36 Photos From The Early Decades Of Organized Crime In America, Brought To Life In Stunning Color

Published December 19, 2022
Updated December 20, 2022

From Murder, Inc. to the Chicago Outfit, these colorized images show the early days of organized crime as they really were.

The Italian mob’s prominence at the heart of America’s criminal underbelly has been well chronicled and glamorized by countless movies, television shows, and books throughout the years — but the true story of how the Mafia came to be such a powerful force in the United States is even more tantalizing than the Hollywood portrayals.

In fact, some of the 20th century’s most notable — and notorious — figures were members of the American mob, and they helped shape the country as it is today, for better or worse. See some of the most striking pictures from the early days of organized crime in the photo gallery below, and then learn more about the fascinating history of the American Mafia.

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36 Photos From The Early Decades Of Organized Crime In America, Brought To Life In Stunning Color
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Inside The Origins Of The American Mafia

It's quite likely that the American Mafia would never have existed — at least, not in the form we recognize it today — if it weren't for Salvatore Maranzano, a Sicilian man who once dreamed of being a Catholic priest.

But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and rather than becoming a priest, Maranzano became a central figure in New York's criminal underworld as he hungered desperately for more power, just like the man who inspired his nickname, Julius Caesar.

Back in Sicily, Maranzano had already made a name for himself as a criminal. But when he moved to New York after World War I, his criminal career really took off, according to Britannica. He got involved with illegal gambling and bootlegging, all while forging alliances with other gangsters.

At the time, Prohibition was the law of the land — and the nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol proved to be not just one of history's biggest failures, but also one of the most lucrative opportunities for American mobsters.

So, as Maranzano and others were building their empires in New York, a collection of criminals in Chicago were likewise making a fortune bootlegging — and there are perhaps none more famous than Al Capone.

Colorized Photo Of Al Capone

Bettmann/Getty ImagesAl Capone on the train carrying him to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta after he was found guilty of tax evasion in 1931.

Capone rose through the ranks as mobster Johnny Torrio's right-hand man, but when Torrio retired in 1925, Capone took over as the leader of the Chicago crime syndicate, giving him near-total control over the city's gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging operations.

His reputation in the Windy City was controversial, to say the least. He was a wealthy crime boss with an empire at his command — but he also opened one of the first soup kitchens during the Great Depression.

And of course, Capone likely orchestrated one of the most infamous and bloody mob hits of all time: the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

But while Capone — and eventually, his own right-hand man, Frank Nitti — ran the show in Chicago, a violent gang war broke out in the New York underworld as various power-hungry leaders struggled for control.

The Bloody Castellammarese War And The Transformation Of The American Mob

In the beginning, the New York criminal underworld was anything but organized. There was a power vacuum that needed filling, and two men sought to do it: Salvatore Maranzano and his rival gangster Joe Masseria. And thus, the bloody Castellammarese War broke out in 1930.

Each man had a number of allies among the other underworld figures, who were trying to take each other down to put their man at the top of the chain.

But ultimately, it was Masseria's own right-hand man, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who did him in, orchestrating Masseria's murder and putting an end to the gang war in 1931. This cemented Maranzano as the "boss of all bosses" in the city — and ushered in the so-called "Golden Age" of the Mafia.

Colorized Photo Of Lucky Luciano

Public DomainCharles "Lucky" Luciano, Joe Masseria's former right-hand man who ultimately betrayed him.

At first, Maranzano and Luciano seemed to share a similar vision of a more organized crime network, leading to the creation of the Five Families of New York, each of which had specific territories under their control.

But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Luciano once again went after a supposed ally, putting together a small group of associates to march into Maranzano's office and kill him, making Luciano the leader of the Mafia.

Under Luciano's reign, disputes among the Five Families were more often resolved with negotiation than violence (though there was still some violence, of course). But Luciano's main goal was profit above all else, and it seemed that with him in charge, the Mafia was unstoppable.

But then, Luciano was deported to Italy in 1946, and another violent power struggle saw Vito Genovese rise to power. And the occasion meant to consolidate his leadership spelled the end of the Mafia's Golden Age.

Colorized Photo Of Vito Genovese

Bettmann/Getty ImagesVito Genovese's ill-fated meeting of mob bosses marked the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of the Mafia.

In 1957, Genovese put out a call for over 100 of his fellow mobsters to come to the rural estate of his friend, Joe Barbara, in Apalachin, New York, to formalize his power and to streamline some important business decisions.

Unfortunately for Genovese, a row of conspicuous Cadillacs parked next to each other on a rural road caught the attention of New York State Police Detective Ed Croswell, who had been keeping a close eye on Barbara for well over a decade, according to The Rise of the Mafia.

Noticing that the cars had license plates from half a dozen different states, and later learning that Barbara had ordered 200 pounds of meat, Croswell knew that this was his chance to catch some of the mob's biggest figures. He called for backup, blocked off any nearby roads, and waited.

The police raid ultimately led to more than 60 arrests, and even though the convictions were later overturned, the shocking incident made the American Mafia's existence known to the world — despite FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's earlier claims that there was no such thing.

Genovese was ultimately let go by the authorities after the raid, but with all the publicity surrounding the meeting, it put the nail in the coffin for his leadership — and eventually, the Golden Age of the mob as a whole.

After looking through these colorized organized crime photos, check out these colorized photos of Victorian London. Then, see 99 more colorized historical photos that breathe new life into the past.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Harvey, Austin. "36 Photos From The Early Decades Of Organized Crime In America, Brought To Life In Stunning Color." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 19, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/colorized-organized-crime-photos. Accessed May 19, 2024.