He was a violent killer, and along with Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the head of Murder Inc. The way he lived his life, Albert Anastasia must have thought he was bulletproof: until he made one too many trips to his barbershop.
Albert Anastasia was born Umberto Anastasio on September 26, 1902 in Calabria, located in the southern part of Italy. When he was 15, Albert and his brother Tony hopped on an Italian ship and snuck off illegally on the docks of Brooklyn, New York. It was said that Albert was so poor, he arrived in America with no shoes. Albert lived with a relative in Brooklyn until he finally found work on the Brooklyn docks as a longshoreman, alongside his brother Tony.
Albert Anastasia had a violent temper, and it was manifested in 1920, when he was arrested for killing fellow longshoreman Joe Torino. Anastasia strangled and stabbed Torino, over who had the right to unload ships with the most precious cargo. Anastasia was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was at this time he changed his last name from Anastasio to Anastasia, he said, “not to sully his family’s name.” His brother “Tough Tony,” who later ruled the Brooklyn docks, kept the last name of Anastasio.
Anastasia had spent eighteen months waiting to be executed in Sing Sing Prison, when his lawyer was somehow able to obtain a new trial. At the second trial, several witnesses to Torino’s murder changed their statements as to who the killer was, and four more witnesses disappeared from the face of the earth, never to surface again. With no evidence against Anastasia, the prosecutors had no choice but to drop their case, and Anastasia became a free man. Anastasia would use this tactic of “eliminating witnesses” several more times throughout the years to avoid prosecution for murder.
Upon his release from prison, Anastasia joined the gang of Joe “The Boss” Masseria, considered the top Mafioso in America. During this time, Anastasia became tight with fellow mobsters Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello, and it became clear that Anastasia was more of a follower than a leader.
In 1930, Luciano formed a plan to get rid of his boss – Masseria – then get rid of Masseria’s successor – Salvatore Maranzano. Luciano’s ultimate goal was to unite all the crime families in America: Italian Mafia members, Irish gangsters like Owney Maddon, and Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky, into one National Crime Commission.
When Luciano told Anastasia about his plans, Anastasia was ecstatic. He told Luciano, “Charlie, I’ve been waiting for this day for at least eight years. You’re going to be on top, if I have to kill everyone for you. With you up there, that’s the only way we can have any peace and make real money.”
With Anastasia’s help, Luciano did what he set out to do. Anastasia, along with Bugsy Siegel, was one of the four gunman, who in 1931, shot Masseria to death in a Coney Island restaurant. With Masseria out of the way, Luciano formed the remaining made mafia men into five separate crime families. As a reward for his good work, Luciano made Anastasia the underboss in the family of Vincent Mangano.
After Luciano’s takeover, things ran smoothly for the Nation Crime Commission. The Commission made money in bushels, from running illegal liquor during prohibition, and from the old mob standards like bookmaking, gambling, hijacking, and the distribution of drugs. Of course, in order to keep the cash flowing in, sometimes people had to be killed. As a result of Anastasia’s loyalty, Luciano, along with Meyer Lansky, put Anastasia and Louie “Lepke” Buchalter in charge of what the press called “Murder Incorporated.”
This group of killers, which numbered over 100, was also called “The Boys From Brooklyn.” With Anastasia being the exception, Murder Inc. was comprised of mostly Jewish killers, including Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Allie Tannenbaum, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, and Gurrah Shapiro. It was estimated that under Anastasia and Buchalter’s direction, anywhere from 500-1000 murders were committed throughout the country, and only a handful were ever solved. While bodies were piling up all over America, Anastasia was ostensibly working a honest job. The business card he always carried in his breast pocket said he was a “sales representative” for the Convertible Mattress Corporation in Brooklyn.
In the late 1930′s, Murder Inc. dissolved when it top killers were arrested, tried, and convicted on numerous murder changes. With Reles and Tannenbaum agreeing to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence, several Murder Inc. perpetrators were fried in the Sing Sing Electric Chair, including Buchalter, who was the only crime boss ever executed by the government.
Anastasia avoided prosecution for a while, until it was discovered that Reles was set to testify as to Anastasia’s and Bugsy Siegel’s involvement with Murder Inc. Reles was under 24-hour police guard at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Police were stationed to guard Reles, even when he was sleeping.
