Feature Articles

January 2002

New York Stories

Part III

By John William Tuohy

     Costello knew who ordered the hit and why. It was Vito Genovese, Costello's underboss. He had finally decided to make his move. To justify the hit, a week before the hit, Genovese called in his Capos, Tony Bender and Vincent Mauro and told them that Costello was an informer, and that was why he had been released early from prison.

     The family got ready for war. However, nothing happened and then one by one Costello's lieutenants marched into Geneovese's office and one by one said that they recognized him as the boss. Finally Costello sent out the message that he didn't want to fight. He was leaving the rackets. He had more money than he could ever spend and he wanted to spend the rest of his life in peace and quiet.

     Genovese agreed to let Costello leave the racket and to keep his life as well, but first he had to prove something to the boys. He reduced Costello to the rank of a street soldier, stripped him of his gambling interests in Las Vegas, Florida and the Caribbean and made him turn over his points in The Copacabana nightclub.

     There was only one last thing in the way of Vito Genovese and that was Albert Anastasia, the Mad Hatter.

     No one ever doubted that Albert Anastasia was insane. Just how insane he was, was made clear one night in 1952, when Anastasia was at home listening to the news on the radio, when he heard that bank robber Willie Sutton had been recognized and turned in by one of his neighbors in Brooklyn, a young man named Arnold Schuster. Anastasia got up from his chair and called one of his boys, an escaped con named Frederick Tenuto, told him about the news story and said, "I hate squealers, find this fucking Schuster and kill him."

     On March 8, Tenuto walked up behind Schuster on a New York Street and shot him to death. When sanity, of sorts, returned to Anastasia, and he realized what he had done, he ordered the boys to murder Tenuto and make the body disappear. After that, the press dubbed the boss of the waterfront, "The Mad Hatter."

     In many ways, as brutal as he was, Albert Anastasia was an American success story. The Anastasia (Anastasio) brothers, Albert and Tony, were born in Italy at the turn of the century and arrived in America, illegally, at age 15, by sneaking off a freighter that had stopped over in Brooklyn, New York, shortly before World War I, in or about 1917. They arrived, literally, shoeless and without a penny in their pockets.

     Albert Anastasia found a job on the docks as a longshoreman by age sixteen. Albert, who was noted for his maniacal temper tantrums, started out in bootlegging and graduated to bodyguard for Joe "The Boss" Masseria and ended up under Vincent Mangano after the Castellmarese Wars and was assigned to the Docks where his ruthless brutality made him a legend on the docks. He was once arrested for the stabbing/strangulation murder of a longshoreman named Joe Torino in a dispute over unloading cargoes. There were several witnesses to the killing and Anastasia was convicted and sentenced to death, spending 18 months in the death house of Sing Sing. However, just before he was to be executed, he won a new trial when several witnesses reversed their statements and he walked out of jail a free man.

     When Lucky Luciano approached Anastasia about his plot to kill Joe the Boss Masseria and take over the mob, Anastasia, desperate for power, pushed Luciano to launch the plan. When it was successful, Luciano rewarded Anastasia for his loyalty by naming him underboss to the Mangano family under Vincent Mangano. However, in 1951, Anastasia grew tired of Mangano, and with Frank Costello's support, he had Mangano and his brother Phil shot to death and took over the family.

     So while Frank Costello might have accepted his fate at Genovese's hands, Anastasia didn't accept it at all. Anastasia went to the Commission members and openly accused Genovese of an illegal hit on Costello, and he began to talk about going to war with Genovese, a war to reinstate Costello to power, a war that he would probably win.

     Then Genovese learned that Costello and Anastasia were meeting secretly, and he panicked. He would have to kill Anastasia, before Anastasia killed him, but he would need the permission of the national commission before he did that, the shot taken at Costello had taught him that much.

     Getting the commission's permission wasn't difficult. For them, Anastasia had grown too ambitious and was talking about ruling over all of New York and Las Vegas, which is exactly what all the other bosses wanted but feared to try to do. Anastasia had no such fears. In fact, he had already made a grab at the narcotics and gambling cash that was flowing out of Havana's from Lansky's racket and into the pockets of various Mafia and syndicate bosses across the globe.

     Anastasia's mistake was inviting Cuba's other king pin boss, Santos Trafficante, to join him in his efforts to take over the underworld. Trafficante could hand Cuba over to Anastasia, without his having to go through Lansky and Alo, who may have already entered an agreement with Genovese. Trafficante heard Anastasia out and told he needed to think about his offer. Instead, to protect his own assets in Cuba, Trafficante went straight to Genovese and cut his own deal.

     Genovese, with Trafficante behind him, took Anatasia's plan to the national commission who sanctioned the hit.

     Genovese contacted Carlo Gambino, the cunning and ambitious capo under Anastasia, and convinced him that they would both benefit by murdering Anastasia. Gambino agreed and set up the hit.

