Joseph Valachi
By: Brian Berger | Categories: Cusper, HiLo Heroes

At approximately 8 AM on June 22, 1962, gangster JOSEPH VALACHI (1903–71), fearing for his life, beat John Joseph Paupp to death with a metal pipe inside Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Valachi — an East Harlem native with a diverse criminal resume dating to the 1920s, including decades as a made member of what the Federal Bureau of Narcotics called “the Mafia” — was serving time for two major heroin trafficking convictions. Paupp, a 52-year-old thief and forger, wasn’t of that world. For another inmate, however, Vito Genovese — convicted heroin trafficker and, despite his imprisonment, boss of his eponymous crime family, in which Valachi was a disgruntled soldier — that world was all. There’d been rumors recently that Valachi was a government informant and hearing this, Valachi became convinced Genovese would kill him, no questions asked; thus his mistaking Paupp for his assassin. Now facing both a capital murder charge and Genovese’s wrath, Valachi, in exchange for life in protective custody, agreed to testify about “La Cosa Nostra” (the FBI’s preferred term): its organization, its businesses, its rituals. Never before had a mafia member revealed such things publicly. On September 27, in hearings broadcast live across the nation, Chairman John McLellan of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, asked Valachi why he was cooperating. “To destroy them,” the gravel-voiced avenger replied. “Destroy who?” “The Costa Nostra leaders, or the bosses. The whole — how would you explain it — that exists.” “You want to destroy the whole syndicate?” “That is right.”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Nick Cave and Joan Jett.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) Generations.

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.