The seedy underworld of the Mafia has fascinated folk for years, with the glamorous yet corrupt lifestyle of mob culture becoming somewhat of an enigma to many. But why are we so obsessed with these men and women who are basically nothing more than just corrupt lowlifes, taking from those that can’t defend themselves and so often evading capture?
The truth is, the Mafia is not just your ordinary crime syndicate, with gangsters lauded as heroes rather than the villains that they actually are. The gangland way of life runs like a Hollywood movie. In fact it often is a Hollywood movie, with scripts and story-lines based on truthful accounts, presenting to audiences captivating and exhilarating lifestyles right there on the silver screen. But why do we glamorize violence? Why do we so often hold these iconic figures as martyrs who died in vain?
Because to some, it felt like they actually did. With the days of prohibition slowly fading out of history, we forget it was during that time when the mobsters were looked on as ‘saviors’, fighting the evil government and everything else that came with it. They were looked upon as the Robin Hoods of the working class, fighting the unyielding and rigid laws of the good ol’ USA. And, of course, as a society it is only natural for us humans to admire and idolize those that have power, wealth and charming good looks.
However, it’s not just anyone that has the ability to do so, just look at politicians, who are usually universally hated as opposed to being idolized. Yet gangsters have the ability to utilize that special something that makes them much more appealing to the masses. And that something?Heritage. With backgrounds usually consisting of immigration, low income families, and difficulty in finding work, the rags to riches story doesn’t half sound appealing and boy, does it tell a great story. Besides, everyone loves a working class hero right? Here are 15 romanticized and notorious gangsters everyone should know.
15. Frank Costello
Hailing from Italy, which you will see is a common theme, Frank ‘the Prime Minister’ Costello was the leader of the notoriously feared and famous Luciano family. Moving to New York at only 4 years old, he quickly find himself embarking upon a life of crime, heading groups as he went along. However, when the infamous Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano went to prison in 1936, Costello began to really make his mark, quickly rising to head of the Luciano crime family, later known as the Genovese crime family.
Known as the ‘Prime Minister’ due to his governing of the underworld and his desperation to mark himself as a political figure rather than a seedy mob boss, Costello became a firm influence in the world of politics, linking the Mafia and the Tammany Hall New York Democratic Party. With a finger in every pie, Costello was running casinos and gambling halls all around the country, as well as Cuba and other Caribbean islands. Popular with his people and highly respected, it has been said that the infamous Vito Corleone from the 1972 hit The Godfather was based on Costello himself. However that’s not to say he didn’t have his enemies, with an assassination attempt in 1957 resulting in a shot to the head. Costello somehow survived. Dying of a heart attack in 1973, Costello will go down in history as one of somewhat ‘nicer’ mob bosses of the Italian-American crime scene.
14. Jack Diamond
Born in Philadelphia in 1897, Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond was a prominent figure during the prohibition era and organised crime that rampaged throughout the USA. Earning the name ‘legs’ due to his fast escapes and questionable dancing moves, Diamond was also famed for not being the most passive gangster on the scene, with extreme violence and murder to his name. Known more for his criminal escapades in New York, Diamond was famous for his booze smuggling organisations in and around the city.
Finding this extremely profitable, Diamond moved onto bigger and better things, eventually organizing truck heists and ownership of speakeasies throughout the country. However, it was his ordering of the murder of the notorious mob boss Nathan Kaplan that really excelled his criminal status, uniting him with the big boys such as Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz, who would incidentally, later become a huge thorn in his side. Although a man to be feared, Diamond was also the target on a number of occasions, so much so he received various nicknames such as ‘Clay Pigeon’ and ‘the Man that can’t be Killed’ referring to the fact that he recovered unscathed each time. But, with his luck running out, Diamond was shot and killed in 1931, with the killer remaining a mystery to this day.
13. John Gotti
Famous for being the boss of the extremely elusive and notorious NYC Gambino crime family, John Joseph Gotti Jr. became one of the most feared men in the Mafia. Growing up in poverty and as one of 13 children, Gotti got involved with organised crime very quickly, working as an errand boy for local gangster and eventual mentor Aniello Dellacroce. In 1980 Gotti’s 12-year old son Frank Gotti was run over and killed by neighbour and family friend John Favara. Although eventually ruled as an accident, Favara received a numerous amount of death threats and was later attacked with a baseball bat. Months later, Favara strangely disappeared with the body undiscovered to this day.
