Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti One time Outfit Boss by Asher Sarnoff Assistant Curator

Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti started off in the Outfit in Chicago at the bottom. After coming to Chicago at the age of 24, leaving his family behind in Brooklyn,Nitti arrives in Chicago sometime in 1913. It is unclear if he goes somewhere else after leaving New York City.He is also a boyhood friend of one Al Capone who grows up in the same neighborhood as him as boys. They would soon form a gang to protect each other from the Irish kids who lived nearby. They called themselves the “Navy Street Boys” It is possible this is the youth division for the “Navy Street Gang” which operated in Brooklyn as well. Al Capone is known to have been in more than one youth gang including the 40 thieves and the Navy Street Gang.

Frank Nitti soon takes up the role of barber and is cutting hair in an exclusive area of Chicago where many rich and powerful people lived. He soon made the acquaintance of one of his customers named  Louis Greenberg, a thief who needed a fence for his stolen goods. He soon convinced Nitti to become his fence and Nitti leads a double life of barber and fence for stolen items at night. The business is lucrative.  However, Nitti had higher aspirations and wants to get closer to most powerful man in Chicago at that time which was Johnny Torrio. Later Al Capone’s arrival might have signaled Nitti’s chance to get an introduction. Nitti would soon join the outfit just as Prohibition had gotten underway. He soon shows his skill at organization and accounting and becomes a valuable asset to Johnny Torrio. He is used to bring whisky and distilled spirits in from Canada and to supervise the shipments of alcohol to distributors and clients.  During Prohibition the price of a shot of Whiskey went from 15 cents to 75 cents, a major mark up and the money began to pour in.

Nitti however did not get his start this way in the Outfit. he started like many as a debt collector or Muscle for the outfit and was very good at it. He wasn’t known to be violent, instead, cool, calculated and calm which unnerved many who associated with him. He was known to be secretive in his movements and dealings and shunned publicity in any form. He was completely opposite from his friend Al Capone who enjoyed the notoriety that came with his later role as head of the Outfit upon Torrio’s retirement after surviving an attempt on his life. A dispute had broken out earlier in the spring of 1924 when Dion O’Banion the leader of the Northside Gang offered to sell Johnny Torrio his Brewery. In fact, the whole deal was a set up and the Brewery was busted just as Torrio took posession of it. He received 9 months in Jail. While Torrio was in Jail, Al Capone took command and along with Nitti proceeded to go to war with the Northside gang.This war would rage off and on over the following five years.With many casualties on either side.

On November 10th, 1924, 3 men kill Dion O’Banion in his flower store, when Torrio is releasedfrom prison Bugs Moran and Hymie Weiss try to kill him personally and fail, only wounding him in the neck and stomach. After Torrio’s recovery he would retire leaving the whole operation to Capone with Nitti as his second in command. Al Capone at the age of 26 is the leader of one of the biggest organized crime families in the country, Chicago’s “Outfit”.

Frank Nitti became in integral part of the Outfit’s operation. He made sure shipments of alcohol were on time and payments were made. He handled logistics, kept detailed records of transactions, as well as bribes given to police and other elected officials. These files would almost be his undoing. In 1925 Frank Nitti moved to an office at 2146 South Michigan Avenue under the name Dr. Frank Ryan. This office would be where most of the documents pertaining to the Outfit would be centralized.

On April 6th, 1925 authorities received a tip from an informant about the office and promptly raided it. Inside they found a treasure trove of documents outlining a massive criminal conspiracy and network.It also showed authorities the size and scope of the Outfit as well as payments made, shipments delivered, names of illegal speakeasies etc. This arrest and bust made front page news. Al Capone wasn’t worried about the bust as much as the authorities turning the files over to the government. Before this could happen Capone’s lawyers used their clout and Capone’s political connections to get the case in front of a friendly judge who promptly returned the files to Capone’s lawyers citing some legal precedent.Everyone however knew that this judge was probably bribed and Capone and Nitti were off the hook once more.

In 1926 the war with the South Side Gang began to escalate, murders in Chicago had tripled since 1920 due to the violent wars that broke out for control. Chicago was different than other major cities in that it had many gangs all vying for control at one time. As many as nine different gangs existed in and outside of the Chicago area during the earlier years of prohibition.

In 1927 the Outfit made 100 Million Dollars,1 Billion dollars in today’s money. In addition to their alcohol empire, Capone also had a dog racing track, brothels,illegal gambling and other rackets.By far alcohol was the biggest racket of all to have and Capone controlled the majority of it for a time.

