“Gregory the Great tells us how the nun of a convent, walking in the garden, ate a lettuce-leaf without making the cautionary sign of the cross, and was immediately possessed by a demon. St. Equitius tortured the spirit with his exorcisms till the unhappy imp exclaimed: ‘What have I done? I was sitting on the leaf and she ate me.’ But Equitius would listen to no excuse and forced him to depart.”
—Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has yielded up to us the transcripts of its long eavesdropping upon the office hours of Simone Rizzo (Sam) DeCavalcante, boss of a Cosa Nostra Family seated in Union County, New Jersey. DeCavalcante was facing trial for conspiracy to extort; his counsel demanded that the Justice Department produce any wire taps that might have assisted it toward the indictment; and to his surprise, and probable chagrin, he was granted the public release of his client’s conversation, the private as well as the professional, all of it faithfully and indiscriminately recorded by the special agents of the FBI, and none of it, by the way, bearing upon the particular crime charged. This mass of intimacies, disjointed and expensive though it is, carries the sizeable reward of providing us with more that we can trust than we have ever before been told about an American mafioso of executive stature.
Donald R. Cressey is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and though we may think that Theft of the Nation is a title that might have better served the Sierra Club, the work itself comes to us with academic credentials more elaborate than any before offered in Mafia studies. Ed Reid began as a reporter in Brooklyn, which is to organized crime what Rome is to the Church. He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigating police corruption more than twenty years ago. The Grim Reapers is at least his fifth book in the field. Yet read alongside the real life of Sam DeCavalcante, the reports of these two authorities seem astoundingly credulous, the journalist and the academic being our chief sources of social misinformation. One of the few knowledgeable persons I can imagine believing them is Sam DeCavalcante himself; the faith of witches and of the hunters of witches survives the failure of witchcraft.
The gap between such authority and the world itself begins when we set down first Dr. Cressey’s notion of our general condition and then DeCavalcante’s description of his particular circumstance. For example:
The $6 or $7 billion going into the hands of ordinary criminals each year is not all profit…. Neither can it be assumed that the amount is divided equally among the five thousand or so members of Cosa Nostra. But the profits are huge enough that any given member of Cosa Nostra is more likely to be a millionaire than not.
We got 31 or 32 soldiers. Most of them are old people who ain’t making much. Those making money give me one third. Say one makes $600, then he gives me $200 and I don’t split with anyone else.
(Sam DeCavalcante, June 4, 1964)
DeCavalcante was describing his province, of course, a little while after his elevation to command of a Family of such modest dimensions as to be unlisted in most Cosa Nostra public registers. Then too he was talking to Gene Catena, whose brother Jerry was a rather more substantial figure; and DeCavalcante may have thought it wise to undervalue his estate in conversation with imperialists. For a more respectful view of the property, we have the estimate of Anthony Russo, Cosa Nostra’s man in Long Branch, New Jersey: “I wish I had Elizabeth [New Jersey] locked up like you have…. There’s a lot of money in Elizabeth.”
But it is clearly not an environment productive of millionaires. Any given DeCavalcante soldier can hardly sit in his presence without giving way to confessions of indigence:
Frank Cocchiaro told DeCavalcante that he has money problems, as he gives his wife $50 a week, pays $125 a month rent in N.J. and $115 rent per month for his wife.
In December, 1964, DeCavalcante and Frank Majuri, his underboss, meet to arbitrate a protocol dispute between Joe Riggi and Joe Sferra, two capiregime. “Sam, I came to you yesterday,” Riggi says, “because I felt that, as an amico nos and a caporegima, I’m not getting the respect I should from Joe Sferra.” Sferra’s regime was the Elizabeth Hod Carriers local; his affront was in not relieving Riggi’s father from carrying brick and finding him a lighter assignment.
“Sam, I had the understanding that our people came first,” Riggi went on. “I think we went in and asked for the job before anybody else. I didn’t get the cooperation or the respect from Joe. I have to answer for my father…. First I feel offended as an amico nos—that I can’t go to my friend and get a favor for one of my soldiers. Second, even as a caporegima, I can’t do nothing. I did what I did only because of my father who has lived a dog’s life for three years.”
