Recently, we posted a hypothetical, but very interesting question on the Community Page of our YouTube Channel, Mob Fireside Chat, asking our subscribers to answer this question: “If you could have been any one of these Mafia bosses and lived the life they lived (only picking from these five men,) in your opinion, which boss would you choose to be? Before choosing, consider all the important factors of their life: the amount of money made, quality of life, length of life, how many years he was a top boss, time spent in prison, underworld trouble, overall quality of life, the respect and power they commanded within the underworld during their time in power, etc.”
The choices included Joseph Bonanno (New York, NY), Frank Costello (New York, NY), Paul DeLucia (Chicago, IL), Thomas Lucchese (New York, NY), and Joseph Zerilli (Detroit, MI).
There were many varying and interesting answers, but here is “The Other Guy’s” opinion on the topic.
Each of the five men listed was a top power during his time in the underworld. Each had their own characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, flaws, wins, and losses. But during their heyday, each one of these iconic Cosa Nostra figures ruled as the head of their own Mafia borgata.
So, admittedly, this is a very tough question.
And to be perfectly honest about it, I don’t know if there is any one answer that you could categorize as being 100% correct. I think it’s more of an “eye of the beholder” sort of thing, which is subject to where each of us chooses to put the handle on the cup, so to speak.
So considering all that, I will now give you my “two cents” on the subject at hand, okay, folks? Taking into account, of course, all the factors we asked you to consider, such as longevity, money made and assets accumulated, time spent behind bars (or not), underworld trouble, quality of life, length of life, overall respect and power as well as our personal likes and preferences as to the individuals we had to choose from.
Joseph Bonanno (New York) – His familial Sicilian “bloodline” alone speaks volumes for him. Dating back to his homeland of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, Joe Bonanno’s father, grandfather, uncles, cousins and closest allies were all top-notch “original” Mafiosi. Once in America, he was quickly recognized and absorbed as one of their own. He fought in the infamous Castellammarese War (as Salvatore Maranzano’s underboss, no less,) took over that Family as boss upon Maranzano’s 1931 assassination, and ran it for the next 35 years. Had a top seat on The Commission. Became a millionaire so many times over that it is almost incalculable. Accumulated more fixed assets during his lifetime than nearly any major Mafia boss. Plotted treachery against his fellow Mafia bosses. Yet, because he was so feared and powerful was still allowed to “retire” from the life and not get killed for his actions.
Negatives: But at the end of the day, he and his son Bill were deposed from power. He was “banished” from Cosa Nostra and lived the remainder of his life in exile as a “persona non grata.” So, that has to be taken into consideration, and IMO greatly hurts him in the voting. He also served about a year in prison in his twilight years after upstart Federal U.S. Prosecutor Rudy Giuliani jailed him for contempt of court.
But Joe lived to the very ripe old age of 97 years old and never had to worry about money for the rest of his life. So, that counts too!
Frank Costello (New York) – Born in Calabria, Frank Costello was another highly respected mafiosi who reigned supreme as one of the top bosses of New York’s Luciano Family (and, by extension, all of Cosa Nostra) for many decades. He was their decades-long consigliere, and later (with Lucky’s blessing), became its “de facto” boss. But he wasn’t a low-class hoodlum or gangster. Frank C was marveled at for being a major racketeer, bootlegger, and gambling kingpin. But never dabbling in narcotics or strong-arm and murder (although he did what had to be done in his lifetime), violence just wasn’t his way. He preferred a pen over a sword. He was quite possibly THE number one racketeer in the nation! A multimillionaire of incalculable wealth, both from illegal rackets and legal businesses. Costello was a rare breed indeed! A mafioso so savvy, so intelligent, that he was able to bridge the gap between the top rungs of the underworld and the highest levels of the upper world. (THAT is extremely rare!) He quite literally, and quite arguably, could have been categorized as New York’s most powerful politician (although he wasn’t a politician – in the traditional sense of the word, at all.) He was a kingmaker. He controlled Tammany Hall, state, and even national politicians, held numerous interests in Las Vegas casinos, owned entire skyscraper buildings on Wall Street in Manhattan, multimillion-dollars stock portfolios, the Kings Ransom Scotch Whiskey Distillery and other liquor labels, etc., etc., etc. The man, quite frankly, was an enigma.
Negatives: But he was jailed for contempt of Congress for a few years. And alas, at one point, his strength also became a weakness in that after his power was challenged by Vito Genovese with an attempted assassination on his life, Costello acquiesced and relinquished the throne to Genovese. Weakness? Maybe. But I view it differently. I view it as just another example of Costello’s prowess and overall superior intelligence.
The result was that Frank lived in splendor for the remainder of his lifetime in a waterfront mansion in Sands Points, LI, and at a luxurious penthouse apartment he owned along Central Park in midtown Manhattan. He died on silk pillows, under silk sheets in his own bed at his Long Island estate, wearing silk pajamas, at the ripe old age of 83.
Genovese was jailed for the rest of his life on a narcotics conviction, not even two years after he first deposed Frank from power. Vito died behind bars.
