'Mafia Summit' explores a historic – and disastrous – meeting between Mob leaders

Federal law enforcement arrested dozens during a meeting between Mafia leaders near the New York-Pennsylvania border, as explored by writer Gil Reavill in his book 'Mafia Summit.'

In November, 1957 – thanks to an eagle-eyed state trooper – federal law enforcement arresting dozens of mobsters and set more fleeing into the forest.

On a November day in 1957, dozens of big-time mobsters from across the country and beyond gathered near New York's border with Pennsylvania for a commission meeting.

Robert's Rules of Order weren't in effect. But Murphy's Law – if anything can go wrong, it will – definitely worked its magic.

Thanks to an eagle-eyed state trooper, federal law enforcement swooped in on the confab at a mobster's estate, arresting dozens and sending fancy-suited mobsters fleeing into an unfriendly forest.

The meeting didn't spell the end for organized crime, which exists to this day. But it did mark the demise of an era in which mobsters often had more to fear from each other than the long arm of the law.

A nemesis and future attorney general named Robert F. Kennedy rose from this crucible. There was more: public awareness (never mind FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's epic denial) and racketeering laws that turned out to be as incredibly useful as the tax regulations that tripped up Al Capone.

Gil Reavill, an author and screenwriter, tackles the events of that day in Apalachin – pronounced "Apa-lay-kin," not like the mountain range – in his new book Mafia Summit: J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy Brothers, and the Meeting That Unmasked the Mob. It's a gritty and fast-moving account that punctures the myth of the honor-bound mobster and exposes the nasty, rotten business of organized crime.

In an interview, I asked Reavill about the leadership of the mob, the oblivious public, and the ultimate legacy of the Apalachin raid.
Q: This was a summit meeting of Mafia types. Was it a board of directors meeting?
A: That's the corporate metaphor that a lot of people use. But that's not quite accurate. It was much more loosely organized than that corporate image, more of a group of like-minded individuals with similar interests and goals and similar concerns.

But there was a national organization of the mob. It was created by Lucky Luciano in 1931, and it really gripped the underworld from that time from 1931 to Apalachin, the golden years for the national syndicate.
Q: What did the governing commission do?
A: The commission controlled the mob to the degree that it tried to eliminate random violence, to keep the level of violence down to an acceptable minimum.

It was sort of a don't-scare-the-horses strategy to have the business run smoothly and stay out of the headlines as much as they could. That was Lucky Luciano's insight: blood in the streets isn't good for business.
Q: Could the commission decide that someone needed to be killed?
A: This was only about made guys. You had to go to the commission and say, "This guy did this wrong, and I want permission to rub him out," and they'd say yea or nay.

When it first happened to a guy over an unsanctioned hit, it was cause for celebration because the system worked.

Q: I have an image in my mind of all these mobsters in expensive suits running into the woods. Is that from a documentary or a movie?
A: It's from the movie "Analyze This," where it's played for comedy.
Q: But this wasn't a laugh riot, was it?
A: For the mobsters it was certainly not, and the state police took it very seriously.

But the press had a little fun with it. One of the newspaper compared it to ballet belles fleeing into the forest in pursuit of the faun.

In fact, only a few of the mobsters fled into the woods. Some of them stayed in the house, and some drove out in those big land-boat limousines. That image of mobsters fleeing into the forest is only part of the story, but if it's there's one part that people remember, it's that.
Q: Why do you think it's so memorable?

A: It's that universal image of the city mouse in the country, a fairy tale that's in almost every country in the world. It's a pretty potent image, and that's why it was so embraced.

All of them were Italian and most of them were Sicilian. In Sicily, the response to authorities is often to fleet into the outback, the wilderness. That's what you do when the police come. You take a powder and flee into woods.

But the woods around Apalachin were not too hospitable. It was rainy, and in November it's cold.
Q: Why did so many of these men flip out when the cops came across them?
A: Some of them did not. Some of them were smart. Sam Giancana, Johnny Torrio, the Chicago boys, a lot of them just sat tight. It was soon obvious that the state police didn't have a warrant to enter the house.

For the rest of them, it was really a herd mentality, that atavistic impulse to flee into the woods. They weren't doing anything illegal, and that's what the courts eventually decided, but they had guilty consciences.
Q: What about the public back then? What did they think about the mob?
A: A large percentage of the public didn't believe such a thing existed. Back then it really had the status of a rumor, and J. Edgar Hoover was saying there was no such thing as the Mafia.

Pre-Watergate, an authority figure such as Hoover was really treated as an oracle. If he said there's no Mafia, then Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch out there in America believed him. That was the situation before Apalachin.

In a post-"Godfather" world, it's hard for us to imagine not believing the Mafia exists. We're so familiar with the concept.
Q: What role does the summit play in history?
A: It was really a pivot, a turning point for the history of organized crime. This dosed them with their least favorite poison, which is publicity. And then RICO [the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970] just wounded them terribly. They're not the same.

It's not that organized crime has disappeared, just that national structure and national organization – and the feeling of being really immune and left alone by the feds – has disappeared. Law enforcement now has the tools to fight against the mob.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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