Stefano Magaddino, who ran a crime network based in Buffalo for more than 50 years, inadvertently lit the fuse that led to the demolition of the nationwide underworld organization known as the Mafia.
That’s an obvious assumption to draw from “Mafia Summit,” an extensive examination of the 1957 conclave of mob bosses at Joseph Barbara’s sprawling estate in upstate Apalachin.
Follow the logic:
• The gathering of more than 100 of the nation’s crime lords took place shortly after the murder of New York City boss Albert Anastasia. It was needed to carve up his lucrative Brooklyn-based rackets and come to some decision about heroin distribution in the United States.
• Chicago boss Sam Giancana wanted to meet in his secure-from-police territory, but the power-thirsty Magaddino, long among the Mafia’s hierarchy, demanded the summit take place in his criminal domain. Writes Gil Reavill:
“Magaddino – wheedling, pressuring, calling in markers – engineered the final choice of venue for the summit. He craved recognition within the sprawling network of organized crime. Hosting the big mob summit was a plum, and Magaddino felt he merited a plum.”
• An alert state trooper and his fellow lawmen exposed the gathering by stopping and questioning dozens of participants fleeing the estate in cars and snaring others tromping through the woods in camel-hair topcoats.
• Their actions touched off a powder-keg of publicity, shining the media spotlight on a national crime network that long had been ignored and, in some quarters, denied. Again, from Summit:
“The most lasting repercussions of the Apalachin summit were … inflicted by the press, which meted out punishment in the form of wide-ranging and often derisive exposure.”
• Congressional hearings, investigations, indictments and trials followed for mobsters no longer able to hide. Even more significant, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was forced to recognize a criminal empire he had long argued did not exist.
• Convictions of 21 visitors to the Barbara estate were thrown out by a federal appeals court, which ruled no crime had been committed by men with criminal records getting together. That prompted a Notre Dame law professor to take notice of the legal premise and develop the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law passed in 1970 that gives prosecutors the legal ammunition to convict mob bosses.
RICO was the Mafia’s death knell.
So that, in summary, explains how Magaddino’s insistence to meet in upstate New York rather than “safer” regions led to the downfall of the criminal network of which he had been a reigning power since it was formed in 1931.
Of course, as Reavill writes, numerous factors played a part in the downfall of the Mafia, but if the summit had not been held at the Barbara estate and had gone undetected, those factors might never have come into play.
“Summit” has strong Buffalo overtones, Magaddino being the strongest. But others in Magaddino’s empire also attended, among them his brother, Antonino, his son-in-law, James LaDuca, his lieutenant, Roy Carlisi, and, especially, a Buffalo civic leader whose public accolades and successful business practices belied any connection to such a nefarious organization.
But there was John C. Montana, Buffalo taxi cab magnate, former city councilman, police club man of the year, traipsing through the woods surrounding Barbara’s estate, caught by troopers while trapped on a fence he was trying to scale. He told them his new Cadillac had developed brake and wiper problems and he went to Barbara’s in search of a mechanic. They didn’t believe him.
“No one picked up in the aftermath of Apalachin better symbolized the mob’s infiltration into the mainstream world than” Montana, writes Reavill. “It’s hapless John C. Montana, no one’s idea of a mob boss but rather an alabaster citizen, who somehow stands out from all the other trout. Not only for his elaborate barbed-wire balancing act, but for the elaborate facade he had been able to maintain through the years.”
“Summit” venerates the trooper who touched off the mob bust, Edgar Croswell. Reavill outlines his upbringing, his police career and follows him as he testifies in hearing after hearing, in trial after trial, about what he saw and did on that November day in 1957. His action and those of his fellow lawmen “threw the mobsters up in the air, where everyone could take a shot at them,” Reavill writes in quoting Croswell.
But “Summit” takes another man named Edgar to task for denying the existence of the criminal network to fortify his status as the nation’s chief crime enforcer. Then, following Apalachin and its notoriety, Hoover, longtime head of the FBI, ordered his agents to stealthily spy on suspected mobsters with hidden cameras and wiretaps. The trouble, as Reavill notes, was the maneuvers were illegal, and every case brought to court based on information gathered surreptitiously without a judge’s imprimatur, was dismissed.
The Kennedys have featured roles in Reavill’s work. Especially Bobby, who helped his congressional bosses attack the mob, then did it himself when named attorney general by his brother. And the irony that the paternal head of the Kennedy clan, their father Joseph, did business with the mob during Prohibition wasn’t lost on Reavill.
Any mob book worth its salt must include mayhem, and “Summit” details significant mob hits, where they place and, even better, why.
Reavill writes like the screenwriter and playwright he is. He spices his work with street jargon and mobspeak and paints gritty pictures with wordplay more often heard in poker games than in books. And his screenwriting penchant for terse dialogue to get across a point brightens “Summit.” Take, for instance, this wiretap-captured exchange between Magaddino and Giancana shortly after the summit:
Gianacana: “I hope you’re satisfied. Sixty-three of our top guys made by the cops.”
Magaddino: “I got to admit you’re right, Sam. It would have never have happened in your place.”
Mafia Summit: J.Edgar Hoover, The Kennedy
Brothers and the Meeting That Unmasked the Mob
By Gil Reavill
St. Martin’s Press
303 pages, $26.99
Lee Coppola, the retired dean of the St. Bonaventure University journalism school, is a former prosecutor and a former News reporter on the mob and many other subjects.