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Joseph Charles Bonanno, Sr. (January 18, 1905 – May 11, 2002) was a Sicilian-born American mafioso who became the boss of the Bonanno crime family. Bonanno was nicknamed "Joe Bananas" by the papers, a name he despised because it implied that he was crazy; his family was sometimes called "the Bananas family" after his nickname. A much safer nickname to use around him was "Don Peppino", a diminutive of his original Italian name.

Early life

Carlo Bonanno was born on January 18, 1905 in Castellammare del Golfo, a town on the northwestern coast of Sicily. When he was three years old, his family moved to the United States and settled in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn for about 10 years before returning to Italy. Bonanno slipped back into the United States in 1924 by stowing away on a Cuban fishing boat bound for Tampa, Florida. By all accounts, he'd become active in the Mafia during his youth in Italy, and he fled to the United States after Benito Mussolini initiated a crackdown. Bonanno himself claimed years later that he fled because he was ardently anti-fascist. However, the former account is more likely, since several other Castellammarese mafiosi fled to the United States around the same time.

Eventually, Bonanno became involved in bootlegging activities, and soon joined a Mafia family led by another Castellammarese, Salvatore Maranzano.

The Castellammarese War

Almost from the beginning, Bonanno was recognized by his accomplices in Brooklyn as a man with superior organizational skills and quick instincts. He also became known to the leader of Mafia activities in New York, Joe "the Boss" Masseria. Masseria became increasingly suspicious of the growing number of Castellammarese in Brooklyn. He sensed they were gradually dissociating themselves from his overall leadership.

The Castellammarese faction of the Mafia, headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was led by Salvatore Maranzano. He had been sent over by Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the Sicilian Mafia leader.

In 1927 violence broke out between the two rival factions that shortly developed into all-out war. This war between Masseria and Maranzano became known as the Castellammarese War. It would continue for more than four years. By 1930, Maranzano’s chief aides were Bonanno (as chief of staff), Joe Profaci, Gaetano Lucchese and Joseph Magliocco. Gaetano Gagliano ran another gang that supported Maranzano. The Buffalo, New York mob boss Stefano Magaddino, another Castellammarese, also supported Maranzano. Magaddino's son was Peter Magaddino, a boyhood friend of Bonanno from his student days in Palermo. Masseria had Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, Carlo Gambino, Albert Anastasia and Frank Costello on his side.

However, a third, secret, faction soon emerged, composed of younger mafiosi on both sides disgusted with the old-world predilections of Masseria, Maranzano and other old-line mafiosi, whom they called "Mustache Petes." This group of "Young Turk" mafiosi was led by Luciano and included Costello, Genovese, Adonis, Gambino and Anastasia on the Masseria side and Profaci, Gagliano, Lucchese, Magliocco and Magaddino on the Maranzano side. Although Bonanno was more steeped in the old-school traditions of "honor", "tradition", "respect" and "dignity" than others of his generation, he saw the need to modernize and joined forces with the Young Turks.

By 1931, momentum had shifted to Maranzano and the Castellammarese faction. They were better organized and more unified than Masseria’s men, some of whom began to defect. Luciano and Genovese urged Masseria to make peace with Maranzano, but Masseria stubbornly refused. In the end, Luciano and Genovese concluded a secret deal with Maranzano. In return for safety and equal status for Luciano in Maranzano's new organization, Luciano and Genovese murdered Masseria and ended the Castellammarese War.

Mob re-organization

Joseph Bonanno in the early 1920s

After Masseria's death, Maranzano outlined a peace plan to all the Sicilian and Italian gang leaders in the United States. Under this plan there would be 25 gangs (to be known as "families") throughout the United States who would elect their own boss. In New York City, five Mafia families were established, headed by Luciano, Profaci, Vincent Mangano and Maranzano respectively. At the head of the whole organization would be the capo di tutti capi (the boss of bosses), namely Maranzano. This final article of the plan did not please many of the gangsters, especially Luciano. As a consequence, Luciano arranged Maranzano's murder. In place of the capo di tutti capi in Marazano's plan, Luciano established a national commission in which each of the families would be represented by their boss and to which each family would owe allegiance. Each family would be largely autonomous in their designated area, but the Commission would arbitrate disputes between gangs.

Bonanno was awarded most of Maranzano's crime family. At age 26, Bonanno became one of the youngest-ever bosses of a crime family. The purpose of this organization was to prevent another bloodletting like the Castellammarese War, and according to Bonanno, it succeeded. The establishment of the Commission ushered in more than 20 years of relative "peace" to the New York and national organized crime scene, and Bonanno wrote in his autobiography: "For nearly a thirty-year period after the Castellammarese War no internal squabbles marred the unity of our Family and no outside interference threatened the Family or me."

The Bonanno family

The Bonanno crime family's underbosses were Francesco Garafolo and Giovanni Bonventre. While it was one of the smaller of the five New York families, it was somewhat more peaceful than the others, partially because many of its members were either related to Joe Bonanno (by blood or marriage) or had ties to Castellammare del Golfo. With almost no internal dissension and little harassment from other gangs or the law, the Bonanno family prospered in the running of its loan sharking, bookmaking, numbers running, prostitution, and other illegal activities. In 1938, Bonanno left the country, then re-entered legally at Detroit so that he could apply for citizenship.

Bonanno's large cash position gleaned from crime allowed him to make many profitable real estate investments during the Great Depression. His legitimate business interests included areas as diverse as the garment industry (three coat factories and a laundry), cheese factories, funeral homes, and a trucking company. It was said that a Joe Bonanno-owned funeral parlor in Brooklyn was utilized as a convenient front for disposing of bodies: the funeral home's clients were provided with double-decker coffins, and more than one body would be buried at once. By the time Bonanno became a US citizen in 1945, he was already a billionaire, a net worth of a whopping $3 billion.

Unlike most of his compatriots, Bonanno largely eschewed the lavish lifestyle associated with gangsters of his time. He preferred meeting with his soldati in his Brooklyn home or at rural retreats. He did, however, have a decided preference for expensive cigars.

The only encounter Bonanno had with the law during these years was when a clothing factory that he partly owned was charged with violating the federal minimum wage and hour law. The company was fined $50; Bonanno was only a shareholder in the company and was not fined. Government officials later arrested Bonanno, claiming he had lied on his citizenship application by concealing a criminal conviction; the charge was dismissed in court.

Despite this, Bonanno was all but unknown to the general public until the disastrous Apalachin Conference of 1957, which he was reported to have attended. Called by Vito Genovese to discuss the future of Cosa Nostra in light of the intrigues that brought himself and Carlo Gambino to power, the meeting was aborted when police investigated the destination of the many out-of-state attendees' vehicles and arrested many of the fleeing mafiosi. Bonanno claimed he skipped the meeting, but the attending capo Gaspar DiGregorio was carrying Bonanno's recently renewed driver's license; when DiGregorio was arrested at a roadblock he was misidentified as Bonanno. An official police report instead lists him as being caught fleeing on foot. 27 Apalachin attendees, including Bonanno, were indicted with obstruction of justice after refusing to answer questions regarding the meeting; Bonanno himself suffered a heart attack and was severed from the resulting trial, and the indictment and resulting convictions were ultimately thrown out.

Personal life

In 1931, two months after Maranzano was murdered, Bonanno was married to Fay Labruzzo. They had three children: Salvatore, born 1932; Catherine, born 1934; and Joseph Charles, Jr., born 1945.

As he prospered, Bonanno bought property in Hempstead, Long Island and moved his family out of Brooklyn. When Bill was ten years old he developed a mastoid infection of his ear that led to his being transferred to a private boarding school in Tucson, Arizona. Bonanno and his wife would visit their son during the winter months. Eventually, Bonanno purchased a house in Tucson.

Joseph Bonanno also has a grandson which he trusted and was very fond of. Edward.I.S. was involved in the Brooklyn businesses in the 1980's as Joseph Bonanno representative and enforcer. Joseph Bonanno had given his grandson the nickname in his teenage years as (Edward, Ed, or Eddie "the Columbian"). This was because of his ability to learn and speak the Spanish language, which helped to improve, and was very important to Joseph Bonanno and his relations with the Mexican cartel and the Bonanno families Brooklyn businesses.

