Salvatore Maranzano July 31, 1886 – September 10, 1931 was an organized crime figure from the town of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, and an early Cosa Nostra boss who led what later would become the Bonanno crime family in New York City. He instigated the Castellammarese War in 1930, to seize control of the American Mafia, winning the war after the murder of rival faction head, Joe Masseria, in April 1931. He then briefly became the Mafia’s capo di tutti capi (“boss of all bosses”) and formed the Five Families in New York City, but was murdered on September 10, 1931, under the orders of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who established an arrangement in which families shared power to prevent future turf wars: The Commission.
Salvatore Maranzano was the youngest of 12 children born to Domenico Maranzano and Antonina Piscotta. Five of his siblings lived to adulthood: Mariano, Angelo, Nicolo, Giuseppe, and Angela. As a youngster, Maranzano had wanted to become a priest and even studied to become one, but later became associated with the Mafia in his homeland. Maranzano had a very commanding presence and was greatly respected by his underworld peers. He had a fascination with Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, and enjoyed talking to his less-educated American Mafia counterparts about these subjects. Because of this, he was nicknamed “Little Caesar” by his underworld peers.
To protect the criminal empire that Maranzano had built up, he declared war on his rival Joe Masseria, the boss of all bosses, in 1930, starting the Castellammarese War. In early 1931, Lucky Luciano decided to eliminate his boss, Masseria. In a secret deal with Maranzano, Luciano agreed to engineer Masseria’s death in return for receiving Masseria’s rackets and becoming Maranzano’s second-in-command. On April 15, Luciano invited Masseria and two other associates to lunch in a Coney Island restaurant. After finishing their meal, the mobsters decided to play cards. At that point, according to mob legend, Luciano went to the bathroom. Four gunmen – Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – then walked into the dining room and shot and killed Masseria. With Maranzano’s blessing, Luciano took over Masseria’s gang and became Maranzano’s lieutenant.
Boss of All Bosses
With Masseria gone, Maranzano reorganized the Italian American gangs in New York City into Five Families headed by Luciano, Profaci, Gagliano, Vincent Mangano and himself. Each family would have a boss, underboss, capos, soldiers, and associates, would be composed of only full-blooded Italian Americans, while associates could come from any background. However, Maranzano called a meeting of crime bosses in Wappingers Falls, New York, and declared himself capo dei capi (“boss of all bosses”). Maranzano also whittled down the rival families’ rackets in favor of his own. Luciano appeared to accept these changes, but was merely biding his time before removing Maranzano. Although Maranzano was slightly more forward-thinking than Masseria, Luciano had come to believe that Maranzano was even more greedy and hidebound than Masseria had been.
Maranzano’s scheming, his arrogant treatment of his subordinates and his fondness for comparing his organization to the Roman Empire (he attempted to model the organization after Caesar’s military chain of command) did not sit well with Luciano and his ambitious friends, like Vito Genovese, Frank Costello and others. Despite his advocacy for modern methods of organization, including crews of soldiers doing the bulk of a family’s illegal work under the supervision of a caporegime, at heart Maranzano was a “Mustache Pete” — an old-school mafioso too steeped in Old World ways. He was opposed to Luciano’s partnership with Jewish gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Luciano and his colleagues had intended all along to bide their time before getting rid of Maranzano.
By September 1931, Maranzano realized Luciano was a threat, and hired Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, an Irish gangster, to kill him. However, Tommy Lucchese alerted Luciano that he was marked for death. On September 10, Maranzano ordered Luciano and Genovese to come to his office at the 230 Park Avenue in Manhattan. Convinced that Maranzano planned to murder them, Luciano decided to act first. He sent to Maranzano’s office four Jewish gangsters whose faces were unknown to Maranzano’s people. They had been secured with the aid of Lansky and Siegel. Disguised as government agents, two of the gangsters disarmed Maranzano’s bodyguards. The other two, aided by Lucchese, who was there to point Maranzano out, stabbed the boss multiple times before shooting him. This assassination was the first of what would later be fabled as the “Night of the Sicilian Vespers.”
Although there would have been few objections had Luciano declared himself capo di tutti capi, he abolished the title, believing the position created trouble between the families and made himself a target for another ambitious challenger. Luciano subsequently created The Commission to serve as the governing body for organized crime.
Maranzano is buried in Saint John’s Cemetery, Queens, New York, near Luciano’s grave.
- Critchley, David (2009). The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. New York: Routledge.
- Hortis, C. Alexander (2014). The Mob and the City. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
- Lupo, Salvatore (2015). The Two Mafias: A Transatlantic History, 1888-2008. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Maas, Peter (1968). The Valachi Papers (1986 Pocket Books ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Raab, Selwyn (2005). Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
- Davis, John H. Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Crime Family. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
- Reppetto, Thomas. American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.29.2002, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.