“What have you done for your country as a good citizen?”
“Well…. I don’t know what you… what you mean by that?”
“When you’re looking back over the years now till that time when you became a citizen, and now standing twenty odd years after that, you must have in your mind some things that you have done that you can speak of to your credit as an American citizen, if so: What are they?”
“Paid my taxes!”
The date is March 13, 1951, and with his witty answer mob boss Frank Costello just caused an entire courtroom packed with reporters, lawyers, and politicians to erupt with roaring laughter. Though it was funny, Costello was not trying to be the class clown. This was Costello defending himself, taking a stand against the men on the other side of the room asking him all these pointed questions about his character, his criminal record, his friends, his businesses. Each question dripping with contempt. By 1951, Costello was involved in so many enterprises – both illegitimate and legitimate – that he could have named several things that spoke to his “credit as an American citizen,” but he chose not to. Instead, he picked as an answer one of two certainties in the life of an American citizen. Pay your taxes, and you’re a good citizen. Don’t pay your taxes, and you’re Al Capone. It’s a fine line. With his snappy comeback Costello made that crystal clear to the men opposite of him.
Those men were part of the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. In 1949, the American Municipal Association, which represented over 10,000 cities, petitioned the federal government to combat the growing influence of organized crime. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee headed the special committee which, during the course of 15 months, met in fourteen major U.S. cities and interviewed hundreds of witnesses in order to investigate organized crime in America.
As the committee hit the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square, New York, in March of 1951, the American public had become very intrigued by the whole spectacle. The proceedings were aired live on television and it gave many upstanding citizens their first look at actual gangsters and crime bosses. As Frank Costello sat down to answer questions put to him by the committee an estimated 30 million people tuned in to watch.
Costello, wearing an expensive tailor-made suit, with his slick hair combed back, and gruff voice with a New York accent, gave viewers a glimpse at what would become the stereotypical American mobster. However, he wanted no part of the cameras, his lawyer demanded that reporters could not film his face. The committee obliged and the cameramen zoomed in on the mob boss’ hands instead. For the next three days, Costello was questioned and grilled, while people at home watched his hands twist and clench, clasp and unclasp, his fingers drumming on the table as his horse voice grew tired and annoyed.
He didn’t have to sit down and answer any questions. He could’ve pleaded the fifth as protection against self-incrimination and make it a short and boring appearance, just like his fellow mobsters Thomas Lucchese, Vito Genovese, and Albert Anastasia had done. But Costello didn’t want to prove the committee’s investigators correct in their allegations that he was a criminal overlord. So, he sat down and grumbled his way through the proceedings coming across as every bit the hoodlum the Kefauver Committee claimed him to be.
It wasn’t the first time Costello’s plans to mislead an official in court failed. On March 11, 1915, he was arrested and charged with being in possession of a gun without written permit. As he appeared before the judge, Costello’s lawyer did his utmost best to portray his 24-year-old client as a respectable citizen who only had the gun because he worked in a neighborhood which had men of “bad character” roaming around against whom he had to defend himself.
The judge wasn’t buying it. “I find that in 1908, that is, seven years ago, he was arrested for assault and robbery, and in that case he was discharged,” the judge began. “I find that in 1912 he was again arrested for assault and robbery, and he was discharged in that case. (…) I have looked him up, and I find that while there are a good many letters in regard to him (attesting to his character), nevertheless, I find his reputation is not good. On the contrary it is bad.”
Costello was sentenced to one year in prison. When he was released he kept a low profile, instead of robbing purses from ladies, he stuck to gambling and ran a small crap game. But he didn’t find a legitimate job. Nor did he go looking for one. In those days Italians were not in high demand. That was one of the reasons he Americanized his name to “Frank Costello.”
Born in the little town of Cosenza in Calabria, Italy, on January 26, 1891, he came into this world as Francesco Castiglia, the son of Luigi and Ucone. In 1895, his father left Italy to make a better life for his family in the United States. Other relatives, including Francesco, followed a few months later. The family eventually settled in East Harlem’s Little Italy.
