Joseph Bonanno Biography

Activist, Organized Crime (1905–2002)
Joseph Bonanno, known as Joe Bananas, led one of the top New York crime families in the New York from the 1930s to the 1960s.


Joseph Bonanno was born on Jan. 18, 1905 in Castellammare del Golfo, Italy. He studied sailing until the rise of Mussolini and he left the country. In 1924 immigrated illegally to the U.S. and began a lucrative bootlegging business. Mobster Salvatore Mara

Early Life

Organized crime figure, author. Born on January 18, 1905, in Castellammare del Golfo, Italy. Joseph Bonanno led one of the top crime families in the New York area for thirty years, spanning from the 1930s to the 1960s. He had the distinction of being one of the few mob bosses to ever get a chance to retire from organized crime.

Born into a powerful Sicilian family, Bonanno saw firsthand how men of influence—“men of the old Tradition”—could serve as “a sort of shadow government which existed alongside the official government,” he later explained. These “men of honor” controlled businesses and politicians and served as middlemen in disputes and other endeavors, he wrote in A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno.

Bonanno first came to the United States in 1908 when he and his family moved into a largely Sicilian neighborhood in Brooklyn. There his father, Salvatore Bonanno started two businesses—a pasta factory and a tavern. Following the Sicilian tradition, his father became a man of influence and was known by the nickname “don Turridru.”

Around the age of seven, Joseph Bonanno returned to Castellammare with his family. The reason for their short stay in America, he later explained in his autobiography, was most likely because tensions between his family and the rival Buccellato family. A few years after returning to Sicily, his father was drafted into the Italian army to fight in World War I. He survived his time on the Austrian front, but he came home badly wounded. In December 1915, Bonanno lost his father who had succumbed to his injuries. He suffered another personal loss five years later when his mother died.

As a teenager, Bonanno wanted to become a sailor. He went to Trapani to study at a nautical preparatory school there for a year before enrolling at the Joeni Trabia Nautical Institute in Palermo. In response to the rise of Benito Mussolini to power in the early 1920s, Bonanno became an anti-fascist activist, according to his autobiography. His activities got him suspended from school, and he ended up leaving the country.

Coming to the U.S.

In 1924, Bonanno made his way to the United States. He entered the country illegally, taking a boat to Florida from Cuba. With help from some of his family already living America, Bonanno was bailed out of a detention center and made his way to Brooklyn. There he lived with his relatives for a time before striking out on his own.

Before long, Bonanno got involved in one of the most lucrative illegal businesses of the time—bootlegging. Prohibition, which banned the production and sale of alcohol, created a thriving underground industry. Bonanno also showed some business acumen in the legitimate enterprises as well, expanding an uncle’s bakery operation. Throughout his life, he would work a variety of endeavors—from the criminal to the commercial. Bonanno was arrested for running guns around this time, according to The New York Times, but the charges were dropped.

Bonanno eventually went to work for Salvatore Maranzano as an enforcer. Maranzano’s operations included bootlegging and bookmaking rackets among other criminal pursuits. Taking the young Bonanno under his wing, Maranzano served an underworld mentor to the up-and-coming mobster. Bonanno also provided Maranzano with invaluable advice and support during his clash with fellow Sicilian crime figure Joseph Masseria—in what has been called the Castellammarese War. The war ended with Masseria’s death in April 1931. Maranzano’s victory was short-lived, however. He was killed the following September by men hired by Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese.

Head of the Family

After Maranzano’s murder, Bonanno became the head of the Maranzano crime family (later referred to as the Bonanno crime family) at the young age of twenty-six. It was one of the five ruling crime families of the New York area. In his new role, Bonanno served on the Commission, a council of crime bosses, which was intended to keep the peace among its constituents’ gangs.

That same year, Bonanno married Fay Labruzzo. The couple eventually had three children together—Salvatore (often called “Bill”) in 1932, Catherine in 1934, and Joseph Jr. in 1945. Also in 1945, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Over the years, Bonanno faced health challenges, suffering his first heart attack in 1951 while staying in Tucson, Arizona.

Bonanno also almost lost his U.S. citizenship around this time. In 1953, federal prosecutors sought to void his citizenship. They said that he lied on his application for naturalization by not mentioning the $450 fine he had received for violating federal labor laws at his garment business in the early 1940s. The case was later dismissed.

Overcoming this legal obstacle, Bonanno and his organization continued to thrive. Two of the New York underworld’s five families were united in marriage in 1956 when Bonanno’s son Bill wed mob boss Joseph Profaci’s niece Rosalie Profaci. The wedding was an elaborative affair held at New York’s posh Astor Hotel and featured entertainment by Tony Bennett among others. More than 3,000 people attended the reception, including such top organized crime figures as Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese.

Trouble with the Law

Despite his prominent role in organized crime, he largely managed to keep a relatively low profile until 1957. That October, Bonanno was questioned in relation to the murder of fellow mob boss Albert Anastasia and then released. He and tens of other organized crime figures, including Carlo Gambino, Joseph Profaci, and Vito Genovese, were arrested in a raid on a home in Apalachin, New York, in what authorities considered to be some type of special underworld meeting.

Bonanno along with several other attendees were indicted on conspiracy to obstruct justice charges in 1959, but he never stood trial. He had a second heart attack that year while waiting for his case to be heard, and it was later dropped.

