The Day the Mafia Broke
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because no single day was more significant than Nov. 14, 1957, in the life of organized crime.
By Eugene S. Robinson
J. Edgar Hoover had it all nailed down.
Especially since 1950s America wasn’t asking him too many probing questions — Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s televised committee hearings on organized crime activity notwithstanding. To paraphrase Voltaire, if Hoover said it was so, then it must be so. Which means when he pronounced at a 1951 congressional hearing that “there is no Mafia.… No single individual or coalition of racketeers dominates organized crime across the country,” America simply shrugged.
Until, that is, Nov. 14, 1957. That was the day when the country could no longer continue to claim to hear and see nothing, and Hoover’s adventures chasing disorganized crime came to a screeching, and relatively bloodless, halt.
It started simply enough in the sleepy town of Apalachin, New York. Two hundred miles northwest of New York City and on the Pennsylvania border, Apalachin was home to a 53-acre spread belonging to Joseph Barbara. Barbara’s official title? Owner of a soda bottling business. His unofficial one? Crime boss.
Why a soda bottler would be visited by mobster Carmine Galante, who had gotten popped on a traffic beef while visiting Barbara the year before, didn’t make much sense. But outside of this curiosity, local cops didn’t have much to report on their new neighbor. At least not until the fleet of fancy cars started showing up.
In a town of about 270 residents, one after another expensive automobile rolled in, most of them Cadillacs, for a total of 100. Half that number would have caught someone’s attention and, as luck would have it — bad luck in this case — that someone was state trooper Edgar D. Croswell. Croswell, with some small-town, Barney Fife-esque brio, had been watching Barbara, who had been none too discreet about renting rooms at area hotels and ordering enough food to feed a mob. So Croswell called in a detachment and started running license plates.
The plates belonging to mobsters and known associates was sufficient casus belli. Cops surrounded Barbara’s house and blocked the roads leading to and from the property. Mere minutes into the meeting’s beginning, it ended with mobsters, made men and their bodyguards running into the woods and gunning their cars at roadblocks. By 11 pm, according to the New York Daily News, 62 “Mafia chieftains” were collared, calling bullshit on Hoover’s claims of nonexistence.
“The RICO Act [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] was a great tool in breaking up the Mafia,” says Fred Santoro, a retired New York cop who worked undercover on the organized crime beat, about the act designed to dismantle the switchboard of mob connections like the one assembled at Barbara’s house. “But that wasn’t passed until 1970.”
They claimed … that they’d heard Barbara was sick and decided to see if he was OK, coincidentally all of them on the same day.
In 1957, racing through the woods in sharkskin suits was not a crime, no matter whom you were running with, so by the end of that November day, an hour after being arrested, most of the 62 mobsters who weren’t as fleet of foot as the escaped 38 were released. Making it a score for the bad guys?
Yeah, but no.
While they claimed they’d come to Apalachin because they’d heard that Barbara was sick and decided to see if he was OK, coincidentally all of them on the same day, the names of those making the claims made the FBI’s claims of nonexistence comical. Setting aside relative no-namers like Rosario Mancuso and Joseph Rosato, the rest were career criminals whose names — Joseph Bonanno, Carlo Gambino, Vito Genovese and Joseph Profaci being the most renowned — were now grouped together, even organized, you might say.
“There was now no denying the existence of an organization,” says Edmund Newton, an award-winning journalist who wrote several series on the gangs of New York for the New York Post. “Or rather, only an idiot would feel OK denying the existence of an organization at that point.”
Hoover, regardless of whatever else he was, was no idiot. Four days later, he promised to launch an “anti-mob initiative,” the Top Hoodlum Program, which, relying as it did on legally questionable wiretaps, was about as successful as his previous efforts.
While mobbed-up names continued to appear in connection with heinous crimes throughout the 1960s, including the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, it wasn’t until Richard Nixon signed the RICO Act into law on Oct. 15, 1970, that real change kicked in. Two years later, Hoover died of a heart attack at home.
“We could now bust these guys,” Santoro says, “just for hanging out with each other.”
Something they could not have done without sanction on Nov. 14, 1957, in Apalachin, New York. If only the mobsters hadn’t run.