New York State Troopers guessed something fishy was afoot when a fleet of expensive cars, with license plates from across the country, swarmed the tiny town of Apalachin, located a few miles west of Binghamton. The cars converged around the home of Joseph Barbara, a local beverage distributor who also happened to have an extensive arrest record that included several murder charges. Sergeant Edgar Croswell, who overheard Barbara’s son booking rooms at a nearby hotel the day before, drove up to the property and began noting the out-of-state licenses. He called in reinforcements, and on November 14, 1957, the officers managed to barricade the roads surrounding the Barbara estate just as its visitors fled, catching 58 men in all. Dozens of others escaped by foot.
“That meeting literally changed the course of history,” writes Michael Newton in The Mafia at Apalachin, 1957. The arrested men were soon recognized as powerful members of the Mafia, having gathered to discuss the logistics and control of their criminal syndicate. The aftershocks of the raid at Apalachin upended the criminal justice system, forced the Department of Justice to revise their policies, and proved to the American public that the Mafia, whose existence the FBI had vehemently denied, was real. All while spending decades building up legitimate businesses, these mafiosi engaged in racketeering, loansharking, narcotics distribution and bribing public officials.
Of course, the bigoted fear of Italian-Americans as perpetrators of a crime epidemic was nothing new. After the assassination of New Orleans police chief David Hennessy in 1891, a number of Italian-Americans were charged with the crime. Though they were acquitted, a mob lynched 11 people, and the term “mafia” entered the public consciousness for the first time.
While Americans of the Prohibition Era followed the violent careers of gangsters like Al Capone, those types of criminals were generally seen as local groups, limited to a city or a small region rather than being a national syndicate. The FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, began keeping tabs on individual gangsters and modernizing their investigation and enforcement tactics, and by the late 1930s notorious criminals had largely been arrested or killed.
By the 1950s, intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice turned their attention to what they saw as matters of great importance. The Cold War was slowly heating up, and getting bogged down by supposedly small-scale domestic crime seemed like a waste of resources.
“Most federal agencies and the government were focused almost entirely on subversion, Communism, issues with the Cold War,” says Lee Bernstein, a professor of history at State University of New York, New Paltz. “Something like organized crime seemed like a relic of an earlier age, a throwback to some of the gangsters of the earlier Prohibition period.”
Among the most purposely myopic law enforcement officials was Hoover. The FBI director repeatedly dismissed the notion that a network of criminals like the Mafia might be operating on a national scale. In the FBI’s New York field office, which could have investigated activities at Apalachin had it been paying attention, 400 special agents were assigned to ferreting out “subversives,” while only four were charged with investigating organized crime. And while Hoover accumulated personal files on 25 million people over the course of his tenure, most of them from the period before the 1950s contained information on suspected Communists and other antagonists rather than on criminals or gangsters.
“Before the Apalachin summit changed everything, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter had a [personal file] card, but not Brooklyn crime boss Joe Bonanno. Left-wing activist Carlo Tresca, but not the gangster who killed him, Carmine Galante,” writes Gil Reavill in Mafia Summit: J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy Brothers, and the Meeting That Unmasked the Mob. “In Sicily, one of the nicknames for the police is la sunnambula, the sleepwalkers. Hoover fit the bill perfectly.”
That’s not to say that no one was paying attention to the possibility of real mafiosi. In 1949, the American Municipal Association (which represented more than 10,000 cities) petitioned the government to take more immediate measures against organized crime, reporting that illegal gambling and interstate crime were going unchecked by the federal government.
At the association’s prompting, Senator Estes Kefauver helped create a committee to investigate the problem. When the Kefauver Committee proceedings were televised in March 1951, approximately 30 million Americans tuned in. (The hearings are memorably fictionalized in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II.) But while Kefauver’s commission found plenty of evidence for interstate gambling, the rise of narcotics trade, and the infiltration of legitimate businesses and law enforcement offices by gangsters, they failed to convince the federal government to take concerted action against organized crime. And as before, Hoover refused to acknowledge the existence of an American Mafia.
“For three decades, whenever possible, Hoover ignored the Mafia,” writes Selwyn Raab in Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. Hoover knew how tricky such investigations might be, and didn’t want to risk tarnishing the reputation of the FBI by getting involved in cases that couldn’t be solved.
But with the capture of nearly 60 mafia members at the Apalachin meeting, Hoover and the FBI could no longer avoid taking action against the Mafia, or denying its existence. The men who congregated in New York came from all over the country, from Florida to the Midwest, and had close business and often familial relationships. They were indeed the foundation of a crime syndicate. Within four days—on November 18—Hoover ordered the creation of an anti-mob initiative. Shortly thereafter he created the Top Hoodlum Program, and authorized the use of illegal wire taps to track down criminals. But even as Hoover acknowledged the mafia as a real organization, he continued to filter them through the vocabulary of the Cold War.
“It was this notion of front organizations, of aliases, of underground cells, the need to be vigilant and inform on your neighbors,” Bernstein says. He says the result of that framing was an oversimplified view of a complicated criminal network. “Over a ten-year period the alarms are going off about organized crime in ways that lead to a huge clampdown on union activity, delays of immigration reform, and very few resources going towards drug rehabilitation or mental health counseling—things proven to reduce the harm of drug use.”
The arrests made at Apalachin resulted in few immediate repercussions. It took years for prosecutors to put together legal cases; eventually, 20 men were charged with obstruction of justice and found guilty. But all of the convictions were overturned and the mafioso went free. Yet Apalachin was still an important turning point: the moment when mafia took on a solid meaning, and the U.S. government launched its attack against the underworld bosses.