Saturday, September 12, 2020

Book Reviews: Lord High Executioner

Lord High Executioner
by Frank DiMatteo and Michael Benson
I've read other books by the author, a former gangster and friend and relative to other gangsters. This book is about the late Albert Anastasia aka The Volcano aka The Mad Hatter aka Lord High Executioner. Albert Anastasia was fellow gangster Lucky Luciano's favorite hit man, which when you consider the crews Lucky ran with is saying something. Anastasia was the prototypical scary man who makes other scary men tremble and mess themselves.

Anastasia liked killing. He was convicted of murder and sent to Death Row before his 21st birthday. 

As with the fictional Luca Brasi, older and more powerful hoodlums intervened to rescue Anastasia from his fate. For Anastasia it was apparently Lucky Luciano who "convinced" the District Attorney to set a new trial and eventually drop charges when witnesses changed their story or disappeared. So the volatile Anastasia always demonstrated tremendous loyalty and respect for Luciano, even though the two men were technically in different organizations.

Anastasia rose through the Mob ranks, making a reputation for himself as the violent Mafia satrap on the Brooklyn waterfront. Anastasia would later be the partial inspiration for the hoodlum portrayed in the Academy Award winning film On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, Lee Cobb, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden.

When Luciano decided to eliminate his own boss, Joe Masseria, Anastasia was one of the men Luciano picked for that job. Everyone in the 1930s and 1940s underworld milieu knew of Anastasia's aptitude at such work, which is why together with the similarly minded homicidal maniac Lepke Buchalter, Anastasia oversaw the Mob enforcement group later known as Murder Inc. 

No one knows how many murders Anastasia ordered during this period. Numbers range from a few hundred to as many as a thousand. Murder Inc. stayed busy with assignments across the nation. 

Anastasia was a hands on supervisor. He personally eliminated dozens of people. 

When Murder Inc. was destroyed by informers, under Luciano's direction the Mob intervened to ensure that the primary would be witness against Anastasia, the murderous and loquacious Kid Twist Reles, had a sudden and most fatal accident before he could testify against Anastasia. Anastasia was free. However, now he was "only" an underboss in the Brooklyn based Mangano Family. Anastasia didn't like his "bosses", the Mangano Brothers, Vincent (the formal boss) and Phillip (a top capo and second to his brother). The feeling was mutual. 

The Mangano Brothers resented Anastasia's income, his power, and his friendship with other bosses, who often worked directly with Anastasia without notifying them. After years of arguments, cold shoulders, and a few fistfights, Vincent Mangano disappeared. Phillip's corpse was found in a marsh off Jamaica Bay, No one was ever arrested or convicted for these crimes but everyone knew who did it.

Summoned before the Mafia Commission to explain himself Anastasia didn't admit to anything but did claim a right to self-defense. He took over as boss. Murdering your boss is theoretically itself a death sentence. Luciano had been deported; no one else dared say boo to The Mad Hatter.

As boss however Anastasia showed that age and status had not softened his aggressive and violent tendencies. If anything they became worse. Anastasia murdered witnesses to non-Mob crimes just because he saw them talking on television. 

Anastasia was making noise about taking a larger slice of Cuban rackets, something that alarmed the two leaders who already were dominant in Cuba, Santo Trafficante Jr. and Meyer Lansky. Mob leaders discussed the issue among themselves and came to an obvious decision. 

This book combines scholarly research and stories that DiMatteo heard from older friends and relatives, most of whom are now deceased. Some stories can't be verified or conflict with other sources. I don't know when this journalistic practice ended, but I did learn that apparently newspapers and radio used to print or broadcast the names and addresses of witnesses to crimes. It went something like this:

"John Sitting Duck, age 42, who lives at 15438 St. Johns Avenue, NYC and works the late shift at Schoen's Delicatessen on Sixth Street, told police officers that he saw Albert Anastasia and Pittsburgh Phil stab the victim at least fifteen times before shooting him twice. John Sitting Duck got a good look at both men and is willing to testify in open court."

Eventually, after enough witnesses either died or recanted their statements, newspaper editors figured out that gangsters also read. I finished this book quickly. It was entertaining but didn't have a whole lot of new information for me. 
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