These are not the problems of affluence. This penury, of course, may not be typical; the legendary metropolitan Families (the Luccheses, the Gambinos, and the Profacis) could have a dividend picture closer to Dr. Cressey’s gaudy colors. DeCavalcante certainly shares that impression. In January of 1965, he tells underboss Majuri: “Listen, if we don’t join these big outfits and try to make a buck, we’re dead. They got the money.”
Still, there are overtones in DeCavalcante’s long courtship of the Gambino Family which raise doubts even about its majesty. His control over the Elizabeth hod carriers union was mainly useful to DeCavalcante for providing jobs for unemployed soldiers; and Carlo Gambino seems to have felt more gratitude at having its courtesies extended to his Family than comports with one’s image of a great prince of unlimited resources.
In September of 1964, Joseph Zoppo, a Gambino soldier, is laid off his job as a hod carrier; and DeCavalcante taxes the local’s capo-regima with having caused this embarrassment. “What did he run to you for?” Sferra asks. “He’s got a lot of nerve.”
“Joe, nerve or no nerve,” his Boss replies. “You know I promised Carl Gambino that we’d treat their men better than our own people. And I want it that way…. You see, Joe, over here, I’m trying to build a good relationship with everybody on the Commission. Our brigata is small, but we could do things as good as anybody else. And I told you—as long as they are amico nostro, I want to keep them working before anyone else.”
In the end Sferra was deposed from his regime. One culminating offense was his loss of dignity in a traffic dispute: “The [other driver] went after him like a tiger and put Joe off his feet. When he fell he broke his foot. Now is that any way for an amico nos and a caporegima to act?” But Sferra’s worse sin was in neglecting his duty to provide Cosa Nostra soldiers what special favors we can imagine as available to persons seeking common labor: “I told Sferra I was saving his life by removing him; he was defying Carl Gambino.” Over who gets to carry brick?
There is indeed very little evidence in these conversations that even the major Families have attained that security beyond worry about the basic necessities. “Joe Notaro [underboss of the Bonnano Family] owes me money,” Joe Bayonne says, “He owes Mike Coppola money—he can’t pay. He hasn’t got a quarter.” Joe Columbo, who inherited the Profaci Family, steals dresses from factories, two out of each lot. These are hardly either the circumstances or enterprises of captains who rule over millionaries.
The true case is rather more like the scene described in one talk between DeCavalcante and Anthony Russo, his colleague in Long Branch:
DeCavalcante: Do you know Frank [Cocchiaro] is a rough guy I have to watch. Frank would do heist jobs [armed robberies] if I’d let him.
Russo: Sammy, do you know how many friends of ours are on heists.
DeCavalcante: They can’t support themselves.
Russo: Do you know how many guys are safe-cracking? What they gonna do? Half these guys are handling junk [narcotics]. Now there’s a [Cosa Nostra] law out that they can’t touch it. They have no other way of making a living, so what can they do? All right, we’re fortunate enough that we didn’t have to move around and didn’t have to resort to that stuff. What are the other poor suckers going to do? Pretty soon we’ll have all the mob here [in New Jersey]. Guys are coming here asking to be put on [work gambling games], and they’re friends of ours, so I put them on because I can’t let them starve to death. Sam, pretty soon I may have to say no to them because I got to look out for myself. I’ll help your boys when I can.
DeCavalcante: My people won’t starve to death. I’ll feed them.
Criminal organizations dealing only in illicit goods and services are no great threat to the nation. The danger of organized crime arises because the vast profits acquired from the sale of illicit goods and services are being invested in licit enterprises in both the economic sphere and the political sphere. It is when criminal syndicates start to undermine basic economic and political traditions and institutions that the real trouble begins.
No, Bob, we’re doing real good here. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we’re doing okay. If I can continue for two or three years, I will be able to show $40,000 or $50,000 legitimately and can walk out. Then my family situation will be resolved.
Experts on the Mafia conceive of its legitimate businesses as disguises; Sam DeCavalcante thinks of his as an escape from the instabilities of illegitimacy. His chief licit enterprise is the Kenworth Corporation, a plumbing and heating supply house in Kenilworth, N.J. It is very much a Family business, having been bequeathed to him by Nick Delmore, the deceased head of what is now called the DeCavalcante Family. His partner is Lawrence Wolfson, who, if he cannot with full assurance be described as a legitimate business man, is certainly a licensed one. DeCavalcante seems to have brought little wealth to the partnership except the weight of his name as a Cosa Nostra boss; building contractors use Wolfson and DeCavalcante to bribe construction trades labor leaders for exemption from union conditions, and reward this service by buying their plumbing from Kenworth.
