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The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York


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Forget what you think you know about the Mafia. After reading this book, even life-long mob aficionados will have a new perspective on organized crime. Informative, authoritative, and eye-opening, this is the first full-length book devoted exclusively to uncovering the hidden history of how the Mafia came to dominate organized crime in New York City during the 1930s through 1950s. Based on exhaustive research of archives and secret files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, author and attorney C. Alexander Hortis draws on the deepest collection of primary sources, many newly discovered, of any history of the modern mob. Shattering myths, Hortis reveals how Cosa Nostra actually obtained power at the inception. The author goes beyond conventional who-shot-who mob stories, providing answers to fresh questions such as: * Why did the Sicilian gangs come out on top of the criminal underworld? * Can economics explain how the Mafia families operated? * What was the Mafia's real role in the drug trade? * Why was Cosa Nostra involved in gay bars in New York since the 1930s? Drawing on an unprecedented array of primary sources, The Mob and the City is the most thorough and authentic history of the Mafia's rise to power in the early-to-mid twentieth century.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633886087
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 02/15/2021
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 371,382
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

C. Alexander Hortis, JD, is an attorney specializing in commercial litigation and constitutional law. He has published articles on the Mafia in The Informer: The History of American Crime & Law Enforcement and in New York Law School Law Review.

Read an Excerpt



By C. Alexander Hortis

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 C. Alexander Hortis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-924-6



The scale and variety of New York City's economic activity makes it unique among the cities of America.... Its 7,835,000 residents occupy only 300 square miles and thus comprise the largest and most concentrated consumer market in the country.... It is the major gateway to America with almost half the country's exports and imports flowing through its harbor.... Although it has few giant industrial establishments, the city's multiplicity of small firms makes it the leading manufacturing city in the United States ... exceeding those of Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and Boston combined.

—New York State Department of Commerce (1951)

Is it not a fact that because New York is an island it is particularly vulnerable to pressure on the docks and trucking, with a great many people in a concentrated area? There is an enormous amount of money involved.... If you fail to deliver to a large store in New York, if no trucks deliver to them, you can pretty well squeeze them down in a couple of days and cause losses of hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars. Therefore, this is probably the most vulnerable area in the country to that type of pressure.

—Senator John F. Kennedy, McClellan Committee (1958)

Lost in books about the New York Mafia is New York City itself. Gotham has been reduced to an operatic backdrop for epic clashes between mob bosses, the FBI, and prosecutors. Although these conflicts are important, these books are missing half the story.

It is impossible to understand the rise of the Mafia without understanding historic New York City—a city very different than it is today. For the Cosa Nostra was in many ways a testament to New York's exceptionalism: to its tremendous economy and unique geography; to its voracious appetites and almost natural corruption. This book then is as much about New York and its peoples as it is about organized crime.

The Mafia saw unparalleled opportunities in New York City. New York had five thriving families, with another across the river in northern New Jersey. Although the Sicilian Mafia was powerful in the villages of Sicily, it never achieved the economic successes of the New York Mafia. The Sicilian cosche (clans) had few industrial rackets or labor unions because there was not much industry on their island. By contrast, the New York Mafia always had a bounty of goods and services ripe for the picking.

Our story begins in another city. When Gotham was a place that built things, between the 1890s and the 1950s, Lower Manhattan was the center of skilled manufacturing in the Atlantic world. Before SoHo became gleaming storefronts, its cast-iron buildings were filled with dirty factories, leather tanneries, and trucking companies. It was a city where nighthawks smoked in jazz clubs owned by gangsters who were paying off the police, and where entire neighborhoods spoke Sicilian or Yiddish, or with Irish lilts, or in the southern drawls of African-American migrants.

This chapter explores why this city fueled the rise of the Mafia in America.


It all began with the port. When ships entered the placid waters of Upper New York Bay, their crews marveled at one of the finest natural harbors on earth. Sheltered from storm swells by Long Island and Staten Island, it was an ideal haven. Its waters were deep enough for transatlantic vessels; its weather temperate enough to allow the harbor to be open year round with little ice or fog. From the open ocean to the Manhattan piers was only seventeen miles, compared to the hundred-odd miles ships had to travel inland to reach Baltimore or Philadelphia. The building of the Erie Canal in the 1820s linked the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, drastically reducing shipping costs for New York City. It made a superb port.

