Charlie Lucky's Legacy

Copyright 1986

Charles "Charlie Lucky" Luciano seized control of the Italian-American underworld in 1931. As the most powerful criminal leader, Luciano was able to unite regional crime groups across the United States under a system of his own choosing.

Charlie Luciano

Charlie Luciano

Rather than make a revolutionary change (as some stubbornly insist he did), Luciano decided on an evolutionary adaptation of an existing cooperative system. He permitted local criminal organizations to maintain considerable autonomy on matters within their territories ("territories" being broadly defined as spheres of influence rather than geographic areas), but the new system bound the groups together - closer than ever before - into a formal nationwide association, a cast criminal cartel.

To govern the cartel, Luciano created a small panel of the leaders of the nation's largest and most influential Mafia groups. The panel, known as the Commission, could create and enforce organization laws, try wrongdoers, supervise the selection of new bosses and make treaties with organizations outside the cartel. Luciano's Commission would decide strategy for organized crime on a national level.

Luciano apparently saw criminal activities as business endeavors, which, regardless of the methods used, must be efficient and profitable in order to survive. He viewed himself and the other crime group leaders as a board of directors for the enterprise.

Because of his influence, the chaos of antagonistic gangs was largely replaced with the order of a single, united Syndicate. The most dramatic of the changes worked by Charlie Lucky were the cooperative administration of the Commission and formal Mafia cooperation with outside groups. Those changes to organized crime survived Luciano and continue to this day as his legacy.


Before Luciano's rise to power, which roughly coincided with Prohibition, many rival gangs operated across the United States. In most major cities, gangs sprang up as a result of competition among different ethnic groups and, in some cases, from the deliberate transplanting of foreign criminal organizations into American soil. In New York City, with its enormous population and growing number of immigrants, many gangs of different backgrounds appeared. During the early 1900s, the larger gangs generally represented one of the three largest immigrant populations in the city: the Irish, the Italians and the Jews. However, the Chinese, eastern Europeans, African-Americans, "WASPs" and other ethnic groups also had their criminal associations.

The crowding of New York City's ethnic slums and the scarcity of resources for the newcomers forced these gangs into endless turf conflicts. Every gang armed itself and jealously guarded its territory against units of other races and ethnicities.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island was the first stop for many New York-bound immigrants

Conflict also occurred as each gang sought to control a larger portion of New York City's rackets (illegal money-making schemes) or struggled to earn the favor of political machines, which often hired neighborhood thugs to ensure enough of the "right people" voted on Election Day. The busiest rackets at the turn of the 20th Century were gambling, prostitution, narcotics, shylocking and protection/extortion.

In the battles between gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, Sicilian/Italian gangs had a great advantage due to the amount of support they received from the Italian immigrants on whom they preyed. Because the Mafia and Camorra had been operating in Sicily and southern Italy for many years, Italian immigrants generally did little to oppose American organizations that behaved in the same manners or used the same names or symbols.

Sicilian/Italian gangs had another advantage. They had developed networks. The Unione Siciliana, created in the 19th Century American Midwest as an civic organization designed to assist Sicilian immigrants, was penetrated and taken over by Sicilian criminals who had crossed the Atlantic. These Mafiosi used the Unione as a front to facilitate criminal activities in the East and Midwest and to establish ties with political groups and government agencies. This level of cooperation among Mafia groups in the U.S. put vast resources at the disposal of Mafia leaders in their interactions with other ethnic gangs.

Ignazio "the Wolf" Lupo is often credited as the first to coordinate American Mafia activities over a vast territory. However, this sort of coordination was already occuring before Lupo arrived in the U.S. Lupo functioned as a lieutenant for a less well known criminal overlord named Giuseppe Morello. The Morello organization, following a pattern set by other Mafiosi of earlier decades, established outposts across the country. The group built a solid Mafia foundation within the City of New York. From bases in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Morello rose to the position of American Mafia boss of bosses.

The Morello group ruled New York's Italian/Sicilian underworld and held influence over other Mafia organizations in New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere, from 1900 until 1910, when Giuseppe Morello and Ignazio Lupo were jailed for counterfeiting.

The departure of Morello and Lupo from New York triggered violent contests between Sicilian and Neapolitan criminal organizations for dominance in Gotham and between Sicilian mob bosses for the coveted boss of all bosses title. With a single man atop the Mafia hierarchy of the age, civil war was the most common means of deciding a successor to that man.

Ignazio Lupo

Ignazio Lupo

When the smoke of the post-Morello strife cleared, New York Neapolitans had been incorporated - sometimes through violent subjugation and sometimes through agreement - into the Sicilian Mafia. Numerous would-be bosses had met bloody ends and Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria was the Mafia's supreme chief in the U.S.

