19 February 2018

NYPD head exposes Petrosino secret mission

On this date (February 19) in 1909, New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham spoke with news reporters about the absence of Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino from police headquarters. The conversation may have led to Petrosino's assassination.

NY Evening World
19 February 1909
Bingham initially claimed not to know Petrosino's precise whereabouts and then suggested that the Italian-born detective and longtime leader of the NYPD's "Italian Squad" might be on his way across the Atlantic to meet with Italian police officials. The commissioner announced that he appointed Petrosino to the leadership of a privately funded "Secret Service" designed to enable the deportation of many Black Hand criminals, Mafiosi and Camorristi operating in New York's Little Italy communities. (Lieutenant Arthur Gloster took over temporarily as administrator of the Italian Squad.)

The information was widely published, exposing what was supposed to be a secret mission by Petrosino before that mission had even begun.

Less than a month later, on the evening of March 12, 1909, Petrosino was shot to death by Mafiosi in Palermo, becoming the only NYPD officer to be killed in the line of duty on foreign soil. Petrosino was unarmed. Evidence indicated that he was going to meet someone he believed to be an underworld informant when he was killed just outside the Garibaldi Gardens at Palermo's Piazza Marina.

Almost immediately, Petrosino's assassination was used by politicians to score points in a local government struggle in New York.

Commissioner Bingham blamed city alderman for Petrosino's death, charging that their lack of financial support for his Secret Service plan left Petrosino vulnerable. City officials, particularly those backed by the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, placed the blame on Bingham. Alderman Reginald S. "Reggie" Doull stated, "The blame for Petrosino's death attaches directly to Police Headquarters. It was from the Police Department that the news of Petrosino's departure to Italy leaked."

Doull labeled Bingham "the most profane incompetent that holds office in this city today."

Political pressure mounted for Bingham's dismissal. On July 1, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., succumbed and replaced Bingham with First Deputy Commissioner William Frazer Baker. At that moment, Detectives Antonio Vachris and John Crowley were in Italy, attempting to complete Petrosino's secret mission.

The change in police leadership resulted in Vachris and Crowley being called home. They reportedly returned with Italian police records that could be used to deport hundreds of Italian-born criminals who had settled illegally in New York. The records were shelved and the deportation effort initiated by Bingham and Petrosino was abandoned. 

  • Barzini, Luigi, The Italians, New York: Atheneum, 1964.
  • Critchley, David, The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931, New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Flynn, William J., The Barrel Mystery, James A. McCann Company, 1919.
  • Lardner, James and Thomas Reppetto. NYPD: A City and its Police, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000.
  • Petacco, Arrigo, translated by Charles Lam Markmann. Joe Petrosino. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.
  • Peterson, Virgil W. The Mob: 200 Years of Organized Crime in New York, Ottawa Illinois: Green Hill Publishers, 1983.
  • Pitkin, Thomas Monroe and Francesco Cordasco. The Black Hand: A Chapter in Ethnic Crime, Totowa NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1977.
  • Smith, Denis Mack, A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily After 1713, New York: Dorset Press, 1968.
  • White, Frank Marshal, "Italians seek protection against Black Hand," New York Times, Sept. 4, 1910, p. Mag 5.
  • "Secret service formed to hunt the Black Hand," New York Evening World, Feb. 19, 1909, p. 6.
  • "Bingham gets his fund," New York Sun, Feb. 20, 1909, p. 3.
  • "New secret service to fight Black Hand," New York Times, Feb. 20, 1909, p. 2.
  • "Secret police fund," New York Tribune, Feb. 20, 1909, p. 5.
  • "Il delitto di Palermo," Corriere della Sera, March 14, 1909, p. 4.
  • "Petrosino shot dead in Italy," New York Sun, March 14, 1909, p. 1.
  • "Petrosino slain assassins gone," New York Times, March 14, 1909, p. 1.
  • "Police seek plotters," New York Times, March 14, 1909, p. 2.
  • "Detective Petrosino Black Hand victim," New York Tribune, March 14, 1909, p. 1.
  • "Vachris would go to Sicily," New York Times, March 14, 1909, p. 2.
  • "Il delitto di Palermo," Corriere della Sera, March 15, 1909, p. 4.
  • "Arrests in Petrosino case," New York Sun, March 15, 1909, p. 1.
  • "L'uccisione di Petrosino a Palermo," Corriere della Sera, March 16, 1909, p. 4.
  • "Vote against Bingham," New York Tribune, March 24, 1909, p. 5.
  • "Mayor removes Gen. Bingham from office," New York Tribune, July 2, 1909, p. 1.
  • “Vachris coming back," New York Times, Wed. July 21, 1909, p. 1.

