Born: January 26, 1891, Lauripoli, Calabria, Italy
Died: February 18, 1973, New York, New York
Nicknames: The Prime Minister, Uncle Frank
Associations: Lucky Luciano, Genovese crime family, the Commission, Joe “The Boss” Masseria, Johnny Torrio, Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky
Frank Costello was an influential mobster who survived several Mob wars, government scrutiny and an assassination attempt to control the powerful national Commission of Mafia bosses founded by Lucky Luciano.
Born Francesco Castiglia in Italy, Costello came to the United States in 1895 to settle in Manhattan. Costello, along with other future mobsters, was active as a youth with the Five Points Gang in Lower Manhattan, and was jailed for assault, robbery and weapons possession at least four times from 1908 through 1918. In 1918, he married and vowed never again to carry a gun. He would not go to jail again for almost 40 years.
Costello worked with a “who’s who” of early mobsters to capitalize on the illegal sale of alcohol during Prohibition. His associates included Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Vito Genovese, Tommy Lucchese, Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Bill Dwyer, Dutch Schultz and, most important of all, Lucky Luciano. Costello, with Luciano, joined the bootlegging and rackets organization of Joe “The Boss” Masseria in 1922, but he also worked closely with rum-running Irish gangs (including Dwyer’s), and that prompted him to change his name to the more Irish-sounding Costello.
Dwyer and Costello were indicted for importing liquor to New York City docks in 1926, but a jury deadlocked in 1927 and the charges against Costello were dropped. Dwyer, however, was convicted of bribing a U.S. Coast Guard official, and Costello took over his friend’s bootlegging operations in New York. That move caused friction and eventually a war with other Dwyer lieutenants. While Costello lost some of his business operations in the conflict, his influence as a mobster continued to grow. By 1928, Costello had formed a critical alliance with Luciano, Lansky,Siegel and Chicago’s Johnny Torrio.
In 1929, the dictatorial Masseria went to war with a fellow Sicilian challenger named Salvatore Maranzano for control of the New York City liquor, gambling and prostitution rackets. Costello and Luciano played both sides of the bloody Castallammarese War, which Maranzano won – but Maranzano would unilaterally name himself Boss of All Bosses, and as a direct result, with the help of gunmen provided by Luciano, would be dead by gunfire by the end of 1931. Luciano took over the top spot of New York’s most powerful crime family and became “chairman of the board” of the Five Families known as “the Commission,” with Vito Genovese as top deputy (“underboss”) and Costello as his powerful “consigliere,” or top adviser.
Costello helped the Luciano family expand operations to include slot machines in Louisiana in a deal with Governor Huey Long and New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello (the Louisiana contingent got 10 percent of the take). Costello, with Lansky, invested in illegal gambling in Florida and Cuba, and he started standardizing the system of taking and distributing bets among bookies, not just in New York, but nationally. Expanding gambling operations nationally and internationally was a smart move once Prohibition ended in 1933.
In 1936, Luciano was convicted on prostitution charges and sentenced to decades in jail. Genovese took over the top spot, but was indicted a year later on three-year-old murder charges and fled to Italy, leaving Costello in control of Luciano’s former operation. He continued the prostitution and gambling rackets while expanding legitimate businesses such as large poultry and meatpacking operations. He avoided drug importation, a profitable sector favored by Genovese, who had become a top Mafia boss in Italy.
Genovese had, in Italy, formed an alliance with the fascist leadership and a friendship with dictator Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law (to whom he allegedly provided cocaine). During World War II, as a favor to Mussolini, Genovese allegedly ordered the murder of an Italian anti-fascist publisher in New York City, a hit carried out by a Bonanno crime family enforcer. But in 1943, with the triumph of the Allies over fascist Italy, Genovese switched sides and worked for the Allied occupation government. Nonetheless, he still faced charges for the 1934 murder, and in 1945 he was shipped back to New York to face prosecution.
During the trial, two of the three government witnesses were murdered, and the prosecution collapsed. In 1946, Genovese was released, and he immediately started to work toward reclaiming his position as boss of the family now controlled by Costello.
In 1951, Costello was subpoenaed to appear before the Kefauver Committee. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and his Senate colleagues agreed that Costello could appear before the committee with only his hands televised, but as Costello ducked some questions and refused to answer others, he nervously twisted his palms together, probably making his television testimony even more dramatic than it otherwise would have been. Costello eventually walked out of the hearings.
This and other setbacks made the 1950s an unhappy decade for Costello, who was humiliated publicly when the media learned that he had consulted a psychiatrist. Also testifying before the Kefauver hearings was Costello’s deputy, Willie Moretti, who revealed details of the Mob’s infiltration of legitimate businesses. Moretti was subsequently assassinated by other mobsters in 1951.
In 1952, Costello was convicted of contempt for walking out of the Senate hearing. He served 14 month on that charge. In 1954, Costello was convicted and ordered to serve five years for tax evasion. He served several years before the conviction was overturned on appeal.
In the meantime, Genovese was quietly building his coup against Costello. In May 1957, on Genovese’s orders, hitman Vincent “The Chin” Gigante shot Costello in the head. Luckily for Costello, the wound was superficial. It was close enough, though, for Costello, who retired from the top spot and surrendered control of the Luciano family to Genovese. The family established by Luciano and built by Costello would now be known as the Genovese crime family.
Costello still controlled and profited from gambling operations around the United States, including some in Las Vegas, and, although his citizenship was stripped from him in 1961, continued to live in New York. He was considered a top Mafia boss and commanded respect from Mob capos who turned to him for advice. He maintained his friendship with Luciano (who died in Italy in 1962) and Lansky. Costello died of natural causes in 1973.