By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
Everyone called him Tommy Brown, but that was not really his name.
It was a nickname, a mob monicker, but it really got confused. His name in Italian is Gaetano Lucchese, and the closest we get to that is Guy Lucchese, as the name is pronounced “Guy-tano,” and there is no English version of his forename.
So where did Tommy come from? Tanu is the diminutive of Gaetano, which some people confuse with Tommy. The Brown is a tag from a ubiquitous story that a booking officer, following an arrest in 1921, remarking on the fingers missing on one hand, said “We’ll call you ‘Three fingers like the baseball player Mordecai Brown.’”
He did thirty-three months in jail for this arrest, grand larceny, theft of an automotive. In his long career of wrongdoing, he served only one prison sentence.
This is how legends, myths, and nicknames are born. And he had a lot of names.
Such as Thomas Luckese (right), and Thomas Lucase, and Tom Branda, and Thomas Arra, as well as Thomas Lucchese. Which is often spelt with one c.
And just to really confuse us, his family buries him under the name Thomas Luckese, one of his many aliases or "also known as". Using a different first name would have been more appropriate to trick the curious, according to some sources. We’ll never know.
What we know is that The New York Crime Commission in the early 1950s considered him “the most important crime figure” in New York. During one of their hearings, George White, a legendary investigator for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, claimed Lucchese “was the overall general of a mob which divided the USA into four zones for the trafficking of dope. In charge were Abe Chait, Joe Rosato and Steve La Salle.”
That's a lot of praise for an unknown fifty-three-year-old man.
He was also involved in killing his problems. At least twice, personally, maybe more. Three men shot Louis Cerasuolo, 24, at the corner of First Avenue and 118 Street in Harlem, and the police linked Lucchese to the murder. Although the victims’ wife and daughter identified the killers, they both later retracted their statements. The men walked free.
The usual mob way solved the dispute with an extortion scheme involving chickens.
The alleged shooters were Lucchese, a dressmaker called Joe Rosato (the same one whose name would come popping up at the Crime Commission) and John “Charlie Scupete” Gaudio who was based somewhere around 107 or 108 Streets, an area notorious for producing gangsters, especially Italian ones. Allegedly, Scupete is a slang Italian or Sicilian term for shotgun, which this killer supposedly favored, although he did not choose it as his weapon on June 30, 1928, when the action occurred. Gaudio was perhaps a killer of choice for the mob in this part of New York.
Indicative of the way Mafia members maintain their power through family ties, Rosato was married to Rose, sister of the man, with many names.
The killing went down on an interesting cross-road. Within two blocks, are located the office where Giuseppe Morello, an alleged boss of the New York Mafia, will be murdered two years later, the home and social club office of Anthony Salerno, who will become a front boss for the Luciano/Genovese Family (Originally Morello’s gang) in the years to come, and Pleasant Avenue, an area that will become infamous for drug dealing which will ravage the neighborhood like the plague, mainly because of the Lucchese Mafia clan.
A man with an Italian name meaning "Good fortune" enters the story. Like the main character in John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra, he will travel a road that leads to his own special destiny.
And an inevitable fate.
Bonaventura Pinzola (sometimes spelled Pinsola) is born in Serradifalco, Sicily, which will create all kinds of problems for crime historians, because there are two of them.. One's a Palermo commune, the other's a town in Caltanissetta, 130 km south. Although genealogy sites favor the one in the southern part of the island.
Whichever one is his birthplace, he is nineteen when he enters America, in 1906, and moves to Pittston, where he has family connections. This area in north-east Pennsylvania was a stronghold of mafiosi from Caltanissetta, which may also have been a draw card for Pinzola. Two years later he is in New York, living in a notorious slum tenement at 222 Chrystie Street, on the Lower East Side, presumably starting his career in crime, or at least continuing it. Like most of his peers, he will be known in the underworld by his nicknames, Bontunio, but most often Joe.
He’s hardly arrived when he’s caught trying to dynamite a building, a tenement house with over forty families living there, on East 11 Street in Lower Manhattan. It’s part of a Black Hand  scheme seemingly under the control of one Giuseppe Constabile, allegedly a local mob boss.
Pinzola, twenty years old, gets a prison sentence of up to five years, serving it at Sing Sing prison. He goes down in Black Hand's history as one of two men caught planting a bomb by the police in New York. It seems, without the bad luck in his life, he wouldn't have any luck at all.
The only image we have of him, front-face, is taken after the police arrest and book him (right). The two police officers who track and arrest him are Detective Charles Corrao and Lieutenant Joe Petrosino. In the scuffle, Petrosino jams his revolver into Pinzola’s head so hard, it penetrates the cheek, and creates the image of the heavy bandaged face that peers out at us from the past.
