The Valachi Papers
Joseph Valachi was the first informant to get national attention. Press from around the country covered his testimony. The events that transpired to land Valachi on the witness stand were of soap opera caliber and could rival anything a writer could dream up.
Joe Valachi became a member of Salvatore Maranzano's organized crime family in the 1920s. He was officially “made” in 1930. After Maranza-no's murder, Valachi was moved into a crew led by Vito Genovese.
Valachi was a gangsters' gangster. He was a numbers runner, leg breaker, ruthless murderer, and in later years a drug trafficker before he was finally locked up. He was in prison on a fifteen- to twenty-year sentence for a drug charge when he decided to re-evaluate the oath he took when he was made.
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's war on organized crime turned up the heat and made turncoats of many Mafiosi. He called the Mafia “the enemy within,” a hostile force within our borders out to undermine the American way.
Joe Valachi was in a federal prison in Atlanta, sharing a cell with his former skipper, Vito Genovese. Vito was now the boss of the former Luciano family. He enjoyed the trappings of success, including a home in Atlantic Highlands, overlooking Raritan Bay in New Jersey. But Genovese's forays into drug trafficking netted him a prison sentence.
While in prison with Valachi, Genovese began to suspect that his loyal soldier was a traitor. Vito suspected Valachi was giving information to the authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence. He got the word out that Joe had to go.
Kiss Me, Guido
Vito Genovese publicly gave Joe Valachi the “kiss of death,” meaning that he was now a marked man. His days were numbered. There were three attempts on his life while behind bars. Even in prison, the Mafia could conduct business and have men killed. Valachi knew he would soon be whacked.
He got wind of who the hit man was, a fellow mobster also serving time. However, Joe mistakenly killed the wrong man after he thought he was being ambushed. The stone-cold killer who had seen so much violence in his life perhaps felt his first pangs of conscience when he learned that the man he clubbed to death with an iron pipe was not the man he thought he was. His sentence was amended from fifteen to twenty years to life imprisonment. It was then that Valachi fulfilled Vito Genovese's prophecy and become an informant.
There is much braggadocio and one-upmanship among low-level Mafiosi. It is therefore necessary to take much of Joe Valachi's testimony with the proverbial grain of salt. A man in his position would not be told much about his superior's plans, and his fellow soldiers tended to lie about their exploits to feed their egos and enhance their reputations.
Sing, Sing a Song
Valachi was placed under witness protection and guarded by 200 United States marshals. They were not going to let the Mafia get their hands on their prize songbird. The mob offered a $100,000 reward for Valachi's head on a platter. Valachi appeared before the McClellan Committee in 1963. He fingered 317 organized crime members and brought the name La Cosa Nostra into the vernacular. The testimony was enlightening but produced no quantifiable results. Not one Mafioso was jailed based solely on Valachi's testimony, but the one lasting vestige was that the five New York families were given the names of the bosses who were leading them at the time: Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese.
Valachi had no real view into the inner workings of the Commission, but his vast experiences gave the McClellan Commission and the general public an idea of how pervasive the Mafia's influence was, as well as a look at some of the stranger customs of the gangsters, including the lack of work on Mother's Day. There was probably much braggadocio in his testimony, and plenty of unreliable hearsay. Nevertheless, his pronouncements painted the picture of a brutal, nasty, and ruthless world: speaking of honor and codes while double-crossing and backstabbing, going to church on Sunday and beating a man to death on Monday, sexually distancing themselves from their wives when they became the mothers of their children while keeping girlfriends on the side.
Joseph Valachi's Senate hearing
Courtesy of AP Images
New York City gangster Joseph M. Valachi sits at the witness table, right, facing members of the Senate Investigation subcommittee as he reveals more of the inner workings of a major crime syndicate in Washington, DC, on Oct. 8, 1963. In the background are four charts of crime families with names and pictures of mobsters indentified by Valachi. From left are Giuseppe Magliocco family, top; Joseph Bonanno family, bottom; Carlo Gambino family; Gaetano Lucchese family; and the Vito Genovese family.
The Mafia orchestrated something akin to a publicity campaign against Valachi's testimony. Not everyone on the side of the law bought a lot of Vala-chi's claims either.
There have been some notable informants since the Mafia's inception. Camorra gangsters Raffaelle Daniello and Tony Notaro testified against their bosses in 1918. Gangsters from New York, Chicago, and New Orleans provided information to police long before the FBI became interested in the Mafia.
Vito Genovese was not considered the Boss of Bosses by most in the know. Even in far-off Italy, Lucky Luciano remained the boss until his death in 1962. And Luciano's mouthpiece in America was his old friend Meyer Lan-sky. Valachi, not the brightest bulb in the underworld, and more than a little xenophobic, did not give Lansky his due simply because he was Jewish.
Other Mafia informants claimed Valachi talked out of both sides of his mouth long before he turned rat. And claims surfaced that he might have been an informant long before he officially went to the feds.
Another attack on his character was in his Mafia nickname. He had been called Joe Cargo as a young man but over time other Mafiosi began calling him “Joe Cago.” According to mob sources, they were not simply mispronouncing his moniker. It was a sign of how they felt about him. Cago is an Italian word for “feces.”
Joe Valachi tried to commit suicide in 1966 but failed. In 1971, in a Texas prison, Valachi died after an acute gall bladder attack (or heart attack, depending on the source). He was sixty-six years old. Before his death, Vala-chi cooperated with bestselling author Peter Maas on the book The Valachi Papers. It was later made into a movie starring Charles Bronson. At least Valachi exacted revenge on his old boss. Vito Genovese lost much of his power as a result of Valachi's testimony, and he died in 1969.