With his polished appearance and stereotypical gangster style, Gotti quickly became a tabloid favorite earning the nickname ‘the Dapper Don’. In and out of prison, Gotti was hard to pin down, serving only a small number of years each time. However, in 1990, due to wiretapping and insider information, the FBI finally got their man, with Gotti found guilty of murder and racketeering. Dying of throat cancer in 2002, Gotti died in prison a shadow of his former Don Draperesque self.
12. Frank Sinatra
That’s right, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself was once an alleged associate of hoodlum Sam Giancana and the ever present Lucky Luciano among others. Once claiming that ‘if it hadn’t been for my interest in music I’d probably have ended in a life of crime‘, Sinatra was known to get his hands a little dirty and was even present at the now notorious Mafia Havana Conference in 1946, with the newspapers professing ‘SHAME, SINATRA.’ And it wasn’t just the press that got knowledge of Sinatra’s double life, with the FBI keeping tabs on the crooner since the early days of his career, notching up almost 2,403 pages on the goings on of the Rat Packer and his Mafia associates.
However, it was his known affiliation with a pre-presidential JFK that really stirred things up, with claims that Sinatra used his known contacts to help with the would- be leader’s presidential campaign. Yet with claims that the Mafia began to distrust Sinatra due to his friendship with JFK’s brother, Bobby, who was himself in the process of cracking down on organised crime, and Sinatra given the cold shoulder by Giancana, the FBI began to cool off. Yet despite the obvious evidence and reports linking Sinatra to such high profile crime figures, Sinatra himself often denied any known associations fiercely stating, ‘any report that I fraternized with goons or racketeers is a vicious lie’. Hmmm…
11. Mickey Cohen
A thorn in the backside of the Los Angeles Police Department for a number of years, Meyer Harris ‘Mickey’ Cohen had a hand in every single piece of organised crime throughout Los Angeles and various other states in the USA. Originally born in New York, Cohen and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was just six years old. After beginning a promising career in boxing, Cohen quit in order to pursue a path in organised crime, ending up in Chicago and working for the notorious Al Capone.
After a few successful years during the prohibition era it was then arranged that Cohen would head to Los Angeles under the helpful watch of famed Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel. With Siegel’s assassination striking a nerve with the ever volatile Cohen, police were beginning to notice the violent and hot tempered gangster. With various assassination attempts on the now L.A. kingpin, Cohen began turning his home into a fortress, adding alarm systems, floodlights and bullet proof gates as well as hiring bodyguard Johnny Stompanato, the then boyfriend of Hollywood starlet Lana Turner.
Still going strong in 1961 while under investigation, Cohen was convicted of tax evasion and was sent to the notorious Alcatraz, eventually becoming the only prisoner to ever be bailed out of the infamous prison. Yet, despite the numerous attempts on his life and the continued bounty on his head, Cohen died in his sleep at 62-years old.
10. Henry Hill
As the inspiration for possibly one of the best Mafia themed movies out there, Goodfellas, it was Henry Hill who claimed ‘as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster’. Born in New York in 1943, Hill came from a clean, hard- working family with no ties or blood connections to the Mafia. However, joining up with the Lucchese crime family from a young age due to the number of mobsters in and around the local neighborhood, Hill quickly rose up the ranks, but could never be ‘made’ due to his mix of Irish and Italian blood.
When arrested for beating up a gambler who had refused to pay, Hill was sentenced to ten years in prison, at which time he realized that the lifestyle he was so used to outside was basically the same inside, receiving constant preferential treatment. However, upon his release, Hill began dealing heavily in narcotics, resulting in his arrest, which led to him ratting out his entire crew and bringing down some of the most feared mobsters in the world. Entering the US Federal Witness Protection Program in 1980, Hill was kicked out two years later for blowing his cover, yet still managed to survive until the age of 69.
9. James Whitey Bulger
Another Alcatraz veteran, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was given the name ‘Whitey’ due to his silky blonde hair. Growing up in Boston, Bulger was known as a troublemaker from the get-go, running away on several occasions and once even joining the circus. With his first arrest at only 14-years old, Bulger continued to cause trouble, ending up in the organised crime scene by the late 1970s.
