Joseph Charles Bonanno was born on January 18, 1905, In Castellammare del Golfo, a small town on the west coast of Sicily, in Italy. When he was three years old, his father Salvatore Bonanno moved his family to Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. They lived there for about 10 years, but Salvatore, caught in a jam with the cops, was forced to move his family back to Sicily.
In Sicily, Salvatore Bonanno was said to have been involved in Mafia activities. His son Joseph followed in his footsteps, and was also heavily involved in Mafia crimes. In 1924, to avoid Mussolini’s attack on the Mafia, Bonanno escaped Sicily, by taking a boat to Havana, Cuba. In Havana, Bonanno stowed away in a Cuban fishing boat, landing him illegally in Tampa, Florida. Bonanno had a scare in Jacksonville, Florida, when he was briefly detained by immigration officials. Bonanno somehow talked his way out of this jam, and he traveled as quickly as he could to New York City.
In New York City, Bonanno quickly hooked up with other mobsters from Castellammare del Golfo, who had already established an illegal foothold in America. Truthfully or not, Bonanno told the people from his hometown that his father Salvatore was a big Mafioso from Sicily. This eased Bonanno’s move into the bootlegging business.
Bonanno moved quickly up the ranks, and soon he became the boss of his own small crime family. Another Italian mobster tried to move into Bonanno’s territory, necessitating a sitdown, which was presided over by three powerful mob bosses, including Bonanno’s cousin Stefano Magaddino – the Mafia boss in upstate Buffalo, New York, and Salvatore Maranzano, the highest-ranking Mafioso, who was from Bonanno’s hometown of Castellammare del Golfo. Having the deck stacked in his favor, Bonanno won the sitdown, and was allowed to keep control of his family, in addition to the opposing gangster’s family.
In 1927, Maranzano became involved in a bloody all-out Mafia war against Joe “The Boss” Masseria, for control of all the rackets on the East Coast of the United States. This was known as the “Castellammarese War.” By this time, Bonanno had risen to the rank of Maranzano’s right-hand man, or Captain. Charles “Lucky” Luciano occupied the same position with with Masseria’s gang. Maranzano approached Luciano with the offer of leaving Masseria, and joining Maranzano’s forces. Luciano, seeing the writing on the wall, and also because Masseria frowned on Luciano’s alliances with non-Sicilians, like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, agreed to kill Masseria, so that Maranzano would now be the number one Mafia boss in America.
Luciano lured Masseria to a little Italian restaurant in Coney Island. There, while Luciano was relieving himself in the men’s room, Bugsy Siegel, along with three of his best Jewish killers, burst in and shot Massaria dead.
Maranzano immediately called for a meeting of all the Mafioso in New York City. At this meeting, Maranzano created five crime families, with five bosses, one of whom was Luciano. Maranzano also declared himself “Capo de Tuti Capo,” or “Boss of All Bosses.”
Luciano did not fancy the path his organization was taking with Maranzano in charge of the Five Families. So again, Luciano used four Jewish killers, this time led by Red Levine, to stab and shoot Maranzano to death in his midtown office.
Luciano, in his quest to unite all the mob bosses (Five Families) in New York City, called for a meeting with Bonanno. The purpose of this meeting was to ensure Bonanno that Luciano’s intentions were, despite the death of Maranzano, to keep the five family concept in effect.
At this meeting, Bonanno told Luciano, “I have no problem with you.”
This is exactly what Luciano wanted to hear. As a result, Luciano inserted Bonanno as the head of the former Maranzano Family, changing the name to the “Bonanno Family.” Bonanno was only 26 years old at the time, making him the youngest Mafia boss ever in America.
Banding together with such gangsters as Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Vito Genovese, Bonanno’s illegal empire took off. In order to insulate himself from possible prosecution by the police, Bonanno involved himself with several legal businesses too, in addition to such illegal endeavors like bootlegging, extortion, hijacking, gambling, and drug dealing. Bonanno also stuck his sticky fingers into the garment center, and he bought himself pieces of the B&D Coat Company, and the Morgan Coat Company. To enhance the wealth of his garment businesses, Bonanno use the muscle of the Garment Workers Union, to give himself an advantage over the legitimate businesses in the garment center.
Of course, this meant paying off the local police to look the other way, while Bonanno schemed and brutalized his way to the top of the garment industry. It was so easy to bribe the police, the vast majority of whom were Irish, Bonanno once said, “All the Irish cops took payments.”
Bonanno also invested in a Wisconsin cheese factory. In addition, Bonanno also was the part owner of the Sunshine Dairy Farm in Middletown, New York, and the Anello and Bonanno Funeral Home in Brooklyn. Bonanno’s most enterprising endeavor may have been the invention of double-decker coffins, which were said to be used exclusively in the Anello and Bonanno Funeral Home. These coffins were assembled so that a second body could be stored under the one that was scheduled for burial. This co-opted the need for digging a grave for the victim of a mob rubout.
Even though Luciano and Bonanno were equals in the five crime family Mafia concept, Bonanno considered himself the most traditionally true to the Mafia concept, which was adhered to in Italy. Bonanno later wrote in his book, A Man of Honor, “Luciano was so Americanized that he operated on the most primitive consideration: making money. Men of my tradition have always considered wealth the by-product of power. Such men of my tradition were mainly in the people business.”
In 1937, Luciano was arrested, tried and convicted on a trumped-up prostitution charge, orchestrated by Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Luciano was sentenced to 30 years in prison. However, after World War II, Dewey, now governor of New York, commuted Luciano’s sentence to time served, and had Luciano deported back to Italy. This arrangement suited Luciano just fine since he could still run his empire from across the ocean, with little or no difficulty. Luciano’s release was said to have been orchestrated by Frank Costello and Joe Bonanno, who reportedly passed the hat for Luciano in the five mob families, and donated the contributed booty, said to be in excess of $250,000, to Dewey’s campaign coffers, which was used in Dewey’s failed 1948 Presidential bid, won by Democrat Harry Truman.
