By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
If Giovanni and his wife, Cira Floria, had not made whoopee one night in autumn, in their apartment in Lower Manhattan, their first child, the one they called Giuseppe, or Joseph, would not have been born in June, 1907, and it’s almost a given, the world would never have heard of Joseph Valachi, and the American Mafia would have sailed on a different journey.
It’s also conceivable that New York would not have played host to one of its beloved pizza joints, one whose pies thrilled the taste buds of an endless stream of customers from its small shop on the corner of Prince Street, for fifty-seven years.
Frederick Nietzsche once claimed you had to love your fate because it was, in fact, your life.
Giuseppe Di Palermo, always referred to as Joseph, would have probably embraced the linear narrative of his life because he was what he was, and events that shaped his existence and fate were his bedfellow.
His parents were immigrants from Marineo, a desperately poor small town near the forest of Ficuzza, that looms above Corleone, like an enormous green bat watching, and waiting through the centuries for all the bad stuff to happen, and never being disappointed.
Both the parents are young when they land at the port of New York, she a teenager and he in his early twenties, and they settled in Lower Manhattan, sharing the crowded streets of what would come to be known as “Little Italy.” Arriving separate and at different dates, it has to be imagined coming from the same, small commune in Sicily, that they already know each other, and are married a year before their first-born arrives.
Over the years, the family grows to five boys and a daughter. At least three of the sons will follow the same trade: novice and apprentice and then fully paid up criminals. The eldest, Joe, will become the most infamous.
In 1930, he is living still with his parents and siblings, probably on Elizabeth Street. The census for that year lists him as a painter. Maybe a house painter. Many years later, some would claim this was a mob term for hit men, although agents of the FBI who investigated the Mafia ridiculed this concept. They claimed, “I hear you paint houses,” referring to blood splatters left by violent deaths, was a myth. There are sources that claim Joseph was a deadly killer, although homicide was never something the courts convicted him of throughout his life of crime. Newspapers claimed federal files described Di Palermo as “a most vicious criminal and an enforcer for the Mafia in New York.”
Hyperbole is often the key ingredient in the mix of newspaper appetizers.
He never looked the killer type. Small in stature, sources claim five-two to five-six, slim build, one-twenty max, balding, and in later life, wearing large, owl-like glasses. A known associate described him as “Having a prominent nose, sloping forehead, knobbly Adam's apple, skinny and ugly.” A most inconspicuous man who used a special homeostasis to carry him through a lifetime of danger and instability working alongside the most capricious of gangsters and unpredictable drug dealers and traffickers.
Apart from some time spent in his earlier years violating alcohol laws, dealing in forged securities and dodgy traveller's checks and counterfeit money, he would spend his life trafficking drugs, heroin mainly, and towards the end, barbiturates. It would earn truck loads for him and lead him into contact with figures who would be significant elements of New York’s criminal history in the post-war Mafia.
His criminal record kicks off in 1925 and by 1986, he has recorded over twenty violations, resulting in at least eight prison sentences. Growing up on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he will, at some stage, become attached to and then made into the Mafia crime family, then run by Tommaso “Tommy” Gagliano, who had been born in Corleone, before immigrating to America.
Since the early 1960s, law enforcement refers to this mob as the Lucchese Family.
So many came from that hill-town at the centre of Sicily to fill the ranks and develop the DNA of America’s version of the honored society. To some. To most, it is a criminal cess-pit, filled with the worst thugs and murderers and drug dealers. Giuseppe will begin his passage into organized crime as what the Sicilian version calls a fegato, a soldier, the rank-and-file who makes up the numbers and gives the organization bulk and menace.
He will gain the nickname “Joe Beck” and, like most mobsters, is known on the streets by this, rather than his given name, throughout his career. One of his contacts is another height-challenged gangster, about three years his junior, called Carmine Galante (right), who eventually also joins a Mafia family.
One more notorious drug dealer, he will make his bones into a different Mafia clan than Joe Beck, one ran by Joe Bonanno.
- READ: Death in the Afternoon
Events will link Di Palermo and Galante into the murder of labor activist and newspaper editor, Carlo Tresca, gunned down on a New York street one evening in January 1943. At least three are involved in this assassination. Odds are Carmine Galante pulled the trigger, and Joe Beck was at the scene. His brother, Peter, may have been the third man. The killing is determined by Frank Garafola, a senior member of the mob caucus that controls the Bonanno Mafia Family.