In 1929,the war with the Northside gang still raged.With Bugs Moran at the helm after the killing of both Obanion and Weiss in the same year, Moran took up the struggle against Capone and started to targe the upper strata of his leadership, including several attempts on Capone’s and Machine Gun Jack Mcgurn’s life as well. Capone, tiring of the drawn out war, entrusted the details of the murder of Bugs Moran to his second in Command Frank Nitti, who along with Machine Gun Jack Mcgurn planned what would later come to be known as “The Valentines Day Massacre”. On Febuary 14th,1929 seven of Moran’s gang were ushered into a warehouse where a meeting was supposedly going to take place to buy some stolen alcohol which someone had contacted Moran’s people saying was for sale. This was a set up of course and what these men didn’t know is that there were two Capone men hiding in the warehouse wearing fake police uniforms. Moran had arrived late to the meeting and was spared the fate of his men who were gunned down after being disarmed. This violent killing would change the way many viewed organized crime. It was also a huge blow to Moran’s organization. Both Nitti and Capone would skip town to avoid the heat. Capone was arrested two days later in Philadelphia Pennsylvania when he was found carrying a handgun, he received one year in jail. This event left Nitti in charge of the Outfit at a critical juncture. The “Untouchables” squad is now investigating Capone and actively trying to disrupt his operations by raiding his breweries and anything else they can do to harass or slow down his operations. In an earlier raid, documents had been found outlining what was going on and the scope of some of Capone’s operations. These documents also showed that Capone was obviously under reporting how much he made on his taxes. Authorities decided to use a new tool to try and get Capone,they decided to charge him with Tax Evasion which they were successful in doing in 1931, sentencing Capone to 11 years in prison. Nitti who had also skipped town with his girlfriend Anna Ronga.

In March of 1930 authorities attempted to Arrest Frank Nitti for Tax Evasion charges, he had fled the city of Chicago but was only 8 miles away. After authorities got a tip that Anna Ronga his wife had rented an apartment outside the city they staked out the address but were unsure what apartment Nitti was in, if he was there at all. After trying to watch the house from a church across the street, it became too cold for the men watching the house. An apartment was rented across the street. Realizing Nitti’s wife’s care was parked out front, they pushed the car closer to a fire hydrant and called the fire department to report a fire. When the firetrucks arrived and were blocked by the car, Nitti’s wife came out to see what was going on, after a brief conversation it was ascertained it was her car and her address and apartment number confirmed. With the apartment number authorities could now get a warrant to search the premises for Nitti.On October 31st, 1930 Frank Nitti was found inside the apartment when it was raided by police and arrested.  On January 1th, 1931, after taking a plea deal offered him, Frank Nitti was sent to Leavenworth prison. Capone who had been released after his year in prison would not be out of jail long. In 1931 hew as also indicted on tax evasion charges and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He would never run the outfit again and due to his having syphilis was released early from prison and was never the same man again.

In 1932 Frank Nitti was paroled from prison and went back to Chicago at the age of 42 to run the Outfit again. Times were changing and prohibition would soon end. Nitti being ever resourceful steered the outfit into the business of labor unions. Especially the unions representing bartenders and waitresses, whom he forced to only sell organized crime alcohol to customers. He also had control over some of the unions servicing the movie industry, such as the Stage Employees Union which he took over in April, 1934 getting George Brown elected.  Nitti and the outfit slowly began to squeeze the movie studios for more and more money, allegedly setting up a deal in which the 4 major studios paid the outfit 50,000 dollars a year each so everything ran smoothly and no strikes were called.  Nitti also sometimes would have labor leaders kidnapped and held for ransom, which many times was paid. After someone at Columbia Pictures complained to authorities about the extortion, an investigation was launched.  On May 23rd, 1940 George Brown, the mob plant in the Union was indicted on two counts of racketeering and one count of conspiracy. Brown began to cooperate with authorities telling them all about Nitti’s involvement.  Nitti also had to worry about a new Mayor named Anton Cermak. Cermak had allied himself with a man named Ted Newberry, a known former associate of Bugs Moran and the Northside Gang. While Newberry had told most he was retiring, he actually had no intention of doing so. Instead he had opened up gambling houses and was trying to actively overthrow the outfit and was also funneling money to Cermak’s campaign. Him and Mayor Cermak both had plans to rule the city and remove Capone and the Outfit from power. Cermak soon appointed Detective Harry Lang to a special detail whose mission was to apprehend Frank Nitti by any means necessary. On December 19th, 1932 a raid on Nitti’s headquarters was ordered. During the raid, Detective Lang entered the back office after other officers apprehended Nitti’s other men. 3 shots were heard to ring out and Detective Lang exited the office claiming to have been shot in the arm by Nitti and having shot Nitti twice. Nitti although critically wounded in this incident survived and was charged with the attempted murder  of Detective Lang.  Lang was awarded a special commendation and extra pay for his role in the shooting. on April 3rd, 1933 frank Nitti’s trial for the attempted murder of Detective Lang began. When one officer Callahan was called to testify in defense of Lang’s story, instead, he said he had not seen Frank Nitti fire a gun at Detective Lang, instead he saw Lang shoot Nitti twice and then shoot himself in the arm. This contradiction of Lang’s version of the story was enough to cause a mistrial and Nitti was releaed.  The district attorney at first was so upset that he later charged Lang with attempted murder but later dropped the charges. Lang was forced to resign letting Nitti escape yet again from prosecution.

On Febuary 15th, 1933 Anton Cermak was shot and killed while approaching President Roosevelt at a speech he was giving. The shots were intended for the President but hit Cermak instead killing him instantly.

On November 17th,1940 Frank Nitti’s wife, Anna Ronga, died of Acute Ulcerative Colitis,a disease which at the time there was no treatment for. Nitti was now alone, sick himself with ulcers and a bad heart and trying to raise his six year old adopted son.

