Busted Hoodlum Conclave Made N.Y. Hamlet a ‘Crime Shrine’
Mob bosses came to this rural corner from across the country. They came in silk suits and jaunty hats. And when their secret meeting ended in a mad scramble, those natty outfits caused big problems.
Runners heading into the woods got their slacks sopped in the wet grass. Burdocks stuck to their cashmere coats. Shiny shoes slipped. Worst of all, the white fedoras made it easier for the police to spot the fleeing men on that rainy gray day.
“If they stood still nobody would have touched them. We would have just gone home,” recalls Vincent Vasisko, a retired state police investigator who was there that day.
But police did not go home. By the end of that day, Nov. 14, 1957, officers had rounded up 65 men gathered for the secret gangland conclave--men with names like Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino and Paul Castellano. Also, an obscure Upstate New York hamlet became synonymous with an event that changed mob history.
FBI Had Denied Mafia’s Existence
Before Apalachin (pronounced app-ah-LAY-kin), FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover could deny the existence of an organized crime network. Afterward, mobsters’ familial links would be published in magazines. The popular image of the gangsters as “family men” would flourish for decades, through the brooding schemers of “The Godfather” to the neurotic lowlifes of “The Sopranos.”
“It was a watershed moment,” said Jerry Capeci, a veteran organized crime columnist and author. “Hoover and the FBI had to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia--this Italian-American organized crime syndicate. And the American people also became aware of it. It was no longer like the boogeyman in the closet. It was real.”
The Apalachin meeting was called at a stormy time in the underworld. Mob boss Albert Anastasia had just been rubbed out in a New York City barbershop. Family chiefs decided to hold a meeting to talk things out.
The question was: Where?
Hosting duties eventually went to Joseph Barbara, whose hilltop ranch near Binghamton had been used for meetings before. Key attractions there included country air and the chance to grill steaks at Barbara’s giant barbecue pit.
“All the people who mattered from the whole country had been invited,” Joseph Bonanno wrote years later in his autobiography. “Everyone was talking about the Big Barbecue at Apalachin.”
It also was believed that Apalachin was beyond the prying eyes of the police. On this point the bosses were spectacularly wrong. Two local state police officers, Vasisko, an investigator, and Sgt. Edgar Croswell, were watching them from the get-go.
The officers had long suspected Barbara, owner of a local bottling plant, of shady dealings. When by chance they overheard Barbara’s son make reservations at a local motel on Nov. 13 for some “Canada Dry men,” their curiosity was piqued.
Unfortunately for the gang members, Croswell and Vasisko were intrepid detectives. Croswell--a slender, chain-smoking 42-year-old--was said to be so intense he even intimidated other troopers.
The officers visited Barbara’s home that night and saw some cars. Near noon the next day, they visited a second time with two federal alcohol agents. They found, in the words of Life magazine, a “flotilla of Cadillacs, Imperials and Lincolns.”
Something was up. But what?
The officers went to the base of the hill about a quarter-mile down the road to discuss strategy. That’s when they spotted something truly strange: maybe a dozen nattily dressed men scrambling away from Barbara’s stone ranch.
It turns out that the cops had been spotted back at the Barbara house and a warning was shouted in Italian. Some of the mobsters scattered.
Vasisko was dispatched to gather reinforcements. Croswell set up a roadblock at the foot of the dead-end street to stop the cars that were streaming out. As for those who fled on foot, befuddled-looking men were found by the roadside through the night.
“All the cars had to do is patrol the roads,” Vasisko, now 74, said on a recent visit to the site. “They had to come out sooner or later. You see a guy in a silk suit and a white fedora, you say, ‘He doesn’t belong in the woods!’ ”
The apprehended men were taken to the police station, where troopers discovered their guests came from as far away as California. Among them, they had 153 arrests and 74 convictions for crimes ranging from bootlegging to homicide.
No Laws Broken
Suspicious as it all seemed, none of the men broke laws by showing up for a barbecue. And they certainly weren’t sharing any additional information with the police.
Dave Rossie, a police reporter for the old Binghamton Sun, remembers Croswell interrogating one man who merely shrugged when asked how much money he had just emptied from his pockets.
Count it, Croswell commanded.
The man had more than $2,500 in bills.
When the men were asked what they were doing at Barbara’s, “most of them said they had come to the area on business and then just dropped in, unexpectedly, for a visit with their good friend,” according to a state report on the incident.
The story was absurd, but they stuck to it. Without any evidence, the police let them go.
The gangsters were home free. But if they thought they got away with one, they were mistaken. The fiasco was chronicled the very next morning on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: “65 Hoodlums Seized in a Raid and Run Out of Upstate Village.”
Organized crime was now in the spotlight, where it would stay.
Hoover, confronted with the obvious, created a “Top Hoodlum Program.” A series of investigations into Apalachin was launched.
Croswell, in fact, headed the state’s Organized Crime Task Force in the 1970s after retiring from the state police as a captain. He died in 1990 at age 77. Vasisko retired after a 30-year career in the state police and still lives in the area.
Back in Apalachin, locals greeted their new claim to fame with fears of a sullied image. Mad magazine parodied the town as “the heart of the underworld.”
Locals were particularly appalled after the Barbara home was sold and briefly became a tourist attraction in 1960. For $1 a head, visitors to the “crime shrine” could gawk at Barbara’s 22-karat coffee service and mirrored coffee table. “Apalachin Joe Barbecues” were 50 cents extra.
The attraction soon closed. Today visitors to Apalachin would be hard pressed to find any sign of its moment of fame--not even a historical marker.
“We talked about it,” said local historian Emma Sedore. “And then it got pooh-poohed because we figured that when you put up a marker like that it would get ripped off so fast it wouldn’t be funny.”
Jerry Capeci’s Gang Land site: https://www.ganglandnews.com/