Plots and kidnapping

Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno

By the mid 1950s, the Commission that had held the peace for so many years was unraveling. Many of the original Dons had been convicted of crimes and either jailed or deported. Vito Genovese and Frank Costello were jockeying for control of the Luciano family. Vincent Mangano had mysteriously disappeared and his place as capo had been taken over by Albert Anastasia, one of the most feared men in the syndicate. In October 1957 Anastasia was gunned down. Then in November the New York State Police raided the infamous Apalachin Meeting in rural Apalachin, New York. Dozens of capos – including Joseph Bonanno – were captured and charged with various crimes. Then in 1963 Joseph Valachi, a soldier in the Genovese crime family, under indictment for murdering a fellow inmate, broke the code of omertà. Valachi described in detail the organizational structure of the Mafia, unmasked many of the leaders and recalled old feuds and murders. Although none of his testimony led to any actual prosecutions, it was nonetheless devastating to the mob.

After the death of Joseph Profaci, a very good friend of Bonanno and leader of the Profaci crime family, he was succeeded by another good friend of Bonanno's, Joseph Magliocco. Soon, Magliocco began to have troubles with the rebellious Joe Gallo and his brothers Larry and Albert, who were now backed by Lucchese and Gambino. Meanwhile, Bonanno was also feeling threatened by Lucchese and Gambino. The two then planned to have Gambino and Lucchese killed, as well as Bonanno's cousin Magaddino and Frank DeSimone, boss of the Los Angeles crime family. Magliocco gave the contract to one of his top hit men, Joseph Colombo. However, Colombo betrayed his boss and went instead to Gambino and Lucchese. Gambino called an emergency meeting of the Commission. They quickly realized that Magliocco could not have planned this by himself. Remembering how close Magliocco (and before him, Profaci) had been with Bonanno, it didn't take them long to conclude that Bonanno was the real mastermind.

At Gambino's suggestion, the Commission ordered Magliocco and Bonanno to appear for questioning. Bonanno didn't show up, but Magliocco did and confessed. In light of Magliocco's failing health, the Commission imposed a very lenient punishment—a $50,000 and ordering him to hand over leadership of his family to Colombo. Soon, Magliocco was dead from high blood pressure. They intended to let Bonanno off easily as well, wanting to avoid a repeat of the bloodbaths of the 1930s.

Bonanno was already becoming unpopular with other Mafia bosses; the head of the Buffalo crime family and Bonanno's cousin Stefano Magaddino once said in anger, "He's planting flags all over the world!" Some members of his family also thought he spent too much time away from New York, and more in Canada and Tucson, where he had business interests. After several months with no response from Bonanno, they removed him from power and replaced him with one of his capos, Gaspar DiGregorio. Bonanno, however, would not accept this. This resulted in his family breaking into two groups, the one led by DiGregorio, and the other headed by Bonanno and his son, Salvatore. Newspapers referred to this as "The Banana Split."

Since Bonanno refused to give up his position, the other Commission members felt it was time for drastic action. In October 1964, Bonanno was allegedly kidnapped by Buffalo family members, Peter Magaddino and Antonino Magaddino. According to Bonanno, he was held captive in upstate New York by his cousin, Stefano Magaddino. Supposedly Magaddino represented the Commission, and told his cousin that he "took up too much space in the air", a Sicilian proverb for arrogance. After much talk, Bonanno was released. The Commission members believed he would finally retire and relinquish his power. Bonanno's account of events has been disputed based on the FBI recordings of New Jersey boss Sam DeCavalcante which revealed that the other bosses were taken by surprise when Bonanno disappeared, and other FBI recordings captured angry Bonanno soldiers saying, "That son-of-a-bitch took off and left us here alone."

Bonanno's hold on his family had become tenuous in any event, however. Many family members complained that Bonanno was almost never in New York and spent his time at his second home in Tucson. He was also facing pressure from U.S. Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who had served him with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury investigating organized crime. The first round of questioning was to start on the day after he disappeared. Bonanno thus faced two bad choices—testify and break his blood oath, or refuse and be jailed for contempt of court.

