NAME:- Giuseppe Masseria
ALIAS:- Joe the Boss
ORIGIN:- Menfi, Sicily / USA 1903
RELATIONS;- John[ Bro.]
ASSOCIATES:- J.Morello, S.Pollaccia, C.Terranova,
S.Luciano, J.Catania[Gen], M.Mineo[Gam],
SOURCES:- 1 + 5 + 9
HISTORY:- Born in Menfi, Agrigento but moved to Marsala, in Trapani Province, on the west coast of Sicily. Arrived in USA as a 16 year-old in 1903, possibly fleeing a murder charge, although his age would appear to refute this. Settled in Mulberry bend district of Manhattan, joining his Father, who had emigrated in 1899. His first arrest in America came in 1907, for burglary. He may have worked for Ciro Terranova at this time. During these early years Masseria was a street criminal, specialising in burglary. He also compiled arrests for assault and extortion. There was also a suspicion that he was involved in the Blackhand kidnapping of a child in 1910.
Some writers suggest that Masseria fell out with the Terranova/Morello group and split from them in 1913. They also state that he was responsible for the murders of Thomas and Fortunato LoMonte, cousins of the Morello brothers. At this time the Morello’s were involved in a conflict with local Neapolitan gangsters, so it’s not clear who killed the LoMonte’s. What we do know is that in 1913 Masseria was arrested, again for burglary. Tried the following year, he was convicted and sentenced to 4 years. Salvatore and Giuseppe Ruffino, his accomplices in this crime, ironically, would later be closely associated with the Castellamarese Family, Masseria’s future enemies.
He seems to have been released in 1916, and returned to the Lower East Side. At this time the Terranova/Morello gang were involved in a war with the Brooklyn Camorra. Although emerging victorious, they were seriously weakened, and retreated to their Harlem stronghold around 116th street, leaving Little Italy open territory. Masseria was only one of many ambitious gunmen hoping to dominate this territory. Over the next few years he built-up his alliances. Masseria must have been inducted into Mafia by this point, probably by the Morello’s. But who exactly were his allies and supporters, is a question never answered. Some writers claim he was already an important gang leader by 1920, and credit him with inducting young Italo-Americans, like Luciano. This seems unlikely as Masseria only emerges as a leader after 1922.
The coming of prohibition in 1920 was the trigger for a huge upsurge in crime. The Italians, used to brewing their own wine for centuries, had no inhibitions about breaking a law many saw as unworkable. Soon Little Italy had hundreds of home stills and speakeasies. Masseria’s sister ran a speakeasy on Forsythe Street. Masseria, among many others, started organising the new trade, using contacts like Gaetano Pennachio. Pennachio, known as Tommy the Bull, ran a sort of bootleg market, known as the Curb Exchange, at the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets. Here bootleggers would meet on the street, only one block from Police HQ, to sell or trade their alcohol.
Masseria soon became a big man on the Curb Exchange, using a social club on the corner of Mulberry and Kenmare streets as a HQ. One of his neighbours was Luciano, who had an office across the street, over a garage. At this early stage, it’s not clear if Luciano was totally independent or working for Masseria.
Masseria first came to public notice late in 1920, when a rival bootlegger called Salvatore Mauro, ambushed him on Chrystie Street. When the gun smoke cleared it was Mauro who lay dead. Masseria was arrested, but claimed self-defence. Mauro was a partner in a speakeasy, on Grand Street, with Umberto Valenti. Valenti, who lived on Mulberry Street, was a feared gunman and ally of Salvatore D’Aquila, an enemy of the Morello’s and NYC Mafia Head.
We now enter a confusing period, where it’s hard to establish who was allied to whom. Joseph Morello had been NYC Mafia Head, until jailed in 1910, D’Aquila succeeded him. Morello had been released in 1920, but D’Aquila had condemned him and his followers to death. Valenti had been D’Aquila’s favourite killer, but they had fallen out, and he too was condemned. This much we know from Nicola Gentile. If Valenti returned to D’Aquila’s allegiance, Mauro’s attack on Masseria may have been the first shot in the conflict. This would put Masseria in Morello’s camp, which would be in line with future alliances. But if Valenti was allied with Morello, both being condemned by D’Aquila, Masseria may have been D’Aquila’s man. Take your pick.