Although Nitti had escaped several prosecutions in his day, he could not escape the investigation into the allegations made by Columbia Pictures about extortion.  On March 17th, 1943 Frank Nitti was indicted on charges of racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy. Facing up to 15 years in prison for his crimes and told by others inside the Outfit that he had to take the fall for this crime or face elimination, on March 19th, 1943 Frank Nitti killed himself with a shot to the head in a train yard in Chicago. The first two shots apparently missed and went through the top of his hat, due to Nitti being slightly drunk. The third shot  hit its mark and took his life. He was later found after two train conductors who had seen him wandering on the tracks heard the gunshots and called police.

 

Source: Bioography.com/Frank Nittie Documentary from Bio.com

Tony Spilotro and the Chicago “Outfit” By Asher Sarnoff Assistant Curator.

Anthony Spilotro

 

 

Sam “Mad Sam” Destefano (The Outfit)

After growing up in his parents restaurant named Patsy’s, that happened to be frequented by organized crime figures, Spilotro became fascinated with the lifestyle. Born on May 19th, 1938, he grew up in Chicago Illinois. Anthony was known to be a bully in his youth and along with two of his other brothers, he was the fourth of six children, would sometimes get involved with crime. Purse snatchings and shoplifting were the beginnings of his criminal life. At the age of 16, Anthony dropped out of Steinmetz High School and began to spend his free time engaging in petty crimes. Later that year he was arrested when caught stealing a shirt. He was fined 10 dollars and released with probation. Over the next five years he would be arrested over a dozen times for different minor offenses. After befriending many of chicago’s elite organized crime figures like Boss Joey “Joey Doves” Aiuppa and Joseph ” Joey The Clown” Lombardo. He later joined Sam “Mad Sam” Destefano’s crew in 1962. Destefano, although not being bred for higher leadership, was prized due to his pension for violence. Spilotro earned a contract to kill two burglars named the M and M boys, Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia. It is alleged that during their interrogation of the two, Spilotro put one of their heads in a vice and began to tighten it until the mans eyes popped out of his head. The bodies of the two 24 year olds were found in the trunk of a car on Chicago’s south side later that year. This killing earned Spilotro good standing in the “Outfit”, he was a made man the following year in 1963. He quickly came to the attention of authorities for his bookmaking activities on Chicago’s northside as well as for his height. He stood at 5’2 inches tall. Some nicknamed him the “Ant” but few would say it to his face. He was later almost indicted for a murder along with Mad Sam Destefano but both were acquitted in the case. Throughout the 60′s there were a series of murders that authorities suspected Spilotro may have been involved in, but due to little evidence they could not pursue him for any of them. Spilotro continued to gain fame in the mob and in 1971, Joey “Joey Doves” Aiuppa, the head of the Outfit at the time, promoted him to be the families representative in Las Vegas. He was now in charge of “The Skim”. Organized crimes lucrative gambling concerns generated a lot of money, some of this was skimmed off the top before being reported to the I.R.S., two sets of books were kept. As many as six casinos during the 60′s through the late 70′s were controlled by organized crime it is alleged. The Skim at “Circus Circus”, was watched over by Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal as well as Spilotro who was supposed to watch everybody.Rosethal would be played by Robert Deniro and Spilotro would be played by Joe Pesci in the famous film “Casino” which was directed by Martin Scorsese and was released in 2005. Tony quickly got into trouble in Vegas, he was soon blacklisted from all casinos there which made his job of overseeing the skim difficult. He also began to rob peoples homes, hotel rooms and stores. He set up his own Jewelery and electronics store called the Gold Rush where his crew “the Hole in the Wall Gang”, worked from. When he first arrived in Vegas, Tony took over the Circus Circus Gift shop and also kept an eye on Lefty Rosenthal and the skim. He also made every street hustler and thug pay a street tax back to him. If they didn’t they were threatened with death. In 1979 Spilotro fell afoul of the law again when he was arrested after Aladena “Jimmy The Weasel” Fratianno testified against Spilotro after learning about a hit that had been put out on him by the family. This testimony made it so that in 1979, Spilotro was blacklisted from all Las Vegas casinos, making his job difficult but not impossible. During this time it is alleged that Spilotro’s drug use spiraled out of control, he was also having an affair with Lefty Rosenthal’s wife which had become common knowledge to many. While the blacklisting made his job harder, he did not stop his operations. The Hole in the Wall gang as his crew came to be called now consisted of, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officer Joe Blasko and mob members Frank Cullotta, Leo Guardino, Ernest Davino, Sal Romano, Lawrence Neumann, and Wayne Matecki, Samuel Cusumano and Joseph Cusumano. After the group was caught in a major robbery, due to the defection of Sal Romano who had decided to help police after being arrested for another crime, the group soon was in deep trouble. Culotta would later turn states evidence against Spilotro also after he found out Spilotro had put a hit out on him. Even with Culotta’s evidence against him, Spilotro still was somehow acquitted and was released. He was now in hot water with his bosses back home. He had drawn way too much attention to himself. According to later testimony, Michael and Tony were lured to a meeting with the understanding that Michael was going to be a made man. Instead, they were tortured and It is alleged beaten and buried possibly while still alive in a cornfield in Enos, Indiana. In 2005 the film “Casino” was released that depicts many of these characters during this period, including Spilotro and Rosenthal to name two. In 2007, during “Operation Family Secrets”, which was aimed at clearing up old organized crime murders, Albert Tocco and Nicholas Calabrese confessed to their part in a conspiracy in the Murders of Tony and Michael. On September 27th, 2007 James Marcello was found guilty in the murders of Tony and Michael.On February 5, 2009, he was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Tony Spilotro is survived by his wife Nancy and son Vincent.

