Not every criminal is familiar to every crime buff. Albert Anastasia should be familiar to just about everybody.
Born Umberto Anastasio on September 26, 1902 in Parghelia, Sicily, Anastasio (who would change his name in 1921) was born into poverty and, he reasoned, was destined to stay there unless he took some very drastic action to move up in the world. That drastic action propelled him to the top of the American Mafia until the notorious ‘barbershop quintet’ ended his career.
He entered the USA illegally in 1919 by simply working his passage to New York and then jumping ship with his brother Tony. Semi-literate at best, he needed work fast, signing on as a dockworker where the only qualifications required were a strong back and a tough mindset. Anastasio had both in spades.
It wasn’t long, however, before his mean streak got the better of him and he found himself in the most serious trouble. Pilfering cargo was seen by many New York longshoremen as a perk of the job, making up for the long hours, constant risk of injury and poor wages. In fact, a tough, cunning longshoreman could steal more than he earned if he could outfight his co-workers. Anastasio took it a step too far when he and fellow-longshoreman Joe Florino brutally murdered dockhand George Turino when he tried to shake them down. The result was a quick trial and Anastasio spending his 19th birthday at Sing Sing.
In the Death House.
While there he attracted the attention of the death house barber, one Jimmy ‘The Shiv’ DeStefano. DeStefano, who considered himself a Mob talent scout when not shaving condemned inmates in preparation for their seat in Old Sparky, quickly passed the word to Lucky Luciano that Anastasio was had great potential. Luciano, in turn, reached out to New York Supreme Court Justice Francis McQuade who, by a curious coincidence, was also a silent partner in various Mob gambling interests. Anastasio found his conviction was suddenly reversed and he was one of the lucky few at that time who walked into the death house and wasn’t wheeled out. The wheels of Justice had been firmly halted.
The wheels of Mob justice, especially toward witnesses and informants, weren’t quite as sticky. By the time Anastasio’s retrial came round four of the principal prosecution witnesses had mysteriously disappeared. They never reappeared, either. The looming threat of the electric chair receded into merely an unpleasant memory.
He continued having legal troubles even while rising higher in the world of organised crime. He was given two years for illegal gun possession in 1923 and arrested multiple times in connection with a number of unsolved murders. All the while he was rising in the Mob’s ranks until the notorious Castellamarese War of 1930-31.
Coming out on that war’s winning side, Salvatore Maranzano’s restructuring of the New York Mafia saw Anastasio (by now Anastasia) appointed as underboss to Vince Mangano, making him second-in-command of what was then called the Mangano Family. Despite being boss and underboss Mangano and Anastasia didn’t get along. Mangano didn’t trust Anastasia and his hunger for power. He also felt that other bosses bypassing him and dealing direct with Anastasia was a mark of disrespect. Anastasia, on the other hand, saw Mangano as holding him back, especially when Anastasia was picked to run ‘Murder Incorporated’ by the bosses of the ‘National Crime Syndicate.
The Syndicate, as distinct from the American Mafia, was a multi-ethnic cartel in line with Luciano’s willingness to work with anyone who could make big money. Where old-guard Mafiosi like Maranzano and Joe ‘The Boss’ Masseria (Maranzano’s deceased opponent in the Castellamarese War) disliked the idea of working with non-Mafiosi, Luciano saw crime as a means and profit as an end. Whether his business partners were ~Italian, Jewish, Irish or anything else came second to their business acumen.
To eliminate the internal feuds and reckless violence that hallmarked American gangland and which Luciano considered bad for business, an enforcement arm was needed. Syndicate bosses would issue orders and what became known as ‘Murder Inc.’ would punish anyone who disobeyed. During the 1930’s bodies piled up from New York to Los Angeles, hitmen from New York like Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss and Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles accumulating hundreds of corpses nationwide. At least until Reles was finally arrested for a murder charge that would have stuck and turned informer. By 1944 ‘Murder Inc.’ was finished with many of its members serving long stretches and seven having gone to the electric chair.
Anastasia was now rubbing shoulders with the very crème de la crime of American gangland. Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and others didn’t always like him and often feared him, but they had to do business with him. By 1951, though, Anastasia decided he could no longer do business with Vince Mangano who promptly found himself in a New York swamp with three bullets in his head. The Mangano Family was now the Anastasia Family and would remain so for some time.
One thing that marked him out was his reckless, sadistic attitude to murder and his total disregard for human life. That was partly what recommended him to the Mob in the first place when he was simply a 19-year old resident of the death house. But Anastasia, by now known as the ‘Mad Hatter’ because some thought him criminally insane, the ‘Earthquake’ for his savage and unpredictable temper and the ‘Lord High Executioner’ (he enjoyed violence to the point of going on murder contracts personally even when he had no need to) didn’t realise that he was doing himself more harm than good.
