outfit was fighting its way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, one of his chief rivals was the mafioso Joe Aiello. Aiello was president of the Unione Siciliane, synonymous with the Mafia in Chicago. For this reason alone, he earned the title of “the boss of the Sicilian Mafia in Prohibition-Era Chicago.” Beyond the Windy City, Aiello had powerful friends in Detroit and New York City, where he affected the outcome of the 1930 Castellammarese War. 

Joe was born Giuseppe Aiello in Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo, in 1890. At seventeen, he sailed to New York, joining two older brothers, Nunzio and Andrea, upstate in Utica. A halfway point between Lake Ontario and Albany along the Mohawk River, Utica drew a large immigrant population to work in manufacturing and transport. Among them were Sicilian merchants, some of them associated through family and business ties with the nascent Mafia in Utica. Fruit wholesalers, in particular, were closely tied to one another and organized crime. It may have been while Aiello lived in Utica that he formed ties with the Maggadino Family in Buffalo. 

Joe Aiello and his partner in a Utica saloon, Sam La Fada, were charged in 1917 with firing upon Antonio Gagliano, a competing saloon owner. Aiello tried hiding from the police in the home of his father- and brother-in-law, who were charged with interfering with a police officer. Aiello was found in possession of a recently fired handgun, and a license to carry. La Fada was killed in Buffalo a few months later.

It’s often reported that Aiello left Utica after taking part in the 1917 shooting. Joe was married to Caterina Amara. Their daughter, Lena, was born late in 1918. Son Carlo was born in Utica in 1919. A news item about the scalding death of Joe’s daughter, in March 1921, shows the family still living on Bleecker Street in Utica. Two and a half year-old Lena Aiello ran into her mother and maternal grandmother, who had just boiled water for the family’s baths. She survived for five hours.

Joe moved his family to Chicago shortly after this tragedy. Their next child, Antonino, was born in Chicago in July 1922.

Joe’s brothers moved to Chicago ahead of him, starting with the oldest, Nunzio, who married there in 1916. Andrea, also married, registered for the draft from a Near North Side address the following year. Nunzio’s address on Locust Street was in Little Sicily, also in Chicago’s Near North Side. 

In the years leading up to Prohibition, Chicago’s criminal underworld was still broken up into neighborhood territories. “Big Jim” Colosimo’s network of brothels was beginning to encroach on these boundaries, but there was not yet a monopoly on criminal power, and there was no overarching leadership: not among organized criminals, nor even among mafiosi in the city.

 The Genna brothers, from Marsala, Sicily, were one of the earliest Mafia families in Chicago. They were based in Little Italy, in the Near West Side. To the east of the Genna territory was Goose Island, where the Irish North Side Gang ruled. The Gennas controlled the Unione Siciliane and fought the Irish gang, led by Dean O’Banion. On the other side of Goose Island was Little Sicily, where a Corleonese Mafia family was dominant. The Nicolosi brothers ruled from their Gault Court saloon, a territory they inherited from their murdered father-in-law.

In Chicago, the Aiello family worked for the railroads, then became fruit dealers, and owned bakeries and at least one confectionery shop. Father Carlo Aiello, a fruit merchant, arrived from Bagheria in 1920 and died in Chicago three years later. 

Joe Aiello began his ascent to power by partnering with Antonio Lombardo of the Unione, but then alienated his patron when he made an alliance with Bugs Moran, who was O’Banion’s successor in the North Side Gang. The Gennas were killed by the Irish gang in 1925. Joe and his brothers took over the old Genna brothers’ territory: in particular, control of the Unione. Allied to the North Side, the Aiello gang became prominent targets for Al Capone’s Outfit. 

The Outfit was never part of the Sicilian Mafia. Its members were engaged in organized crime, and most of them were Italian or Italian-American, but they were not part of the same organization as the Genna, Nicolosi, and Aiello families, who all came from Sicily. Only after the Commission was formed, after the Castellammarese War, did the Outfit become part of an American Mafia, on equal footing with Sicilian American Mafia families.

By 1927, the tension between the Outfit and Joe Aiello’s family reached a breaking point. The Aiello family bakery in Little Sicily was riddled with bullets in a drive-by attack. Joe, who had already made multiple attempts on Capone’s life, was forced to leave Chicago. Regardless, he won the presidency of the Unione Siciliane the following year. In 1928, Aiello enjoyed the support of the Nicolosi brothers, but their representative at the Cleveland Conference, Sam Oliveri, lost a brother to Capone’s men, and was afterward suspected by police of brokering a new deal that cut out the Aiello family.

The power that emanated from New York City was felt everywhere by the Mafia. Al Capone and several of his closest associates in the Outfit were from New York. One of them was “Little Davey” Petillo, a native of New York City. As a young man, Petillo worked with Lucky Luciano as a hitman, narcotics trafficker, and pimp. After working for Joe Aiello in Chicago, Petillo rejoined his New York associates in the Outfit, and was Al Capone’s bodyguard at Aiello’s death in 1930.

