Giuseppe Masseria

Giuseppe Masse­ria, known as ‘Joe the Boss’, start­ed his crim­i­nal career in a pro­fes­sion­al bur­glary gang. 

Giuseppe Masseria
Giuseppe Masseria

A Sicil­ian immi­grant from west­ern Sici­ly, Masse­ria arrived in Man­hat­tan around 1900.1 He began his crim­i­nal career as a pro­fes­sion­al bur­glar. In 1907, twenty-one-year-old Masse­ria received a sus­pend­ed sen­tence after break­ing into an apart­ment on Eliz­a­beth Street.2 Later that year, he was arrest­ed and dis­charged after mak­ing Black Hand threats against his own fam­i­ly.3 By 1908, he and his wife ran a saloon oppo­site the fam­i­ly home on Forsyth Street.4 Police believed Masse­ria was part of a pro­fes­sion­al bur­glary gang active through­out the region, after he was caught attempt­ing to break into a New Jer­sey home in 1911.5

Masse­ria and three asso­ciates were cap­tured in 1913, while try­ing to rob a Bow­ery pawn­shop con­tain­ing prop­er­ty val­ued at $300,000. The gang was also sus­pect­ed of twelve other bur­glar­ies in the area. One of Masseria’s accom­plices, Giuseppe Ruffi­no, was the son-in-law of Sebas­tiano Di Gae­tano, the recent inter­im Mafia boss who had been sus­pect­ed of a Black Hand kid­nap­ing with Masse­ria in 1910.6

The police found an assort­ment of tools that “any bur­glar would have been envi­ous of.” They also dis­cov­ered fin­ger­prints at the scene that matched those taken from Masse­ria in 1907. The sci­ence of fin­ger­print iden­ti­fi­ca­tion had only been recent­ly intro­duced to US courts. At trial, a skep­ti­cal jury was given a live demon­stra­tion of its mer­its by a detec­tive from the Bertillon Bureau. The pros­e­cu­tion also had Masse­ria dis­play his impres­sive gold teeth to the court before his career as a bur­glar was final­ly ended with a four-and-a-half-year sen­tence in Sing Sing Prison.7

In 1921, Mafia lead­ers Ignazio Lupo, Giuseppe Morel­lo and other allies made a short trip to Paler­mo.8 The rea­son for their voy­age was later described in a con­fi­den­tial Secret Ser­vice report: 9 

When Lupo and Morel­lo were con­vict­ed fif­teen or six­teen years ago on our coun­ter­feit­ing case, new lead­ers arose. Since that time they have grown very strong and very pop­u­lar. Upon the release of Lupo and Morel­lo they tried to come back into power, but the new orga­ni­za­tion here in Amer­i­ca would not per­mit this. Con­se­quent­ly, Lupo and Morel­lo and a few of their old ‘stand­bys’ went to Sici­ly, tak­ing it up there with the main head­quar­ters endeav­our­ing to be put back in power. They also refused … since that time Morel­lo has moved to the West Side and both he and Lupo are liv­ing behind bars and shut­ters. Their assas­si­na­tion is expect­ed momentarily.

Fur­ther detail was given in the mem­oirs of Mafioso Nico­la Gen­tile. He explained that Lupo, Morel­lo and ten oth­ers had been con­demned to death by boss of boss­es Sal­va­tore D’Aquila at a meet­ing of the US Mafia’s Gen­er­al Assem­bly. “It was a ques­tion of power. D’Aquila was a very author­i­ta­tive fig­ure and that meant that those who didn’t sup­port him were con­demned to death.10 D’Aquila made peace with one of the con­demned men, Umber­to Valente, with the agree­ment that Valente would kill Masse­ria, who “at the time was capo of a New York bor­ga­ta” and a grow­ing threat to D’Aquila.11

The ongo­ing war result­ed in many casu­al­ties on both sides. Vin­cen­zo Ter­ra­no­va was assas­si­nat­ed in May 1922. He was gunned down out­side the Morel­lo fam­i­ly home at 338 East 116th Street.12 Later that day, Valente ambushed Masse­ria on lower Manhattan’s Grand Street in a chaot­ic gun bat­tle that left five inno­cent bystanders wound­ed. Masse­ria sur­vived a sec­ond assas­si­na­tion attempt in August that left anoth­er eight bystanders wounded. 

