Inside the real-life ‘Mob Town’ mafia summit that inspired the movie

In the fall of 1957, Joseph “The Barber” Barbara was given an order: Host 96 organized-crime kingpins at his home. He was smart enough to say yes.

In the new movie “Mob Town,” out Friday, which chronicles the epic sitdown at hitman Babara’s 58-acre estate in remote Apalachin, NY, around 10 miles west of Binghamton — Barbara sweats the details. Played by Danny Abeckaser, who also directed the movie, he tells his boss, it “will be my honor.” Upon hanging up, though, on the verge of tears, Barbara blurts to his wife, “Jesus f–king Christ . . . Every goombah in the country is coming here.”

New York Post Cover — Nov. 15, 1957
New York Post Cover — Nov. 15, 1957New York Post

Later, when there’s a food mix-up, he frets, “I’m gonna be the first wiseguy to get whacked over not having enough fish.”

His case of the jitters was real, according to journalist Gil Reavill, author of “Mafia Summit,” which tells the tale of the meeting.

“Barbara, who had a heart condition, was nervous to the point of being terrified,” Reavill told The Post. “He knew it would be good if it worked out — and terrible if it didn’t.”

Joseph Barbara, Sr.
Joseph Barbara, Sr.Bettmann Archive

Barbara had good reason for concern, even if he was held in high-esteem by mob bosses. (“On the morning of his wedding, Barbara committed a payroll robbery,” Reavill said.) One year earlier, Barbara had hosted a similar, but less ambitious, gathering. However, there was a glitch: Invited guest and heroin distributor Carmine “Lilo” Galante got pulled over en route to the fete. He was speeding, did not have his license and got processed by New York State Police Sergeant Edgar Croswell.

After a New Jersey police chief drove up to engineer the release of Galante, Croswell became curious about the well-connected criminal. He canvassed local hotels and found that Barbara — who owned a Canada Dry ginger ale distributor, yet ordered sugar in such massive quantities that it was assumed he engaged in moonshining — had booked a room for crime-hardened Galante.

Galante got off the hook. But monitoring the comings and goings of Barbara turned into a side project for Croswell. “He was your typical great guy: hard working, blue collar, straight-laced and honest,” Abeckaser said of Croswell. “When Galante got sprung, it pissed him off and made him wonder.”

So began a cat-and-mouse game that would eventually give the mafia what it dreaded most: Public recognition of its very existence.

The years 1956 and ‘57 were great times to be in the mafia — so long as you didn’t get yourself killed. Commie-obsessed J. Edgar Hoover kept insisting that organized crime was as far-fetched as flying saucers. The mob operated with impunity. But life at the top could be precarious.

Soon after being released from prison, in May 1957, suave capo Frank Costello got shot in the lobby of his Manhattan apartment building; he survived, but more or less retired from his life of crime. In October of that year, hyper-violent Albert Anastasia, who ran the Brooklyn waterfront, got whacked in the midst of getting a haircut.

With Charles “Lucky” Luciano exiled in Italy, New York’s last big man standing was Vito “Don Vito” Genovese — who, with the aid of Carlo “Don Carlo” Gambino, is said to have ordered the shootings of Costello and Anastasia. “He ran Greenwich Village and had nightclubs, such as Birdland, which were good fronts for drug dealing,” said Reaville. “Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday both got their heroin from him. Nobody f–ked with Don Vito.”

However, said Reavill, “there was a power vacuum in the mafia,” which created a situation where bosses from around the country would be grabbing for spoils. Rather than seeing a bloody war break out — and looking to establish his dominance — Genovese called for a meeting of organized crime’s most powerful players.

Everyone was game to attend. But there was a question as to where it should be held. “Sam Giancana wanted it in Chicago; he had the city nailed down and all the cops were in his pocket,” said Reavill. “But Stefano ‘The Undertaker’ Magaddino was in Buffalo, a major entry-point for heroin. He felt like he deserved something for bringing in loads and loads of the drug.”

Eventual host Barbara kicked up to Magaddino, whose nickname derived from his owning a funeral home as a front. Apalachin was considered close to Magaddino’s turf.

“Plus, Barbara had created the Cadillac of grills in his backyard; it was a stone monstrosity,” marveled Reavill. “And the mafia loves a good cook-out.”

Joseph Barbara's home.
Joseph Barbara’s home.The LIFE Picture Collection via

As the big day neared, Barbara prepped as if he was putting together his favorite daughter’s wedding. Dissatisfied with the local beef supply, he reached out to Chicago slaughterhouses for prime cuts. Also on the shopping list: Twenty pounds of veal plus loads of fish and boiled ham. But, according to “Mafia Summit,” no chicken — which was deemed as less than manly.

