On This Day in 1957, the FBI Finally Had to Admit That the Mafia Existed

J. Edgar Hoover, circa 1971.

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

On Nov. 14, 1957, 56 years ago today, New York state troopers noticed a suspicious number of expensive cars with out-of-state license plates converging on the small town of Apalachin.* The cars, it turned out, belonged to Mafia leaders from across America, who had come to Apalachin for a national summit meeting. The aftermath of the Apalachin Meeting would shed new light on a criminal organization that greatly valued its secrecy. It also forced the FBI to admit once and for all that the Mafia operated on a nationwide scale.

Today, thanks to decades’ worth of mob-related entertainment products, even small children know what the Mafia’s all about (funny nicknames, cannoli, and men kissing other men on the cheek). But for many years before Apalachin, the FBI refused to even admit that the Mafia existed. J. Edgar Hoover felt that communists and domestic subversives were the major threats facing the country, and he directed the bureau’s resources toward neutralizing them. Organized crime was a distraction that the FBI didn’t want.

They couldn’t ignore what happened at Apalachin, though. The small town near Binghamton was the home of Joseph Barbara, a subordinate of Buffalo, N.Y., crime lord Stefano Magaddino. Magaddino suggested Barbara’s house as the location for a meeting that would hopefully settle some of what had been riling the Italian mob. Two New York mobsters, Vito Genovese and Frank Costello, had been angling for control of the Luciano crime family. (Costello had it, Genovese wanted it.) After much bloodshed, Genovese emerged victorious, and he called for a nationwide meeting of mob leaders in hopes that the other families would acknowledge his control.

But the meeting hadn’t gone very far before it fell apart. State troopers noticed all the fancy cars parked in Barbara’s driveway, and started taking down license plate numbers. (Some have suggested that one of Genovese’s rivals tipped the cops, in hopes of spoiling Genovese’s crown ceremony.) The assembled mafiosi noticed this, and began to panic. Some fled into the woods, some hid in the basement. Others ran to their cars and tried to drive away. The troopers caught about 60 of them; when questioned, many insisted they were there for a barbecue, or that they had just come to visit their good friend Joe Barbara, who was recovering from a heart attack. When all was said and done, the troopers had apprehended Mafia leaders from New York, New Jersey, Tampa, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and several other locations. A New York state investigative commission eventually brought obstruction of justice charges against 20 of the summit participants, for refusing to explain why they had all come to Apalachin. The men were convicted, but the convictions were later reversed. (Eliot Lumbard, chief counsel to the Apalachin commission, just died earlier this month.)

The whole thing made national news, and it finally forced the FBI to acknowledge that organized crime was a matter worthy of notice. Some believe that J. Edgar Hoover’s reluctance to acknowledge the mob’s existence can be ascribed to the Mafia somehow acquiring photographs of Hoover in drag, and using those to blackmail him into leaving the Mafia alone. There is no evidence to suggest that this is true. What is clear, however, is that before Apalachin, Hoover had scoffed at the idea that criminals were organizing across state lines, insisting that so-called crime syndicates were local fiefdoms, to be investigated by local police.

Apalachin destroyed that fiction, and Hoover begrudgingly established a unit called the Top Hoodlum Program, devoted to investigating organized crime in the United States through wiretaps, human intelligence, and other methods. Even then, the pursuit wasn’t always very avid; in his book Gangbusters, Ernest Volkman noted that Hoover initially instructed every FBI field office to “prepare a list of ten ‘top hoodlums’—no more, no less—and target them for investigation and prosecution.” (The field office in Butte, Mont., “desperately searched for hoodlums to put on the list,” Volkman writes. “Finally it listed ten local juvenile delinquents and vowed a full investigation of their ‘criminal activities.’ Headquarters praised Butte for its diligence.”)

As for Vito Genovese, the disaster at Apalachin was an inauspicious beginning to his stint at the head of the Luciano family, which was renamed the Genovese family in his honor. He was convicted of heroin trafficking in 1959, and died in federal prison 10 years later.

*Correction, Nov. 14, 2013: This post originally stated that the Apalachin Meeting happened 66 years ago. It was 56 years ago.