King of the Brooklyn Docks
Albert Anastasia (1902-1957)
Copyright © 2005
Few gangsters have cast a greater shadow on American society than Albert Anastasia of Brooklyn. For much of three decades, the man who was called "The Mad Hatter" and "The Lord High Executioner" helped to shape the organized underworld in the United States.
Though history has focused on his explosive brutality and his short fuse, Anastasia was arguably a criminal visionary. With his Brooklyn friends Joe Adonis and Vincent Mangano, Anastasia brought a never-before-seen level of organization to waterfront labor racketeering. Over time, he came to control the International Longshoremen's Association and the entire Brooklyn waterfront.
Just as Anastasia began to set his sights on bigger and better rackets, he came into conflict with an old friend, a man who was just as ambitious and perhaps a bit more ruthless than Anastasia himself. The clash with Vito Genovese would result in Anastasia's death on a barber shop floor in 1957.
Umberto Anastasio was born in Tropea, a village in the Calabria region of southern Italy. The date of his birth is somewhat uncertain. February 26, 1902, appears to be the most reliable date. But some sources prefer September 26, 1902 (which is carved into his gravestone), and a few insist on moving his birthdate to 1903.
The Anastasio family grew to include nine boys and three girls. The family patriarch, a railroad worker, died some time before the start of the Great War in Europe. One of his sons and two of his daughters died at a young age.
As teenagers, Umberto and his brothers Giuseppe and Antonio found work as deck hands on tramp steamers. They sailed the Atlantic until deciding, apparently at different dates, to jump ship in New York City.
Umberto settled in Brooklyn on September 12, 1917. There he set to work as a longshoreman and came into daily contact with the toughs and racketeers of the waterfront. Al Capone, who did not head west to Chicago until 1919, was apparently one of Umberto's early contacts.
Anthony "Tough Tony" Anastasio
Umberto's brothers Giuseppe and Antonio eventually joined him at the Brooklyn docks. Another brother, Salvatore Anastasio, moved to New York and entered the priesthood.
In the 1920s, Umberto adusted his identity. He began to use the Anglicized first name of Albert. And he also changed the final vowel of his surname from an O to an A.
The reason traditionally given for his adoption of the name "Anastasia" is that he had deliberately chosen a life of crime and did not want to bring disgrace on the rest of his family. But that rationale is difficult to accept. If Anastasia wanted to distance himself from his kin, he could have done so more effectively by chosing a surname like "Jones." And, in fact, it appears he maintained relationships with his brothers in America after the name change. Their family connection was widely known.
It seems more plausible that Anastasia, like other gangsters of the period, used variant spellings of his name to create problems for law enforcement. The "Anastasia" spelling might have stuck merely because that name was constantly in the American news in the 1920s.
During that decade, an American widow named Nance Leeds married Prince Christopher of Greece. The new princess took the Greek name Anastasia because it sounded similar to her original given name. As an American link to royalty, Princess Anastasia of Greece and her family were celebrated in the media. By the middle of the 1920s, another Princess Anastasia was in the news. She was the daughter of assassinated Czar Nicholas II of Russia. It was believed by some that the Czar's daughter survived the violent takeover of the Bolsheviks and settled in Germany.
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