Charles "Lucky" Luciano is credited with organizing the many warring factions of New York City's underground into five crime families — putting himself at the helm of it all.
Many of us are familiar with the Italian-American mafia immortalized by films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Donnie Brasco. But what you probably didn’t know is that there’s one man without whom the mafia would never have reached its level of far-reaching influence: Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Widely considered the father of modern organized crime in the United States, Luciano became the first leader of the powerful Genovese crime family. He helped form the governing body of the American mafia called the Commission that continues to exert power in the world of crime today.
So how did one Italian immigrant accomplish all of this?
Becoming Lucky Luciano
Lucky Luciano was born Salvatore Lucania in the commune of Lercara Friddi on the island of Sicily, Italy in 1897.
At around the age of ten, Lucky and his family immigrated from Sicily to the United States and into New York City’s crime-ridden Lower East Side. Like many immigrants at the time, the Lucanias resided in an overcrowded tenement.
Even at this young age, Luciano found himself in a life of crime. He was reportedly involved in muggings, stealing, and extortion by the age of 14.
It’s not surprising, then, that Luciano brought home his first gun at age 14 and soon became a skilled pickpocket. The next major chapter in Lucky Luciano’s criminal career began when he joined the deadly Five Points Gang and began dealing heroin.
According to Tim Newark’s biography, Boardwalk Gangster: The Real Lucky Luciano, the gangster later recalled, “I used to hit the pipe joints in Chinatown when I was a kid, we all did. I liked it, the stuff did funny things to my head. But I’d never let it suck me under.” Even at this young age, Luciano had the mind of a businessman.
Determined to build himself from nothing in the crime world, he decided to Americanize his name. To avoid the feminine connotations of “Sally,” which was a nickname for his birth name “Salvatore,” he chose to go by “Charles” instead. Eventually, “Lucania” became “Luciano” and Charles Luciano was born — or rather, self-made.
Assembling A Gang
As can be expected, Charles Luciano would not be able to play such an integral role in the history of organized crime without the help of others. One such helping hand came from Maier Suchowljansky, later known as Meyer Lansky, an infamous Jewish mobster. Luciano first encountered Lansky when the two were teenagers in New York.
At the time, Italian-born kids frowned upon working with their Jewish counterparts. But Luciano saw an opportunity here: instead of avoiding them, he extorted money from Jewish youths. However, as the story goes, when Luciano confronted Lansky, the latter refused to back down. This is how the signature pair of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky began their lifelong partnership.
As recalled by Lansky’s daughter Sandra in her memoir Daughter of the King: Growing Up in Gangland, “While Daddy, true to form, had never told me anything about Uncle Charlie, Uncle Charlie delighted in telling me everything (well, not quite everything) about the ‘tough little Jew’ who had ‘surprised the hell outta me’ by standing up to his tough street gang.”
Luciano was impressed by Lansky’s guts who was also a math whiz-turned-gambling-genius.
Luciano also became acquainted with Lansky’s close associate, the infamous mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and together they became the “Bugs and Meyer Mob.”
The early group ran protection rackets, but when Prohibition hit in the 1920s, the Italian-Jewish confederation saw an opportunity in bootlegging alcohol instead.
Lucky Luciano’s Rise To Power
Despite his successful partnerships with other rising young mobsters, not everyone got along with Luciano.
For instance, on Oct. 17, 1929, rivals kidnapped Luciano, beat him, slit his throat, and stabbed him multiple times with an ice pick. According to Mafia legend, they left him for dead on New York’s Staten Island but miraculously, he survived — albeit with facial scars and a droopy eye.
It’s believed that his nickname “Lucky” came from surviving this horrific incident.
By this time, Lucky Luciano had secured himself a position as the lieutenant to leading New York kingpin Joe “the Boss” Masseria. When in the early 1930s Masseria’s organization became embroiled in a deadly war over control of New York’s criminal enterprises with newcomer Salvatore Maranzano, Luciano was enlisted to get his hands dirty.
During this mob war, however, Luciano and his fellow young mobsters grew increasingly irritated with the old-school Italian gangsters. Guys like Masseria had old-fashioned attitudes, did not speak much English, and conducted limited criminal enterprises. So, Luciano decided to do away with Masseria altogether and assume control of his gang.
He set up a dinner on Coney Island in Brooklyn at the seafood hotspot called Nuova Villa Tammaro. Mid-meal, Luciano excused himself to go to the bathroom. Shortly after, four of his associates, including Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese, and the deadly Albert Anastasia, stormed in. They blasted Masseria to high heaven.
