Costello, Frank (1891-1973)

Born Lauropoli, Cassana allo Ionio, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy, Feb. 18 1891.
Died New York, NY, Feb. 18, 1973.

Costello was born Francesco Castiglia in the Province of Cosenza, Italy, in 1891 (he reported an apparently incorrect birth date of January 26, 1891, on his naturalization petition) and was taken to New York by his family at age four, arriving on April 2, 1895. His family settled first in Italian East Harlem (108th Street), within the territory of the Terranova Mafia clan, and later relocated to Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

As a youth, Costello involved himself in the street gangs of the Five Points. (Calabrian immigrants were clustered in the lower Manhattan neighborhood.) He was discharged after teenage arrests for assault and robbery, but he was jailed for a year after a concealed weapon conviction in 1915. He eventually was initiated into the Mafia but often worked independent criminal enterprises with non-Italian partners.

Costello moved wholeheartedly into illegal alcohol distribution during Prohibition Days. His bootlegging enterprises are believed to have extended beyond New York City. He became known as the "Prime Minister of the underworld," because he cultivated extensive contacts among elected government officials and bureaucrats and could provide insurance that law enforcement would provide protection for the enterprises he sponsored.

An application for citizenship was approved in September of 1925. Within three months, Costello was indicted in New York federal court for participating in a liquor conspiracy.

During the Castellammarese War, Costello nominally served Joe Masseria's New York organization. Following the 1931 assassination of Masseria, Costello became a top aide to Masseria's successor, Salvatore "Charlie Luciano" Lucania.

Costello reportedly had a hand in busy New York night spots. He was said to have financial interests in Casino de Paree, Cotton Club, Ubangi Club and Stork Club. He also busied himself with gambling ventures in the post-Prohibition 1930s, obtaining official government approval to place slot machines everywhere in New York. That brought him into direct conflict with reform Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who, despite court protection of the slots, collected all the machines in 1934 and personally destroyed them with a sledge hammer. Costello later held a financial interest in the Piping Rock casino in Saratoga, New York.

In this period, Costello became friendly with syndicated columnist Walter Winchell. When Winchell received threats, Costello reportedly provided bodyguards for the columnist.The racketeer was also friendly with Collier's Weekly journalist Quentin Reynolds.

Costello's political influence was considerable. He attended the 1932 Democratic National Convention.

Lucania was taken out of action by compulsory prostitution charges in 1936.  In mid-June of that year, Lucania began a sentence of thirty to fifty years in prison. He was first held at Sing Sing Prison, not far from the city, and could continue to manage the affairs of his crime family from there. Weeks later, he was moved upstate to Clinton Prison in Dannemora. Lucania underboss Vito Genovese would have taken over the crime family, but Genovese left the United States for Italy in December 1936. He remained out of the country through the Second World War.

Costello became acting boss of Lucania's Manhattan-based crime family and an important member of the Mafia Commission, arbiter of disputes in the Sicilian-Italian underworld of the U.S.

Genovese was arrested in August 1944 by the American military in postwar Italy. He was returned to the U.S. the following year to stand trial on an old murder charge. In 1946, Lucania was deported permanently to Italy, leaving Costello momentarily alone atop Lucania's old Mafia organization. Due to the mysterious death of a key witness, the government was unable to prosecute the murder case against Genovese, and Genovese was freed. He once again became a power in the crime family and a rival to the authority of Costello.

Costello found hosts for his slot machines in Louisiana, where they were looked after by "Dandy Phil" Kastel. In the 1950s, Kastel and Costello opened the Beverly Club casino in Jefferson Parish, just outside of New Orleans.

Costello's position in the crime family was weakened through appearances before the Kefauver Committee in February and March 1951, the October 1951 murder of his New Jersey-based lieutenant Willie Moretti and a 1956 conviction for tax evasion. During this period, the U.S. government also revoked his citizenship and moved to have him deported.

On May 2, 1957, while Costello was free pending a legal appeal, he was shot in the head by a would-be assassin. The bullet only grazed his scalp. Costello bled but survived. Greenwich Village mobster Vincent Gigante, a loyal Genovese follower, was arrested for the shooting. Gigante was released after Costello refused to identify him as the shooter.

In October of that year, Costello's closest underworld ally, fellow Calabrian Albert Anastasia, was murdered. Costello is believed to have resigned as crime family boss at this time, turning the organization over to Genovese. In October 1958, Costello's final appeal was rejected, and he was sent to Atlanta Federal Prison.

Genovese joined him in Atlanta the following spring, when he was convicted of federal narcotics conspiracy charges. Costello was released from the prison in June 1961.

Costello returned to a private life in New York with his wife Loretta. On February 7, 1973, he suffered a mild heart attack in their Central Park West apartment. He was taken to Doctors Hospital on East End Avenue and Eighty-seventh Street. On the morning of February 18, with Loretta by his side, he died following another heart attack. He was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in Elmhurst, Queens.

Related Link:

  • "Add Memo to desk," New York Sun, March 5, 1935, attachment to Whitley, R., Letter to J. E. Hoover, FBI file no. 62-35793-1, April 25, 1935.
  • "Excerpts from final day's proceedings hear in the Senate group's crime inquiry," New York Times, March 22, 1951, p. 26.
  • "Frank Costello dies of coronary at 82; underworld leader," New York Times, Feb. 19, 1973, p. 1.
  • "Lucania sentenced to 30 to 50 years; court warns ring," New York Times, June 19, 1936, p. 1. 
  • "Salvatore Lucania...," FBI report NY 62-8768, file no. 39-2141-9, May 5, 1946, p. 1-3, 10.
  • "Vito Genovese," FBI report, file no. 92-2938-5, Jan. 31, 1958, p. 3.
  • Bonanno, Joseph, with Sergio Lalli, A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
  • Dewey, Thomas E., Twenty Against the Underworld, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1974.
  • Francesco Castiglia birth certificate, Cassana allo Ionio, Feb. 18, 1891.
  • Katz, Leonard, Uncle Frank: The Biography of Frank Costello, New York: Drake Publishers, 1973.
  • Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, Part 7, New York - New Jersey, Hearings before the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, U.S. Senate, 81st Congress 2nd Session, 82nd Congress 1st Session, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1951
  • Petition for Naturalization, no. 61756, May 1, 1925, District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York.
  • SAC Atlanta, "Vito Anthony Genovese," FBI memorandum to director, file no. 92-4594-1, April 13, 1960.
  • U.S. v. Frank Costello, Civil 133-28, March 9, 1959.
  • Wolf, George, with Joseph DiMona, Frank Costello: Prime Minister of the Underworld, New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974.