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The Castellammarese War was a bloody power struggle for control of the Italian-American Mafia, from February, 1930 to April 15, 1931, between partisans of Joe "The Boss" Masseria and those of Salvatore Maranzano. It was so called because Maranzano was based in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily.[1] Maranzano's faction won, and he declared himself capo di tutti capi ("boss of all bosses"), the undisputed leader of the entire Mafia. However, he was soon murdered in turn by a faction of young upstarts led by Lucky Luciano, who established a power-sharing arrangement called "The Commission", a group of five Mafia families of equal stature, to avoid such wars in the future.


Mafia operations in the United States in the 1920s were controlled by Giuseppe "Joe The Boss" Masseria, whose faction consisted mainly of gangsters from Sicily and the Calabria and Campania regions of Southern Italy. Masseria's faction included Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Alfred Mineo, Willie Moretti, Joe Adonis, and Frank Costello. As it became more and more evident that the two factions would clash for leadership of the United States, they each sought to recruit more followers to support them.[2]

Powerful Sicilian mafioso Don Vito Ferro decided to make a bid for control of Mafia operations in the United States.[3] From his base in Castellammare del Golfo, he sent Salvatore Maranzano to seize control. The Castellammarese faction in the U.S. included Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, Stefano "The Undertaker" Magaddino, Joseph Profaci, and Joe Aiello.[4]

Outwardly, the Castellammarese War was between the forces of Masseria and Maranzano.[5] Underneath, however, there was also a generational conflict between the old guard Sicilian leadership, known as the "Mustache Petes" for their long mustaches and old-world ways which included demanding fealty and tribute from their minions and refusing to do business with non-Italians, and the "Young Turks", a younger and more diverse Italian group who were more forward thinking and willing to work more with non-Italians. This approach led his followers to question whether Joe the Boss was even capable of making the crime family prosper in the modern times. Led by Luciano, the aim of this group was to end the war as soon as possible in order to resume their businesses, because they viewed the war as unnecessary. Luciano's objective was to modernize the mob and do away with unnecessary orthodox norms like trading with only Italians.[6] This was a vision that enabled him to attract followers, who had seen the inadequacies of the orthodox practices of Masseria. Therefore, both factions were fluid, with many mobsters switching sides or killing their own allies during this war.[7][8] Tensions between the Maranzano and Masseria factions were evident as far back as 1928, with one side frequently hijacking the other's alcohol trucks (alcohol production was then illegal in the United States due to Prohibition).

Hostilities begin

As the war became more violent, gunmen clashed on the streets of New York and bodies started falling. According to Bonanno, in February 1930, Masseria supposedly ordered the death of Gaspar Milazzo, a Castellemmarese native who was the president of Detroit's chapter of Unione Siciliane. Masseria had reportedly been humiliated by Milazzo's refusal to support him in a Unione Siciliane dispute involving the Chicago Outfit and Al Capone.[9]

However, according to most sources, the opening salvo in the war was fired within the Masseria faction. On February 26, 1930 Masseria ordered the murder of an ally, Gaetano Reina.[10] Masseria gave the job to a young Vito Genovese, who killed Reina with a shotgun.[11] Masseria's intent was to protect his secret allies Tommy Gagliano, Tommy Lucchese, and Dominick "The Gap" Petrilli. Later his treachery would come back to haunt him, as the Reina family then threw its support to Maranzano.

Trading blows

On August 15, 1930, Castellammerese loyalists executed a key Masseria enforcer, Giuseppe Morello, at Morello's East Harlem office (a visitor, Giuseppe Peraino, was also killed).[12] Two weeks later, Masseria suffered another blow. After Reina's murder, Masseria had appointed Joseph Pinzolo to take over the ice-distribution racket.[10] However, on September 9, the Reina family shot and killed Pinzolo at a Times Square office rented by Lucchese. After these two murders, the Reina crew formally joined forces with the Castellammarese.[13]

Masseria soon struck back. On October 23, 1930, Castellammarese ally Joe Aiello, president of the Chicago Unione Siciliane, was murdered in Chicago.[9] At the time, it was widely assumed that Capone, another Castellammarese ally, had killed Aiello as part of a bitter power struggle in Chicago. However, Luciano later admitted that Masseria ordered the Aiello hit, which was performed by Masseria ally Alfred Mineo.

The tide turns

Following the murder of Aiello, the tide of war rapidly turned in favor of the Castellammarese. On November 5, 1930 Mineo and a key member of Masseria's gang, Steve Ferrigno, were murdered.[14] Francesco Scalice inherited control of Mineo's gang and subsequently defected to the Maranzano faction. At this point, many other members of Masseria's gang also began defecting to Maranzano, rendering the original battle lines of the conflict (Castellammarese versus non-Castellammarese) meaningless. On February 3, 1931, another important Masseria lieutenant, Joseph Catania, was gunned down, dying two days later.[15]

Given the worsened situation, Masseria allies Luciano and Genovese started communicating with Castellammarese leader Maranzano. The two men agreed to betray Masseria if Maranzano would end the war. A deal was struck, based on which Luciano would arrange for Masseria to be murdered and Maranzano would bring the Castellammarese War to an end. On April 15, 1931 Masseria was killed while eating dinner at Nuova Villa Tammaro, a Coney Island restaurant in Brooklyn. The hitters were reputedly Anastasia, Genovese, Joe Adonis, and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel;[16] Ciro "The Artichoke King" Terranova drove the getaway car, but legend has it that he was too shaken up to drive away and had to be shoved out of the driver's seat by Siegel.[17][18]

However, according to The New York Times, "[A]fter that, the police have been unable to learn definitely [what happened]". Reputedly Masseria was "seated at a table playing cards with two or three unknown men" when he was fired upon from behind. He died from gunshot wounds to his head, back, and chest.[15] Masseria's autopsy report shows that he died on an empty stomach.[19] No witnesses came forward, though "two or three" men were observed leaving the restaurant and getting into a stolen car.[20] No one was convicted in Masseria's murder as there were no witnesses and Luciano had an alibi.

