He was a quiet man who dressed inconspicuously and was known to never loose his temper. But there is no doubt, Carlo Gambino, with his huge hawk nose and enigmatic smile, was one of the most powerful mob bosses of all time.
Gambino was born in Palermo, Sicily on August 24, 1902. The area of Palermo, called Caccamo, in which Gambino grew up in, had such a intense Mafia presences, the police and even the military, were afraid to enter into its domain. That left the Mafioso to rule the area with impunity, knowing whatever they did would not be reported to the police, if the police even cared what happened there in the first place.
Carlo’s mother’s maiden name was Castellano, and she used her influence with her family, who were Mafiosos, to introduce Gambino to “Men of Respect” when Gambino was barely a teenager. Gambino, who was slight of built and only 5-foot-7, quietly impressed his superiors with his calmness, his intellect, and his ability to do what was necessary to be done, even if it mean killing someone who needed to be killed.
In 1921 right before his twentieth birthday, Gambino was rewarded for his good work by being inducted into the Mafia, or what was known in Italy as the “Honored Society.” However, because of Benito’s Mussolini’s vendetta against the Mafia (Mussolini had arrested many Mafioso, including top Mafia boss Don Vito Cascio Ferro, who was sentenced to life in prison), many Mafioso, including Gambino, decided that Sicily was too dangerous for them to exist in the manner that they had been accustomed to. As a result, there was a huge exodus of Mafioso to that mountain of gold across the Atlantic Ocean called America.
In late 1921, Gambino left Sicily on the freighter SS Vincenzo Florio, which was headed for America. For the entire trip, Gambino subsisted on nothing but wine and anchovies, which besides olive oil, were the only food substances on the ship.
The SS Vincenzo Florio docked in Norfolk, Virgina, on December 23, 1921, and Gambino disembarked as an illegal immigrant. Wearing a natty three-piece suit and a black fedora, Gambino walked down the gangplank looking for a car, he was told when he left in Palermo, would be waiting for him when he docked in America, with flashing lights at the end of the dock. He spotted the car and when he arrived at it, Gambino saw a Castellano cousin sitting behind the wheel. The two men embraced, and in seconds they were headed to New York City.
When Gambino arrived in New York City he was pleased to discover that his Castellano cousins had already rented him an apartment on Navy Street in Brooklyn, near the waterfront. They also put Gambino to work in a trucking company owned by his first cousins Peter and Paul Castellano. Soon Gambino segued into the illegal bootlegging business, run by his Palermo pal Tommy Lucchese. Prohibition was instituted by the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919, which banned the manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquors, but not the consumption. On thing led to another, and soon Gambino was a main cog in the crew of Joe “The Boss” Masseria, the most powerful Mafioso in America.
However, another Mafioso had escaped Mussolini’s wrath and arrived in America in the mid-1920’s. His name was Salvatore Maranzano, second in command to Don Vito Cascio Ferro in Sicily. Maranzano figured the Sicilian Mafioso were much superior to those in America, so it was only natural that he should become the top Mafia boss in America. This did not sit well with Masseria, and the result was the Castellammarese War, which flooded the streets of New York City with scores of dead bodies from 1929-31.
Masseria’s crew was soon joined by top Mafia men like Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese, who were well-connected to Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. However, since Masseria did not like his men doing business with non-Sicilians (Costello, real name Castiglia, was from Calabria), Luciano, Costello, Anastasia, and Genovese bided their time, hoping that maybe both Masseria and Maranzano would knock each other off, so that the younger men could take control of all their operations.
However, it was Gambino who made the first move in rectifying this situation. Sensing that he was on the losing side of the battle, Gambino secretly approached Maranzano and offered to jump to Maranzano’s side. Maranzano readily agreed, and soon Luciano, Costello, Anastasia, and Genovese, also wanted to join Maranzano’s forces. Maranzano accepted their offer, on the stipulation that they do away with Masseria, once and for all. That task was accomplished on April 15, 1931, when Luciano lured Masseria to the Nuova Villa Tammaro Restaurant in Coney Island. While Luciano was taking a bathroom break, Siegel, Genovese, Anastasia, and Jewish killer Red Levine burst though the front door and filled Masseria with lead, rendering him quite dead and ending the Castellammarese War.