Wolfson appears to have indulged this special sales technique with so much more enthusiasm than DeCavalcante ever did that there even arose complaints that he was damaging DeCavalcante’s good name.
“You are known as a shakedown artist, Sam,” his cousin Bobby Basile tells him. “You are shaking the contractors down! Do you think anybody would come in here and tell you this, Sam? Do you know that to the outside world your reputation is unbelievable? They dread the thought of coming in and talking to you. How come Larry Wolfson can get $150-a-unit more than anyone else?”
“Our equipment and jobs are much superior,” DeCavalcante answers, to which Basile gives reply, “Don’t you believe it.”
A few days afterward DeCavalcante feels compelled to bring up the peril of greed with his partner. The FBI summarizes:
Subject criticized Lawrence Wolfson for his aggressiveness in “grabbing people” on union matters. Subject pointed out the dangers of being charged with extortion if they continue this activity. He noted that he feels very strongly about jeopardizing their legitimate business. He is willing to finish whatever arrangements are now pending but has strictly forbidden Larry to start any more deals between contractors and labor officials.
Speaking in confidence, subject told Larry that his purpose in bringing Frank Cocchiaro into his business (Imperial Refrigeration and Air Conditioning) was to keep an eye on him. He described Frank as a “professional thief” who was heading for disaster as he got older.
Stealing seems to DeCavalcante an altogether less fruitful occupation than it does to Dr. Cressey, because DeCavalcante has been there. The advantage of the illicit over the licit is finally described in a conversation between Wolfson and Joseph Ippolito, a DeCavalcante soldier:
Ippolito told Wolfson that he is making $700-$800 a week in his mason business. Ippolito claims that he is doing better at the mason business than with the numbers business he has. Ippolito claimed he lost $1300 a day and $1200 the next in paying off hits and believes that his numbers business is on the decline…. He would give up his numbers in a minute if DeCavalcante would let him. Ippolito says he owes $50,000 to various people and DeCavalcante will not let him give up the numbers until he repays all the money he owes. Ippolito says he sweats out all day to 6:00 p.m. when he finds out what the day’s number is.
Dr. Cressey accepts that canon of Mafia studies that a numbers bank is all but guaranteed a profit. We have plainly been pursuing the wrong witches; DeCavalcante’s experience indicates that when an old gypsy woman in East Harlem dreams a number, it comes up alarmingly often enough to wreck the bank. The DeCavalcante Family introduces the Twin Double Lottery to Northern New Jersey; in December, 1964, Lou Larasso reports the total business down to $100 a day; in January, Whitey Danzo, as soldier-incharge, has to confess a $6000 loss on just one number.
“DeCavalcante,” the FBI reports, “apparently intends to relinquish his one-third interest in the operation to Frank Cocchiaro as soon as he returns to Florida.”
The men holding knives at the throats of American businessmen….
Larry explains that “we” want to sue Pako (phonetic) for selling Kenworth inferior valves and pumps. Larry mentioned that in addition to Pako the following firms are involved: Essex Plumbing Supply, Janitrol and Federal Boilers…. Larry does not want to hurt Essex Supply, but does want to collect from Pako. Larry feels that Pako will settle rather than go to court…. Sam disagrees with Larry.
(Special Agent Brudnicki, summarizing DeCavalcante transcripts,
The foreign relations of Cosa Nostra—its attitude toward outside institutions like the businessman and the politician—constitute the heart of the mystery and the one least reducible to the simplicities. That is the way with international matters; when two sovereign entities come to negotiate, it is a rare observer who can resist dividing the sides into a wrong one and a right one. Foreign policy is invariably mythic. Dr. Cressey’s errors are those of a patriot; to him, the Mafia is foreign and legitimate business is native. His work falls quite naturally into the spirit of Cold War studies.
