Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"Mafia Summit" by Gil Reavill (2013)

Depending on where you lived in America prior to 1957 determined what you called the mafia. In Los Angeles it was the “Combination”; Chicago had the “Fix”; New York had the “Mob”; and everyone knew they were connected. That is, everyone but J. Edgar Hoover, who didn’t admit the Mafia even existed until after the release of the Valachi papers in the early 1960’s. And since Valachi referred to the syndicate as La Costra Nostra, or, “This Thing of Ours”; rather than the Mafia; Hoover still insisted that he was right. There was no Mafia. Essentially, Hoover saved America from the Communists, but in doing so,  gave it to the mob.

Gil Reavill has done a superb job in researching, as well as writing, this detailed history of the mob in America, while telling the story behind the infamous Apalachin Conference in 1957 and the repercussions which evolved from that incident.

New York State Trooper Sergeant Edgar Croswell had been keeping an eye on local resident Joe Barbara for years. Their first encounter involved gas siphoning during the last days of the Second World War. But when Sgt. Croswell noticed an assemblage of high priced, late model automobiles; dozens of them; parked at Mr. Barbara’s home one morning in November of 1957, he ran the plates, and changed the course of the history of the mob in America. He also shook up J. Edgar Hoover’s little fiefdom, which had been busy chasing Communists for so long that they didn’t even have a clue about this organized  criminal element, and how far they had penetrated our very own government.

Along with the story of the Summit the author has also told the story of the syndicates in the various cities across America and how they became united. Tracing the mob wars back to the Castellammarese clan he draws a clear picture of how the power struggles of the past led to a nation-wide criminal organization which held ownership in legitimate businesses; using the profits to buy politicians and evade the law for decades.

The first real mob “convention” took place in 1928 in Cleveland. It was held at the Statler Hotel for the express purpose of deciding who controlled what territories. This was a result of the Castellammarese ‘war”. The meeting was called by Joseph Porrello, also known as the Sugar Baron. That meeting was broken up before any real progress could be made, but is acknowledged as the first summit of its kind.

The next time the mob held a meeting was in 1929 in Atlantic City. That meeting was spoofed in the hit movie “Some Like It Hot”, with many of the characters bearing similar, if not exact nicknames of the mobsters who attended the conference.

After that was the 1931 meeting held in Chicago at the Congress Hotel. This meeting was held to codify national commission to settle disputes.  By 1946 the mob leaders met again in Havana to discuss the new business of trafficking in heroin. Present at that meeting were Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and the newly freed; and deported; Lucky Luciano, who flew into Cuba from Italy with a fake passport.

One of the most interesting parts of this book was how far into our everyday life the mob had gone. Take a bottle of soda as an example. The main ingredient was sugar, and as such, it was a valuable commodity, ripe for manipulation. Cuba was important not only for gambling and drugs, but sugar as well. When Castro took over in the late 1950’s, we lost our sugar holdings, which affected the price of a bottle of soda for millions of Americans.

One of the reasons we went to such great lengths to overthrow Castro was sugar, which was vital to the still thriving, tax free bootleg liquor industry in America. Local bootleggers could not simply buy a thousand pounds of sugar locally without arousing suspicion. It had to be bought on the black market, which is where the mob came into play. The price of sugar rose drastically after Castro took over, and cost the mob a tremendous amount of money in lost profits here at home as well as in the casinos in Havana.

The story of the Summit at Apalachin on November 14, 1957 is well known. The images of mobsters, dressed in expensive suits, running through the late fall woods, slipping and sliding in their pointed toes shoes is a part of our culture. But the story behind the officer who precipitated the raid, and the light which was shed upon the existence of the mob in America, is a story that has never really been told in such detail as by Mr. Reavill. His attention to the details of the history leading up to the Apalachin Summit; as well as the results of exposing the connections of the various crime families in America; is fascinating and informative.

With an appendix listing the names and details of the various bosses, coupled with a chapter by chapter section of notes; along with an extensive bibliography; make this a lively and educational read for anyone interested in the history behind all of the movies about organized crime in America. 

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