Whatever, the Morello/Terranova group had lost several men during 1920-21, including Joseph Peppo[Viserte], George Terranova, and Joseph Lagumina. At the Peppo murder, a witness put Masseria in the vicinity. Then in May 1922 Vincent Terranova, Ciro’s brother was killed in Harlem. The same day Valenti was ambushed on Grand Street, he survived but his bodyguard eventually died of his wounds. Masseria was arrested fleeing the scene and charged with murder.
The conflict had now become a personal fight between Valenti and Masseria. After laying low for 3 months, vainly hoping the law would remove his rival, Valenti struck back in August. Masseria had just left his home on 2nd. Avenue, when two gunmen ambushed him. Masseria fled into a shop, one of the gunmen followed and took several shots at point blank range. This is where the Masseria legend was born, as he somehow dodged the bullets, surviving without a scratch.
Masseria had been lucky, and he knew it, the next move had to be decisive. Contact was made, possibly between Morello and D’Aquila, and a peace meeting arranged. Valenti and Masseria, plus one bodyguard each, met in a restaurant on East 12th Street. Valenti’s bodyguard may have been Rosario Dongarra, who was questioned by the police about the incident. Masseria’s bodyguard is unknown, although legend has it that it was Luciano. After a meal, drinks and an amicable talk, the foursome walked along the street, towards 2nd Avenue. But Masseria had stationed two more of his men at the corner, seeing them Valenti ran, almost reaching a cab, before a bullet hit him in the spine, killing him. Masseria was now the dominant Mafioso in Little Italy.
Masseria had no discernable gang, no connected relatives, his brother John is the only possible exception, no known compare’s from Marsala. Therefore he had to rely on alliances, and he had to be practical, rather than traditional, in those alliances. Little Italy’s population was a mixture of Sicilians, Neapolitans and Calabrians. He could not be clannish, like the other Family groups, so he made a virtue out of this, and made allies among the non-Sicilian gangs. The most important of these were Frank Ioele[Yale], a Calabrian and the dominant power in South Brooklyn. His longstanding alliance with Ciro Terranova, a native of Corleone, led to further allies among the Corleonese, notably Gaetano Reina’s faction in the Bronx. And then there were the younger, Americanised gangsters, like Luciano and his associates Genovese [Neapolitan] and Costello [Calabrian].
With these allies, Masseria grew in influence, wealth and power, until by 1928 he posed a serious threat to D’Aquila’s position as Head of the NYC Mafia. Following his usual plan, Masseria was already in contact with disgruntled members of D’Aquila’s Family.
It was at this point that Frankie Yale was killed, and although his murder was probably ordered by Capone in Chicago, rather than his local Sicilian enemies, it was the spark that set off several conflicts. D’Aquila saw an opportunity to move into Yale’s territory, and meeting opposition from Yale’s men, he ordered the murder of Michele Abbatemarco, a Yale ally. Anthony Carfano, the new leader of Yale’s old gang, went to Masseria for support. This was the opening Masseria had been waiting for, an opportunity to eliminate his main rival, and gain a foothold in Brooklyn. Contacting his ally in D’Aquila’s Family, Manfredi Mineo, they agreed a strategy. Four days after Abbatemarco’s murder, D’Aquila was confronted by 3 of his own men, on a Brooklyn street. After a violent argument, they shot him dead.
Following this killing, confusion reigned among the Brooklyn gangs. A meeting of Sicilian Mafiosi was held in Cleveland, to discuss this and the Capone-Aiello conflict in Chicago. The police raided this meeting, thereby disrupting mediation efforts. It should be noted that members of the D’Aquila and Profaci Families were present, but Masseria does not seem to have been represented.