 

Officer Alexander “Clubber” Williams By Asher Sarnoff Assitant Curator

Alexander Williams joined the New York City Police department on August 23rd of 1866. According to popular lore, it is said he went to the chief of police and personally asked him for a job as a patrolman. When he was turned down due to the fact he could not confirm his identity he stormed out of the office. Police Commissioner John Bergen was impressed with his passion and ordered him brought back into his office and offered him a patrolman position. He started off working in Brooklyn in the 47th precinct. He stayed there until 1868 when he was transferred to Broadway which was considered a high crime district, with all manner of thieves and gang members. He quickly won a reputation as a fighter and was rumored to be very handy with both his fists and his nightstick. Earning him the nickname “Clubber”. On May 31st, 1872, Williams became the Precinct Captain of the 35th Street Station. He later would lead a squad of police into the gas house district which was known to be the property of the gas house gang. He would break up the gang via force with his squad. He was moved around over the next 3 years to areas with high crime and high poverty. He used his agressive policing methods to clean up areas until 1876. He was transferred to the west 13th street station. At the time it was an important station due to the many bars and saloons in the area. It is rumored that during a conversation with a friend over a new posting Williams retorted ” I like it just fine, I have had chuck for a long time, now I am going to eat Tenderloin”. Some say this is how the area known as the Tenderloin actually got its name. After serving several years in the Tenderloin district, Williams was again moved around and was briefly superintendent of Sanitation for a brief time. He had been brought up on charges 18 previous times for different alleged misdeeds and was always exonerated by the Board of Police Commissioners. Later on during the Lexow commission some who had served under Williams in the Tenderloin later would testify in the Lexow Committee that they received bribe money from brothel owners as well as other illegal and legal businesses that was then given to Williams. Although investigated by the Police Department, it was found that Williams would be retired with a pension he was due of 1,750 dollars a year. When asked by the Committee how he had acquired a house in cos cob along with a large boat on a policeman’s salary. He told the committee he had bought real estate in Japan that had increased in value. He was also rumored to have gone to Japan in his early days. He died March 25th 1917 in his apartment on 95th Street in New York City. He was survived by his wife and two sons who were all with him at the time of his death.

Joseph Bonanno (Head Bonanno Crime Family) By Asher Sarnoff Assistant Curator Museum of the American Gangster

Joseph Bonanno was born on January 18 1905, in Castellammare del Golfo, Italy. He came from a well to do,  powerful family, but lost both his parents at an early age. He was an orphan by the age of 16

He was a man of many different sides. He was  boss of the Bonanno crime family for close to 30 years, he is also one of the few bosses allowed to retire or who wasn’t killed by others or those in his own family.  He also published his memoirs toward the end of his life.  His book was later read and used by up and comer Rudolph Giuliani to later attempt to dismantle organized crime families as well as lead authorities to a better understanding of how some families were structured.

In 1908 Bonanno moved to Brooklyn with his family, into an area where other Sicilians also lived. His father opened two businesses. A pasta factory and a tavern. Here Bonanno’s father was quickly recognized as a man of honor and was referred to by others in the neighborhood as “Don Turridru.”

By the age of 7, Bonanno would move back to Sicily after a short stay in America. He later said this might have been because of a clash with another rival family in Italy. The family may have been moved for their own safety. After returning Sicliy, Bonanno’s father was drafted into the Italian army and fought and was wounded while on the front in Austria, in World War one. He died of his wounds shortly after returning home in December of 1915. His mother would die five years later leaving him an orphan.

around the age of 16, he took what he needed from his inheritance and went to Trapiani to a naval preparatory school for one year before going on to Joeni Trabia Nautical Institute in Palermo. He wanted to be a leader of men. He later would be, but not in the way he thought. As Benito Mussolini began his rise to power in the early twenties, Bonanno who was anti-Mussolini was suspended from school when it was found out that he as an anti-fascist activist. He had to flee or risk being captured and tortured by Mussolini’s forces.

In 1924, Bonanno decided to come back to America, he entered the country illegally from Cuba into Florida. He was later bailed out of a detention center he had been sent to by friends in the United States. He ended up coming to Brooklyn and staying with relatives for a brief time before going on his own.

Bonanno quickly decided to get involved in bootlegging as many others were doing and getting rich doing it. He was also arrested during this time for gun running but the charges were dropped. Bonanno also showed his business acument during this period, further expanding the families businesses and his own bootlegging and rum running operations.

After a time, Bonanno came to the attention of one of the most powerful bosses in New York City at that time. Salvatore Maranzano. He began to work as an enforcer for Maranzano and would later run some of his bootlegging operations. Bonanno would also be invaluable to Maranazano in the upcoming conflict he would have with Giuseppe Masseria his main rival in New York. This war was called the “Castellammarese War”. At the end of this war Lucky Luciano would be all powerful after he killed both Masseria and Maranzano within six months of each other.

By the age of 26 Joseph Bonanno found himself the leader of the Bonanno crime family, one of the five families in New York and he also held a seat on the Commission, set up by Lucky Luciano to handle all matters between the five families. In a short period of time, through hard work and circumstance. Bonanno was one of the most powerful bosses in New  York City.

