Major federal busts of the Bonanno and Gambino families earlier this month and the DeCavalcante family in 2015 suggest there’s there’s still a fair amount of Mafia activity in New York and New Jersey. But it's nothing on the scale of 40 or 50 years ago, when taking kickbacks from made guys was just how mayors got things got done. La Cosa Nostra diminished over time for a variety of reasons, from better law-enforcement to cultural assimilation to bloody infighting to changing economics. But even as the mob’s time-honored rackets started to run dry and The Sopranos convinced your baby-boomer parents to subscribe to HBO, New Jersey's real-life mafiosos remained a poorly understood bunch.
In Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey, out next month from Rowman & Littlefield, Mafia historian Scott M. Deitche—who we talked to about the bonds between cocktails and organized crime in 2015—provides a comprehensive survey of the mob in the state. We called him up to find out why New York gangsters get all the hype, who the lesser known (and most dynamic) New Jersey mobsters were, and, more recently, who—if anyone—The Sopranos were really based on. Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: Why explore the rise of the mob in New Jersey? Between The Sopranos and constant fawning in the tabloids, it's not like this is underreported turf, right?
Scott M. Deitche: My whole life and formative years were [spent] in New Jersey. I was kind of in that Northern New Jersey sphere of influence, not too far outside New York City. I saw a lot of [mob activity] going on back then. I’ve always thought that a good overall history of the mob in New Jersey was lacking in Mafia literature. There’s been tons of books on New York, but there’s really only been a handful of books written about New Jersey’s mob. This book builds on that canon of work.
To address the elephant in the room, experts and Mafia pundits have joked for years who The Sopranos are really based on, with the DeCavalcante family often described as the obvious answer. Where do you come down?
I think The Sopranos are kind of an amalgamation of different characters in the New Jersey underworld. It’s like The Godfather—who was he based on? People said [everyone] from Sam DeCavalcante to Carlo Gambino. I think its the same thing with Sopranos. There are people in the Lucchese family and the DeCavalcante family that could fit [the bill] for the characters. Of course, the DeCavalcante family was caught on an FBI wiretap comparing themselves and certain people in their crime family to Sopranos characters, so I think the DeCavalcantes being a smaller hometown, New Jersey Mafia family kind of mirrors The Sopranos in that sense.
It often seems like, when it comes to nonfictional characters, New York mafia figures get all the juice, all the attention. Is that just a function of the media concentration in the city?
The one thing about the New Jersey mafioso is that generally a lot of them have done most of their work in New York. You would never really associate Vito Genovese much with New Jersey, but he lived in New Jersey. He was head of the Genovese family [in] New York City [and] that’s [what he’s] associated with. I think part of it too is [that] New York City is a large iconic brand in and of itself. It’s not as fancy or sexy to think of a wise guy operating out of Newark as it is a wise guy operating out of Manhattan.
Also, some of your larger than life gangsters—John Gotti, Carlo Gambino, and Frank Costello—were all out of New York City. A lot of the New Jersey wise guys who might have had a lot of influence and might have been a lot more powerful just kind of stayed under the radar a bit.
Abner "Longy" Zwillman was a very powerful Jewish mobster about a century ago who most Americans probably don't know about. But he wasn't just a gangster, right?
Zwillman came out of the Jewish third ward in Newark and really rose to power during Prohibition. He was known as the Al Capone of Newark. What was interesting about Zwillman was that he took a lot of the money that he made during prohibition and his illegal rackets and invested it into a lot of legitimate companies. He owned a pretty wide portfolio of businesses by the time of death in the late 50s. He was definitely one of the more influential and powerful racketeers in New Jersey. He was close to Meyer Lansky, had ties to New Jersey and New York mobsters. He was in Havana, Cuba, so he had his hands in a lot of different pots. But he generally flies under the radar when people think of influential Jewish mobsters. Meyer Lansky immediately comes to the top, but Zwillman was very powerful and he lived his entire life in New Jersey.
I'm also fascinated by Ruggiero “Richie The Boot” Boiardo. Even in a world where murder wasn't exactly unheard of, he seemed to stand out, right?
He lived in this huge mansion in Livingston, New Jersey, that supposedly had a place where bodies were disposed of, likely his enemies. He had a lot of powerful political connections and he was able to able to leverage them in his gangster career. Certainly, by the 1960s when the FBI started taking a better look at organized crime in New Jersey, The Boot was one of the first guys they really started concentrating on.
You mentioned Simone “Sam the Plumber” Decalvacante. What made him so remarkable, even iconic?
He kind of carried himself with a little bit of sophistication if you look at the way he dressed. He became the boss of New Jersey’s only homegrown mafia family, the Elizabeth-area family. When he took it over, that was when the FBI was naming families by who was in charge, so it became known as the DeCavalcante family after Sam the Plumber.
He abdicated the throne in the 70s and actually retired to Miami Beach and died in 1997. He was one of the few bosses who was able to come out the backside [of crime] without dying in jail or being killed. He was one of the first Mafia bosses to be bugged by the FBI—at his headquarters, which was a plumbing and heating company in Kenilworth, New Jersey.
I was struck by Angelo “Gyp” Decarlo in part because of his relationship to Richard Nixon, which reminds us that politicians like him weren't always so afraid of being up front about this stuff. And he also had ties to Frankie Valli, right?
Gyp DeCarlo operated mainly out of Hudson County/Hoboken area and he was known as a loan shark and bookmaker. He was tied in with Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio as well as Hudson County politician named John Kenny. What was interesting about Decarlo was that he was wiretapped at his headquarters, which was known as the Barn, for almost three years between 1961 and 1963. The DeCarlo tapes cover everything from the mundane to what they were watching on TV down to business. He was sentenced to prison around 1970 and pardoned by President Richard Nixon two years into his sentence. He’s in the movie The Jersey Boys about Frankie Valli—he was one of Valli’s early backers.
Maybe the most lasting non-Sopranos-related image in the annals of the New Jersey mob is the photo of the Willie Moretti hit. Who was he and why was he whacked?
Moretti was killed in 1951 in New Jersey at Joe’s Elbow Room restaurant in Cliffside Park. He was supposedly the guy that got Frank Sinatra out of his contract with Tommy Dorsey [as immortalized in The Godfather]. He was kind of a well-known character on the nightclub scene in New York and New Jersey. But there were rumors before he died that he had advance-stage Syphilis and that his loose lips led to him getting killed.
It was a pretty spectacular hit. It took place during the day. Some mobsters came in and killed him right there in the middle of the restaurant. To this day, no one has been convicted for it. There are a lot of theories as to who might have killed him and why. But officially, it's one of the great unsolved mob hits.
Learn more about Deitche's book, which drops in December, here.
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