As craft industries sprang up around the harbor, and the population mushroomed, New York City became an international center of commerce. The ambitious immigrants who made it to New York in the mid-to-late nineteenth century—principally the Germans and the Irish, then later the Jews and the Italians—filled the workshops and factories in Manhattan, making it a manufacturing powerhouse. The exploding population became a huge consumer market. "The consuming power of the population of the harbor, that is of New York, Brooklyn, Bayonne, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark, was an important fact making for commerce and further growth," said a shipping expert.

These competitive advantages made the Port of New York the busiest port in the world. In old maps, Manhattan resembles a centipede, with wooden wharves and piers jutting out on all sides into the water. Nearly half of all the imports and exports of the United States went through the Port of New York. Moreover, the kind of cargo moving through it was exceptionally valuable. While Baltimore and Philadelphia were handling low-price commodities like iron ore, New York was taking in valuable raw materials for skilled manufacturing, and huge amounts of "general cargo" for finished consumer goods. By 1939, the Port of New York received 82 percent of the nation's imports of raw silk, 70 percent of the gums and resins, and 61 percent of the animal furs. Meanwhile, New York's consumers and food companies took in 72 percent of the nation's imports of cheeses, 64 percent of the wines, and 51 percent of the cocoa beans. The per-ton value of imports coming through New York was double that of any other port in the United States.

The bottom line: lots of valuable goods were coursing through the New York harbor.


The port's magnificence helped to mask its vulnerabilities. Its problems with racketeering were first widely exposed by the famous waterfront investigations of the early 1950s later immortalized by the 1954 film On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando portrays a gritty longshoreman.

Close observers of the harbor, however, had been issuing quiet alarms since the previous century. The port had developed haphazardly along the narrow streets and piers of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, with only a single railroad freight line for waterborne cargo, and little warehouse space along the harbors. Ships floated in frustration in the harbor, waiting for openings on the narrow, overburdened piers. As early as 1871, an engineer warned: "From this insufficient breadth of the majority of the piers, the lack of width in the river streets, and the consequent difficulty of access, this quarter of the city is entirely too crowded, and it is impossible to transact the shipping business satisfactorily." Calls for improvements to the shoddy wooden wharves and bulkheads were persistently ignored. "The port, by its great natural advantages, has reached its present position among the ports of the world, in spite of the mismanagement of the docks," warned another report in 1922.

During the 1800s, waterfront squatters and thugs took dominion over these precious spaces to extract payoffs from ships. As early as 1874, the Department of Docks noted the "opposition in the removal of the obstructions on the wharves and bulkheads" by people "who, from long occupancy of public property, have supposed themselves entitled to exclusive possession." The New York City Police Department (NYPD) could not be relied on to maintain law and order; waterfront cops were among the most corrupt in the city. In 1875, the City Council lamented that waterfront streets were "reduced to forty feet by squatters or corrupt police supervision," which exacerbated the "daily gorges of vehicles now witnessed, lasting frequently for hours, and obstructing commerce." 8 Police corruption on the docks became systemic over time. "Steamship companies, who require police service on their docks ... have to contribute in substantial sums to the vast amounts which flow into the station-houses, and which, after leaving something of the nature of a deposit, then flow on higher," described the Lexow Committee's report on police corruption in 1895.


Racketeers perfected these extortion tactics through the "public loader." Unique to the Port of New York, the "public loaders" were not public employees, nor did they perform a public service; they often did not even do the loading. Rather, they were thugs who muscled in on key docks and assumed territorial control over them. They then demanded payoffs from shippers simply for the right to have their cargo loaded onto a delivery truck. Those who resisted found their shipments of Cuban tomatoes or Honduran bananas rotting on a pier. Shippers paid about $50,000 (in current dollars) more in port charges out of New York than other ports—one of the mysterious fees that came to be called the "mob tax."

