Gangsters carry with them an aura of fascination that goes beyond infamy and enters a realm of worship to many. Despite their violent tendencies and criminal enterprises, many gangsters and mobsters are celebrated as folk heroes these days. That is due, more than anything, to the films about gangsters throughout decades of Hollywood. The gangster genre created immortality for the infamous.
Here are 8 of the most notorious gangsters in American history, quantified by work, violence, staying power, celebrity, and several other factors…
8. James Burke
Burke was an Irish-American gangster, and the head of the Luchesse crime family during the 1970s. He was also one of the masterminds behind the Lufthansa heist, which was the biggest heist in American history at the time. Burke was portrayed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s classic, Goodfellas, where his name was changed to Jimmy Conway. Burke died in prison before he was eligible for parole.
7. Frank Costello
Costello was given the nickname “The Prime Minister,” and was a popular figure in the underworld during his reign. He led the Lower East Side gangs in New York while also running the Morello Gang. Costello became parts of the Sicilian Mafia Family and became involved in the operations of rum manufacturers. He was a known associate with Lucky Luciano, and his name was used in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, though Jack Nicholson’s character was not directly based on his life.
6. Arnold Rothstein
A Jewish-American gangster, Rothstein is most well known for fixing the 1919 World Series and paying off eight members of the Chicago White Sox to throw games. His nickname was “The Brain,” and he was the leader of the most notorious Jewish mobs in American history. He was portrayed as part of the mob influence in Atlantic City in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
5. Bugsy Siegel
The originator of what the media called Murder, Incorporated, what made Bugsy such a dangerous man was his propensity for violent outbursts, even against his own people. Siegel headed the Genovese crime family and was most well known for assassinating the Fabrizio brothers and his rival loan sharks, the Amberg brothers. He earned most of his money once he moved out to Las Vegas and got the casino culture up and running. He basically started Vegas as we know it today, and also managed to do a little bootlegging while he was out there. Bugsy was gunned down in his home in Beverly Hills in 1947. The case remains unsolved.
4. John Dillinger
While he wasn’t a member of the traditional Mafia in New York, John Dillinger was just as notorious. He also became a folk hero of sorts throughout his career robbing banks during the Great Depression, when the American public had a negative opinion of the American financial system. His organized robbery syndicate took on the FBI and Hoover’s G-Men before he was gunned down outside a theater in the famous “lady in red” incident.
3. John Gotti
Gotti is, aside from Whitey Bulger, the most popular and modern gangster. His criminal activities were inspiration for The Sopranos. He was the boss of the Gambino crime family when he was arrested and put on trial for racketeering at least five people. While behind bars, Gotti did not have the same benefits of most gangsters. He spent the majority of his sentence in solitary and was beaten up by another inmate. He eventually died of throat cancer in his cell.
2. Lucky Luciano
Luciano worked closely with Rothstein in many facets of organized crime, but he was much more vicious in his approach. Luciano was also known as the father of organized crime in the traditional sense, taking criminal enterprises and adding the business side to everything. He died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 64.
1. Al Capone
The original Scarface. Al Capone was everything to American gangster history. He was brash and outspoken, never one to shy away from publicity, but he was also a ruthless killer. He is most well known for taking on Eliot Ness and his band of Untouchables, which was serialized on television and in a 1987 film. Despite all of his murders and bribery of high-end officials in all avenues of government, Capone was sent to Alcatraz for income tax evasion and later died of syphilis.