Joseph Valachi

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Joe Valachi
Joe Valachi.jpg
Born (1903-09-22)September 22, 1903
East Harlem, New York, USA
Died April 3, 1971(1971-04-03) (aged 67)
El Paso, Texas, USA
Other names "Anthony Sorge", "Charles Charbano", "Joe Cargo"
Known for First Mafia member to publicly acknowledge the existence of the Mafia

Joseph Michael "Joe Cargo" Valachi (September 22, 1903 – April 3, 1971), Italian American, also known as "Charles Charbano" and "Anthony Sorge" was the first Mafia member to publicly acknowledge the existence of the Mafia.

He is also the person who made Cosa Nostra (meaning "Our Thing") a household name.[1]


Joseph Valachi was born in the East Harlem section of New York City on September 22, 1903.[2] He came from an impoverished Italian immigrant family with a drunken, violent father. Valachi later blamed his background for his turn to organized crime.[2][3]

Valachi's criminal career began with a small gang known as "The Minutemen," so-called for carrying out smash and grab burglaries and escaping within a minute. Valachi was the driver for this band, and his ability to make a quick getaway earned him a reputation as a rising star in the underworld.[4]

In 1921, Valachi was arrested on grand larceny charges. In 1923 Valachi was arrested in the aftermath of a botched robbery; he subsequently pleaded guilty to attempted burglary and was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment.[4] He was released after nine months and, having been replaced with a new driver, created a new burglary gang.[5]

In the early 1930s, through mob contact Dominick "The Gap" Petrilli, Valachi was introduced to the Cosa Nostra or Mafia, and soon became a soldier in the Reina Family (now known as the Lucchese Family) during the height of the Castellammarese War. Valachi fought on the side of Salvatore Maranzano, which eventually defeated the faction headed by rival Joe Masseria. After Masseria's murder, Valachi became a bodyguard for Maranzano. However, this position was short-lived, as Maranzano himself was murdered in 1931. Valachi then became a soldier in the family headed by Lucky Luciano (eventually known as the Genovese Family), in the crew headed by Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo. Valachi remained in this position until the time he became an informer.

He was the son-in-law of Gaetano Reina, having married Reina's oldest daughter Mildred in July 1932, over the objections of her mother, brother, and uncles.

Federal testimony[edit]

In October 1963, Valachi testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations that the Mafia did exist.[6][7]

Valachi's motivations for becoming an informer have been the subject of some debate. Valachi claimed to be testifying as a public service and to expose a powerful criminal organization that he blamed for ruining his life, but it is also possible he was hoping for government protection as part of a plea bargain in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment, avoiding the death penalty for a murder he committed in prison on June 22, 1962. While in prison, Valachi feared that mob boss Vito Genovese had ordered his death as a traitor. Using a pipe left near some construction work, he bludgeoned to death an inmate whom he mistook for Joseph DiPalermo, a Mafia member he believed was commissioned to kill him. (Valachi and Genovese were both serving sentences for heroin trafficking.[8]) After time with FBI handlers, Valachi came forward with a story of Genovese giving him a kiss on the cheek, which he took as a "kiss of death".

Although Valachi's disclosures never led directly to the prosecution of many Mafia leaders, he was able to provide many details of its history, operations and rituals, aiding in the solution of several unsolved murders, as well as naming many members and the major crime families. His testimony, which was broadcast on radio and television and published in newspapers, was devastating for the mob, still reeling from the November 14, 1957 Apalachin Meeting, where state police had accidentally discovered several Mafia bosses from all over the United States meeting at the Apalachin home of mobster Joseph Barbara. Following Valachi's testimony, the mob was no longer invisible to the public.

After the U.S. Department of Justice first encouraged and then blocked publication of Valachi's memoirs, a biography heavily influenced by those memoirs and by interviews with Valachi was written by journalist Peter Maas and published in 1968 as The Valachi Papers,[9] forming the basis for a later movie of the same title starring Charles Bronson in the title role.


On April 3, 1971, Valachi died of a heart attack at Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna in Texas, having outlived Vito Genovese by two years. The $100,000 bounty, placed on Valachi by Genovese, went uncollected.

Cultural reference[edit]

In his director's commentary on The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola mentioned that the scenes that depicted the senate committee interrogation of Michael Corleone and Frank Pentangeli are based on the Valachi Federal hearings, where Frank Pentangeli is a sort of Valachi figure.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Their Thing, Time, August 16, 1963". Retrieved 2014-08-14. 
  2. ^ a b Maas, Peter (1986). The Valachi Papers. New York: Pocket Books. pp. 35–36. ISBN 0-671-63173-X. 
  3. ^ Maas, p. 16
  4. ^ a b Maas, pp. 38-42
  5. ^ Maas, pp. 42-43
  6. ^ Killers in Prison, Time, October 4, 1963
  7. ^ "The Smell of It", Time, October 11, 1963
  8. ^ Jerry Capeci. (2002) "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia", Alpha Books. p. 200. ISBN 0-02-864225-2
  9. ^ His Life and Crimes, Time, January 17, 1969
  10. ^ The Godfather Part Two, Director commentary

External links[edit]