Blood in the Streets: Subculture of Violence

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Rarely has there been such a bizarrely precise intersection of fantasy and brutal reality. In half a dozen Manhattan theaters one morning last week, projectors were unreeling the mustily violent world of The Godfather, the Mafia wars of 1945-55. While Paramount's actors did their impersonations of caporegimes and button men in supposedly archaic rites of murder, the bright black Cadillacs were nosing up to the curb outside Guido's funeral home in Brooklyn.

The scene there had an authenticity that was almost theatrical. From the brownstones along Clinton Avenue, old women stared in black shawls. Men in working clothes muttered to one another in Old World accents. Inside, under a lithograph of Christ, rested a $55,000 burnished bronze casket festooned with flowers and surrounded by heavy, silently angry men and weeping women. Within it lay Joey Gallo, assassinated three days before as he celebrated his 43rd birthday in a Lower East Side clam house called Umbertos (TIME April 17). His mother keened: "My Joey! What did they do to my Joey!"

It was not strictly a Mob funeral in the old style-nothing to compare with the opulent rites for, say, New Jersey Racketeer Wilie Moretti after he was executed in 1951. No ambassadors came from the other New York Mafia families, but they had their reasons for staying away-too many police and reporters, and war in the air. The cortege, led part of the way by a police car with a flashing dome light, slowly toured Gallo's old President Street neighborhood, then drove to Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery. Police and federal agents were among the spectators. An unusually large number of gravediggers and an out-of-place olive-drab telephone van were on hand. The mourners filed by, dropping single roses onto the casket and crying: "Take him, Big Boy! You've got him now, Big Boy!" Big Boy meant God.

In its baroque atmospherics, the Gallo assassination was more than merely an episode of gangster nostalgia. As Gallo lay in his open casket, his face a mask of mortuary perfection, his sister Carmella promised: "The streets are going to run red with blood, Joey." Within the space of six days, a total of five other bodies turned up, and the word was around that three more executions had been approved by the family of New York Mafia Overlord Carlo Gambino.

Blood Feud

More ominously, the Gallo and Colombo gangs last week officially declared war. The two clans "went to the mattresses"-the Mob's term for consolidating forces in fortified hideouts, hauling in mattresses for a long siege and sleeping on them for the duration. It was the most bitter gang conflict in a decade, and could become the bloodiest campaign since the savage Castellammarese war* in 1930-31, when scores of Mafiosi killed off one another in the streets across the country. *Named for a Mafia contingent that originated in the Sicilian town of Castellammarese del Golfo.

While homicide is as old as Cain, Mafia killings have a style all their own. They are the blood-feud eruptions of one of the nation's strangest and most powerful subcultures, and are carried out with an almost ritual quality. They are unlike fatal quarrels of husband and wife, random slaughter in delicatessen holdups and bar brawls, and the other killings that constitute the vast majority of murders in the U.S. Instead, the Mafia practices a drama of implacable tribal will: just as Clausewitz defined war as foreign policy by other means, La Cosa Nostra regards murder as an instrument of business-often conducted with a vengeance. The peculiar vogue that the Mafia is now enjoying in films and books may spring from a kind of stylish atavism that Americans recognize in a brute feudal system that allows swift retribution with no red tape. In part, it simply appeals to the anit-bureaucratic impulse, the secret instinct that things can be "fixed," even in satisfyingly violent ways. For the moment, many still find the Mob romantically sinister and enterprising, but the popular infatuation may fade now that the bodies are real.

In some ways it was ironic that the bloodletting should erupt now. Until last summer, many Americans were half-persuaded that the Mafia was chimerical. In New York, Mobster Joseph Colombo organized the Italian-American Civil Rights League, using many law-abiding Italian-Americans as a shield for the Syndicate. The Mafia and La Cosa Nostra, the league argued, were anti-Italian figments of the FBI's imagination. Colombo even succeeded in embarrassing the producer of The Godfather into deleting the two names from the script. Then, at a "Unity Day" celebration in Manhattan's Columbus Circle last June, a black gunman named Jerome Johnson pumped three 7.65-mm. slugs into Colombo. Johnson himself was immediately killed by a Colombo bodyguard. Colombo survived, although he is paralyzed and said to be virtually "a vegetable." To its acute discomfort, the Mafia, which flourishes best in secrecy, found itself awash in the same kind of publicity that followed the 1957 summit meeting in Apalachin, N.Y., where 60 chieftains from across the nation were arrested.

Kid Blast

On the surface, the present warfare is a feud between Joe Colombo and Joe Gallo forces. After Colombo was hit last summer, the word passed through the underworld that the Gallos were behind it. The fact that the gunman was black seemed to confirm the theory; when "Crazy Joe" was in New York's Attica prison for extortion, he allied himself with black prisoners and once organized a protest against white prison barbers who refused to cut blacks' hair. After he got out early last year, Gallo said he wanted to bring blacks into the Syndicate, an idea that infuriated older Mafiosi. La Cosa Nostra, after all, is the most exclusive men's club in the world.