The bat­tle ended three days later, when Valente was killed on a crowd­ed Man­hat­tan Street.13 Masse­ria man­aged to escape con­vic­tion for any involve­ment with the shoot­ings and later relo­cat­ed his fam­i­ly from Man­hat­tan to the rel­a­tive safe­ty of Brook­lyn. He lived on Sixty-First Street, a short dis­tance from Frankie Yale’s neigh­bor­hood and close to his own con­sigliere, Save­rio Pol­lac­cia.14 

In Octo­ber 1922, the Secret Ser­vice learned that Masse­ria was involved with a large coun­ter­feit­ing oper­a­tion import­ing notes from Italy. He had set up head­quar­ters in Tommy Dyke’s Ital­ian Gar­dens restau­rant on Broome Street, where the pair were sus­pect­ed of work­ing togeth­er.15 Also sus­pect­ed was “Tony Cheese” San­tul­li, an ex-Sirocco-Tricker gang mem­ber who had been involved in the Camorra’s 1916 killing of gam­bler Giuseppe Ver­razano at the restau­rant.16

In July 1923, Masse­ria was seen at café run by a nephew of one of Giuseppe Morello’s close coun­ter­feit­ing allies. Masse­ria was try­ing to deter­mine whether a coun­ter­feit­er who claimed to belong to the D’Aquila Fam­i­ly was truly a mem­ber of the “Fratel­lan­za” (broth­er­hood) before agree­ing to do busi­ness with him.17 The coun­ter­feit­er in ques­tion had been try­ing to sell print­ing plates with­out D’Aquila’s knowl­edge.18 Although D’Aquila was also active in coun­ter­feit­ing, his deep-seated hatred toward Lupo and Morel­lo caused him to for­bid any of his clan to con­duct busi­ness with their fol­low­ers. Break­ing the rule meant cer­tain death.19 

The war­ring fam­i­lies made tem­po­rary peace in August 1923 after a large con­fer­ence at High­land, New York. It was agreed that Lupo would be brought back into the Fratel­lan­za – but Morel­lo was still to be exclud­ed. Yale explained to an infor­mant that peace had been declared between the coun­ter­feit­ing gangs, as some­thing “big was com­ing out” and they were plan­ning to work togeth­er. Yale and Masse­ria were involved togeth­er in large coun­ter­feit­ing schemes in the fol­low­ing weeks.20 

Con­flict between the Mafia Fam­i­lies flared-up again in 1928. Fifty-year-old Mafia leader D’Aquila was killed dur­ing a fam­i­ly visit to a doctor’s office in Man­hat­tan. The assas­si­na­tion was ordered by Masse­ria, who replaced D’Aquila as the new boss of boss­es, with Giuseppe Morel­lo as his sec­ond in com­mand. Masseria’s reign was brief. Both he and Morel­lo were killed in the “Castel­lam­marese War,” a vio­lent strug­gle for con­trol of the Mafia which began just two years later.21 Morel­lo was killed in August 1930 in Harlem at East 116th Street, bring­ing the career of the first boss of the US Mafia to an end. Masse­ria was assas­si­nat­ed eight months later in Coney Island.22 