We know he marries in 1916, to Carmela Riccobono, whose brother Joe will one day be part of the Gambino Crime Family. Maintaining the ever important blood links in the Mafia chain, the witness to his marriage is Marco Li Mandri, and his wife, Marianna Pecoraro. They will move to California in due course, where Marco will become part of the Los Angeles Mafia. His wife’s father and brother were both part of Giuseppe Morello’s original gang, (some claim the first Mafia Family in New York,) the father being a suspect in the murder of New York Police Inspector Joe Petrosino, in Palermo, in March, 1909, a year after his encounter with Pinzola.
Degrees of separation in the Mafia. Always.
The Pinzolas will have three children, and at some stage they move to a home at 209 1st Avenue, near 13 Street; records report he was a timber contractor. An arrest in 1922 shows he was never far removed from the wrong side of the track, in an area overflowing with thugs, gangsters, degenerates, racketeers and gunmen. Then the trail peters out.
Historically, we next hear about Pinzola after the murder of Gaetano Reina, who is the leader of his own gang, which we believe links into the Masseria group.
The alliance is part of an underworld conflict which will come to involve four of New York's five Mafia clans. Reina dies on February 26, 1930, and it’s presumed his murder is the beginning of a gang war. In fact, it begins 600 miles west of The Bronx, in Detroit, three months later.
Unknown assailants shot Gaspare Milazzo and Rosario Parrino while they were having lunch at a fish market in May 1930. Milazzo, who was originally based in Brooklyn, has a close connection to Salvatore Maranzano, who leads the dominant faction that opposes Giuseppe Masseria and his gangs. Although presumably killed by local mobsters, part of an opposing group within Detroit, someone probably orchestrated the murders from New York through Masseria.
Two men murder Reina as he escorts his girlfriend, Maria Ennis, to their waiting car at 1522 Sheridan Avenue, in The Bronx. One of them is alleged to be Pinzola. Reina may have died because Masseria lusted after his large and lucrative share in the ice-business.
In an age before widespread electrification, New York’s residents and businesses relied on ice to store food and to cool drinks. Italians dominated the industry in The Bronx and Harlem. With little skill or capital required, it was a lucrative business on the scale that Reina operated. Masseria (left), who allegedly had an insatiable appetite for food, also hungered for power and money.
History does not tell us when, but some time following the killing of number two Tommy, Masseria forces through the appointment of Pinzola as the head of the brugad or borgo, (interchangeable description used to describe a village or commune in Sicily, and used by Mafiosi to indicate their allegiance.) There may have been about 200 men in this family, including Lucchese and Rosato.
Pinzola may have been part of Reina’s gang. Reports and narratives are vague about this. The move upset Tommy number three, who was second in command and expected to become the leader.
Tomasso Gagliano (right) was born in Corleone, as had been Reina. Becoming a successful business investor with over twenty-five companies under his wing, basing himself in The Bronx, he would live a long and fruitful life and died peacefully in retirement. He was also the second-in-command of Reina’s gang and, along with Lucchese and a dozen members, set about fitting out Pinzola before he became too important to Masseria’s plans or expectations.
As well as Vincenzo Mangano, who would lead the Mafia group we know today as The Gambino Family, Gagliano would serve as a boss for twenty years, a record only beaten by Giuseppe Profaci, whose group, based in South Brooklyn, stayed conspicuously absent from the turmoil of 1930-1931.
Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Although five months away, Joe Pinzola was about to find out.
Only three Pinzola images are public domain. One shows him with the bandaged face, following his arrest for the attempted arson attack, the other two show him dead, face down on an office floor.
There is one description we have of him which comes from Joe Valachi, who met him briefly in a bar in mid-town Manhattan.
Valachi refers to him as a “greaseball” a term used to describe old-time gangsters, although Pinzola was only forty-three when he died. Joe remembers him because of his huge moustache and the reek of garlic that hung around him.
Charley Luciano, a leading figure in the gangland war that creates Pinzola’s promotion and demotion (the hard way) claimed in his much-maligned biography, his opinion of Pinzola this way:
“As big a shit as Masseria was, he didn't hold a candle to Pinzola. That guy was fatter, uglier and dirtier than Masseria was on the worst day when the old bastard didn't take a bath, which was most of the time.”
Pinzola was a Sicilian, and as a result he probably never thought of himself as Italian, and never read the writing of Machiavelli. Had he done so, he may not have found himself alone, and isolated that afternoon, on the day he died, Friday, September 5, 1930.
Machiavelli claimed, “The man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation.”
Pinzola lacked the respect of the gang Masseria had handed him on a plate and apparently cared little about the politics of the rank and file. Why he found himself there is just one of many conundrums that aggravates Mafia historians. How was he related to Masseria? Why did the boss want him in a supposed allied group? Surely a mobster as street-smart as Masseria would realize the conflict this would trigger?
Due to the unknown truth about others and the enigmatic nature of humans, we are left with a mystery in the end.
Sometime around the end of May or early June, Tommy Lucchese signs a lease for an office on the 10th floor of the Brokaw Building, which stood on the corner of Broadway and 42 Street at 1457 Times Square in mid-town Manhattan. It was to house a company called California Dry Fruit Importers, with Tommy and Pinzola sharing the business as partners.
