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Authors: Scott M Dietche

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Aftermath to the Slaughter

The newspapers ran editorials in support of the vigilante murders. One paper lauded the crazed mob for its self-control in that only the Mafiosi were killed, which was not true. The episode became an international incident, drawing rebukes from several European leaders. The Italian ambassador lodged a complaint with the president, as did the Italian government. Rumors of a potential war between the United States and Italy filled the newspapers, though that was more idle speculation than a real, concrete threat. The president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, denounced the incident, and the government paid settlements to the families of the murder victims. None of the vigilante mob or the men who incited them were brought to trial.

Matranga’s Legacy

Charles Matranga ultimately had all charges dismissed, and he laid low after that. The lion’s share of the $25,000 sent to the families of the victims ended up in the Mafia’s coffers. After the massacre, the newspapers announced that the Mafia was dead and buried. But the press was dead wrong. Matranga was able to hold onto his power base, as he watched the Provenzanos lose theirs. The New Orleans Mafia continued to do quite well in its illegal enterprises. The man who guided the New Orleans crime family through most of the twentieth century, Carlos Marcello, will be discussed at length in later chapters.

The Roaring Twenties

In January of 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment, better known as Prohibition, was ratified. America’s experiment with Prohibition opened the door for the Mafia to make a bundle in the trafficking of illegal booze. This was the catalyst for the mob to move up the ladder on the American crime scene. Gangsters were everywhere, keeping the illegal speakeasies open and stocking Americans with illegal alcohol, much of which was not fit for human consumption! In addition to making their own, gangsters were bringing booze across the border from Canada and up to Florida from Cuba. And one stocky Neapolitan wise guy from Brooklyn set up shop in Chicago and changed history.


There have been many attempts to deal with the problem of alcoholism in America since the 1800s. These were called
temperance movements
, an antiquated phrase meaning moderation in one’s indulgence in the so-called vices. Most temperance movements in history have been initiated by religious folks who felt that only a spiritual conversion could combat the deleterious effects of “demon rum.” And there were many who wanted to ban all alcoholic beverages from the American landscape.

Temperance firebrand Carrie Nation was one early leader of the movement against alcohol. Standing six feet tall, Nation led militant crusades against the scourge of alcohol and the damage it caused families and society as a whole when it was abused. She regularly brandished a hatchet to personally smash casks and kegs of whiskey and beer and go after barkeeps who served alcohol.

In the late nineteenth century, the temperance movement in America became increasingly popular and influential. It was sometimes called the “Women’s War,” since most of its members were women who were fed up with their drunken fathers, husbands, and sons. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) gained popularity in many states. The ASL endorsed candidates and tried to influence state and local governments, and its dream was to have an impact at the national level.

Prohibition Passes

The movement was gaining momentum, and twenty-three states had prohibition laws by 1916. There was enough support for an amendment to the Constitution. An amendment requires two-thirds of the states to vote in favor of it, and in 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, outlawing the manufacture, sale, or exportation of alcohol by anyone in the United States.

It became the law of the land in 1920. It was called Prohibition for short, and it lasted until the early 1930s. Ironically, the 1920s was, for many Americans, one big party that preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s. The booze never stopped flowing during Prohibition, thanks to the friendly neighborhood Mafia.

Bootlegging was not exclusively an enterprise of the Mafia. Many immigrant families, who saw nothing immoral about drinking alcohol, made their own wine and beer for their personal consumption. In the American South and Midwest, rural stills made moonshine, a practice that continues to this day.

Getting Around It

The National Prohibition Act was passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. It was also known as the Volstead Act, named for the congressman who introduced the law. There were some exceptions to the rule. Alcohol could be used for medicinal purposes, and priests could perform Mass with sacramental wine. It was generally accepted that it would be difficult to enforce, and that law enforcement officials were not necessarily going to aggressively enforce the law. Many of them liked to drink and were not eager to deny themselves the pleasure.

The demand for alcohol was there, and someone who could supply the demand was more than welcome. At first it was the Irish saloon owners who had brothers and cousins on “the force.” But soon the Italian and the Jewish mobsters muscled in on their turf. Prohibition was counterproductive. It spurred the increase of organized crime.