The new Mafia structure

With the death of Masseria, the war was over. The winners, at least on paper, were Maranzano and the traditional Castellammarese faction. Now Maranzano took some significant actions to avoid more bloody and self-destructive gang wars. Many of these changes are still in effect today.[21][22] Following this, Maranzano assumed complete control of Masseria's assets and organization. He had a vision which was quite similar to Luciano's and as a result, Luciano initially endorsed the proposal made by Maranzano. The idea was to organize the mafia by giving it a very clear structure and hierarchy. Maranzano wished to divide the main Italian gangs in New York into five families, each with a boss, underboss, capos, soldiers, and associates. This was the first proposal to form the notorious Five Families of New York which would lead to a more efficient conduction of business in the city. Each position had its roles specified very clearly in order to avoid confusion. According to the proposal, only full-blooded Italian Americans would be allowed to formally join the Mafia, while associates could come from any background. This particular proposal ensured that the traditions of the mafia were not violated while simultaneously reforms were made to ensure further benefits. Shortly after Masseria's death, Maranzano soon announced that the Five Families would be led by Luciano, Joe Bonanno, Joseph Profaci, Vincent Mangano and Thomas Gagliano.[23]

Except for New York City, the major urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest were organized into one family per city; due to the sheer size of organized crime in New York, it was organized into five separate families. The bosses of the Five Families of New York were to be Luciano (now the Genovese crime family), Profaci (now Colombo), Gagliano (now Lucchese), Maranzano (now Bonanno), and Vincent Mangano (now Gambino). All, however, would owe allegiance and tribute to Maranzano. The Castellammarese, such as Profaci and Bonanno, were divided among the New York crime families and ceased to exist as a separate faction. Maranzano set himself above, and apart from, all the U.S. crime families by creating an additional position for himself--capo di tutti capi or "boss of all bosses."[7][21]

Each crime family was to be headed by a boss, who was assisted by an underboss (the third-ranking position of consigliere was added somewhat later). Below the underboss, the family was divided into crews, each headed by a caporegime, or capo, and staffed by soldiers (members or, as they later became known, "wise guys"). The soldiers would often be assisted by associates, who were not yet members. Associates might also include non-Italians who worked with the family, and would include Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, to name just two.[7] Like Lansky and Siegel, associates might be significant criminal figures with their own organisations.

Death of Maranzano

Maranzano's reign as capo di tutti capi was short-lived. On September 10, 1931, he was shot and stabbed to death in his Manhattan office by a team of Jewish triggermen (recruited by Lansky), which included Samuel "Red" Levine, Bo Weinberg, and Bugsy Siegel.[7][24]

With both Maranzano and Masseria out of the way, it was easier for the Young Turks, led by Luciano, to assume control of the way things functioned in New York City. The first agenda on the table was the reformation and restructuring of the American Mafia. Luciano envisioned the future of the American Mafia in the form of a major corporation. He believed that this would increase cooperation, reduce conflict and ensure a plain sailing governance by the mafia as a whole. Since Maranzano had formed a basic structure that was in the process of being put into effect, Luciano decided to retain the concept to a large extent. Owing to his clear disregard for orthodox ideologies that did not have any profitable consequences, Luciano allowed for more flexibility in the structure, allowing for the inclusion of other societal groups like the Jews to involve themselves with the families. In his autobiography ‘A Man of Honor’, Joe Bonanno states: “We revised the old custom of looking toward one man, one supreme leader for advice and the settling of disputes. We replaced leadership by one man with leadership by committee. We opted for a parliamentary arrangement whereby a group of the most important men in our world would assume the function formerly performed by one man.”[25]

In the aftermath of the Maranzano hit, there was believed to have been a massive purge of "old-timer" mafiosi, the so-called "Night of the Sicilian Vespers." These rumors were seemingly confirmed by the testimony of Joseph Valachi, but a later study found no signs of such massive violence occurring.[26][27]

In the end, both of the traditional factions in the New York Mafia lost the war. The real winners were the younger and more ruthless generation of mobsters, headed by Luciano. With their ascension to power, organized crime was poised to expand into a truly national and multi-ethnic combination.[21][28]

Popular culture

  • The 1981 movie Gangster Wars and the 1991 Mobsters are partly fictionalized accounts of the Castellammarese War, while 1981's The Gangster Chronicles TV miniseries covers the war over a few of its thirteen episodes. All of these cover events from the point of view of Luciano.
  • Events from the war (most notably the assassination of Maranzano) are included in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.
  • The 1973 Charles Bronson movie The Stone Killer is a fictionalized story of a complicated plot to assassinate the heads of organized crime families using Vietnam veterans. The plot is the brainchild of an elderly mafioso who has been obsessed since 1931 with avenging the "Night of the Sicilian Vespers" murders, supposedly orchestrated by Lucky Luciano.
  • The war is one of the main plot elements of the final season of Boardwalk Empire.
  • AMC's The Making of the Mob: New York also covers the war.

See also

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