By the early 1960’s, Bonanno has expanded his empire to the state of Arizona, which was open territory for any mob boos who wanted to take control. And Arizona being near California, Bonanno, getting more ambitious and greedy by the moment, figured he could move into California and take over the rackets of Frank DeSimone, who was the mob boss of Los Angeles.
Yet Bonanno’s biggest mistake was when he decided to start infiltrating the rackets in Canada, which incensed his cousin Stefano Magaddino, the mob boss of Buffalo, who considered Canada his sacred domain.
It was during the early 1960’s that Bonanno began having trouble within his family (They thought he spent too much time outside New York City), and also with the bosses of the other families, which comprised the Mafia Commission, as it was now called by its members. Bonanno’s biggest ally on the Commission was Joe Profaci from Brooklyn. In 1962, Profaci died after a long bout with cancer and was replaced by Joe Magliocco, considered not as powerful and as fearless a man as was Profaci.
Bonanno thought now was the time to act, and his approached Magliocco with the plan of killing the bosses of the other three families: Carlo Gambino, Tommy Lucchese, and Bonanno’s cousin Stefano Magaddino, as well as Frank DeSimone of Los Angeles. Magliocco agreed and he gave the order to organize the hits to his new underboss Joe Colombo. However, instead of following Magliocco’s orders, Colombo instead reported the treasonous acts to Gambino, Lucchese and Magaddino. As a result, Magliocco and Bonanno were ordered to appear before the Commission to explain their actions.
Bonanno told the three other bosses to take a hike, but Magliocco timidly agreed to appear before the Commission. At this meeting, Magliocco confessed his actions and threw himself on the mercy of the Commission. Inexplicable, the Commission agreed to spare Magliocco’s life. However, Magliocco’s punishment was expulsion from his own crime family, and in addition Magliocco was no longer considered even a low-ranking member of La Cosa Nostra. In other words, Magliocco lost his “button” for good.
With Bonanno’s refusal to appear before the Commission, the Commission members stripped Bonanno of the leadership of his family, and replaced him with Gaspar DiGregorio. This move split the Bonanno family in two, with some members siding with DiGregorio and others with Bonanno.
On the night of October 21, 1964, the night before he was to appear before a New York Grand Jury, Bonanno was walking on a Park Avenue street with his lawyers, when suddenly two men jumped from a car. They seized Bonanno and threw him into a another car. What happened next is up for conjecture.
When Bonanno reappeared in court 19 months later, his story was that he was kidnapped by his cousin Stefano Magaddino and held at a farm in Buffalo. Bonanno said that Magaddino repeatedly, under the threat of death, urged him to quit the Mafia. Bonanno said he refused and instead tried to make a deal whereby his neophyte son Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno would assume control of the Bonanno Crime Family. Bonanno, against the wishes of the Commission and many in his own crime family, had already appointed his son as his “consiglieri.” Magaddino, speaking for the rest of the Commission, Bonnano said, flatly refused Bonanno’s offer. Bonanno said he was released after a few months and spent the rest of his 19 months in exile hiding in Tuscon, Arizona.
Yet, that story holds very little water. If Magaddino really did have Bonanno in custody, there is very little chance, that Bonanno, after refusing to give up the leadership of his family, and after plotting to kill three Commission bosses, would have ever left Buffalo alive.
The more likely story is that Bonanno arranged to “kidnap” himself, so that he could plot behind the scenes on how he and his son Bill could take over the Mob rackets throughout the country.
While Bonnano was “in absentia,” DiGregorio called for a meeting with Bill Bonanno to discuss how they could co-exist in the same family peacefully. When Bill Bonanno arrived at the meeting on Troutman Street in Brooklyn, he and his men were met with a hail of gunfire. However, it was late at night, and because of the dark, and the bad aim of both groups, no one was injured.
The next two years after the return of the senior Bonanno was referred to as the “Bananas War.” Because of his failure to eliminate Bill Bonanno, the Commission replaced DiGregorio with Paul Sciacca, considered tougher and a more capable Mafioso than DiGregorio.
In 1968, after years of bloodshed on both sides, Joe Bonanno suffered a heat attack, and he announced his retirement. After Bonanno and his son Bill relocated to Tuscon, Arizona, both factions of the Bonanno family united under Sciacca.
While Bonanno was in Tuscon, where he was supposedly allowed to keep whatever rackets he had assembled there, there were several bomb attempts: at the homes of Joe and Bill Bonanno, and also at the homes of some of their Tuscon crime associates. However, no one was killed, and soon the other New York bosses came to believe Bonanno when he said he would stay out of the East Coast rackets completely, and concentrate only on Arizona.
In 1983, after serving time for conspiring to interfere with a Grand Jury investigation into his two son’s Arizona businesses, Joe Bonanno inexplicable wrote his autobiography Man of Honor. Bonnano’s book told in great detail of Bonanno’s role in the rise of the Mafia in America. The other mob mosses in America were outraged that Bonanno would break his vow of “omerta.” The then-head of the Bonanno Crime Family, Joe Massino, began calling his family the Massino Family, but that name never stuck. Massino himself became a government informant in 2005, the highest ranking member of the Mafia in America ever to do so.
Joe Bonanno died peacefully of a heart attack on May 11, 2002, at the ripe of age of 97, outliving his contemporaries in the Mafia by anywhere from two to four decades.