Soon after this time, Bonanno married his long time sweetheart Fay Abruzzo and had three children. Salvatore, in 1932, Catherine in 1934 and Joseph Jr. in 1945. Bonanno suffered some health concerns having a heart attack in 1951in Arizona where the family later would buy a home to be near there son who was in boarding school out there for a while. In 1945 Bonanno also became a U.S. Citizen, something he would almost lose in 1953 when the government sought to void his citizenship, claiming he lied about a 450 dollar fine he was issued at one of his  garment businesses in  the 40′s. The case was later dismissed.

in 1956, two of New York’s five families were united in marriage when Bonanno’s son Bill wed mob boss Joseph Profaci’s niece Rosalie Profaci. It was a huge wedding with thousands of guests. Bonanno spared no expense on this wedding brought two of the cities five families closer together than they had ever been. The wedding was held at the Astor Hotel and had a who’s who of entertainers including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The reception was attended by over 3000 people as well as mob notables like Albert Anastasia, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese and others.

Joseph Bonanno unlike his counterpart Lucky Luciano, kept a low profile, it wasn’t until 1957, in the fallout of the Albert Anastasia murder and subsequent Applachian meeting that turned into a debacle that Bonanno ran into trouble. He was briefly arrested after the Appalachian meeting which he hadn’t even attended. He was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice in 1959 and indicted. He never stood trial for this charge, a second heart attack got the case dismissed or he may have had inside help, that is unclear but the government dropped the charges against him.

Over the years Joseph Bonanno strived for credibility and respect. He opened other legitimate businesses such as a cheese factory and an undertakers business. It was later alleged it was Bonanno who created the “Double Coffin”, a special coffin that was set up so that another body could be placed under the original body in the casket, thus getting rid of two bodies instead of one.

In 1963, Bonanno was named by Joseph Valachi in his testimony before a senate subcommittee as one of the major crime bosses of the five families. Bonano’s problems with the law would be compounded after a later trip to Canada where he was arrested for lying on his immigration card application again.  After spending several days in a Canadian prison he was released and no charges were filed. This was his first experience being locked in Jail and he would later say this experience was very unnerving to him.

On October 21st, 1964, Bonanno was allegedly confronted and abducted by two armed men. He was soon to have to testify in court before a federal grand jury. Some hypothesized it was actually Bonanno who had himself kidnapped, the F.B.I. seemed to think that he was kidnapped to stop the power struggle within organized crime that had been going on for some time. Bonanno in his autobiography claims he was kidnapped by men working for his cousin Steffano Maggadino  whom he was estranged from for some time. It is alleged by Bonanno that Maggadino was working with the Lucchesse and Carlo Gambino. After being held for several weeks he was released, some say he had to promise to retire from organized crime in order not to be killed by his captors. That story however is not verified. Right after his release he appointed his son Bill as his second in command, a move that angered many in the family who saw Bill as someone of privilege and who had not earned his stripes on the street. After being released Bonanno went into hiding. His son Bill and others tried to hold the family together. The commission had appointed long time friend and confidant Gaspar DiGregorio to run the family in Bonanno’s absence but apparently Bonnano did not accept the commissions ruling. The fight between these two forces came to be known as the “Banana War”. Bonanno’s son Bill narrowly escaped being killed in January, 1966.

In May of 1966 Joseph Bonanno came out of hiding and surrendered himself to authorities to face the obstruction of justice charges he had leveled against him in 1964 for failing to appear in front of a federal grand jury that at the time was investigating organized crime.  This charge was later postponed indefinitely in 1971.

In 1968, Bonanno had his third heart attack and purportedly retired to Tuscon Arizona where the family had a home. Bill had attended boarding school there as a youth. Paul Sciacca took over the Bonanno Family at this time. Bonanno is one of the few family heads ever allowed to retire. It was a rare thing.  Later that year Bonanno’s home was damaged by a bomb. It was later alleged this bomb had been planted by the F.B.I. to further stir up organized crime tensions between families.

Bonanno had to deal with close F.B.I. scrutiny even after retirement. In 1980 he was arrested on charges of obstruction of justice charges in relation to a money laundering scheme that was run by his two sons.  He was later found guilty of conspiracy to interfere with a grand jury. After some health delays he was sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was later reduced and he only served 8 months in prison, beginning in December of 1983. This was his first offense for which he did any kind of extended prison time.

In the same year, 1983, Joseph Bonanno did what no other boss had done before. He released his memoirs. The book was entitled “A man of Honor.” The book was co-written with writer Sergio Lalli. The book played up his Sicilian roots and its traditions while also touting his business acumen. In the book Bonanno does admit to bootlegging, loansharking and other traditional mob rackets. He does not admit to his family being one of the principal providers of Heroin into the United States in the late sixties and 70′s period. Many have alleged it was Carmine Galante, a high level capo in the Bonanno family who secured many of the drug pipelines that fed the families heroin business. Bonanno denied in his book that his family ever dealt in prostitution or narcotics sales. Both of these rackets, in fact, the family did profit from.

Bonanno’s book caught the eye of many Americans who are fascinated by organized crime figures. The book also came to the attention of one Rudolph Giuliani, who would use what he learned in the book to go after other families. In 1985 Giuliani and Michael Chertoff wanted Bonanno to testify about the commission in a case they were trying. Bonnano’s lawyer argued his client was in ill health and could not testify. Bonanno was locked up for 14 months in a federal medical facility for refusing to testify. In November of 1986 he was released and went back to his home in Tuscon.

