After 33 years of working for the Cosa Nostra, Joseph Valachi, also known as Joe Cargo, Charles Sanbano, and Anthony Sorge, offered to authorities the first ever glimpse into the inner workings of organized crime in America. Born on 22 September 1904 to Neapolitan immigrants in Manhattan’s East Harlem, Joseph Valachi was the second oldest of six children. Consistently in trouble with the law during his youth, Valachi eventually ended up in the New York Catholic Protectory after hitting one of his teachers in the eye with a rock. Released at the age of 14, he returned to school until he attained his working papers at 15 and went to work at a garbage dump with his father. Frustrated with his father confiscating his hard-earned wages, Valachi turned to theft to earn some money of his own.
By the time Joseph Valachi was 18, he drove a getaway car for a gang called the Minute Men, who were responsible for hundreds of thefts between 1919 and 1923. During this time he was arrested five times and eventually was taken to Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York in the spring of 1923 where he served nine months, only to return to New York City and revert to his old ways. He was eventually caught again and served three years and eight months in prison.
While in Sing Sing for the second time, Valachi became closely acquainted with one of the most prominent, early Italian gangsters from Brooklyn named Alessandro Vollero. Vollero taught him about the mob and suggested he hit up Al Capone for a job in Chicago. However, when Valachi was released in June of 1928, he once again began his own burglary ring so he didn’t have to leave his home. After a number of dealings with men that were part of the Cosa Nostra, Valachi was considered for membership. When he successfully completed two contract killings, he was instructed to wait for a car to pick him up and take him to meet the “family.” This meeting was his initiation into the Genovese Crime Family.
After initiation, Valachi remained an active member until June of 1960, when he was sent to a Georgia prison to serve two consecutive fifteen-year terms for drug trafficking. While in prison, Valachi learned that the mafia had a hit on him because they believed that he had broken the mafia code of silence, called omerta, by giving information to the Bureau of Narcotics. He had three attempts made on his life in prison and became paranoid. With his impending death looming, Valachi attacked and killed an innocent inmate that he had mistaken for mob enforcer, Joseph DiPalermo.
Avoiding the death penalty, Joseph Valachi decided to cooperate fully with the federal government, and in exchange, he was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of murder in the second degree and received a life sentence. After his sentencing in 1963, he was relocated to Westchester County Jail, where Valachi was questioned weekly about the inner workings of the mob. Later on that year, he testified in front of Arkansas Senator John McClellan’s committee on organized crime which was televised and highly publicized. His interviews and testimonies were used by journalist, Peter Maas to publish his biography, The Valachi Papers. The book was later made into a movie in which Valachi was played by Charles Bronson.