The Bonanno War

Meanwhile a war had erupted in the Bonanno family. DiGregorio supporters and Bonanno loyalists, led by Salvatore Bonanno, erupted in war when Salvatore retaliated after his father's kidnapping. Eventually, Gaspare DiGregorio promised a peace meeting on whatever territory Salvatore wanted. It was an ambush. DiGregorio's men opened fire with rifles and automatic weapons on Salvatore and his associates, who were armed only with pistols. The police estimated that over 500 shots were fired but remarkably, no one was hurt. The war lasted for over two years. The Commission originally thought they could win, but when Joseph Bonanno returned, their hopes were dashed. Joseph Bonanno sent out a message to his enemies saying that for every Bonanno loyalist killed, he would retaliate by hitting a caporegime from the other side. The Bonanno loyalists were starting to see victory when Bonanno suffered a heart attack. He decided that he and his son would retire to Tucson, leaving his broken family to Paul Sciacca, who had replaced Gaspare DiGregorio. He was the last of the original five bosses appointed after the Castellamarese War to still be in power as a boss.

Later career in Arizona

Bonanno and his son subsequently moved to Arizona, where he was at one time sent to jail by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to serve time for various charges during his previous stay in that state. In 1983, he wrote his autobiography A Man of Honor. The government seized the opportunity and questioned him about the Commission, hoping to prove its existence given that he spoke about it in his book. Technically, he kept the vow of omertà and answered no questions in government hearings, but many then-current New York Mafia leaders (including Paul Castellano, Anthony Corallo and Tom Santoro) were flabbergasted and outraged at what he had said in his book and considered him to have already broken the vow of omertà. Bonanno boss Joseph Massino was so disgusted and embarrassed by it that he began to refer to the family as the "Massino" family (although, Massino himself later flipped and ratted and the "Massino" family name was never widely used). Though old and in poor health, Bonanno was jailed for nearly a year for refusing to testify in the 1980s.

Bonanno once said “I've always been fascinated with the motives of people who decide to become police informants. After all, it's a dirty business ... anyway you look at it, it's an indecent occupation.”

Bonanno was never convicted of a serious crime. He was once fined $450 and was also jailed for contempt of court for refusing to answer questions, being released in 1986 after serving fourteen months. Upon retirement, Bonanno was allowed to live in peace in a normal house in the Blenman-Elm neighborhood of Tucson, Arizona with his family. Joseph Bonanno, the last remaining Mafia Don who survived Italian fascism, Mustache Petes, and his own bloody war, died May 11, 2002 of heart failure at the age of 97.

Popular culture

  • Bonanno is said to have been one of the models for the character Vito Corleone in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather. Both Bonanno and Corleone wanted their sons to succeed them, and both allegedly wanted their crime families to stay out of the narcotics rackets (although many of the soldiers and associates of the Bonanno crime family were dealing in drugs, the best known was later boss of family Carmine Galante).
  • The Judge Dredd comic strip character Joe Bananas, henchman for Don Uggie Apelino, was named after Bonanno.
  • There is an urban legend in Orthodox Jewish circles that, at the behest of Rabbi Aaron Kotler, Bonanno saved the lives of several Jewish Rabbis who were trapped in Italy during the Holocaust and were due to be sent back to Germany to a certain death, and he received a blessing for a long life from Rabbi Kotler, to which his advanced age was attributed.
  • In 1991, Bonanno's daughter-in-law, Rosalie Profaci Bonanno, published the memoir Mafia Marriage: My Story. This book was eventually converted to the 1993 Lifetime Network film Love, Honor, & Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage.
  • In 1999, the Lifetime TV network produced a biographical film called Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story. The film chronicles the rise and fall of organized crime in the United States.
  • In 2004 Joe's daughter-in-law began putting Joe's personal items up for auction on eBay. This continued until 2008.
  • In 2006, episode 66 of The Sopranos, "Members Only", Eugene Pontecorvo wants to retire and uses Joe Bananas as an example of a retired mob member.
  • In 2009, Joe's cousin Thomas Bonanno participated as a Mafia expert in the filming of the "Mafia vs. Yakuza" episode of Deadliest Warrior, demonstrating his skills and marksmanship with a Thompson Sub Machine Gun; as well as talking about "true" Sicilian Mafia philosophy and culture.

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