Its plate number traced the getaway car to a man called Frank Nuncio, who lived just a few doors away from the known residence of Joe Beck in Elizabeth Street. Police enquiries drag on for months until the killing becomes another cold case on the ledger of New York’s police department.
- READ: Dead Men on Leave.
In 1950, Joe Beck was involved with a gang of eleven in running a scam using counterfeit American Express traveller's checks. Arrested, tried and found guilty, he goes to prison until 1955.
Married to Mary Cattone, they have a son and a daughter. His court documentation shows that Di Palermo is still calling 246 Elizabeth Street home, the same apartment his mother had lived in when she first arrived in New York and where he was possibly born. He’s a man who is obviously comfortable in his own neighborhood and doesn’t stray far. Over thirty years later, in 1988, law enforcement list his address as 80 North Moore Street, a mere mile and a half west of the place on Elizabeth.
In the cubby-hole of crowded apartments, bars, shops and cafes that make up the landscape of Joe Beck’s life and times, there is a pizza joint at 27 Prince Street, a two-minute walk from that same apartment at number 246. Here in 1959, a street thug called Ralph Cuomo, recently out of prison, opens a pizza place he called Rays. For some weird reason, he thought Ralph’s sounded too feminine. It grows over the years to be a landmark take-away pie shop.
The financial base that kept it pumping out food may have had some support from the drug trafficking that went on after the shop closed for business. Cuomo and his men used the basement as their go-to place to store and distribute heroin. The gang did a lot of business with Joe Beck and his crew, which included his brothers, Charles and Peter. Keeping it all in the family, Ralph’s sister Marie, marries Charles. The brother's office was a candy story at 46 Prince Street on the corner of Mulberry, just a block away from the pizza place.
Alphonse D'Arco, who at one time was the acting boss of the Lucchese clan, said, “They had one of Joe Beck’s kids, Anthony, going over to the East River Savings Bank at Lafayette and Spring Street with bags of bills. They had a guy in the bank on their payroll who handled the money for them. They made millions in babania — heroin. All the brothers and Raffie did. That’s what they were all about. They never stopped dealing. They were at it night and day.”
Following his release from prison on the Amex checking scam in 1955, Di Palermo goes back to the streets, drugs, and making pots of money. A congenital gambler, allegedly spending $100,000 in one night at the racetrack, he needed money to keep feeding his habit. His latest venture into the heroin market would be based in and around East Fourth Street, in Lower Manhattan. There would be close to sixty people connected to this ring. The presence of one of them, Nelson Cantellops, would far exceed his significance as a criminal and drug peddler, and his link into Di Palermo will help bring about the fall of one of America’s biggest Mafia chiefs.
The conflux of events that start in 1955 will lead to a prison yard in Georgia, the killing of an innocent man, and a lot of bad news and publicity for America's Mafia families.
Somehow the paths of Joe Di Palermo and Cantellops cross and the short, stocky Puerto Rican dealer works with the short, skinny Italian-American trafficker who is buying and selling heroin. The drugs come from Europe, mainly the laboratories of the Mediterranean.
As early as 1934, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics discovered the island of Corsica is a major exporter of the drug into the United States, through major ports like New York and Boston, other times via networks linking Canada and the Eastern Seaboard of America. The famous “French Connection” case of 1962 revolves around France, its biggest drug dealers, mainly based on the island and the port of Marseilles, and members of the Lucchese Mafia clan in New York. In due course, Sicily’s Mafia will jump on the bandwagon and become major producers and exporters of heroin out of Palermo to America, but in the 1950s, it was mainly about the French connection sourcing their raw materials through Turkey and the far-east.
Nelson Cantellops works as a courier, delivering drugs for Joe Beck and becomes a fringe member of the ring. Federal drug agents are tracking the multitude of gangsters, identifying the leaders, and strike in July 1957. They arrested all sixty, but only seventeen make it through to the trial stages, which take place in 1959. Joe Beck goes down for fifteen years. Along with him is Vito Genovese (right), the boss of the former Luciano/Costello Mafia family.
- READ: Get The Right Man.
