Luciano, Lucky (1897-1962)

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Luciano, Lucky (1897-1962)

Sicilian-born Charles "Lucky" Luciano is renowned for initiating a new era in organized crime in the United States by establishing a national syndicate that aligned the Italian mafia with Jewish and Irish crime organizations in the 1930s. After his family immigrated to the United States, Luciano began his criminal career by bullying school-children into paying him not to beat them up. He reportedly met his lifelong affiliate Meyer Lansky when Lansky refused to pay him. He began dealing narcotics as a teenager, and as a member of the notorious Five Points gang, Luciano is reputed to have participated in numerous beatings and murders. In addition to gambling and drug peddling, Luciano gained power and wealth during the Prohibition era as a successful bootlegger and used a combination of violence and extortion to gain control over prostitution in Manhattan.

In October 1929, Luciano was kidnapped and severely beaten and stabbed by four assailants who left him unconscious on a Staten Island beach. Luciano was found by a police officer and taken to a hospital where he was interviewed by detectives. At the time Luciano claimed he had no idea who could have attacked him, but in later years blamed the incident on "the cops." Two years later, with sufficient loyalty and power behind him, Luciano ushered in a new epoch in organized crime by ordering the murders of two rival gang leaders, "Joe the Boss" Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, whose families were then engaged in a fierce turf war. With these two old-line leaders out of the way, Luciano consolidated his power among the Italian mobsters and formed a national syndicate with such crime figures as Meyer Lansky, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Joe Adonis, Dutch Schultz, Albert Anastasia, and a few select others. From 1932 to 1936 Luciano lived the high life, headquartered in a luxurious suite at the Waldorf-Astoria he occupied under the alias Charles Ross and where he entertained numerous women. However, after the mob assassination of the renegade Dutch Schultz, which had been ordered by the syndicate directors, Luciano became the target of an investigation by New York district attorney Thomas E. Dewey. Luciano was convicted on charges of extortion and direction of harlotry and was sentenced to thirty to fifty years in prison.

While serving his sentence, Luciano applied for parole and was twice rejected before winning his freedom in an unprecedented wartime bargain with the U.S. government. A former luxury liner, the S.S. Normandie, exploded in the Hudson River as it was being refitted as a troopship in 1942. When dockworkers refused to cooperate in the investigation into the bombing, naval authorities asked Luciano to use his influence to prevent further incidents along the waterfront. In addition, through Luciano's intercession, the U.S. military gained the cooperation of the Sicilian mafia in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. In 1945, Luciano was freed from prison and deported to Italy. He immediately resumed his criminal activities in Rome and in February 1947 traveled to Havana, Cuba, to meet with other leaders of the syndicate. When the U.S. press reported his presence in Havana, Luciano was ordered out of Cuba and returned to Italy. He lived thereafter in Naples, where he contemplated such projects as a book of memoirs and a motion picture depicting his career. He died of a heart attack in 1962.

—Laurie DiMauro

Further Reading:

Feder, Sid, and Joachim Joesten. The Luciano Story. New York, DaCapo, 1994.

Higgins, Jack. Luciano's Luck. New York, Stein and Day, 1981.

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime, Vol. III. Wilmette, Illinois, Crime Books, Inc., 1990.

——. World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime. New York, DeCapo Press, 1993.

Powell, Hickman. Lucky Luciano: His Amazing Trial and Wild Witnesses. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel, 1975; reprint of Ninety Times Guilty, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1939.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York, Smithmark, 1992.