The career path for most organized crime figures that manage to reach the pinnacle of power is one of gradual rise and one final downfall – almost always in the form of forced retirement or death. Rarely does one in the underworld reign supreme, step down from his position, and then manage to later rise back to the top.
Frank Scalise did just this. And while his career path was in fact unique, that usual downfall that eventually ensued was of the typical gangland variety.
Scalise was a boss before today’s current structure for the New York underworld was even in place. Working for Joe Masseria ally and Brooklyn kingpin Al Mineo in the ‘20s, Scalise benefited from the execution of his boss. An attempt to rub out Masseria by rival Salvatore Maranzano failed, but caught in the crossfire was Mineo and top aide Steve Ferrigno. Scalise, quickly pegged as a defector to the Maranzano side of the Castellammarese War, took over the remnants of the Mineo rackets. Some have even theorized that Scalise, along with Albert Anastasia, was a gunman in the assassination.
The reign at the top was short. A year later, in 1931, Maranzano was murdered on orders of Lucky Luciano, and Scalise realized he would no longer be trusted with a position of power because of his once-strong ties to Maranzano. Scalise quickly stepped down, allowing Vince Mangano to take over a family in Luciano’s new five family system.
No longer the boss, Scalise nonetheless did very well for himself. The former king of Brooklyn soon became a force in Manhattan and the Bronx as well, developing large-scale loansharking and gambling operations in the two areas. Scalise was also said to have been one of the first to delve into the construction business, controlling many firms in the industry.
Scalise is best known for his dealings in narcotics, and not just as a petty peddler or small-scale financier. “Don Cheech” was heavily into drugs as an international trafficker, teaming with the exiled Lucky Luciano to set up international heroin pipelines. Scalise was witnessed visiting Luciano in Italy numerous times, presumably masterminding drug operations or giving Luciano the necessary funds to finance transactions.
Shortly after getting the heroin operations established, Scalise once again was able to benefit from a boss’ demise. Albert Anastasia made a move for power in 1951, disposing of the Mangano brothers and taking over the family. To solidify his control he chose his old gunman pal Scalise to serve as his number two in command.
Scalise worked as underboss until tensions flared between Frank Costello and Vito Genovese, a struggle that Anastasia could not stay out of. Closely aligned with Costello since his teenage years, Anastasia and his family became a target of Genovese to point out any and all infractions. It was at this point that it was discovered that “Don Cheech” had been a bit too industrial for his own good, selling membership into the crime family for fees of $50,000 to $100,000. It was an inexcusable infraction of Cosa Nostra policy and meant certain death for Scalise.
There are differing opinions as to whether Anastasia ordered the killing or not. Some claim that it was Genovese who gave the command – in his autobiography Luciano gives this theory – but there is considerable evidence that Anastasia, not wanting to give Genovese reason to complain about his family to the rest of the New York underworld beat him to the deed and ordered his underboss killed.
What is known about the killing is that it was one of the most sensationalized mob hits in history, an execution that was the basis for the attack on Don Corleone in The Godfather. As Scalise was buying fruit from a neighborhood Bronx fruit stand on June 17, 1957 four bullets chopped him down. The triggerman was said to be future garbage rackets king Vincent “Jimmy Jerome” Squillante.