On the night of November 12, 1941, Reles was supposedly under police guard and sleeping in his room, when inexplicably he fell to his death from his 6th story window. The official report said Reles died while “attempting to escape.” Years later, Luciano said that Frank Costello, in order to save Anastasia and Siegel’s hide, paid the police $50,000 to look the other way, while Costello’s men flung Reles from the window. Other stories said that the cops did the flinging of Reles themselves. Either way, according to District Attorney William O’Dwyer, “His case (against Anastasia and Siegel) went out the window with Reles.”
In 1936, Luciano was arrested, tried, and convicted on a trumped-up charge of prostitution, and given a 30-year prison sentence. Luciano claimed he had been set up by Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, and there’s evidence that Luciano may have been right. The witnesses against Luciano were all pimps and prostitutes, who later said they lied on the witness stand, rather than being thrown in jail by Dewey.
In 1942, with Luciano languishing in jail, Anastasia, with the help of his brother Tony, devised a scheme to spring Luciano. It was in the middle of World War II, and the plan Anastasia hatched was based on the old mob “protection racket.” With Tony controlling the docks, it was quite easy for his men to sabotage ships on the New York waterfront. And that’s exactly what they did.
After several ships were bombed and burned (the most famous being the French Luxury Liner S.S. Normandie, which was being converted into a troopship, when it was burned and capsized in New York Harbor), Anastasia offered assistance to the United States government, to protect the waterfront from saboteurs (from themselves, of course). The payback from the government was when the war ended, Luciano was to be released from prison, as payment for waterfront protection services rendered. And that’s was exactly what happened, when in 1946, Luciano was released from prison, and deported back to Italy, where he ran his crime family until his death from a heart attack in 1962.
Anastasia had worked successfully as Vincent Mangano’s underboss for 30 years, when in 1951, Anastasia suddenly got ambitious. Over the years, Mangano had grown resentful of Anastasia’s closeness to Luciano and Frank Costello. Many times, Anastasia bypassed his boss Mangano and had, for one reason or another, gone directly to Luciano, or Costello. Several times, Mangano physically attacked Anastasia, which was a foolhardy move, since Anastasia was younger, and stronger, leading to Anastasia beating up his own boss in self defense.
Things in the Mangano family were not going well for Anastasia, when Anastasia asked permission from Costello, now the big boss with Luciano in exile in Italy, to whack Mangano. On April 19, 1951, Mangano’s brother Philip was riddled with bullets and dropped in a swamp in Sheepshead Bay. Later that same day, Vincent Mangano disappeared, and his body was never found. In a few days, after he was sure Mangano was indeed dead, Costello appointed Anastasia the head of the former Mangano crime family, thereby making Anastasia part of the five-man Commission
Costello had a personal reason for why he wanted Anastasia on the Commission. After fleeing to Italy because he was wanted on a murder charge, Vito Genovese had returned to the United States. Genovese was angry because he thought that he, and not Costello, should be the head of the Commission. (Before escaping to Italy, Genovese was the Commission boss. With Genovese out of the country and Luciano still in jail at the time, Luciano then appointed Costello as top man on the Commission.) Genovese was known as a brutal man, who killed first and asked questions later. With Anastasia on Costello’s side, Costello felt the had someone just as tough as Genovese, who could protect Costello’s high ranking.
What Costello did not envision was that Anastasia was a bloodthirsty, homicidal maniac, who would kill anyone, for any reason, real or imagined. Anastasia’s madness manifested itself one day when he was watching television. On the news, a 24-year old Brooklyn salesman named Arnold Schuster was basking in the limelight, as the person who was the main witness in the arrest of legendary bank robber Willie Sutton. Schuster had been riding the subway, when he spotted Sutton. Schuster followed Sutton after Sutton left the subway, and tracked him to a nearby garage. Sutton called the police and Sutton was arrested.
Seeing Schuster being treated like a hero by the press, Anastasia freaked out. “I can’t stand squealers,” Anastasia told one of his killers Fredrick J. Tenuto. “Hit that guy!” And that Tenuto did just that, gunning down Schuster on a Brooklyn street, not far from where Schuster lived.
Realizing that Tenuto was the only person who knew Anastasia had ordered Schuster’s murder, Anastasia took care of Tenuto himself, filling Tenuto with bullets, before Tenuto could spill the beans about Anastasia’s orders.
