Much has been written about Mafiosi making their peace with God before shuffling off this mortal coil. Carlo Gambino, the unofficial boss of bosses, spent decades – most notably from the mid-1950s to mid-1970s – murdering and thieving while he ruled the crime family that still bears his name today. Dying in his bed having never served a day in prison, Gambino is famously said to have made a deathbed confession to a hastily summoned priest and died in a “state of grace,” cleansed of probably the most violent and horrible sins of which a human being is capable. Gambino took control of the family by killing his own boss – Albert Anastasia, the so-called Mad Hatter, former CEO of Murder Inc., a group of professional hit men, mostly Jewish, to whom the Mafia families would outsource any work, meaning murders, they needed done. It was just business.
Mobsters like Stephen “Beach” DePiro, a major player in the New Jersey underworld who now oversees the highly lucrative rackets along the North Jersey waterfront, think nothing of parading their religion before the judge when they are seeking parole. But the true test of a believer is how he acts when the Grim Reaper comes a-knocking.
Russel Bufalino, boss of the tiny Pennsylvania Bufalino crime family from 1959 to 1989, although he was also a significant player in LCN on a national level, also got religion waiting to meet his maker while dying in the Springfield prison hospital.
These were men who, at least the savvier ones, left little to chance; otherwise, they would have ended up dead in the streets much, much earlier in their careers. It takes a certain something – a special combination of cunning and courage, daring, poise and to an extent, even fear, plus the ability to act both rationally and irrationally, a paradox. They are an entrepreneur one minute, and the ender of human life the next. Mob bosses can be likened unto kings. But pragmatism also plays a role. So if there were the chance of an afterlife, why spend it burning in hell for murdering however many people when all it takes is a little remorse expressed to a priest (a nice, fat donation doesn’t hurt either).
Old-time Godfather Joe Profaci, whose crime family was taken over by Joe Colombo and renamed after the Olive Oil importer’s death, giving birth to the Colombos, also one of the five families in New York that is still very much with us. (New York is the only city with more than a single Mafia family running it — always was, always will be.) Profaci, who lost his legacy because he had fallen out of favor with his fellow dons, had a rather bizarre notion of what it meant to be a good Catholic: Profaci was devout and made generous cash donations to Catholic charities. His New Jersey estate actually contained a private chapel. But then on one occasion, two thieves stole a relic from a New York church. Profaci mobsters recovered the relic and reportedly strangled to death the two thieves with rosaries. Still, in 1949, a group of New York Catholics petitioned Pope Pius XII to confer a knighthood on Profaci. However, the Brooklyn District Attorney quashed it.
Perhaps the earliest and most famous deathbed “conversion” in mob land was that of Dutch Schultz (born Arthur Flegenheimer), a New York City-area Jewish American gangster of the 1920s and 1930s who made his fortune in bootlegging alcohol and the numbers racket. In 1935, in an effort to avert a pending conviction, Schultz had gone to the Commission – consider it as the board of directors of the Mafia – for permission to kill New York Prosecutor Thomas Dewey. His request was declined. Lucky Luciano and others were concerned, however, that Schultz would kill Dewey anyway (and he probably would have) so “the Dutchman’s” assassination was ordered that same year. So… he was critically wounded on an October evening of that year while holding court with three cronies in the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey. Rushed to a hospital, he registered as being of the Jewish faith. But the next morning, feeling sure that he was going to die, he called for a Catholic priest. Father Cornelius McInerney was summoned. Schultz wanted to die a Catholic. Father McInerney gave him a few simple instructions, baptized him, and gave him the last rites of the Catholic Church. Dutch Schultz died on Oct. 28, 1935, and was buried in a Catholic cemetery, the Gate of Heaven, in New York City.
The list is endless. “Wild Bill” Cutolo, who was underboss of the Colombo family when he was murdered because he was so feared, the bosses thought he was poised to take over the entire family, also found religion after serving a stint in prison (he was facing a life sentence, but got off scot-free).
He even began living a sort-of double life as a mobster by day and charity fundraiser by night.
I spoke with a retired NYPD detective who arrested Wild Bill several times and also ran surveillance on him; the detective not only believes Wild Bill’s praying and churchgoing were sincere, he actually witnessed proof of it.
“He went to the same church as I did and I saw him there quite often,” the detective said.
Going to mass once a week once a week wasn’t enough for Cutolo, though. “Wild Bill had in his backyard a life-sized religious statue, I forget if it was a cross or the Blessed Mother,” the detective recalled. “Every morning he knelt before it and prayed.”
However, there is always an exception to the rule, and in this case, we have “Fat Tony” Salerno. It would seem that no such religious epiphanies ever came to him, at least based on what was probably his last act as a Mafiosi; but the thoughts/inner feelings of another human being are inscrutable to us, unless the person in question tells us. Tony didn’t tell us. I am just conveying facts and reasonable assumptions based on those facts. And the facts are, while dying in the same prison hospital that Bufalino had resided in at a different time, Salerno – jailed for life in the Commission Case, which launched Rudolph Giuliani’s career – gave a contract to another inmate in the sick ward, an outlaw biker named Sailor who was dying of cancer but poised to be released on a medical hardship. Salerno sent Sailor to whack someone who had testified against the old-timeCosa Nostra street boss in one of his trials, according to an anecdote buried near the end of Charles Brandt’s, “I Heard You Paint Houses.”
