Americans have always had a fascination with the mafia.
Just recall the popularity of the movie “The Godfather” and the television series, “The Sopranos.”
Who can forget Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film “Goodfellas,” dubbed by critics as one of the best gangster films of all time, starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci.
Although these movies have been loosely based on real life gangsters, the 2009 film “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson and Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, was based on real life gangsters.
One of the more famous real life mafia bosses was Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He was called “Lucky” because of his survival of a brutal attempt to kill him in 1929 and being good at gambling.
Luciano was born in Naples, Italy, in 1896. He was considered the most powerful mob boss of American organized crime in the 1930s. His focus early in his criminal career was bootlegging, prostitution and narcotics. He came up through the ranks in the mafia world and became the “Boss of all Bosses” (Capo di Tutti Capi), according to Britannica.
Something you may not have known that I found very interesting while reading up on the mafioso of the 1930s and ‘40s: Luciano was recruited by the U.S. Navy, indeed the very government looking to shut him down, to keep the New York docks open and free of union strikes, internal disruption and general problems with the Germans. It is also alleged, according to The Mob Museum (yes, there is a Mob Museum in Las Vegas), Luciano provided the U.S. military with Sicilian mafia contacts in preparation for the 1943 allied invasion of Sicily. The collaboration was called “Operation Underworld.”
Thomas Dewey, a New York district attorney, became the face of the government’s attempts to reel in the mob. He won a case against Luciano for running a prostitution ring and was sentenced from 30 to 50 years in prison. It was one of the longest sentences ever handed down for such a crime. According to the Mob Museum, “between 1935 and 1937, Dewy won 72 convictions out of 73 prosecutions.”
Luciano was an old antagonist of Dewy. Dewy, because of his success as a prosecutor, became governor of New York in 1942. While in the governor’s office, he agreed to free Luciano, although reluctantly, from prison because of his help in World War II. The agreement was Luciano was to return to his native country, Italy, and never set foot again in the U.S. Luciano agreed, but just as when he was imprisoned, he still conducted his organized crime business in the United States.
Luciano was also well known by New York high society, civic leaders and entertainers. Frank Sinatra was one of Luciano’s friends — but that’s another story for another column.
Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.