Bonanno’s 90th birthday celebration was quite an affair drawing many notable people including Gay Talese and others, over 300 people attended the event. In 1999 Showtime aired a show entitled Bonanno “A Godfather’s Story”. Several actors played Bonanno in different stages of his life including Martin Landau and the show was produced by his son Bill.

Shortly after the release of Bonanno on Showtime, Bonanno suffered a stroke and his health quickly declined. He died on May 11th, 2002. He will be remembered for leading one of the original five families through tumultuous times and was one of the few bosses ever allowed to retire with no consequences

 

 

Leslie Ike Atkinson (AKA Sergeant Smack)

Leslie Ike Atkinson was a former U.S. Sergeant in the U.S. Army who was believed to have helped Frank Lucas to smuggle millions of dollars of Heroin into the United States from Vietnam during the Vietnam war, from 1968-75. Ike was allegedly responsible for getting the heroin into the coffins of dead soldiers that were being shipped back to the United States. Atkinson has in the past disputed this story, claiming instead to have smuggled the Heroin in furniture instead. When the drugs would get back to the states, servicemen under his control on the U.S. side would then get the heroin out of the coffins and deliver it to Lucas’ people.Other times, smaller amounts were then shipped to addresses of local people and after a phone call alerting, in this case an elderly woman, that the package had been sent to her in error, a serviceman would then show up to claim the package. This plan had worked before but would eventually be Atkinson’s downfall.

Atkinson moved to Bangkok Thailand in the mid-sixties so he could become a partner in Jack’s American Bar. In 1968, Atkinson entered the drug trade through a Chinese man who was a co-owner of the bar with him named Luchai Rubiwa. Atkinson was routinely buying Heroin for 4000 dollars a key and selling it for a massive profit once it arrived safely within the United States. After offloading the Heroin at Fort Bragg, it would then be sold to different distributors all over the East Coast and beyond. They sold the Keys of Heroin in the U.S. for 25,000 dollars a quarter Kilo. A massive profit was made off of the sale of Heroin.

Ike also later would work with Frank Lucas played by Denzel Washington in the film “American Gangster”.  Atkinson’s downfall came when in 1975 after two smaller shipments of heroin had been sent to the addresses of two elderly women in North Carolina. This plan had worked in the past but not this time. One of the women instead, called the postal authorities and the other, fearing she had been sent a bomb, contacted police who discovered the massive amounts of Heroin. Police later found one of Atkinson’s palm prints on one of the Heroin bags, that was enough to arrest him in his home in Goldsboro on January 19th, 1975. He was convicted the following year and sentenced to 30 years in prison, he was released in 2007. He was also famously connected to Frank Lucas who he met in Bangkok in 1974 when Frank was seeking to find a large source of heroin that was dependable and of the highest quality. He found both in the 100% pure heroin he bought there. Atkinson later denied that he used the coffin’s of dead U.S. soldiers to smuggle Heroin into the United States and instead claimed it was smuggled in furniture. He recently released a book called “Sergeant Smack” written by Ron Chepesiuk.

 

 

Ray “The Fox” Renard one of “Egan’s Rats” one of the earliest Rats (By Asher Sarnoff) Exclusively for the Museum of the American Gangster

Ray “The Fox” Renard was an orphan who grew up in an area called “Kerry Patch” the Irish neighborhood outside of downtown Saint Louis. He began his criminal career as a pickpocket.

When he was old enough, yet still a teenager, he joined Egan’s Rats, a gang in his area of tough Irish kids. They soon began to graduate to bigger crimes such as muscling in on rumrunners routes and illegal speakeasies and planning large train robberies.  This group was allegedly responsible for the  2.4 million dollar heist  of bonds and cash from a mail truck at Fourth and Locust streets on April 2, 1923. Soon after, Renard was sent to prison for seven years for a freight car robbery he was caught in. While in prison he got word that some of his gang might try to kill him. He became one of the earliest rats in organized crime history when he turned on his gang and in November of 1924 for two weeks he testified against them. He testified against William “Dinty” Colbeck, the boss since Willie Egan was killed in 1921. As well as hit man David “Chippy” Robinson and others. Renard claimed he didn’t rob a mail truck that he was implicating the others in, instead he said they spoke to him about it and he overhead the planning of it. After three jurors stalled proceedings and wanted to acquit the men accused, a mistrial was declared on November 7th. Renard later took the stand in Quincy Illinois and testified how he and Colbeck and another man had robbed a consolidated coal company’s payroll from one of the trains as it was dropped off by the Wabash Railroad. On November 14th, Colbeck, Robinson and four others were sentenced to 25 years in prison. The first trial that was an acquittal, was then retried and the men were also found guilty. This broke the back of Egan’s gang and they would never be able to recover from it.   After serving his seven years for the freight train robbery, Renard changed his name and moved to California where he worked in movies as a technical advisor on gangster films.  Colbeck was shot and killed two years after being released from prison his murder went unsolved.

Henry Hill R.I.P

The Museum of the American Gangster joins the family and friends of Henry Hill in their sorrow at the passing of our friend. He was a man of boundless wit and kindness towards friends and strangers alike.  We enjoyed his time at the museum and will always remember his insights on his life and living with boundless joy and true humility.