Still the changeless key of nationalism wears out all but the deafest or hardiest ear after a while; one expatriate in Paris, after being hammered upon by the Gaullist myth for ten years, said that his mind felt like a tired piano. We commence to cry out for the opposite, particularly in moments of distaste for ourselves. The more dreadful we know Saigon to be, the lovelier we conceive Hanoi. It would otherwise be curious that the most popular of all examples of literature about the Mafia should be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a novel celebrating the counter-myth of a Don, just, omnipotent, and in every way the moral better of the respectable Americans with whom he deals. We want, I suppose, in times of self-disgust to believe in Uncle Vito Corleone as we already do in Uncle Ho.
But long immersion in the affairs of Sam DeCavalcante does not carry with it quite enough such consolation when we surface. We can fairly compare his ethical sense to the norms prevailing in honest trade only in small snatches of his conversations with Joseph Wilf and Samuel Halpern, two builders who made him their broker with corruptible labor unions. There is here no intimation of terror on DeCavalcante’s side, but considerable indication of chicanery by both:
DeCavalcante claimed that he does not make a nickel on arranging these payoffs and that he and Wolfson are paid only by being allowed to do the heating-plumbing work on those contracts on which he arranged the labor peace.
That statement is, of course, false; it seems to be the Family custom to take half of all packages assembled for distribution to union officials. But, on their side, Wilf and Halpern are so slow to pay that DeCavalcante complains continually that he has had to lay out his own money, and is finally driven to say that he will make no payoffs “before receiving the money aforehand”:
DeCavalcante told them that he wants payoff money from them in the future and when he asks for it and does not expect to be kept waiting. DeCavalcante told them that, any time they feel they can do better with someone else to arrange their payoffs, they are welcome to stop seeing him.
His dealings with businessmen seem to have the soundly based tenor of mutual distrust familiar to the construction industry with no distinct moral advantage for either party.
In his own Family, DeCavalcante appears altogether a better master than the character of his servants deserves. Dr. Cressey expatiates at length on the Cosa Nostra code with its emphasis on “(1) extreme loyalty to the organization and its governing elite; (2) honesty in relationships with members; (3) secrecy…; and (4) honorable behavior which sets members off as morally superior to those outsiders who would govern them.” Dr. Cressey sounds very much the way Louis Budenz and Whittaker Chambers used to sound when they were describing the iron moral fiber of the enemy, and he sustains some of the same contradictions by the facts.
Indeed, we draw that same impression of general Family delinquency which common sense ought to have led us to expect from the conduct of persons who have led the life these have. DeCavalcante’s day is a fairly continuous and seldom effectual engagement with lethargic soldiers, wandering husbands, and insufficiently trustworthy lieutenants: “Louis Larasso is a cockroach”…”Corky can’t seem to settle down. He sent me a message that he’s going to start stealing again.”…”I have to keep Danny Noto in the Family because he is a moneymaker.”
In addition to his own troops, policemen and labor officials constitute the two categories of citizens beside whom DeCavalcante seems assured of his own moral superiority. The Family assumes that, in cases of arrest, the police steal your watch unless advance precautions are taken. When Angelo Bruno complains that one DeCavalcante soldier had once confessed himself a numbers banker (“No friend of ours is supposed to sign a statement with the police”) DeCavalcante offers the sovereign excuse that Joe’s poor wife had been caught with the numbers and that, the police had threatened to take her in unless he confessed himself solely responsible.
“We’re all married, Ange,” DeCavalcante explains. “What man will let his wife go through an embarrassment standing alone with detectives being questioned?” In his youth, Bruno severely replies, the police had caught him and his wife in the same situation. “I gave them $700 to take me alone. I didn’t sign no statement.”
The unredeemed dishonor of the labor skate is taken as much for granted, although it occasionally surprises:
Bernie noted that Joe Perucci [a construction union delegate] claimed only to have received $250 all last year. Sam was astounded that he would say this because he recalled giving him $225 on one occasion at Ned’s Ranch House and another $225 three months later.
But duplicity in the building trades is a habit about which nothing can be done. Sam Halpern discovers that he and DeCavalcante have each made a separate payment to an officer of the painters union for the same favor: “DeCavalcante was angered at the man for accepting a double payoff, but told Halpern not to say anything to this man, as it would be bad for Halpern to embarrass him.”