Maranzano immediately called for a meeting of all the top Mafioso in the city (reportedly over 500 men) in a warehouse in the Bronx. At this meeting Maranzano said, “Whatever happened in the past is over. There is to be no more hatred between us. Those who lost someone in the war must forgive and forget.”
Maranzano then proceeded to form five families, each with a boss and an underboss. Under the two top men each family would have capiregimes, or captains, who would rule over the rest of the family: soldatos, or soldiers. The five bosses were Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci, Lucky Luciano, Tommy Lucchese, and Vincent Mangano. Albert Anastasia became Mangano’s underboss, and Carlo Gambino – a captain in Mangano’s family. Of course, Maranzano made himself “Boss of All Bosses” (Capo Di Tutti Capi), which did not sit well with the rest of the young Mafioso.
Despite all the nice talk about “no more hatred between us,” Maranzano had a secret plan to kill Luciano, Genovese, and Costello — men Maranzano thought to be ambitious and a threat to his rule. Maranzano called on vicious Irish killer Vincent “Mad Dog” Cole to eliminate his perceived competition. Maranzano paid Cole $25,000 on the spot, with another $25,000 forthcoming when the dirty deed was done. To set the trap, Maranzano invited Luciano, Genovese, and Costello to his office in Midtown Manhattan.
However, Luciano caught wind of the plot through an informer close to Maranzano, believed to be Tommy Lucchese. Instead of showing up at Maranzano’s office, Luciano sent four Jewish killers to the proposed meeting, led by Red Levine, one the men who had offed Masseria. The four men, posing as detectives, bulldozed their way past Maranzano’s bodyguards in the outer office. Then they blasted into Maranzano’s office, where they stabbed and shot him to death. On the way out of the building, the four killers ran into “Mad Dog” Cole. They told him not to bother — that Maranzano was dead and the police were on the way. Cole did an about face, whistling a happy tune, having made a $25,000 payday without firing a single shot.
Luciano soon called the bosses of the other four Mafia families and told them the title of “Boss of All Bosses” was eliminated with Maranzano. Luciano then formed a National Crime Commission, which included Jewish mobsters Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Dutch Schultz.
Gambino, now firmly entrenched as a captain in the Mangano family, became the biggest money-maker in all the New York Mafia. And in the Mafia, money brings prestige.
In 1932, his pockets bursting with cash, Gambino married his first cousin, Catherine Castellano Carlo and Catherine Gambino eventually raised three sons and a daughter. (Marrying a first cousin was common in Italy, and not frowned upon in the United States as it is today. In fact, marrying a first cousin is now illegal in most, but not all, states. Editors note: My grandparents on my father’s side were first cousins, married in Sicily in the early 1900’s.)
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Gambino was already set to cash in on the now legal booze business, but he did so in an illegal way. While Prohibition was booming in illegal sales for the Mafia, Gambino planned for the days when he knew Prohibition would end. To achieve his goals, Gambino scooped up as many illegal stills that he could; in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even as far as Maryland. When Prohibition ended and the price of alcohol blasted through the roof, Gambino had the largest illegal liquor distribution system on the East Coast of America. And since he was producing the booze himself and not paying any government taxes, Gambino could undercut the legal distributors, thereby making himself, and the Mangano family, a small fortune all through the mid-to-late 1930’s.
The start of World War II gave Gambino another opportunity to make even more illegal cash, through his wartime rations stamps racket. With war imminent against both Germany and Japan, on August 28, 1941, the United States government created the Office of Price Administration (OPA), whose job it was to print and distribute rations stamps to the American public. Without these stamps, people could not buy gasoline, tires, shoes, nylon, sugar, fuel oil, coffee, meats, and processed foods. Gambino figured the only way he could get his hands on ration stamps to sell on the black market was to steal them outright.
Gambino sent his best safe-crackers and second-story men to the vaults inside the Office of Price Administration, and they emerged with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ration stamps. When certain low-level employees of the OPA realized the ration stamps were being stolen by the mob, they decided to cut themselves in on the deal, by stealing the ration stamps themselves and selling them to Gambino and his boys, of course, at bargain-basement prices. Gambino figured why take a chance of stealing the ration stamps, with the possibility of getting caught. So he took the crooked OPA employees offer, and started buying the rations stamps from them in droves.
