With its origins hailing from Sicily, Italy, the American mafia rose to power during the illegal bootlegging days of the Prohibition era. Its operations flourished mainly in Chicago and New York and began diversifying into illegal gambling, loan sharking and drug trafficking, among many other criminal activities.
Here are 10 of the most notorious dons:
Between 1925 to 1931, Al Capone was the most powerful mob boss in Chicago. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899, Capone joined the James Street Boys gang during his youth, where he met his mentor Johnny Torrio. He followed Torrio to Chicago and eventually helped him run his bootlegging business.
His use of extreme violence to hold onto his power, along with the very public execution of his rivals in the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 made him unpopular, earning him the label "Public Enemy No. 1." With public pressure mounting to put Capone behind bars, the government was able to send him to prison for tax evasion in 1931. Sentenced to 11 years (he ultimately served eight), Capone suffered a stroke and then died of a heart attack in 1947.
Born in 1906 in Brooklyn, New York, Bugsy Siegel was known largely for being a mafia hitman and enforcer, although he ended up managing his own rackets. As a close associate of Meyer Lansky, Siegel got involved in bootlegging and gambling and eventually co-founded Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm of the mob.
In 1936 Siegel moved to California and began developing rackets out there for the mob bosses on the East Coast. While there, he began courting the favor of Hollywood celebrities and gained some fame himself, thanks to his good looks and charm. Eventually, he began developing casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada and with the help of his girlfriend Virginia Hill, pocketed some of the mob funds, which were intended for construction costs. Enraged at Siegel's disloyal activities, Lansky and other East Coast bosses ordered a hit job on the hitman. In 1947, Siegel met his end at the age of 41, when he was hit by a barrage of bullets at his girlfriend's home in Beverly Hills.
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Born in 1897 in Sicily and raised in New York City, Lucky Luciano played a pivotal role in creating the National Crime Syndicate and is considered the mastermind behind modern organized crime in America, thanks to his establishment of its governing body, the Commission, in 1931. During that decade, Luciano became the most powerful mob boss as head of the Genovese crime family.
After pursuing Luciano for years, District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey was able to lock the mobster up for his prostutition businesses in 1936. Serving a minimum 30-year sentence, Luciano was able to shorten his prison time due to his aiding the U.S. Navy's security measures during World War II. In 1946 he was deported back to Italy, where he managed to run his drug operations in the U.S. In 1962 he died from a heart attack while at an airport in Naples.
Called "The Dapper Don" for his love of fine suits and media coverage, John Gotti became the most powerful mob boss in America during the 1980s. Born in 1940 in Queens, New York, Gotti was known for his reckless temperament, which he exhibited after ordering a hit on his Gambino crime boss, Paul Castellano, in 1985. After the assassination, Gotti took over and made millions in a variety of criminal activities — from loan sharking and prostitution to illegal gambling to narcotics distribution.
Although he was able to avoid prison multiple times throughout the 1980s — earning the nickname "Teflon Don," the Feds continued to pursue and build a case against him. With the help of Gotti's second in command, Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, Gotti was finally put behind bars in 1992 for a number of crimes, including five counts of murder (one of them being Paul Castellano), tax evasion and racketeering. In 2002 he died of throat cancer in a Missouri federal prison.
With an insatiable appetite for money and power, Vito Genovese is known for having both empowered the American mafia as well as compromising it by the end of his reign. Born in 1897 in a province in Naples, Genovese moved to Manhattan as a teen. He rose to power during Prohibition and had close ties with Luciano, helping him build the Commission.
Attempting to avoid a murder charge, Genovese fled to Italy and ran heroin operations in the U.S. from there. During WW II, he supported Benito Mussolini's fascist efforts but was eventually caught and shipped back to the U.S. to face his murder charge. After a key witness for the trial was murdered, Genovese was set free and proceeded to clean house — murdering a number of his enemies without discretion — and reinstituting his power among the crime families in New York City. Genovese's intimidation of his underling, Joe Valachi, prompted the latter to be the first American gangster to reveal many secrets about the organization and to become a government witness. In 1958 Genovese went to prison for possessing and distributing narcotics and died from a heart attack in a Missouri prison 11 years later.
