The Chicago Syndicate: The Government’s Secret File on Organized Crime

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Government’s Secret File on Organized Crime

The F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover long denied the existence of the Mafia in America. He did not deny the existence of criminals, of course, or the fact that many of them came from Sicily; but he did not believe, or said he did not, that these men, dispersed in cities across the nation, worked in conspiracy, either because he underestimated them, had been paid off or simply did not care. Hoover was obsessed with revolutionaries, Communists and anarchists; gangsters, no matter what else they do, tend to support the status quo — they like the world the way it is. So in the end, the Mafia was first understood not by G-men but by the bureaucrats at the federal government’s Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration. By following drug traffic across the nation, the orderly flow from port to truck to distributor to consumer, these men inadvertently mapped the underworld, and in the process created thousands of files, with each page dedicated to another hoodlum, another cog in the machine — runner, killer, distributor, shylock, boss. In the late 1950s, Senator John McClellan used these records to guide the hearings that finally brought the underworld to light.

With the publication of “Mafia: The Government's Secret File on Organized Crime,” the Bureau of Narcotics files have been made public for the first time: hundreds of documents, mug shots and criminal histories, like a twisted version of The Baseball Encyclopedia. The book, which is fascinating and huge, and must be taken in tiny, head-clearing sips, like moonshine, offers a panoramic view of the American underworld — the national face seen in a fun house mirror.

As you read, patterns emerge. There is the typical gangster body: “Jack Cerone ... 5’6 1/2", 195 lbs. ... stout.” There is the typical gangster pedigree: Anthony De Lardo, a k a Frank Fish, a k a Peachy, was “tried and acquitted for the gangland murder of Martin (Sunny Boy) Quick. Also tried and acquitted for assault and intent to murder Police Officer James Kelly. ... Convicted in 1933 of conspiracy to intimidate state’s witnesses” (possibly why Peachy kept getting acquitted). There are the mob jobs, the real-life models for Don Corleone’s olive oil business or Tony Soprano’s work in “waste management.” Take Theodore De Martino, a k a Teddy the Bum, said to have an interest in the Admiral Trucking Company; or Rocco Pellegrino, a k a the Old Man, “head of Mafia in Westchester,” who “owns Pellegrino Bakery, 16 Barker Ave., White Plains”; or Joseph Luco Pagano, a k a Joey, “manager of Lizzie’s Clam House, E. 116th St. & 2nd Ave., N.Y.C.” There are the joints where mobsters unwind, names that suggest the pleasures of the life have not changed: Joseph Fischetti, a k a Joseph Fisher, residing at 6701 Miami View Drive in Miami Beach, “frequents the Bonfire Restaurant, Dream Bar & Ted’s Grotto.” Then there is the typical gangster trajectory, which mirrors the national trajectory, from poor to rich, east to west, busy to free. There is Giovanni Roselli, born in Chicago, that cold, somber city, but who, at the time he was being investigated, resided at “1251 No. Crescent Hts., Hollywood, Cal. Frequents gambling casinos at Las Vegas where he has room at Tropicana Hotel. Travels frequently all parts U.S.”

There is a term for this: the American Dream.

“Mafia” is organized in the most basic way, with gangsters arranged first by region, then alphabetically. It’s as if the Bureau of Narcotics files were simply pulled from the cabinet — and you just know it was one of those steel gray monstrosities that go gong when you smack them — and put between hard covers. By counting pages, you can determine where power resided in the underworld; no surprises here, with most of the hoods living in or near New York, followed by Los Angeles, then Chicago. My favorites are the gangsters who turn up all alone in some random nowhere, like an exotic longnose butterflyfish found in a swamp in, say, Hannibal, Mo. Joseph Bonanno, a k a Joe Bananas, lived at 1847 East Elm Street in Tucson and was said to have a business interest in the Grande Cheese Company of Fond du Lac, Wis. Luigi Fratto (5-foot-3 1/2, 173 pounds; “heavy build and wears glasses”) lived at 115 Caulder Avenue in Des Moines and was wonderfully described as “the most influential member of the Mafia in the state of Iowa.” These bare, unworked facts evoke a scene right out of Hemingway, the overcoated wiseguy with the heater, the boy and the cook cowering in the kitchen (“Another bright boy. Ain’t he a bright boy?”), the corn whispering in the fields, as poor Ole Anderson waits in his room, knowing that as soon as he goes out he’ll get it in the face.

“Mafia” resembles a piece of found art. It’s the product of dozens of men who worked over dozens of years, engaged in something entirely utilitarian, with no goal other than keeping a record, which is memory, and no thought of these files ever being read for sport. Yet the result is a group portrait that captures the story of its time. It’s like one of those paintings by Chuck Close: when you stand back, you see the big picture of crime in America, but when you move in you see that this big picture is actually made of hundreds of little pictures, each of which tells its own tiny epic.

Thanks to Rich Cohen

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