The man who would be King was born on 24 August 1902, back in the old country, in the city of Palermo.
His family was involved in the criminal life, and from an early age Carlo wanted to be part of it. There was little discouragement from those around him, and he was in his early teens when he began to do jobs for the local bosses.
They liked Carlo, and they rated him highly. There was a spark of intelligence in this young man which wasn’t evident in many of his contemporaries. He wasn’t physically imposing, with no really stand-out characteristics, except for his oddly hooked nose; aside from that he had a plain, friendly face, boyish looks and a ready smile.
What they hid was an icy, ruthless heart. The reason he was so feted by the older bosses in the city was that he knew that to succeed in the criminal world two things were needed; the courage of a lion and the cunning of a fox. He demonstrated, all through his life, that he was possessed of both, and married with his extraordinary ambition they made him a formidable figure, even at an early age.
His work for the Sicilian bosses in the old capital so impressed them that he was given the rare honour of induction into The Honoured Society whilst only 19. He had already become a killer – a stone cold killer, without an ounce of regret or remorse – and this was an essential virtue for one who was on the rise.
Yet it was partly the cause of his problems, that and the respect he already carried.
The first major obstacle of his life was the rise to power of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who was gaining strength fast and looked as if he might be the next Prime Minister. Gambino and others had plenty of reason to fear him. He was already flirting with the fascist tendencies which would mark him out later, and he had made it clear by his refusal to recognise the legitimate Italian state as a rival to his power that he would not countenance the existence of the Mafia state either.
Gambino was already suspected of involvement in several murders, and a man such as him would have been well aware of the changing atmosphere in the capital and across the rest of the small island as various issues built up around him.
He made the decision to flee to the United States, where his cousins, the Castellano’s, were already a powerful and influential family.
On 23 December 1921, a ship called the SS Vincenzo Florio docked in Norfolk, Virginia. It was a freighter, carrying cargo and one passenger. Carlo Gambino was still only 19, already a “man of respect”, and he was greeted at the dock, by members of the Castellano family, like an arriving prince. He was soon whisked off to New York. The city did not shudder at his arrival. The heavens did not part. The earth did not shake. But it was a moment that changed everything.
The Castellano’s owned a trucking company, which was being used to smuggle bootleg alcohol, part of fleets run out of the city by the local crime boss Jose Masseria. Before long, Carlo was a part of it. Sometimes he drove the trucks, often helping to rob those of rival gangs, and he was soon a key player in the local operation.
The people around him at that time were already developing their own reputations, and these were guys who had their own growing ambitions. Their associates knew them as the Young Turks, and all of their names were to ring out across first New York and then the country as time went by; Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Vito Genovese, Gaetano Luchesse, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Seagal and Mickey Cohen.
All these young men, but especially Carlo, were ever attuned to the vibrations of power.
Masseria’s empire fell under threat from another vicious criminal, Salvatore Maranzano, who had his own compliment of upcoming young men, including Joe Profaci and Joe Bonnano, on his side of the lines. The Italian gangs were tearing each other apart even as rival mobsters, from Irish gangs and other ethnicities were beginning to grow strong. The Young Turks, on both sides, knew that if the war didn’t end quickly there would be nothing left for any of them.
They were well ahead of their contemporaries in realising what had to be done. Their plan was audacious, and ruthless, bearing all the hallmarks of Gambino’s later modus operandi, although in this case it was almost certainly the brainchild of the equally ambitious, and icy, Charles Luciano.
Masseria fell first, after his own men had set him up.
No sooner was he gone, than the Turks began to plan the murder of Maranzano.
When he fell, Luciano assumed the reins of power, and he and others formed the first American mafia board of directors, which they named The Commission. It divided the county, and in particular New York itself, into the spheres of influence that were to hold it all together in the decades that followed.
It was at around this time that Gambino married his first cousin, Catherine Castellano, which further increased his power and cemented the blood ties between the two mafia families.
Carlo Gambino had moved into the constellations of power, but he was not yet in charge.
The family of which he was now a member was headed up by Vincent Mangano. Albert Anastasia was made the underboss of the family, and Gambino became a captain.
Mangano liked Carlo. He was a fantastic earner for the family, and he was capable and shrewd. But Mangano didn’t like the way he, Anastasia and Frank Costello, an up and comer in the Luciano family, were always working together.
Ever mindful of what had happened to Masseria and Maranzano, there was always the fear that they could be planning a coup.
Despite these worries, Mangano led the family for 20 years, but it had a bloody and violent end, which seems to suggest that his fears were not entirely without foundation.
Albert Anastasia was one of the criminal world’s most fearsome individuals. He had, for years, run the “enforcement arm” of the mob, which they called Murder Incorporated. Estimates of how many were killed under the orders of Anastasia, the self-styled ‘Lord High Executioner’ vary; some say they murdered as many as 1000 people.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that Mangano would be one of them eventually.
