Exploring the lives of notorious Jersey mobsters not named Soprano
“Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey” by Scott Deitche; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (228 pages, $35)
They were the gangs that could shoot straight.
And they did, leaving a trail of bodies splayed across New Jersey and New York.
In “Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey,” author Scott Deitche details the Jersey mob long before Tony Soprano drove off Exit 13 on the Turnpike, the Big Apple in his rear view.
Like so many commuters, a few of these tough guys lived in Jersey but worked in the city — including the head of New York’s mighty Genovese family, Vito, owner of a home in Atlantic Highlands.
Though New York produced flashier mobsters — John Gotti, Frank Costello, bathrobe-wearing boss Vincent Gigante — the Jersey guys were there from the beginning, too.
Deitche comes by his fascination with La Cosa Nostra naturally. His grandfather was a bookie. He worked hard at a legitimate job installing rebar, but that didn’t pay for his $500 suits and jeweled tie clips.
Gramps’ love of women and gabbing did him in. He did time.
Sure, the author’s grandfather was small potatoes compared to the guys who made fortunes in Atlantic City and Bergen County. But his experience illustrates how the Garden State, flanked by New York’s five families and the Philadelphia mob, has long proved fertile ground for gangsters of every level.
Deitche traces the organized crime back to the early 1900s in Newark. The state’s largest city was a major port, and easy access to the two major cities made it the perfect mafia breeding ground.
Among the earliest mob indicators in Jersey were the infamous Black Hand ransom notes — referring to messages marked with a handprint made from coal dust.
A rich Italian immigrant in Bound Brook, N.J., received one in 1904, demanding a $200 ransom paid to a boy standing on a bridge in Somerville.
“If you do not give him that sum of money and you run away we will follow you all over, wherever you may go, and you will be killed,” the letter warned.
Deitche, who has written seven books on organized crime, touches on the usual suspects but also digs up some lesser-known mob lights.
There were Jewish mobsters from the beginning, including the fascinating Abner Zwillman — known as the Al Capone of Newark.
Zwillman’s height earned him the nickname “Longie.” And like the best mobsters, he remained calm regardless of circumstance.
He came from a Jewish enclave in Newark’s Third Ward and was working the streets by 14, when his father died. Zwillman dropped out of school to help support his family and quickly determined there were faster ways to make a buck than peddling fruit.
When he would have been a sophomore in high school, Zwillman began as a numbers racketeer, collecting pennies and nickels from the housewives who bought his produce.
Every boss needs underlings and Zwillman recruited many, including Joseph (Doc) Stacher. A Ukrainian-born Jew, Doc cut quite a figure in a fedora cocked just so, cowboy boots and an attitude that dared you to cross him.
Where Doc and many of the other mobsters are described as thuggish, Zwillman emerges as more refined, though he did make his reputation by shooting a bootlegger and establishing himself as one.
Longie moved easily between New York and New Jersey, between politicians and known gangsters, in rackets and legit businesses. Like so many, he made a fortune during Prohibition.
But unlike so many, he invested wisely on legitimate businesses and kept a low profile.
He still wound up before the Kefauver Committee, the Senate committee investigating organized crime in 1950-51. Zwillman proved adept at pleading the Fifth Amendment, and told the senators he had been “trying hard” to go legit since 1935.
Some of his associates were not making such efforts.
Ruggerio (Richie the Boot) Boiardo eventually had a sprawling mansion in suburban Livingston. Apparently, he needed the space for the bodies that were piling up.
When Prohibition ended, taking with it the lucrative money made off liquor or whatever swill passed for it, the gangsters doubled down on leeching money from gambling, drugs, unions and the docks. Nightclubs in Bergen County also raked in scads of cash.
Among the headliners at those clubs was Frank Sinatra. No New Jersey book on the mob would be complete without Sinatra sections.
The FBI had Sinatra in its crosshairs for years, and had built a huge dossier on him and his connected pals. A newly-formed government committee, the State Commission of Investigation, summoned the singer for questioning. As always, he gave up no one.
“For many years every time some Italian names are involved in any inquiry I get a subpoena,” Sinatra told the press in a vintage rant. “I appear. I am asked questions about scores of people unknown to me … I am not willing to be part of any three-ring circus, which will necessarily take place if I appear.”
Sinatra initially didn’t even realize he had been summoned; he was down in the Caribbean. Despite his objections, the singer wound up testifying for an hour — with his remarks kept under seal.
After Sinatra died in 1998, a commission member described him as evasive and uncooperative.
Jersey’s other favorite singer, Bruce Springsteen, makes an appearance related to his music rather than any mob ties.
Deitche mentions how Springsteen begins his song “Atlantic City” with this memorable couplet: “Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night/Now they blew up his house too.”
The track from the 1982 “Nebraska” album was the Boss eulogizing a mob boss — although few made the connection to an organized crime hit one year earlier.
Philip (Chicken Man) Testa was the Philadelphia boss who was killed when a massive bomb exploded as he walked into his house. That round of bloodshed involved Mafiosi in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where the mob had staked claims early on.
Going back, some of the hits seem almost genteel. Gunmen waited and only whacked the man they were assigned to kill. And the big boss had his hit men do the dirty work. Today those rules seem almost quaint.
Deitche reminds readers of Francesco Guarraci, boss of the famed DeCavalcante family, bursting into a pizzeria in 2009 to announce the joint now belonged to him.
Customers left mid-slice.
“That the boss of a Mafia family would be engaging in this kind of 1920s-style extortion indicates the sad state of the mafia in the twenty-first century,” Deitche writes.
The government kept moving in and mobsters started turning on one another, with many going into the Witness Protection Program.
And though the New York/New Jersey syndicate is a shadow of its old self, “there are still wiseguys and wannabes working scams, extorting businesses, running gambling, selling drugs and branching out into white collar crime,” Deitche writes.
And so he leaves us with what anyone paying attention knows: The mob has nowhere near the power it did a century ago. But the appetites it feeds off are going nowhere.
Someone, some syndicate, will find a way outside of the law to meet those needs. And that doesn’t make the mafia any less compelling.
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