Frank Sheeran, the book’s subject and the contract killer who is widely believed to have put the bullet in the back of Jimmy Hoffa’s head, as well as shooting to death upstart mobster Joe Gallo, who started two Mafia wars and whom Jimmy Caan befriended while preparing for a role in a film called “The Godfather.”
Sheeran was in the hospital with Salerno and claimed to have witnessed these events. The subject of the hit has not been revealed; we don’t even know if it was ever carried out, but judging by Fat Tony, I’d lay odds that it was.
Salerno served as the “front” boss of the Genovese clan, actually tricking the Feds and something like half the mob into believing he was the boss, when he really wasn’t. (Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, a criminal mastermind who outplayed so many lesser but higher-profile men, was happy being in the shadows, limping around the Village in his ratty bathrobe in a rehearsed, beard-stubbled stupor.)
Back in the mid 1980s, when so much was made about John Gotti being the mobster from Central Casting, to me, it was Fat Tony who was the embodiment of the real mobster. There are no books about his life, but that’s the way it should be. The Mafia is a “secret society,” even though it is covered on a daily basis by nearly every major newspaper in the world.
Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (August 15, 1911 – July 27, 1992) was convicted in 1986 as part of the Commission Case, which put away most of the legendary bosses, including Lucchese family boss Tony “Ducks” Corallo. Who could forget the precious few news clips of Salerno, crumpled fedora planted firmly on his head, chewed-up unlit cigar in his mouth, waving his cane and barking at the surrounding paparazzi. Gotti, refusing to duck, smiled and bowed at the mobs of press – like a prince offering his blessings to the f—ing peasants; Salerno hit them with his cane. There’s the difference.
I am not going to regale you with the story of his life, but I will touch on the highlights.
Born in East Harlem in 1911, Salerno established his base there and never strayed far from the community, maintaining his headquarters at the Palma Boys Social Club, much like Neil Dellacroce, underboss to Carlo Gambino for 30 years, did downtown in Little Italy at the Ravenite. Dellacroce was also underboss to Castellano, running the blue-color wing of the family (the street guys who did the dirty work) until he (Dellacroce) died of brain cancer, paving the way for Dellacroce protégé John Gotti to have Castellano killed in a spectacular early evening hit in front of Sparks Steakhouse, still open today.
By the 1960s, Salerno was said by prosecutors to helm Harlem’s biggest numbers racket, which they estimated earned as much as $50 million a year. Yet despite his notoriety among prosecutors, Salerno’s first criminal conviction did not occur until 1978, when he pleaded guilty to Federal tax and gambling charges, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison. The infamous Roy M. Cohn, Salerno’s lawyer, described his client as a “sports gambler” in a New York Times article.
In early 1981, after his release from prison, Salerno suffered a mild stroke and retreated to his Rhinebeck estate to recuperate. At the time of his stroke, Salerno was Genovese underboss.
During the 1980s, following the retirement of Philip Lombardo, Salerno ostensibly became boss of the Genovese family. He had reached the pinnacle of his power–and would spend almost all his remaining life behind bars.
And although law enforcement at the time thought thatSalerno was the boss of the Genovese family, it later became clear thatSalerno was not the true power:Salerno was only a “front man”. Ever since the death of boss Vito Genovese in 1969, the real family leader had been “Benny Squint” Lombardo. Over the years, Lombardo used several acting bosses to disguise his true status from law enforcement and the other fourNew York crime families. At the same time Lombardo was grooming Vincent Gigante as his successor. According to “Fish” Cafaro,Salerno became front boss in 1981 to protect Gigante, who seems to have taken a page from Lombardo’s book and ran all the way to the nuthouse with it.
In a 1986 article, Fortune magazine rated Salerno the most powerful and wealthiest gangster in America, citing earnings in the tens of millions from loan sharking, profit skimming at Nevada casinos and charging a “Mafia tax” on New York City construction projects. At the time, he maintained a home in Miami Beach, a 100-acre estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and an apartment in Gramercy Park. (How on earth could Fortune calculate his net worth? And how could they know he was the wealthiest?)
“He was extremely powerful,” said Howard Abadinksy, professor of criminology at St. Xavier University inChicago and the author of several books on organized crime, in a New York Times article. He compared Salerno to the reputed head of the Gambino family at that time, Paul Castellano. “Castellano was perhaps first among equals, but Fat Tony would have been the other most powerful figure on the East Coast.”
In 1986, after the Commission Case trial that helped establish the use of RICO statutes against the mob, Salerno and seven other defendants were convicted of operating the “commission” that ruled the Mafia throughout the United States. He and others were given sentences of up to 100 years.
Salerno also was convicted in 1988 for a scheme to allocate contracts and obtain payoffs for constructing the concrete superstructures of 16 Manhattan buildings, including the Jacob J.Javits Convention Center. He was sentenced to 70 years on that conviction.
Salerno, who had been in failing health since entering the prison system in 1989, died of complications from a stroke that he suffered on July 18, the officials said. But not before he sent Sailor out on that little mission. Salerno was 80 years old.
On a wiretap at a mob hangout, Federal agents once recorded Salerno bemoaning a disrespectful young gangster who had called him “Fat Tony” to his face.
“If it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be no mob left,” Salerno said. “I made all the guys.”
How true, Tony, wherever you are…
I also cover the mob on my blog, Cosa Nostra News.