Boardwalk Empire Season 5: The Real Lucky Luciano

We look at the real story behind Boardwalk Empire and Lucky Luciano. This may contain SPOILERS for Boardwalk Empire season 5. Be careful...

Lucky Luciano is best known as the father of organized crime. He started the Five Families in New York and The Commission that oversaw crime in America. He ousted the boss of bosses and, instead of taking the title himself, he followed Johnny Torrio’s advice and created a corporation. Luciano is also known as the mobster who protected the ports of New York and helped the Americans invade Italy during World War II.

He’s best known as “Charlie Lucky” because, well, he was. Lucky Luciano beat 25 prison raps, survived a beating and a throat slashing and not only survived the Castellammarese War, but came out on top. On Boardwalk Empire, Charles “Lucky” Luciano is played by Vincent Piazza.

Hell is supposed to smell like the burning of million matchsticks and Lercara Friddi must have smelled like hell on November 24, 1897, when Salvatore, which means savior, Lucania was born. Lercara Friddi was a sulfur mining town and Papa Antonio worked in the mines. When Salvatore was nine, Antonio and his wife, Rosalia, scooped up their four kids and dumped them in a railroad apartment at 265 East 10th Street off First Avenue. Tenth Street was a tough block. It was always a tough block. The Indians who sold Manhattan warned the settlers not to be caught between 10th Street on 14th Street when it got dark.

When the Lucanias moved in, it was a Jewish and Slavic neighborhood of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin Siegel, a few blocks east of the Italian neighborhood where Joe Adonis and Frank Costello grew up. Salvatore went to PS 19, or at least he was supposed to, he was a “constant truant.” In The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, he told Martin Gosh and Richard Hammer “it wasn’t easy to go to an American school and not know a goddamn word of English…in my whole life, that was the worst time I ever experienced, the first couple of years at P.S. 10.”

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Like the other kids in the neighborhood he shoplifted and rolled drunks for cash. When Salvatore was 14 he quit school and started selling hats for $7 a week. The future Charlie Lucky parlayed a paycheck into $244 in a craps game and ditched his haberdasher day job. Hats weren’t the only thing Luciano was peddling. He polished the car of Cherry Nose, the local dealer and instead of taking a tip, he started dealing dope, morphine and heroin. Salvatore got pinched for some heroin he had hidden in a hat box. Salvatore didn’t want to be a crum, a guy who worked for a living. Lucky figured it didn’t really make much of a difference what he was selling as long as it sold. Antonio and Rosalia didn’t see it that way and packed him off to the Brooklyn Truant School. Luciano did six months.

When Salvatore got out of reform school, he had a new nickname, Charlie. He put together his own gang offering protection to Jewish kids. For ten cents a week, Charlie and his gang would stop Irish kids or other Italian kids from beating them up and taking their money. It was a bargain. But not for Meyer Lansky who was too tough to pay up no many how many beatings he took. And this Meyer Lansky wasn’t a big kid either. He was just tough and thickheaded. He could take it. Lansky and Lucania became lifelong friends and business partners. Through Meyer Lansky, Charlie met Benny Siegel, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, and ultimately Arnold Rothstein. Lepke was an expert at schlamming, beating guys with a pipe wrapped in newspapers.

Charlie drifted south to Mulberry Street and Little Italy. The Five Pointers, which was run by Johnnie Torrio and included Al Capone, were in a street war with the Eastmans, run by Monk Eastman. The Five Pointers fought over turf, rackets, protection and just the hell of it. “Salvatore From Fourteenth Street” hooked up with the Five Pointers just long enough to be noticed by the Mafia. Being a son of Sicily, it was time for Charlie to prick his finger, hold a burning picture of a saint, and swear his allegiance. Charlie also became affiliated with Guiseppe Masseria.

This was around the time that rum running was gaining traction because the Volstead Act made booze illegal and opened a burgeoning black market. In New York, bootlegging started at the “curb exchange,” a distillation of the stock exchange for spirits and beer. Guys would show up and trade what liquor they had in surplus for liquors other traders had in excess. Masseria wiped out his Chrystie Street competition Salvatore Mauro and went after Umberto Valenti’s stash. In a shootout right outside police headquarters, Valenti got away and Masseria was nabbed for murdering his bodyguard, Silva Tagliagamba. Two innocent by-standers were also killed in the ambush, but Masseria was never indicted. He had an unlimited gun license and postponed his trial until everyone forgot about it. Valenti was whacked outside a spaghetti joint on the Lower East Side.

Masseria became the number one mob guy in the city. People called him Joe the Boss. Masseria put Frankie Yale in charge of Brooklyn and Luciano in charge of his Manhattan operations. Masseria also made Luciano his right hand man and never went anywhere without him. Luciano used the Downtown Realty Corp. and Moe Ducore’s drugstore on 49th Street as a front. Charlie took a piece of three more drugstores to fence swag and more easily deliver drugs. It was here that Luciano did some business with the Diamond brothers, Eddie and Jack, known as “Legs.” The Diamond Gang included Dutch Shultz and Eugene Moran at the time. Luciano also did business with two Federal undercover cops, Secret Service Agents Jon Lyons and Agent Coyle. Luciano sold them some heroin, got busted and gave up a Calabrese operation on Mulberry Street. Their cache was worth hundreds of thousands.

