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.
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.
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