While his father ran a grocery store at 232 East 108th Street, a 10-year-old Costello did his best to make some money on his own. “He ran errands for saloon keepers, sold papers, and ran a little crap game for the other kids, paying off the Irish cop who strolled the beat,” author Henry Zeiger writes in Frank Costello. “He did some menial work in a piano factory and a notions house. When he was 14 he signed on as a deckhand, and for two years shuttled between New York and Central and South America as an ordinary seaman.”
But all that honest, hard work did not quite pay off as young Costello had hoped. He saw the men walking around the neighborhood. Dressed in fine suits, always loaded with money, they never had to work hard a day in their life, it seemed. At age 17, he had found the job he wanted. He went out and, allegedly, robbed a pocketbook. Police were on him though and charged him accordingly, but thanks to testimony of his family who provided him with an alibi, the case was dismissed. In 1912, Costello was charged with robbing a woman who was on her way to the bank with $1,600. Again, the charges were dismissed. Though he dodged those two arrests, they came back to haunt him when the judge sentenced him to one year in prison in March of 1915 after he was convicted of carrying a concealed gun.
As someone who made a living gambling, it was inevitable that Costello meet Arnold Rothstein, the infamous Jewish crime boss known as “The man who fixed the 1919 World Series.” Learning from the “master” himself, Costello saw that in the underworld using ones brain could get you farther than just a gun. As Rothstein schooled him in the ways of bookmaking and gambling, both men were presented with a far more lucrative business opportunity: Prohibition.
When you look at organized crime in the United States, there is a distinct difference between the years before prohibition and the years during and following prohibition. It’s night and day. With prohibition, gangsters were given a popular, successful, and, up until that moment, legitimate enterprise all to themselves. Drinking alcoholic beverages was and remains a favorite pastime of many hardworking citizens. But as people tend to do, there were those who abused the beverage in excess and caused quite a ruckus.
In Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, author Daniel Okrent writes: “By 1810 the number of distilleries in the young nation had increased fivefold, to more than fourteen thousand, in less than two decades. By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. “Staggering” is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.”
It was a non-stop St. Patrick’s Day topped off with Mardi Grass and a dessert of Spring Break.
Or, to use the language of the time, men and women drank their fill and engaged in lewd behavior. They gambled, whored, and fought. Couples were screaming in the streets while others urinated lying down on the sidewalk. The four year-old United States Brewers’ Association declared in 1866 that hard liquor caused “domestic misery, pauperism, disease and crime.”
By the early 1900s things reached a boiling point and a movement to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol engulfed the nation all the way into the chambers of powerful politicians in Washington. In 1917, the anti-booze movement won over congress resulting in the official start of prohibition on January 16, 1920.
The modern-day American Mafia had been given its goose with the golden eggs. Rothstein and Costello wasted no time in grabbing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Already having amassed a fortune from gambling and other rackets, Rothstein became a premier financier of bootlegging gangsters looking to smuggle booze into the United States. He did so for Jewish crime bosses Waxey Gordon and Max Greenberg, and he also did it for young up-and-coming hoodlums like Frank Costello and men like Meyer Lansky, “Lepke” Buchalter, and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Backed by Rothstein, Costello made a fortune running shipments of Scotch from Canada to the United States.
More importantly than riches, Rothstein provided these young gangsters with a blueprint on how to run a criminal enterprise. He was the perfect role model. With Rothstein it was all about the money, all other nonsense was ignored. He didn’t discriminate, he worked with the Italians and with the Irish. His objective was to run a smooth and extremely profitable operation. Nothing else mattered.
Unfortunately for Rothstein, his knack for gambling and his talent for predicting the odds proved insufficient in foreseeing his own demise. On Sunday, November 4, 1928, he was shot multiple times at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan, New York. At the hospital, he refused to identify his assailant, telling police: “You stick to your trade. I'll stick to mine.” He did, and died two days after being shot.
The death of gambling czar Arnold Rothstein heralded the era of the Italian Mafioso. With prohibition in full swing, the Italians were quick to expand and take over territory from the more established Irish and Jewish gangs. It was business as usual for Frank Costello, even without his mentor and financier. He was now part of the gang led by Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, a Sicilian-born mobster in his early forties who had immigrated to the United States as a teenager and had taken it upon himself to live up to his nickname and conquer the New York underworld. During the late 1920s, Masseria had established himself as a criminal powerhouse. He surrounded himself with many of Rothstein’s prized pupils, besides Frank Costello there were Charles Luciano and Vito Genovese as well, and was on his way to becoming America’s undisputed boss of bosses.