Masseria's leadership position did not technically give him direct control over all other gangs. The boss of bosses title was understood to be one of respect (as well as financial advantage). But, like other top bosses had, Masseria could insert his allies into families across the country and gain a measure of control that way. The influence and power Masseria held as ruler of New York's Mafia caused many other gang leaders to decide that obedience would be a good idea.

The arrival of Prohibition resulted in new squabbles over the "turf" of illegal booze sales. But it also caused rival gangs to cooperate like never before. A curbside Liquor Exchange conducted on the Lower East Side (within a stone's throw of police headquarters) brought together bootlegging groups of various backgrounds from around the city to barter their surplus booze. The Exchange was eventually abandoned in favor of a more formal device for cooperation between the major bootlegging operations.


Charlie Luciano, at the time called by his given name Salvatore Lucania, served as a top Manhattan lieutenant in the Masseria organization. Quietly allied with non-Italian gangsters of the era (While Joe the Boss brought Calabrians and Neapolitans into his Mafia, he would never open the door to a non-Italian), Luciano and fellow Mafioso Frank Costello worked out an arrangement with the larger bootlegging operations up and down the East Coast. The result was known as the Seven Group. Liquor flowed more freely than ever and with less cost and less gang bloodshed than ever.

Joe Masseria

Joe "the Boss" Masseria

American organized crime was ready to modernize itself into a vast criminal cooperative. But the older leadership of the mobs held it back. Masseria's tradition-based short-sightedness prevented him from openly agreeing to work with outside groups or of abandoning manipulations of other families. That cost him support among some younger Mafiosi. His desire to be an underworld dictator began costing him support among the more traditional Mafiosi, who believed individual crime group affairs should not be meddled in by a boss of bosses.

Masseria went to war in 1930, but not against the young Turks. His fight was with a discontented group of traditional Mafiosi with strong ties to the Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo. Many of the more far-sighted young gangsters remained on Masseria's side during the opening months of the Castellammarese War, believing Masseria had an edge. But Joe the Boss began losing badly.

To ensure his own survival, Luciano negotiated a private peace with Masseria's arch-enemy Salvatore Maranzano and promised to eliminate Joe the Boss. It seems likely that Luciano served as a double-agent within the Masseria camp for a time.

With help from his personal allies, Luciano had Masseria assassinated, ending the Castellammarese War. Shortly thereafter Luciano dispatched the off-guard Maranzano as well. In 1931, Luciano sat alone atop the American Mafia and held the position of key go-between for the Mafia and other organized crime groups around the country.

He could easily have opted to take the dictator's course, as so many victorious Mafiosi had before him. But history had shown that to be the road to ruin. Luciano instead abolished the formal boss of bosses title and declared that a Commission of the criminal society's most influential men would serve as supreme arbiter of inter-gang disputes.

Charlie Luciano in the news

Luciano in the news

President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice compared American organized crime in the post-Luciano Era both to a corporation and to a government. The panel's report said a nationwide criminal entity consisted of thousands of individual lawbreakers "working within structures as complex as those of any large corporation, subject to laws more rigidly enforced than those of legitimate governments."

Some historians have claimed that Luciano developed the Family hierarchy of the Mafia, or set up the individual Families in New York or around the country. Some have insisted that he single-handedly created a nationwide network of communication and cooperation among outlaw bands. None of these things is true.

The Family structure dates back to Sicily's Mafia, possibly all the way back to the Middle Ages. American Mafia Families were determined by historical accident, warfare and underworld convention. And the nationwide cooperation of Mafia groups existed to some degree even before the criminal contamination of the Unione Siciliana.

Nicola Gentile, a contemporary of Luciano's, revealed in his memoirs the existence of two early ruling bodies over the American Mafia. The first was a theoretical congress of the entire membership. That large and unwieldy body was probably never actually called upon, except in regional or scaled-down forms. The second was a representative assembly, comprised of the acknowledged family heads from across the country. The assembly was charged with various administrative functions, but was too large and too spread out to effectively manage the business of organized crime.

Luciano refused to allow power over the criminal syndicate to rest in the hands of a single individual, but he also objected to a United Nations approach. Charlie Lucky designed an oligarchic leadership for organized crime. Only when a boss reached a certain level of influence would he be invited to sit at the Commission table with the underworld's decision-makers. The relatively small Commission had sole power to resolve inter-family disputes and to appoint or to discipline Commission members. With a lean management group at its top, Luciano's Mafia asserted its supremacy over various multi-ethnic affiliates and established lucrative and mutually beneficial relationships with gangs outside of the Italian-Sicilian sphere of influence.

Luciano's contributions fell far short of an underworld revolution. But they were a gift to organized gamblers, drug dealers, blackmailers, prostitutes and loansharks and a headache to law enforcement. The post-1931 underworld was able to resolve its own disputes, evolve to welcome or eliminate competing crime groups and quickly recover from the loss of leaders to death, retirement or imprisonment.

The author relied on the sources cited in the Bibliography web page as well as sources named above for information contained in this article.