Meanwhile in New York City, Joe “The Boss” Masseria’s power was growing and threatened to encompass all Mafia activity in the United States. Aiello had long been aligned with Salvatore Maranzano and the other mafiosi from Castellammare del Golfo, including Gaspar Milazzo in Detroit, and Maggadino in Buffalo: both Mafia bosses who’d started out in the Castellammarese stronghold of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Masseria came to openly support Capone’s bid for control over Chicago, widening the partisan divide throughout the Mafia in America, in the lead up to the Castellammarese War. Aiello financed Maranzano’s campaign against Masseria through the summer, before falling to Capone’s hitmen in October. Joe was forty.

Lucky Luciano turned on first Masseria, and then Maranzano, before assuming a consciously more modest position than either predecessor as a leader among equals in the new American Mafia. In Luciano’s Commission, Al Capone was the representative for the city he finally dominated, though not for long. In 1931, Capone was charged with tax evasion, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.

The Castellammarese War

The Castellammarese War

At the end of Prohibition, the Young Turks fought a colonial war for the Sicilian Mafia in New York.

The Families of the Genovese and Lucchese trace their roots directly to two mafiosi from Corleone: boss Giuseppe Morello, and his captain, Gaetano “Tommy” Reina. During the first Mafia war in New York, between the Corleonesi and the Napolitani, Morello’s half-brother Nick Terranova was killed by one of the Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia), and their brother Vincenzo took over the Morello-Terranova Family. Reina left and formed his own Family, which he put under the protection of Joe Masseria (originally from Menfi, a coastal town in Agrigento province) in the late 1920s.

Prohibition strengthened the Mafia, providing them the opportunity, according to Joe Valachi, to get into racketeering in a big way, on the level with other, non-Mafia criminal organizations operating in the US. In 1922, Masseria survived an assassination attempt. He made Morello his conisigliere. Increasingly, the Mafia in the US overcame its provincial prejudices enough to forge working relationships with Jewish, Irish, and African-American criminals, and for the first mixed gangs to form. Yet a long simmering antagonism between Sicilians from Corleone and those from Castellammare del Golfo flared once more at the end of Prohibition.

The Castellammarese War of 1930 in New York was a colonial war. On one side was Joe Masseria, the most powerful figure in organized crime, with a coalition of allies including the Corleonesi Giuseppe Morello, Lucky Luciano (from Lercara Friddi), and Al Capone (born in New York of Italian mainland parents). On the other side were Salvatore Maranzano and the Castellammarese, backed by Don Vito Cascio Ferro, one of the most powerful men in Sicily at the time. Cascio Ferro sent Salvatore Maranzano to New York to form a monopoly on criminal enterprise. When Joe Valachi got out of prison the first time, he emerged to learn of “trouble in the air” between Tom Gagliano and Ciro Terranova. This was the beginning of the war.

This war is often characterized as one between the “Young Turks” behind Masseria, and the “Mustache Petes” on Maranzano’s. Although Masseria was killed first, it was the Young Turks who ultimately won New York.

Cascio Ferro had lived for a few years in the US, in New York and in the South, like the Morello-Terranova family. He escaped prosecution for his participation in Morello’s counterfeiting racket, and returned to Sicily in 1904. His power there extended over several towns, including Corleone, where he temporarily eclipsed the native Fratuzzi. In 1909, he ordered the murder of the American policeman, Joe Petrosino, who pursued him on charges of killing Benedetto Madonia in New York, the famous “Barrel Murder.” Following his arrest in 1925, Ferro’s star began to fall. Mussolini’s prefect in Palermo, Cesare Mori, attempted to stamp out the Mafia entirely, from 1925-29. Ferro was imprisoned for life, beginning in 1930.

Before the Castellammarese War, Tommy Reina began paying tribute to Joe Masseria. Masseria put additional pressure on Reina, who may have switched to Maranzano’s side. Whether he did or not, the rumor of it reached Masseria, who ordered Reina’s murder. Masseria was killed in April 1931. Accounts of Masseria’s assassination vary and legends abound. It appears that the animosity came from his own men, who resented the war’s effects on their own profits.

Maranzano, the victor, held a meeting in which he laid out many of the structural details that would later form Lucky Luciano’s “Commission”: the rules that would permit the peaceful coexistence of New York’s Five Families, as well as Mafia families in other American cities. Despite these signs of progress, Maranzano was regarded by his lieutenants as another “Mustache Pete.” Besides his support from the clannish Castellammarese, there was his distrust of Luciano’s Jewish associates. The “Young Turks” struck again. Maranzano was killed five months after Masseria.

