Anastasia, murdered while getting a shave at New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel, was and remains one of the most callous and murderous criminals in American history. An illegal immigrant who jumped ship in 1919, he also jumped into New York’s underworld. Born into poverty in Parghelia, Italy in 1920 he would die in 1957, rich beyond his wildest dreams and probably the most feared Mafioso of his time. That he died as he’d lived (violently and criminally) was no surprise. That he survived for so long having made so many enemies certainly is.
It didn’t take Anastasia long to have a close brush with death, both somebody else’s and very nearly his own. Illiterate, but tough and strong, Anastasia’s first job was as a dock-worker. Low in pay and status (though not in the risk of injury on the job) it was also short on perks other than the rampant pilfering of cargo as it entered and left New York’s harbour.
Anastasia, known to his co-workers as a sadist and brawler almost immediately, went too far when he murdered fellow longshoreman George Turino in a brawl over their pilfering rights. Convicted of capital murder on March 17 1921 the judge showed the same mercy as Anastasia himself. Anastasia was immediately sent to Sing Sing prison for an appointment with its most infamous resident ‘Old Sparky.’ Securely lodged in Sing Sing’s custom0built ‘Death House, Anastasia had little to look forward to except his last meal.
Fortunately for Anastasia the death house barber, Mob old-timer Jimmy ‘The Shiv’ DeStefano, saw himself as a kind of criminal talent scout and Anastasia as a promising talent worth rescuing from Sparky’s lair. As DeStefano’s contacts on the outside included Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano this wasn’t as difficult as it might have been.
When Justice Francis McQuade conveniently discovered legal errors severe enough to warrant a new trial and Anastasia’s release from Sing Sing it was a purely legal decision. It had nothing whatsoever to do with McQuade’s ties to criminal like Luciano, Arthur ‘Dutch Schultz’ Flegenheimer, Tommy ‘Three Finger Brown’ Lucchese and several others. It was purely a legal decision. It also saw Anastasia’s case dropped entirely when witnesses vanished or were murdered before Anastasia could be re-tried.
Anastasia’s star rose through the 1920’s and 1930’s. Amoral, astute, treacherous, bloodthirsty and well-connected, he was the natural choice to head the new enforcement arm later known as ‘Murder Incorporated.’ In 1951 he achieved the pinnacle of any Mafioso’s ambition. Murdering his boss Phil Mangano, the Mangano Family became the Anastasia Family. His ambition and violence, though, proved his undoing.
Anastasia had become so feared and distrusted that other bosses (especially Vito Genovese) saw him a constant threat. His regular outbursts and ordering completely pointless murders such as that of Arnold Schuster in 1952 caused regular problems and constant attention from law enforcement. Worse still Anastasia groused regularly about not taking a large enough share of the Mafia’s casino interests in Cuba. As discontent grew his fellow bosses decided something had to be done and, in the Mafia that meant only one thing;
The Lord High Executioner was himself marked for death.
It’s never been entirely resolved exactly who murdered him at the Park Sheraton’s barber shop on the morning of November 35 1957, only that it must have been a Mafia hit ordered at the highest level. Under the Mafia’s rules no family boss could be killed without the prior agreement of the other bosses and, frankly, nobody inside or outside the Mob would have even tried without permission.
With Anastasia at his most vulnerable, sat in a barber’s chair facing away from the door and with his face wrapped in hot towels, his bodyguard inexplicably decided to step out for a walk. The barber and his assistant were told to keep silent by the trio of gunmen who simply walked in and unloaded fourteen bullets. Their aim was so poor that only the last, the traditional ‘be-sure’ shot fired into his head, killed him.
The Lord High Executioner was dead. Nobody was ever prosecuted for his murder.
Anastasia and his fellow-mobsters, especially Murder Incorporated, feature in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ due out on November 25.
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