Operating separately from the ring, doing the same thing, drug dealing, but on a much smaller scale, is a soldier in the Genovese Family. A man called Joseph Valachi. After his arrest and trial, the courts will send him to the same prison as Joe Beck and Genovese, the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
While serving his sentence, in a series of events that narrate almost like a Greek tragedy, Valachi mistakenly kills a man he believes to be Joe Beck, who he thought was trying to murder him on the orders of Genovese. Filled with remorse, a most unusual psychological act for a hardened killer, and Valachi was all of that, he seeks an interview with the law and unburdens himself of his life and times, disclosing all kinds of information about the American Mafia. His revelations take center stage at a congressional committee on organized crime in 1963, and the world of the American Mafia is never quite the same again. A soldier in the ranks of the Mafia, he had been there almost since the beginnings and the convulsions of the mob wars of the early 1930s Although no major hoodlum is arrested or convicted because of Valachi’s testimony, the secret society is now exposed to the American public.
Then again, maybe Valachi just hoped to bargain his way out of a death sentence for killing an innocent man. History, as always, will tease us about the truth.
Photo: Joseph Valachi testifying in court.
- READ: Catching the Bounce.
While Americans watch the senate proceedings on television, Joe Di Palermo spends his time in prison. Genovese dies there in 1969, and then, Joe Beck has done his time and is back in Manhattan’s Little Italy, pursuing his seemingly endless quest to find drugs and distribute them, and make a lot of money.
In 1975, the intelligence section of the New York Police Organized Crime Bureau logs him then sixty-eight, along with his brother Charles, ten years younger, as two of the thirteen top drug dealers in the New York area in their “Yellow Book” which the police had maintained since 1971, listing the top 100 narcotic dealers in the city.
- READ: The Book of Mafia
On August 18, 1978, following three weeks of trial, a jury found Joseph Di Palermo and three co- defendants guilty of conspiracy to manufacture and possess methaqualone, commonly referred to as “quaaludes,” a hypnotic sedative drug. The Drug Enforcement Agency had been tracking Joe Beck and his little gang since early in 1977, tracing their operation to a warehouse on Ellis Street in Staten Island. Swept back into the prison system, he is almost certainly planning his next moves on a chessboard he has played his whole life-get the drugs, sell the drugs, make the money.
On the cusp of his eightieth year, Joe Beck is still following his trade, and is one of thirty-eight people, along with his brother Charles, charged as part of a multiple drug-dealing conspiracy that stretches between Florida and New York in April 1986. According to a report, the street value of narcotics is two billion dollars. It’s trafficking enough drugs to feed the habits of 100,000 addicts every day. It is one of the largest narcotics investigation in New York State involving 300 police and DEA agents. One of those arrested is Gus Sperling, the son of Herbie, who was spending his life in prison following an arrest and conviction in his links to a major drug-ring bust of the early 1970s in Harlem. Another Lucchese Family drug dealing ring.
For Joe Beck, this is surely his last hurrah. For sixty years, the man from Palermo had never compromised a life dedicated to making money by helping the world get high. Whatever prison time he does on this final circuit, he dies, aged eighty-five on January 10, 1992.
A long and turbulent life filled with enough action to satisfy perhaps a hundred. It’s hard to analyse or justify the things he did without accepting the basic fact that all of it was wrong, illegal, and, above all, contributed to the misery of so many.
William Shakespeare, the famous English playwright, probably covered it well enough in the words from one of his works, As You Like It, when he wrote:
“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players / They have their exits and their entrances / And one man in his time plays many parts.”
WikiTree. April 18, 2017. Profile Manager: Justin Cascio.
The Washington Post: The Irishman tells us who killed Jimmy Hoffa. January14, 2020.
Virginia Chronicle: 29 October, 1963.
The New York Mafia.com.
Organized Crime: 25 Years After Valachi. Senate Hearings April 11-29, 1988.
New York Post: September 23, 2013. Secret mob history of Ray’s Pizza.
Ferrara, Eric, Manhattan Mafia Guide: The History Press, Charleston. 2011
New York Times. December 9, 1975. Top Dealer named by Police.
New York Times. April 11, 1986. Heroin Raids Said to Break Vast City Ring.
United Press International: April 11, 1986.
United States of America v. Salvatore A. LOMBARDI, Defendant. United States District Court, E. D. New York. September 4, 1981.
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