Following New York’s bloody Sicilian gang wars of the early 20th century, the Italian American Mafia was formally restructured into the “Five Families” in the summer of 1931.
In Brooklyn Mafia genealogy, on this Five Family Tree, long before they were the Colombos, they were the Profacis, founded on the broad shoulders of a ruthless gangster.
Born in 1897 in Villabate, Sicily, Giuseppe Profaci rose to the upper echelons of organized crime, founding one of the first “New York Five Families” in 1928 that would bear his name for the three decades he ruled.
Unlike the low-key style of fellow Italian Mafia don Carlo Gambino, Profaci lived life large, every bit the loud Runyonesque gangster.
In his early 20s, Profaci notched his first prison stint back in Palermo, Sicily, on a burglary charge. Profaci was released in 1921 after serving one year. He left Sicily behind and headed to America. After an unsuccessful run as a baker in Chicago, he moved again in 1925, this time to Brooklyn where he launched what would become a lucrative olive oil business. Behind the scenes, though, Profaci was more than a simple olive-oil peddler.
It was 1928 and Brooklyn was hotly contested by opposing Sicilian factions when Profaci entered the fray. Brooklyn gang boss Salvatore D’Aquila ha
d been gunned down, destabilizing the already fragile underworld. To help smooth out the conflict, Profaci was anointed to succeed D’Aquila during a pow-wow in Cleveland that year. It was a curious selection. Profaci was not a senior, seasoned gangster at that point. His selection had as much to do with his familial connections in the underworld back home in Sicily.
Whatever the reason for his ascension, Profaci assumed control of the gang and its criminal interests, including gambling, extortion, loan sharking, hijacking, prostitution and more.
Following the epic Castellammarese War of the early 1930s, which saw the young Turks led by Charles “Lucky” Luciano oust the old-guard Sicilian “Mustache Petes,” Luciano created the Mafia commission. Profaci assumed a seat on the ruling board as head of one of the founding five families.
Many gangsters of that era faced a new weapon from law enforcement: investigation on suspicion of tax evasion. Profaci shielded himself from such prosecution thanks to his wildly successful “Mama Mia Importing Company” and was now known as the “Olive Oil King.” The U.S. Internal Revenue Service did pursue Profaci for more than $1 million in unpaid taxes, but was never able to prosecute him successfully.
Profaci was present at the infamous Appalachian Conference of 1957, at the upstate New York farmhouse of gangster Joseph Barbara. When the p
ow-wow was raided, he was one of the 61 mobsters rounded up by state troopers, while also among the 21 convicted of conspiracy. His sentence of five years was overturned on appeal.
Profaci was an old-time gangster who demanded complete complicity, ruthlessly meting out punishment for those who disobeyed his edicts. His tight-fistedness when it came to sharing the family’s ill-gotten gains led to dissention in the ranks, manifested in a running battle with one of his captains in the 1950s, the aptly nick-named Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo.
Profaci reneged on a promise to hand Gallo the lucrative gambling interests of a bookie Gallo bumped off, a murder committed at Profaci’s request. Gallo retaliated by kidnapping Profaci’s underboss and several captains, including future family boss, Joseph Colombo. Profaci was furious and humiliated, as he himself narrowly evaded capture in the kidnapping, fleeing in his pajamas. The war raged on until Profaci’s death.
There are many fascinating gangland stories that swirl around Profaci including one about a beautiful church in Bensonhurst, built in 1948 following World War II, on 65th Street and 12th Avenue. The Regina Pacis Votive Shrine was constructed in the style of the Italian Renaissance.
To help fund the project, families from the congregation of St. Rosalie in Bensonhurst and nearby Borough Park donated family gems. Many of these jewels not sold to pay for the construction were used to form two crowns, one for the statue of the Virgin Mary and one for the baby Jesus. The crowns were taken to Rome to be blessed by Pope Pius and set on display in the church when it opened.
One morning in 1952, mortified Father James Russo noticed the crowns had been pilfered. The congregation was shocked and the story ran in The New York Times, among other media outlets. The story took on a life of its own beyond religious connotations, as the parishioners of St. Rosalia had pledged to build the church should America emerge victorious from World War II.
Eight days later, the jewels were recovered, arriving in neat packages delivered to the church rectory.
The mystery of who stole the crowns and who returned them was never solved. However, shortly before their return, Ralph Emmino, a low-level Mafia associate and jewel thief was found shot to death in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. Rumor has it that Joseph Profaci personally ordered the search and execution of the thief when he became incensed upon learning of the theft, and that before he was shot, Emmino was strangled with rosary beads.
Those rumors were never proven and the murder remains unsolved.
By 1962, in failing health, Profaci rebuffed a request to step aside made by rival family bosses Tommy Lucchese and Carlo Gambino. Profaci was dead set against retirement and the war with the Gallo faction in South Brooklyn raged on until his death later that year, when he succumbed to liver cancer.
While Joseph Magliocco ascended to become boss for a brief period, the Mafia Commission set him aside in 1963 and named Joseph Colombo to lead the family that then took his name.