Giuseppe Masseria (born January 17, 1886 - died April 15, 1931) known as "Joe the Boss", "The King of New York City", and "The Man Who Can Dodge Bullets", was a powerful and notorious American Mafia boss. He was boss of what is now called the Genovese crime family, one of the New York Five Families, from 1922 to 1931. He waged a bloody war to take over New York City, gaining considerable power for himself. He was eventually killed on the orders of Lucky Luciano in 1931.
Giuseppe Masseria was born in Marsala, in the Province of Trapani, Sicily. He arrived in America after he killed a man. After the death of Nick Morello in 1916, he became the leader of one of several splinter groups who fought a "civil war" for control of the gang. In this struggle Masseria is said to have had the backing of Salvatore D'Aquila, the leader of a Brooklyn-based crime family. (D'Aquila's group was the ancestor to the Gambino crime family). After the death of Nicholas Terranova, D'Aquila came to be regarded as "capo consigliere" or "senior adviser" among the New York Mafia families. This means that, because of his perceived wisdom, he was considered first among equals and consulted by the other leaders on important matters. However this does not mean that he had any direct control over the other gangs or that they had to pay him any financial tribute. Some later chroniclers have erroneously equated his position with that of "Capo di Tutti Capi", a title to which Joe Masseria was later to aspire.
"The Man Who Could Dodge Bullets"
On August 9, 1922, Masseria walked out of his apartment at 80 2nd Avenue, and was rushed by two men who drew fire on him. Masseria ducked into a store at 82 2nd Avenue with the gunmen in pursuit. They shot out the front window and shot up the inside of the store, but then ran out of bullets. The gunmen fled across 2nd Avenue to a getaway car idling just around the corner on E. 5th Street. The car was a Hudson Cruiser, which like many cars of the era had running boards along the sides. The gunmen jumped on the running boards and the car sped west on E. 5th Street towards the Bowery, guns blazing.
A Ladies Garment Industry Union meeting had just ended, and dozens of laborers were milling in the street. When they heard the shots and saw the speeding Cruiser coming down the street, they tried to stop them. The gunmen then plowed through the crowd and shot randomly at the blockade, hitting six and killing two, plus a horse.
Masseria survived the point-blank hit attempt unscathed and was found by police in his upstairs bedroom shell-shocked. He was sitting up in his bed dazed, his ears were ringing from the proximity of the weapon fire, and there were two bullet holes through his straw hat, which he was still wearing on his head.
This incident gained Masseria new respect among superstitious Italian gangsters as "the man who could dodge bullets".
The following month, Masseria arranged for a peace meeting with Umberto Valenti and former Morello leader Giuseppe Morello, hinting that he was prepared to give up his aspirations to being the Boss. Valenti and three of his supporters arrived at the restaurant and were met by three of Masseria's men. The men chatted amiably for some time until Valenti realized that it was a set-up, Masseria was not coming, that Masseria and Morello had reached some sort of deal and he was the odd man out.
Everyone went for their guns and started shooting. Two of Valenti's men went down and he made a run for it. The Masseria men gave chase but their aim was poor, and the next casualties were a street cleaner and an eight-year-old girl. Valenti jumped onto the running board of a passing taxi and began to return fire. Seeing their quarry about to escape, one of the pursuers took careful aim and dropped Valenti dead in the street. This gunman was always rumored to be Lucky Luciano. Masseria now became head of the Morello family with Morello as his number two. This may have fit in well with Giuseppe Morello's desire to avoid attracting undue police attention. He was safer taking on a secondary role as a form of consiglieri, or senior adviser, behind the overt leader.
One of the favorite Masseria family hangouts was Venezia Restaurant on East 116th Street in East Harlem, Manhattan.
Joe the Boss
The death of Frankie Yale in July 1928 appears to have been the catalyst for Joe Masseria's ambition to become overall leader of all the Mafia gangs of New York.
In October 1928, Toto D'Aquila, the Mafia leader in Brooklyn, was killed by Giuseppe Morello and others. D'Aquila was accosted in the street by three men after his regular visit to the doctor. The discussion became heated and one of the men drew a gun and shot D'Aquila dead. There was known to be bad blood between D'Aquila and the Morello gang, possibly arising out of resentment over D'Aquila's rise to the position of "capo consigliere" within the New York Mafia, which had coincided with the decline in the fortunes of the Morello family. Alfred Mineo and his enforcer Steve Ferrigno, allies of Joe Masseria, then took over leadership of the D'Aquilla family.