Fed up, a shipper denounced public loaders who "with the banner of God and their union in one hand, and an iron pipe in the other, stand between merchants and their trucks and defy them to take away their freight." Privately, shippers lamented that they could not clear away the public loaders "without assistance in the way of police protection," which they said "has never been forthcoming." As an investigative report concluded, "By merely controlling these bottlenecks and jammed conditions, underworld scum can exact tribute from those who will pay to avoid long lines and excessive waiting time in loading and unloading."

Pilferage was massive as well. Before steel containerization and electronic checking, cargo was shipped in wooden crates and tracked by paper, making it vulnerable to theft. A stevedore could sign a phony signature on a delivery slip indicating that cargo had "short-landed" (never arrived). By the time an overseas shipper learned of the theft, the cargo was missing for weeks. "When a whisky ship came in ... it seemed like everybody on the waterfront would descend on the ship. Talk about stealing!" recalled Sam Madell, a waterfront organizer. So why didn't the shippers call the police? "It was pretty widely known among the longshoremen that the maritime police were involved with the stealing," explained Madell. When stolen cargo turned up in the pier superintendent's office it was clear no one watched the watchmen.

Irish and Italian gangsters controlled the labor force using the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA). The ILA's president during the Mafia's ascendancy was Joseph P. Ryan. Bestowed the title "president for life" of the ILA by his cronies, Ryan collected an annual salary of $1.7 million while representing longshoremen who made $20,000 (both in current dollars). Behind the scenes, "King Joe" did the opposite: he collaborated with shippers to quell strikes. Most galling was his defense of the "shape-up" system of hiring in which longshoremen became permanent temp workers; each morning they shaped into a horseshoe crowd around a foreman who collected kickbacks from longshoremen to pick them. In 1916, public reports warned that these "conditions of hiring are degrading in the extreme [and] are open to the danger of graft." Yet Ryan consistently, and absurdly for a union leader, defended the shape-up system.

Joe Ryan's real job was to oversee the smooth running of the rackets. He used his blarney and connections with Irish politicians, from Mayor Jimmy Walker to Mayor Bill O'Dwyer, to fend off scrutiny of the docks. For those resistant to his charm—rank-and-file rebels, naïve shippers, Communist Party agitators—Ryan could call on the many convicts he kept on staff (a third of the ILA staff had criminal records) to drop the hook on troublemakers.


The Mafia gradually took over rackets as the ethnic makeup of the waterfront changed from Irish to Italian. In 1880, fully 95 percent of the longshoremen were Irish; but after 1910, one-third of the longshoremen were Italians, and their numbers were surging. A 1916 report found that the Irish "still are predominant in trade union councils and general harbor politics" even as "Sicilians and other South Italians, are rapidly approaching them in number." Even as the Italians surpassed them in numbers in the 1930s, there was still a "strong feeling of superiority of the Irish-Americans" because "in times past the Irish were dominant on all New York piers." This hostility was also due to the nebulous "racial" status of South Italians: foremen complained that it was "impossible to get 'white men' and that they were obliged to take Italians."

While the West Side was still contested, the Brooklyn waterfront was overwhelmingly Italian by the 1930s. Entire neighborhoods revolved around the hard life of longshoring. "Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, South Brooklyn—I can remember when those waterfront areas used to be like a company town. Most of the longshoremen left their houses and walked five minutes to the pier," recalled Frank Barbaro, a longtime resident of Brooklyn. These rough neighborhoods were breeding grounds for gamblers, hoodlums, and loansharks. A young teenager named Al Capone began life as a hard-fighting "wharf rat" on the Brooklyn waterfront.


The first Italian gangster to gain power on the docks was Paolo Vaccarelli, who rode the wave of Italian longshoring on the East Side piers of Manhattan. Diminutive, dapper, and intelligent (he spoke four languages), he took the Irish name "Paul Kelly" and formed the Paul Kelly Association, the strongest street gang on the Lower East Side in the late 1800s.

