Joseph C. Bonanno came to power in 1931 with the assassination of Sicilian-born Mafia boss Salvatore Maranzano in New York
in the culmination of the legendary Castellammarese War, which marked the beginning of the modern age of organized crime in America
. Just five months earlier Maranzano had wrested the top slot from Giuseppe Joe the Boss Masseria, the old-fashioned Mustache Pete who had ruled the Italian-American gangs in New York City
with an iron fist. Masseria had been gunned down one spring afternoon at his favorite Coney Island
restaurant. Maranzano was slightly more forward thinking that Masseria, but to the young Turks champing at the bit to do things their way, he was just another Mustache Pete who needed to be replaced. Charles Lucky Luciano, who had been Masserias second in command, was the prime architect of the plan to overthrow all the old-timers.
Joseph Bonanno in his autobiography, A Man of Honor,
claims that he knew nothing of the plot to kill Maranzano, a statement that defies mob logic. If he had been as loyal to Maranzano as he says, then he too would have been assassinated. But in fact he benefited greatly from Maranzanos demise, becoming the boss of a sizeable portion of Maranzanos gang. At age 26, he became the youngest crime boss in America
Bonanno had a gift for making money, and unlike the narrow-minded Mustache Petes, he boldly diversified his operations. Under Bonanno, the family raked in profits from gambling, loan-sharking, and narcotics. Interestingly, like The Godfathers Don Corleone, Bonanno vociferously condemned drug dealing and denied ever having any part in it, but in fact, as Carl Sifakis states in The Mafia Encyclopedia, the Bonanno Family was one of the major suppliers of drugs in New York City. Bonanno also had interests in motels, the garment industry, and a funeral parlor.
With the sanction of his cousin Stefano Maggadino, the mob boss of Buffalo
, Bonanno started rackets in Canada
. He claimed Arizona
for himself, starting a realty and insurance company in Tucson
and buying into a nearby cotton ranch. He edged into California
where the local mob families (mockingly known as the Mickey Mouse Mafia) were hardly making a dent. Bonanno also bought into a cheese factory in Wisconsin
and owned a 280-acre dairy farm in upstate New York
. Bonanno invested in Cuban casinos with Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky and explored Haiti
as another possible gambling destination.
By the early 1960s Bonannos wildly ambitious ventures caused grumbling within the ranks of the family. Many of his soldiers complained that he was neglecting the New York
operations in favor of his other holdings. Some of the other New York
bosses disapproved of the way he conducted business, but Bonanno considered himself a cut above his peers and the only true man of honor among them. Fortunately for him, his most outrageous impulses were kept in check by his closest ally, Joe Profaci, boss of what would later become known as the Colombo Family. But when Profaci died of cancer in 1962, Bonannos ambitions got the better of him, and he decided to install himself as the rightful boss of all bosses. He enlisted Profacis successor, Joe Magliocco, into a plot to assassinate those he felt stood in his way, including prominent New York bosses Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese, Los Angeles boss Frank DeSimone, and Bonannos own cousin, Buffalo boss Stephano Maggadino.
Bonanno and Magliocco agreed to split the killings with Magliocco taking care of the New York
bosses. He gave the assignment to a trusted hitman, Joe Colombo. But when Colombo
weighed the odds, he came to the conclusion that Bonanno and Magliocco were the wrong horses to bet on, so instead of carrying out the hits, he informed Lucchese and Gambino of the plot against them. They in turn notified the Mafia Commission.
The Commission ordered Bonanno and Magliocco to appear before them and account for themselves. Magliocco obeyed their order and confessed to taking part in the plot. As punishment, the Commission forced him to retire and installed hitman Joe Colombo as his replacement. The Commission could have meted out a harsher sentence, but Magliocco was in poor health and in fact died the next year. The Commission was saving the real retribution for the mastermind of the plot, Bonanno. But instead of facing the music, Bonanno defied them and refused to appear. Furious with his insolence, the Commission dethroned him and declared a disaffected Bonanno Family capo, Gaspar DiGregorio, as the new boss.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia
With the family now divided into two factions, tensions on the street ran high. The long knives were out for Joe Bonanno, and it was his cousin Stephano Maggadino who got to him first, having him kidnapped. Maggadino held him at an upstate New York
farmhouse for six weeks, then had him driven to El Paso
, where Bonanno called a friend in Tucson
to come pick him up. Mob expert Jerry Capeci postulates in The Complete Idiots Guide to the Mafia
that the entire kidnapping episode was actually an ill-conceived hoax orchestrated by Bonanno himself to avoid testifying before the grand jury in Manhattan
. But whether it was real or fabricated, Bonannos disappearance was the spark that ignited what the newspapers would call the Banana War.