Mafia bigwigs assemble

Gil Reavill says the Kennedys used Apalachin for political gain.
Gil Reavill says the Kennedys used Apalachin for political gain.

The Apalachin summit in 1957, broken up by the law, had long-lasting effects.

Posted: February 04, 2013

Mafia Summit

J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy Brothers, and the Meeting That Unmasked the Mob

By Gil Reavill

Thomas Dunne Books. 304 pp. $26.99

It is a quintessential event in the history of the American Mafia. On Nov. 14, 1957, dozens of mob figures, including some of the biggest bosses in the country, gathered in the home of Joseph Barbara in the tiny hamlet of Apalachin in Upstate New York.

Barbara, a mob soldier, had stocked his country estate with loads of provisions, including 20 10-pound boxes of top-grade steaks and two 10-pound boxes of veal. On today's market, about $3,500 worth of meat.

The outdoor grill, an elaborate affair off a patio in the backyard of the sprawling estate, was just getting fired up when the word began to spread:

Cops! Roadblock!

The mobsters scrambled, many on foot, through the wooded and muddy countryside that surrounded the home. The meeting was abruptly canceled, but the gathering that day more than a half century ago has taken on a life of its own.

Most recently, the scene was fictionalized and used to open the gangland comedy Analzye This, starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal.

And while there was humor and farce in the actual event, the gathering had long-term and sobering significance for both organized crime and law enforcement. Author Gil Reavill, a screenwriter, playwright, and former journalist, does an excellent job laying all of that out in Mafia Summit.

Presenting the meeting against the backdrop of America at the end of the 1950s, the book offers a clear and concise account of what went on that day and what was to follow. Reavill tracks the rise of the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, both of whom were only too happy to use the mob meeting and the publicity that surrounded it as a political springboard.

J. Edgar Hoover - referred to as "J. Edna" in one political aside attributed to Robert Kennedy - is another principal figure in the story. The FBI chief's stature was diminished by the raid, which clearly contradicted his long-held position that there was no organized mob syndicate operating in the United States.

As important, the book makes clear that the discovery of the meeting was not some chance encounter by a bumbling country sheriff - the premise outlined in Analyze This.

It was the dogged work of New York State Police Sgt. Edgar Coswell that set it all in motion. And Coswell, according to Reavill's detailed account, had been tracking Barbara and his mob cohorts for more than a year.

While Reavill's writing is sometimes heavily clichéd, his description of Coswell as "a good man in the right place at the right time doing the right thing" is an apt and accurate description of the book's hero.

Reavill's story is well told and chock-full of fascinating facts and information, including thumbnail sketches of all the mob figures arrested that day.

Most intriguing is his theory that the Apalachin summit gave rise to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act that by the turn of the century had become the prosecution's principal - and legally deadly - weapon in the war on organized crime.

Law-enforcement authorities scrambled to find a law under which the mobsters arrested at Apalachin could be prosecuted. They eventually settled on an obstruction of justice charge, arguing that the mobsters had lied about why they were there - most claimed that they had stopped by to visit Barbara, whose health was failing.

Law enforcement authorities found it a strange coincidence that more than 60 mob figures from 13 states, Cuba, and Sicily would end up at the estate on the same day by chance. In all, about two dozen mob figures were convicted of the charge, but those convictions were quickly overturned on appeal.

The reality is that the Apalchin meeting did not result in any serious criminal prosecutions, but did change the way law enforcement - and much of America - viewed organized crime.

On a local level, the meeting had a big effect on Philadelphia. Joseph Ida, then boss of the Philadelphia crime family, was one of the mobsters arrested that day. Ida opted not to stick around after he was released and instead returned to his native Italy, creating a power vacuum that two years later was filled by Angelo Bruno.

Bruno's reign as mob boss from 1959 to 1980 and its impact on the local underworld are directly attributable to the events that took place on Nov. 14, 1957. While not part of the book, Bruno's ascension was just one of the many repercussions throughout the country that reshaped the American Mafia as a result of Apalachin.

George Anastasia is a retired Inquirer reporter who covered organized crime.

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