Over the years, Bonanno had been dubbed “Joe Bananas” by the press—a nickname his despised. He strove for respectability. He invested in a number of legitimate businesses, including a dairy farm, a cheese company, and a funeral home. Some of these operations helped with his illegal activities. According to several media reports, Bonanno is credited with creating the “double coffin”—a coffin with a special compartment for disposing of a corpse beneath another body prepared for burial.

In 1963, Bonanno was named as a leading mob figure by Joseph Valachi in his testimony before a Senate subcommittee. A trip to Canada that same year brought more trouble. He went there to see about investing in a cheese company, but he ended up being arrested in Montreal for lying on his immigration-card application, according to his autobiography. Again, the mob figure was in hot water over the $450 labor-related fine he received in the early 1940s. After spending several days inside a Canadian prison, he was released and no charges were filed against him. It was the first time Bonanno had spent any time in a cell, and the experience unnerved him.

Fighting In the Families

Bonanno faced another hair-raising challenge the following year. On October 21, 1964, he was abducted by two gunmen in front of an apartment building in Manhattan. One of the men reportedly said, “Joe come with us—the boss wants to see you.”

As a strange coincidence, Joseph Bonanno was supposed to appear in front of a federal grand jury around this time. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) theorized that Bonanno was kidnapped to put an end to a power struggle within the mob. In the mid-1960s, he was caught up in a dispute between different factions within the New York mob. Bonanno supported Joe Magliocco, the head of the Profaci family, at a time when many members of Magliocco’s organization were defecting to other organizations. Some thought Bonanno was the driving force behind Magliocco and was out to eliminate Tommy Lucchese and Carlo Gambino. In his autobiography, however, Bonanno disputed this claim.

According to his autobiography, Bonanno was kidnapped by men working for his estranged cousin Stefano Magaddino, an ally of Lucchese and Gambino. He was held for several weeks and then released. Some reports indicate he was set free after promising to retire from organized crime. He also appointed his son Bill as his second-in-command, or consigliere, around this time—another unpopular move that increased tensions within his own organization. Some thought he was setting his son to take over the family after him

After his release, Bonanno went into hiding and in his absence, his son and others loyal to Bonanno struggled for control of their crime family. Longtime Bonanno friend Gaspar DiGregorio had been chosen by the Commission to run the organization in his absence, but Joseph Bonanno reportedly did not accept the Commission’s ruling. The clash between these two forces was known as the Banana War in the press, and Bill Bonanno himself survived an assassination attempt in January of 1966. That May, Joseph Bonanno emerged from hiding and surrendered to authorities to face obstruction of justice charges for failing to appear in front a 1964 federal grand jury investigating organized crime. (This charge was postponed indefinitely in 1971.)

FBI and Conviction

In February of 1968, Bonanno had his third heart attack. He soon reportedly retired to Tucson, Arizona, making him of the few family leaders to leave the criminal underground alive. Paul Sciacca took control of the Bonanno family operations in New York.

Bonanno’s reported retirement proved to be anything but quiet. His home was damaged by a bomb later that year, which was one of a series of attacks said to have been orchestrated by an FBI agent to stir up tension among mobsters in the area. Two years later, Bonanno was tried in Arizona on charges related to trying to extort false testimony to obtain a new trial for imprisoned mobster Charlie Battaglia. He was acquitted that March.

Prosecutors were finally successful in their efforts to secure a conviction against Bonanno in 1980. He was arrested on obstruction of justice-related charges the previous year, stemming from an investigation into a money laundering scheme allegedly run by his sons. He was found guilty of conspiracy to interfere with a federal grand jury. After several delays because of his ill health, Bonanno was eventually sentenced to five years in prison, which was later reduced. He served eight months for his first felony conviction beginning in December of 1983.

Autobiography and Arrest

Earlier that same year, Bonanno’s autobiography, A Man of Honor, was released. He had co-written the tome with Sergio Lalli, which played up his commitment to Sicilian tradition and his career as a businessman, calling himself “a venture capitalist.” Acknowledging some involvement in the traditional rackets of bootlegging, bookmaking, and loan-sharking, Bonanno denied that his organization engaged in prostitution and narcotics trafficking because it was against the “code.” Authorities have disputed this claim.

Drawing national interest, the book also caught the attention of then-U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Rudy Giuliani. He and fellow prosecutor Michael Chertoff wanted him to testify about the Commission in an organized crime case they were working on. A federal judge in 1985 ordered Bonanno to testify, but Bonanno’s lawyers argued that ill health prevented him from complying with the order.

His refusal led to a fourteen-month stint in a federal medical facility for prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. In November of 1986, Bonanno was released from the facility and returned to his home in Tucson.

Later Years

Bonanno returned to the spotlight in 1995 with his ninetieth birthday celebration. Approximately 300 friends and family members gathered to honor the retired mob figure, including actor Alex Rocco and author Gay Talese. Talese had worked with Bonanno’s son Bill on the 1971 Mafia saga Honor Thy Father.

In 1999, his life made the small screen in the Showtime miniseries, Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story. A series of actors played Bonanno at different ages, including Martin Landau played Bonanno, and the project was co-produced by Bill Bonanno.

Around this time, Bonanno suffered a stroke. His health continued to decline, and he died on May 11, 2002, in Tucson. Joseph Bonanno will be best remembered for the crime family he established—one that continues to this day.

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