Faster than a Speeding Bullet
Joe Masseria's Rise to Power
Copyright © 2002
Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria
Before his ascendance to the position of lord of the Sicilian-Italian Underworld, Giuseppe Masseria busied himself with the various criminal activities that were found in great abundance in turn-of-the-20th-Century lower Manhattan. A petty burglar and thug, only the fantastic good fortune of being in the right place at the right time and the astounding flexibility to dodge the bullets of his rivals could have transformed him into the boss of all bosses.
Born in Sicily about 1879, Masseria was already known as a minor Mafia enforcer when he sailed for the U.S. in 1903. In the Little Italy of New York's Lower East Side, he made himself right at home, robbing shops, extorting money from protection "clients," and doing whatever damage he could to those who were reluctant to become "clients."
Competition was fierce. The Italian community of the Lower East Side was the domain of Ignazio Lupo's "Black Hand" organization. And the regions just outside were dominated by Irish and Jewish gangs. After a couple of years, Masseria headed uptown to join the 107th Street Mob run by the Morellos and Terranovas, strong allies of Lupo. Ciro Terranova, the young, resourceful and influential leader of a wild bunch of thugs in East Harlem, welcomed Masseria into his organization and offered him the protection of Terranova's associates in political circles - the political "machines" at the time made great use of hoodlums and were always ready to do a favor to those who commanded their respect.
Masseria was nabbed during a burglary job 1907 and convicted of both burglary and extortion. He was sentenced to a jail term, but that sentence was suspended. Terranova's friendship had already paid off.
The first of many breaks for Masseria occurred in 1909. In that year, federal authorities arrested Giuseppe Morello and Ignazio Lupo and successfully prosecuted them for counterfeiting. Their convictions resulted in extended prison sentences (30 years for Lupo and 25 for Morello) and a power vacuum at the top of the Mafia in New York. Several Terranova brothers attempted to keep things in order, but Neapolitan Camorra groups and Mafia splinter organizations around the city began rebelling.
Masseria, allied with Terranova but driven by a freelancing nature, was one of the gangsters who immediately established a presence in Lower Manhattan. However, his plans were put on hold as he was apprehended for the failed burglary of a Bowery pawn shop and given a four-and-a-half-year sentence.
Few things enhance a Mafioso's prestige as much as acceptance of a jail sentence without ratting out accomplices, and Masseria emerged from prison with a new respect from his comrades. Prison turned out to be his second big break.
During his absence, the Mafia-Camorra conflict had turned into an all-out war. Five men were killed in a gun battle between Sicilian and Neapolitan gangsters at 114th Street and Third Avenue on April 17, 1912. In 1913 and 1914, two Lomonte brothers, trusted allies of the Terranova-Morello clan, were shot down by assassins. The Harlem Sicilians countered by murdering two Neapolitan brothers, Salvatore and Giuseppe DiMarco in 1916.
Nicholas Terranova and his bodyguard Charles Ubriaco were called to a 1916 peace conference with Camorrists in Brooklyn. The two men were shot to death in the street. However, law enforcement provided assistance to the Sicilians. Police managed to extract confessions from two of the Camorra killers involved in the setup of Terranova and Ubriaco. Hired guns Tony Notaro and Ralph Daniello pointed fingers at Camorra leaders Pelligrino Morano and Allesandro Vollero. Both men were tried, convicted and sent away for life sentences beginning in 1918.
Ciro Terranova managed an acquittal on charges related to the 1916 murders of Joe DiMarco and an innocent bystander Charles Lombardi. Rather than try to run the New York Mafia himself, he threw his weight behind Masseria.
Masseria's "coronation" was reportedly announced to a select group of Mafia leaders at an upper Manhattan outdoor market. Frank Uale, a Brooklyn Mafia powerhouse and officer of the national Unione Siciliana, fell in line behind Masseria and used his muscle to absorb the leaderless Neapolitan groups in Brooklyn. Terranova pledged the loyalty of Harlem and the Bronx. Tommy Penocchio, who sponsored lower Manhattan's curbside Liquor Exchange, where bootleggers could go to swap their surpluses, also backed Masseria.
There were many in New York, however, who refused to call the large, ill-mannered Masseria "boss." It was up to Masseria to secure the Italian communities in lower Manhattan and eliminate the remaining Sicilian competitors. Even with the aid of Terranova and Uale, that was a challenging assignment.
Salvatore D'Aquila, also known as Toto D'Aquila, had proclaimed himself boss of bosses in New York. D'Aquila had support around the country, particularly from Cleveland's "Big Joe" Lonardo. While the other New York Mafia groups did not openly challenge D'Aquila, they also did not support him. Outside of his own Family and that of Lonardo, D'Aquila had little clout. D'Aquila hoped to improve his position in the early 1920s by ordering the assassination of any remaining loyal to the former Morello-Lupo-Terranova administration.