Paul DeLucia (Chicago) – Born in Naples, Italy, he was a young Camorrista dating back to his earliest days in Italy and served several years in prison as a young hoodlum back in Italy for a murder conviction before later winning parole. He fled to the U.S. after being charged with a second murder. Paul DeLucia, better known as “Paul (The Waiter) Ricca, was always a very shadowy racketeer, who first rose to power in Al Capone’s gang in Chicago during the 1920s Prohibition years and maintained his high level of power as a mafioso ruling over Chicago and other parts of the Midwest for decades to come. Yet, he started his criminal record with Chicago’s PD in 1943 when he was charged, and later jailed, for his participation in a million-dollar extortion scheme aimed at Hollywood, California’s movie studio industry. He was sentenced to a 10-year federal prison term. By the late 1950s, he was nailed once again, this time for income tax evasion. He was once again convicted and served another 3 years in jail. But despite it all, he and his acknowledged partner, Anthony (Joe Batters) Accardo, successfully ruled the Windy City through mob frontmen for years to come. The U.S. Government also harassed them for years with the threat of deportation back to his native Italy (although, in the end, DeLucia remained in the U.S.)
During his lifetime, Paul DeLucia became one of the wealthiest and most respected and feared mafiosi in the Midwest, and, by extension, one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in America. He also held a seat on the national “Commission” based in NYC. DeLucia died of natural causes in 1972. He was 74 years old.
Negatives: He served at least three prison terms that we know of. He died at a moderately young age, his mid-seventies. Most importantly, he was also forced to mostly remain in the shadows in his later years to avoid further law enforcement scrutiny, which only, naturally, reduced his freedom and overall quality of life.
Thomas Lucchese (New York) – Born in Palermo, Sicily. Similar to Costello in this respect, Tommy Lucchese was another low-key and savvy mafioso who was there from the beginning of the Mafia in America. He fought in the Castellammarese War, became underboss to East Harlem boss Tommy Gagliano and then became the boss himself of the Family that still bears his name. During his lifetime, Tommy Lucchese could probably best be described as the most “beloved” boss by any Family’s rank-and-file. His men reportedly loved him for his generosity and goodwill towards them. He was also well-known to have become one of the wealthiest Mafia bosses in history because of his ironclad control over the ILGWU, and, by extension, Manhattan’s garment manufacturing and trucking industries, and dozens of other important labor unions that held ironclad control over entire swathes of important industries and businesses. With his family’s deep control over the heroin importation racket, millions in shylock money, major gambling operations, and other illicit rackets, it’s easy to understand why the Lucchese Family was considered, pound for pound, to have been (at one time, anyway) the strongest borgata among New York’s Five Families. He had a top seat on The Commission. And, like Costello, he was also a major power broker with tons of politicians and police officials in his hip pocket. It is widely known that Lucchese and Costello shared power over New York’s political scene and were the strength at New York City Hall for their fellow Cosa Nostra brothers.
Negatives: On the downside? Tommy did serve several years behind bars in his youth for auto theft. Years later, unfortunately, he got brain cancer and passed away shortly thereafter at the relatively young age of only 67 years old. During his lifetime Tommy Lucchese was one of the most respected and powerful bosses Cosa Nostra ever had. But his career was cut short and halted by his mid-sixties because of a terrible battle with cancer.
Joseph Zerilli (Detroit) – He was born in Terrasini, Sicily in 1897. A very wealthy Mafia boss. During his long underworld career, aside from governing over the Motor City’s multimillion-dollar rackets, Joseph Zerilli also accumulated numerous legitimate businesses and holdings, including the famous Hazel Park Racetrack, huge parcels of land and income properties, hidden ownership points in several Las Vegas casinos, bakeries, trucking firms, manufacturing companies, restaurants and nightclubs, etc. He and his Family also helped control Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters International Union on behalf of all Cosa Nostra.
During the 1920s and 1930s, he fought several gangland wars in Detroit for control of the city’s underworld. But once in power, his status and power became such that he was a revered figure and one of the most respected Mafia bosses in the nation. By all accounts, he was also very respected and liked by his own rank-and-file Family membership. Together with his in-law and lifelong partner, Guglielmo (Black Bill) Tocco, these two mafiosi would rule over the City of Detroit from the mid-1930s until Zerilli’s death in 1977. A forty-plus yea,r uninterrupted reign. For years, Joe Zerilli also held a coveted seat on the Mafia’s national “Commission.” Joe Zerilli’s children also married NYC Mafia boss Joe Profaci’s children, further strengthening both the Zerilli and Profaci Families standing within the overall annals of Cosa Nostra.
Negatives: There aren’t many. I do not believe that Joe Zerilli was ever imprisoned. He became wealthy beyond most people’s dreams. He lived a quiet life well into his later years, far away from the glare of news cameras and police harassment. To the best of my knowledge, the borgata he headed remained internally peaceful with no internal wars or plots made to disrupt his leadership. There also weren’t as many gangland murders, and, subsequently, this resulted in fewer criminal investigations in Detroit compared to other Mafia-controlled cities. In my book, Joe was a sharp guy. Very sharp!
So there you have it, folks. “The Other Guy’s” views and opinions about the five Mafia leaders named above.
The bottom line? After weighing all the particulars and criteria I enumerated above, all the pluses and minuses, including quality of life and overall success? I think my choice as to whose life and career I would have wanted to have would be a tossup between Frank Costello and Joseph Zerilli.
For my money, it’s either “Frank C” or “Joe Z.”
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