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Mobsters – Frank Costello – The Prime Minister of the Underworld
In 1891, Frank Costello was born Francesco Castiglia in Lauropoli, a mountain village in Calabria, Italy. In 1893, Costello’s father moved alone to New York City, where he opened a small grocery in East Harlem. In 1900, the elder Castiglia had saved up enough money to send for his wife, Frank, and Frank’s older brother Edward. It was his older brother Edward, 10 years Frank’s senior, who got Frank first involved in petty crimes.
At the age of 14, Costello, wearing a black handkerchief over his face, robbed the landlady of the tenement house in which he and his parents lived. The landlady recognized Costello, but Costello concocted an alibi, which satisfied the police, and he was never arrested. In 1908, and again in 1912, Costello was arrested for assault and robbery, and again he somehow beat both raps.
In 1915, Costello then 24 years old, was sentenced to a year in prison for carrying an illegal firearm. Despite the fact that in the decades to come he was actively involved in scores of criminal activities, Costello would not see the inside of a jail cell again for 37 years. Costello swore at that time, that when he got out of jail, he would never carry a gun again. And he ever did.
Upon his release from jail, Costello met and married a Jewish woman named Loretta Geigerman. It was unusual at the time for an Italian to marry outside their Catholic faith. However, Costello saw things differently, and he eventually forged relationships with many Jewish gangsters, including Meyer Lansky, Louie “Lepke” Buchalter, and Bugsy Siegel.
Soon after he was married, Costello began working for the murderous Joe “The Clutch Hand” Morello, who along with his sidekick, Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta, were responsible for the treacherous Black Hand extortion racket.
While he was working for Morello, Costello met Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a Sicilian who ran the rackets in Little Italy, on the Lower East side of Manhattan. Through Luciano, Costello became tight which such mobsters as Vito Genovese, Tommy “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese, as well as with Lansky and Siegel. Together, these men became heavily involved in armed robbery, burglaries, extortion, gambling, and dealing drugs. When The Volstead Act became law in 1920, starting the era of prohibition, Costello and his pals cashed in big, bringing in illegal alcohol from Canada, and as far away as England. Their partner was Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, who initially financed the entire operation.
Costello, Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel were raking in so much dough, they were able to pay off crooked politicians and police officials an estimated $100,000 a week for protection. These payments went all the way up to the office of the New York City Police Commissioner – Grover Whalen. In 1929, right after the stock market crashed, Costello told Luciano that he had to advance Whalen $30,000 so that Whalen could cover the margin calls from his stockbroker.
“What could I do?” Costello told Luciano. “I had to give it to him. We own him.”
Even after all the hefty graft payments they had to dole out, there was still about $4 million in yearly profits from all their rackets, to be split equally amongst Costello, Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel.
It was during this period that Luciano convinced Costello (a name of Irish decent) that he should change his name from Castiglia. Luciano later said, “When we got up into our ears in New York politics, it didn’t hurt us at all that we had an Italian guy with a name like Costello.”
In the late 1920’s, both Luciano and Costello joined the Mafia gang headed by Joe “The Boss” Masseria. At the same time, Costello saw that it was advantageous to form alliances with other ethnic groups. Besides the Jews – Lansky, Siegel, and Rothstein, Costello became tight with Irish gangsters on the West Side of Manhattan, specifically Owney “The Killer” Madden and William “Big Bill” Dwyer. With the Irish, Costello became a big part of a rum-running operation called “The Combine. Of course, Costello shared all his profits with Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel.
However, Masseria frowned on members of his gang dealing with anyone other than Sicilians. The fact that Costello was Calabrese didn’t please Masseria too much either.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Luciano and Costello, along with Tommy Lucchese, and Vito Genovese, switched sides in the “Castellamarese War,” in which Masseria was actively engaged in, with bitter rival Salvatore Maranzano.
On Sunday, April 15, 1931, Luciano took Masseria out to lunch to the Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island. After Massaria finished a sumptuous lunch, the two men engaged in a game of cards. During the card game, Luciano excused himself and went to the men’s room. While Luciano was in the men’s room, four gunmen, led by Bugsy Siegel, burst through the front door and filled Masseria with enough lead to render him quite dead. When the police arrived minutes later, Luciano claimed no knowledge of what had transpired, because he had been indisposed at the time of the shooting. The police scoffed at Luciano’s story, but they had no proof of Luciano’s involvement (or maybe they were bribed), so they let him go.
In just a few months, Costello and Luciano became disenchanted with Maranzano’s old world ways. Considering himself an aristocrat, and of a higher calling then his men, Maranzano appointed himself “Capo de Tuti Capo (Boss of All Bosses).” To make matters worse, Maranzano extracted a bigger share of his underling’s profits than even the greedy Masseria had demanded.
