Albert Anastasia's bloody end was fitting considering the life he lived.
The Greek word anastasis literally means “to rise.” It’s a fitting base for the name of Albert Anastasia, who went from a poor, fatherless boy in Italy to New York’s most feared gangster — a man so bloodthirsty that he was called “Lord High Executioner.”
Not only did Albert Anastasia help found the modern American Mafia, he also co-founded and later took charge of Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of the National Crime Syndicate. In short, Albert Anastasia was a killer — and a cold-blooded one at that.
He was known for his ruthlessness above all else, and his name was equal parts feared and respected. Unfortunately, the danger he presented also led to his downfall and eventual murder in a barber shop at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
His death became a focal point of a high-profile police investigation, but his murderers were never named. It was no secret that Anastasia had enemies, after all. It was also a major news story that generated large amounts of public interest — and other mobsters like Joe Gallo even boasted about the killing, saying, “You can just call the five of us the barbershop quintet.”
How A Young Italian Immigrant Became Albert Anastasia
Albert Anastasia was born Umberto Anastasio in Calabria, Italy, in 1902. When Anastasia was just ten years old, his father died, leaving his wife to look after twelve young children.
It was a bleak period. Anastasia struggled with his mother and siblings to make ends meet. As their situation grew worse, it became clear that the older children would need to strike out in search of work elsewhere.
So at the age of fifteen, Anastasia and several of his brothers took work on an Italian freighter bound for New York. When the ship docked at the Brooklyn waterfront, the Anastasio boys slipped quietly away, leaving Italy behind for a new land — a land of opportunity.
But with opportunity came danger. The boys found work as longshoremen on the very docks they had arrived at and plunged into the seedy underbelly of the shipping industry, where the mob took a heavy hand in daily operations — and, allegedly, a cut of the young Anastasia’s salary as part of their demand for tribute.
Anastasia’s first run-in with the law came in March of 1921, when he became embroiled in a quarrel with fellow dockworker George Turino. The disagreement turned violent, and Anastasia stabbed Turino.
For the murder, the young Anastasia was arrested and sentenced to death. It was then, cooling his heels in Sing Sing State Prison, that he changed his name from Umberto Anastasio to Albert Anastasia — to spare his relations the shame, his brother would later recall, of having a criminal in the family.
And there, from his lowest point, the newly christened Albert Anastasia began to rise.
Albert Anastasia’s Violent Rise To Power
Accounts of what happened next differ.
Some say Anastasia’s cool calm and aptitude for violence in prison brought him to the attention of Jimmy “the Shiv” DeStefano, the Death House Barber of Sing Sing.
Jimmy sent word to up-and-coming mob boss Lucky Luciano, who was chaffing against the conservative notions of the old Mafia — namely that initiates should be Sicilian and have a strong resume of criminal enterprises in Italy before joining up in the US.
Luciano seems to have taken an interest — though it’s unclear whether luck or Luciano did the most to save Albert Anastasia from an early grave.
One year into Anastasia’s prison stay, his lawyer managed to get him a retrial on a legal technicality. By the time Anastasia showed up in court again, four of the prosecution’s witnesses had disappeared.
Albert Anastasia was free again.
But he had developed a taste for living outside the law; he quickly became involved in the International Longshoremen’s Association, a hub for racketeering and murder.
He went to prison again in 1923 for illegal possession of a firearm, and when he emerged two years later, it was to make his debut in Brooklyn’s Mafia under the aegis of “Joe the Boss” Masseria.
But his loyalty, it soon became clear, was to Lucky Luciano, who was planning to overthrow the old order and start a more inclusive criminal enterprise — something that could partner with the Jewish and Irish syndicates for larger-scale projects.
Anastasia presented himself to Luciano as muscle, an assassin who could ensure his rise to the top.
He proved his worth in 1931, when Luciano lured Masseria to a restaurant. Anastasia, accompanied by several associates, walked in and gunned down the famous mob leader, ending his reign and making room for a new generation of Mafiosos.
Anastasia was determined to play an important role in the new world order.
The Founding Of Murder Inc., The Mob’s Deadliest Enforcers
In the bloody decade that followed, Anastasia rose through the ranks of the Mafia by making his name a synonym for murder.
In 1932, he was indicted twice on murder charges but each time escaped conviction when witnesses melted away, unwilling to testify.
As a reward for his services, Luciano, now the most powerful man in the American Mafia, tapped Anastasia to lead up Murder, Inc., the enforcement wing of the Cosa Nostra.
Luciano also appointed Anastasia the underboss of the Mangano crime family, which would, in time, become the notorious Gambino clan.
As others fell around him — Luciano was arrested, the members of Murder, Inc. were prosecuted, and a number of prominent mobsters fled to Italy — Anastasia remained.
The men who could tattle on him, notably Abe Reles, the Murder, Inc., hitman who flipped to save himself from execution, died in mysterious accidents.
In time, Mangano and his brother were murdered. Though many eyes turned to Anastasia, he was never convicted. He assumed Mangano’s role as boss, and the crime family was renamed.
Albert Anastasia had reached heights nearly unimaginable for a poor railman’s son.
By the late 1940s, he lorded over an enormous estate in Fort Lee, N.J. The stucco-and-tile mansion boasted sprawling views of New York while maintaining its distance, a peaceful oasis in the city.
Like the man, the mansion hid a soul of violence — false walls, rumored tunnels, and ominous basement rooms with drains in the floor (for “dressing deer”).
Umberto Jr., the gangster’s son, once warned reporters not to stand too close to the estate’s fences: “Don’t put your foot in there, the dogs will bite it off.”
The Fall Of Albert Anastasia, The Mob’s Lord High Executioner
Anastasia’s good fortune came to an abrupt end in 1952, when he was targeted by the government for denaturalization due to discrepancies with his names, as well as sundry crimes and misdemeanors.
He even followed in Al Capone’s government-issued jumpsuit when he was charged with tax evasion. Exhibit A was a mockup and blueprints of the sprawling estate, incriminating the man who claimed no income for years.
While he was battling it out in court, the Genovese crime family began to plot against him, cozying up to Anastasia’s capo, Carlo Gambino.
It was a clear sign that the tide was finally turning against him — but Anastasia, caught up in his own troubles and confident in his control, missed the warning signs.
On October 25, 1957, Albert Anastasia was chauffeured from his cliffside home into the city in a 1957 Oldsmobile to visit his barber at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan. His bodyguard left to take a walk around the block.
As Anastasia sat facing the mirror, two masked assassins stormed into the shop and fired ten shots at the stunned mob boss, who, confused and disoriented, attempted to rush his killers but ended up crashing into the mirror instead.
His assailants left him for dead and disappeared into the city. They were never identified, and to this day mob lore is unclear on who ordered and carried out the hit.
The image of Anastasia’s lifeless body, covered in towels on the barbershop floor, stunned the public. The brutal murder became iconic in mob history, a shorthand for the violent interfamily wars of the 1950s.
Anastasia’s death marked the end of a nearly 30-year reign that made him one of the deadliest criminals in U.S. history. His legacy lives on in the Gambino crime family, who rose to prominence as the most powerful crime syndicate in the country on his bloody shoulders.