The American Mafia was unstoppable during the early 20th-century. Albert Anastasia was one of their star players, right up to the time he became a liability. From his start as an Italian immigrant in Prohibition-era New York to his mysterious death 38 years after reaching New York City, Anastasia was a brutal executioner and traitor to even his closest associates. Until he met death in a barber’s chair in 1957, Anastasia was one of the nation’s most murderous criminals of all time.

Where did this Mafia hitman come from?

Anastasia was named Umberto in his birthplace, Tropea, Italy, a small fishing village. Born in 1902, he grew up as the oldest son in a family of eight brothers and three sisters supported by a father who worked the railroads. Three of the brothers made their way to America by ship, arriving in 1919.

Anastasia wasted no time embarking on a life of crime. Within two years, he was already convicted of his first murder, though he served no time due to a key witness disappearing before the retrial. Two years after that, he was convicted again, this time on gun-possession charges — and he actually went to prison. By the late 1920s, he had begun associating with the likes of Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Joe Masseria– organized crime all-stars of the day. Though he started out as a relatively low-ranking hit-man, he would eventually become one of the most-feared crime figures in history.

Albert Anastasia’s early days as an American gangster

In the 1920s, Anastasia, now going by the first name “Albert,” started his Mafia career in Joe “the Boss” Masseria’s gang. Himself a Sicilian immigrant, Masseria started as a petty criminal and burglar. But by 1920, just about as Anastasia was arriving on the scene, Masseria was consolidating operations in a way that gave him control (or at least a cut of the profits) for most of the New York rackets run by his fellow ex-pats. Masseria also engaged his rivals in a notorious gang war in 1930, which claimed around 60 gunmen and their mob bosses. Soon, though, Masseria would become a victim himself, in an incident that showed Anastasia’s true colors for the first (but not the last) time.

Lucky Luciano cooked up a plot to take down both factions involved. Along with four others, Anastasia executed his old friend and commander in April 1931. The hitmen, who also included Bugsy Siegel and Vito Genovese, gunned down Masseria while he was dining at a Coney Island restaurant called Scarpato’s Nuova Villa Tammaro. As his reward for helping slay his former ally and mentor, Anastasia was appointed underboss of Vincent Mangano’s crime family (what would become today’s Gambino crime family).

After the brutal attack on his former friend, it became clear that Anastasia would do anything to get to the top. He earned a reputation for being especially brutal and cruel, becoming the most feared hitman of the Cosa Nostra’s golden era. People called him the “Mad Hatter.” Not only did he commit a vast number of hits and other crimes related to extortion and intimidation, those who knew Anastasia best said he took pleasure in watching his victims die.

The Murder Inc. era

Ultimately, Anastasia would become one of the two men in charge of Lucky Luciano’s National Crime Syndicates enforcement department, which originated in the 1930s. The group was sort of a dotted line to the American national crime syndicate, with the express purpose of being available to intimidate, murder or maim any victim tapped if the price was right. Murder Inc. is widely credited with coming up with the lingo “contract” for a murder assignment and “hit” to mean killing.

The group didn’t have an official name (or business cards), but it soon earned the nickname Murder Inc. In an ironic twist, most of the murder-for-hire victims themselves worked in the syndicate, so Murder Inc. was essentially an internal Mafia killing machine available to mob members with a grudge anywhere in the country. Siegel was one of the group’s lead hitmen.

Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was the first head of Murder Inc. A member known as Abe “Kid Twist” Reles turned police informant in 1940-41. He described some 70s brutal murders and ratted out numerous hitmen involved, which led to the conviction and later execution of Buchalter. Rather than give up the enterprise, though, Albert Anastasia continued as its lead. It is said that during his time in charge, they murdered roughly 100 men per year. As for Anastasia, eventually, his number would also come up.

It all came crashing down

In 1951, Anastasia was made boss of the Mangano crime family, renaming it the Anastasia crime family. Almost immediately, the other bosses turned against him. To most, he was nothing more than an unstable, violent killer, likely to bring them all down.

On October 25, 1957, he was brutally shot down by two masked men in a hail of bullets. Anastasia was sitting in a hotel barber chair at New York City’s Park Sheraton. In an effort to save himself, he lunged at his attackers–unfortunately, he actually lunged at their reflections in the mirror. He fell to the floor dead moments later.

While it is widely acknowledged that the hit was orchestrated by Anastasia’s underboss Carlo Gambino, no one knows to this day who actually killed Albert Anastasia. It is suspected that the other bosses wanted him gone due to his attention-grabbing antics. No matter the origination of the hit, it’s still considered one of the most gruesome mob hits of all time.