In June 1929, Ciro Terranova was questioned in connection with the murder of Gandolfo Curto, also known as "Frankie Marlow". Marlow was last seen having dinner with Terranova the night he was shot to death. As a fellow Sicilian, Marlow may have been approached, on behalf of the new Unione Siciliane president, with requests that he pay tribute or otherwise comply with the wishes of Joe Masseria. Frankie Marlow was a leading figure in the New York crime scene, he would certainly have dismissed any such advances. Perhaps he was guilty of under-rating the seriousness of the threat posed by the "old fashioned" Morellos and paid the ultimate price. Ballistics evidence has shown that the bullets that killed Marlow were fired by a submachine gun owned by Al Capone's Chicago Outfit, and that the same weapon was also used in the killing of Yale and for the Saint Valentine's Day massacre. The weapon eventually came into the hands of the authorities after the arrest of Fred Burke, a St. Louis, Missouri gunman who participated in the St. Valentine's Day plot.
Masseria then moved in on what had been Yale's organization and Anthony Carfano, 'Little Augie Pisano' became head of the Yale family. Carfano's group retained control of Yale's gambling and bootlegging interests, however it may have been at this time that the Waterfront racket was reallocated and came under the control of the D'Aquilla family, headed by Mineo.
Joe Masseria was now "Joe the Boss," head of the largest Mafia group in New York. Other Sicilian gangsters who were not yet part of his empire, such as Ice racketeer and Bronx Mafia boss Gaetano Reina, took note of what had happened to D'Aquilla and Marlow and soon began to pay homage.
The imperial gaze of Joe the Boss now fell upon "the Broadway Mob" and he identified Lucky Luciano as the logical recipient of his demands for homage and tribute. This was because Luciano was the only Sicilian member of that group - Frank Costello and Albert Anastasia were Calabrian, Joe Adonis and Vito Genovese were from Naples, and Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel were Jewish. Luciano had little interest in the rites and rituals of secret societies, and he initially found the attentions of the traditional Mafiosi irritating. However, it was an irritation he could not afford to ignore. Eventually he would come to see the accident of his birthplace as a stroke of good fortune: the Mafia were the most exclusionist of the major ethnic crime groups, and it added to his value amongst his allies that he could wield authority over them by virtue of being seen as one of them, while his other friends would always be seen as inferior outsiders.
The Castellamarese War
Masseria next began to put pressure on a Mafia family known as the Castellamarese from Sicily. Nicola Schiro, the group's official leader, turned out to be a weak man, nothing more than the avatar of more senior men elsewhere. He paid Masseria $10,000 and then "went into hiding", although in fact he was never heard from again. After the disappearance of Cola Schirò, Joe the Boss attempted to install his own candidate as the new leader, as he had with the other families. He supported Joe Parrino; however, Parrino was soon shot to death in a restaurant.
Instead, Schirò's place as leader was taken by Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano was sent with several other men from Sicily in 1927 to gain control of the American Mafia for Don Vito Cascio Ferro. Masseria issued a decree ordering the death of Maranzano. This event marked the formal beginning of the Castellammarese War.
On April 15, 1931, Joe Masseria was assassinated at one of his favorite restaurants, Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island.
Gangland legend has it that Masseria dined with Lucky Luciano before his death. While they played cards, Luciano excused himself to the bathroom, when Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Joe Adonis rushed in and shot Masseria to death, his four bodyguards having mysteriously disappeared. The New York Daily News reported that the boss died "with the ace of spades, the death card, clutched in a bejeweled paw."
However, both the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune paint a different picture. Neither newspaper mentions Luciano being present, although Luciano was brought in for questioning by the police. The Herald Tribune reported that Masseria arrived at the restaurant in his armored steel car in the company of three other men shortly before 3pm. Anna Tammaro, mother-in-law of owner Gerardo Scarpato, waited while they played cards. According to two eyewitnesses, two well-dressed young men drove up and parked their car at the curb. They strolled leisurely into the restaurant, and the shooting began immediately. Some 20 shots were fired. The two gunmen then exited, and without any visible signs of haste, entered their automobile and drove away. Masseria was hit with four bullets in the back and one in the back of the head, identified as .32 and .38 caliber. In an alley next to the restaurant, police recovered two revolvers.
The 2010 book "New York City Gangland" offers an eyewitness account of events surrounding Masseria's murder which also involves owner Scarpato, who was allegedly extorting money from a small businessman who unexpectedly arrived by car at the Villa Tammaro on April 15, 1931. "As soon as I reached the place", wrote the frightened entrepreneur to the Brooklyn District Attorney, "Scarpato ran over and asked me what I was doing there. Scarpato told me to leave right away and not mention to anyone I had been there that day. I left. Late that night, I read that Joe Masseria had been shot at the Villa Tammaro. This was my first taste of what these men were capable of."
In Popular Culture
- The Valachi Papers (1972) - portrayed by Alessandro Sperlì
- Lucky Luciano (1973) - Masseria was portrayed by Alessandro Sperli
- Mobsters (1991) - portrayed by Anthony Quinn
- Lansky (1999) - portrayed by Bill Capizzi
- Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story (1999) - portrayed by Tony Calabretta