As well as working for the mob, Bulger was also an FBI informant and was responsible for tipping off the police to the goings on of the once notorious Patriarca crime family. With his own crime network expanding, the police began to pay more attention to Bulger rather than to his tattling, leading Bulger to flee Boston and landing on the ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List’ for over fifteen years. Captured in 2011, Bulger was charged with a number of crimes including a whopping 19 murders, money laundering, extortion and drug dealing. After a two-month trial, the renowned crime lord was finally found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences plus five years in prison, with Boston able to sleep soundly once again.
8. Bugsy Siegel
Famed for his Las Vegas exploits and criminal empire, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel is one of the most famous gangsters in mobster history. Starting life as regular run-of -the-mill, Brooklyn based hoodlum, a young Bugsy met fellow ruffian Meyer Lansky and formed the Murder Inc. gang, a group of Jewish mobsters intent on carrying out contract kills.
Becoming more and more prominent within the gang community, Siegel had a penchant for killing veteran New York gangsters, having a hand in the killing of prominent mobster Joe ‘the Boss’ Masseria. After a few years bootlegging and dodging bullets on the West Coast, Siegel began making huge amounts of money, resulting in him fraternizing with the Hollywood elite. However it was the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas that really propelled him to stardom, providing him with a dream that he had wanted for so long. With funding from the mob, the project was originally budgeted at a cool $1.5 million, however with overruns and an increase in production costs, Siegel’s old buddy and now co-partner decided that Siegel had been stealing and skimming from the top. Siegel was brutally killed in his own home by a barrage of bullets, Lanksy quickly took over the Flamingo Hotel, and yet still denied any involvement in the hit.
7. Vito Genovese
Big boy around town Vito ‘Don Vito’ Genovese, was an Italian-American mobster who was extremely prominent during the Prohibition era and later years. Known as ‘Don Vito’ or the ‘Boss of all Bosses’, Genovese headed the notorious Genovese crime family and is highly remembered as the man that launched heroin to the masses- yes, that guy.
Not the friendliest of mobsters, Genovese was originally born in Italy, moving to New York City in 1913. Cementing himself into gang warfare early on, Genovese soon met Lucky Luciano, forming a partnership that resulted in the killing of rival mobster Salvatore Maranzano.
On the run from the police, Genovese fled back to his native Italy where he stayed until the end of World War II, even becoming a pally with Benito Mussolini himself. However, on his return it didn’t take him too long to slot back into his old ways, re-inserting himself into power and becoming the man everybody feared once again. Yet unable to worm himself out of another problem, Genovese was finally convicted for narcotics and was sentenced to 15 years, later dying of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 71.
6. Lucky Luciano
Mentioned numerous times within the escapades of other Mafia members, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano sure did get around. Earning the nickname ‘Lucky’ due to his survival of a stabbing that left him minutes from death, Lucky is renowned for basically creating the modern day Mafia. Penning a long list of ‘accomplishments,’ Lucky managed to achieve a lot in his 64 years of breathing oxygen, from orchestrating the killings of two top Mafia bosses, to constructing a whole new idea of how organised crime was to be orchestrated and, most famously, creating the “Five Families of New York,” establishing a brand new National Crime Syndicate.
Living the high life for quite some time, Lucky became a popular and well known figure among civilians and the police. Keeping up a strong image and smart appearance, Lucky began attracting attention, resulting in a prostitution charge against him. However, once in prison, Lucky continued to run things on the outside and the inside, with reports he even had a personal chef. Exiled to Italy on his release, Lucky instead settled in Havana. However with pressure from the USA, the Cuban government were reluctantly forced to remove him, with Lucky heading back to Italy once and for all. He succumbed to a heart attack in 1962.
5. Maria Licciardi
Although the Mafia may indeed be more of a man’s world, that’s not to say that there aren’t any ladies present. Born in Italy in 1951, Maria Licciardi was once the head of the Licciardi clan, a known Camorra, ‘crime syndicate’, operating in Naples. Nicknamed ‘La Madrina’, AKA “The Godmother,” Licciardi was and still is extremely well-known throughout the country, with the majority of her family having ties to the Camorra.
Specializing in drug trafficking and extortion rackets, Licciardi took over the clan after her two brothers and husband were arrested. Although causing some friction as the first woman to head such a powerful organisation, Licciardi beat the odds and managed to successfully bring together a number of other clans around the city thus expanding the drug trade market. As well as narcotics, Licciardi is also famed for sex trafficking, using under age girls from neighboring countries such as Albania, and forcing them into prostitution, breaking a long standing Camorra code of conduct of not making money from sex workers. Appearing on the Italian most wanted list after a heroin deal went drastically wrong, Licciardi was finally arrested in 2001 and sent to prison. However, she is still reported to be running the clan from inside, and Licciardi shows no signs of slowing down.