But Masseria was not a popular leader and seen as a tyrant by many of the crime families now under his control. A group led by another Sicilian immigrant, Salvatore Maranzano, was building a formidable opposition to “Joe the Boss” and his muscle. They began rising up against Masseria’s forces and the stage was set for a bloody showdown that has gone down in history as one of, if not the most important event to shape the modern American Mafia.
It was dubbed the Castellammare War.
Salvatore Maranzano came to the United States around 1925 after leaving his birth town of Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily. There, he was a “chief warrior” of the local Mafia clan. Now, in New York City, Maranzano was to put his expertise to work as the leader of the revolt against “Joe the Boss.”
And he did.
One by one Masseria’s men were picked off by Maranzano’s hit men. Once it became clear that Masseria was losing the war, many of his underlings jumped ship and sided with Maranzano. Though loyalty is praised unanimously among Mafiosi it is a trait many lack when push comes to shove. Of course, it is nothing personal. Just business. So too for the young Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who joined the forces of Maranzano and offered his boss up on a silver platter. Of course, he expected some things, some favors, in return.
On April 15, 1931, Masseria had a meeting at the Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island. It was to be a relaxed meet with some of his trusted friends. They’d have lunch, play some cards, and laugh the misery of war away while trash talking each other’s card skills. He could need some distraction from the war. It was all around him now. Visible. As he got to the meet in his armored car with bulletproof windows surrounded by three bodyguards who ushered him inside safely. A while later, those same bodyguards were nowhere to be found as four assassins came through to the door and fired their weapons until “Joe the Boss” lay dead in a pool of his own blood surrounded by playing cards. A newspaper photographer took a photo of the crime scene which showed Masseria clutching the ace of spades, the death card, in his hand, but it is generally believed that photo to have been staged by a reporter looking for more than just the truth.
Now, it was Maranzano’s time. The “chief warrior” had become the new boss of bosses and began acting accordingly. With the war over, several people were promoted to a higher rank, new members were made, and new rules were mandated. Maranzano was a fan of Roman legend Julius Caesar and was modeling his organization after the legions from ancient Rome. At the top there was the boss. Who was helped by his second-in-command, his underboss. There were various streets crews or decani led by a capodecina shortened to capo or captain in English. A crew consisted of soldiers and associates, some of whom were Italian and initiated members of the Mafia while others were on their way to becoming a member. All New York families were to follow this structure.
Despite being the all-powerful boss of bosses of New York City, Maranzano did not feel at ease. He felt there were some loose ends he needed to take care of. Top of the list was Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He explained to an underling at the time that he couldn’t get along with Luciano and his pal Vito Genovese and that they had to get rid of them before they could control anything. He also added Frank Costello and many other prominent mobsters like Al Capone to his kill list. Maranzano told his henchman he had one more meeting with Luciano and Genovese the next afternoon at his office in Midtown, Manhattan. After that they would go to the mattresses, mob speak for going to war.
That day, September 10th, 1931, Maranzano was at his office arranging false identification documents, a specialty of his, for some fellow Italians. Later that afternoon, he expected Luciano and Genovese to show up. He would put on a charade and perhaps lay the groundwork for a deathtrap.
Things took a different and unexpected turn though.
Five men claiming to be federal agents entered Maranzano’s office and quickly took control. One man held a couple of people waiting in the anteroom at gunpoint, while the others took Maranzano into his office.
There, he realized these were not the usual federal agents that would raid his business. For one thing, they had knives and were trying to stab him to death. The assassins had picked knives because gunshots would attract a lot of unwanted attention in Midtown, Manhattan, in broad daylight on an afternoon when people were shopping, working, and wandering the streets.
But the killers had underestimated the old mob boss’ tenacity. While they were stabbing him Maranzano fought back ferociously. As Maranzano did everything in his power to stay alive, the hit men had had enough and fired several bullets into his body. With the sound of gunshots cracking through Manhattan, they fled the scene of the crime as fast as they could.