Bad blood between the Colombos and Gallos went back to 1960, when Joey, along with his brothers Larry and Albert ("Kid Blast"), began a rebellion in the Brooklyn fief of the late Joseph Profaci. After a two-year war and at least nine murders, Joseph Colombo took over the Profaci organization. Again last year, the Gallos tried to move in on Colombo's gambling operations. They also opposed Colombo's Italian-American Civil Rights League. Before last summer's rally, Gallo's men moved through the Italian neighborhoods in Brooklyn ordering shopkeepers to remain open on Unity Day and stay away from Columbus Circle.

Then, two weeks ago, came Joey Gallo's murder. The immediate assumption was that Colombo forces had taken their revenge. The war was on. Early on the day of Gallo's funeral, a Colombo lieutenant named Gennaro Ciprio left his restaurant in Brooklyn and walked toward his car. He stopped three bullets, apparently fired by a rooftop sniper, and died in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. Investigators say that Ciprio was probably killed because he was spying on the Colombos for the Gallos.

Four other men attached to the Mob were hit. Bruno Carnevale, a "soldier" in the Carlo Gambino family,* was felled by a shotgun blast near his house in Queens Village, and died with $1,400 still in his pocket. A day later Tommy Ernst, a Staten Island mobster, was fatally wounded. A New Jersey janitor named Frank Ferriano was found in a lower Manhattan parking lot with half his head blown off by a shotgun blast. Hours later Richard Grossman, said to be a credit-card swindler working for the Colombo family, was found in the trunk of a car in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. He, too, had been shot in the head with a shotgun.

* A family, in New York Mafia usage, is a gang of from 75 to 1,000 men, all of Italian descent, who are bound by a loyalty oath of blood and fire and organized into regimes, or squads, under the command of capos, who in turn take their orders from the underboss and the boss. Family members are often but not necessarily related by blood.

Carlo's War. The Colombo-Gallo war was directly involved only in the Ciprio killing. Yet all of the assassinations had been specifically approved by leaders in the Gambino family. Although neither the Colombos nor the Gallos seemed to be aware of it, the Gambinos were deliberately promoting the war, approving executions in order to fan the flames and encourage the Colombos and Gallos to kill one another off. Eventually, 73-year-old Carlo Gambino hopes, the war will leave him in undisputed control of four of the five New York Families. The holdout would be the Bonanno family, run by Natale Evola, which controls trucking and narcotics rackets in Manhattan. The other clans are the Lucchese gang, run by Carmine Tramuati; the Genovese family, bossed by Jerry Catena; and the Gallos and Colombos (see chart, page 46).

Already the Gambinos are so strong that none of the other 19 Mafia clans across the nation dare to challenge them. If the Gambino family literally buried its opposition in New York, then Carlo Gambino could, if he wished, control the entire national rackets combine of La Cosa Nostra. He might become what the Mafia calls capo di tutti capi-boss of all bosses. The job has been vacant since Salvatore Maranzano was assassinated in 1931.

It would be a long-awaited accession for Gambino, a soft-spoken, courtly man who came to the U.S. in 1921 as a stowaway from Palermo, Sicily. In a brotherhood where "respect" is achieved by assassination, there is a strong caste system. For years the Gambinos were disdained by the other Mafia families. Gangsters called them "the degenerates" because Carlo married his first cousin and his brother Paul married another cousin. There were a number of stories that neither Carlo nor Paul had ever killed anyone-which is ample reason for them to be held in contempt-and both were suspected of sitting out the Castellammarese war, tending their bootleg stills instead of shooting their enemies.

But the Gambinos emerged almost unscathed from the post-Apalachin investigations and gang wars that drained the strength of the other clans. More important, a new strongman arose in the Gambino family to function as Carlo's underboss: Aniello Dellacroce (literally, "little lamb of the cross"). A throwback to the Syndicate's more flamboyant days, Dellacroce, 58, keeps a hunting lodge in Canada, a beach house in Miami, and several mistresses. He also possesses a fund of brutal expertise learned when he was one of Albert Anastasia's principal hired assassins.

One report has it that it was the Gambinos, not the Gallos, who ordered Colombo hit last summer. (Gambino was said to have been angered by the embarrassing publicity Colombo was arousing with his civil rights league.) At the same time, the Gambinos had a "contract" out on Gallo-although it is not clear yet who finally killed him. (A contract, which may or may not involve a fee, is a boss's official sanction for an execution.) Now, to complete a Machiavellian circle, the Gambinos are supplying both the Colombos and the Gallos with new guns and ammunition to escalate their war.

"Going to the mattresses" is a tradition of Mafia warfare, a tactic like lifting the drawbridge in a medieval Italian castle town. Last week about 20 members of the Gallo mob were dug in near Joey's old headquarters, a store front on Brooklyn's President Street, just across the street from the redoubt they occupied during the 1961-62 Gallo-Profaci war. If they have followed their practice from those days, they have nailed chicken wire over the windows, to prevent hand grenades from being lobbed in. In such campaigns, security is tight. Sentries are posted on nearby streets to watch for strangers in the neighborhood. The food brought in to feed the garrison is checked for poison.