“It would be bad to embarrass this man…”—that, you finally decide, is one of the two dominant thoughts in the night mind of the mafioso, the other being Angelo Bruno’s reminder: “Sam, you are a man who is watched.”
So all confrontations with persons whose morals are too much better or too much worse than one’s own seem to end with the recognition that one is helpless. Sam DeCavalcante’s only struggle with a force of unmixed purity comes when he intervenes in the strike of Local 1199 of the Drug and Hospital Workers against the Northfield Nursing Home in Plainfield: “This is a slap in the face to me…I got money in there…. You better watch your step where you put your feet… Tell [the union president] he better not threaten people or I will wash every street with him…Cars overturned…fights in the streets…police beaten up…this sort of thing stopped in the 20’s… We’re more educated now…I wouldn’t want to take you to court.”
After such fulminations, the union continues its effronteries as though there were no Sam DeCavalcante; and, after two days, he can only press his clients to compromise: “Everybody is trying to save face. They don’t want to embarrass me and I don’t want to embarrass them because we may need them again.”
Indeed there runs throughout his life that same ritual pattern of threat (“Make him holler until he hears the name Sam”), followed by the revelation that the threat is without force and the weary acceptance of reality (“Remember there are situations where it is best to walk away”).
Still the myth of the Mafia must be watered and cultivated, myth being the Family’s main asset. Larry Wolfson flourishes it as the firm’s chief article of sale: “Sam’s the biggest man in the country.” He is visited by Robert Rapp, a state plumbing inspector tired of petty larceny—“Five dollars a unit; that’s like stealing a ham sandwich”—and wondering if they cannot all join together to “establish strong prices.”
“Everybody in this area has to go through Sam,” Wolfson grandly explains to him. “We can break their backs union-wise.” This, of course, is just commerical puffery; in private moments, DeCavalcante is all too aware of how small a mete his rule really runs. It seems to him a signal honor to be trusted with the private telephone number of Tony Provenzano, Jimmy Hoffa’s New Jersey delegate. Even on one week’s notice, he cannot get his nephew a reservation at the Copacabana, which belongs to the Gambino Family; reservations at the Copa turn out indeed to be matters of high strategy for the agenda of Family conferences: DeCavalcante instructs Larasso that “if he goes to the Copa again and has trouble obtaining a table, he should see CARMINE and tell him he’s a friend of Dr. Joe.”
And, as a man who is watched, he does not seem able to expect even those routine courtesies which society accords any property-holder. He needs a pistol permit to protect his payroll and calls the Kenilworth Chief of Police:
Hello, Chief, how are you. Sam DeCavalcante—remember me? Kenworth Corporation…Listen, Chief, I need a favor…my cousin takes care of the payroll. We’d like to get him a gun permit for this area… We’re trying to stop crime. This is for protection… We have forty men working and we pay in cash… A lot of people know he’s carrying money and if they know he’s got a pistol they might change their minds… He’s a clean-cut kid—never had a pinch in his life…I’ll send him down for an application….
(It appeared that SAM was getting noplace.)
Okay, Buddy, take care of yourself…I just got 25 tickets from you people. When are you going to stop coming here with tickets… Listen, it’s a pleasure; it’s for a good cause—anytime. Goodbye.
Now a man who cannot get this small a favor from the chief of police of Kenilworth, N.J. hardly seems capable of getting large favors anywhere; and, after so many examples of futility, it becomes difficult not to wonder whether the Mafia is quite the majestic instrument which prevailing popular and scholarly opinion conceives it to be.
Can organized crime be described as a success in America? One great problem in assaying that question is that the existing research provides no really useful statistics. For example, Dr. Cressey says, “Estimates of the amount bet illegally each year range from $7 billion to $50 billion.” Calculations of the sort that fail to fix a figure within $43 billion are hard to trust, and so are calculators innocent enough to entertain the possibility that every man, woman, and child in the United States are to invest $250 a year in illegal gaming.
Still there is the testimony of the Wall Street Journal, which in other cases has given us every reason to respect its hard-headedness:
[The Mafia’s] yearly revenues from gambling, narcotics, usorious loans, prostitution and the numbers game has been estimated at as much as $50 billion. [WSJ, August 12, 1969.]
