How Significant Was Apalachin Mob Meeting, Really?

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the infamous trial resulting from the disastrous 1957 meeting in Apalachin, New York (humorously depicted at the start of Analyze This).

The resulting conspiracy trial, United States v. Bufalino ultimately led to acquittals.

The meeting showed the Mafia had existed, but J Edgar Hoover had already begun investigating it with his Top Hoodlum Program.
Roadblocks stop mobsters fleeing from 1957's hastily called Apalachin summit.

Prosecutors actually had won a jury's "guilty" verdict, but an appellate court overturned it on an appeal.

Also, despite the notion that Apalachin finally woke up J. Edgar Hoover and prompted him to investigate a national organized crime ring, Hoover had actually commenced investigating the Mafia about four years prior.

Hoover, in a rare move, had kept his mouth shut about his agents' efforts on the Mafia front because he had no choice; the operations were illegal and, for the typically staid Hoover, rather innovative.

So what, really, was the significance of Apalachin?

If anything, it finally spotlighted for the American public the fact that a national organized crime ring existed in this country. Even then, the details were much more dramatically served up five years later, in October 1963, when a small-time Mafia soldier named Joseph "Cargo" Valachi publicly acknowledged the existence of the Mafia before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations.

Valachi publicized the term "Cosa Nostra," which means "Our Thing" or "This Thing of Ours." (Whether the term was used on a national basis or only by some members is up for debate; the FBI learned from wiretaps following Valachi's testimony that some mob members outside New York, speaking among themselves, sincerely wondered what Valachi was talking about. They themselves had never heard the words Cosa Nostra used.)
Don Vito Genovese; Apalachin was to be his coronation.

The Apalachin trial involved 20 of the more than 60 mobsters who had attended the historic meeting on Nov. 14, 1957, at boss Giuseppe “Joe the Barber” Barbera's 130-acre estate in Apalachin, New York. [The writer of the Forbes story incorrectly writes: "The meeting... became a scene in Mario Puzo’s Godfather..." It didn't.]

The agenda supposedly included the formal affirmation of both Vito Genovese as boss of the family that would henceforth carry his name, and Carlo Gambino, as boss of the Gambino family.

Other items were on the agenda, it is believed. Among them were  two recent events that occurred the previous month, in October of 1957. One was the move that cleared the way for Gambino's rise: the assassination of Albert "Don Umberto" Anastasia, former head of what became the largest and most powerful of New York's Five Families under Don Carlo.

J. Edgar Hoover had some 'splainin' to do
following  Croswell's enterprising investigation. 

The other event likely on the agenda involved drug trafficking. Also in October of 1957, there had been a summit meeting in Palermo, Sicily, at which high-level Mafiosi met with a contingent of American mobsters, most notably Joseph Bonanno, at the Grand Hotel des Palmes. The topic of discussion was the organizing of an international heroin ring. (It has also been reported that, during these meetings, the Sicilian Mafia decided to create its first Mafia Commission, called the Cupola, supposedly after Bonanno advised them of the National Commission formed in America.

1957 was indeed quite a year for America's Cosa Nostra.

Apalachin is widely seen as the turning point for Cosa Nostra, the event that finally awakened public opinion. It also is incorrectly viewed as having prompted J. Edgar Hoover to commence an action against the Mafia. He had in fact begun investigating the mob years earlier as per the Top Hoodlum Program. (Actually, Hoover was relying primarily on the work of covert groups of agents who bugged social clubs and other meeting places, working with the understanding that the Director would need to maintain plausible deniability, meaning if these FBI agents were caught by other law enforcement entities, they'd be considered rogue and having acted on their own initiative.)

The FBI website offers a profile of its activities before and after Apalachin:
... The FBI, for its part, immediately checked the names taken by the officers [of the men detained in Apalachin]. It had information in its files on 53 of the mobsters; 40 had criminal records. Croswell’s discovery led the FBI to intensify its interest in these figures (not begin it, as some have speculated) and to arrest mobsters who violated federal law. In part because of events at Apalachin, the FBI realized that local and regional crime lords were conspiring and began to adjust its strategy accordingly. 
That strategy had taken shape four years earlier, when the New York office—facing rising mobster activity—had specifically asked to open intelligence files on 30 top hoodlums in the city to get a general picture of their activities and to keep an eye out for violations of federal law. On August 25,1953, the FBI launched a national “Top Hoodlum Program,” asking all field offices to gather information on mobsters in their territories and to report it regularly to Washington to build a centralized collection of intelligence on racketeers.
... at the time, most racketeering activities—including gambling and loan sharking—were beyond the Bureau’s jurisdictional reach. Still, the FBI needed to build a bank of information to better understand the threat and to be prepared if federal laws were broken.
With the extra exposure provided at Apalachin, this program ultimately produced a wealth of information about organized crime activities. And in 1963, thanks in part to the FBI, the first major Mafia turncoat—Joseph Valachi—publicly spilled the beans before a Senate subcommittee, naming names and exposing plenty of secrets about organized crime history, operations, and rituals. 
But the Bureau still needed legislative tools to get past the small time crooks and connect them with those barons of the underworld. Congress powerfully delivered, with illegal gambling laws that unlocked Mafia financial networks and with laws like the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968 and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970. All of this helped the FBI’s campaign against the mob turn a corner, setting the stage for some important victories in the coming years.

The government charged 20 of the men caught at Apalachin with conspiracy to obstruct justice by giving similarly false and evasive answers before the grand jury as to the nature of the meeting. Use of the word “Mafia" during the trial was verboten.

As Forbes reported:
The government contended that the mobsters hatched the conspiracy in the 40-minute period between the time that Barbera’s wife saw unmarked police cars parked outside the house and the time when the mass exodus began, arguing that the similarity of the implausible statements insofar as “they all deny planning and seek to concoct a picture of accidental and coincidental presence at Barbera’s [house]” could only be accounted for by an illegal agreement. The defendants were convicted before Judge Irving Kaufman, who imposed sentences ranging from three to five years.

The Second Circuit reversed Kaufman, holding that conscious parallelism does not a conspiracy make. The court found no evidence of a conspiracy, namely that the defendants had agreed to lie about the gathering. The court also held that the mobsters had no reason to anticipate that any of them would be called to testify under oath about the events of that day. Indeed?...

Though the verdict was ultimately reversed on appeal, the Apalachin case had many unfortunate ramifications for Genovese. The FBI for the first time gave the organized criminal syndicate prioritized attention. The existence of La Cosa Nostra could no longer be doubted. A number of top Mafia figures were soon brought to book.

The next month a grand jury in the Southern District of New York indicted Genovese and Gigante on a narcotics conspiracy charge. Genovese was sentenced to 15 years and later died in prison of natural causes.
Joe Valachi didn't want to testify, but when he did
he electrified the nation.

Note: The Forbes story also erroneously reports that Valachi had escaped an assassination attempt in prison. He escaped what he thought was an assassination attempt, killing an innocent man in prison whom Valachi had mistakenly identified as a hit man for Genovese. He actually bludgeoned this man to death with a pipe, thinking the man was a  Joseph DiPalermo, a Mafia member he believed had been assigned to hit Valachi for Vito Genovese. Both Valachi and Genovese were serving sentences for heroin trafficking.

Valachi later told his FBI handlers that, before he killed his presumed attacker, he'd had a meeting with Vito Genovese, who kissed him on the cheek, which Valachi took to mean the "kiss of death."

The kiss of death was famously depicted in a scene in The Godfather, part two, Mr. Zirinon.