When the FBI Targeted the Real-Life Boss of the New York Mafia….
The following is based on Gambino crime family boss Carlo Gambino’s FBI files.
The Apalachin Meeting marked a major turning point in FBI history.
America’s premiere law enforcment agency could no longer bury its head in the sand about organized crime. With the raid in upstate New York it was clear that there was a national crime syndicate operating inside the nation.
J. Edgar Hoover finally admitted that the Mafia not only existed but posed a national security threat of inconceivable proportions due largely to its ability to corrupt America’s duly elected officials.
Immediatley, the FBI sought to gain intelligence on who exactly made up this criminal entity. Luckily, they had state and city crime files to examine. Additionally, the FBN, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, had been investigating the Mafia for decade previously. The Feds coopted the FBN’s files as well.
A top target was Carlo Gambino, boss of the Gambino crime family, one of New York’s Five Families.
The FBI swiftly launched a herculean effort to build a comprehensive profile of Gambino. In addition to expanding an investigation of the man, the Feds also began researching Gambino’s criminal record, which was quite lengthy by the time of the hastily put-together Mafia “summit” at mobster Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara’s home on November 14, 1957.
Gambino was considered a top narcotics dealer and had overseen a drug ring that stretched from Palermo, Sicily, to America, supposedly in partnership with Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, though the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ Harry J. Anslinger tended to over-hype Luciano’s influence for reasons known only to himself.
There was an ongoing effort to deport Gambino from the U.S., though Italy didn’t go out of its way to voice much support for it. From the 1950s until his death, Gambino was in critical condition, or so he told law enforcement through his doctors and attorneys. He had “convenient” health problems that helped get him out of a number of jams. Also assisting him: The INS actually feared that he’d die while in their custody. At least this was the reason cited in FBI filings regarding why Gambino was never deported. (It’s also believed he bribed two U.S. Senators.)
Gambino did have true medical problems, though, as evidenced by scars on his body. He had a scar on his chest as well as two on his back, one over each kidney, the result of medical operations. His facial scars, one on his lower lip and another on the side of his famous “hawk” nose, obviously didn’t stem from a surgeon’s scalpel.
The Apalachin meeting, which was said to focus on drug dealing, also had on its agenda a more immediate concern.
As part of Vito Genovese’s plot to remove a key enemy and solidify his power in the mob, Anastasia was hit in 1957 in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton hotel in midtown Manhattan. Genovese had taken Gambino into his confidence to thwart his rivals on the Mafia Commission, and the meeting upstate was to introduce both men as new bosses.
Genovese was the collective Mafia Commission’s obvious major concern at the time. He’d ordered the hit on Frank Costello, who survived and was definitely known to have backed the hit on another boss, Anastasia. Nevertheless, not long after his formal “coming out” he was arrested and imprisoned. He remained a powerful mob boss whose very word sent men on the street to their deaths, Anthony “Tony Bender” Strollo among them. Another order that Genovese passed on too late (depending on who you ask) concerned a soldier known as “Joe Cago.”
The mobsters at Apalachin probably didn’t appreciate (or have cause to) news of Gambino’s rise to power, though he quickly fashioned himself into a force to to be reckoned with inside America’s Cosa Nostra.
While the Feds indeed put Gambino under the glass in 1957, it wasn’t until five years later that they realized Gambino was a much, much bigger fish than even they’d first thought. According to a memo from May 1962, the quiet, 5'7" Sicilian with the nose of a hawk suddenly transformed into a priority for J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men.
It is imperative that every effort be made to establish highly confidential coverage of Gambino in view of his position as a “Commission” member and his obvious importance as a top leader in the criminal organization controlled by the “Commission.” Considerable information has been developed recently indicating that Gambino is of key importance at the top level in the organized crime underworld in this country as an arbitrator and consultant….
Because of Gambino’s key position on the “Commission” it is of utmost importance that we obtain the desired coverage of his activities, enabling us to stay currently informed on his contacts with some of the most important racket figures in this country.
Gambino served for two decades as the absolute ruler of his family (and had a strong influence on other families, including the Genovese family). Low key and secretive, he set the standard followed by countless other mobsters of his day (and probably these days.) Still, while he lived relatively modestly he was indeed of legendary wealth, stashing cash, jewels and other valuables in safety deposit boxes in banks spread across New York City. He also was renowned for his ability to put together up to $10 million in cash at a moment’s notice.
The FBI referred to him as “Boss of Bosses” of “LCN” and “the most powerful racketeer in the country.”
They certainly knew enough about him to designate him as such.
Gambino’s career in the Mafia extended back to the 1920s, when he arrived in America having been a stowaway. He disembarked in Norfolk, Virginia, in December of 1921 (we incorrectly reported the year as 1931), from the S.S. Vincenzo Florio.
The first mention of him by law enforcement was in the form of a memo by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol Tax Unit in November of 1934, included in the FBI’s 1957 filings. It read in part:
Since the coming of Prohibition, there has been in the City of New York and vicinity and extending into the State of New Jersey a notorious, daring group of bootleggers known as the GAMBINO outfit. The principal members of this outfit are: CARLO GAMBINO; his brother PAUL GAMBINO; and their cousin ANTHONY GAMBINO.