The failure of the meeting, and the arrests, weakened the D’Aquila Family. To replace D’Aquila as NYC Mafia Head, Masseria backed former Head Joseph Morello, a long time ally. Morello then appointed Mineo the new Boss of the D’Aquila Family, over the heads of more senior members. Morello with a strong following among the Corleonese, and Masseria had influence over and allies within, almost all the other Families and factions. The only holdouts were the Castellamarese and Profaci Families.
Masseria has been portrayed as stupid, uncouth, a megalomaniac and a failure. But although there is no doubt he was a gangster, rather than a traditional Mafioso, he somehow rose from street thug to the most important Italian criminal on the east coast, in 10 short years. To achieve this he showed courage, ruthlessness, craftiness and a much more modern attitude than his “Mustache Pete” adversaries. He also left the corpses of a long line of, supposedly more intelligent, enemies behind him. There may be some truth in the theory that Morello was responsible for some of this success. He had himself survived for 30 years, in the violent world of Mafia, and Maranzano was known to fear him more than Masseria.
Joe the Boss was now at the peak of his power, but he, like Maranzano later, was to discover holding onto that position was harder than attaining it. He had by now moved into a luxury apartment, on Central Park West. Wealthy, respected and feared, but his dominance would be brief. For now though his advice was sought by important Mafiosi nationwide.
In 1929 Joseph Aiello, the leader of the Sicilians in Chicago and an enemy of Capone, invited Masseria to Chicago to mediate the dispute. Aiello had been unsuccessfully fighting Capone’s mainly Neapolitan gang since 1927. He had allies in Detroit, Buffalo and Brooklyn, but was unable to overcome the powerful Capone organisation. With Aiello at the meeting was Gaspare Milazzo, a native of Castellamare, an important Detroit Mafioso and close ally of Aiello. The meeting did not go well, Masseria seemingly upsetting his host. He returned to NYC and angrily denounced Aiello and Milazzo. Masseria instead made a deal with Capone, promising to induct him into Mafia, after he had eliminated Aiello. Capone was not only a Neapolitan, but had been involved in prostitution, both anathema to the Sicilians. Opposition spread among the more traditional Mafiosi.
Sensing this Masseria called Milazzo to NYC, and tried to get him to betray Aiello. Milazzo refused and informed his fellow Castellamarese in Brooklyn and Buffalo. This was how things stood when in February 1930 the head of the Detroit Mafia died of natural causes. The obvious successor was Milazzo, but Masseria secretly backed another non-Castellamarese candidate.
Back in New York, Masseria was about to make a fatal mistake. Gaetano Reina, a “compare” of Morello and head of a Family, had organized a monopoly on Ice distribution in NYC. He operated an Association of Ice distributers, collecting dues, and controlling prices. This racket was very lucrative in the days before refridgeration, and Masseria demanded a share of the profits. Reina resisted, trying to protect his Families independence. Masseria and Morello followed the usual tried and trusted plan. They eliminated Reina, shot outside his mistress home in the Bronx, in February 1930. The actual killer may have been Vito Genovese. Morello, acting as NYC Mafia Head, appointed an outsider, Joseph Pinzolo, as the new Family Boss. Pinzolo was an old Black Hander, and ally of Masseria. An opposition faction, led by Tommaso Gagliano, formed to resist Pinzolo, Morello and Masseria. Initially they pretended loyalty, waiting for their strength to grow, and seeking the right moment to strike back.
Meanwhile Masseria was still trying to bring the recalcitrant Milazzo under control. Attempts to influence him through fellow Castellamarese Stefano Magaddino in Buffalo, and Nicola Schiro, the leader of the Castellamarese in Brooklyn, failed. Masseria found their resistance and solidarity annoying, but sensed a weakness in Schiro. Rumour has it that he kidnapped a leading Castellamarese, held him hostage in a noose, and extorted $10,000 for his release. This was to humiliate and intimidate Schiro and his Family. Schiro’s prestige was destroyed, and he would soon flee the city.
At this period several murders took place in Brooklyn, Giuseppe Peraino, an important ally of Profaci ,victim of a Sicilian-Calabrian conflict, and Joseph Riggio a victim of the Ice racket conflict, being the most prominent. There is also evidence of early casualties among the Castellamarese, both Anthony Bonventre and John Torres died in March.