30 January 2018

When 'Lucky' was locked up

Salvatore Lucania, widely known as Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, late in 1931 became the most powerful crime boss in the U.S. He personally commanded a sprawling New York-based Mafia organization, held one of seven seats on the Mafia's ruling Commission and maintained valuable alliances with non-Italian racketeering organizations across the country.

Less than five years after achieving gangland eminence, however, Lucania was taken into custody on compulsory prostitution charges. Due to the efforts of Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, Lucania spent most of the next decade - from the prime years of his life into middle age - behind prison bars.

Held at Clinton State Prison beginning in the summer of 1936, he was largely out of touch with the rich criminal empire he assembled and remote from friends and family. He depended upon pennies earned through manual toil and occasional contributions from relatives and associates to finance his many purchases through prison commissaries.

Yet, even during a lengthy and humiliating prison stay, Lucania found a way to make himself important. In the spring of 1942, Lucania convinced New York County prosecutors, New York State corrections officials and the United States Office of Naval Intelligence that he was indispensable to the U.S. war effort.

In the remaining years of World War II, Lucania arranged for a more convenient placement at Great Meadow Prison in the Lake George area and for suspension of visitation rules and recordkeeping. He managed in those few years to build a reputation for patriotic service that led to a 1946 commutation of sentence.

Very few official records remain of Lucania's long term in state prisons. From the period before 1942, only a small collection of documents is held at the New York State Archives. These include receiving blotter pages, health and psychiatric reports, visitor logs and financial transactions that shed some light on his brief time at Sing Sing Prison and his longer incarceration at Clinton Prison. From the period between his 1942 transfer to Great Meadow Prison and his 1946 parole and deportation, even less survives. Some details of these later years were pieced together when the State of New York, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Navy looked into Lucania's alleged contributions to the war effort. Wartime records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, which could have provided the most useful window into Lucania's service, were deliberately destroyed.

Available details of Lucania's time in prison and related events have been assembled into a 1936-1946 timeline on The American Mafia history website. These details range in excitement level from hum-drum to spectacular. Quotes from documents and links to documents - including all available pages of the Clinton Prison files - are included.

See: "When 'Lucky' was locked up."

25 January 2018

Stroke complications take Capone

Al Capone, notorious Prohibition Era gang boss of Chicago, died January 25, 1947, at his south Florida home. Dr. Kenneth S. Phillips, who had treated the retired crime figure for years, announced that death was caused by pneumonia and heart failure, complications of a recent stroke.

Miami Daily News
For many years, Capone had dealt with the symptoms of advanced syphilis. Immediately upon the November 1939 expiration of his long prison sentence for tax evasion, Capone was admitted into Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore for treatment of paresis. The former gangland boss, burdened with an ailing body and a failing mind, never returned to command the Chicago Outfit organization he built during Prohibition, instead moving into a quiet Florida retirement.

Capone suffered an apoplectic stroke at about four o'clock in the morning of January 21, 1947, just a few days after his forty-eighth birthday. It was feared that the unresponsive Capone would soon die. At six o'clock, a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor William Barry, went to the twenty-five-room estate, 93 Palm Avenue on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay, to administer the last rites. Newspapers learned of the stroke and scrambled to cover the final moments of Capone's life.

By eight o'clock that morning, Dr. Phillips saw some signs of improvement in his patient. At the family's request, the physician became a spokesman, delivering health updates to the swarm of reporters gathering outside the walls around the estate. Capone regained consciousness later in the day, and Dr. Phillips reported to the press that he could speak, though the doctor urged him to remain quiet and rest.