The facts are somewhat in dispute, but what is not is that Anastasia, backed by Costello – who had taken over the Luciano operation when Charlie Lucky was sent to prison – went to the Commission and told them Mangano had tried to have him murdered, and he sought their permission to strike back. History does not record whether they gave it, and Anastasia would always deny that he’d sought it, but on 19 April 1951, Philip Mangano was murdered and Don Vincent disappeared entirely.
The family had a new boss; Anastasia. He immediately appointed Gambino underboss. The small man from Sicily was now one of the most powerful gangsters in America. He soon took advantage of that power, when he made his brother in law, Paul Castellano, a captain.
With Gambino directing operations, Anastasia’s crime family was more successful than ever, and with the Commission holding everything together things appeared good in their world. But there were tensions behind the scenes, particularly between Anastasia and another ambitious mobster, Vito Genovese.
Genovese was already a legend in the mob. He had been the original choice to take over the Luciano family when Charlie was imprisoned, but had to go on the run to Italy to beat a murder charge. His return signified huge changes, especially for the man he thought had usurped the position that was rightly his, Costello himself.
Genovese had ambitions in any number of directions.
He wanted to eliminate Costello and take over the Luciano crime family and he wanted Anastasia gone because he believed the man was too dangerous and unpredictable to be allowed to run things.
This was not an unreasonable point of view.
It is alleged that in 1952 Genovese had been horrified when Anastasia ordered the murder of a civilian, Arnold Schuster, a tailor’s clerk from Brooklyn, who had helped apprehend a famed bank robber Willie Sutton. This was an atrocity which violated the mob’s golden rule about keeping citizens out of the line of fire.
Genovese moved against Costello first, hiring an assassin to shoot him.
The attempt on his life failed, but it spooked the mobster enough that he went to the Commission and asked for permission to retire.
They granted him his request and Genovese took over the Luciano crime family, and renamed it after himself. It was a hugely destabilising move, because it emboldened Genovese and Gambino, and they very quickly decided to move against Anastasia himself.
His murder, one of the most famous in mob history, was carried out on 25 October 1957.
They got him in the barbers shop of the Park Sheraton Hotel.
With his killing, the lines of power shifted again and the man from Palermo was now Don Carlo Gambino, the head of a family, which he renamed in his own honour.
Genovese believed he was now in line to take the role of Boss of Bosses. He thought Don Carlo would support this, and that the way was now clear. He was wrong. Carlo Gambino had ideas of his own, and he had gone behind Genovese’s back, aligning himself with the now released Luciano – who was living in Cuba – and the retired Costello. They teamed up with Meyer Lansky, the Jewish crime lord who Genovese had already fallen out with over the Cuba operations.
Genovese travelled to the Appalachian Conference, believing that there he would be crowned as the most powerful mafia boss in the country.
Appalachia was a disaster in more ways than one, though. A local police captain, amazed at the site of dozens of big city cars driving through his small town, organised a raid on the location of the meeting, and the mob bosses fled, some running through fields in hundred dollar shoes.
This PR fiasco resulted in a number of high profile arrests, and worse; it brought the mafia and its ruling body, the Commission, into the public eye for the first time.
Not long afterwards, Genovese travelled to Atlanta to oversee a heroin shipment. Local police, the FBI and the ATF were waiting for him. They had been tipped off, probably by the Luciano-Gambino nexus. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years. He died in prison, in 1969, without ever having worn the crown.
Carlo Gambino now did, and he built around him a powerful network of loyal captains, including Joe Armone, Carmine Fatico, Aniello Dellacroce and, of course, his brother in law Paul Castellano. They were a close group, a tight group, and they immediately began to expand the family’s operations into different businesses, both legal and criminal.
Carlo also reached out to set up operations in different cities all over the United States.
With a criminal organisation that eventually grew to over 30 crews and more than 500 “made men”, there was little to stop the Gambino’s, especially as Carlo was adept at making alliances. In one brilliant strategic move, he married off his eldest son, Thomas, to the daughter of his rival Tommy Luchesse, which created not only an alliance but a “blood tie”.
In spite of his virtually unchallengeable position as the most powerful boss in the country, Gambino was always quick to exploit any difficulty or problem within the other families. It was not for nothing that some crime experts have called Gambino “the most treacherous boss of all time.” His was extraordinarily cynical, being perfectly willing to betray friends and partners at the drop of a hat and was ever ready to pounce if he thought it could further his interests.
One such moment came in 1962, when Gambino sided with the Gallo brothers when they kidnapped a number of top members of the Profaci family.
Joe Profaci went back to the days of the Young Turks and had long been a Gambino rival. Don Carlo may even have sanctioned his assassination as the war raged on, but in June of that year the old man died of cancer, leaving his family in the hands of Joseph Magliocco. Magliocco wanted to continue the war, and he had the support of the Bonanno family. Gambino and the Luchesse’s declared their support the Gallo’s, as Don Carlo saw opportunities to weaken his rivals.
Somewhere around this time, Joseph Bonanno approached Magliocco about having Gambino and his allies on the Commission killed.
They asked Joe Columbo, one of Magliocco’s top lieutenants, to organise the murders.
