In the golden age of organized crime, Carmine “The Snake” Persico was the King of the Streets. The defacto boss of the Colombo Mafia family since the 1970s, he oversaw gang wars, murders, and major rackets, even from prison. He is suspected of personally murdering as many as 60 people and ordering the hits of hundreds more. Sentenced to 139 years in the fed, he continued to exert power over a vast criminal empire from behind bars. His brutal rise and bloody reign is the stuff of legend.
In this blistering street-level account, “Mafia survivor” Frank Dimatteo teams up with true-crime master Michael Benson to take down one of the most notorious figures in the American La Cosa Nostra. This is the real inside story of Carmine “The Snake” Persico, from his crime-filled childhood on the streets of Brooklyn to the long-term jail sentences that didn’t stop him from controlling his criminal empire with the help of his brother, the equally kill-crazy Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico.
His deadly teen years as leader of the fearsome Garfield Boys. His recruitment into the Profaci—later the Colombo—crime family. His bloody betrayal of the Gallo brothers. His role in the hair-raising ambush-slaying of Albert Anastasia—the Lord High Executioner of Murder, Inc.—as he sat in a barbershop chair getting a shave. The terror he struck into the hearts of the New York Mafia’s other families, and even his own crews. And the many courtroom trials where Persico walked after witnesses came down with sudden cases of amnesia
Today, Carmine “The Snake” Persico schmoozes with Ponzi king Bernard Madoff behind bars where at age 84 his legend, packed as it is with coldblooded brutality, continues to inspire goodfellas everywhere.
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About the Author
Michael Benson is the author of more than sixty books, including the true crime titles Betrayal in Blood, Killer Twins, and Mommy Deadliest. He also wrote Who’s Who in the JFK Assassination, and most recently, The Devil at Genesee Junction. He regularly appears on ID: Investigation Discovery channel, including On the Case with Paula Zahn, and Deadly Sins. He is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets award.
Read an Excerpt
The first thing you need to know about gangsters back then is they were cowboys — and the streets of South Brooklyn was the Old West. Gangs ruled. The street corner Garfield Boys of Carmine's youth were a starter program, a farm system, feeding the behemoth of Joseph Profaci's South Brooklyn "brugad" — i.e., the borgata.
Sicily is a tough island off the toe of Italy. The poor soil refuses to grow food, and the weather is so harsh it'll make a young person old. Throughout Sicily's history, it has been overrun by the conquering armies of other nations. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, French, Spanish, Austrians, and Nazis all took turns being in charge. The natives, almost universally poor, acquired a feeling of helplessness. Out of this atmosphere was born la Mafia, a fraternal order, a secret society, which offered a structure of power and protection for the natives outside the usually corrupt government.
Today the term mafia is used generically for ethnic organized crime. We refer to "the Irish mafia," "the Russian mafia," etc., but the Mafia we're talking about in this book is the original, the comarada, la Mafia, accent on the fi, with a capital M — the organization that initially formed in Sicily as a band of "Robin Hoods" to defend the peasants against the tyranny of the feudal lords by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. (This is an idealistic view of what was actually going on, of course, as mob bosses from the start tended to be ruthless bullies and very rich, so at least some of the robbing was from the poor and to the rich.)
La Mafia came to the U.S. during the wave of immigrants from Italy and Sicily between 1880 and 1914. The American version developed both imported and homegrown. Some Sicilian Mafia leaders came over and continued their racketeering operations. Most Italian immigrants settled in American big cities where only the hardest work for the smallest pay was made available to them, so the industrious among them formed organizations along the lines of the Sicilian brotherhood.
Mafia members lived by the code of omerta, which said those who call the police are fools or cowards. Those who need police protection are both. If you are attacked, do not give the name of your attacker. Once you recover, you will want to avenge the attack yourself. A wounded man will pledge a vendetta upon his enemy, and say to his assailant, "If I live, I will kill you. If I die, you are forgotten."
In the early days of the American mob, the top moneymaker was "The Black Hand." The name came from the black handprint that would be left on the door of a family member who had violated the rules and was slated for death. In exchange for money, a person's business would be "protected." If the money wasn't paid, bad things happened, often involving incendiary and explosive devices — or black handprints. The government called it extortion.
Prostitution was a big earner for the Mafia. Mobsters didn't actually run the brothels, of course. That would be demeaning. Instead, they took a cut in exchange for protection.
The American families — called families because the men in their ranks were considered brothers — maintained the same military-like structure as the original in Sicily. You had your boss, underboss, the caporegima or captains (in Brooklyn, captains were sometimes called "Skipper," like the captain of a ship or the manager of a baseball club; each captain ran his own crew), and the soldiers, a.k.a. button men or good fellows (spelled goodfellas today because of the movie). To become a member, you had to be recommended by a member, at which time a thorough vetting occurred to make sure there was no loose talk in the candidate's past.
For years it was necessary for a prospective new member to "make his bones." That meant participating in a murder. New members had to have Italian fathers (although the ethnicity of mothers and wives was open). New members were inducted only when membership was open and the commission said it was okay. There were very few new members brought into the fold during the late 1950s and early 1960s, which is why so many crews — like the one I knew on President Street, was comprised mostly of non-made guys (and in our case non-Italians). The last step before induction was an in-person interview with the boss, at which time the candidate's willingness to kill, and to obey all orders without hesitation, was determined.
Before the days of Vegas and legal casinos, gambling parlors were a product of organized crime, back-room affairs — quieter, smokier, and more private than the huge, brightly lit, and oxygen-rich casinos that grew with legality. Before OTB, mob betting-parlors took action from an assortment of tracks. In Brooklyn the man at the end of certain bars took bets, daily double, trifecta, whatever you wanted. If you ran out of cash, money would be lent with a two-point weekly vig. Before Lotto, the mob ran numbers out of a policy bank.
Prohibition proved that alcohol was America's favorite medicine, that boozers were many and the abstemious few. The Mafia went wholly into bootlegging and thrived, a welcomed alternative government in an era when the actual government was helpless to deaden pain or relieve despair. It was during the Depression that New York City mob organized into families.
Mobsters, being hotheaded and ambitious, sometimes did not get along with one another. Inter- and intra-family disputes erupted. Some battles were over turf. Others, internal battles over matters of leadership. There was always trouble if tribute payments failed to reach the top.
The bloody Sicilian tradition of the vendetta continued. Mobsters were the heroes of the day. They were brave, facing imminent death at all times. They flipped off a corrupt system that kept the Italians in their slums. By the mid-twentieth century, the mob's skim was so ubiquitous that it raked in upward of $50 billion a year. And nowhere in America was the Mafia as in control and as influential in all elements of life as in Brooklyn, New York, particularly Red Hook, where Italian men had two choices: be a longshoreman and break your back on the piers or be a hood with a chance of rolling in dough.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the topography at Red Hook was altered as businessmen rendered it more suitable to commerce. In its natural state, the Gowanus Creek flowed through abundant marshland into the Gowanus Bay portion of New York harbor. As the farmland around the creek urbanized, Brooklyn's officials converted the creek into a canal. It took from 1849 to 1869. By that time, the land around the canal, through Red Hook and ending in the area known as Gowanus, had been filled in, fully inhabited, and industrialized. Almost immediately the water went bad as industries, in particular gas refiners dumped their waste into it, creating a gurgling stew thick with heavy metals and coal tar. In 1911, an attempt was made to improve the quality of the canal's water, which had grown so sludgy in spots that it ceased to be technically liquid. They built a one-and-a-half-mile tunnel — called the Flushing Tunnel — that used the tides to provide a flushing system into Buttermilk Channel, the narrow waterway separating Brooklyn from Governor's Island. The system was only marginally successful, and by 1930, as our story begins, the low-rent Red Hook section of Brooklyn was known first and foremost for its stink.
Red Hook was a grimy neighborhood of narrow cobblestone streets built upon a hook-shaped piece of land that protruded into New York Bay, forming a perfect place for cargo boats to pick up and drop off.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the area around the piers and the Gowanus was Irish. In the mid-1920s the Red Hook waterfront was run by a gang called the White Hand. They were ruthless bootleggers. They whacked guys — and shook down the unions, wharf owners, and barge owners alike. Peg Leg Lonergan, Aaron Heins, and Needles Ferry were rubbed out on January 9, 1926, in the Adonis Social Club speakeasy/brothel in Red Hook. The Italians and Irish fought sometimes, got along sometimes. Things never had a chance to get out of hand because they went together to Mass on Sunday at St. Stephens on Hicks Street between Carroll and Summit. The Italians gradually took over. Or maybe they just stayed behind after the Irish moved. By the time of the stock market crash in 1929, Red Hook was known to outsiders as Brooklyn's Little Italy.
By 1930, the Great Depression had already begun to blanket Brooklyn with despair. To tour the streets along the Gowanus during the 1930s would be an assault to modern sensibilities. People were living in shacks, sagging wooden-frame houses, moldy cold-water flats. Men lived in a shantytown at the current site of the Red Hook Housing Projects.
The Hook's main drag was Columbia Street — crowded, boisterous, packed with street vendors and saloons where they'd fill your bucket with tap beer. If you were lucky enough to have coins in your pocket, you could buy ice, coal, fresh fruit, and vegetables, or drop a penny in the tin cup of an organ grinder's monkey.
There were still more horses than cars, and kids with shovels ran into the street to gather up fertilizer for their home vegetable garden. As in Sicily, the actual red soil of the Hook did not yield good vegetables without a boost.
And so it was when a white-collar worker in a blue-collar neighborhood named Carmine John Persico Sr., who lived only a block from the Gowanus Canal, socked his very pregnant wife right in the eye.
* * *
Carmine Persico Sr. and the strong-willed Assunta — American name Susan, maiden name Plantamura — were kids when they got married and lived at the bottom of the hill on Eighth Street. The couple, by neighborhood standards, were doing okay. They lived in a brick structure — over a garage, okay, but it wasn't going to blow away in a nor'easter. Neighbors got used to hearing shouts mixed with the thumping and crashing of violence in the Persicos' place. He was twenty, she eighteen and ready to pop.
On the night Carmine gave Susan the shiner she waited till he was asleep and went outside, flagged down a beat cop, and had him arrested.
In the Fifth Avenue Court, on the same docket as a clash over cab fare and a case involving a lost dog, Carmine heard the charges read against him and was asked for his plea by Magistrate Sabbatino.
"Guilty, your honor," Carmine replied.
"Before I sentence you," Sabbatino said. "Tell me why? Why did you hit your wife that is so clearly with child?"
Carmine believed an explanation neither necessary nor anyone's goddamn business. It was part of the code. A man disciplines his wife. Still, he chose to answer: "I believe in curfews for wives, Your Honor," Carmine said. "Ten-thirty. On the dot. She got home late so I hit her."
We don't know what punishment Carmine received, although it's likely he was sent home after promising not to do it again. (Susan was probably given a lecture as well about the benefits of being home on time.) Soon thereafter Susan gave birth to her first child, a son Alphonse — called Allie Boy — and then, three years later, Carmine Jr., followed by Theodore (1937), and sister Delores.
* * *
Nature isolated Red Hook from its surrounding neighborhoods by bordering it with Gowanus Creek and its surrounding marshland. After World War II, that isolation became manmade as the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and then the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel made it difficult entering and exiting Red Hook. Considering the isolation, it's no wonder that Red Hook developed a culture all its own, populated as it was by tough men walking to and from work on the piers with their longshoreman's hooks over their shoulders.
Along Red Hook's waterfront there were no beaches, no fishing — just piers. The water was for work, not play. In the mid-nineteenth century the Erie Basin was built in Red Hook, a system of protected piers and the State Barge Canal Terminal making it one of the busiest U.S. shipping centers, with oceangoing cargo vessels and canal barges lined up for loading and unloading, serving the entire northeast, South America, and Asia. For many years, the neighborhood was a storage and transshipment center for grain. The hustle and bustle lasted until after World War II when New York City ceased to be an industrial leader, taking Red Hook down with it. Once the neighborhood started to slip, poverty and despair again flourished. An epidemic of disinvestment and abandonment overwhelmed all efforts at revitalization.