Featured Image: Vito Cascio Ferro (left), Joe Masseria (top right), Charles “Lucky Luciano” (bottom right)

Gay Liberation and the Mafia

Gay Liberation and the Mafia

Lucky Luciano built the Genovese monopoly on gay nightlife in New York City in the 1930s. The Stonewall Inn was the site of a violent protest against police raids—and against mafia involvement in gay bars. Ed “The Skull” Murphy (top right) was working the door of the Stonewall Inn the night of the famous riot.

Of the Five Families of New York, Lucky Luciano’s was the one we now call the Genovese crime family. Originally the Morello gang, when Luciano took it over in 1931 it had been most recently run by Joe Masseria, Maranzano’s challenger in the Castellammarese War. Until 1957, when Vito Genovese went to prison for trafficking heroin through his gay bars, it was called the Luciano crime family.

Luciano had long experience in running brothels, bars, prostitution rings, and even drug smuggling. To support his speakeasies during Prohibition, Luciano had mafia-backed vendors for liquor, cigarette vending machines, pool tables, and most importantly, police protection. Investing in “fairy places” or “fag bars” was part of a diverse portfolio of organized crime, and an area in which the Luciano family excelled. Their monopoly on gay nightlife in New York City would not be broken for fifty years.

By the mid-1800s, New York had recognizable gay community in several neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village. In George Chauncey’s “Gay New York,” he writes that at least three different locations in Little Italy had young male prostitutes working in them in 1908. Phillip Crawford Jr, in his book, “The Mafia and the Gays,” writes that before Prohibition began in 1920, the LGBT community in the city enjoyed some degree of social acceptance in these gay enclaves.

Yet in 1923, the law in New York City prohibited loitering to solicit gay sex. When Prohibition was lifted, eleven years later, the new State Liquor Authority considered any establishment that served alcohol to gay customers to be “disorderly houses” or places where “unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public.”

A wider group of Americans, including homosexuals, enjoyed a brief period of greater social acceptance during WWII, when everyone was needed in the war effort, whether in the service or as a civilian. When the war ended, large numbers of queer people in the military ended their service, and chose to remain in the cities where there was community. Gay spaces became even more coveted as LGBT people faced increasing discrimination in the Cold War years.

Although decriminalized after 1950, sodomy was still a misdemeanor, and various kinds of discrimination were still legally applied to the LGBT community. Apartment owners and employers did not have to rent to, or employ, people they knew or suspected were queer. A bar could lose its license not only by permitting same-sex kissing, touching, or dancing in their establishment, but simply by allowing gay people to congregate. In his book, Crawford offers an example in the 1965 investigation that shut down the Julius Restaurant: police descriptions of mincing gaits, tight clothes, and men who called one another “honey,” were the legal grounds on which the restaurant’s license was suspended.

The businesses that served the LGBT community, were those that paid off the police. And that meant gay bars were run by the mafia. Historians have connected all five of the families to gay bars in New York, with the majority belonging to the Genovese.

People who would today identify as members of the LGBT community, lived marginalized or hidden lives in the 1950s and 60s. “The down low” was the only option for virtually everyone who patronized gay establishments in those days. For transgender people, the options were extremely limited. “Butches,” “queens,” and other gender transgressors lived in danger roughly proportionate to their visible queerness. The more privileged members of the LGBT community, who could pass as heteronormative and cisgender, were by necessity closeted in most aspects of their lives. They, too, needed public spaces to meet their own kind in relative safety.

At the same time that tourists poured into Anna Genovese’s well-produced drag shows, vice squads enforced antiquated “sumptuary laws” that dictated the number of articles of clothing (some sources say three, others five) corresponding to one’s biological sex, which had to be worn at all times in public, or risk arrest for impersonation of the opposite sex.

In transgender activist Leslie Feinberg’s fictionalized autobiography, “Stone Butch Blues,” Feinberg’s alter ego, Jess, identifies as a butch and dresses as many transgender men do today, binding her chest and wearing a packer in her briefs. Jess and her butch friends work in factories, where they trade the relative freedom to be openly butch, for being the lowest-status workers, whatever their seniority.  When an older member of the community dies, her family buries her in a dress, a humiliation her friends also suffer, in order to be allowed to attend the funeral.

The gendered names, pronouns, clothes, and roles that queer people embraced, fifty years ago, are not the same ones used today by the majority of LGBT people. Choices were more limited, and both mainstream and queer cultures change over time. Feinberg’s book, which also depicts police violence in a bar raid, offers a window on a life that was not much documented, and was often purposely erased by family histories.

Being queer in the 1960s and early 70s was not just grounds for “black sheep” status in the family. Insurance companies would not bond anyone in the financial industry who had an arrest record, whether for “impersonation,” “lewd acts,” “solicitation,” or any of the other crimes under which gay life was categorized. To be publicly, noticeably (to straights) lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender was illegal, which meant accepting as a fact of life, socializing in spaces where illegal activity was protected and flourished. Mafia-managed bars ran the rackets that had always accompanied the gay bar trade, since at least the beginning of the century: prostitution of both sexes, including minors, pornography sale and production, drug trafficking, blackmail, and extortion.