With the second boss of bosses murdered by the same men he purported to control, his successors did away with the title and set up a new system for the mob in New York. There were to be five families in the city and its boroughs, each with its own boss who was free to do as he pleased. A national Commission oversaw and settled disputes between the various families. Each family had a seat on the Commission and counted as one single vote. When decisions had to be made all families would vote on the matter with the majority settling it.
The man who led this transition and moved the American Mafia into the modern era was Charles “Lucky” Luciano. As the one who set in motion the murder of both self-proclaimed boss of bosses, the young Luciano - he was 33 years old when Maranzano was killed - emerged as leader of what used to be known as the Masseria family. The other four New York families were headed by Joseph Bonanno, Tommaso Gagliano, Vincent Mangano, and Joseph Profaci.
As one of Luciano’s early partners, Costello rose with his pal and became part of the upper echelon of the Mafia in New York. In the mob, as in everyday life, it’s all about connections, who you know, who knows you, for Costello being friends with the top boss at that time was his ticket to the throne. Even if he, at that point, had not even considered playing that role yet.
Why would he? There was plenty of money to be made without being in the top position. Costello and his fellow mobsters were still reaping the lucrative benefits of Prohibition and, after a decade of bootlegging, had become richer than they could ever have imagined. The rest of the country, however, did not enjoy the same wealth. The Great Depression had made a serious impact on folks around the country. With alcohol outlawed the U.S. government was unable to tax it, losing a very significant portion of its revenue stream as a result. The mob knew that Prohibition would never last. The goose with the golden eggs would soon be moved to the slaughterhouse and they would need to look for other business ventures to replace it.
When Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, the American Mafia had already moved on.
In Costello’s case, moving on did not necessarily mean to something new, rather, he stuck to what he knew best: gambling. He had invested his bootlegging riches in his gambling empire, boosting his bookmaking operations and owning thousands of slot machines in New York and, after New York mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia cracked down hard on the local racket, New Orleans in Louisiana. These machines were a goldmine for Costello. As Selwyn Raab writes in Five Families: “LaGuardia’s police raids on slots suppliers uncovered records revealing that in 1932 alone, Costello’s machines brought in $37 million.”
With that much money pouring in – first from Prohibition and throughout from various other rackets - the mob was able to buy its way into the highest rungs of power. Luciano and Costello were treated as royalty by politicians when they attended the 1932 Democratic Party convention in Chicago where Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for the presidency. Costello, especially, was legendary for his ability to swoon those in power. “Costello was a suave and diplomatic man,” Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno wrote in his autobiography. “His skill at cultivating friendships among politicians and public officials was such that it earned him the nickname ‘the Prime Minister.’”
As said before, the bootlegger was viewed very differently than the common hoodlum. His money helped get him in the same room as the president, sure, but it was the reputation of having made his fortune by providing an illegal good which never should’ve been illegal in the first place that made it possible for politicians to not only accept money from men like Luciano and Costello, but associate with them out in the open.
Not everyone was willing to play ball. In the 1930s, prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey made a name for himself going after New York’s “beer baron” Dutch Schultz. The German-born crime boss was so fed up with the prosecutor breathing down his neck that he began plotting his murder. When word of his plans reached the Commission, however, it was not Dewey’s life that was to end, but Dutch Schultz’s. The Mafia bosses were against murdering members of law enforcement and public officials as they were afraid the blowback would be devastating to their operations. As boss Vincent Mangano allegedly put it at one such Commission meeting, “If we all lose our heads, we’ll wind up burning our own foundation.”
On the night of October 23, 1935, Schultz was in the men’s room of the Palace Chop House, a restaurant in downtown Newark, New Jersey, taking a piss when gunmen stormed the restaurant and shot him and three members of his gang. He died the next day.
His Commission-sanctioned murder was another example of business triumphing over personal issues. The days of rowdy outlaws were gone. The Italian-American Mafia had brought law and order to the underworld.
