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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 905

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This is the grave of Carlo Gambino.

Born in 1902 in Palermo, Sicily, Gambino would do more than perhaps anyone else to reinforce mid-20th century American stereotypes about Italians being violent gangsters. His family were mobsters in Sicily. Gambino came to the U.S. in 1921 joining cousins who were already here. It didn’t take him long to pick up on the family business, working for Joe Masseria, one of the most notorious gangsters of the 1920s. When Lucky Luciano killed Masseria, Gambino and his men began working for Vincent Mangano.

In 1937, Gambino was arrested and charged with tax evasion on a distillery he ran. He served 22 months in prison for this. It was the only time he would ever serve prison time, despite his many arrests and many horrible crimes. He rose the ranks, committing all the usual crimes of these thugs. After he had Albert Anastasia, head of the Anastasia crime family murdered in 1957 (done by Joey Gallo, who Bob Dylan ridiculously memorialized in his terrible song “Joey”) he became head what was the Mangano crime family. It was now the Gambino crime family. He then worked with Luciano to set up Vito Genovese on a drug charge that got him 15 years in prison. With Genovese out of the way, Gambino became the most important mobster in the nation, the head of Commission of the American Mafia.

Despite his endless crimes and scumbaggery, Gambino remained the head of the Commission from 1959 until his death. He was untouchable in a way unusual even for these elite mobsters. Interestingly, Gambino forbade his people from dealing drugs, which he personally hated. He would order anyone in his organization who dealt drugs murdered. This of course opened up a lot of space for other crime families to step in. After his son married the daughter of Tommy Lucchese in 1962, the two gangsters worked together to control New York airports and most of the organized crime in the city. Gambino also had connections around the nation, from Vegas to Kansas City to Detroit. He made a lot of money on his national network.

The American government wanted to get rid of Gambino for a long time, despite their inability to convict him of a major crime. They started deportation proceedings as early as 1953, but his bad heart gave him an excuse to keep delaying and claiming he couldn’t return to Italy. Although claiming bad health became standard procedure for mobsters, in this case it actually seems to be mostly true and he was in the hospital a lot. He was always subject to deportation because he came to the U.S. as a stowaway and even in 1921, that was illegal. But he constantly managed to avoid it, sometimes with convenient heart attacks, as happened in 1970.

Over time, Gambino’s opposition to dealing drugs seriously abated and he was involved in murders to control the drug trade. Finally, Gambino dropped dead of a heart attack in October 1976, just after watching the Yankees win the AL pennant. He was 74 years old.

I could probably go into more details, but I find these mobsters pretty boring. There has been plenty of talk that Vito Corelone was based on Gambino more than anyone else. It’s possible. After all, they were both anti-drug for awhile and they both preferred to stay behind the scenes, focus on the money, and avoid unnecessary flashiness. Not sure how true this actually is, but that comparison is frequently out there. But again, these people are a lot more interesting in the movies than they ever were in real life. In reality, they were tremendously boring people–violent thugs who never did anything that was for anything other than greed and perhaps antiquated Sicilian ideas of honor. They do make good movie characters though.

Carlo Gambino is buried in St. John Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other gangsters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Al Capone is in Chicago and Joey Gallo is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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