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February, 2010
The Kefauver Crime Committe, 1950-1951

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

"Tony Gizzo [Kansas City], a boastful, noisy, beer barrel of a man, was the only one whose performance was a reasonable facsimile of how gangster is supposed to act. When Senator Wiley questioned him about his reported habit of carrying large sums of money on his person Gizzo nonchalantly replied, ‘Do you want to see it?’ He then pulled a thick roll from his pocket and counted off $2500 in hundred-dollar bills."

     The idea of a Senate Crime Investigating Committee took hold when Estes Kefauver, Senator from Tennessee, became a member of the Senate in 1949. By 1950, interstate crime began to be highlighted by the American Municipal Association, which passed a resolution calling for a federal probe into the problem. This was followed by the Conference on Organized Crime, which focused even more attention on the "cancer" of organized crime.

     With little ado, Senator Kefauver took the issue to the Senate floor by introducing a bill calling for a full-scale investigation of crime in interstate commerce. He served as chair of the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (known as the Senate Crime Committee) from May 1950 to May 1951.

     The job of the Committee was to serve subpoenas and take testimony from known gangsters and officials (not all honest) in a string of cities across the nation. The first hearing was conducted in Miami, on May 26, 1950, and others followed in Tampa, New Orleans, Kansas City, Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, and New York. Special attention was given to New York City and Chicago, both cities considered the most corrupt and breeders of the most notorious racketeers. A major focus was gambling, a term encompassing numbers games, card and dice games, sports betting and bookmaking, and the allied industry of loansharking.

     Mob-buster Kefauver did not investigate his home state of Tennessee for obvious reasons. He spent time at racetracks surrendering to an impulse to deposit a wager or two on the ponies. He enjoyed gambling, frequenting tracks near Washington, where he felt entitled to free passes and courtesy badges. Meyer Lansky, of Kosher Nostra fame, once asked Kefauver what was so evil about gambling, a sport in which he had some expertise. "You like it yourself. I know you’ve gambled a lot," Lansky said. "That’s right," the Senator replied, "but I don’t want you people to control it." Kefauver was always short of cash. Yet on January 3, 1951, during the rackets’ hearings, he deposited $25,000 in his account. There has been no explanation where the money came from.

     The number of witnesses questioned by the Committee approached 800, resulting in reams of paper. In the words of the Senator, "I heard shocking and at times incredible testimony, and I read additional hundreds of thousands of words in corroborating memoranda."

 

     Here are examples of testimony. Tony Gizzo of Kansas City:

Do you now belong to the Mafia?

What is the Mafia? I don’t even know what the Mafia is.

Do you know Jim Balestrere? [Reputed Mafia head in Kansas City]

Yes sir…

He’s a prominent Mafia man, isn’t he?

That is what I hear.

What do you hear?

The same thing you just said there.

     Salvatore Morretti in Washington:

Do you know what the Mafia is?

What?

The Mafia. M-A-F-I-A.

I am sorry; I don’t know what you’re talking about.

You never heard that word before in your life?

No sir, I did not.

Do you read?

Nah. Like I says before, I don’t read very much on account of my eyes.

     Philip D’Andrea, a former bodyguard for Al Capone, said he had "heard" of the Mafia but otherwise "knew nothing." Philip D’Andrea:

Would someone born in Sicily know nothing about the Mafia?

If he was born in Sicily I would think so.

What would you say was a principle of the Mafia?

It would be a good idea to keep your mouth shut.

Is the Mafia a subject discussed among Italian families?

Oh, God, no, no Sir!

     Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano—Information placed in the record:

"In addition to seeing Luciano off at Ellis Island [he was being deported to Italy] Lansky recalled that maybe he had seen him a couple of times in Havana, when Luciano was taking temporary refuge there. Lansky said it was purely social: ‘What else could I talk to him about. Luciano told me he was being crucified. I replied, ‘You have nothing to kick about; look at the way I am being crucified.’ "

"Gambling is a biological necessity for certain types…the quality that gives substance to their daydreams." (Betting Commissioner James J. Carroll)

     Chicago police Captain Daniel Gilbert had the dubious honor of being "the richest cop in the world." He had amassed a net worth of about $360,000 from gambling: "I bet on football games and prize fights." He was asked by the Committee:

How big election bets did you make?

In 1936 I think I won around $10,000 or $12,000.

You just like to bet?

I’ve been a gambler at heart.

What do you think about being a gambler?

I don’t feel it’s a violation of my oath of office. If a fellow bets against me I am willing to bet. I have won every election bet since 1921.

     Paul Ricca in Chicago:

Rica claimed his real name was De Lucia, and that he used so many aliases he couldn’t remember them all. "Any place I go I mention any name that comes to my mind…just a habit." He gambled heavily at the race track:

Who bet with you?

Al Capone, a big better. He won $16,000 on a race. He would spread it around. Sometimes I took a piece. Sometimes I didn’t.

How large a sum would you handle in gambling?

Gee, I don’t know. $100,000 a year or something like that. Sometimes less.

     The St. Louis area was especially fruitful for the Committee given its complex criminal patterns. There was the Hogan Gang, the Cuckoo Gang, the Green Dagoes (mostly Sicilians), and a gang of Americans of Italian descent. The Cuckoos were Syrian and joined with the Italian Americans to exterminate the Green Dagoes. The Pillow Gang was a Sicilian offshoot group; so-named because its capo, Carmelo Fresina, was shot in the buttocks and carried a pillow at all times to sit on. When he was shot dead the pillow was retired.

     Joe Adonis (born Joseph Doto) used many aliases (among them Arrosa and De Mio). He appeared before the Committee "slick and smooth, expensively tailored, with a Hollywood-style hair-do, his voice deep and gruff" like the stereotype of a hoodlum of his day: "I go to Hot Springs for da bats." He refused to answer all questions.

     The biggest fish was Frank Costello of New York, billed as "the most influential underworld leader in America," the Ambassador of Crime. The television coverage was historic, reaching tens of millions. Kefauver described the man: "…impeccably and expensively groomed figure…breast pocket handkerchief with his name embroidered in red. He sought to control both his facial expressions and language." Under obvious pressure his grammar would fail him: "I gotta refreshen my mem’ry about dese t’ings." "…moon pitch" (moving picture; films). One critic noted that "Costello’s testimony was often spiced with passages of low-grade literacy, ample uses of double negatives and the substitution of the letter‘d’ for ‘th’. "

     Senator Tobey took Costello’s testimony:

Why did you become an American citizen?

Why? Because I love my country.

Tell me one thing to your credit as an American citizen?

I paid my tax.

     The Committee concluded in its final report that a nationwide crime syndicate existed, that local mobs make up this syndicate, that the syndicate is international in scope and known as the Mafia, its birthplace Sicily.

     This conspiracy is aided and abetted by widespread corruption at the local levels. Racketeering and infiltration of legitimate businesses had progressed alarmingly. Local conditions are such that the only method to defeat organized crime is to give that responsibility to federal enforcement agencies. The alliance of gangsters and their "respectable" front men must be seen for what they are, ruthless exploiters of others for their own illicit gain.

 


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