Giancana, Salvatore ("Sam")

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GIANCANA, Salvatore ("Sam")

(b. 15 June 1908 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 19 June 1975 in Oak Park, Chicago), crime syndicate boss who began his career as a "soldier" for Al Capone, controlled organized crime in Chicago between 1956 and 1966, and was an ally and later enemy of the Kennedy family.

The son of Antonino Giancana, a fruit seller who had emigrated from Sicily, and Antonia DiSimone, Giancana began life in poverty in an area of Chicago's near west side known as the Patch. With a reputation for violence, Giancana dropped out of elementary school and began a life of crime with a gang, the 42s. In 1925 he was jailed for auto theft and in 1927 was imprisoned for burglary. By his early twenties Giancana was working as an enforcer and "wheelman," or driver, for Al Capone under the direction of Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo. One of the most violent criminals in U.S. history, Giancana acquired the nickname "Momo," from the slang term "mooner," meaning "madman." During the draft for WWII, when he was declared 4F (unfit for active service), army doctors labeled him a "constitutional psychopath." On 26 September 1933 he married Angeline DeTolve; they had three daughters. His eldest daughter, Antoinette, wrote a New York Times best-seller, Mafia Princess (1984), and a television movie was made based on the book (1986).

After a spell in prison in the early 1940s, Giancana began to take over the numbers racket from black mobsters in Chicago, and by 1952 he controlled illegal gambling in the city for his boss Tony Accardo. In the 1950s, as FBI investigations into organized crime intensified, Giancana took over from Accardo. After the death of his wife in 1954, Giancana began the most successful period of his career, which would last until the mid-1960s. Giancana's influence spread to the highest levels of government, as he was part of a new generation of organized criminals, a generation that relied on political influence as much as violence. With many of the Mafia old guard either imprisoned, elderly, or dead, Giancana's empire grew quickly. After the fall of Cuba to Fidel Castro in 1959, crime syndicates had to find new outlets for their gambling and prostitution businesses. Giancana bought controlling stakes in hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, a move that brought him into contact with celebrities and politicians.

Giancana had many affairs with famous women, including the singers Keeley Smith and Phyllis McGuire. He was a close associate of the entertainer Peter Lawford, brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, and a friend of Frank Sinatra. With McGuire he was a frequent guest at Sinatra's retreat at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Giancana and President Kennedy even shared a mistress, Judith Katherine Exner, though Kennedy ended the affair in 1962 when he learned of her connection with the gangster.

Giancana had strong political ambitions. He controlled local police chiefs and mayors as well as labor unions, and sought favors from the federal government. Between them, Giancana and Sinatra have been credited with helping to deliver votes in Chicago and Illinois to Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, a victory crucial to Kennedy's win.

In 1957 Senator Robert Kennedy set up the McClellan Committee to look into organized crime. However, although the government was outwardly hostile to the Mob, in the early 1960s the two groups shared a desire to end Castro's grip on Cuba. Giancana worked with fellow mobster John Roselli and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a plot to kill Castro after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. News of this involvement broke in May 1962, after Robert Kennedy, by then attorney general, stepped up his investigations into Mob activity. Giancana became the subject of intense surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1963. He tried to sue the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department for harassment, but the courts ruled against him. To make matters worse, the publicity turned his flamboyant Oak Park home into a popular tourist attraction. Giancana's anger at what he saw as a betrayal has led to speculation that he was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. He faced prosecution in the months leading up to the assassination, and the FBI recorded death threats and other vows of revenge against John and Robert Kennedy. Giancana also tried and failed to blackmail the Kennedys over affairs with Exner, Marilyn Monroe, and many other women.

All this time Giancana was a prominent figure, well known to the news media. By the early 1960s his numbers rackets were generating millions of dollars, and his interests in Las Vegas, Miami, and elsewhere made him a wealthy and influential figure. After Kennedy's assassination, and in the wake of the trial of the teamster Jimmy Hoffa for jury tampering, Giancana again came under FBI scrutiny. After refusing to testify before a Chicago grand jury in 1965, he was sentenced to a year in jail. By the time of his release, his involvement in the Castro plot and the dubious legality of his business dealings were starting to catch up with him. In 1966 he went to live in Mexico, where he had business interests, and remained there until he was extradited in 1974 to appear before a Chicago grand jury investigating Mob activity. His testimony, given on four separate occasions, was less than helpful.

The role of the Mafia in public life in the United States in the 1960s was the subject of many government investigations and media speculation. As one of the most powerful and ruthless Mafia bosses of all time, Giancana was formidable. Although he undoubtedly exaggerated his influence, in the early 1960s he certainly had access to influential figures at the heart of U.S. government. In 1974 Giancana was subpoenaed to appear before a Senate investigation of the plot to assassinate Castro. But he never made it to Washington. While making supper at his Oak Park home on the night of 19 June 1975, he was shot in the back of the head. His killer has never been identified, and he had so many enemies among local mobsters and in government that it seems unlikely his murder will ever be solved. He is buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Chicago.

A biography of Giancana is William Brashler, The Don: The Life and Death of Sam Giancana (1977). Interesting insights into life with Giancana are offered by his daughter Antoinette and Thomas C. Renner in Mafia Princess: Growing Up in Sam Giancana's Family(1984), and by Judith Exner and Ovid Demaris in My Story (1977). Articles about Giancana published after his death include "The Demise of a Don," Time (30 June 1975), and "Giancana, Gangster, Slain," New York Times (21 June 1975).

Chris Routledge

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Giancana, Salvatore ("Sam")

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