Joseph M. Valachi - Informer

Joseph M. Valachi - Informer
Joseph M. Valachi - Informer

Despite its notoriety, Joe Valachi's testimony before a Senate committee never led—directly—to the jailing of any criminal. That was not the importance of Valachi's testimony about organized crime, what he called "Cosa Nostra." A barely literate, low-ranking member of the Mafia whose first-hand experiences were frankly limited to less-important events, Valachi was obviously talking beyond his personal experience.

Additionally, Valachi was not the most discerning observer. In the underworld the telling of false tales between mobsters, the claims of credit not deserved for important incidents, are common. When another criminal bragged to Valachi that he did this or shot so-and-so, Valachi tended to believe it. As a result some of his information is false and some strains credulity.

Yet Joe Valachi remains one of only a few Mafia members who violated omerta, the code of silence. In September and October 1963 the gravel-voiced, chain-smoking killer enthralled much of the national television audience as he told Senator John L. McClellan and the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee about the inner structure of the Mafia and organized crime.

"Not since Frank Costello's fingers drummed the table during the Kefauver hearings," the New York Times editorialized, "has there been so fascinating a show."

The Valachi revelations were often chilling, including the details of a number of murders in which he took part. Even though he functioned mainly on the street level, he still offered an inside view of the struggle for power within the Mafia and of the double-dealing that is part of the Honored Society. While it is true that many of the incidents and facts that Valachi described were known to police, he still filled in some gaps and provided a rationale linking one development to another and added to an understanding of the dimensions of syndicated crime.

Valachi joined Salvatore Maranzano's organization in the late 1920s and was indoctrinated officially into the organization in 1930. He served Maranzano until his assassination in 1931 and thereafter spent most of his time under Vito Genovese in the Luciano family. His criminal record dated back to his teens. As a "soldier," or "button man," in the mob his duties included that of a hit man, enforcer, numbers operator and drug pusher until 1959, when he was sentenced to 15 to 20 years on drug trafficking charges.

Confined to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, Valachi was a cellmate of Genovese, who had become head of the Luciano crime family and, after Luciano's deportation to Italy, according to Valachi, the "boss of bosses" within the Mafia.

Joseph M. Valachi giving detail information about mafia organization
Joseph M. Valachi giving detail information about mafia organization

Clearly, Valachi was in no position to comprehend the workings of the national crime syndicate or gauge the vital importance to organized crime of men like Meyer Lansky, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz and others. He saw only the Italian end of the racket, which was typical among lower-echelon Mafia soldiers. (The lower one goes in the Mafia structure, the more one finds the will to believe in the all-powerfulness of the Italian society.)

In 1962, Valachi later revealed, Genovese wrongfully came to suspect Valachi of being an informer and gave him the "kiss of death," a sign to Valachi that Genovese had ordered his assassination. Valachi was terrified and in his terror later mistook a prisoner named Joe Saupp for Joe Beck (Joe DiPalermo), whom he identified as the man assigned to kill him. Valachi killed Saupp with an iron pipe and after he got a life sentence for that killing, he decided to turn informer and get federal protection.

By the time he sang for the McClellan Committee, he was guarded by some 200 U.S. marshals, which at least indicated how highly the federal agents regarded his revelations. The Mafia itself thought highly of them too, putting a $100,000 price tag on Valachi's head. Valachi himself was not surprised by that. "You live by the gun and the knife," he said, "and you die by the gun and the knife."

In all it was said that Valachi helped to identify 317 members of the Mafia, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called Valachi's testimony "a significant addition to the broad picture" of organized crime. "It gives meaning to much that we already know and brings the picture into sharper focus."

This did not prevent disparagement of many of Valachi's claims. Quite a few law enforcement officials found much of Valachi's testimony little more than good theater, much of it erroneous and even ludicrous. Many considered the idea of Genovese as the boss of bosses from 1946 on as absolutely silly.

The most important voice within the American Mafia in 1946, at the Havana conference in December of that year and for many years thereafter, remained Luciano, even in exile. Otherwise the most important voice was the "little man," Meyer Lansky. As Luciano himself put it to his Italian associates, "listen to the little man" or "listen to Meyer."

But poor Valachi could never have comprehended a Jew telling mafiosi what to do. There is no doubt Genovese wanted to become Boss of Bosses, but he never made the grade, even after he had Albert Anastasia murdered in 1957. More powerful hands than his doomed him after that.

Although the underworld sought to disparage Valachi, he was never considered very highly. Another Mafia informer, Vincent Teresa, later confined with Valachi, came to like him but said he was a small-timer and a mob gofer. "To the mob, Joe was a facci-due—two-faced in Italian. No one trusted him in the mob long before he talked." There is ample suspicion in the case of Eugenio Giannini, whose murder Valachi arranged, to indicate that Valachi may well have been an informer long before he went to Atlanta.

Quite naturally the mob itself sought to discredit Valachi, and his nickname may be a case in point. In The Valachi Papers, Valachi explained that in his youth, he built makeshift scooters out of wooden crates. "This earned him the nickname Joe Cargo, which later in his criminal career was corrupted to Cago." However, the mob told it different, pointing out jocularly that "Cago" was an Italian word for excrement.

Perhaps a better illustration of the fact that Valachi was not highly thought of in the Mafia was revealed by some of his own testimony which was not reported in The Valachi Papers. It turned out that the highly placed Paul Gambino, Carlo's brother, came to see Valachi shortly after the Anastasia murder when it looked like war could break out in the crime family.

Paul Gambino said, "I have a lot of respect for your opinion regardless of how other people feel. What should we do?" It was obvious that Gambino really was not seeking Valachi's advice but rather was pumping him if he knew of any plot against the Gambinos. The key words of course were "regardless of how other people feel."

There is need, in a historical sense, to compare, Valachi's many disclosures to the later revelations in the memoirs or reminiscences of such syndicate higher-ups as Luciano, Lansky and Doc Stacher, among others. Certainly these throw considerable doubt on Valachi's versions of who killed such victims as Peter "the Clutching Hand" Morello, a job he credited to "Buster from Chicago."

Luciano credits the murder to Anastasia and Frank Scalise, a claim that also fits far more logically. Apparently Buster was pulling Valachi's leg. Similarly, Valachi really had no inside information on who was in on Joe the Boss Masseria's murder and had the names in several cases wrong.

Then too there was a feeling that Valachi had been coached to refer to "Cosa Nostra" as a proper name rather than as merely a generic term meaning "our thing" used by mafiosi in casual conversations. The Cosa Nostra label proved very important to the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, who for decades insisted there was no such thing as a Mafia or organized crime—the better not to have to fight them.

With disclosure of a "new" crime group, suddenly, with a straight face, Hoover could assert the FBI knew all about the Cosa Nostra and that "agents have penetrated its workings and its leadership" for "several years."

On balance, there can be no doubt that Valachi's testimony, supplemented by The Valachi Papers, had a devastating effect on the Mafia. At the end of 1966 a survey by the New York City Police Department showed that in the three years since Valachi talked more members of the syndicate in the New York–New Jersey–Connecticut metropolitan area had been jailed than in the previous 30 years.

The Valachi revelations sank Vito Genovese as well. Up till then he had ruled the Luciano-Genovese family from behind bars, but now his influence started to collapse. Indeed the family, long the most important in the country, lost influence, and the previously much smaller Anastasia family under the shrewd Carlo Gambino grew in numbers and power and became the foremost outfit.