Other Business - Business Legends - Uniting the franchises of crime. Lucky Luciano's transformation of the Mafia in the US into a streamlined operation in the 1930s established it as one the most effective criminal empires the world has known.
Charles 'Lucky' Luciano was a criminal genius who rose through the ranks to reshape the Mafia in America, turning a clan-based, haphazard, crime organisation into a streamlined 'corporation'.
Born Salvatore Luciana in 1897, he spent his early childhood in Sicily, where his father laboured in the sulphur pits. Nine years later, the family emigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a rough, predominantly Italian neighbourhood. He did not excel at school where his infrequent attendance ceased altogether by 1911, when he turned his attention full-time to crime. At 16, Luciano was jailed for delivering heroin.
Following this minor setback, he joined the local Five Point Gang, where his talent for crime caught the eye of capo Giuseppe Masseria, a local Mafia boss. Masseria should have kept his eyes shut. Lucky rose quickly to the rank of underboss but he was dissatisfied with the way the Masseria crime family was being run. He and a like-minded hood, Vito Genovese, had Masseria murdered in 1931 at the capo's favourite restaurant.
'Lucky' Luciano, as he now styled himself, was a moderniser. He wanted the Mafia to be run like a corporation, not as affiliated individual fiefdoms, and he had no time for the old-school Sicilians or 'moustache Petes' as they were known. Unfortunately his new boss, Salvatore Maranzano, a Pete himself, saw Luciano as a loose cannon and put out a contract on him. Lucky struck back, ordering a hit on Maranzano a couple of hours before his own assassination was due. Knowing the killing would outrage the other Petes, he acted swiftly, pushing through his mandate for change and killing 50 of the old guard within 24 hours, in what was to be known as 'The night of the Sicilian vespers'.
The first thing he then did was to arrange a conference for the remaining Petes and the newer, more forward-thinking Mafiosi in Chicago. It was hosted by a 'friend', Al Capone, to impress anyone who doubted Luciano's influence. What was, in effect, a board of directors, the Unione Sicilione, was set up to oversee matters and Luciano even allowed non-Italians to join the mob. They were non-voting members - although, as with Britain's New Labour, many of these 'advisers' wielded enormous power behind the scenes. Luciano never assumed the title capo di tutti capi ('boss of all bosses'), which he saw as an anachronism, but, unofficially, everyone knew where ultimate power rested.
Lucky's rise throughout the early 1930s was spectacular. Based in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, this stylish, well-dressed hoodlum held sway over one of the most powerful criminal empires ever seen. It had a stranglehold on the nation's gambling, controlled the docks at most of America's major ports and had politicians in Manhattan eating out of Luciano's hand.
As such, investigations into his and the Mafia's activities were cursory at best.
His other great innovation was to reduce inter-gang warfare. Having seen the carnage caused by the war between the Irish gangs and the Mafia in the 1920s, Luciano was keen to forge alliances. Moreover, he had none of the old guard's instinctive distrust of non-Italians. His most notable success was to tie up with Murder Inc, a predominantly Jewish gang, which was retained by the Mafia as its executioner. In 10 years, the gang is estimated to have killed 1,000 people.
By 1935, Lucky was the most effective boss in the Mafia's history. Unfortunately, greed was to get the better of him in the end. Aware of the phenomenal earnings potential of vice, he organised a ring of hookers and madams, which was soon bringing in more revenue than all his other businesses combined. At its zenith, this vice ring numbered about 200 madams and 1,000 prostitutes and generated some $10 million a year. Focusing on the bottom line to the exclusion of all else, Luciano sought to squeeze ever more money out of the ring, often mistreating the 'dumb broads', as he called them.
That same year, calls for action against organised crime led to the appointment of special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who focused on Luciano and his prostitution racket with a vengeance. Interestingly, Harlem-based gangster Dutch Schultz had wanted to kill the prosecutor but Luciano was against such action, fearing it would attract too much unwelcome attention. Schultz was not to be deterred, however, so Luciano had Schultz killed, thus saving the life of his future jailer.
Luciano's treatment of the prostitutes proved to be his downfall, when Dewey persuaded a surprising number of the boss's dumb broads to take the stand. In fact, so many were anxious to uphold all that is legal and decent that Luciano was convicted on no less than 62 counts of white slavery and sent to the 'Siberia' of Dannemora Prison on the Canadian border for more than 30 years.
So much for Luciano's life at the top - but luck stepped in again. During the second world war, through his Sicilian contacts, he was able to provide invaluable intelligence for the US landings on the Italian island. In 1946, a deal was struck for services rendered and Luciano was released from prison and deported to Italy. Only a few months later, he popped up again in Cuba, but such were the frequency of mobster visits to him that he was once again deported to Italy in 1947.
He remained involved in the American gangster scene, but it was not that which killed him. He died of a heart attack in 1962 at Naples airport after going there to meet a Hollywood producer.
Shortly afterwards, the Italian and American governments announced that they had been on the verge of arresting him for his part in a $150-million scheme to supply heroin.
Luciano was convicted on 62 counts of white slavery after special prosecutor Thomas Dewey (left) persuaded a number of the prostitutes Luciano had ill-treated to testify against him.