by Jim Hughes
It was November 14, 1957. Dozens of luxury automobiles (mostly shiny black and with a variety of license plates) were arriving at the fieldstone manor of underworld notable Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara. Within hours, an estimated 100 mob bosses were dining on charcoaled steaks, downing fine wines, puffing on Cuban cigars and getting ready to discuss some very serious topics – narcotics trafficking, loansharking, and gambling among them. Ruthless Albert Anastasia had just been slain in a Manhattan barber shop and a major agenda item would be the consolidation of power within the American Mafia, a contentious issue indeed.
And just where was Barbara’s 53-acre estate located…New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas? No…not at all. The mafioso’s stately property was tucked in the Tioga County countryside of Apalachin (AP-ə-LAY-kin), a quiet community that hugs the Susquehanna River’s south bank between Binghamton and Owego.
The incongruity of The Mob moving in on “the sleepy hamlet of Apalachin,” as the press described it, for this conclave of underworld overlords was striking. By the following morning, early accounts of the event were splashed across the headlines of major newspapers throughout the country. As reporters devoured emerging details, the significance and consequences of the landmark gathering would steadily come into sharper focus.
Far from the grit and mean streets of the big cities, that myriad of mobsters settled in for their notorious get-together. Variously referred to as a “summit,” “convention” or “meeting,” the gathering is never mentioned without the geographical precursor, “Apalachin,” as in “Apalachin Meeting.”
Local law officials, led by Sgt. Ed Croswell of the New York State Police, had been eyeing Joseph Barbara Sr. with interest and suspicion for 10 years. Barbara owned a beverage company in the Binghamton area, and in their only personal encounter, Croswell had found him to be arrogant and contentious. Rumored to have ties with organized crime, Barbara was known to mingle with local characters of less than savory reputation.
Acquiring court orders, Sgt. Croswell studied Barbara’s past. Involvement in illicit activity, including murder, had followed Joseph Sr. from Pennsylvania, but in each instance, official records showed eventual release without prosecution. While Barbara massaged the image of a “model citizen,” frequent telephone contacts with known racketeers and dubious bank account records often suggested otherwise.
Croswell sensed something was up when he learned that Barbara’s son had made multiple room reservations at nearby hotels for November 13th and 14th. Collecting the keys, Joseph Jr. had refused to register any occupants by name. “Don’t worry,” guests answered later when questioned. “Joe Barbara will take care of things.”
On the evening of the 13th, Croswell and an assistant drove past the Barbara residence on McFall Road, noting a few upscale automobiles with a variety of plates parked in the driveway. Preparing for what might occur the following day, additional troopers gathered and Treasury agents were notified. A significant event was clearly in the offing.
The next day, Croswell and his partners returned to the Barbara home and “hit the jackpot,” as one tabloid writer of the day put it. Cars lined the driveway, with many more scattered about the grounds, as dozens of underworld bosses enjoyed food, drink, and animated conversation inside the residence and around the outdoor barbecue pit. Shielded in the garage area, troopers began scribbling down license plate numbers.
Suddenly, several Barbara “guests” in fine suits and shiny shoes stepped around the corner. Stunned to see the troopers, they panicked and ran toward the house gesturing wildly and shouting warnings. Chaos ensued. Mobsters dashed to their cars, attempting to flee via the narrow road out of the area, while others bolted out the door, running through open fields and scaling fences heading toward the cover of nearby woods.
Foreseeing the situation, Croswell had set up a roadblock a mile away. Cars were stopped, and each occupant was searched, ID’d, and then moved to the New York State Troopers’ Vestal substation for questioning. Others were flushed from the woods, their slick clothes muddied and burr-covered. When collared, one sneered, “We’re from New Jersey…just out looking for real estate.”
Likely, the mobsters’ panic and flight had been brought on more by instinct than any real fear of incarceration. Authorities had only a 12-hour window to prefer charges before release, and none of the racketeers were caught red-handed with arms or illegal contraband. Many carried hefty rolls of “getaway dough,” a common practice that while suspicious, was perfectly legal. Mobster responses to the intense interrogation were less than cooperative. Why were they here? To cheer up their friend Joseph Barbara who had been feeling “a little under the weather.” Why so many at one time? “Mere coincidence.”
The council of criminals that once converged on peaceful Apalachin is not forgotten, nor is its unique place in gangland history. Over time, the names and deeds of those present – Vito Genovese, Joseph Profaci, Carlo Gambino, Sam Giancana, et al. – have become familiar through multiple feature films, documentaries, and books.
Because of its size and scope, the Apalachin Meeting shone a spotlight on organized crime. Historians credit the event for confirming the existence of a nationally organized crime syndicate. It forced the FBI and other government agencies to realign resources and priorities to focus on the structure, the breadth of operations, and the convoluted conspiracies within the American Mafia.
After more than 60 years, an indie film based on the mob summit at Apalachin has been completed and will be screened, possibly in 2019. David Arquette stars as Croswell, whose efforts ultimately exposed the American public to the Mafia’s existence. The movie has been dubbed “Mob Town,” a title that may not sit well with local citizenry. After all, in 1957 that dark cloud of history hovered over Apalachin for a single event on just a single day…and due to the ill repute of a single resident.
Joseph Barbara died of a heart attack less than two years later, in June of 1959, a short time before his scheduled testimony was to be heard by a New York State commission investigating the Apalachin Meeting.