Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano was born in the town of Lercardia Friddi, Sicily in 1897. He was to become associated with the notorious gangland culture of America’s 1920s, made infamous through the likes of Al Capone. In many ways he was the archetypal gangster figure who inspired 1940s Hollywood, having a notable facial scarring and menacing droop in his right eye. As a boy ‘Lucky’ had an inclination to hang around with kids much older than himself where he no doubt learned the art of bullying. He came from a hard-working family background but they were impoverished and eventually left for America in 1906 out of desperation. They arrived in New York with high expectations for a new life but it wasn’t long before young Luciano was in trouble with the law. At a young age he had already set himself up as a ‘protector’ for other kids. If they didn’t pay they’d end up being beaten themselves. At eighteen, Lucky was involved in narcotics and spent six months in youth detention. But even after he was released he continued to ply his trade in everything from heroin to morphine. He was in fact to become known as one of the most ruthless Italian-American mobsters who exploited the heroin market. Lucky soon joined the notorious Five Points Gang and it was here that he cultivated his reputation in the underworld. By 1920 he was involved in bootlegging, working with the likes of the infamous Bugsy Siegel. Luciano was now a fully paid up member of an exclusive club of Italian and ethnic bootleggers and gangsters, that included Joe Adonis, Dutch Shultz and most famous of all, Frank Costello. The latter was adept at getting into the pockets of city officials and the police which, for a gangster, was possibly the most important factor in running a successful criminal gang. Ironically it was an attempt on Luciano’s life by rival gangster Joe ‘the Boss’ Masseria that was to propel Lucky into the big league. Masseria had Lucky kidnapped, bundled in a car, beaten and left for dead on a beach. But the man lived up to his moniker and survived the ordeal. Later, discovering that Masseria was behind the plot to kill him, Lucky teamed up with his rival’s arch enemy Salvatore Maranzano. They concocted a plan to turn the tables on Masseria. In the 1920’s gangland culture was fractured and ethnically divided. The main muscle in the criminal machine was the Italian consortium of Mafiosi hoods known as ‘Moustache Petes’ who ruled the roost. The younger mobsters such as Lucky Luciano were seen as the young guns, often hindered by the ‘old’ Mafiosi. Lucky saw the future of gangland crime being made up of a network that disposed of racial divides. To him the ‘old guard’ were the problem, which Masseria represented. Masseria refused to do deals with non-Italians and Luciano saw this as a major weakness he could exploit. With the help of Maranzano and young eager mobsters, Lucky helped orchestrate an attack on Masseria’s empire.
Key Dates24/11/1897: Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano born in Sicily. 1906: Luciano family arrive in New York. 2/61936: Luciano imprisoned in Clinton State prison, upstate New York. 10/2/1946: Luciano is released from prison and deported to Naples. 26/01/1962: Luciano dies from a heart attack.
The Key Figures
Meyer Lansky: Luciano’s best buddy and right hand man.Bugsy Siegel: Fellow mobster and one time Luciano employee.Joe "the Boss’ Masseria: The ‘old guard’ Mafiosi and Luciano’s arch rival.Salvatore Maranzano: Arch enemy of Masseria. One time ally of Luciano.Thomas Dewey: Special Prosecutor. Arrested Luciano.
On 10 February 1946, Luciano started a new life in Naples. But the Italian government restricted his movements to just a few miles of the city. It also kept tabs on his visitors and any business he was up to. Nevertheless these constraints didn’t stop him from still running his notably smaller empire back in the States, mainly through the telephone.Despite falling out with long-time friend Meyer Lansky, he still remained a rich man. On 26 January 1962, as Luciano greeted a scriptwriter at Naples airport to talk about his life with a view to a movie being made about him, he suddenly had a heart attack and died.