Born in Cosenza, Italy in 1891, Frank Costello grew up in East Harlem, eventually becoming the head gang member of the 104th Street Gang. In the 1920s Costello aligned himself with Luciano, and together, they got involved in gambling and bootlegging, building operations in New York as well as in the South. As Luciano's closest business partner, Costello began gaining widespread political influence on the local level and eventually became the main syndicate boss after Luciano went to prison for operating a prostitution ring.
In the 1950s, Costello encountered his own troubles with the law, being thrown in and out of prison for contempt and later tax evasion by the U.S. government. In 1957, he was shot in the head — an order directed by rival New York mob boss Genovese. Miraculously, Costello survived and continued with his operations, although his power diminished greatly. Struck by a heart attack, Costello died at the age of 82.
Born in 1906 in Chicago, Tony Accardo became a protege of Capone, who helped him rise through the ranks of the Chicago Crime Syndicate. In 1947 Accardo became the head of the Chicago Outfit and would continue to live a life of a crime for many more decades. Under his leadership, Accordo expanded the profitability of the mob, moving away from extortion and illegal labor enterprises to smuggling narcotics and utilizing slot machines and call girl services.
Although Accardo was implicated in a number of murders throughout his criminal career — ranging from his alleged participation in the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 to his alleged retaliatory murder spree in response to a burglary at his home in 1978 — he was never found guilty for these crimes. Instead, Accardo would be indicted for tax evasion in 1960, although the ruling would eventually be overturned. After retiring from mob life and being the last real boss of the Chicago Outfit, Accardo refused to testify against the organization during Senate hearings, invoking the Fifth Amendment. He died from heart and lung ailments in 1992.
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Sam Giancana's standing in mob history is the stuff of legends, mainly because of Giancana's obsessive interest in American politics. Born in 1908 in Chicago, Giancana led the Outfit from 1957 to 1966, after boss Accardo announced his retirement. Giancana's ruthless personality made him famous in the underworld, and it was said he most likely committed a minimum of three murders by the age of 20 and had been arrested over 70 times.
With his ties to Joseph P. Kennedy, who asked for his help to secure votes in Illinois for his son John F. Kennedy's presidential run in 1960, Giancana was said to have been livid when JFK gave his newly appointed Attorney General brother Robert F. Kennedy the green light to pursue organized crime. To this day conspiracy theories persist that JFK's assassination was a hit job by the mob and more specifically, orchestrated by Giancana himself.
After spending a year in prison in the mid-50s for refusing to testify against mob activities, Giancana left the country and lived in Mexico and parts of South America. In 1974, he returned to offer testimony to the government regarding his knowledge of the C.I.A.'s attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. A year later Giancana was assassinated while cooking a meal at his home in Oak Park, Illinois.
As godfather of the most powerful crime family in New York City — the Gambino crime family — Paul Castellano was known for his business prowess, which led to mob boss Carlo Gambino choosing him as his successor.
Born in 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, Castellano rose through the mob ranks and focused on transforming non-legitimate white-collar businesses into profitable enterprises, using his mob connections to infiltrate the construction and food business. After he became head of the Gambino crime family, he predominantly ran operations from his mansion in Staten Island, living lavishly and charging higher dues from his underlings. This caused resentment within Castellano's unit, specifically those who didn't approve of his succession, which included Gambino member Gotti.
Hit by indictments and charges at the federal and state level, Castellano was suddenly murdered in 1985 by the temperamental Gotti, who feared Castellano was going to get rid of him for secretly selling narcotics, which the latter forbade. Because the murder was unauthorized, many in the mafia ultimately blamed Gotti for the subsequent weakening of the Gambino crime family.
Born in 1930 in North Carolina, Frank Lucas found his way to Harlem, New York. Under the mentorship of Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson, Lucas would rise to become a powerful drug kingpin in Harlem in the 1960s and 70s, selling heroin and cutting out the middleman by buying straight from his suppliers in Southeast Asia.
By the 1970s, Lucas was raking in $1 million a day from his "Blue Magic" heroin and living large, which caught the eye of authorities. After a police raid at his New Jersey house in 1975, Lucas was convicted of drug charges on both the federal and state level and given a 70-year prison sentence. After serving just five years, Lucas was set free due to his cooperation as a state witness on drug cases. He later claimed remorse for his life of crime and the damage it did to his community. The 2007 film American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas, was based on his life. In 2019 Lucas died of natural causes at the age of 88.