As an American historian, I answer this from a US perspective. Orthodox readings of the history the Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra (which literally translates as “our thing”), throw up three serious contenders: Joe Masseria, Salvatore Maranzano and Salvatore Luciano [later known as Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano]. They were the only three men powerful enough to warrant the title Capo di tutti capi (Boss of Bosses).
Masseria is believed to have been defeated by Maranzano in the Castellammarese War, a bloody power struggle for control of the Italian-American Mafia that took place during 1930 and 1931. Flush with success, Maranzano hubristically attempted to murder the young upstart Luciano, only to be murdered himself by a Luciano-led coalition of Mafiosi.
This would logically imply that Luciano, who now had supreme power, was the most powerful. Surprisingly, rather than position himself as king, he instead decided to replace the notion of a “boss” with a more egalitarian “commission” system of collective governance. Luciano would spend ten out of the next 15 years in federal prison for pimping, but this doesn’t seem to have affected his legend. He was still apparently able to run his criminal network and even oversee cooperation between the underworld and the US government – which, as legend has it, secured his release at the end of the war.
Dr Kristofer Allerfeldt is the author of Crime And The Rise of Modern America.