Barbara, Joseph "Barber" (1905-1959)

Born Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, Aug. 9, 1905.

Died Johnson City, NY, June 17, 1959.

A wealthy gangster operating in New York, Barbara owned the Apalachin, NY, estate that was the site of 1957's Mafia convention. Police crashed the gathering, taking most of those present in for questioning (a number of Mafiosi are believed to have eluded arrest either by escaping through the woods around the Barbara estate or by remaining out of sight in Barbara's home).

Barbara came to the United States from his native Sicily on May 26, 1921. He participated in Mafia bootlegging operations and had underworld contacts in New York City, Buffalo and Endicott, New York. In the post-Prohibition years, he gained control of the beer/soft drink distribution in the Binghamton, NY, region.

Barbara was suspected of involvement in a number of gangland killings. During World War II, authorities noted that rationed gasoline was being stolen from Barbara's bottling plant. Just after the war, he was convicted of the illegal acquisition of sugar, a federal crime.

Many believe that Barbara led a Mafia organization with a territory that included northeastern Pennsylvania and adjacent New York. However, it appears far more likely that he was a Buffalo Mob capodecina with regional authority in the Endicott area. The northeast Pennsylvania Mafia appears to have been an independent crime family ruled by the "Men of Montedoro."

The 1957 Mafia convention was organized by Buffalo crime boss Stefano Magaddino after New York City crime boss Tommy Lucchese requested it on behalf of new bosses Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino. Barbara's Apalachin estate had been used for a Mafia convention one year earlier.

After they were apprehended, many of the 60-plus Mafiosi told authorities that they were at Barbara's home to look in on him after his recent heart attack. Barbara was in ill health at the time and was able to avoid much post-convention interrogation due to his heart condition (his son, however, was repeatedly interrogated). After having chest pains for several days, Barbara collapsed at his home in Endicott on May 29, 1959. He was rushed to Wilson Memorial Hospital in Johnson City. He died there on June 17.

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Balsamo, Giuseppe "Battista"

Balsamo was a Mafia leader in Brooklyn at the dawn of the 20th Century, according to some of his descendants, self-described experts in Brooklyn underworld history. The descendants say he was a transplanted Sicilian Mafioso who settled in Brooklyn in 1895 and became Brooklyn's "first godfather."
Giuseppe Balsamo reportedly retired from Mafia leadership in the 1920s, turning his organization over to Vincent and Phillip Mangano. 
These claims have been made in two books. The first of the books was published under a number of different titles, including Under the Clock and Crime Incorporated (authored in 1988 by William Balsamo and George Carpozi). The second book, Young Al Capone, by brothers William and John Balsamo, was published in 2011. Both books contain fiction elements and unsupportable assertions.

Balestrere, James (1891-c1959)

Born Bagheria, Sicily, June 24, 1891.

Died Kansas City, MO, Oct. 19, 1959.

Born near Palermo, Sicily, Balestrere initially settled with his family in Milwaukee(1), in spring 1903(2). When he was a teenager, his family moved to the Kansas City area.
Balestrere became a big shot in the Kansas City outfit during Prohibition. Though a stone mason(3) by trade, he is believed to have teamed with the DiGiovanni brothers - Joseph and Pietro - in a bootlegging-related venture, supplying sugar to moonshine operations.(4)

After Prohibition the K.C. mob appeared to be under the control of Charles Binaggio, connected to the Pendergast political machine. Binaggio might also have had a hand in St. Louis-area gambling(5). Some believe Binaggio was merely a front man, while underworld orders continued to come from Joseph DiGiovanni(6).

At that time, Balestrere put his mason skills to use constructing a local restaurant/casino. (He previously worked operating a grocery store and a drug store.) The gambling establishment became known as "the White House." In the late 1930s, Balestrere also managed a keno game for Pendergast.(7)

Binaggio and his chief lieutenant Charles "Mad Dog" Gargotta were murdered on April 5, 1950, at a political headquarters(8). At the time, Missouri Senator James P. Kem called the murders an outgrowth of "the unholy alliance between politics and the underworld in Kansas City."(9).

Balestrere reportedly was a senior partner in the leadership group that followed Binaggio (or one which existed for some time under cover of Binaggio). Control of the K.C. mob looks to have been shared by Balestrere, Thomas "Tano" Lococo, Charles Carollo and former Binaggio ally Anthony Gizzo(10).

Some pronounce Gizzo the supreme boss in the city's underworld from 1950 until his death of natural causes(11). However, the Kefauver Committee, after hearing Balestrere's testimony in September 1950, decided that Balestrere was the big man(12).

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  1. . Fox, Blood and Power, p. 37. A Mafia clan in Milwaukee had a similar-sounding name spelled "Balestrieri" or "Balestreri."
  2. . Passport application dated Feb. 21, 1923; U.S Census Records, 1930.
  3. . Ibid. World War I Draft Records, 1917.
  4. . Fox, op. cit. In testimony before the Kefauver Committee, Sept. 30, 1950, Balestrere admitted only to supplying sugar to those engaged in the manufacture of "moonshine": "Kefauver clears Kansas City police," New York Times, Oct. 1, 1950, p. 81. Roots of the sugar business were traced back to a black market enterprise during World War I: May, Allan. "The History of the Kansas City Family,"
  5. . Kefauver Committee Report #3.
  6. . "Organized Crime Syndicates" website - Kansas City
  7. . "Kefauver clears...," op. cit.
  8. . "Binaggio, Kansas City political figure...," Sedalia (Mo) Democrat, Apr. 6, 1950, p. 1.
  9. . "President asked to halt Kansas City crime wave," Sikeston (Mo) Herald, Apr. 20, 1950, p. 10.
  10. . Kefauver Committee, op. cit. Virgil Peterson testimony to Kefauver panel.
  11. . "Organized Crime Syndicates," op. cit.
  12. . Kefauver Committee, op. cit.
  13. . Hayde, Frank R., The Mafia and the Machine, Fort Lee NJ: Barricade, 2007; "James G. Balestrere," Find-a-Grave ( ).

Avena, John "Big Nose" (1893-1936)

Born Novara, Sicily, 1893.

Killed Philadelphia, PA, Aug. 17, 1936

Avena took over the Philadelphia Mafia Family after founding boss Salvatore Sabella stepped down at the conclusion of the Castellammarese War in 1931. The Philly Mob had sided with the momentarily victorious Maranzano faction in that underworld conflict. Avena was an unusual choice as Mafia boss because he was born in the Messina region of Sicily, generally not associated with the Mafia tradition.

During his reign as boss, the Sicilian Mafia in Philadelphia formed a partnership with local Jewish organized criminals from the "69th Street Mob." This appears to have aided the Mafia in entering post-Prohibition gambling rackets.

Avena appears to have had Sabella's full support as boss, but a rebellious faction arose in the Philadelphia area. That group was led by the Lanzetti brothers. A civil war erupted in the Family during the mid-1930s.

The Lanzetti brothers are believed to have been responsible for the shooting death of 43-year-old Avena at the corner of Washington and Passyunk Avenues in the summer of 1936. A gunman firing from the rear window of a passing automobile shot to death both Avena and his lottery racket partner Martin Feldstein. Police noted that three other attempts had been made on Avena's life in the past 10 years.

There was considerable media attention to the September 18, 1937, arrest of Michael Montanaro on Philadelphia's North Broad Street. Montanaro, indicted for robberies and suspected of involvement in the murder of Avena, was shot and wounded by Detective Richard "Pete" McClure during the arrest. He died on September 28, 1937.

Joseph "Bruno" Dovi succeeded Avena as boss.

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