The Making Of The Commission
Next up on Luciano’s hit list was Masseria’s arch-rival: Maranzano. By this point, Maranzano had become the first capo di tutti capi, or “boss of all bosses,” and was the man who was considered the leader of all organized crime in New York.
Luciano directed four Jewish mobsters — who were delivered by Meyer Lansky — to Maranzano’s headquarters where they swiftly ended the short reign of the capo. By this point in 1931, Luciano was the undisputed boss of New York City even if he did not officially take up Moranzano’s mantle.
However, Luciano grew tired of shedding blood. Influenced by the violence of the past several years and his close associate Lanksy, he came to believe that the Mafia — which gangsters called Cosa Nostra, “Our Thing” — could function as an efficient, organized business instead of just a brutish gang.
This prompted him to organize a big meeting of America’s Italian crime bosses in Chicago, which included him and the heads of the four remaining New York City gangs, the future Five Families. Here, Luciano would revolutionize the Mafia’s structure and effectively create the modern American mafia. The already-infamous Al Capone, mega-boss of Chicago, attended the meeting as well.
To avoid future bloodshed, Luciano divided regional groups into “families.” Each family would keep to their own turf, adopt a business-like structure, and follow a similar set of rules. In addition, each member of the mafia had to keep silent about their activities. This honor code was dubbed omertà.
Meanwhile, an overarching governing body called the “Commission,” would keep the peace between all the families and rule on disputed matters. The system was brilliantly set up to avoid violence between rival families and individual mobsters as well as to keep the operations of the mafia hidden.
Lucky Luciano And The Law
Despite Luciano’s success, a threat still lurked in the distance: the American government. Similar to Capone and many other prominent mafia figures, law enforcement had been keeping a close eye on him.
In the meantime, Luciano lived the high life. He bought silks and furs for the many women he entertained. He befriended Frank Sinatra. He lived in a suite in New York’s Waldorf Astoria.
Finally, in 1935, special prosecutor Thomas Dewey had enough evidence to charge Lucky Luciano with running prostitution rackets. His bail was set at $350,000 which amounts to $6 million today. At that time, the sum was a New York record.
Dozens of witnesses incriminated Luciano and the court found him guilty on 62 counts. Gang-buster Dewey took the win as Luciano went to jail with a sentence of 30 years.
Despite being behind bars at a maximum-security facility, however, Luciano kept his enterprises up and running. He got other prisoners to do his chores and even coerced one into becoming his personal chef. But Luciano was determined to get out and the onset of World War II offered him that very opportunity.
America feared that foreign powers would attempt to sabotage America’s East Coast seaports and that Italian-American dock workers might secretly support Benito Mussolini. So they reached out to the incarcerated mob boss for help.
The Navy offered him a reduction in his sentence for information and assistance in their operation. It was dubbed Operation Underworld for obvious reasons as none other than incarcerated underworld boss Lucky Luciano operated as the eyes and ears of the American Navy.
Lucky Luciano’s Exile To Italy
Luciano’s assistance to the American government allegedly didn’t stop with Operation Underworld. He is said to have even helped the American military to invade his birthplace Sicily in Operation Husky.
Finally, in 1946, who but Thomas Dewey — the very man who put Luciano behind bars — issued the gangster a pardon for his “wartime services.” But given his criminal influence, the American government was not willing to let him walk free in the United States.
Instead, Luciano was deported to Italy. Not long after, Luciano tried to relocate to Havana but the Cuban government sent him home, too. With Luciano gone, his former underlings Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino filled the power vacuum and even killed many of Luciano’s former associates.
Among the many women he frequented, Luciano did eventually settle with one (for the most part), a ballerina 20 years younger than him named Igea Lissoni in 1948. They lived together in his home in Naples until her death by breast cancer in 1952 and never had any children.
“I didn’t want no son of mine to go through life as the son of Luciano, the gangster. That’s one thing I still hate Dewey for, making me a gangster in the eyes of the world,” Luciano reportedly stated.
Despite his exile, Luciano continued to conduct criminal activities in Sicily for 15 more years before dying of a heart attack on Jan. 26, 1962. His death came just before Italian authorities were going to arrest him for drug trafficking.
Luciano’s body was brought back to the States for burial. The event was attended by thousands of people interested in the man who arguably engineered American organized crime as we know it.
Today, mafia enthusiasts can visit his grave at the St. John Cemetery in Queens, New York.
For more on the mafia after this look at Lucky Luciano, check out what the mafia was like during the 1980s. Then, click through these insane photos of the destruction the Sicilian mafia leaves behind, snapped by photographer Letizia Battaglia.