Lucchese and his partners were playing the long game. Short.
Pinzola spent some of his time staying at a hotel in Lower Manhattan while his wife and children now lived at 2069 2 Avenue in East Harlem. Most likely, it allowed him to get to the office as an easy commute. He operated in the Lower East Side, while Reina's influence was in the Upper East Side. Misreading mob politics is risky, as he discovered. If the residue of design is good fortune, for Pinzola, it was running on empty the first week of September.
Someone shot dead Bonaventura Pinzola in the office in the late morning or early afternoon of that Friday. Hours later, around nine in the evening, two office cleaners, Mrs Delia Magee and Mrs Henry Walters discovered his body. Shot multiple times in the body, and sprawled face down near the desk. In his suit pockets, police find a roll of $1600 (almost $30k in today's currency), serious walking-around money, and a list of mid-town speak easy premises. Discarded in an outer office, officers discover a .32 revolver, all chambers discharged.
Over the weekend, police are chasing leads, and announce Lucchese is a person of interest. On the Monday morning, accompanied by his lawyer, a former judge, he appeared at the office of the district attorney. They arrest him on suspicion of homicide, but prosecutors can’t produce enough evidence to convene a grand jury to indict and they eventually dropped the charges.
He claimed he and two others were in the office with Pinzola when armed men with guns and badges forced them to face the wall while killing the boss.
Joseph Valachi will claim the killer was a member of their crime family, Girolamo Santuccio, who, finding Pinzola alone and unarmed, gunned him down.
Maybe that it is how it happened. We will never know. Gary Potter points out the 1963 testimony of Valachi is ‘riddled with contradictions, factual errors and uncorroborated assertions.’
Lucchese would become a mighty little force in the mobs of New York. As Gagliano wound down and aimed for retirement, Tommy gradually moved into the number one spot, a position he would hold until his death from cancer in July, 1967. Pinzola’s place in the history of New York’s Mafia will be forever, his Black Hand connection, and his short-lived career as a mob boss. Historically, the most fleeting chairmanship, ever.
Tommy Lucchese almost certainly killed Bonaventura Pinzola, one way or the other. But his violent death in the violent life he lead did not have to replicate as it so often does in the world of the Mafia.
If we do not know for certain where Pinzola was born, his family buried him in Calvary Cemetery, in Queens. His wife, Carmela, would join him there, forty-four years later. Their middle child, John Peter, will serve his country as a major in the U.S. forces during World War Two, and lies in Arlington National Cemetery, which shows that good can come from bad, and the dichotomy that edged him from a life of crime that seduced his father, was a paradigm of the great American dream which tells us right trumps wrong every time.
Thanks to Bill Feathers, Dave Critchley, Tom Hunt and Ismael Abdusalaam for digging up the facts and images, and:
Editions of The New York Times, Post, Press and Herald and all those reporters, long gone, who tried their best and gave us enough to help us on our way.
- The poultry industry was one of the biggest in New York, and in 1930, the largest in the world. A world in New York, rife with illegal practices, it naturally attracted hoodlums with the lure of big profits for little overheads. The most infamous case involves a man called Barnett Baff, shot dead one evening in November 1914. Corleone born, Ignazio Dragna, allegedly played a part in killing Barnett Baff. Authorities indicted Dragna but later dismissed the charges, after which he moved to Los Angeles. He eventually became the boss of the Mafia in Southern California. Gaetano Reina was also a suspect, but never indicted.
- Beginning around 1903 and lasting over fifteen years in New York, La Mano Nera was the extortion of the more wealthy Italians by their criminal brethren. Similar groups had operated across America and Canada since perhaps the late 1880s. Bombing their victims seemed their favorite modus operandi.
- Giuseppe Masseria was a Sicilian-born gangster, and mob boss who, after winning his battles with a gang that Salvatore Aquila had controlled, following his murder in 1928, began a campaign to dominate the Mafia of New York. His primary target was the Castellammarese gang based in Brooklyn, that Salvatore Maranzano would lead. A senior figure in the Mafia of Trapani Province in Sicily, he arrived in New York around 1925.
- Joe Valachi was a member of the Reina Family, then joined the Bonanno and finally became part of the Luciano mob, Masseria’s original gang. He became a government informant and gave testimony in a senate hearing on organized crime in the early 1960s, disclosing many details about what he called Cosa Nostra, Our Thing.
- Niccolo Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat, author, philosopher and historian who lived during the Renaissance. He created a political treatise which he named “The Prince,” maintaining that the acquisition and control of a state requires the politics of power, using any means to achieve this, including cunning, duplicity and bad faith. Markers the Mafia has followed since its origin.
- New York State Crime Commission Paper. Butler Library, Columbia University.
- Potter, G. Criminal Organizations; Vice, Racketeering and Politics in an American City. 1994. Illinois: Waveland Press.
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