Newspaper photos of the day showed the lifeless body of Joe “the Boss” Masseria in gruesome detail. The mob chief was slumped over a table, blood streaming from six bullet holes in his body onto a white tablecloth – and an ace of diamonds dangling from his right hand.
The assassination happened in April 1931 in a restaurant in Brooklyn, New York’s Coney Island. Masseria had been playing cards with his top lieutenant, Lucky Luciano, who had set him up for the kill.
Luciano excused himself from the table and went to the men’s room. Moments later four armed gunmen rushed in and filled Masseria full of lead. Since then, the ace of diamonds has been dubbed the Mafia’s hard luck card.
The legend is strictly bogus. According to author Leonard Katz, a New York Post reporter named Irving Lieberman was at the scene covering the murder of the Boss. He said a reporter from a rival newspaper decided to embellish the story and accompanying photos by picking up the ace of diamonds from the floor and putting it in Masseria’s hand.
Joe the Boss had been the undisputed leader of organized crime in New York since the mid-1920s. Standing just 5-foot-2, Masseria arrived in America in 1903 after fleeing a murder charge in Sicily. He soon got involved in extortion and burglary and became a member of the Morello Gang, the first important Mafia crime family in the city.
Through murder and cunning, Masseria rose through the ranks of the Morello mob and locked up much of the bootlegging business in certain New York neighborhoods. After coming away unscathed from one assassination attempt, Joe the Boss gained a reputation as a man who could dodge bullets.
Masseria’s luck ran out when Luciano and a younger faction of gangsters decided that their day had arrived. After lunch at Nuova Villa Tammaro, the restaurant emptied, and Masseria and Luciano decided to play cards. When Luciano took a break, gunmen Bugsy Siegel, Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese and Albert Anastasia burst in and finished off the Boss. That ended the Castellammarese gang war and ushered in a new era of organized crime in America.