When the German-born crime boss was murdered, Dewey refocused his attention on another gangland chief. His investigators had dug up some leads that “Lucky” Luciano was an enormously powerful gangland figure involved in various illicit activities and that he controlled prostitution in New York City. After flipping several prostitutes and pimps, Luciano found himself in court facing prostitution charges. When the smoke cleared, he was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. The most powerful Mafia boss in the U.S. had been brought down and was branded a pimp.
The two men closest to Luciano were Frank Costello and Vito Genovese, serving as his consigliere and underboss. After he was convicted, Genovese took over for Luciano as acting boss of the family. It didn’t last long, though. Fearing that he’d be hit with charges connected to the murder of gangster Ferdinand Boccia, Genovese went on the lam to Naples, Italy, with $750,000 in cash.
With Luciano and Genovese gone, Costello was solely left in charge of a criminal empire that spanned the United States and stretched into countries abroad. The power was his now, but thanks to his predecessors he also knew that this power had limits. He knew he had to play it smart, stay one step ahead of the law and his rivals, and, now, also put on a straight face for the media and public as the mob came under more intense scrutiny from authorities investigating the scope of their operations.
So here he sat. In a courtroom. As cameras filmed him, focused on his hands, and sent the video reels to televisions in living rooms across the country while he tried to put on the appearance of a man who had nothing to hide. He tried, but failed. And he knew it.
Trying to find a way out of this media spectacle, Costello got his doctor to write him a note saying he was “suffering from acute laryngotracheitis,” which gave him an irritated and hoarse voice. (*One said to be the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone character’s voice.) Unfortunately for Costello, senator Kefauver wasn’t having any of it and refused to excuse to sickly mobster from testifying.
After a snappy back-and-forth between Costello and Kefauver, Costello turned to the committee’s chief counsel Rudolph Halley and asked, “Mr. Halley, am I a defendant in this courtroom?"
“No,” Halley answered.
“Am I under arrest?” Costello asked.
“No,” Halley replied.
“Then I am walking out,” Costello said adamantly. “Under no conditions will I testify until I am well.”
Was he really not well? Had the committee gotten under Costello’s skin? Or were there other issues that made the wise street hustler lose his cool? Because though he was not a defendant he did have to abide by some laws, that he must have known of, laws he broke by refusing to testify and walking out of the courtroom. He was held in contempt and sentenced to over a year behind bars.
It was the beginning of the end.
For a man who only showed his hands on national television Costello quickly gained celebrity status among reporters and the public while also becoming an enormous target for law enforcement. In those days the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was a prominent government branch to go after untouchable prohibition kingpins after it took down Chicago boss Al Capone. Now they were sifting through the tax records of Mr. and Mrs. Costello and once again they hit a jackpot. Costello’s wife had spent close to $600,000 dollars over a six-year period. A sum that could not be explained when looking at Costello’s reported income, not by the IRS nor by Costello and his wife. The IRS had succeeded in taking yet another gangland legend off the streets.
Hassled by the law, doing time in prison, Costello was distracted and did not pay full attention to what was happening on the streets. He was losing control of his family and forces in the shadows were mounting a strong offensive to grab power from his hands.
On the evening of May 2, 1957, around 11pm, 66-year-old Costello arrived in front of his luxurious apartment in Central Park West after a late night dinner. He got out of the car and walked into the building, past the doorman who held open the door for him, towards the elevator. Then out of nowhere, a “fat man” wearing a dark fedora popped up. He yelled “This is for you, Frank!” A loud gunshot rang out and a bullet raged towards Costello’s head knocking him to the ground where he lay bleeding profusely as the “fat” hitman fled the scene in a waiting black Cadillac with getaway driver.
The Prime Minister of the Underworld’s reign had come to a bloody end.
While Costello had gotten accustomed to being top dog, he had underestimated Vito Genovese’s thirst for power. When Don Vitone had returned from Italy, Costello ignored all the tell-tale signs of a man hungry to take back what he deemed rightfully his.
The bullet to the head helped Costello come to terms with this reality.
Surprisingly, he survived the attempt on his life. But he got the message and retired from the mob. He would still be available for those seeking his advice, but no longer was he of any significance. He died of natural causes on February 18, 1973, at the ripe old age of 82.
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