Goodbye Dear Friend

The Purple Gang (By Asher Sarnoff Assistant Curator Museum of the American Gangster)

Detroit like any other major urban city during prohibition, as well as before, had its own ethnic gangs. Whether they were Italian, Irish or Jewish they all had certain similarities. They all wanted to take their piece of the American pie. Prohibition would be a way to gain vast riches in a short period of time and many hungry young Jews living in horribly poor conditions all over the country, were ready to take their piece.

Detroit Michigan was a key city for the importation of alcohol during Prohibition. It actually went dry before prohibition started in 1918 so by the time Prohibition was the law of the end, they already had a smuggling network set up there. By 1929, illegal liquor was the second biggest business in Detroit at $215 million a year, second only to automobiles. The Detroit river in some places was a mile across and it was 28 miles long with many coves and places a smuggler could easily land with a boat full of alcohol from Canada. Along with Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair river, these waterways supplied 75% of the alcohol to the United States during prohibition, a staggering sum.

The purple gang were unique in the sense that they got their start by only robbing people who were already breaking the law. They began at first by robbing rum runners coming across the Detroit river. They became infamous for their violence, often killing the rum runners even after they already got their alcohol. Anyone bringing alcohol across the river were prepared to fight to the death with purple gang members and many times they did. Their leaders were Abe Axler and Abe Bernstein, Ray had three other brothers as well, Joseph, Isadore and Ray. they were from New York City originally but moved to Detroit as children. They were three tough Jews who were first generation Americans of Russian ancestry.  Like many of their generation, they wanted more than what their parents had, growing up poor, they didn’t want to slave away at menial labor jobs for low pay. Instead, they chose to take their piece of the American dream any way they could and Prohibition was a prime opportunity for many to do so.  They were known for their violent tactics and soon came to the attention of Charlie Leiter and Henry Schorr, who were two of the old “Moustache Pete’s” in Detroit, running a sugar house on Oakland Avenue. They began to use the Purple gang to strong arm people, back alley brewers and distributors and anyone that crossed them or stood in their way. The Purple gang were responsible for a triple slaying soon after in March of 1926 at the Milaflores Apartments. Frankie Wright, Reuben Cohen and Joseph Bloom were killed as they waited at the door to an apartment occupied by Axler and Bernstein. It is alleged that they used Fred “The Killer” Burke from the Chicago Outfit for this hit. years later, Burke would be the center of a firestorm surrounding the Valentine’s Day Massacre when weapons used at the Massacre were found in his home. He shot a police officer and fled. Due to ballistics not being a science yet at this time, he could not be connected to this crime. Authorities did find however that the weapons in his home were used in the Massacre, they just couldn’t prove if Burke had fired any of those weapons. He was caught later and arrested for the murder of the Police officer. This hit was one of the first that involved the use of the Thompson Sub Machine Gun in Detroit. Authorities counted 105 bullet holes in the bodies.  The Purple gang also became adept at using explosives as well as strong arm tactics and murder and later they would be used in the Cleaners and Dyers War that broke out as muscle to intimidate people.

Part of the reason the Purple Gang could not be caught for so long was because they only preyed on other criminals and no one would ever file a complaint against them out of fear of retaliation. This made them extremely difficult to deal with at first and even though authorities suspected that many of the murders and bombings that happened were attributable to them, they could not prove it.

Purple Gang’s Handiwork

 

The Cleaners and Dyers War would get the Purple Gang into trouble, Abe Bernstein would later be arrested with his brother as well as others for extortion. The Purples used everything from intimidation, kidnapping, bombings and sometimes murder to intimidate union members and harass independents and non union workers as well. In 1928, Charles C. Jacoby, vice-president of Jacoby’s French Cleaner’s & Dyers, Inc., was arrested along with 8 other people that were allegedly members of the Purple Gang. The 9 people arrested were charged with conspiracy to extort money from the Detroit wholesale Cleaners & Dyers. Besides Jacoby, the 8 other  defendants included; Abe Bernstein, Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminsty, Abe Axler and Simon Axler. This incident raised the profile of the group visibly and Police had for some time already been aware of the group and its growing power. They had been around as early as 1918 but this new group was more sophisticated than before as well as more violent and with larger numbers, although many of the same faces.

The Purple gang and Jacoby were all acquitted of any wrong doing at the end of the trial in early September of 1928. It was really no surprise because shortly before the end of the trial someone had broken into the Union offices and stolen the files containing the information to be used against the Purple Gang. The break in was never solved and no one was ever arrested for it.

Other murders that Police strongly suspected the Purple gang in were the murders of Sam Polakoff, of the Union Cleaners and Dyers, who’s corpse was found on the corner of Dexter and Grand Avenues full of bullet holes  about one year earlier. Also the death of Patrolman Vivian Welsh who they believe had been “taken for a ride”. It was alleged that Patrolman welsh had begun to shakedown owners of speakeasies or blind pigs and had unwittingly stepped into Purple Gang controlled areas.

During this time the Purple Gang achieved complete dominion over Detroit Michigan. No other gang had ever completely taken over a major metropolitan city before or since.

(8 Alleged Purple Gang members arrested in the Cleaners and Dyers War.)