Over the next two years there was much bloodshed between gangsters as they continually tried to dethrone each other. All the time Lucky Luciano kept a low profile and kept in with Maranzano’s outfit. After several coups and countless gangland killings Masseria still held court. It was then that Lucky hired Bugsy Siegel to kill Masseria. Siegel shot him to death in a Coney Island restaurant.The assassination made Maranzano the ‘Boss of Bosses’ in New York. He rewarded Luciano by making him his No. 2 in his outfit. But Maranzano also had greater plans; to become the No. 1 gangster in the United States. It was an ambition that would put him on a collision course with his right hand man.Ironically, for Maranzano to achieve that ambition he knew he had to dispose of two mobsters; Al Capone in Chicago and his very own No. 2 in New York. It wasn’t long before Luciano discovered what his boss planned to do. With the help of his long-time friend and fellow mobster Meyer Lansky, the two men plotted Maranzano’s demise.Maranzano intended to take out Luciano at a conference by hiring an Irish hitman known as Mad Dog Coll. But before Coll arrived to carry out his orders, Lansky sent four of his gunmen, posing as government agents, into Maranzano’s office. Soon after they shot and stabbed him to death.Luciano now built up his new syndicate with the help of his buddy Meyer ‘Little Man’ Lansky who was respected for his sound advice and methodical brain. Together Luciano and Lansky were a formidable team using cunning to stay ahead of the game and survive the mass slaughtering of gangsters throughout the 20s. Even Al Capone acknowledged that they were more powerful than him.The joke about Lansky is that his gun was curved allowing him to avoid being seen by his enemies. He also had an amazing talent to keep a low profile and remain ignored by the authorities despite his influence within the gangland industry.It was during this time that a new terrifying organisation developed on the scene linked to gangland culture. Murder Incorporated was a syndicate of killers set up as an independent, autonomous body to eliminate gang members who had broken codes. Murder Inc had one rule; that all assassinations had to be against mobsters and not public figures. In total they carried out hundreds of ‘hits’ on fellow gangsters and it was Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello who gave the orders.Luciano also had a share in mobster dealings in Cuba, brought about by friend Lansky’s foothold in that country. But it was vice that was Luciano’s speciality. He ran his brothels on the same lines as a manager of a supermarket chain. The women were often treated badly and then thrown out when they were either too run down or problematic. He was also inclined to sample the goods and on several occasions contracted venereal disease.
Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey raided many of Luciano’s brothels and successfully closed half of them down. It was then that he realised he had a case against Luciano when the madams and call-girl bookers started to give evidence about their paymaster. An order was put out to arrest Luciano. This time he wasn’t so lucky.
Thomas Dewey brought forward many witnesses who convinced judge and jury that Luciano had been running a network of brothels that were often managed like slave labour camps. Women had been known to end up in hospital after beatings meted out by Luciano’s henchmen. The mobster denied all charges and didn’t worry too much about the situation, believing he would get off lightly. But Dewey gave a masterful performance and summation, which resulted in the jury finding the defendant guilty on all charges. Instead of receiving a ‘light’ sentence, the 37-year-old Luciano faced a staggering forty-years behind bars.On 2 July 1936, Luciano was sent to Clinton State Prison at Dannemora in upstate New York. It was known as the ‘Siberia’ of all American penitentiaries due to its isolation and the way it treated its prisoners, which was far from compassionate. He was confined to his cell for most of the day and often separated from other prisoners. If that wasn’t humiliating enough he was also put to work in the laundry.Despite this rigid alienation Luciano still miraculously able ran his empire from prison. He also appeared to be getting his ‘lucky’ streak back when Naval Intelligence decided that Luciano may be able to help the war effort through his Mafia connections. On 12 May 1942 he was moved to Great Meadow Prison, a far more agreeable jail in order that he try and influence the Mafia in Sicily to help the US military get the Axis forces off the island. According to reports, he did just that.This contribution to the war effort earned Luciano an early release, ironically presided over by Thomas Dewey - now Governor of New York - who had originally put him away. Luciano was granted commutation on the grounds that he returned to Italy.