Dr. Phillips told the press on January 23 that Capone continued to show progress in his recovery. The doctor expressed concern that the stroke might leave Capone paralyzed on the left side. "It'll be two or three days before I can tell conclusively about his condition," Dr. Phillips said. "He's doing just about the same and it looks like he is out of danger if there are no unforeseen complications."

The possibility of pneumonia was discussed early the following day. Dr. Phillips reported that Capone was "harboring considerable lung congestion." The patient's condition worsened quickly. Dr. Phillips rushed to Palm Island that afternoon and returned with Dr. Arthur J. Logie, a Miami-based chest specialist, that evening.

Dr. Logie met with reporters as he left the estate. The specialist's prognosis was grim. "I doubt very seriously if there is a chance for recovery. It is impossible to say how long he will last. His lungs are pretty well filled... Both lungs are badly congested and his heart has begun to fail."

The doctors administered oxygen, using tanks and equipment brought to the Palm Island home. Press reports the following day suggested that Capone would already be dead if not for the oxygen pumped into him during the night.

Dr. Phillips and Capone's wife and son were with Capone when he died in his bed at twenty-five minutes after seven on Saturday night, January 25. As he passed, his wife collapsed and required the attention of Dr. Phillips. The doctor emerged from the estate with news of Capone's death at about eight-thirty.

Capone was survived by his wife and his son, both of his parents, two brothers and a sister. His body was taken to the W.L. Philbrick Funeral Home at Miami Beach. Reports indicated that Louis Rago, funeral director at 624 N. Western Avenue in Chicago, flew to Miami Beach to take charge of arrangements, as the family wished for Capone to be buried in a plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago.

  • "Ex-Gangland chief rallies after stroke," Moline IL Dispatch, Jan. 22, 1947, p. 1.
  • "Hint Capone's left side may be paralyzed," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 24, 1947, p. 6.
  • "Doctor speeds to bedside of Al Capone," Miami Daily News, Jan. 24, 1947, p. 23.
  • "Al Capone hit by pneumonia, heart weaker," Baltimore Sun, Jan. 25, 1947, p. 3.
  • "Al Capone gets pneumonia, doctor doubts recovery," Brooklyn Eagle, Jan. 25, 1947, p. 1.
  • "Capone dying, doctor says," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 25, 1947, p. 1.
  • Sosin, Milt, "Capone under oxygen mask, hovers on brink of death," Miami Daily News, Jan. 25, 1947, p. 1.
  • "Capone dies at island villa," Miami Daily News, Jan. 26, 1947, p. 1.
  • "Al Capone dies in Florida villa," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 26, 1947, p. 1.
  • "Al Capone, gang czar, dies," Des Moines Register, Jan. 26, 1947, p. 4.

See also:
Writers of Wrongs: "Out of prison, into hospital."

17 January 2018

Historian reveals identities of Mafia informants

The FBI makes every effort to hide the identities of its confidential underworld informants. Unlike the famous Joe Valachi and other Bureau cooperating witnesses, who exchange public testimony for government protection, confidential informants continue in their dangerous underworld roles during their furtive feeding of information to investigators. So, the FBI's secrecy regarding informants is vital... to a point.

For some reason, the Bureau insists on keeping informants' identities confidential even long after the informants have passed away, through natural or "unnatural" causes.

In reports, the FBI refers to its informants only by code numbers. Before any reports are made available to the public, revealing details about the informants are deleted. But subtle clues to their identities may remain within the text.

For years, Toronto-based crime historian Edmond Valin has been combing through publicly available information, including declassified files of the FBI, for these clues. He has shown a remarkable ability to discover the identities of some of the most important and most secret Mafia turncoats by comparing seemingly insignificant details from different documents.

Valin has consented to allow the American Mafia history website to publish a collection of his ground-breaking articles online. These articles, grouped under the heading of "Rat Trap," deal with informants from major U.S. Mafia organizations, including the Chicago Outfit, the Philly Mob, the Bonanno Crime Family and the Gambino Crime Family. Six articles are in the collection at this time, and more are on the way.

Valin's often shocking conclusions are painstakingly defended through document citations (many of the related documents can be accessed online through links provided in the articles' endnotes).

Visit Edmond Valin's Rat Trap articles.