It was a huge error in judgement.
Columbo had ideas of his own. On one hand, he believed the order was madness and on the other he saw an opportunity to show Gambino where his real loyalties lay. He informed on his own boss, and the Commission called the two bosses to account for what they had been planning. Bonanno ran. As the organiser of the plot he knew the hammer would fall heaviest on him. Magliocco faced up to his part in it, but the Commission chose to fine him, and force him to retire.
When he did, Joe Columbo became boss, and Gambino had another key ally.
Don Carlo had a knack for landing on the right square, no matter the opposition.
Since he’d become boss, Genovese, Tommy Luchesse, Joe Profaci and now Magliocco had gone, leaving him largely unchallenged as the mafia’s top boss. He demonstrated this power when his reckoning with Bonanno came, when instead of ordering his death – as a less sophisticated boss might have done – he pardoned the old man and allowed he and his son to retire. The Roman emperors of old, who knew the pardon was the most symbolic of those powers given to a king, would have been proud.
It was around this time that the FBI began to position themselves to take down the Don.
It proved just as hard for them as for the bosses who had considered themselves his equal, only to be thwarted.
Gambino was not flashy. He shunned publicity and he lived a quiet life. His home, on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, was a small, modest one.
He believed in keeping a low profile.
Gambino never spoke to the press. He was also notoriously cautious.
When the FBI succeeded in bugging his home, the agents were stunned at how little he spoke, and he never talked about business. After he died, it was revealed that he communicated with his captains in total silence, approving mergers, deals, alliances and even murders with nods of his head.
This is not to say that Don Carlo lived an entirely trouble free life.
In early 1973, his nephew, Manny Gambino, was kidnapped by an Irish-Italian group from the west side. They asked for a ransom of $200,000, and the Gambino’s agreed to pay $50,000. The gang murdered Manny after taking the family’s money. Don Carlo was outraged.
He called a meeting of his inner circle, Joe Armone his consigliore and his two underbosses, Dellacroce and his brother in law Paul Castellano, and they agreed to hand over responsibility for taking revenge to an ambitious up-coming soldier, John Gotti.
At that meeting, Castellano showed his growing influence by insisting that one of his own men, Ralph Galione, go along on the hit.
On the night of the job, Galione got high and blew Gotti’s plan for a covert abduction. In response, Gotti had him killed. This exacerbated a serious split in the Gambino family, one between those soldiers who belonged to the Neil Dellacroce faction and the one headed up by Castellano himself.
This was a problem largely of Don Carlo’s own making. As he neared the end of his life he had made a decision as to who would take over from him in the event of his death. His sons were not powerful enough within the family, and he had reservations about the manner in which Neil Dellacroce and his young protégé Gotti might run things. He had chosen to appoint Big Paul Castellano as his successor. It was to have tremendous, and deadly, implications later.
This was not Don Carlo’s concern. He died on 15 October, 1976, aged 74. He had been in the United States since he arrived as a member of the Honoured Society 55 years before. There was not a year in that time when he had not been intimately involved in organised crime, yet he had never spent as much as a day in prison. He had been running one of the largest crime syndicates in the world for two decades, with 15 of them at head of the Commission itself.
By the time he died the Gambino family was a $500,000,000 a year business, spanning all five boroughs of New York, expanded into dozens of cities across the United States and with associations and allies in criminal enterprises across the world.
There were over 500 “made men” and a number of associate members in the thousands.
The small man who lived a modest life, in a small, unflattering house, was at the helm of a fearsome, and wealthy, private army.
Don Carlo Gambino left behind a wife and two sons.
His sons were intimately involved in the family business, but they could not scale the heights he reached.
In fact, his family would never again wield the same power or command the same respect.
His successor, Castellano, presided over a disastrous period for the family in which it split into two factions, saw a rash of arrests – including that of Castellano himself, who was not as smart as Gambino and was eventually caught on tape – and lost the respect of the other families.
His fall from grace was complete when Neil Dellacroce, who many thought should have become boss, passed away without Castellano even having come to pay his last respects. He did not even attend the funeral. This was all the excuse the new brand of Young Turks needed.
They assassinated him, and John Gotti took over.
In keeping with how his reign began, the Gotti era was marked by violence, controversy and finally betrayal.
In the end, he was sold out by his own second in command – Sammy Gravano (who’s story is on this site) – and imprisoned for life. He died of cancer, having never seen the outside world since the day he was incarcerated.
Carlo Gambino, the first King of the Volcano, was also, effectively, the last.
With his passing, the old ways were forgotten.
The old disciplines were ignored.
The Mafioso who came up in his wake were not of the old-school but a brash, new mafia who courted celebrity, who dealt drugs and who broke all the rules until some broke the final one, the code of silence, the one which had held the whole thing together.
Scores of them went to prison, dozens gave evidence.
The modern mafia is now a shadow of the one ruled by the Palermo born gangster who founded an empire and who’s final decision caused it to fall.
We will never see his, or it’s, like again.
Don Carlo truly was a one off.
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