     On October 25, 1957, the Gallo brothers killed Anastasia as he sat in the barbershop's chair at the Sheraton Hotel, a hot towel wrapped around his face. There were eleven people in the tiny shop, five barbers, a manicurist, three shoe shine boys and two customers who watched the two young hoods quickly enter the shop and put at least ten bullets into his head and neck.

     Now, in almost complete control of half of New York's underworld, all that Genovese needed was official recognition by the national commission as head of his family, and for Carlo Gambino as head of the Anastasi family.

     Frank Costello would have his revenge on Don Vito Genovese. But in doing so, he would be largely responsible for the start of the demise of the American Mafia.

     Like virtually everyone else in the mob, Meyer Lansky and Jimmy Blue Eyes Alo detested and feared Vito Genovese, a man they had both known for almost forty years, and once Frank Costello was gone, they had no intention of serving under him.

     A few months after Genovese's public humiliation of Frank Costello, there was a secret meeting between Costello, Meyer and Jimmy Alo. A general plan was mapped out to send Genovese away to federal prison on the toughest rap of all, narcotics. To set up the fall, they used a low-level Puerto Rican drug dealer named Nelson Cantellops, who was already doing five years at Sing on a drug charge. Cantellops was perfect for the role because the Feds had already tied him in to Sam Giancana in Chicago, and Giuseppe "Big Johnny" Ormerto, a Genovese family Capo. They also had information that Cantellops acted as a courier for Meyer.

     Jimmy Alo sent a representative up to Sing Sing to offer Cantellops the deal of a lifetime, all he had to do was to contact the Narcotics Bureau, Lansky supplied a name of an agent in the Bureau who was ready to take the complaint, and tell them that he had evidence to implicate Genovese in a major drug deal. If Cantellops went along, he would get $100,000 in cash, the money put up by Lansky, and Costello's lawyer would arrange to have his sentence annulled.

     Cantellops took the offer of course, and in July of 1958,a grand jury was called in Manhattan, and Vito Genovese and 23 others were indicted for conspiracy to traffic in drugs. It was one of the weakest cases that the government ever presented before a court, but, on April 17, 1959, Genovese was convicted, fined $20,000 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

     The Godfather had his revenge. But at what cost to the overall organization?

     What Costello, Lansky and Jimmy Blue Eyes hadn't counted on was Joe Valachi. The Bureau of Narcotics had nailed Joe Valachi on dope peddling charges and locked him away in Atlanta for fifteen years with his boss Vito Genovese, where the two men shared a cell. Valachi had been with the Genovese family since its beginning, having joined the mob back in 1926 when he went to work for Joe the Boss Masseria.

     Four years later, in November of 1930, Valachi was driven 90 miles into New York State to a colonial-style house where he and 40 others were inducted into the Mafia by Salvatore Maranzano who assigned Valachi Joseph Bonanno's crew and eventually moved him over Charlie Luciano's crew, where he served as a driver and assassin, being linked to over 30 murders.

     By 1940, Valachi was married and had one son and was operating a loan sharking and numbers business, using a clothing factory as his front. He was also dealing in narcotics in a big way and, never the smartest crook in the outfit, he quickly came to the attention of the Bureau of Narcotics and in 1959, they nabbed Valachi on a major drug charge and sent him off to Atlanta with Don Vito Genovese and about 90 other made guys already serving out sentences. Once there, Valachi became convinced that he had been marked as a mob informant and that he was marked for death by his boss Vito Genovese, who was sure that Valachi was a government informant. At 7:30 a.m. on 22 June, 1962, Valachi, aged 58, was positive that he was being followed around the prison yard by an inmate sent by the Genovese to kill him.

     Valachi struck first, with an iron crow bar, and killed the convict, who turned out to have no mob connections whatsoever. To buy his way out of the murder and to save his own skin, Valachi turned informant. When Attorney General Bobby Kennedy heard that the FBI had flipped Valachi, he crossed over federal lines and took the hood under his control. Kennedy needed Valachi because his testimony could confirm evidence, gathered illegally by Kennedy's wiretaps, on the mob.

     In turn, Valachi's testimony would persuade Congress to pass a series of laws that would allow legal wiretapping on a massive scale and grant immunity to witnesses against the outfit. In fact Congress did pass these laws, however they wouldn't be enacted until one year after his murder in 1968.

     On September 9, 1963, Valachi appeared before the McClellan Committee, investigating organized crime. There was riveting coverage live on television. In his testimony, Valachi confirmed 289 suspected made Mob members, outlined the five major mob families and their inner workings and used the word "Mafia" for the first time on network airtime to explain the mob's hierarchy.

     Luciano and Costello were the last great leaders of the family that would come to bear the Genovese name. As for Don Vito Genovese, he got his power, but it was bittersweet. He died in prison in 1969.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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