Birthday: January 18, 1905
Died At Age: 97
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Also Known As: Joseph Charles Bonanno Sr., Giuseppe Carlo Bonanno
Born Country: Italy
Born in: Castellammare del Golfo, Italy
Notorious As: Gangster
Spouse/Ex-: Fay Labruzzo (m. 1931–1980)
father: Salvatore Bonanno
mother: Catherine Bonventre
children: Catherine Bonanno, Joseph C. Bonanno, Salvatore Bonanno
Died on: May 11, 2002
place of death: Tucson
Who was Joseph Bonanno?
Joseph Charles Bonanno Sr. was an Italian-American mobster, businessman, and racketeer who served as the boss of the Bonanno crime family for three decades following the Castellamarese War. He was also involved in the Commission since the beginning. A native of Sicily, Bonanno emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three years old. They spent the next decade in Brooklyn before going back to Italy. In 1924, Bonanno sneaked back into US. He had become a member of the mafia when he was still in Italy but was forced to flee the country when Benito Mussolini began a crackdown. In US, he started his criminal activities as part of a bootlegging operation. Later, he became an associate of Salvatore Maranzano and fought in the Castellamarese War on his side. Following Maranzano’s murder, Bonanno became the head of the family. Although he had been arrested multiple times over the course of his career, he was never found guilty of a serious crime. In 1983, he published the book ‘A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno’.
Childhood & Early Life
Born Giuseppe Carlo Bonanno on January 18, 1905, in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, Kingdom of Italy, Joseph was the son of Catherine and Salvatore Bonanno. At the age of three, he relocated to US with his family and lived in the Williamsburg neighbourhood in Brooklyn for the next decade before going back to Italy.
In 1924, he sneaked back into US by hiding himself on a Cuban fishing boat travelling to Tampa, Florida.
He was apprehended by immigration officers at a train station in Jacksonville, Florida, and had to pay $1,000 before he was freed. It was the notorious crime boss Stefano Magaddino who got him out as a favour to his uncle, Giovanni Bonventre, who was also a mobster.
In the early years after his return to US, he was employed at a bakery run by his uncle. He also attended acting classes near Union Square, Manhattan. He had already become a member of the mafia while he was in Italy.
After Mussolini began his crackdowns on organized crime there, Bonanno escaped and came to US. In later years, he would claim that he ran away because he was an antifascist. However, the former theory is likely more accurate, as several other Castellammarese mafiosi did the same.
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A Soldier for Salvatore Maranzano
Sometime in the mid-1920s, Bonanno, along with Gaspar DiGregorio and Giovanni Romano, started a bootlegging operation inside an apartment building basement.
Later, Bonanno joined the service of Salvatore Maranzano and was made the overseer of his distilleries in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, he was in charge of getting their bootlegging associates out of police custody.
During this period, for the first time since he had come to US, he started taking a pistol with him everywhere he went.
In his book, Bonanno provided the details of an extortion attempt made by Dominick Sabella, who was the brother of the Philadelphia crime family boss Salvatore Sabella.
Dominick was trying to force himself into Bonanno’s bootlegging operation. Bonanno gestured with his hand as if there was a pistol in it and proxy-fired six shots at Dominick’s head. While Dominick was a member of the Maranzano's crime family, Bonanno’s authority over the operation was unquestionable.
It did not take long for Maranzano to realise Bonanno’s potential, and he immediately turned him into his protégé. Maranzano’s adversary, Joe "the Boss" Masseria, the leader of the mafia activities in New York, came to know about Bonanno as well.
Masseria began suspecting that something was happening when he noticed the increased presence of Castellammarese in Brooklyn. He correctly thought that they were distancing themselves from his leadership.
In 1927, an all-out war broke out between the factions of Maranzano and Masseria. Known as the Castellammarese War, it lasted for four years and caused much human casualty and financial destruction on both sides. Initially, Bonanno served as Maranzano’s loyal underboss and chief of staff.
A third, secret faction, comprised of younger mafiosi on both sides, was formed with Lucky Luciano as its leader. They called themselves the “Young Turks” and were tired of old-world predilections of Masseria, Maranzano and other old-line mafiosi, whom they referred to as "Mustache Petes".
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Despite his early loyalty to Maranzano, Bonanno came to agree with the Young Turks that changes were needed to be implemented in how the mafia did business and became a member of the group.
The Leader of the Bonanno Family
The war came to an end in 1931 with the death of Masseria. Maranzano was also killed later that year. Bonanno subsequently became the head of his family at the age of 26.
Luciano set up a National Commission made up of heads of several families, including the Bonanno family. They had autonomy in most of their affairs but disputes between the families were solved by the council, to which they owed their allegiance. The Commission was successful in bringing relative peace for nearly the next three decades.
Bonanno ran his family with the help of his two underbosses, Frank Garofalo and John Bonventre. While it was not as large as other crime families in New York, the loyalty within the family was unparalleled. Despite being a powerful man in the world of crime, Bonanno led a simple life, though he did develop a taste for expensive cigars.
Following the debacle of Apalachin Conference of 1957, Bonanno and his association with crime became known to the public.
In 1963, he and Joe Magliocco of the Profaci family ordered the murder of four other bosses: Tommy Lucchese, Carlo Gambino, Stefano Magaddino and Frank DeSimone. However, the things did not go according to the plan, and their designated assassin approached the Commission with the information about the plot.
Magliocco was removed from his position as the boss by the Commission. Bonanno, on the other hand, fled and remained missing for the next two years. When the Commission removed him as well from his position as the boss, he started what has come to be known as the "Banana War" (1964-68).
At one point, Bonanno was abducted by the Buffalo crime family and was told to put an end to the war and leave the world of crime. Bonanno declined and the war raged on.
In 1968, Bonanno had a heart attack and subsequently swore to the Commission that he would never be involved in New York Mafia affairs again. He was replaced by Paul Sciacca as the head of the family.
After leaving New York, he and his sons were involved in criminal activities in Arizona and California. In 1983, he put out ‘A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno’, a highly controversial book that outraged the mafia as Bonanno revealed several of their secrets to the public and the government through it.
However, Bonanno maintained that as he had not become a government informant, he had not broken omertà.
Family & Personal Life
In 1931, Bonanno exchanged wedding vows with a woman named Fay Labruzzo. The couple became the parents of Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno (1932-2008), Catherine (born 1934), and Joseph Charles Jr. (1945-2005).
Bonanno first relocated his family from Brooklyn to Hempstead, Long Island. Later, he bought a house in Tucson, Arizona.
Death & Legacy
On May 11, 2002, Bonanno passed away due to heart failure. He was 97 years old at the time. He is interred at Holy Hope Cemetery & Mausoleum in Tucson.
Bonanno has been portrayed by John Chappoulis in the 1991 film ‘Mobsters’, Amadeo Fusca in the 2014 series finale of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ and Chazz Palminteri in the 2019 TV series ‘Godfather of Harlem’.