Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
A Mafia Short Story
By Allan May
If the ingredients for being a successful mob boss are keeping a low profile, avoiding arrest, shunning media publicity, and above all else longevity – then no Mafia leader has proved himself more than Gaetano “Thomas” Gagliano.
The patriarch of the present Lucchese Family, Gagliano headed one of the original five New York crime families for nearly twenty years. From September 1931 until his death in February 1951 his tenure in almost complete anonymity has been unequaled. In addition, as a researcher and historian, I have never seen a picture of Gagliano, and my search for an obituary has proved fruitless.
Gagliano’s very existence in many ways is an enigma. In the books where he is discussed, his role in the Castelammarese War is talked about, as is his selection to lead one of the five New York crime families. Hardly any information exists outside of the years 1930 and 1931. Beyond these years the one exception is when Gagliano attended Joe Valachi’s wedding on September 18, 1932. That apparently was the last time he was heard of until his death from what were described as natural causes on February 16, 1951. Even the date of his death is in dispute. James Morton provides the 1951 date in his tome Gangland International. All other references to Gagliano’s demise show the year as 1953.
Though Sicilian, Gagliano did not take part in the Cleveland Statler Hotel meeting in December 1928, which was alleged to be a meeting of the Unione Siciliano. His future fellow family leaders, Vincent Mangano and Joseph Profaci were two of twenty-three men arrested after the handy-work of a Cleveland patrolman on foot assignment exposed the gathering. Gagliano did not attend the Atlantic City Conference held in May 1929 either. Years later, he was not among the crime leaders who traveled to Cuba to participate in the Havana Conference during December 1946, even though his underboss, Tommy Lucchese was in attendance.
What little we know about Gagliano comes mainly from two sources, Peter Maas’ The Valachi Papers, and Joseph Bonanno’s A Man of Honor. There is no information regarding his hometown, date of birth, his age, or any facts about his life prior to 1928.
Here is what we do know. A writing colleague and friend, Thom L. Jones, from down under in New Zealand, has provided some early tidbits in his fine article “Lucchese Crime Family Epic: Descent into Darkness.” Gagliano and Antonio Monforte organized the Plasters’ Information Bureau in the Bronx during April 1928. Local contractors who refused to join the association and pay dues were soon visited by a strong-arm goon squad.
By 1929, the two partners established the United Lathing Company and hired Michael McCloskey, the “czar” of the Lathers’ Union, to help them gain a foothold in that trade. A Treasury Department probe revealed that almost half a million dollars had been extorted from the industry that year. Gagliano was convicted on tax violations and handed a sentence of fifteen months.
Mr. Jones apparently concurs with my evaluation of the mob leader as he states, “There is maddeningly little historical information on Gagliano.”
In Joseph Bonanno’s A Man of Honor, he introduces us to the early families and explains that the five family operations were clearly in place prior to Maranzano’s post-Castelammarese War setup:
“In New York City, there were five Families, which had formed spontaneously as Sicilian immigrants settled there. The number five was not preordained; it just worked out that way.
“The dominant Family was that of Joe Masseria. At one time or another, this Family included Peter Morello, Charlie Luciano, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello and Augie Pisano, to mention just a few.
“The second major Family was headed by Al Mineo (his real name in Italian was Manfredi), an avowed ally of Masseria’s, This clan included Tata Chiricho, Joe Traina, Vincent Mangano, Frank Scalise and Albert Anastasia.
“These Families had interests both in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Bronx, however, was the domain of the third Family, that headed by Tom Reina. In this family were such men as Gaetano Gagliano, Tommy Lucchese and Steve Rondelli.
“The fourth Family…was headed by Joe Profaci and his right-hand man, Joe Magliocco.
“The fifth Family was the Castellammarese clan of Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
Joe Valachi provides the only physical glimpse we have of Gagliano. Valachi states, “He is a big tall guy, a little bald. He looked like a businessman…” Valachi first met Gagliano when, using his talents as a bouncer, he “worked over” some people who were creating problems in the building unions. Valachi claims he refused to take money from Gagliano for his work because he wanted to be perceived as a “friend” instead of a goon for hire. This decision would serve Valachi well.
In early-1930, the Castellammarese War began in New York City. The war took its name from the Sicilian coastal town of Castellammare del Golfo. From this town a clannish group of mobsters came to the United States and spread to cities like Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit, but were closely tied to a rising New York gang chieftain, Salvatore Maranzano. The opposition was the much more powerful Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. The war lasted some fourteen months and took dozens of lives.
