Frank Costello Biography
Costello was born in Lauropoli, a mountain village in Calabria, Italy in 1891. In 1900, at age nine, he boarded a ship to the United States with his mother and his brother Edward. The family was eager to join their father, who had moved to New York’s East Harlem several years earlier. While Costello was still a boy, his brother introduced him to gang activities. By age 13, Costello had become a member of a local gang and started using the name Frankie. Costello continued to commit petty crimes, and went to jail for assault and robbery in 1908 and 1912. In 1915, Costello married Lauretta Giegerman, a Jewish girl who was the sister of a close friend. That same year, Costello went to jail for 10 months for carrying a concealed weapon. After his release from prison, Costello decided to avoid street rackets and use his brains to make money as a criminal. Foregoing the use of violence as a road to success and wealth, Costello would claim that he never again carried a gun. He did not see the inside of a jail cell for the next 37 years.
After his release from prison in 1916, Costello legally changed his birth name, Frank Castiglia, to Frank Costello and started working with Ciro “The Artichoke King” Terranova. A powerful East Harlem mafioso, Terranova was the underboss of the Morello crime family of Manhattan and the leader of the 107th Street gang. Costello became the member of a gang that controlled gambling and loansharking in one part of Manhattan and a section of the Bronx. His associates included well-known mafiosi such as Michael “Trigger Mike” Coppola, Joseph “Joe the Baker” Catania Jr. and Stefano “Steve” LaSalle. Costello became known for using his intelligence and toughness to complete his criminal assignments.
While working for the Morello gang, Castiglia met Charlie “Lucky” Luciano the Sicilian leader of Manhattan’s Lower East Side gang. The two Italians immediately became friends and partners. Along with Italian-American associates Vito Genovese and Gaetano “Tommy” Lucchese and Jewish associates Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the gang became involved in robbery, theft, extortion, gambling and narcotics. The Luciano-Costello-Lansky alliance prospered even further with the passage of Prohibition in 1920, the gang went into bootlegging, financed by criminal financier Arnold Rothstein.
The success of the young Italians let them branch out and make business deals with the leading Jewish and Irish criminals of the era, including Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, Owney “The Killer” Madden and William “Big Bill” Dwyer. Rothstein became a mentor to Castiglia, Luciano, Lansky and Seigel while they conducted bootlegging business with Bronx beer baron Schultz. In 1922, Castiglia, Luciano, and their closest Italian associates joined the Sicilian mafia crime family led by Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, a top Italian underworld boss. By 1924, Costello had become a close associate of Hell’s Kitchen’s Irish crime bosses Dwyer and Madden. Costello became deeply involved in their rum-running operations, known as “The Combine”; this could have prompted his name change.
In 1926, Combine boss Bill Dwyer was convicted of bribing a United States Coast Guard official and was sentenced to two years in jail. After Dwyer was imprisoned, Costello took over the Combine’s operations with Owney Madden. This caused friction between Madden and top Dwyer lieutenant, Charles “Vannie” Higgins. Higgins, referred to as Brooklyn’s “Last Irish Crime Boss,” believed he should be running the Combine, not Costello. Thus, the “Manhattan Beer Wars” began between Higgins on one side, and Costello, Madden, and Schultz on the other. At this particular time, Schultz was also having problems with gangsters Jack “Legs” Diamond and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. With Higgins’ help, these two hoodlums had begun to rival Schultz and his partners. Eventually, the Costello-Madden-Schultz alliance was destroyed by New York’s underworld.
In spite of losing the gang war, Frank continued to be a very influential gangster throughout the 1920s. Frank kept close associates Luciano, Lansky and Siegel involved in most of his gambling rackets, which included punch cards, slot machines, bookmaking and floating casinos. Frank eventually became known as the “Prime Minister of the Underworld” for his cultivation of associations and business relationships with New York’s criminals, politicians, businessmen, judges, and police officials. As he followed the “Big Three” ideology of mixing crime, business and politics, Costello’s underworld influence grew. His fellow gangsters considered Frank to be an important link between the Mafia and the politicians of Tammany Hall, New York’s Democratic Party organization. This relationship gave Costello and his associates, including Luciano, the opportunity to buy the favors of politicians, judges, district attorneys, cops, city officials and whoever else they needed to bribe in order to freely run their criminal operations.
In 1927, Costello, Luciano, and former Chicago gangster John “Johnny the Fox” Torrio organized a group of top East Coast rumrunners into a large bootlegging operation. This gang was able to pool their Canadian and European liquor sources, maximize profits, minimize overhead, and gain an advantage over their competition. The operation was known as the “Big Seven Group”, the first concrete move in organizing the American underworld into a national crime syndicate. In May 1929, Costello, Luciano, Torrio, Lansky, and Atlantic City/South Jersey crime boss, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson hosted a crime convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This convention included the members of the “Big Seven Group” and the top crime leaders from across the nation. This was the first true underworld meeting and the biggest step in forming a National Crime Syndicate that would control criminal operations, dictate policy, enforce rules, and maintain authority in the national underworld. Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano were not invited because their Old World ideology and philosophy ran counter to the convention’s goals.