4. Frank Nitti
Known as the face of Al Capone’s Chicago crime syndicate, Frank ‘The Enforcer’ Nitti eventually became the front man once Capone was sent off to prison. Born in Italy, Nitti arrived in the USA at the tender age of 7; however it wasn’t long before he began getting into trouble, eventually gaining the attention of one Al Capone, rising quickly through Capone’s criminal empire.
Rewarded for his impressive work during the Prohibition era, Nitti became one of Capone’s most trusted men, becoming a solid member of the then called ‘Chicago Outfit.’ Although known as ‘The Enforcer,’ Nitti was more likely to delegate than break any bones, and was often used in organizing different approaches during raids and criminal activities. However, when convicted of tax evasion in 1931, Nitti and Capone were sent to prison, causing Nitti to suffer from severe claustrophobia, something that would stay with him until death.
Once released, Nitti became the new leader of the Chicago Outfit, surviving assassination attempts from rival gang members and even the police. However, with things drastically going downhill and an arrest imminent, Nitti shot himself in the head to avoid going back to the claustrophobic jail cell he had suffered in before.
3. Sam Giancana
Another mobster with a high reputation, Sam ‘Mooney’ Giancana was at one time Chicago’s most influential gangster. Starting out as the driver for Capone’s elite, Giancana quickly worked his way to the top, ending up with ties to a variety of politicians including the Kennedy clan. In fact Giancana was even called to testify during a CIA organised plot to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, in which it was thought he had pivotal information.
Not only was Giancana’s name mentioned but there were also persistent rumors that the Mafia had an alarming amount of input into JFK’s presidential campaign itself, with allegations of ballot stuffing in Chicago and Sam Giancana’s name not far from gossip. With Giancana’s relationship with JFK becoming more and more prominent, it was said that part time mobster/full time crooner Frank Sinatra acted as the middle man to throw off the feds.
However, things soon began to sour, with rumors dogging the assassination of JFK himself and the Mafia’s supposed role. Living the rest of his life as a wanted man, by both rival gangs and the CIA, Giancana was shot in the back of the head while cooking in his basement. With several options as to who killed him, the murderer was never caught.
2. Meyer Lansky
Just as influential as Lucky Luciano, if not more, Maier Suchowlansky – AKA Meyer Lansky – was originally born in Russia. Moving to America as a young kid, Lansky learnt the hard way, growing up on the streets and fighting for money. As well being able to look after himself physically, Lansky was also extremely smart. Becoming an integral part in forming the American organised crime scene, Lansky was at one point one of the most powerful men in the USA, if not the world, running operations in Cuba and various other countries.
With friends in high places such as Bugsy Siegel and Mr. Luciano himself, Lansky was a feared man yet also a mobster to look up to. Respected across the globe, Lansky was a major player in the Prohibition era, running an exclusive and highly profitable bootlegging operation. With things going better than expected, Lansky got nervous and decided to retire, immigrating to Israel. However after two years he was deported back to the USA, but still managed to avoid jail time, succumbing to lung cancer at the ripe old age of 80.
1. Al Capone
No need for an introduction here- Alphonse Capone is probably the most famous gangster of all time, known widely around the globe. Growing up in a moderately nice household, unusual for those who turn to the Mafia, Capone was in fact from a respectable and reliable family. However, after being expelled at 14-years old for hitting a female teacher, Capone chose a different path to follow, that of organised crime.
Influenced by gangster Johnny Torrio, Capone began making a name for himself, gaining a scar which then prompted his most famous nickname ‘Scarface.” Involved in everything from bootlegging to murder, the police were unable to catch their man, leaving Capone to run wild doing exactly as he wanted.
However, enough was enough when Capone was linked to the bloody and violent Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in which a number of rival gang members were assassinated in cold blood. Unable to pin the crime on Capone himself, the police had other ideas and arrested the famous mobster on tax evasion, sentencing him to eleven years in prison. Later becoming extremely sick from disease, Capone was paroled, eventually suffering from a fatal cardiac arrest in 1947. The most famous gangster in the world had died, changing the underworld forever.