With AMC's series The Making of the Mob airing tonight, it's a great time to take a look at the real men behind the show's infamous characters. Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, both children of Jewish immigrants, were friends before becoming two of New York's leading crime figures. They joined forces with another Lower East Side neighbor, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who became one of the city's top crime bosses. And along the way, they worked with such devious compatriots Frank Costello and Vito Genovese—both of whom eventually rose to power in their own rights.
These men raked in the cash from a wealth of illegal operations, including bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, racketeering, extortion and even murder. And they let no one stand in their way in the quest for money and control, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Let's meet some of the founding figures of the American mob.
A keen criminal strategist, Lansky was one of New York's infamous Jewish gangsters. Born to Polish parents in what is now Grodno, Belarus, in 1902, he came to the United States as a child and settled on the city's Lower East Side. Growing up there he met Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. He launched his own gambling enterprise as a teen and then joined forces with Siegel to form their own gang, which engaged in robbery, bootlegging and other illegal endeavors. They also branched out in providing enforcement muscle and hit men for other mob figures.
A financial wizard, Lansky built up a gambling empire that included casinos in Florida and Cuba. He also invested in friend Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In addition to his own operations, Lansky served as a valuable advisor to Luciano, especially with his efforts to organize the crime families. The long arm of the law only caught up with Lansky once. In 1953, he spent two months in prison on a gambling charge. Lansky, unlike many of his contemporaries, managed to live to the ripe old age of 81. He died in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1983.
A sharply dressed yet cold-blooded killer, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel is believed to have murdered more than 30 people. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Brooklyn-born Benjamin Bugsy Siegel was just a kid when he launched his first criminal business. He ran his own protection racket and later graduated to armed robbery and murder. He hated the nickname "Bugsy," which referred to "bug"—a slang word for crazy. Still the name stuck because of his unpredictable, violent nature. Siegel later teamed up with childhood friend Meyer Lansky to build a thriving bootlegging empire. The pair also started up a successful murder-for-hire business with Siegel sometimes acting as the trigger man. He is thought to have been one of the shooters who took out Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria.
By the mid-1930s, Siegel was sent out to Los Angeles by Lucky Luciano to work on the mob's operations out there. Siegel loved the Hollywood lifestyle, hanging out with actor George Raft and installing his wife and children in a mansion. He also took Virginia Hill as his mistress. But this well-known ladies' man had even bigger dreams. He wanted to create a gambling hot spot in the Nevada desert, and he got other gangsters to invest in his casino. Siegel spent lavishly on the construction of the Flamingo, which first opened in 1946. The operation, unfortunately for Siegel, was a flop initially. He tried again with a re-launch of the place the following year, but it was too little too late. His investors had lost confidence in Siegel. In June 1947, Siegel was shot to death in his mistress' Los Angeles home. It is believed that the mob ordered the hit after Siegel spent too much of their money and that his friend Lansky signed off on it.
Lucky Luciano started out life as Salvatore Lucania, born in Sicily in 1897. He arrived in New York with his family in 1906, and it wasn't long before he turned to crime. His first extortion racket was squeezing his fellow students for protection pay-offs. Luciano dropped out of school and moved onto other illegal endeavors.
A boyhood friend of Meyer Lansky and "Bugsy" Siegel, Luciano worked with them and several others to make the most of the Prohibition era with a lucrative bootlegging operation. He later used a turf war between two top New York crime bosses, Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, to advance his position in the underworld. After helping Maranzano to eliminate Masseria, Luciano was selected to run Masseria's crime family. He then took out Maranzano and devised a way for the different crime families to work together.
Luciano developed a council with representatives from New York's five families along with criminal figures from around the country. Sometimes called the Commission, this group meditated disputes between different criminal families and handled other issues. Unfortunately, Luciano's luck ran out in 1936 when he was convicted of running a prostitution ring. He was released in 1946 after using his influence over New York's dock workers to aid the U.S. Navy in the war effort. Luciano was deported to Italy where he remained until his death in 1962.
Vito Genovese dreamed of becoming the boss of all bosses and was merciless in pursuit of his ambitions. Arriving in United States from Italy as a teenager, he quickly immersed himself in criminal activities, developing a reputation for being a thief and a thug. He eventually linked up with crime boss Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria, working with the likes of Charles "Lucky" Luciano.
Genovese and Luciano eventually turned against their boss during his feud with Salvatore Maranzano. They were instrumental in the assassination of Masseria in April 1931. The pair later plotted against Maranzano, having him taken out later that same year. Now in control, Luciano made Genovese his underboss and Frank Costello became his advisor. Luciano soon ended up in legal trouble, and Genovese quickly ran afoul of the law himself. Facing murder charges, he fled to his native Italy in 1937.
Extradited to the United States after World War II, Genovese was supposed to be tried on the earlier murder charge. But the case fell apart after the death of a witness. Genovese built a successful narcotics operation, which helped him fund his bid for power. He is believed to have ordered the attempted assassination of Frank Costello in 1957. While his killer failed to take out Costello, Costello took the hint and decided to retire. Genovese became the boss of the Luciano crime family, which was later renamed after him. In 1959, he was convicted on drug smuggling charges. Genovese was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but he still kept his hand in mob activities from behind bars. He died in custody in 1969.
Frank Costello rose to great heights in the mob, relying more on his brain than on brawn. Born Francesco Castiglia, he was another immigrant from Italy who found infamy in the United States. He moved to East Harlem with his family when he was only a child. Costello led his own gang as a teenager. With his crew, he engaged in a number of robberies and assaults before moving on to other crimes. Costello befriended Charles "Lucky" Luciano and got involved in his criminal enterprises.
During the Prohibition era, Costello helped Luciano and his associates, including Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Vito Genovese, become some of the country's leading bootleggers. He also had a special talent for making friends with people in high places—politicians, judges and other public officials. After Luciano was sent to prison, Costello became the Luciano family's top boss.
Genovese later returned to the United States, still looking to take over Costello's operation. Costello, always the diplomat, managed to stay on decent terms with Genovese for a time. In 1957, however, Costello narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by one of Genovese's henchmen. He soon decided to step down, giving his position in the organization to Genovese. While lucky to be alive, Costello soon found himself in jail on a contempt charge. He battled numerous charges over the next few years. Released from prison in 1961, Costello kept a low profile until his death in 1973.