* * *
Carmine John Persico, Jr. was born in a modern facility, but into a very old-fashioned world. In a time when most babies were born at home, Carmine entered the world in the Long Island College Hospital in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, not far from Gowanus, on a hot summer night, August 8, 1933. The hospital had existed at the location, on Henry Street just south of Atlantic Avenue, since 1858, but was in 1933 still state-of-the-art.
Today, the Italians of Brooklyn, though we still enjoy our traditions, are modern twenty-first century people. But back in the days of Carmine Sr. and Susan and their babies, Italian women were expected to stick with their own. It was not uncommon for women who spoke only Italian to arrive in Brooklyn as little girls and die seventy years later still only knowing a word or two of English. They simply didn't deal with the English-speaking world.
Most men who took up the life in mid-twentieth century Brooklyn did so because of their limited options. But that wasn't true of young Carmine, known as Junior right from the start. He could've done anything. He was smart. His dad had a white-collar job, legal stenographer, a regular job with a Wall Street corporation and steady freelance work from a coven of law firms — so the Persicos were much better off than most. Not long after Carmine Jr.'s birth, the Persicos were able to afford to move out of Gowanus and into the more affluent Park Slope section of Brooklyn, about eight avenue blocks uphill and to the east, where the air was comparatively fresh.
Almost all of Carmine's plentiful opportunities in life involved staying in school, but Carmine was nocturnal, not interested in the benefits of a classroom education, and he didn't care about the legitimate world, which was clearly rigged against Italians.
An education on the night streets would suffice.
And on those shadowy streets, Junior thrived. There was something obstinate about him. He wasn't big, and yet he was the immovable object. Even as a child, no one convinced him to change his mind if he had it set. And nothing frightened him. He was the danger.
The term didn't yet exist, but the Persicos were middle class. Still, Junior hung with poor malcontents often older than he. He was so smart. He had a chance to be a powerful man in the legit world. Instead, he chose to enter the life, just as did the sons of longshoremen. Older brother Alphonse demonstrated the same organized-crime proclivities, but somehow that was different. Less was expected of Alphonse. Carmine was the special one.
* * *
My mom, Dee DiMatteo, the former Dolly "Chubby" Fiore (although she'd stopped being chubby when still a baby), remembers Carmine from those teenage days. She grew up on Baltic Street, between Henry and Hicks, but moved to First Place when she was thirteen. She had a girlfriend that dated Joey Gallo and lived in the same building as Punchy Illiano. And they were tight with Carmine.
Her first memory of Carmine Persico was hanging out on Third Avenue and Carroll Street. They were all maybe fourteen years old. He didn't seem tough as much as confident. He wasn't big, but he was cute and smart, she recalled, a big mop of hair and big eyes, and he made it clear with the expression on his face that he could outthink you when he was asleep.
She says some of the guys that would be at Carmine's side when he became boss were already there. Cousin Andrew "Mush" Russo was on that street corner. So was a young kid, still little, named Gennaro "Gerry Lang" Langella. Lang's parents were from the Campania region of Italy. He looked up to Junior as a big brother, and he grew up to be his lifelong friend.
Anthony "Scappi" Scarpati was there from the start. He was a Garfield Boy. Other Garfields included nineteen-year-old Frank Brandofino of Fifth Avenue, Vince Caruso, and Anthony and Dominic LaBua.
Mush Russo acted like a bully sometimes but he didn't think of himself that way. He had a protective side when he was around those clearly less fortunate than he. He couldn't stand it when guys picked on the handicapped kid, called him Gimp (polio was still a thing), and was quick to feed such bullies a knuckle sandwich.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Carmine the Snake"
Copyright © 2018 Frank Dimatteo and Michael Benson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Body Count 1
1 Red Hook 7
2 Street Tough 19
3 The Murder of Stephen Bove 35
4 Frankie Shots 48
5 Making His Bones 55
6 Winds of War 67
7 Snake Eyes 79
8 Indestructible Carmine 96
9 From Behind Bars 141
10 The Grim Reaper 154
11 Operation Star Quest 161
12 La mia voce 198
13 Cowboy Mike 221
14 The Last War 232
15 Billy Fingers, Missing 257
16 Famiglia 267
Epilogue: La vita è un sogno 279