By summer 1930 the situation in Detroit had deteriorated into open warfare between Milazzo and Masseria’s ally Cesare Lamare. In June a peace meeting was arranged, in a fish market. Milazzo and his aide Salvatore Parrino attended, but it was a trap and they were killed. This led to an upsurge in gang warfare over the next few months.
The murder of Milazzo caused the Brooklyn Castellamarese to call a meeting to discuss their response. Schiro called for caution, but a new power in the Family Salvatore Maranzano, spoke for retaliation. The question was still unresolved when, a short time later Vito Bonventre, a senior member of the Family, was killed outside his home in Brooklyn. Now there could be no pretence, Masseria had declared war.
With the Castellamarese now leaderless, Maranzano and Magaddino came to an agreement to prosecute the war. Maranzano would be Boss in Brooklyn, Magaddino and Aiello would support him with men and money. Maranzano targeted Morello, who he considered the strategist of the opposition. So in August 1930, Morello was killed in his office in Harlem, by the Castellamarese killer Buster Domingo.
The loss of Morello forced Masseria to depend more on his allies Mineo and Terranova. In September he suffered another loss, when the Gagliano faction murdered Joseph Pinzolo, gunned down in Gaetano Lucchese’s office. Gagliano, Lucchese and followers continued to pretend loyalty, even attending a meeting called to discuss the Pinzolo killing. Following this Maranzano contacted Gagliano and proposed an alliance, against the common enemy. It was agreed that Maranzano would lead, with Gagliano, essentially a businessman, providing finance.
Masseria and his allies continued to strike back, Frank Italiano, a known Castellamarese, was wounded and his partner killed. Capone finally ended his war in Chicago, Aiello being killed, also in October. Despite this success, the war took a decisive turn against Masseria in November. One of Gagliano’s spotters, Joseph Valachi, had moved into an apartment in the Bronx near Stefano Ferrigno, Mineo’s Under-Boss. One day in November 1930 he spotted Masseria, Mineo and Ferrigno entering the apartment. Several other supporters attended, what seems to have been a strategy meeting. A combined Maranzano-Gagliano hit team rented the apartment next door to Ferrigno, and waited for Masseria to emerge. He, cautious as ever, remained indoors, but when Mineo and Ferrigno appeared, they were killed. Masseria was reputed to have discovered Gagliano’s treachery by tracing Valachi’s furniture.
With this loss, and a warning from the Chief of Police to stop the violence, Masseria seems to have lost heart. A commission to mediate the war was appointed, at a meeting in Boston. Masseria offered to retire, but Maranzano insisted on his death. A truce was finally arranged early in 1931, after pressure from Capone. Masseria went into hiding, possibly living with his ally Anthony Carfano.
The truce lasted only until February, when Joseph Catania, Terranova’s nephew was murdered in the Bronx. Within days Masseria’s ally in Detroit, Cesare Lamare, was killed. The war was lost and Masseria’s remaining supporters knew it. At this late point Luciano finally emerged as a dominant force. Meeting with Maranzano, he agreed to kill Masseria and end the war.
The conspiracy to kill Masseria contained several close allies of his. Carfano was seen at the murder scene, Scarpato’s restaurant in Coney Island, hours earlier. Terranova reputedly drove the killers car, losing respect by panicking after the murder. Scarpato, who may have been connected, conveniently went for a walk. The actual murderers were Masseria men, probably Frank Livorsi, Joseph Stracci and Joseph Rao. And of course Luciano the organiser, who lured him out of hiding and into a trap. The legend of Luciano remaining after the murder, is open to question. Only Scarpato was on the scene when police arrived.
It was reported that after the murder 20 supporters gathered at the family home on 2nd Avenue, to protect his family. At the funeral no known gangsters were present. John a brother was killed in 1937.
There is no need to recount events after Masseria’s death, except to note that Maranzano lasted only 6 months, Scarpato a year, and Terranova was forcibly retired and dead within 6 years.