Frank “The Prime Minister” Costello was the head of the Luciano family – one of New York’s most powerful – from 1936 to 1957. He was forced to retire that year – after Vito Genovese, the man he’d replaced, took out a failed hit on him. This is his story.
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WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Born in the Italian village of Lauropoli, Frank Castiglia (as he was then known) was brought by his parents to New York at just four years old. His parents ran a grocery store in East Harlem – and it wasn’t long before Frank found himself running into trouble.
By the time he was 13 Frank was a member of the 104th Street Gang. Initially, it was just petty theft – but he soon began going to more and more serious lengths to earn the respect of his fellows.
Aged just 14 he robbed his parents’ landlady – although he managed to get away with it thanks to a made-up alibi. He was arrested for robbery and assault at the age of 17, and again at the age of 21 – but on neither occasion did the charges stick.
It wasn’t until 1915 – at the age of 24 – his crimes finally caught up with him. A 12 month sentence for carrying firearms.
He was out after 10 months – and decided there and then to leave violent crime behind, instead focusing on businesses that would be more lucrative, and less risky. He would favour a firm handshake over the gun – a decision which made him almost entirely unique amongst the Mafiosi of the time.
STEPPING IT UP
As soon as he came out of prison, Costello got back to work – and it wasn’t long before he found himself in the employ of Salvatore Maranzano – then the head of the Morello family.
Maranzano was very much a boss of the old-school variety, and was the man behind the Castellammarese war – one of the bloodiest conflicts in mafia history. Costello, along with his compatriot Charlie “Lucky” Luciano decided it was time for those old ways to come to an end. Maranzano had to go.
Maranzano got suspicious, and laid a trap set up in the guise of a meeting – but thanks to their spies they knew all about it – and sent gunmen along instead. Disguised as taxmen, these gunmen shot down Maranzano in his own office – and stabbed him to be sure the job was done.
Luciano installed himself as the leader of the family, making his old friend Vito Genovese his second in command. Costello was third fiddle – but as one of the organisation’s biggest earnest, he wasn’t short of respect.
Like so many others during the Prohibition era, Costello made his money by selling black market booze. True to his word, he focused on keeping those who could get in his way in his pocket – and spent over $100,000 to judges, politicians, prosecutors and the police.
Towards the end of the 30s, Luciano was jailed on charges of prostitution – sent down for up to 50 years. Genovese stepped up, but was in charge for less than a year when he was indicted for murder. He chose to flee to Italy – leaving Costello to take the helm.
When prohibition ended, Costello continued his attempts to move away from crime and go legit – and moved his money into gambling. He brought in millions thanks to casinos and slot machines. This made it even easier for him to exert his control – and by the end of the 40s even New York’s commissioner of Police Grover Whalen was on the take.
Eventually, the charges leveled against Genovese were dropped – helped in part by witnesses disappearing. In 1946, he returned to New York – and rejoined the family. He was forced to start at the bottom – which angered him – and so he began plotting to have Costello killed.
In 1957 he finally got his chance. Costello did not plead the Fifth in a grand jury trial – and while he wasn’t seen on camera, and still refused to answer the majority of questions, the members of the other families were unhappy with his choice. Genovese knew he could put out a hit without fear of repercussion – so he did.
The hit failed – the bullet grazing his head – but Costello knew his time was up, and agreed to step down, handing over control to Genovese – who renamed the family after his own forebears. He was allowed to retire – and lived peacefully until his death at the age of 82, in 1973.