Feature Articles

September 4, 2000

Lucky Luciano. The Man Who Organized Crime in America

Book Review

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

     John Tuohy's book, The Last Gangster; The Life and Times of Roger Touhy and the Chicago Mob, will be released by Barricade Books this fall.

Lucky Luciano. The Man Who Organized Crime in America . Barricade Books. Hardcover. No photographs. 341 pages. By Hickman Powell. Introduction by Charles Gutzner and afterword by Ed Becker. Available on Amazon.Com

     Barricade Books has reissued Lucky Luciano; The Man Who Organized Crime in America, by the late New York Times investigative reporter, Hickman Powell.

     The book was originally published sixty-one years ago, in 1939, under the tittle Ninety times guilty.

     For the new comer to the world of organized crime reading, the book introduces the usual subjects and suspects; from the Atlantic City conference to Capone to the Cuban conclave that effectively signaled the end of Charlie Luciano as an underworld power.

     For the serious Mob reader and historian, Lucky Luciano; The Man Who Organized Crime in America, is a treasure trove of details. As an example, not only do we learn the name of the man (Gerardo Scarpato) who owned the infamous Nuova Villa Tammaro, the spaghetti-house restaurant on Coney Island where Joe the Boss Masseria was murdered, we discover what happened to Mr. Scarpato afterwards. (He fled to his native Italy, returned to the US after several months and was murdered by persons unknown)

     However, I need to warn the serious researcher that the book doesn't have a subject index. It does, however, offers a listing of the cast of characters in the first chapter and each chapter is compartmentalized enough offer a quick grasp of the various stages of Charlie Lucky's now famous trail for pandering.

     Powell writes like the insider he was during his long and impressive career behind the pen. He covered the Seabury investigations for the old Heral d-Tribune newspaper, and was with prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey's investigation into the New York underworld from its very beginning until its end. As a result, Lucky Luciano; The Man Who Organized Crime in America is a clear, uncluttered, complete, and perhaps the only accurate version of the trial.

     Powell interviewed Luciano firsthand, and knew, personally, the quirky cast of underworld characters who helped to usher Lucky Lucifer, as they called him behind his back, off to prison.

     In 1942, Powell followed the unflappable Dewey to Albany and the governor's mansion as a staff researcher, and later worked for Dewey, as a speech writer in Dewey's 1944 and 1948 ill-fated campaigns for the White House.

     Powell ended his career as a staff aide to the all-important, although now long forgotten, New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Wiretapping. A committee, by the way, illegally wiretapped by Hoover's FBI.

     Powell died in 1966, outliving Luciano by four years. Dewey outlived both of them, dying in 1971.

     Powell writes of the underworld cretins that are the base of the book, with a WASPs respectful distance and disdain. But Powell was nobody's fool. It's obvious he understood the street mentality of crucial witnesses like Coke y Flo Brown and Jennie the Factory, and a dozen other low life's rounded up by a desperate Dewey in order to bring his case to court.

     There are few personal glimpse's given by Powell into Dewey or Luciano. This is, after all, a crime reporters book, based on substantive facts. Yet, while Powells respect for Dewey and his staff is apparent from the beginning to the end of the book, the authors reporters instincts don't allow Dewey to slip away unscathed; we learn that Luciano's argument that he had been railroaded on the rickety evidence of hookers and goons who had been bribed by Dewey's office with free trips to Europe and a steady and uninterrupted flow of narcotics, suspiciously missed by the blind eyes of justice, may have been based in some truth.

     Another important but much overlooked aspect of Dewey's case that's covered by Powell, is the fact that, contrary to legend, the state did have a fairly large number of witnesses it used against Luciano who were of sound, upstanding character. Unfortunately for Dewey, they palled in comparison to the twenty-eight eccentric prostitutes that were also used by the State to bring Luciano down; Street people like Cokey Flow Brown, a morphine and opium addict, whom the presiding judge allowed to down a few shots of brandy during her testimony to keep the shakes from overwhelming her. Oddball or not, in the nine hours of her testimony, not one of Luciano's razor sharp trial lawyers could trap her in a lie or an inconsistency.

     Deweys strategic use of drug-addicted hookers against Luciano introduction into his case must have been a sore point for Charlie Lucky, who, during his brief career on top of national syndicate, went out of his way to distance himself from "The rough stuff" as he called it; prostitution and drugs. However, as Powells well establishes, Charlie Luciano was a pimp and drug pusher. Maybe not a front line pimp and drug dealer, but a pimp and a drug dealer, nonetheless.

     We're also introduced to some of the defense teams star witnesses, such as Patrolman George A. Heidt, whose testimony on Luciano's behalf led to a well deserved full scale investigation into Heidts personal life by the New York Police Department. It turned out that the beat cop, who earned about fifty-two hundred dollars a year, had managed to bank an amazing $22,288. Heidt was tossed off the force when he failed to offer a reasonable explanation for the money, but was reappointed a year later, on appeal.

     This handsome book, the cover design by Gregory Wilkin is fittingly haunting, is worth having on your shelf and it also sends a vote of confidence to some of the smaller New York publishers, like Barricade, to continue to make efforts to reintroduce some of the organized crime classics.

     In that same vain, a British publisher named Michael Dunkley recently reissued "X Marks the Spot: Chicago Gang Wars in Pictures." This paper back was originally introduced in 1930 by a company known only as Spot Publishing, who either, out of fear of retribution by Capone or lack of business savvy, or both, failed to trademark their work.

     The wonderful photographs of gangsters in X Marks the Spot are clear, crisp and frequently very graphic and cover virtually every big name hood in Chicago's underworld who was active in the Roaring Twenties.

     X Marks the Spot, which originally sold for one dollar, may be available through specialty books, which is where I purchased my copy, for under seven dollars.

     If the publishers at Barricade, or any other House are reading this, they might want to consider a reissue of X Marks the Spot, along with another classic, The Killing Of Joey Gallo, by Harvey Aronson. Originally published by Putnam in 1973, Aronson's gritty, from the streets writing style hold true through the test of time and is worthy of second life, especially with the recent reopening of Umberto's Clam House in Manhattans Little Italy where Joey Gallo downed his last scungilli salad almost thirty years ago today.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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