Law enforcement first got wind of the summit when Croswell ventured to nearby Vestal, NY, to investigate a plague of bad checks at the Parkway Motel.
“That was when Joseph Barbara’s son came in to reserve three rooms,” said Geoff Schumacher, senior director of content for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. “He took the keys and gave no names” — maintaining that it was for a gathering of his father’s Canada Dry employees.

Croswell could not have known that the world’s most notorious crime figures — who ranged from Joseph Bonanno (who had become a family boss at only age 26) to Russell Bufalino (the criminal power-broker played by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman”) to Paul Castellano (shot down in front of Sparks Steak House in 1985) — would soon be in town. But he sensed that something was up.

Russell Bufalino, of Kingston, Pennsylvania.
Russell Bufalino, of Kingston, Pennsylvania.Bettmann Archive

While wives and girlfriends were banned, most of the mob generals arrived with soldiers tasked with carrying out their superiors’ agendas as well as their meals.

“You’d go into Barbara’s giant fridge to choose your meat and fish; one of his lackeys did the grilling,” Reavill said. “Then the top guys had underlings keeping eyes on their food.”

However, lunch never got served. Croswell and a couple of agents from Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms began snooping around the Barbara house at noon on November 14. The driveway was jammed with luxury cars of the day — Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Lincolns — and the license plates had low numbers (status symbols for people with political connections). Croswell initially figured it to be a gathering of bootleggers.

Inside Barbara’s house, the first order of business concerned a low-level mobster who withheld money. But, soon after it was decided the grunt would get a walk, all hell broke loose.

“Four or five George Raft type guys came around a corner; the cops saw them, they saw the cops and the jig was up,” Reavill said. “Almost immediately the house looked like a clown car exploding. Nearly everyone ran out. Some took off in cars, others ran through the woods.”

Insider Joseph Barbara's home.
Insider Joseph Barbara’s home.The LIFE Picture Collection via

As for the runners, Gianni Russo, author of “Hollywood Godfather,” told The Post, “They were dressed to the nines, like idiots. Guys were worried about ruining their patent leather shoes and tearing their suits. Eventually, they were stopping people on the road, offering money for get-away rides. It was like ‘The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.’ ”

In a place where there was only one way in and one way out, roadblocks served their purpose. Sixty-four attendees were detained. “None of them had guns, but plenty of cash was found,” said Reavill. “In the end, Apalachin was a sh–ty, sh–ty place to hold a mob conference.”

During the aftermath, Giancana (who coolly stayed in the house and beyond the reach of lawmen) was still sore about Chicago being skipped over. He griped to Bufalino, “I hope you’re happy. Twenty-five of my top guys are arrested.”

Most of the detained ultimately walked away scot-free. Only 22 were convicted. “And all of those cases were thrown out on appeal,” said Reavill. “There is nothing illegal about attending a cook-out.”

Sergeant Edgar D. Croswell.
Sergeant Edgar D. Croswell.Bettmann Archive

Nevertheless, Croswell received his due. “He stumbled onto the biggest mob meeting and reacted,” said director Abeckaser, whose movie tells its fact-based story largely from Croswell’s point-of-view. “He got a congratulatory call from the President” and went on to join the New York State Organized Crime Task Force.

Blasting newspaper headlines of the meeting and raid — The Post’s front page read, “THE MOB MEETS — And the cops fear a brand new murder” — forced America to reckon with a mafia that Hoover had presented as a fabrication.

In 1959, Vito Genovese, then 62, received a 15-year sentence for distribution of narcotics. That same year, Carlo Galante was handcuffed and arrested after an 8-hour chase that ended on the Garden State Parkway. With Genovese in jail, Gambino would consolidate his power and earn his “Don Carlo” title.

Arguably, the most fatal blow of all was the 1970 passing of RICO — Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It prevented criminals from insulating themselves against prosecution by overseeing a crime rather than directly committing it. Rudy Giuliani, during his stint as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, used RICO as a tool for dismantling organized crime in the ’80s. As Reavill wrote in his book, “RICO had Apalachin thoroughly embedded in its DNA.”

Faring worst of all was the man who hosted the event. Barbara’s standing in the mob was irreparably damaged. He put his bottling business and his home up for sale just after the debacle. His health deteriorated rapidly.

“Suddenly,” said Reavill, “Joe had a hospital bed in his living room and lived as a convalescent.” He died from a heart attack on June 17, 1959, at age 53. “You could say that the Mafia Summit in Apalachin killed him.”

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