11 December 1978: Lufthansa heist nets $6m

The Mafia carried out the Lufthansa heist at New York's JFK airport, on this day in 1978, later inspiring the Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas”.

The Mafia has been active in America since the 19th century. It reached the peak of its power in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with particular influence in construction, sanitation and transport – all tough manual jobs where the ability of workers to disrupt production was high. At the same time, booming global trade and tourism saw large amounts of money and valuables start to flow through airports, making them tempting targets.

In 1978, airport workers Louis Werner and Peter Gruenwald tipped off mobster Jimmy Burke to money coming in from US soldiers in West Germany, delivered by Lufthansa and transported via JFK airport. As a result, Burke and his gang robbed the Lufthansa terminal at JFK. After assaulting Gruenwald's colleagues, they stole around $6m-worth of cash and jewellery ($35m today).

The heist went smoothly, but the aftermath was anything but. One gangster failed to destroy the getaway van, instead parking it illegally. Another began spending big, alerting the police to the culprits.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Paranoid about being discovered and greedy for a bigger share, Burke turned on his "associates". By the time he was arrested in 1980, all but three of the original robbers were dead. A number of those involved turned informant, including mobster Henry Hill, whose life inspired Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas (which made $47m at the box office), in which the Lufthansa heist forms part of the plot.

Despite being responsible for the conviction of 50 Mafiosi, and having a reported $1m price on his head, Hill died of natural causes in 2012. The Mafia was broken by police action, helped by anti-racketeering laws.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri