In the chronicles of American crime lore, big names and outsized personalities like John Gotti and Whitey Bulger are a dime a dozen. But few can match the pure gangster—and enduring street clout—of Carmine "The Snake" Persico. The man seized the reigns of mafia power around 1973 and has never looked back, running New York's Colombo Crime Family in some form or other even after he was sentenced to 139 years in prison in 1986 and '87 for racketeering, extortion, bribery, gambling and drug trafficking.
In their forthcoming book, Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family, Frank Dimatteo—who grew up in the Mafia—and true-crime scholar Michael Benson explore the life of the (still living) legend. From his days as an up-and-coming street tough—he caught a murder beef at 17—to his betrayal of the infamous Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo to his ascension as boss of a mafia family, Persico is said to be one of the hallowed few who forever remained loyal to the hallowed code of Omertà. VICE talked to Dimatteo and Benson to find out how Persico made his bones in the mob, where that nickname really came from, how he’s stayed in power (however diminished) for so long, and how he’ll be remembered.
VICE: The more you read about Persico, the less it seems like he somehow got wooed into this life or had to be trained to become a gangster. This was always who he was going to be, right?
Frank Dimatteo: Carmine came up through the streets real young. He was in a local gang, The Garfield Boys. A hot-headed, tough little guy. He made his mark when he got involved in a shooting at 15 to 16 years-old between two different gangs. It was in the early 50s. That's how guys started and moved up the ladder. Him and his brother [were neighborhood street kids until] they got old enough to be with the Profaci family, the older guys that was already controlling Red Hook, Brooklyn. They worked their way into [the mob] from their reputations as being local tough guys.
Michael Benson: No one remembers a time when Carmine wasn’t a gangster. In grade school he shook down kids for their lunch money. He was the kid who, for a price, promised to watch the car for you. Carmine’s teen years [were spent] terrorizing every neighborhood from Brooklyn Heights to Canarsie. Some of those boys hanging out with Carmine as kids, taking joy rides and stealing hubcaps, were still with him, loyal and true blue, right up until the time the RICO laws nabbed them all.
In 1950, Carmine’s Garfield Boys had a rumble with the Tigers in front of the boathouse in Prospect Park, a fight over a girl just like in West Side Story. When it was over, one Tiger was dead with bullets in his guts and another writhed on the ground clutching stab wounds. He was a legendary gangster while still a teenager. You could argue, and I have, that portions of the movie West Side Story were based on his life. By the time he turned 20, he’d already been arrested for murder—twice.
But it's one thing to be a notorious soldier and another to actually rise through the ranks. You lay that out in some detail in the book, but how do you explain his core, his drive?
Benson: It wouldn’t be Carmine Persico if he didn’t make his bones in spectacular fashion. Young Carmine fulfilled the last of his requirements for getting his button when he became one of the “barbershop quartet,” bumping off Albert Anastasia—as Anastasia was being shaved—thus changing the course of mob history.
He was also a stone-cold killer, a guy who killed on a strictly business, nothing personal basis. He was a made man at 24, youngest in family history. Carmine wanted to do just one thing with his life: be the leader of the gang—Top Cat. His dream came true as a teenager as boss of the Garfield Boys, the toughest and deadliest gang there was. And his dream came true again years later when he became the boss of the Colombo Crime Family.
OK, but if he was so old-school and true to the life, we have to talk about his beef with the Gallo brothers and how Carmine got the nickname "The Snake." It wasn't exactly that he was a liar, right?
Dimatteo: Historically, Carmine and Joe Gallo came up in the streets together. They were very close, in the same crew. Gallo wanted to pull away from the Profacis because they didn't like Joe Profaci—he wasn't a good boss. These guys were renegades, Joey and [his brother] Larry Gallo. They thought that Carmine Persico was with them. They were plotting this move to break away. At one point, Profaci got to Carmine and offered him something lucrative.
Carmine invited Larry Gallo to a meeting and tried to kill him for Profaci. That's when the first war started. Later, when Carmine was getting arrested for stuff, Frank "Punchy" lliano (a Brooklyn Capo) ran into him going to court. They saw each other, had a confrontation, and Punchy called him a snake. After that the Gallos always referred to Persico as “The Snake.” That’s how it started.
Benson: “The Snake” earned his nickname and his reputation for ruthlessness when he tried to kill Larry Gallo in 1961 in the dim-light of the Sahara Lounge in Brooklyn—a scene that appears almost as it happened in Godfather II. Carmine’s ol’ buddy Larry would be dead if a beat cop hadn’t wandered in, wondering why the door was open on a Sunday morning.
Given the culture he ran in, what made Persico such a uniquely respected and ruthless guy?
Dimatteo: He was a deadly guy himself, and had a ton of killers [doing his bidding]. He came up with that crew from the 1950s. It's 2018 now and he's still alive. The guy was never a rat, he never spoke to a cop, never deflected from being a gangster. He took all his time, went to jail ten times, he’s [done multiple decades in prison] but still has a smile on his face. He's an old-school tough guy. He's a throw back to the real gangsters, not like these make believe gangsters. Everybody who knows him in the street knows that he's a real tough guy. You gotta give him respect for it.
Benson: He was cocky and blunt, an immovable object, the guy who was in charge, his every word and gesture designed to enhance his own wealth and control. He acquired power the way other men breathe. When there was a challenge to his leadership with the Colombos, all-out war broke out. Carmine loved wartime. He was always on the winning side, even when he had to stab his so-called friends in the back to do it. He was boss of a New York crime family longer than anyone. When it came to decide, he stayed true to his vow and kept his mouth shut.
But how did Persico retain his power from inside?
Benson: He was smart. Gangsters wanted him in charge, even if he was behind bars. Carmine fucked up less than the rest of them, by a lot. After going away for good, he used his most trusted men—guys he’d known since the Garfield Boys days—to courier information to and from his federal penitentiary. Carmine Persico was a gangster’s gangster. And some parts of The Godfather were based on his life. As the years passed, his control slipped. One by one his couriers went away and he became a largely spiritual leader for what was left of the Colombos after the RICO trials.
How will Persico be remembered in the annals of Mafia lore?
Dimatteo: Carmine's probably the only fucking sensible guy [still] around. Really. As crazy as he is, too—none of these guys are normal—he's probably the most sincere, real guy around. That guy did more years than anybody around, except for Tony Franzese. If Carmine lives to be 100, he's gonna be there longer than anybody too. Personally, I think that Carmine's probably one of the last old-school guys left. I really do. I really respect Carmine. But as a kid, I thought he was a rat. He was no good, but of course, that's what guys around me set into my head.
[Today] everybody and their mother is ratting. You can't blame these guys. I don't condone it, but in a sensible mind, it's ridiculous: The mafia. Mafia my ass. All they do is kill each other. They stab you in the back the minute they don't need you no more. You wanna play the game, you're a tough guy, but meanwhile you're the first one to run to the cops or run if you do something wrong. That's not how this game was put together. We come in together, we're supposed to die together. Not turn their back for monetary reasons or power struggles because they're all big shots smoking pot and snorting coke.
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Learn more about the duo's book, out August 28, here.