But then the notion of the Mafia’s infinite resource seems to be an article of faith among persons who otherwise make their living casting a very cold eye on any customer’s statement of his net worth. One reason why Tino DeAngelis was able to swindle himself and other businessmen in his salad oil speculations for so long was the assumption in Wall Street that he had Mafia backing. “We figured afterwards that Tino DeAngelis must have planted the rumor that he was in Cosa Nostra,” a broker who was his victim has said. “If he was backed by that kind of money, we would have known that he was good for all he owed us.”
It is curious that an institution of resources reputed to be so boundless would surface in enterprises as petty as those illuminated by its investigators. As an instance of underworld penetration of legitimate enterprise, the Wall Street Journal picks out the attempt of the Gambino Family to capture control of the knife-sharpening concession in the Brooklyn meat industry. This raid was important enough to be directed by Paul Gambino, brother of the boss and a certified capo-regima; at the height of his dominance of the market he had attained a gross business of $1600 a week and was dividing its profits among four sons-in-law.
The disparity between the wealth the mafioso is supposed to command and the risks he will sometimes take for the smallest profits is a source of puzzlement to Ed Reid. He cites the case of Nick Nuccio, one of Carlo Marcello’s New Orleans lieutenants, “with a $4-million a year bookie business,” which by prevailing calculations should yield him more than $1 million annual profit. “Like others of the Mafia hierarchy, Nuccio could not keep his hand out of relatively minor matters,” Reid says, “and thereby he provided one more look at that baffling facet of the Mafia character. Nuccio was caught in the act of burglarizing the safe of a large dairy in Baton Rouge in 1963.”
“Why risk such punishment,” Reid asks, “when you are already a chief lieutenant to a boss of bosses? Perhaps because most Mafiosi have a fatally flawed character. They always want more.” But perhaps they want more because the revenues of “a lieutenant of a boss of bosses” are so much more paltry than we think them as to make such shifts as safecracking necessities to him.
Eight years ago, Daniel Bell1 argued uniquely and persuasively that organized crime’s share of the economy was shrinking rather than growing: “as an organized business, functioning as a chain operation across the country, with police protection, prostitution has disappeared from American life…. Gambling, which in the forties was the major source of illegal revenue, has declined considerably.” Policy is a good case in Bell’s point.
“I’ll tell you something about the numbers,” says Joseph Valachi, a remarkable witness to the insecurity of criminal enterprise.2 “The numbers are good only when times are bad. It’s poor people that play the numbers, and, if you want the truth, most of them play because they are desperate for money, and they don’t have no other way to get it.”
Narcotics is the only criminal staple which appears to be enjoying an increase in demand; and here, even though we can hardly believe the repeated disclaimers of the Cosa Nostra captains that they reject such traffic as immoral, there is considerable evidence that they do think it dangerous enough to be resorted to only in moments of desperation.
“Strapped for money, Valachi followed the fashion of other Cosa Nostra soldiers in the same fix,” says Maas. “He went back into narcotics for a quick buck…. He knew a number of members who were still in heroin, took a percentage of their shipments, and made his own distribution deals with a ‘couple of colored fellows’…. Valachi is reluctant to talk about his narcotics period. He says he only dealt in ‘small amounts to get on my feet.’ ” Heroin, then, remains an enterprise for freebooters, inside or outside the Family, and subject to enough ambivalence to deny that central place in its distribution which we accord the Mafia when we discuss other illegal enterprises.
Finally, even Ed Reid, after more than twenty years of turning over and over the pages of the Mafia myth, begins to wonder whether these studies may not represent a lifetime of missing the point:
Are the men of the Mafia in the thumbscrews of a power that overwhelms them…. Who are the suckers? The suckers themselves or the men born to bleed the suckers white? Perhaps the answer lies in a simple concept: the mob boys have reduced their lives to such common concepts of eating and drinking and sleeping that they go on each day, doing the accepted job, but really serving as slave to bigger people about whom they know nothing, like so many ears of corn in a willing windrow ready to be chopped down at the first sign of insurrection or ripeness.
Who really bosses the crime syndicate?
Slaves they certainly are of our credulous imagination; and we go on picking over them. They are, after all, that precious asset to journalism, men who have crossed the shadow line beyond which they can no longer sue for libel and where they can thus be blamed, with impunity, for everything.
September 11, 1969