While most people associate the American Mafia with a few big city locations – mainly New York and Chicago, with an honorable mention for Miami – there was once a time when upstate New York was a haven for organized crime. From prohibition up until the early 70s, places like Buffalo New York were centers for organized crime and criminal activity, from bootlegging to the distribution of heroin.
And the one man who pulled the strings on it all was Stefano “the Undertaker” Magaddino. From the 1920s until shortly before his death in 1974, Magaddino’s Buffalo Crime Family pulled the strings on rackets that stretched from Buffalo into the American Midwest, and across the border into Canada. If there was a gambling, narcotics, or extortion racket occurring across that territory in the 20th Century, chances are Stefano Magaddino’s organization was profiting from it.
Stefano Magaddino was born in Castellamare del Golfo, Sicily in 1891 and emigrated to the United States a decade later. His family initially settled in Brooklyn. By his late teens he was already involved in the New York Mafia, which is not surprising; Castellamare had long been a hotbed for Mafia activity in Sicily. Magaddino was a close cousin to the Bonanno’s also from Castellamare, and initially operated with them on the streets of New York City.
Stefano was initially an advisor and street enforcer for Giuseppe Bonanno in New York, helping the Bonannos establish and run lucrative rackets. Those early years of Mafia encroachment on public life in America were often violent, and Magaddino was right in the middle of it. His brother was killed as a result of a dispute with a rival faction, and Stefano allegedly killed another man, alleged mobster Carmen Caizzo, in an act of retribution. Magaddino fled to upstate New York to avoid murder charges. He subsequently spent the rest of his life there and built the Buffalo Crime Family into an empire.
Building the Buffalo Crime Family
After moving upstate, Magaddino established a funeral business in Niagara Falls, which gave rise to his “Undertaker” nickname. However, with his New York Mafia ties and his ambition he soon began laying the grounds for expanding the modest Buffalo Crime Family into a real outfit. With the onset of Prohibition and its key location across the border from Canada – where alcohol was still legal and easily obtained – Magaddino’s organization made a fortune bootlegging and became a key supplier of wine and liquor for Speakeasies across New York and beyond. The Buffalo soon expanded into other rackets like extortion and gambling, and ran legitimate businesses as well, using them to both launder money and make profits by landing lucrative contracts with their influence. His influence extended into the Old World as well, where he was reputed to be involved in a lucrative narcotic smuggling ring.
The Buffalo Crime Family avoided the law enforcement spotlight, which remained centered on the big cities throughout most of the 20th Century. Magaddino himself remained a shadowy background figure, making use of interlocutors and legitimate business fronts to conceal his involvement in illicit activities. He was well-respected within the Mafia Underworld and was key and enduring figure within the infamous Mafia “Commission” established by the New York Mob, and maintained close ties with the New York Families throughout his tenure as a Don.
In the late 1960s, as Magaddino became elderly and somewhat frail, his Buffalo Crime Family declined along with his health. His outfit had come under increased law enforcement scrutiny by then, and police closed in on his son, who was allegedly part of the Crime Family. Police raided the son’s home in 1968 and discovered nearly $500,000 in cash hidden in a suitcase, which led to the elder Magaddino’s arrest. The cash suitcase also spurred animosity amongst lieutenants and soldiers, who felt that Magaddino had been withholding their hard-earned illicit gains. Stefano Magaddino was ultimately convicted on racketeering charges and sent to prison but was released in 1974 on appeal.
Soon after his arrest and conviction however, the Buffalo Crime Family fractured. Mobster’s angered by Magaddino’s greed and mismanagement rebelled and ousted the elder crime boss; a handful of loyalists and close family members remained aligned with the old Don. In July 1974, with his health in serious decline, Stefano Magaddino suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried in his adopted home of Niagara Falls, New York.
Parting Thoughts – an Enduring American Mafioso
While not as well-known as his big city mobster contemporaries, Stefano “the Undertaker” Magaddino had an outsized impact on American organized crime. He build a lucrative illicit empire in a rough and tumble American backwater and extended his influence far beyond the nation’s borders. He was one of the longest serving Mafia leader’s in America as well, and his illegitimate legacy survives into the present day; while the Buffalo Crime Family is a mere remnant of its glory days under Magaddino, it is still reported to lead small but lucrative rackets in upstate New York and Canada.
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