Were the Kennedys
at Apalachin?

By Terry J. Ward

History, like the rest of human experience, does not happen in a vacuum. For the past month, there have been a number of articles printed about the Apalachin Gangland Meeting of 1957. It has been forty years since that ill-fated barbecue went awry, and like a well-oiled machine, newspapers and magazines pump out their stories, nostalgic and reminiscent of this quirky incident in a small town's history faithfully every year.

At first glance, the Apalachin incident seems pretty cut and dried. Law enforcement officers rounded up a number of well-dressed fellows, took them down to the station for questioning, and released them. It is a point of local humor that many of the expensively clad mafioso fled through the unfamiliar woods and shed thousands of dollars in cash. Residents were still finding moldering hundred dollar bills in the woods months later. But the question still lingers, what was the real agenda of the meeting?

The guests who were questioned, one and all, have always stuck by the story that they were just paying a visit to their old pal, Joe Barbara, Sr., who had had a heart attack the previous January. Other sources have countered that the meeting was called to smooth the feathers that had been ruffled by the Albert Anastasia ("Murder Inc.") assassination. Anastasia had been murdered only three weeks before the meeting and the meeting was seen as a necessary step towards averting all-out warfare. It has also been conjectured that there would be a call to tighten membership within the families, abandoning a recruitment policy which had proved to be both sloppy and dangerous. Another issue that was to be discussed, allegedly, was the drug trade that had begun to be prevalent throughout the United States. The older "Mustachioed Petes" wanted the business outlawed.

However there was another issue looming on the horizon. An issue that could become more dangerous to Mafia activity than any other issue that they had yet faced. Up to 1957, the Mafia world had enjoyed a relative degree of carte blanche from the officialdom of law enforcement. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI since 1924, had steadfastly denied that there was such a group as the Mafia operating within the United States. Indeed, until he woke up on the morning of November 15, 1957, and saw the headlines about Apalachin glaring up at him, he was able to do so. Hoover was a powerful man, and certainly had his share of secrets, horse gambling debts being on of them, which would encourage him to keep a blind eye to any organized crime activity that came his way. Remember also, that this was a period of time when the "Red Scare" was still in force. Communists in the cupboard were a much more frightening prospect than a group of thugs. After all, Communism threatened the very moral fiber of our nation, while organized crime was just that, crime that was run in a business-like manner. Something that Americans, with their Yankee work ethic, could find some grudging respect for.

But there was one person who had a claim to power equal to that of Hoover's who did not have grudging, or any other kind of respect for the Mafia. And that man was Robert Kennedy. While Hoover was busy looking for Communists, Kennedy had opened the files on organized crime in a way that had never been done before.

The Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities - or McClellan Commission, as it became known - had named as its chief counsel, Robert Kennedy. It is perhaps this very appointment which led to the devastating tragedy that would befall the Kennedys in the years to come.

In 1956, a year before the Apalachin meeting, Joe Kennedy had decided that the time was right to begin his campaign to get his son, Jack, into the White House. At Christmas time of that same year, Bobby Kennedy announced to his father that he intended to go after racketeers. Father and son were bitterly opposed on this issue. And with good reason. Joe Kennedy had Mafia ties back to the years of Prohibition and he would need all the help that he could get to have his Catholic son elected President. Now was not the time to be making waves. But Bobby was a much more idealistic man than his father. He believed in what he was doing, just as Joe had believed in making money and gaining power. The McClellan Commission adjourned the second phase of their meetings on November 13, 1957, the day before the Apalachin meeting. Of course, the Mafia had weathered investigation before. Bobby Kennedy's zeal should have been nothing more than another annoying "Elliot Ness." One way or another he could be dealt with. But Bobby Kennedy wasn't just another "Elliot Ness." There were larger issues at stake. One particularly intriguing one right on the horizon.

The Bobby Kennedy problem was an enigma. Joe's inability to keep his son in line was a matter of honor. Joe Kennedy was a business associate. It was dishonorable for him or his family to bite the hand that had helped to feed them. Ordinarily it would be important to deal with this kind of disloyalty in an associate. But the Mafia knew that Kennedy was planning to launch Jack into the political arena, and the chances were good that he would gain the Presidency. Perhaps Joe had already approached the Mafia for help in electing his son. Years later, Sam Giancana would tell Judith Campbell, one of Jack Kennedy's numerous liaisons, "Listen, honey, if it weren't for me, your boyfriend wouldn't even be in the White House." Would it profit the Mafia more to allow Bobby Kennedy a free rein for the time being? Jack's election, and a possible mob tie-in to the Presidency could go a long way towards smoothing relations between the Mafia and Joe Kennedy.

It was perhaps this very issue that would be thrown on the table along with barbecued steaks at Joe Barbara's home. It was obvious that Bobby was making enemies. Jimmy Hoffa, who had played a central role in Bobby's racketeering investigation in 1957, was later quoted as saying, "I've go to do something about that son of a ---, Bobby Kennedy. He's got to go." By 1962, Hoffa had formulated an assassination plot to kill Bobby. And by that time, his brother Jack was also included in Mafia plans for revenge. In reply to a statement that Jack Kennedy would probably not be re-elected, Santos Trafficante, the only mobster to give a fake name when taken into custody at Apalachin, said, "No,... he is going to be hit." Bobby Kennedy had stepped on too many toes, and Jack Kennedy had not proved to be the associate that the mob had hoped for. It is perhaps not too much of a stretch of the imagination to conjecture that the real target in the assassinations of the two brothers was Bobby. It was Bobby, after all, who had never stopped his dogged pursuit of the Mafia. Carlos Marcello, another mafioso, explained that it would do no good to assassinate one brother, both would have to die. If Bobby was hit alone, Jack would come after the Mafia with every force in his power. No, it would do no good to assassinate only one of them and it made the most sense to hit the older brother first.

It was almost six years exactly from the time of the Apalachin meeting to the first Kennedy assassination. Who could know whether or not this particular problem was to be among the various speculations and maneuverings that would accompany the more formal agenda of the Apalachin meeting, or if indeed, it was an integral part of the proceedings. Good investigative work entails imagining every possibility. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the "Kennedy problem" may have first been discussed at the Apalachin meeting of 1957.