Ever the opportunist, he changed his name back to "Paul Vaccarelli" as Italian immigration surged, and he organized the Italian "scow trimmers," who sorted garbage on waterborne barges, into an ILA charter by appealing to their ethnic solidarity. After rising to vice president of the ILA in 1912, he lost a power struggle with a young Joe Ryan, and formed a breakaway union of Italian longshoremen, which was a thorn in the side of the ILA. Meanwhile, the rising force of the Mafia built ties with Vaccarelli.

From his nineteenth-floor office on West 14th Street, on the border between Irish Chelsea and the Italian South Village, the newly installed ILA president Joseph P. Ryan tried to straddle the divide through a grand bargain between the Irish and the Italian syndicates. Scarred by his battles with Paul Vaccarelli, upon becoming president in 1927, Ryan embraced a "non-interference" policy (in reality, anything goes) with the Italian ILA locals along the waterfront. The Mafia quickly gained footholds in these locals.

By the late 1920s, Emil Camarda, Camarda's brother, and two cousins had become the patriarchal rulers of six huge ILA locals on the Brooklyn waterfront. Emil came from a unionist background; his father organized Local 338 in Brooklyn before the First World War. Brooklyn's locals became so identified with his family that they were known as "the Camarda locals." But during Emil's own rise to the office of vice president of the ILA, he brought in his childhood friend Vincent Mangano, a mobster on the Brooklyn waterfront. Camarda and Mangano knew each other "from the other side," having grown up together in Palermo, Sicily. The two formed the City Democratic Club, supposedly to represent Italian Americans in Brooklyn. It was a cynical appeal. "They often said the organization existed merely to help many deserving Americans of Italian extraction find their rightful place in the sun of our city," explained Vincent Mannino, former attorney for the Camarda locals. "I felt that the reason why they were interested in this organization was to help and promote their own personal interests, politically."

Unknown to the public at the time, in 1931, Vince Mangano had become one of the five bosses of the Mafia families in New York City. The Camarda locals quickly deteriorated into tools for racketeering. These paper locals were not really unions at all: they conducted no elections, rarely held meetings of the rank-and-file, and never went on strike. In 1941, Emil Camarda was shot dead under murky circumstances in the office of a stevedoring company during an argument about putting a crony on the payroll.

Stalking the Camarda locals like the four horsemen of the Mafia were the brothers Anastasio. Jumping ship from freighters between 1917 and 1924, the four teenagers from Calabria disappeared into the Italian longshore gangs for a time only to reemerge with a vengeance in the 1920s. Anthony Anastasio became a feared hiring boss on the Red Hook piers and a liaison to Joe Ryan. As master of the shape-up, the man they called "Tough Tony" controlled the daily bread of thousands of longshoremen. Anthony Anastasio was secretly also a caporegime (captain) in the Mangano Family. His brother Joseph Anastasio, a pier official for the ILA, reportedly stole cargo "by the ton" according to a shipping association. Meanwhile, the youngest brother, Gerardo "Jerry" Anastasio, a convicted bookie and ILA business agent, demanded shippers put him on their payrolls as a phantom employee or "there would be trouble."


Excerpted from THE MOB AND THE CITY by C. Alexander Hortis. Copyright © 2014 C. Alexander Hortis. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Dr. James B. Jacobs 7

Acknowledgments 9

Introduction: The Godfather vs. New York History 11

Part 1 New York City Through Prohibition

1 A City Built for the Mob 17

2 Prohibition and the Rise of the Sicilians 41

Part 2 Taking Gotham: The 1930s and 40's

3 The Mafia Rebellion of 1928-1931 and the Fall of the Boss of Bosses 71

4 The Racketeer Cometh: How the Mob Infiltrated Labor Unions 99

5 The Mafia and the Drug Trade 125

6 The Mob Nightlife 155

Part 3 The Mobbed-Up Metropolis: The 1950s

7 The Lives of Wiseguys 177

8 Mouthpieces for the Mob: Crooked Cops, Mob Lawyers, and Director Hoover 207

9 The Assassinations of 1957 225

10 Apalachin 249

Conclusion: New York's Mafia 283

Notes 285

Select Bibliography 357

Index 361

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