The beauty of this scheme was that Gambino already had a ready-made distribution network in place: his network of illegal booze distributors. In October 1963, Mafia informant Joe Valachi testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan’s Investigative Subcommittee on Government Operations, that in one rations stamp deal alone, Gambino made a profit of over $1 million.
Being the savvy businessman he was, Gambino knew he could not live the high life without reporting substantial income to the government. So Gambino invested the money he made from his illegal operations, estimated to be several millions of dollars, in legal businesses such as meat markets, pizza parlors, olive and cheese importers, carting companies, dress factories, bakeries, and restaurants.
By 1951, the Mangano family, thanks to Gambino’s incredible ability to generate income, was one of the most prosperous in the Mafia. The problem was Mangano did not get along with his underboss Anastasia. Mangano was jealous of Anastasia’s closeness with the other bosses, like Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano, who was in exile in Italy; a stipulation of the pardon agreement he received from the United States government after serving 9 years in jail on a trumped-up prostitution charge. Several times Mangano physically attacked Anastasia, a silly move since the younger and stronger Anastasia easily beat his boss in a fistfight.
With rumors abounding that Mangano was plotting to kill Anastasia, Anastasia, with the blessing a crime boss Frank Costello, decided to strike first. On April 19, 1951, the body of Phil Mangano, the brother of Vincent Mangano, was found in the marshes near Sheepshead Bay. He was shot five times in the head. When the police investigating the murder tried to contact Vincent Mangano about his brother’s death, they could find no trace of him. Vincent Mangano’s body was never found.
Within days, Anastasia sat down with the other bosses and explained that he killed Mangano before Mangano could kill him. With the backing of Costello, Anastasia was bumped up to the boss of the Mangano Family, and the name was changed to the Anastasia family. Anastasia made Frank Scalise and Joe Adonis his underbosses, and he gave his capo Carlo Gambino more men, and more power within the organization.
However, Anastasia’s reign lasted less than seven years. Anastasia continually butted heads with vicious crime boss Vito Genovese, who was looking to take over all the rackets in New York City, even if it meant killing the other bosses one by one. Anastasia received a terrible blow when his underboss Joe Adonis was deported back to Italy as an undesirable alien. Anastasia knew his days were numbered, when in early 1956 Frank Costello was shot in the head by Genovese henchman Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. Costello survived the shooting, and at Gigante’s trial, Costello, true to the Mafia code of “omerta,” refused to name Gigante as his assailant.
However, this greatly diminished Costello’s power in the Mafia, and at the insistence of Genovese, Costello was booted out as one of the fives bosses on the Mafia Commission. This left Anastasia without his closest ally, and put Anastasia in a vulnerable position. Soon after, Anastasia other underboss Frank Scalise was gunned down while shopping for fruits and vegetable on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
The final shoe dropped, when on October 25, 1957, Anastasia was shot to death while sitting in a barber chair in the Park Sheridan Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. With Anastasia now dead, Genovese called for a sitdown with the other bosses, and proposed that Carlo Gambino, whom he had let in on his plot to kill Anastasia, should take over Anastasia’s family. The commission agreed and they renamed the family the Gambino Family.
The greedy Genovese called for a meeting of all the crime bosses, underbosses, captains, and respected Mafia men in America, which was to take place in the sleepy town of Apalachin, New York, at the home of Joseph Barbara, a capo in the crime family of Buffalo crime boss Stephano Magaddino. There were several items on Genovese’s agenda, but the prime one was that Genovese would announce himself as the “ Capo Di Tutti Capi,” or “Boss of All Bosses,” a title that had been vacant since the death of Salvatore Maranzano.
On November 17, 1957, scores of mobsters made their way to Barbara’s home. Included in the group were crime bosses John Scalish, from Cleveland, Sam Giancana from Chicago, Frank DeSimone from California, Santo Trafficante from Florida, Gerardo Catena and Frank Majuri from New Jersey, and Carlo Gambino, Joe Profaci, Tommy Lucchese, and Vito Genovese from New York City.
However, before the festivities got under way, state Sergeant Edgar Roswell, along with a dozen state troopers, stormed the house. Roswell later said that he became suspicious when he saw Joseph Barbara Jr. make hotel reservation for a dozen or so out-of-towners. Roswell said he then drove by the Barbara residence and saw dozens of parked luxury car parked in and around Barbara’s estate. Roswell said he called for heavy backup, and when his troopers arrived, they made their move.