The final straw, was when, through moles planted close to Maranzano, Costello and Luciano discovered that Maranzano was plotting to kill Luciano, because he feared Luciano’s ambitions. Not liking the idea of soon being a dead man, Luciano quickly sent four Jewish killers, led by the very capable Red Levine, to Maranzano’s midtown office. Disguised as police detectives, the four men quickly disarmed Maranzano’s bodyguards, then shot and stabbed Maranzano to death.
With their two former bosses now six feet under, Costello along with Luciano, Siegel, and Lansky formed a National Crime Commission. Whereas Luciano’s job, as boss of the family, was running the day-to-day operations of whatever swindles they were involved in, Costello, his consiglieri, was the man behind the scenes, greasing the wheels for their protection, by getting chummy with the top politicians and police officials in New York City. Of course, this meant Costello had to pay and pay plenty, but he knew when he needed a political favor, that favor would always be performed. Costello bragged he owned all of the top Tammany Hall politicians, including Mike Kennedy, Christie Sullivan, Frank Rossetti, Carmine DeSapio, and Hugo Rogers.
Costello used his “in” with Tammany Hall to basically make any political appointment he wanted. Rogers even admitted, “If Costello wants me, he sends for me.”
In the mid 1930’s, Costello, now one of the Luciano families biggest earners, went into the slot machine business with Phil “Dandy Phil” Kastel. Costello placed over 25,000 slot machines in New York City restaurants, bars, drugstores, bus stops, and gas stations. This went well for a while until reformist New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia went on a rampage against the illegal slot machine business. La Guardia made a big show of confiscating thousands of Costello’s slot machines. Laguardia, aided by local law enforcement, loaded the slot machines on barges, and then La Guardia personally pushed the slot machines into the water. Photos of La Guardia’s antics appeared in all the local newspapers, as well as in the movie house news reels.
His New York City slot machine business in ruins, Costello, along with Kastel, moved their operations to New Orleans, Louisiana. There, with the aid of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, they were able to place their machines were ever they deemed necessary. Their whole operation was under the protection of Senator Hughie Long, himself a bastion of corruption.
In 1936, Luciano began being hounded by Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Despite flimsy evidence, and the perjured testimony of prostitutes and pimps, Dewey prosecuted and convicted Luciano on a trumped-up prostitution charge. Luciano later claimed that it was Dewey himself who had framed Luciano.
With Luciano locked away in prison, Luciano appointed his underboss Vito Genovese as head of the Luciano Crime Family. However in 1937, Genovese was indicted for murder, and to avoid prosecution, he fled to Italy. At this point, Luciano appointed Costello as the head of the Luciano Crime Family.
Costello did very well as the new boss. Working with men of various nationalities, Costello increase the family’s profitability across the board. Costello controlled the gambling, horse race fixing, policy rackets, and the illegal race wires throughout the country. Of course, to keep his illegal enterprises running smoothly, Costello contributed millions of dollars to the retirement funds of hundreds of crooked politicians and law enforcement officials. By doing this, Costello assured that when he needed a favor, he indeed got that favor.
In 1943, Costello called in one of his political chits, when he demanded that Thomas Aurelio be appointed a judge. The only problem was, Manhattan Dist. Atty. Frank Hogan, one of the few politicians not on Costello’s payroll, obtained a wiretap on Aurelio’s phone. The date was August 23, 1943, and the man Aurelio was speaking to was none other than Frank Costello, confirming that Aurelio would soon be a judge.
The conversation went like this: “How are you, and thanks for everything,” Aurelio said.
“Congratulations,” Costello said. “It went all the perfect. When I tell you something is in the bag, you can rest assured.”
“It was perfect,”Aurelio said. “It was fine.”
“Well, we will all have to get together and have dinner some night real soon,” Costello said.
“That would be fine,” Aurelio said. “But right now I want to assure you of my loyalty for all you have done. It is unwavering.”
Amazingly, Costello had his clutches so deep into New York City politicians and law enforcement officials, despite the conversation between him and Aurelio being made public, Aurelio still got the judgeship, right after he beat a disbarment proceeding. That shows how crooked New York City politics was in those days.
However, the most important person Costello was able to get close to was the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was a degenerate gambler, who frequented the racetracks often. While Hoover was ostensibly placing two-dollar bets at the two-dollar window, his underlings would be at the hundred dollar window placing bets for Hoover.
Hoover’s addiction to the horses fell right in with Costello’s plans. Costello, through his intermediary – bookmaker Frank Erickson -would find out when certain horse races were being fixed. Costello then would pass this information to nationally syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, who was a mutual friend of both Costello and Hoover. Winchell told Hoover which horse to bet, which made Hoover very happy and very rich to boot.