[related article: ALL The Gangsters Who Inspired Boardwalk Empire]

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Luciano, Meyer, Bugsy and Lepke Buchalter joined up with Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro and Long Zwillman to form the “Big Six” of bootlegging. It was bankrolled by Arnold Rothstein, who’s name on the street was the Big Bankroll. Rothstein hedged his investments against insurance policies he took out on his partners, with himself as sole beneficiary. Through Rothstein, Luciano met  George Uffner, who rounded out the rough edges of Luciano’s dope trade. Rothstein gave Luciano gentleman lessons, he cleaned up Charlie’s act, taught him how to talk without cursing and made him get nice suits. Rothstein was whacked right after Election Day in 1928. He owed a big marker and had a lot of money riding on the winners. The voters delivered Rothstein his payoff, but he wasn’t around to collect.

In 1929, Luciano was hijacked gang who beat him, stabbed him and left him for dead on Huguenot Beach in Staten Island. Fingers pointed at the handlebar Mustache Pete, Joe the Boss, who was in the middle of the Castallamerese War with Salvatore Maranzano. It seems that Masseria thought Charlie was getting a little too big for his own good and went to Joe Adonis to cut him down to size.

(A little side note. Joe Adonis was really named Joseph Doto, they called him Adonis because he had a good-looking mug. When Humphrey Bogart saw him in a speak, he decided that was the guy he had to play. Bogart would play the Thomas Dewey part in Marked Woman, the first movie made that was inspired by Lucky Luciano.)

Charlie Lucky and Masseria had some dinner and played some cards at Scarpato’s restaurant on Coney Island. Lucky took a little too long washing up between hands and found that he had been dealt a straight to the Ace. Masseria was dead and Charlie Lucky was the head of the family. Soon there would be five families and they would be headed by fathers like Joseph Bonanno, Joseph Profaci, Tom Gagliano and Vincent Mangano. But first there was this other Mustache Pete to take care of, Salvatore Marazano.

Maranzano also thought Charlie Lucky needed some trimming and called in Lepke to do the job. Lepke took the contract, but just for the money, instead of taking Lucky out, he filled him in. For 48 hours, starting on September 11, 1931 forty high-up members of the mob started dropping. Bo Weinberg out of Dutch Schultz’s gang in the Bronx led a group of hitmen to Maranzano’s real estate office in the New York Central building. Not a Sicilian among them. They flashed fake badges and Maranzano was out of the picture. Joseph Bonanno would be his successor.

The old guard out of the way, Luciano took some advice from Johnny Torrio and the five New York families formed The Commission along with criminal groups across the country. Dutch Shultz was on the lam at the time and Bo Weinberg was called in to deliver the Bronx. Weinberg was fitted for cement shoes for his trouble when Schultz came in from the cold. Charlie Lucky moved into Waldolf Towers. He hit the town with Lepke, Adonis and Lansky. Charlie the Boss put gangsters in “white shirts and ties.” He mixed business with pleasure at the tracks. Italian restaurants moved uptown to provide Lucky his pasta. He took in all the best bouts at Madison Square Garden. When the Purple Mob hit the city, Luciano provided private entertainment from Broadway’s biggest show girls. He had a chauffeur and expensive tastes and he came to the attention of Thomas E. Dewey.

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Luciano named Vito Genovese his underboss in 1931. Genovese was one of gunmen on the Masseria job. Charlie the Boss put his money behind politician Albert C. Marinelli who took over Tammany leadership in 1935 after Harry C. Perry quickly resigned at gun point. Fiorello La Guardia took to the radio to call for an end to crime. Dutch Schultz called for Dewey’s head. Lucky ended that discussion at a Newark Chop Suey joint. Pages of ramblings were recorded as Schultz lay dying after a bad fortune cookie.

Lucky got lucky with molls and actresses, in spite of little “flare-ups” that actually made headlines. Dewey caught Charlie with his pants down and charged him with pimping in 1936. Luciano was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in jail and shipped off to the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. A place they called Siberia.

Siberia is out there. But Luciano dictated major mob moves from his cell. He also helped protect New York Harbor during World War II and helped the Allies land in Italy by brokering meetings with Mafia bosses who were feeling the squeeze of Mussolini. When the war ended, Luciano was paroled and deported to Italy.  But he also met with his friends Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel in Cuba. Cuba deported Luciano back to Italy in 1947. He was confined to Naples, hell for Sicilians, but with better food. From Naples, Luciano headed the biggest international heroin operation of the time.

Salvatore Lucania had a heart attack at a Naples Airport in January 1962 when he was on the way to meet with a movie producer who was interested in making a movie of Luciano’s life. Hundreds of people went to Luciano’s funeral in Naples. He was buried in the Lucania family vault at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York.

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