In the annals of American organized crime, one name stands taller than most: Charles “Lucky” Luciano. His name is synonymous with ambition, power, and violence.
He was born Salvatore Lucania in Sicily, Italy in 1897. One of five children, Luciano was 9 years old when his family, like countless other Italians, immigrated to the United States. The family settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, a neighborhood teeming with poor foreigners. Luciano decided education was not for him at a young age, and he dropped out of school at the age of 14.
When he was a teenager, Luciano joined a street gang that operated around the Five Points section of Lower Manhattan. Most youth gangs at the time stuck to petty crime, but Luciano had a different angle. He and his cohorts offered Jewish youngsters protection from Italian and Irish gangs in the area. It was during this time that Luciano met his future partner-in-crime and lifelong friend Meyer Lansky. His first major run-in with the law came in 1916, when he spent six months in a reformatory after he was caught selling heroin.
Like it did for many gangsters, Prohibition created a world of new opportunities for Luciano in the 1920s. Along with a group of like-minded criminals, Luciano became a major bootlegger of illegal alcohol. By the mid-1920s, the man they called “Lucky” was a top aide to crime boss Joe Masseria. A gang war broke out in New York in the late 1920s, and gangsters were forced to choose sides. Luciano clashed with his boss, eventually having Masseria murdered in 1931, at which point Lucky truly came into his own.
After Masseria’s death, the Italian gangs in New York divided into five factions, or families. Luciano was now one of the most powerful crime bosses in the United States. Under his direction, the mob organized in a way America had never seen before for any criminal enterprise. Luciano formed the Commission, which was comprised of the heads of all the major mafia families and oversaw all illegal activities they perpetrated. Childhood friend Meyer Lansky served as one of Luciano’s top advisors. Bootlegging, prostitution, drug dealing, and loansharking all brought in boatloads of money to New York bosses.
Though it was organized, the mob was not beyond the reach of the law. U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Dewey went after the mob with a vengeance. He made it his primary goal to crush the Mafia completely. Luciano was finally arrested in 1936, along with many associates, for running an extensive prostitution ring. He was convicted of extortion and prostitution and was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison.
Luciano continued to run his crime family from prison, but he eventually handed the reins over to Frank Costello. While serving his sentence, Luciano reached out to the US government and offered to help the Allied military cause during World War II. The government was worried about sabotage on New York’s extensive ship docks, and, knowing the Mafia controlled the docks, struck a deal with Luciano. The gang boss agreed to supply the government with intelligence about the waterfront in exchange for a commuted prison sentence.
Eventually, Luciano agreed to be deported to Italy in exchange for his full freedom. He was released from Sing Sing Prison on February 2, 1946. Eight days later Luciano was on a ship bound for his native country.
Luciano’s story did not end there, however. In October 1946, he secretly moved to Cuba. The small island became a hotbed for organized crime activity after World War II and before Fidel Castro’s revolution turned the nation upside down in 1959. Luciano’s goal was to control organized crime like he had before he was sent away to prison. The US government caught wind of the gangster’s presence in Cuba, however, and he was again shipped back to Italy in February 1947.
Lucky Luciano spent the rest of his life in Naples under police surveillance. But rumors persisted about whether the aging crime boss still had his hand in drug trafficking and other illegal endeavors. Then, on January 26, 1962, Luciano died of a sudden heart attack at the Naples airport. The 64-year-old had gone to the airport that day to meet with an American film producer about a film based on his colorful and violent life.
Luciano returned to American soil once more – this time in a casket. He is buried in Queens, New York.
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