1New York, State Cen­sus, 1905. New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Pop­u­la­tion Cen­sus Sched­ules, 1905; Elec­tion Dis­trict: A.D. 06 E.D. 16; City: Man­hat­tan; Coun­ty: New York. 40
2New York Munic­i­pal Archives. DA Record of Cases no. 58645, The Peo­ple vs. Giuseppe Lima and Joseph Masseria.
3The Stan­dard Union Thu Aug 1 1907. 12
4The Lloyd Sealy Library of John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice. Crim­i­nal Trial Tran­scripts (1883 – 1927) No. 1736. Peo­ple of the State of New York against Pietro Lagatut­ta and Giuseppe Masse­ria. (1913)
Sing Sing Prison Blot­ter for Giuseppe Masse­ria. (May 261913
5The New York Times (Apr 15, 1913) 7
Pas­sa­ic Daily News (Nov 13, 19111
6The New York Times (Apr 15, 1913) 7 
New York Tri­bune (Dec 10, 1910)
Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. The Informer. May 2014. Thomas Hunt. 64 
7The Evening World (Apr 14, 1913)
The New York Times (Apr 15, 1913) 7
New York Tri­bune (May 9, 1922) 1
Edmon­ton Jour­nal (May 3, 1913
New York Tri­bune (May 24, 1913) 8
Peo­ple against Lagatut­ta and Masse­ria (1913).
8U.S. Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion (here­after referred to as NARA), RG 87, Daily Reports of Agents, (here­after referred to as DRA). New York. Vol. 76 (Dec 21921
9NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 80 (Oct 51922
10Critch­ley, David (2009) The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca: The New York City Mafia, 1891 – 1931. New York: Rout­ledge. 155
 Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. 6468
11Gen­tile, Nick (1963) Vita di Capo­mafia. Rome. Edi­tori Riu­ni­ti. 78 – 79
12Brook­lyn NY Daily Eagle (May 81922
13Critch­ley. The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca. 155 – 156
Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. 79 – 85
The New York Times (May 9, 1922) 1 
New York Her­ald (Aug 9, 1922) 1 
New York Her­ald (Aug 12, 192216 
14New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Pop­u­la­tion Cen­sus Sched­ules, 1925; Elec­tion Dis­trict: 13; Assem­bly Dis­trict: 16; City: Brook­lyn; Coun­ty: Kings; Page: 24
U.S. Pass­port Appli­ca­tions, 1795 – 1925. NARA; Wash­ing­ton D.C.; Roll #: 1706; Vol­ume #: Roll 1706 — Cer­tifi­cates: 71250 – 71625, 02 Aug 1921-03 Aug 1921
15Buf­fa­lo Couri­er (Jan 4, 1920) 34 
NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 73 (Apr 9, 1921); Vol. 80 (Oct 5, 1922); Vol. 80 (Oct 18, 1922) (p.829); Vol. 80 (Oct 20, 1922) (p.869); Vol. 81 (Dec 23, 1922) (p.1217);
16The New York Times (Jan 11, 1914) 1 
Critch­ley. The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca. 120/127
NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 81 (Dec 23, 1922) (p.1217)
17The café was run by “Mimi” the nephew of Anto­nio Pugliesi. NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 84 (Jul 26, 1923) Morel­lo and mem­bers of the Pugliesi gang were the pall bear­ers at Giuseppe Boscarino’s Atlanta funer­al. (Morel­lo Atlanta Prison file) Pugli­sei, Lupo, and Morel­lo were said to con­trol a group in Atlanta that were seek­ing revenge on Secret Ser­vice agents. NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 70 (May 241920
18 NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 84 (Jul 301923
19NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 83 (Mar 20, 1923) Vol. 84  (Jul 14, 18, 301923
20NARA, RG 87, DRA. New York. Vol. 85 (Aug 28, 30, 1923) & (Sep 21, 25, 1923) ‘Messeri’, ‘Mas­sari’, ‘Maz­zari’ etc. men­tioned in the daily reports are believed to be incon­sis­tent spellings of Masse­ria: Vol. 84 (Jun 20, 1923) states that ‘Messeri’ had three broth­ers includ­ing John and Mike and rel­a­tives liv­ing in Cleveland. 
21Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. 88 – 89
Critch­ley. The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca. 157, 181, 185
Bonan­no, Joseph, and Ser­gio Lalli. A Man of Hon­our: the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of a God­fa­ther. Deutsch, 1983. 100 (morel­lo 2nd in command) 
22New York Times (Aug 16, 1930) & (Apr 16, 19311