The commander now is the sole surviving Gallo brother, Albert. Says an acquantance of the family: "They are all scared to death." Even though their position is now mainly defensive, the Gallos have put out contracts for the deaths of three enemies: 1) Alphonse ("Alley Boy") Persico, the Colombo war chieftain; 2) Nick Bianco, a New England gangster whom the Gallos want killed because he arranged the treaty that ended the Gallo-Profaci war ten years ago while Joey was in jail; and 3) Joe Yacovelli, a Colombo capo. The Gallos believe that Yacovelli had a hand in Joey's murder.


The New York police share that suspicion and are hoping to find Yacovelli before the Gallos do. But there are other suspects, including Carmine DeBiase, a member of the Mafia family headed by the late Vito Genovese. By decree of the Gambinos, the Gallo contract was "wide open"-meaning any executioner from any family could kill him and have the backing of the Gambinos. The Gallos think, however, that two Colombo men killed Joey: one of them, Rocco Miraglia, seems to fit the decription of the assassin. Besides, Gallo's men recall that a few months ago during an argument on President Street, Joey threw Miraglia out of a second-story window.

It seems that the Gambinos, at least, are certain who the killer was. Being perfectionists in the techniques of homicide, they are said to have convened their own court of inquiry into Gallo's death. They charged that the execution was a near-botch, an untidy, saloon-style shootout in which the gunman managed to kill Gallo only by sheer luck. The "defense" argued that because Gallo and his bodyguard were unexpectedly not facing the door, the assassin had to open fire before he was sure which of the two was Gallo. The Gambinos, in a rare display of leniency, let the killer off with a reprimand.

The Colombo forces are said to have taken up battle stations in an apartment house on Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue. They have contracts out on two Gallo commanders: Albert Gallo and Frank ("Punchy") Illiano, who is now in charge of provision for the Gallo fortress.


No one knows how long the war will last. Traditionally, going to the mattresses had meant undertaking not only defense but also street patrols and forays to pick off enemy soldiers. The ranks of the badly outnumbered Gallos would be disastrously thinned if they lost as few as a half dozen men. Yet they have wartime experience that the Colombos lack. Before a Mob Gtterdmmerung ensues, however, both the Gallos and Colombos may realize that their feud is merely part of Carlo Gambino's larger design.

Americans tend to regard Mafia wars with detachment and even titillation. There are even those who think that the killing has a salutary effect. The New York Daily News, for one, editorialized rather glibly last week: "We cannot help feeling that these killings are ridding society of some characters who won't be missed sorely, if at all, and are saving police, prosecutors and courts a lot of work and taxpayers a lot of money." It is rare, after all, that the innocent get caught in the crossfire.

But Ralph Salerno, a former New York City policeman and an expert on the Mafia, believes that the Mob killings could take a more ominous turn. "The gangsters do have rules about murders," he says. "There are rulse against killing law-enforcement officials. Other rules forbid killing reporters. But if society does nothing about gang slayings, the gangsters may decide to change the rules and hit anybody who gets in their way. Remember, the rules are theirs-not ours."

There are other rules that, strictly observed, keep the Syndicate a tightly knit network closed to outsiders and so efficient that its activities-legal and illegal-are estimated to bring in more than $30 billion a year. The strength of the Mafia is based less on the corporate structure of a criminal organization than on the social organization of Sicily and southern Italy, whence most of the Mafiosi spring. There, notes Sociologist Francis Ianni, the rule of law is replaced by a social structure that is regulated by a code: each man must protect the family's honor and avenge any sullying of that honor. The code, says Ianni, is "an integrative behavioral system which binds families to each other throughout each village and town in a ritualistic web difficult for the southern Italian to escape but just as difficult for the non-Italian to understand."

Thus, to the Mafia, even murder is not abhorrent if it advances the fortunes of the family or wipes out a blot on its honor. "It's just business," killers in The Godfather explain to rivals whose friends and relatives they have machine-gunned or garroted to death. Not only that, but it is business with honor, and takes precedence over the law. Inside his family, say Ianni, the Mafioso is "highly moral and self-sacrificing." But outside, he recognizes no ethical force. Family members, as in Sicily, are bound together by "the web of kinship; of the participants at the famous Apalachin meeting, almost half were related by blood or marriage." Within that web, which is really "a pattern of social obligation that has more permanence than religion," favors become obligations and wrongs become "debts which demand redress."

So enduring is the web of kinship that only two things can alter it. One is the American value system, which is causing the Old World family structure to crumble and is weakening some of the once-powerful crime dynasties. According to Historian Humbert Nelli, the Mafiosi's respect for authority-a trait that used to cement loyalties-is decaying. For this reason, more and more Mafiosi are deciding to go straight. In one Mafia family that Ianni studied, only four out of 27 fourth-generation Italian-Americans are connected with organized crime. Of the remaining 23, one is a university professor, and all the rest are doctors, lawyers, or legitimate businessmen.

The other force for change in the Mafia is less subtle. It is what Ianni calls "drastic action"-the kind being carried out on the streets of New York.