Tommy Lucchese (1899-1967)
Copyright © 2007
Despite running one of New York's smaller underworld units, Gaetano "Tommy" Lucchese was one of the more successful American Mafia bosses of the post-Prohibition era. Abundant evidence of his business acumen suggests he was among the few mob chiefs who could have succeeded in life without underworld ties.
Lucchese, whose surname has been spelled Luchese (which leads to mispronunciations) and Luckese, was a native of Palermo. His family reportedly immigrated to East Harlem around 1911.1 In that community, young Lucchese became affiliated with the Ciro Terranova-dominated 107th Street Mob.2 That affiliation also put him in touch with the Democratic political machine in New York City, which made regular use of street gangs. Lucchese apparently had great interest in politics and would eventually emerge as one of the more influential gang leaders in the nation.
At about the age of 20, Lucchese lost his right index finger in an accident at a Harlem machine shop. Though he actually had four fingers remaining on the hand, he came to share a nickname with a popular pitcher of the day, "Three-Finger Brown." The use of the nickname for Lucchese has been historically attributed to a wisecracking police officer who happened to be a fan of baseball's Mordecai Brown and, noting Lucchese's missing digit, recorded "Three-Finger Brown" as a Lucchese alias. Lucchese appeared to dislike the monicker, but his underworld associates often referred to him as "Brown." 3
In 1921, Lucchese was convicted of auto theft in Riverhead, Long Island. He quietly did his time - three years in Sing Sing prison - and emerged with a Mafia badge of honor, a prison record. After that auto theft conviction, law enforcement would never again score a victory against Lucchese.4
As he matured, Lucchese moved into leadership roles with Gaetano Reina's Mafia organization in the Bronx. In July of 1928 he was one of three men arrested for the murder of Louis Cerasulo. After six days, the charges were dropped. 5
By the outbreak of the American underworld's Castellammarese War in 1930, Lucchese and Tom Gagliano were the key men in Reina's crime family. Outwardly supporting "Joe the Boss" Masseria during the tense moments before the war, Reina's family secretly sided with Salvatore Maranzano and the Castellammarese.6 Masseria caught wind of the betrayal late in 1929. Joe the Boss had Reina killed on Feb. 26, 1930, and handpicked the new head of Reina's family, Joe Pinzolo.7
Lucchese and Gagliano appear to have cooperated on the assassination of Pinzolo on Sept. 5, 1930. Pinzolo was gunned down in an office he shared with Lucchese at 1457 Broadway. (The two men were partners in a "wine brick" business known as California Dried Fruit Importers, which skirted the Prohibition law. Wine bricks were blocks of crushed grapes that could be reconstituted by setting them in water. Fermentation would then yield wine.) Gagliano replaced Pinzolo as head of the old Reina family. Lucchese became the family's underboss. Wanted by police in connection with the Pinzolo murder, Lucchese turned himself in on Sept. 8. A grand jury failed to indict him on the murder charge. (Joe Valachi later testified that "Bobby Doyle" Santucci killed Pinzolo.)8
Weigh-in before the Schmeling-Stribling bout
He was also arrested in July of 1931. The charge was suspicion. Lucchese was nabbed by Cleveland police while he was sitting ringside at the Stribling-Schmeling heavyweight boxing match. His two companions, Charlie Luciano and Joseph Biondo, were also arrested. While the arrest reportedly prevented the men from witnessing Schmeling's 15-round victory, it presented little other trouble. The three men were quickly released.9
Police questioned Lucchese after the September 1931 murder of Salvatore Maranzano. Some sources believe that Lucchese secretly informed Luciano and Vito Genovese that Maranzano planned to have them killed. That information reportedly led to a preemptive strike by Luciano and Genovese. With Lucchese undeniably in the presence of Luciano at the Cleveland fights just two months before the Maranzano assassination, the story appears to have merit.10
Lucchese was naturalized an American citizen on Jan. 25, 1943, in Newark, NJ. It took him seven more years to secure a certificate of good conduct from the New York State Parole Board. His 1921 felony conviction no longer stood as an obstacle to his voting rights.11
Though he was not personally able to cast a ballot in the elections, Lucchese's backing of Vincent Impellitteri for City Council president in 1945 and for mayor in 1950 is fairly well documented. After accusations of mob involvement in Impellitteri's career surfaced in the 1950 campaign, Impellitteri severed the relationship.12
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