In addition to crime, poor conditions and sleazy business practices went along with black markets, and gay bars were no exception. The Stonewall Inn was re-opened in 1967 by Tony Lauria, the son of a mafioso, with Genovese family backing, as a bottle club, meaning it didn’t need a liquor license. The Stonewall’s claim to fame was that it was the only gay bar in town that permitted dancing. The missing amenities included an emergency exit and running water. In 1969, the Stonewall was responsible for transmitting hepatitis by serving drinks in dirty, used glasses.

The mafia has always preyed upon the most downtrodden of its own people. Despite the predatory relationship between them, the mafia and the LGBT community, they were not mutually exclusive in their membership. Vito Genovese’s wife, Anna, ran one of his gay nightclubs and was reputed to be lesbian. Figures including David Petillo, Ed Murphy, and John D’Amato, tell us that gay mafiosi existed, with varying degrees of acceptance by the mafia, and by the gay community. Matty “the Horse” Ianniello, acting boss of the Genovese family for ten years (between prison terms for racketeering), was widely acknowledged as “the Genovese capo who controlled much of New York’s gay nightlife.” He paid off the police to protect Lauria’s Stonewall.

Ed Murphy (1926-1989), born Edward Francis Murphy and nicknamed “The Skull,” was a former pro wrestler (not to be confused with another wrestler called Skull Murphy, who died in 1970). Ed was a mafioso, and in 1969, a closeted gay man. He ran prostitution rings, and worked as a bouncer in gay bars. The Skull was working the door of the Stonewall the night of the police raid that kicked off the riots. The police, according to David Carter and Lucian K. Truscott IV, were targeting mafia activities, not the clientele, but as Zagria points out, if that was their goal, they were failures, from planning to execution. If you’re really going after someone for blackmailing closeted patrons, do you raid the bar when it’s open for business and full of customers? And then do you let your target slip away into the crowd while arresting a paddy wagon full of trans patrons?

The predation of both the police and the mafia were the targets of the fury that was unleashed when police raided the Stonewall Inn in June, 1969. One of the goals shared by the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front, two groups that came out of the Stonewall protests, was to get organized crime out of the gay bars. But with gay liberation, those same bars were now cash cows, and the mafia was less likely than ever to want to let go of them. It would be another generation before Giuliani’s aggressive targeting of organized crime in New York in the mid 1980s broke the monopoly on gay bars in the city. The anti-mafia part of the Stonewall story is virtually unknown in the LGBT community. Perhaps this is a sign of the mafia’s success in suppressing anti-mafia sentiment, and riding the coattails of the civil rights movement after Stonewall.

Christopher Street Liberation Day, as it was first called, commemorated the Stonewall uprising on its first anniversary, 28 June 1970, with a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Four years later the Stonewall’s old bouncer, Ed Murphy, convinced the committee to reverse the parade route to its present trajectory, so it ended on Christopher Street, where attendees could drink in the many Mafia-owned establishments. Murphy came out as gay in the late 70s, and rode in the parade with a sash calling him the Mayor of Christopher Street. He died of AIDS in 1989. Murphy’s obituary called him a gay-rights leader.

 

Sources:

“Stonewall Riots: A Gay Protest Against Mafia Bars.” On the blog “Friends of Ours: Mostly About Organized Crime.” (Written by the author of “The Mafia and the Gays,” Phillip Crawford Jr.) Published 7 June 2010. Accessed http://bitterqueen.typepad.com/friends_of_ours/2010/06/the-stonewall-riots-a-gay-protest-against-mafia-bars.html 13 April 2016.

“The Stonewall Inn” Published 27 June 2011 on “A Gender Variance Who’s Who” blog. Accessed  http://zagria.blogspot.com/2011/06/stonewall-inn.html 14 April 2016. (Quotes Carter, an historian who wrote a book on the subject in 2004, and Truscott, who covered the 1969 uprising for the Village Voice.)

Nianias, Helen. “How the Mafia Once Controlled the New York Gay Scene” Interview with Phillip Crawford Jr, author of The Mafia and the Gays. Published 30 July 2015. Accessed http://www.vice.com/read/how-the-mafia-once-controlled-the-new-york-gay-scene-616 13 April 2016.

“Edward Murphy, 63, A Gay-Rights Leader.” Published 2 March 1989. Accessed http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/02/obituaries/edward-murphy-63-a-gay-rights-leader.html

 

Image credits: Stonewall image is By Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library – Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4547643. Ed Murphy mugshot is from http://aelarsen.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/stonewall-strange-but-true/ . Lucky Luciano image is in the public domain.