However, the word was already out that Anastasia, now called “The Mad Hatter,” had gone overboard and had disobeyed one of the Commission’s biggest rules, “We only kill each other.”
As far as Genovese was concerned, Anastasia had made mistake #1. From this point on, Genovese began plotting Anastasia’s demise.
Besides Costello, one of Anastasia’s closest allies was Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky. Lansky, for a while, turned a deaf ear to Genovese’s pleas to kill Anastasia. Lansky was big into the gambling industry on the island of Cuba. As all good mob bosses should, Lansky was cutting in the other Commission members for a piece of the pie on what he was raking in in Cuba. However, Anastasia wanted more. He approached Lansky about giving him a bigger slice, and when Lansky refused, Anastasia began plotting to open up his own gambling operation in Cuba.
That was a bad mistake on Anastasia’s part. Lansky had agreed to the killing of his childhood friend Bugsy Siegel, when it was discovered Siegel had been skimming off the top in the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Money was sacrosanct to Lansky, and Anastasia was threatening to take money out of Lansky’s pocket.
Make that mistake #2 for Anastasia.
Anastasia’s mistake #3 materialized when Genovese found out Anastasia, in order to induct new made members into this family, was charging proposed members $50,000 apiece for induction into the Honored Society. This was a definite no-no in the Mafia. Men waited years, sometimes even decades, to “get their buttons.” In addition, the rule at the time was that each proposed member had to have been involved in at least one murder to even be considered for induction. Genovese said Anastasia had devalued the entire Mafia organization by taking cash payments from men, who were not qualified to be inducted into the “La Cosa Nostra,” as mob informer Joe Valachi later said insiders called their sacred group.
On October 25, 1957, Anastasia’s chauffeur parked Anastasia’s car in the underground garage of the Park Sheridan Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Instead of waiting inside the garage for his boss to return, the chauffeur decided to take a little stroll out of the building. Anastasia took a little stroll of his own, and he wound up sitting in chair No. 4 in the Park Sheridan Hotel barbershop. Sitting next to Anastasia in chair No. 5 was his old friend Vincent “Jimmy Jerome” Squillante. Anastasia sat with his eyes closed, appearing to have nary a care in the world. Soon he would be right.
Suddenly, two men walked into the barbershop. One was carrying a .38-caliber pistol; the other a .32 caliber pistol. One of the men told barbershop owner Arthur Grasso, “ Keep your mouth shut if you don’t want your head blown off.”
Then the two men commenced shooting. One bullets lodged in the back of Anastasia’s head and two shots hit him in the left hand. Another bullet hit him in the back, and another blasted through the right side of his hip. Anastasia stagged to his feet, facing the mirror of the barbershop. Seeing the refections of his two killers in the mirror, Anastasia lurched toward the mirror. The killers kept firing until their guns were empty, and Anastasia fell on his back, between two barber chairs, quite dead.
Squillante didn’t know whether to cry, or go blind. Seeing the dead Anastasia on the floor, he screamed to no one in particular, “Let me out of here!” Then he exited stage right, into lobby of the Park Sheridan Hotel, and disappeared.
According to manicurist Jean Wineberger, one shooter was a white male, around 40 years old, 5-feet-10-inches, with a sight built, and a blond pompadour haircut. The second shooter was also a white male, around 45 years old, stockily built, and about 5-feet-7-inches. Wineberger thought the shooters looked Italian, but she said they could have been Jewish also.
No one was officially charged with Anastasia’s murder and about a dozen people over the years have claimed they had been involved in Anastasia’s killing. The most likely scenario was that Mob boss Joe Profaci was given the hit by the other Commissioner members. Profaci subcontracted out the actual shooting to his underling, the unpredictable “Crazy” Joe Gallo, from the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.
Gallo was not shy about taking the credit for the Anastasia hit. Soon after the hit, Gallo was talking to a crime associate Sidney Slater. Gallo told Slater that he, Sonny Camerone, Ralph Mafrici, Joe “Joe Jelly” Gioelli and Frank “Punchy” Illiano comprised the Anastasia hit-team.
The buttons on his shirt bursting in pride, Gallo told Slater, “You can call the five of us the barbershop quintet.”
The most telling comment about Anastasia’s murder was uttered by Anastasia’s brother “Tough Tony” Anastasio.
“Tough Tony” told a mob associate, “I ate from the same table as Albert and I came from the same womb. But I know he killed many men and he deserved to die.”