The spark that started the Castellammarese War was the murder of Gaetano “Tommy” Reina – Gagliano’s boss. Valachi claims Reina was murdered after he resisted the efforts of Masseria to muscle in on his ice distribution business. This was in the years before electric refrigeration. (A side note to this, Valachi later married Reina’s daughter, Mildred.) According to Bonanno, Reina was a “fence straddler” in the pending bitterness going on between Masseria and Maranzano, but in private admired the latter. When word of this got back to Masseria lieutenant Peter “the Clutching Hand” Morrello, “Joe the Boss” took action. On February 26, 1930, a lone gunman (some sources state it was Vito Genovese) killed Reina in the Bronx with a blast from a sawed-off shotgun.
After the murder of Reina, Masseria tried to influence control of the family by backing one of his supporters, Joseph Pinzolo (sometimes Pinzola), as boss. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who was seldom shy about commenting on people he disliked, provides this opinion of Pinzolo:
“As big a shit as Masseria was, he didn’t hold a candle to Pinzolo. That guy was fatter, uglier and dirtier than Masseria was on the worst day when the old bastard didn’t take a bath, which was most of the time.”
Gagliano wasn’t a fan of Pinzolo or his personal hygiene habits either. Bonanno reveals that Gagliano formed a splinter group within the family with Tommy Lucchese and some other key members. Joining the group of the disenchanted was Dominick “the Gap” Petrilli a friend of Valachi’s who informed him that Pinzolo was not long for this world. On September 9, 1930 Pinzolo was murdered in an office leased by Tommy Lucchese in the Brokaw Building on Broadway.
There are two versions of who murdered Pinzolo. Valachi claims Girolamo “Bobby Doyle” Santucci killed him, while Luciano says it was Petrilli. Neither man was arrested. Instead, Lucchese was indicted, but the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. After Pinzolo’s murder the Gagliano-led family aligned themselves with the Maranzano forces.
On November 5, 1930, two more Masseria loyalists, Steven Ferrigno and Alfred Mineo, were eliminated. The two men were cut down in front of an apartment house on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Valachi was rewarded for his participation in the murders by becoming a made member of the Mafia. Valachi claims he was one of three gang members initiated in a home ninety miles north of New York City. The ceremony took place in a room in front of approximately forty men. Valachi claims that during the initiation rite Joe Bonanno was named his “godfather” and was to be responsible for him.
Not surprisingly, Bonanno insists he never met nor spoke to Joe Valachi. However, he claims that after the Ferrigno and Mineo slayings that the Maranzano forces and Gagliano’s men held a weeklong celebration in late December 1930 near Hyde Park, New York.
On April 15, 1931 the Castellammarese War officially came to an end when Masseria was murdered in a Coney Island restaurant after being set up by Luciano. A month after the killing, Maranzano called a grand meeting, said to be attended by four to five hundred members of the Italian and Sicilian underworld. At this meeting the five family leaders were designated by Maranzano – Luciano, Gagliano, Bonanno, Vincent Mangano and Joe Profaci. All would answer to and pay tribute to Maranzano the self-proclaimed capo-di-tutti-capi – Boss of all Bosses.
This setup lasted just a few months until Luciano arranged for the murder of Maranzano on September 10, 1931. Luciano recounts that on the afternoon of the murder Lucchese went to Maranzano’s office “saying he had a vital matter to discuss at Tom Gagliano’s request.” Luciano was actually striking first before hired killer, Vincent “the Mad Mick” Coll could execute a Maranzano prepared hit list that had Luciano’s name at the top. In all probability Lucchese was there to finger Maranzano for the killers who allegedly entered the Park Avenue office dressed as policemen.
After the murder, Valachi, who had been working as Maranzano’s driver, went into hiding, in the Reina family’s attic. He eventually met with Gagliano and Lucchese, who, after determining where Valachi’s loyalties were, asked him to join their family. However, after conferring with Petrilli, Valachi decided to go with Vito Genovese in the Luciano Family. In the wake of the Maranzano murder, Luciano kept the same five-family structure, but was considered first among equals.
It is here that we lose track of Gagliano. With the exception of the Valachi wedding in 1932, he isn’t mentioned again until his death in the early 1950s. In The Crime Confederation, by Ralph Salerno and John S. Tompkins, the authors disclose that, “During World War II, the Gaetano Gagliano family of Cosa Nostra, … was heavily involved in the black marketing of sugar, gasoline ration stamps, and meat.”
It seems inconceivable that a mob leader could spend ninety-five percent of his regime out of the attention of the news media. Compare this to the seven-year reign of Gambino Family boss John Gotti, the so-called “walking media event,” who during his leadership couldn’t stay out of the limelight even when he wanted to…which was seldom. Perhaps Gotti should have taken some lessons in keeping a low profile from the successfully reclusive, and seemingly forgotten, Gaetano “Tommy” Gagliano.
Copyright A. R. May 2000