How Organized Crime Got Organized
Three gangsters involved in a shoot-out at a gas station, in a scene from an unidentified film, circa 1935. Source: (Photo by Lass/Frederic lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
From 1930 to 1931 Italian American organized crime, the Mafia or Cosa Nostra engaged in a highly destructive war. The ultimate impact of this conflict was the creation of the most powerful organized crime syndicate in history: The Commission.
The Castellammarese War
In the early twentieth century, members of various immigrant groups established gangs which controlled criminal activities in New York. The most powerful gangs were Italian, mostly originating with immigrants from Sicily. They grew rich and powerful, spurned on by the national Prohibition on alcohol. By 1930, the Italian gangs had been waging internecine warfare for decades with the issue seemingly settled with the ascent of Joe “the Boss” Masseria as the preeminent mafia chieftain.
However, in 1931, Salvatore Maranzano, who hailed from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, went to war with Masseria in a bid to become capo di tutti capi or “boss of bosses.” The war was called the Castellammarese War since at first it was waged by those from Castellammare del Golfo versus other Italian groups. But by its end, the various gangs and factions had changed sides so many times, that it no longer had meaning.
After over a year of violence and the death of many a gangster (the true number of deaths remains unknown), Maranzano emerged victorious after Masseria was shot to death at a restaurant at Coney Island. He was now the “boss of bosses.”
The Boss of Bosses
Maranzano set out to restructure the mafia so as to increase profits and to prevent internal conflict. He first established the general structure of the Cosa Nostra organizations, what is usually called a “Family” based on Roman military structure. The head of the family was the Boss with a second in command being the Underboss. The next layer was the caporegimes or just capos that headed a crew or division of the family. Under them were the soldiers, or button men and then beneath them associates – non-Italians who worked with the Family. Later, the consigliere or counselor would be added to the structure as an advisor to the boss.
Maranzano also established the “Five Families” of organized crime: Maranzano (today Bonanno), Luciano (today Genovese), Mangano (today Gambino), Profaci (today Colombo), and Gagliano (today Lucchese). Disputes were to be arbitrated by Maranzano.
Maranzano’s reign was to be short. He was arrogant and wanted to crown himself the Caesar of all of organized crime. By proclaiming dominance over the other families, he alienated the head of the Luciano family, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He also further damaged his relationship with the younger generation of mobsters by disdaining to work with non-Italians. To Luciano and others, he was what they called a “Mustache Pete,” an old-fashioned, backward-thinking boss.
Matters came to a head. Both Maranzano and Luciano plotted to murder the other. But Luciano struck first, sending in a team of hit men to Maranzano’s office, posing as tax investigators on September 10, 1931. They defeated Maranzano’s guards and shot him to death. Maranzano, ironically, who wished to be Caesar died like him.
The New Order
Luciano proposed that instead of a boss of bosses, that the Mafia run itself as a committee. He proposed that the heads of the Five Families and other powerful organizations in the country meet to decide matters by vote and resolve matters peacefully. They would vote for assassination, replacement of a boss, and to settle disputes. They operated in secrecy and met once every five years or when situations required it.
The first successful test of the Commission came in 1935 when it vetoed a proposed assassination by the gangster Dutch Schultz on federal prosecutor Thomas Dewey. Schultz disputed the Commission and the gangster found himself promptly whacked.
While the Commission did not end all gangster conflict, it certainly produced generally peaceful conditions which allowed the mafia to prosper throughout the 20th century, despite the end of Prohibition. But the peace of Cosa Nostra came at a cost for American society through political corruption, the spreading of illegal drugs, and the growth of criminal activities.
The Commission Today
Mafia influence was dealt major blows in the late 20th century due to new laws such as the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act which expanded penalties against mafia members.
The last known meeting of the Commission was in 1985, although it is suggested that the body still exists. Little is known of its activities today.
For a deep dive on the fascinating history of the mafia, I recommend Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab.