Charles “Lucky” Luciano is best known as the most infamous Italian-American gangster in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s that was reputed by the FBI as the man responsible for “organizing” organized crime in America. He did this by transforming syndicated crime into a national organization patterned after legitimate business models.
Luciano was born in Lercardia Friddi, Italy as Salvatore Lucania on November 24, 1897. He grew up with four other siblings named Bartolomeo, Filippia, Giuseppe, and Concetta, along with his parents Antonio and Rosalia, with whom he did not get along with very well. They lived in Italy until 1906 when his family moved to New York City to take their shot at the American dream.
Charles Luciano dropped out of high school when he was 14 and took a job as a $5 per week shipping clerk. One day he won $244 in a dice game and he decided to quit his job to earn his money on the streets. It wasn’t long before young Charles formed his own gang which earned its reputation by offering protection to Italian and Jewish gang members at the princely sum of 10¢ per week. That was when Luciano was involved with the protection rackets that he met Meyer Lansky, a young man with whom he became very close and built a strong partnership with years later.
By now Luciano’s family had all but disowned him because of his involvement with criminal activities. Out of respect for his family’s wishes, he changed his last name from Lucania to Luciano.
Lucky’s Early Career
In his early days Luciano built his reputation as a creative thug on New York’s Lower East Side and earned the nickname “Lucky” because of his winning streaks in gambling and horse racing. He managed to rise through the ranks to become a top aide to well-known crime boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. During the 1920s Giuseppe Masseria was embroiled in a long-running turf war with a rival crime boss named Salvatore Maranzano.
During the 1920s criminal gangs were fractured as well as ethnically divided. Boss Masseria refused to work with groups that were not Italian and Luciano consider this a significant weakness that he could exploit by forming ties with gangs made up of other ethnic groups. However, this didn’t sit well with Masseria.
Discipline and allegiance in the ranks was maintained by enforcers. The most powerful muscle that existed in the criminal culture was an Italian consortium that consisted of Mafiosi thugs called the “Mustache Peaks” who ruled the streets harshly.
Masseria secretly ordered that Luciano be kidnapped, and he was subsequently stuffed into a car, driven to a remote beach under a peer, severely beaten and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived the ordeal, living up to his moniker as “Lucky” Luciano.
Ironically, instead of putting it in to Lucky’s rise through the ranks, it was this attempt on his life that propelled him into the big leagues.
After his near-death experience, Luciano discovered that it was Masseria who was behind the attempt on his life. In self-defense Luciano teamed up with Salvatore Maranzano, Masseria’s arch enemy, to turn the tables on his betrayer. One evening in 1931 when Lucky Luciano and Giuseppe Masseria were having dinner, Lucky excused himself to go to the men’s room. As soon as he was gone, armed assassins entered the restaurant and gunned down Masseria as he sat at the table.
Once Masseria was out of the way, Maranzano declared himself “Boss of Bosses,” but his reign didn’t last very long. Lucky Luciano discovered that Manzano was planning to have him killed. This time Luciano teamed up with Meyer Lansky and they had men disguised as government agents visit Manzano at his office and assassinate him. After the Manzano killing Luciano went on to murder another 40 to 90 other men in a killing spree that became known as the “Night of the Sicilian Vespers.”
Lucky Luciano had now become the undisputed boss of New York’s criminal underclass and regarded as one of the most powerful men in organized crime. His business spanned drug dealing, extortion, and prostitution.
The Downfall of Lucky Luciano
Luciano was a well-known figure among Broadway socialites. He was always seen as well-dressed and he maintained a permanent room at the prestigious Waldorf-Astoria hotel. His flamboyant lifestyle came to the attention of Thomas Dewey, a special prosecutor for the state of New York.
During the years of 1919 through 1936 Luciano was arrested 25 times but only faced one conviction. Dewey painstakingly built a criminal case against Luciano, not for murder, but for facilitating prostitution when three hookers agreed to testify against him. The evidence presented against Luciano wasn’t very strong, but Dewey’s cross examination of Luciano was so aggressive that it proved disastrous to the defense. The nail that seemed to seal Luciano’s coffin was when he was asked how he managed to live such a lavish lifestyle on his reported $22,500 income. Although not known at the time, his actual income was over $10 million.
Ultimately, in 1936 Luciano was convicted of forcing women into prostitution and he was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in New York’s maximum security Dannemora Prison. However, even though he was imprisoned, Luciano remained the head of his crime family.
Luciano quietly served his sentence as a model prisoner. He allegedly ordered his Mafia connections in Italy to help U.S. military intelligence during World War II before the Allied invasion of Italy. Luciano also boasted that his connections on the waterfront also helped avert maritime sabotage my enemies within the United States. As a result of his efforts he was granted a suspended sentence on the condition that he accepted deportation from the United States. Consequently, in 1946 now New York Governor Dewey announced that he was granting Luciano early parole due to his “wartime services.” Luciano was released from prison and immediately deported to Italy, where he settled in Naples.
After his deportation, Lucky purchased a pet Chihuahua and dubbed it “Bambi” to remind himself of his beloved America.
Although Lucky Luciano kept several long-term mistresses in the Italy and United States, he never got married and he never claimed to have fathered any children. Lucky Luciano was never allowed to return to the United States during his lifetime, and he was destined to live out the rest of his days in Italy in luxury.
Luciano suffered a massive heart attack on January 26, 1962, and died at the Capodichino Airport in Naples, Italy, after he met a Hollywood movie producer concerning a biography about his life. His body was paraded through the streets of Naples in a traditional horse-drawn carriage in a characteristically stylish procession. His final wish was to be returned to his adopted home of New York to be buried. In one final charitable act, Luciano’s body was allowed to be posthumously returned to the United States and buried at St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery in Queens, New York.
Longtime friend Cole Gambino spoke the eulogy at Lucky Luciana funeral, who then took the reins of the crime commission that Luciano founded. With the death of Luciano marked the end of an era in Mafia history.