Joe Valachi, the Man Who Revealed the Existence of the Mafia

Until 1962 law enforcement officials considered rumors of the existence of a mysterious organization known as the mafia to be a myth or exaggeration.  Then a low level mafia soldier, fearing for his life while inside prison, began telling narcotics agents and the FBI everything he knew in exchange for protective custody.  Joe Valachi is the man who revealed the existence of the mafia.

Joe Valachi was born in 1904 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City when it was mostly Italian.  His father worked as a vegetable vendor, then later earned his living as a garbageman.  The Valachi family lived in an apartment with no running water and a coal furnace that kept everything inside covered in soot.  Valachi’s father was a brutal alcoholic, and his mother frequently walked around with black eyes.  Not surprisingly considering his upbringing, at the age of 11 Joe Valachi threw a rock and hit his teacher in the face, and he was sent to a Catholic reform school where many of the priests regularly molested children.  (Valachi mentioned this in The Valachi Papers 30 years before the Catholic pedophilia scandal broke into the national news.)  After he was released from reform school he returned to public school but dropped out at the age of 15.  He worked as a  garbage man with his father but was forced to give his entire paycheck to his dad.  For his own spending money he started a career in burglary.  He organized a 4 team gang, known as the minutemen because they could totally loot a store in a minute.  He stayed behind the wheel of a getaway car, while 1 guy smashed into a store front window with a trash can and took the loot stolen by a 3rd accomplice.  The 4th stood as a lookout.  They would then sell the loot to a fence.  They were successful for a while, but eventually Joe was busted and sent to Sing Sing Prison.

Joe served a short stint in prison.  His old gang had hired a new getaway driver, so Joe started a new burglary gang that included some Irish and Jewish gangsters.  They were so successful Joe bought a nice new car under a phony name.  The car was faster than any police vehicle.  But once again police caught him in the act.  The gang fled, and a policeman shot Joe in the head.  His friends carried him around the corner and fired shots in the air, hoping an ambulance would pick him up after they left the scene.  They came back 6 hours later and found Joe still alive, undiscovered by the police, so they took him to a doctor on the take.  During his recovery Joe, still foggy from the gun shot wound to his head, let his friends retrieve his car which was still on the scene of the aborted burglary.  The police had the car staked out, followed it back to Joe’s apartment, and arrested him.  He served a 2nd stint in prison.

Upon his release Joe started looking for a new crooked scheme because police were installing radios in their cars, making his old style of burglary too risky.  The mafia recruited him and many other gangsters and crooks during 1930 when there was a major war between Joe Messeria and Salvatore Manzanaro. Each side was looking for additional soldiers to beef up their strength.  Manzanaro won the war because Lucky Luciano and Dutch Shultz switched sides and figuratively stabbed Messaria in the back.  Manzanaro organized the mafia into a structure that lasted for decades–there were bosses, underbosses, lieutenants, and soldiers.  Manazanaro appointed himself “boss of all bosses.”  Valachi never rose above the rank of soldier, but he became 1 of Manzanaro’s drivers and bodyguards.  Unfortunately for Valachi, Lucky Luciano stabbed Manzanaro in the back a few months later and became the new boss of all bosses, though he never officially accepted the title.  Valachi went into hiding because as Manazanaro’s personal bodyguard, he rightly believed this made him a marked man.  But his low ranking saved him (he wasn’t important enough to purge), and he ended up working for Tony Bender, a lieutenant under Vito Genovese, Lucky Luciano’s underboss.

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Vito Genovese, 1 of the most feared mobsters of all time.  He unfairly accused Valachi of being a rat, while they were both in prison.  This forced Valachi to flip.

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Joe Valachi, testifying before Congress.  The testimony was kind of a fiasco.  Goofy politicians asked him stupid questions.  For example a Senator from Nebraska asked him if there was organized crime in Omaha.  Valachi had no idea where Omaha was located.

Lucky Luciano let Valachi and a partner have 20 slot machines located in various bars and candy stores, and this was lucrative for him for awhile, but Mayor Lagaurdia cracked down on this vice, so Valachi got into the numbers racquet.  The numbers are a kind of illegal lottery–the winning numbers then were based on the unpredictable pay-off results of the first 3 horse races at a local track.  During the 1930s this was Valachi’s main source of income, but he also made money as a loan shark.  Debts acquired from loan sharking allowed him to become part-owner of a restaurant and dress factory, and financially he was doing really well.  He owned race horses too.  The late 1930s were successful for Valachi.  Lucky Luciano went to prison, Vito Genovese fled to Italy to avoid a murder charge, and the smarter, more business-oriented Frank Costello took over.

The advent of World War II and the end of the depression ruined Valachi’s main businesses.  Everybody had good jobs, and they didn’t need to borrow money or play an illegal lottery.  So Valachi began selling stolen war ration gas stamps, and this tided him over until the end of the war when his numbers and loan-sharking rackets picked up again.  However, Genovese was arrested by American troops in Italy and returned to the U.S. to face murder charges.  He beat the rap by having a corroborating witness poisoned, and he was able to force Frank Costello to retire.  Genovese ordered many hits, and Valachi arranged some of them.  He wasn’t paid to arrange these hits…it was just part of his job duties as a soldier working for Genovese.  Valachi didn’t like having to share his money-making schemes with the higher-ups and he didn’t like having to arrange murders, but he had no alternative.

Valachi suffered business reverses during the late 1950s.  The Narcotics Bureau pressured local authorities to revoke the alcohol license for Valachi’s restaurant, effectively killing it, then his dress factory partner died.  He couldn’t find another partner because his previous partner hadn’t been paying employee tax withholding, and the government seized the factory equipment.  Valachi was forced to turn to narcotics dealing and had to share in the profits with Tony Bender and Genovese.  The feds busted Valachi, and in a separate case nailed Genovese.  They both ended up in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.  Genovese wrongly thought Valachi had ratted him out, so he ordered a hit on him in prison.  A man who looked similar to 1 of Genovese’s men walked past Valachi in a prison yard, and Valachi hit him over the head with a pipe, killing him.  The man was just a white collar criminal with no mafia connections.  The authorities put Valachi on death row, so to save his own life, he started telling the Bureau of Narcotics, and the FBI agents everything he knew about the mafia.  The federal agents realized his story corroborated evidence they had, and they put him in protective custody.  Valachi even testified before Congress about the activities of organized crime.  Valachi died of an heart attack in 1971, 2 years after Genovese died of the same thing.


Maas, Peter

The Valachi Papers

Bantam Books 1968



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