The Jazz Age

When saloons became illegal, they went underground and became “speakeasies.” Now there was an illicit element that made drinking more attractive. People did not stop drinking during Prohibition. They just had to pay more money (a shot of booze went up from ten cents to $3 in some places) for substandard booze, and they had to do it in secret. In these underground clubs you didn’t hear classical music or the stiff, high-pitched whines of male pop vocalists of the day. The down and dirty atmosphere of the speakeasies was the perfect match to the quintessential American music . . . jazz.

Many performers who went on to great fame got their start in the Mafia-owned nightclubs. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club was owned by Irishman Owney “the Killer” Madden and regularly featured the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Louis Armstrong was another regular. Although the clubs rarely let in black patrons, in some ways the mob gave the jazz musicians exposure they weren’t getting anywhere else.

The Irish Players

The first bootleggers were Irish. They constituted most of the saloon owners, and after Prohibition was enacted they immediately became criminals if they continued to do business. Two Irishmen were the big-time bootleggers in the Northeast. Owney “the Killer” Madden was New York’s main bootlegger until the Mafia demolished the Irish mob. And Boston’s premier rumrunner was a man named Joseph P. Kennedy. Yes, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan was considered to be a major-league player in the illegal booze trade and an associate of many an overt gangster. (See Chapter 12 for more about him.) In 1922 Kennedy provided the booze that was served at the tenth anniversary reunion of his Harvard graduating class.

One of the biggest smuggling gangs operated out of Detroit. The Purple Gang, as it was known, was primarily a Jewish gang, and they were responsible for bringing booze across the Great Lakes from Canada. After Prohibition ended, the gang broke apart, and the Detroit Mafia family took over the Gang’s nonbootlegging rackets.

Irish Versus Italian

Irish gangs controlled the Brooklyn waterfront after World War I. They took protection money for keeping the ships and the merchandise therein safe and sound. The Irish were unable to outgun the Italians and were relegated to secondhand status. One of the upcoming young Italian gangsters was a bouncer and bartender in the speakeasies. This outspoken, chubby tough guy once told a female patron of a speakeasy, “You got a beautiful ass.” This prompted her brother to try to cut the bouncer’s throat. The man missed and sliced the bouncer’s cheek. And that is how the bouncer, destined to become the most famous Mafioso ever, got the name Al “Scarface” Capone.

Scarface Al

Alfonse Capone was one of the first American-born Italian gangsters. His parents came from Italy like so many other immigrants seeking the American Dream. His father was a barber who wanted to open his own shop. They settled in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard. The family later moved to a more ethnically diverse neighborhood. He mingled with kids who were Irish, German, Jewish, and Asian. This exposed young Al to the American “melting pot” experience, making him less insular than his Old-World relatives. He fell in line with the way of thinking that Lucky Luciano would later use to forge a new Mafia.

Al left school at the age of fourteen after hitting a teacher who had struck him. He was expelled and never looked back. There were bigger things on the horizon for young Al Capone. He would soon take his first adolescent steps into the underworld. And there was no better place to be brought into “that life” than Brooklyn.

Johnny Torrio

The Capone family moved to another neighborhood, and their new residence was a few blocks away from the headquarters of Mafioso Johnny Torrio, who was one of the first of the modern hoodlums. Capone began running errands for Torrio, who took a liking to the pugnacious street urchin and gave him more and more responsibilities. Capone watched the older men conduct business, and they served as role models to the impressionable boy.

Capone also became involved in the teenage street gangs of the day. They were usually divided along ethnic lines and were territorial about their “turf.” At various times in his misspent youth, Capone belonged to the South Brooklyn Rippers, Forty Thieves Juniors, and the Five Point Juniors.

After he retired Johnny Torrio moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he owned numerous homes, rentals, and parcels of real estate on the beaches. He was also in close contact with members of the Tampa Mafia, including Angelo Bedami Sr. and Salvatore “Red” Italiano. St. Petersburg was also a favorite vacation spot for Al Capone.

BOOK: The Everything Mafia Book
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