Another rumor later circulated that it was Meyer Lansky himself, no big fan of Vito Genovese, who had tipped off the state troopers about the impending Mafia convention.
Be that as it may, when the troopers stormed the house, Mafioso, like in a Chinese fire drill, scattered in all directions. Men in expensive suits jumped though open windows, and if they could not make it to their cars, they hightailed it on foot through the woods, ruining their patent-leather shoes. Sam Giancana safely escaped by fleeing through the woods, as did Bonnano underboss Carmine Galente. But both men were a mess; their suits destroyed by thorny bushes. Some cars made it off the property before a roadblock was put in place, but most didn’t. When the dust cleared 58 members of the Mafia were detained and told to empty out their pockets. A total of $300,000 in cash was found on the 58 men, making the state police all the more suspicious about the meeting.
What was notable about the meeting was the men who chose not to attend. Besides Lansky, those absent were Frank Costello, Carlo Marcello from New Orleans, and Lansky’s pal Joseph “Doc” Stracher.
Of the 58 men detained, 27 were indicted on obstruction of justice, 20 of whom were convicted of refusing to answer questions about the purpose of the meeting. One of the men convicted was Gambino’s cousin Paul Castellano, who wound up doing a year in the slammer as a result.
The aborted meeting, more than anything else, led to the downfall of Vito Genovese. Not only did he not get the exalted title of “Boss of All Bosses,” but he became a pariah in the Mafia; ridiculed as being stupid and greedy for calling so many important men to the same place at the same time for his own purposes.
The day after the raid, the entire nation’s newspapers ran front page stories about the incident. No longer could Mafia men claim that the Mafia did not exist. The police, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who for years denied the existence of the Mafia, went on a rampage, putting extreme pressure on the Mafia’s operations.
Although at first, Carlo Gambino seemed to be a victim of circumstances, the wily mob veteran plotted to turn the incident to his advantage. In fact, there was speculation that Gambino knew about the raid in advance, and went there purposely so that no would would suspect him of being in on the treachery; which would make sense in light of further developments.
With Genovese still stewing from his loss of face, Gambino colluded with Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano (still in exile in Italy, but able to move freely into Cuba to meet with his pals) to get Genovese up to his neck in a multi-million dollar international drug deal. Even thought dealing in drugs was forbidden by the Mafia, the greedy Genovese could not resist the urge to make a ton of dough.
When the time was right, Gambino tipped off the Narcotics Bureau about the drug deal, resulting in Genovese’s arrest. At Genovese’s trial, Gambino paid a false witness named Nelson Cantellops, who insisted on the witness stand that Genovese was not only involved in this particular drug deal, but was, in fact, involved in dozens of drug deals throughout the years. As a result, Genovese was sentence to 15 years in prison. Genovese served a little more than ten years of his sentence, before he died in prison on February 14, 1969.
With Anastasia dead, Genovese in prison, Luciano in exile, Frank Costello basically out of the Mafia loop, Joe Profaci getting older and weaker, and Joe Bonanno having a relatively small crime family, Carlo Gambino became undoubtedly the most powerful Mafia boss in America. His crew of over 500 made men out in the streets included his underboss Joe Biondo, his consigliere Joseph Riccobono, and capos Armand “Tommy” Rava, Aniello “Mr. Neil” Dellacroce, Paul Castellano, Carmine “The Doctor” Lombardozzi, Joseph “Joe Piney” Armone, and Carmine “Wagon Wheels” Fatico.
Gambino expanded his enterprises all over the United States. Besides New York City, Gambino had his fingers in the pot in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Gambino also ruled the powerful International Longshoremen Union, which controlled all the docks in New York, the main port for imports into America.
After Joe Valachi became the first known Mafia informer, Gambino reinforced the rule that forbade the sale of drugs in his crew. Gambino’s rational was that the penalties for selling drugs were so severe, men might turn rat when arrested, rather than do their time in jail like the “real men” of the Mafia had done in the past. The Gambino family policy was “Deal and Die,” and he enforced this rule with no exceptions.
Riding on top of the Mafia heap, Carlo Gambino became a popular figure in New York’s neighborhood streets of Little Italy. While the other bosses barricaded themselves in their mansions, with armed bodyguard, burglar alarms and electrified fences, Gambino walked the streets with impunity, stopping to talk with old friends, while be bought vegetables and fruits from street vendors. Gambino went to Ferrara’s on Grand Street, between Mulberry and Mott, for pastries. Then he would stroll down the block to get his Italian meats, cheeses, and Italian delicacies from Aleva’s, on the corner of Mulberry and Grand.
