Joseph 'Joe Cargo' Valachi (September 22, 1903 - April 3, 1971) was the first Mafia member to publicly acknowledge the existence of the Mafia. He is also the person who made Cosa Nostra (meaning "this thing of ours") a household name.
In October 1963, Valachi (a "soldier" in New York City's powerful Vito Genovese crime family, whose primary "job" within the family was that of a driver) had testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's congressional committee on organized crime that the Mafia did exist. Although the low-ranking Valachi's disclosures never led directly to the prosecution of many Mafia leaders, he was able to provide many details of its history, operations and rituals, aiding in the solution of several uncleared murders, as well as naming many members and the major crime families. His testimony, which was broadcast on radio and television and published in newspapers, was devastating for the mob, still reeling from the November 14, 1957, Apalachin Meeting where state police had accidentally discovered several Mafia bosses from all over the United States meeting at the Apalachin, New York, home of mobster Joseph Barbara. After the Apalachin exposures and Valachi's testimony, the mob was no longer invisible to the public.
Valachi's motivations for becoming an informer have been the subject of some debate. Insanity ran in his family, with four of his brothers and sisters winding up in mental institutions, and two committing suicide. [ citation needed ] Valachi claimed to be testifying as a public service and a way to expose a powerful criminal organization that he blamed for ruining his life, but it is also possible he was simply hoping for US government protection to avoid the death penalty for a murder he committed on June 22, 1962. This murder, done with a pipe from a nearby construction site, was of a man in prison whom Valachi had mistaken for a Mafia member by the name of Joseph DiPalermo intending to kill him (Valachi and Genovese were both serving a sentence for heroin trafficking). Genovese had apparently ordered Valachi killed (offering $100,000 to anyone who did so) because the powerful mob boss believed Valachi had betrayed him to the authorities in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, thus violating the strict Mafia oath of Omertà (silence) which traditionally was punishable by death.
After the U.S. Department of Justice first encouraged and then blocked publication of Valachi's memoirs, a biography heavily influenced by those memoirs and by interviews with Valachi was written by journalist Peter Maas and published in 1968 as The Valachi Papers, forming the basis for a later movie of the same title starring Charles Bronson as Valachi. Valachi also reportedly inspired the characters of Willie Cicci and Frank Pentangeli in the hit film The Godfather Part II (1974).
In 1966, Valachi attempted to hang himself in his prison cell, using an electrical extension cord. He died of a heart attack in 1971 at La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Texas, having outlived his nemesis Vito Genovese by two years. The $100,000 bounty placed on Valachi's head by Genovese went uncollected.