The same violent streak that made other mobsters respect him also made them fear him, especially when he started grousing over not getting as big a share of the Mob’s Cuban gambling profits as he felt he deserved. That and his wantonly ordering the needless murder of shoe store clerk Arnold Schuster in 1952.
Schuster had spotted prison escapee and bank robber Willie Sutton on a New York street and, phoning the police, saw Sutton arrested and thrown back into the New York prison system. Unfortunately for Schuster, he made the mistake of appearing on the evening news.
The same evening news that Anastasia happened to be watching…
Anastasia promptly hit the roof. Ranting about his hatred of informers, Anastasia summoned Frederick Tenuto and promptly ordered him to kill Schuster. Schuster was soon found on a New York street with two bullets in his groin and one in each eye. Anastasia knew that killing an ordinary citizen with no criminal ties (what Mafiosi call a ‘civilian’) was a breach of Mob rules often punishable by death. With that in mind, Frederick Tenuto has never been heard of since.
The Schuster murder, Anastasia’s grousing and the return of rival Vito Genovese spelled the beginning of the end. Genovese had fled to Italy to avoid prosecution for ordering the murder of con artist Ferdinand ‘The Shadow’ Boccia in September, 1934. Irritatingly for Genovese, that meant he enjoyed only a brief period as the American Mafia’s ‘Capo di tutti capi’ or ‘Boss of bosses.’ With the war over and the key witness in the Boccia case having conveniently died, Genovese was back and wanted to regain his crown.
Anastasia hadn’t spent his war hiding in Italy. He’d seized control of waterfront crime via Joe Ryan, his stooge running the all-powerful International Longshoremen’s Association. Ryan, privately nicknamed ‘Nickel and Dime’ by disgruntled ILA members for his minimal improvements in their pay and conditions allowed the Mob to extort kickbacks from longshoremen simply to allow them to work. Anastasia also ran loansharking, cargo robbery and smuggling on the docks when he wasn’t extorting shipping companies, warehouse owners and truckers. When the US military wanted a stop to enemy espionage and sabotage on the waterfront they came to Anastasia to guarantee it. He was also involved in helping Luciano (by then serving a thirty-to-sixty-year stretch for coercive prostitution) secure a deal in which Lucky’s Sicilian contacts assisted Allied efforts to capture the island in 1943.
Anastasia even managed to secure legal citizenship by joining the US Army during the war, receiving an honourable discharge when he reached the maximum age limit. All in all, he’d done well out of the war while Genovese had skulked in exile, ingratiating himself with Fascists in return for huge bribes.
But that was then. Now Genovese was back and looking to regain his crown. He felt Anastasia was too volatile and too powerful to be left alone.
Genovese saw removing Anastasia as vital to regaining control of the American Mafia. With that in mind he began chipping away at Anastasia’s powerbase, killing off his subordinates, covertly lobbying other bosses to have him killed and quietly approaching Anastasia’s underboss Carlo Gambino to perform the murder. After much lobbying and back-stabbing (in every sense) Genovese made his move. With the approval of the other bosses and Gambino’s aid, Genovese had Anastasia rubbed out.
It was on October 25, 1957 that Anastasia journeyed from his palatial New Jersey mansion to the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York. Once at the hotel barbershop for his regular shave, Anastasia’s bodyguard decided for some curious reason to leave him unattended, sat in a barber’s chair with hot towels over his face. Odd, when you consider that Anastasia couldn’t have been any more vulnerable at that precise moment.
Naturally, it was at that precise moment that two gunmen walked in, terrified the barber into keeping quiet and unloaded fourteen bullets into him. Their aim was lousy, only the final ‘be sure’ shot into his head was life-threatening, but that was all it took. The Mob’s ‘Lord High Executioner’ had just taken a rather surprising role in his own execution.
With Anastasia dead, Frank Costello forced into retirement by a narrow escape from hitman Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante (later boss of the Genovese Family) and Luciano in permanent exile, Genovese would have been crowned as ‘Boss of Bosses’ at the disastrous Apalachin meeting later in 1957. That wasn’t to be. Police raided the meeting before Genovese could anoint himself. His own downfall came, so it is said, at the hands of his fellow bosses who, fearing him every bit as much as they’d feared Anastasia, bribed a drug dealer to implicate Genovese in a large-scale heroin racket. Indicted and convicted, Genovese spent the rest of his life in Federal prison while serving fifteen years. Ironically, he died only months before being eligible for parole.