Starting in March of 1970, Gambino started having trouble with the law. While he was strolling down a Brooklyn street, Gambino was surrounded by New York City police and members of the FBI. They arrested Gambino and charged him with masterminding a scheme to steal $30 million in cash from an an armored truck company located in the Bronx. Gambino was eventually indicted, but the case was dropped due to lack of evidence.
This forced the Feds to try another tactic to take Gambino off the streets. In 1966 the government had issued a deportation order on Gambino, but for some reason the order was never implemented. In early 1971, after Gambino’s wife Catherine had died of cancer, the Feds did indeed try to implement this order, but on hearing about his imminent danger, the wily Gambino faked a serious heart attack. The Feds were incensed at Gambino’s ploy, so they had the U.S. Public Health Service give Gambino a complete physical. The Feds were aghast when it was determined that Gambino indeed had a severe heart condition. This was confirmed in 1972, when Gambino was rushed from his home at 2230 Ocean Parkway, in Brooklyn, to the Columbus Hospital in Manhattan with a massive heart attack. Why a hospital in Brooklyn was not suitable for Gambino was never revealed.
While recuperating at home, Gambino broke one of the laws he decreed himself — “Deal Drugs and Die.” Acting Genovese boss Thomas “Tommy Ryan” Eboli approached Gambino with a “can’t miss” proposition to broker a multi-million dollar drug deal with Louis Civillo, considered by the Feds to be the biggest narcotics dealer in America. The problem was, Eboli, a former boxing manager and notoriously bad gambler, did not have the $4 million needed to proceed with the operation. Gambino fronted Eboli the $4 million, but he lost it all when the Feds arrested Civillo, and confiscated the drugs and money. When Gambino approached Eboli about his missing $4 million, Eboli turned his pockets inside out, indicating he was flat broke.
This did not please Gambino too much. As a result, at approximately 1 a.m., on July 16, 1972, Eboli was shot five times while he was leaving his girlfriend’s apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Eboli died on the spot, and Gambino had enough influence in the Mafia Commission to order that his close pal, Genovese captain Frank “Funzi” Tieri, would now be the new boss of the Genovese Family. And so it was done.
Gambino had another setback, when in early 1973, his 29-year-old nephew Emmanuel “Manny” Gambino was kidnapped for ransom. This same gang had previously kidnapped a Gambino Crime Family captain, Frank “Frankie the Wop” Manzo for $100,000. After that amount was paid for Manzo’s safe return, the gang got more ambitious with the Manny Gambino kidnapping — this time asking for $200,000. Gambino tried to bargain, offering them only $50,000. Soon after, the body was Manny Gambino was found in a sitting position in a New Jersey dump near the Earle Naval Ammunition Depot. On June 1, 1973, degenerate gambler Robert Senter plead guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Apparently, Senter had fallen in debt to Gambino and it was easier to kill Gambino then to pay the debt.
After the death of his nephew compounded the agony of the death of his wife, Gambino became a recluse in his house on Ocean Parkway. He surrounded himself with family members, most notably his cousin Paul Castellano. By 1975, it was clear Gambino’s heart condition would not allow him to live much longer. So he began to plan for his succession as the head of the Gambino Crime Family. Wanting to keep power in his own family blood, Gambino anointed his cousin Paul Castellano to succeed him.
This did not go over well with the rest of the Gambinos, who expected longtime Mafioso Aniello Dellacroce to be the natural successor to Gambino. To appease Dellacroce, Gambino gave him all the Manhattan rackets controlled by the Gambino Family. And that was a big gift indeed.
On October 15, 1976, Carlo Gambino took his last breath, as his heart finally gave out. Gambino’s funeral was one of the most elaborate ever to take place in the borough of Brooklyn. More than 100 cars took part in the funeral procession, which ended at the Saint John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York City; the same cemetery his lifelong friend Charles “Lucky” Luciano had been buried at.
In the 1985 film “Prizzi’s Honor,” directed by John Huston and starring Jack Nicholson, actor William Hickey played Don Corrado Prizzi, a character based on Don Carlo Gambino.