Mafia "fixer" Nicola Gentile, who was well regarded among Mafia clans in the eastern and midwestern U.S., urged former Lupo lieutenant Umberto Valenti to oppose D'Aquila. However, Valenti, fearful of a death sentence from D'Aquila and possibly enraged over Terranova's support of Masseria for the boss position, declared war on Masseria. Valenti and his right-hand-man Salvatore Mauro begin knocking off rival Mafiosi.
Masseria got down to serious business in 1920. He gunned down Mauro on lower Manhattan's Chrystie Street. Valenti had lost a powerful and wealthy associate, while Masseria had gained the monicker "Joe the Boss." But Valenti wasn't done. He answered by murdering two key Terranova men, Ciro's brother Vincent and his bootlegging partner Joseph Peppo, in May of 1922. Vincent Terranova was shot dead outside of a Morello-Terranova headquarters on East 116th Street. Peppo was shot hours later at the Liquor Exchange, which sat just a couple of blocks from police headquarters.
Masseria acted immediately upon learning of Vincent Terranova's death. That afternoon, he and some of his men, went down to the Liquor Exchange. They waited in hiding in and around the doorway of 194 Grand Street for Valenti and his bodyguard Silva Tagliagamba. When the men appeared, Masseria's forces opened fire, mortally wounding Tagliagamba (and hitting some bystanders) but missing Valenti. Masseria was apprehended fleeing from the scene. But he was already too well-connected to the political establishment in New York - best buddies with Tammany leader Big Tom Foley - to ever face trial.
On Aug. 8, 1922, stepping out of his Second Avenue home unarmed and without a bodyguard, Masseria's biggest and unlikeliest break occurred. He was attacked by gunmen from across the street. One of them pursued Masseria, with gun blazing, into a nearby shop. The proprietor of Heiney's Millinery later told reporters that the attacker took several shots at Masseria at close range, and the pudgy Masseria dodged all of them. Out of ammunition, the gunmen fled the scene.
Masseria, uninjured but exhausted and with some bullet holes in his straw hat, retreated to his house and met inquiring police officers there as he soaked his feet.
(This writer has always been skeptical of the account of Masseria's bullet-dodging. It was far too improbable a setup and far too convenient and useful an encounter to Masseria for it to have occurred entirely by chance. But the story has been accepted as truth for generations, and we wouldn't want to burst any bubbles unnecessarily.)
The incident proved to be an effective tool for Masseria. He immediately announced that his brush with death had convinced him to relinquish all claims to Mafia leadership and to support Valenti. He sent representatives to a peace conference with Valenti and withdrew to his home, giving every indication that he was retired.
Valenti, eager to win back the support of the Masseria backers, personally attended the peace conference at an East 12th Street spaghetti restaurant, just about seven city blocks from the Masseria residence. After eating a large meal and receiving congratulations, financial concessions and pledges of loyalty, Valenti left the restaurant with his new pals. As they reached the street, those pals were met by some others and all promptly drew weapons and began firing at Valenti.
Vaneti ran from the southwest corner of 12th Street and Second Avenue to the northwest and reached the runningboard of a nearby taxi under a hail of bullets. Struck through the chest by a carefully fired shot, he managed to draw his gun before falling to the street. He was rushed to St. Mark's Hospital where he expired at 12:46 p.m.
One of his attackers, a man who observers said knelt in the street and carefully aimed each of his shots, fled through a building at 233 East 12th Street and the alley behind it. It is possible that individual was young Salvatore Lucania, later Charlie Luciano, who had recently joined the Masseria organization.
The peace conference treachery would have been looked upon as the act of a dog and Masseria would have been the target of vendettas for setting it up, except for the circumstances. With Masseria able to claim self-defense after the earlier ambush, the dispatching of Valenti by any means could not be criticized. The bullet-dodging episode was an effective tool indeed.
In the aftermath of the Valenti killing, the city's Mafiosi flocked to the Masseria banner. Almost the entire Sicilian-Italian underworld in New York decided to be on the side of the man they then called "the boss." (It should be noted that many called him other things behind his back. A Brooklyn Mafia group comprised mainly of immigrants from Castellammare del Golfo was particularly two-faced when it came to Masseria. Among themselves, they referred to him as "Joe the Glutton.") And Masseria found new allies outside of the city, particularly in Chicago, where the Torrio-Capone gang promised to back him.
Noting the tide was against him, D'Aquila fell suddenly silent, and his organization withered. Masseria was clearly the most powerful Mafiosi in New York after the stunning defeat of Valenti. Some of D'Aquila's own lieutenants, including later boss of the Family Al Mineo and bodyguard Steve Ferrigno, betrayed their leader and began secretly working with Masseria. When "Joe the Boss" got around to delivering the fatal blow to D'Aquila, in the late 1920s, it was merely a coup de grace.
By 1928, Joe the Boss was supreme master of a single Sicilian-Italian Mafia entity in New York City which had tentacles reaching into New England, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other cities around the United States. He had acquired a share in numerous lucrative Mafia rackets. And he had acquired a very useful reputation: He could dodge bullets. The ensuing Pax Masseria, however, was very brief. More rivals would be ready to openly test the boss's agility within two years.
The author relied on the sources cited in the Bibliography web page as well as sources named above for information contained in this article.