The Costello – Hoover relationship was hidden for many years. However, it was later discovered that whatever Hoover was in New York City he would meet secretly with Costello for breakfast, and sometimes even on a park bench.
The question that should be asked, is if Costello was providing Hoover with information on fixed horse races, what did Hoover do for Costello?
The answer is simple. During this period of time, although Hoover went rabidly after such Number One Public Enemies like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, Hoover absolutely refused to recognize that the Mafia, or the “Cosa Nostra” even existed.
However, not even Hoover’s influence and protection could keep Costello out of the limelight forever. In 1951, Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee, and his five-man special committee to investigate organized crime, took dead aim at Costello. On March 13, 1951, Costello was summoned to testify before the Kefauver Committee. However, Costello did not want his face seen on national television, so through his lawyer, George Wolf, it was agreed upon that only Costello’s hands would be shown on television.
With a nationally televised audience anxiously watching, Costello, in his gravely voice, reluctantly answered the committee’s questions. He tried sparring verbally with Kefauver and his men, but it was obvious to all that Kefauver had exposed Costello for exactly what he was – a big-time Mob boss.
Unfortunately for Costello, who was now called by the press the “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” the hearings did not do well for his image with his cohorts. By the time Costello got off the witness stand, Costello’s standing in the Cosa Nostra had taken a big hit. And Costello was now ripe for an even bigger hit. A hit on himself.
With Luciano in exile in Italy, Vito Genovese had returned to the United States, with the ambition of taking over Luciano’s crime family. To parry this, Costello became very close with Mafia killer Albert Anastasia. Anastasia’s hatred for Genovese went back a long time, and thus stared an internal fight for control of the mob rackets in New York City.
On May 2nd, 1957, Frank Costello entered the lobby of his apartment building near Central Park. Waiting for him in the shadows by the elevator was a hulking, ex-professional prizefighter named Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, a close associate of Genovese. Gigante was sent there by Genovese to eliminate Frank Costello from the local crime scene, thus giving Genovese a clear path to the throne.
Suddenly, Gigante stepped out into the light and yelled at Costello, “Hey Frank, this is for you!”
Gigante fired one shot, which creased the side of Costello’s head. However, because Gigante wasn’t the best shot in the world, and also because Gigante broke the first rule of Mafia rubbouts: “Don’t tell your victim you’re about to shoot him. Keep your mouth shut and just shoot him,” the wound was little more then a flesh wound. Costello was rushed to the hospital, where his wound cleaned and bandaged. Costello was safely back home later that night.
When Gigante fled the scene of the shooting, he thought he had killed Costello. Finding out his mission had been a failure, the 6’2″, 300 pound Gigante went into hiding. Eventually, Gigante was caught and brought to trial. However, since Costello, true to the mafia code of “omerta,” refused to testify against him (Costello said he didn’t even recognize Gigante), Gigante walked out of court a free man.
(Editor’s note: Usually when a Mafia killer botches a hit, he is then usually killed himself. For some reason, Gigante was never harmed, and he became the boss of the Genovese Crime Family in the mid-1980s. Go figure.)
For all practical purposes, this ended Costello’s influence in the Cosa Nostra. However, Costello was still able to pull off a huge Machiavellian move in order to get even with Genovese. In concert with Luciano, who was still in exile in Italy, and Carlo Gambino, who was looking to ascend the ladder to mob boss himself, they were able to entice Genovese into a big drug deal. With Genovese knee deep in dope, they tipped off the police, and Genovese was arrested on a narcotics charge. A very bad rap.
Genovese was tried and convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. With Genovese safely behind bars, Carlo Gambino was made the boss of his own family: The Gambino Crime Family.
After serving 10 years of his 15-year sentence, Genovese died in prison, thus making Costello and Gambino quite happy indeed.
His revenge-mission accomplish, and tired of the day to day operations of mob business, Costello greatly toned down his involvement in the organized crime scene. Costello moved to Long Island and only rarely came into New York City for sit downs with his former cronies, who sometimes came to him for advice, at an apartment he still kept in the Waldorf-Astoria. These pals included Carlo Gambino, Tommy Lucchese, and Meyer Lansky.
In 1973, Frank Costello died of a heart attack in a Manhattan hospital. He was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens. His wife Bobbi insisted that none of Costello’s Mafia friends attend his funeral, or sent flower displays to the funeral parlor.
In a display of utter disrespect, mobster Carmine Galante, after he was released from prison in 1974, ordered the bombing of Costello’s burial site. When the dust cleared, both doors of Costello’s cemetery mausoleum were blown completely off their hinges.
This was Galante’s way of saying he was coming back and taking control of the Cosa Nostra in New York City. Which he certainly attempted to do, with much cunning and killing of his own.
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