Gambino, in 1935, appeared at the U.S. embassy in Montreal, Canada to formally request a visa, but was denied. Nevertheless, he crossed back into America. He never left (except for that trip he made to Sicily in 1948 to meet his brother, who’d fled U.S. law enforcement, and Charlie Lucky, according to the FBI files. Oh, you didn’t hear about that one? Neither did we.)
According to the FBI files:
“During the spring of 1948, reliable information obtained from a Bureau of Narcotics source indicated that CARLO GAMBINO travelled clandestinely to Palermo, Sicily, where he joined his brother, PAUL GAMBINO, who had fled to Italy to avoid prosecution in a Federal alcohol tax case. The GAMBINOS were reported to exercise control over the narcotic smuggling activities between the Mafia element in Palermo and the United States on behalf of SALVATORE LUCANIA and during 1948, both GAMBINO brothers met with LUCANIA at the home of their relatives in Palermo, Sicily.
“Investigation conducted by the Bureau of Narcotics after 30 some odd Sicilians had been smuggled into the United States aboard the SS Panormus at the Port of Philadelphia during May 1948, disclosed that CARLO GAMBINO was involved in the smuggling of these aliens and that some of these aliens in turn had smuggled substantial quantities of heroin into the United States as payment for being brought into the country.
“Investigation further developed the information that among those interested in the smuggling of these aliens was a representative of the Santo — Serge Trading Company, 196 First Avenue, New York city. This company is operated by SANTO SORGE, an intimate associate of SALVATORE LUCANIA, and it will be recalled that immediately prior to his apprehension at the Apalachin meeting JOSEPH BONANNO was observed at Palermo Sicily, in the company of SANTO SORGE.”
Gambino was married on December 5, 1926 by Pastor A.R. Cioffi in Brooklyn, where Gambino hung his hat for most of his life (he took up residence in the Bronx once).
Gambino walked out of Lewisburg having served around
four days of a 22-month sentence.
He was arrested in 1930 in Boston for “a handkerchief game and a pill game,” which was later noted as simply a “handkerchief pill game.” In researching this, we could find no definition of what the hell this was. It was larceny, though, and it did saddle Gambino with a prison sentence.
GAMBINO was sentenced to serve 22 months on May 19, 1939, at the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by US District Judge GEORGE WELSH (Indictment #7609) plus pay a fine of $2,500 for conspiracy to violate the Internal Revenue Liquor laws. He was committed to the US Penitentiary, Lewisburg, on May 23, 1939, and released on bail on May 27, 1939, pending appeal. By letter dated January 21, 1941, the Penitentiary was advised the Clerk of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, that Judgment was reversed and a new trial ordered.
So he served four days, walked out, and TWO YEARS LATER a letter arrived ordering a new trial.
We learn in later documents that those four days were likely the only time Gambino spent behind bars.
The results of the new trial were not reflected in the files at Lewisburg.
Gambino also was arrested for bootlegging and tax evasion in 1937 and 1938, for example, but always paid his way out of prison via a fine (and whatever was handed under to the table to whomever). Also in his favor, wiretapping was then illegal. Therefore, attorneys were able to quash indictments based on evidence from wiretaps. This legal gambit plunged Simone Rizzo DeCavalcante aka “Sam the Plumber” deeply into hot water in the 1960s, as noted in New York’s Four Crime Families?
FBI files also noted that Francesco “Frank” Scalice (also spelled Scalise), Anastasia’s underboss, shot dead by two gunmen in a fruit store in the Bronx months before Anastasia’s death, had Gambino’s name on a piece of paper found on him. (Two hitmen… shot in a fruit store — well, among fruit…. Sound familiar?)
Would this have added impetus to Gambino’s decision to order the hit on the Mad Hatter? We can only wonder…
This information, again, was compiled in 1957, after Apalachin.
That same year, on December 9, Gambino thwarted immigration’s efforts to deport him by entering a hospital for surgery. (In a somewhat comical episode, the FBI noted that agents tried to arrest Gambino, only they couldn’t find him. They called his house and whoever answered the phone said, “He’s not here.” The Feds, without a warrant, couldn’t search Gambino’s residence, though they were certain he was either holed up inside or on the lam. Turned out, he was in the hospital.)
Gambino was off limits to law enforcement because he was going under the scalpel of Dr. Samuel A. Thompson at the Flower Hospital on Fifth Avenue and 106th Street, presently known as the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center.
Hoover himself, in a memo, pegged Gambino’s chances of living as “not good.” Wishful thinking on Hoover’s part, or was he merely relaying what the good doctor had told him? Hoover, as is known, had problems recognizing the Mafia publicly because he wanted not one iota of attention to be diverted from what he considered the true menace to America: Communism.
That is, until he realized, following Apalachin, the extent of the mob’s ability to corrupt politicians. This helped to sway his thinking that the Mafia was indeed a menace capable of subverting the U.S. government’s rule of law. Back then, anyways.
Certainly that is not the case today.