In the late Twenties the Purple gang controlled many different rackets in the city, from gambling, extortion, alcohol, prostitution, drugs and they also ran the wire service, for gambling and betting on horses, which was extremely lucrative. They also were able to hold of Al Capone who coveted Detroit and wanted it all for himself. It may have been the reputation of the purple gang that made him rethink that decision. He never chose to try and take their territory instead for many years he bought whiskey from them and sold it under his Log Cabin label. East of US. 31 was the Purple gangs territory west of it Capone’s. He would never try to fight with the gang he had his own enemies closer to home to worry about like Bugs Moran.

Rumor has it that the Purple gang received their name because of a conversation between two store owners the group had robbed and harassed. One of the men said that this group of boys was “rotten, purple, like the color of bad meat”, while the other “Like a purple gang”.  Maybe the nickname stuck or came from somewhere else. But the group will not soon be forgotten in the annals of Detroit History.

Abe Bernstein’s power grew as head of the gang and he also was invested in lucrative casino operations with Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis from New York City in places like Miami Florida. It is alleged that Bernstein was the man who made the fated call to Bugs Moran on February 13th, 1929 informing him he had a load of hijacked booze for him. When Bugs agreed to take the alcohol, the workings were in place for one of the most important and shocking events of prohibition, the Valentines Day Massacre. Whether he did this favor for Al Capone who wanted Moran dead its not clear, but he had been the largest supplier at one time to Capone of Canadian Whiskey, so it is possible that he was the one who made that fated phone call. Moran had begun to trust Bernstein since he no longer did much business if any with Capone.

Another infamous murder attributed to the Purple Gang was the “Collingwood Manor Masscare”  where three men were killed, Izzy Sutker, Hymie Paul and Joe Lebowitz. They were three out of towner’s who came to Detroit as hired guns but instead expanded out on their own.  In the process they began to step on other gangs toes including the purple gangs. They began a bookmaking operation and took in a local kid named Solly Levine who knew the area and knew some of the Purple Gang members whom he had grown up with in the same neighborhood. The trio eventually got into trouble with the Purples  when a large bet some members  had made paid off possibly due to a fix being in. The trio realized right away that they could not pay off the marker and they realized they were in big trouble. Trying to stall on payment they asked Ray Bernstein the purple gangs leader, who they also already owed money to, for some credit on some alcohol which they got and diluted and undersold the market, not making enough they did this again and also in the process angered more people by undercutting competitors prices.  At this point, they didn’t know it but they were marked for death, it was just a question of who would kill them. After being contacted by Bernstein and lured to a fated meeting that was considered a peace conference by the trio, they arrived at 2:45pm on September 16th, 1931. When they arrived, Ray Bernstein excused himself after a short amount of chit chat and went outside to his car where he revved the engine. That was the signal for the two killers inside with the trio of men to kill them which they did in a hail of bullets, Solly Levine, the kid the trio had recruited was spared.  The killers present in the apartment, Irving Milberg and Harry Keywell  were enforcers of Bernstein’s. One of the men was seen leaving the building by a woman who heard the shots and came out in the hallway to investigate. Bernstein would later be arrested in the coming crackdown as well as Milberg and eventually Keywell. This violent incident and the unwanted attention it brought was the beginning of the end for the Purple Gang, competitors had been trying to move in on their territories for some time as Prohibition was winding down and people were becoming more desperate to cash in. Tips came flooding in to police about the killers whereabouts, and the police were eager to make a dent in a gang they had been powerless to stop for years. Milberg was known as a crack shot with a gun. The fourth person at this meeting that was spared and was going to be used as a patsy in the murders by Bernstein was  Sollly Levine the murdered trio’s hired hand. Before Bernstein could get rid of Solly Levine, he was picked up by Police as well and when the story he told he later couldn’t tell the same way when asked, police grew suspicious of him and doubted his part in the murders. The Police began to round up all purple gang members they could find, including Bernstein, they got plenty of tips from the purple gangs enemies and many were rounded up including, Milberg and Keywell. The Purple gang tried to get their members off in the ensuing court case. Solly Levine, the living witness to the murders however, stuck to his story that the three had killed his friends. All three men were given life in prison.

Harry Keywell had a spotless prison record for 34 years and in 1965 his life sentence was commuted and he was released from prison, got married and got a job and nothing more was heard about him.  Ray Bernstein was also released after over 30 years in prison. He was paroled in 1965, he died two years later. Solly Levine was sent to France by authorities who feared for his safety after the trial. Authorities in France for some reason refused him entrance and he was sent back to America. He then tried to go to Ireland but was refused entry because he had no passport. He then disappeared. Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher key purple gang higher ups, who took over after Bernstein’s sentence was imposed, would disappear also later on as they probably were taken for rides by Lucky Luciano’s syndicate which, as it grew in power, took over Detroit and other cities alcohol and other rackets. The remnants of the purple gang were absorbed into other gangs, were killed or went to prison or got out of the life if they were lucky. This ended the domination of a gang that was very short lived, but who’s power was absolute while they did reign. They will be remembered as one of the most vicious, violent gangs to ever come out of the prohibition or any other period.

 

Sources:

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/gangsters_outlaws/gang/purple/1.html

http://apps.detnews.com/apps/history/index.php?id=8

 

Copyright 2012 Museum of the American Gangster

This article is not to be copied or reproduced in any way for any website, article or paper. Thank you.