When I think of the mob, I think of mozzarella sticks. I had a tradition every Sunday where I’d order a chicken parm and mozzarella sticks from a deli and watch a few episodes of The Sopranos. Food is central to Italian-Americans, and seemingly to the mob as well. Just about every other scene featured food as a centerpiece — whether it’s freshly cut meats wrapped in butcher paper, Carmela’s famous baked ziti or Tony grilling in a bathrobe. Although I’m a bundle of raw nerves poorly suited for a life of crime, I nevertheless thought I had the stomach for it. Sure, I could sit around in restaurants all day thumbing through the newspaper, sipping on espresso and munching on antipasto. No problem.
Informed by high-profile mobsters and cinematic portrayals like The Sopranos, my mental image of the mob was always set in big cities rife with corruption and machine politics with Italian delis every few blocks. I thought of New York, the Five Families and Tammany Hall; Chicago, Al Capone and Daley’s machine. These grand, gritty stages were a natural glove fit to mob personalities, swindling schemes and hardball tactics. It wasn’t until reading Russell Shorto’s memoir Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob, that I learned the mob’s tentacles also reached into small-town America, into the likes of Rochester, Tampa, Providence, Springfield and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where Shorto grew up.
A historian by training, Shorto pries into this underexplored angle of mob activity and provides an encompassing view of how the mob came to be, going all the way back to the lawlessness of Southern Italy. Belying these historical inquiries, is a personal one into Shorto’s own connection to the Pennsylvania mob through his late grandfather and namesake, Russell Shorto, who proves to be a rather elusive character, akin to a “black hole.”
Growing up, Shorto was dimly aware that his family had mob ties, but the connection was hushed and swept under the rug. “It’s not like the FBI showed up at the door,” Shorto tells me. “It was more like when families gathered, someone in the middle of the conversation would drop in a stray sentence.” Based on these inklings, Shorto teamed up with his elderly father to scour retirement homes, Holiday Inn buffets and city hall records to piece together the mob’s footprint in Johnstown, and its legacy throughout the Heartland.
Johnstown was a steel powerhouse, so much so that a number of robber barons set up a McMansion encampment outside town. Perched on a mountainside, they built a dam to shore up for themselves a lake in the clouds, ringed by decadent manors. Several Johnstown mobsters got their start working in the steel mills, coal mines or some other taxing, dangerous job. Rather than loathe their employers, they admired them. This was America after all, take what you can get. (It’s worth noting that the shoddily constructed dam soon collapsed, killing thousands of locals, which, at the time, was the worst natural disaster recorded in the U.S.)
Conventional wisdom traces the origins of organized crime to Prohibition. “The Volstead Act,” which outlawed intoxicating beverages, “created a nation of lawbreakers,” writes Shorto, and Western Pennsylvania became known as “the wettest spot in the United States.” This was partly due to the robust immigrant population that excelled at brewing their own alcohol. But Shorto and other historians contend that the mob’s actual roots lie with the titans of industry (Vanderbilt, Astor and Rockefeller) near the turn of the century. The ruthless manner in which they fleeced government, employees and natural resources for personal gain would become a blueprint that mobsters aspired to and one that lives on today in America’s largest corporations, which flex their muscle on everything from drug policy to environmental regulations.
As Shorto points out, Vanderbilt manipulated Central American politics and “Astor built his fur empire by systematically swindling Native Americans,” while also smuggling opium. “They were not imprisoned for their crimes but lionized,” writes Shorto. “They defined American success.”
“In the aftermath of Prohibition, the mob was reorganizing on a national scale,” Shorto continues in the book. “According to score accounts, the leaders of crimes in big cities like New York and Chicago were enamored of U.S. corporations, with their efficiency, their ability to game the system and their naked lunges for money.” Intent on mimicking this business model, the top crime organizations held a series of meeting throughout the 1930s to carve up the nation into regional territories and sent out “branch managers to set up regional offices.”
Shorto’s contention that the mob has roots in corporate America is difficult to contest when you consider how many of the mob’s schemes — gambling, lottery, etc. — were later made legal and are now operated by the state. A similar dynamic is playing out today with regards to recreational drug use.
In the book, I particularly loved the sharp contrast between Shorto’s interview subjects as they appeared in present day and his airbrushed portrayal of them back in the day. In today’s world, they meet at Panera Bread or, for those in poor health, in nursing homes or hospital beds. Loose-lipped in old age, these men who led secret lives, who grew up in an age where men didn’t speak of emotion, now openly confide their feelings of fraternity. “A lot of people I found were more forthcoming than I expected,” Shorto says. “I think it was partly because they realized all the main players are dead and gone.”
Meanwhile, Shorto summons a sepia-toned picture of the mob in its prime. In cinematic detail, he describes men in three-piece suits with slanted fedoras, eyes narrowed against a blue cloud of cigar smoke, seated in a hushed backroom where a high-stakes game unfolds against a landscape of green felt and hammy fists and clinking ice.
What links these two disjointed images is tough talk laced with colorful anecdotes. As Mike, who was something of a protege to Shorto’s grandfather, explains to Shorto, “Russ [Shorto’s grandfather] once told me, ‘Mike,’ he says, ‘there’s two different kinds of people. With the first, you throw a handful of shit in a guy’s face and he knows it’s shit. You forget about that guy — you can’t make money off him. But with the other kind, you tell him the shit you’re feeding him is ice cream… and he’ll believe it. You let him think that — you get him to love the taste of it. And then you take every fuckin’ dime he’s got.’”
This philosophy helps lead Shorto to the conclusion that his grandfather was essentially a cheat, someone who figures out what people want and then seemingly fulfills that need. But the problem with Russ was that he was a cheat in his private life, too. Infidelity to his doting wife and escalating alcoholism, made for a devastating domestic combo. It seemed the one place in Johnstown not under Russ’ control was his own home, and the chaos there was entirely of his own doing.
The decline of the mob in Johnstown and throughout the nation just so happened to coincide with Russ’ personal decline into alcoholism. The Kennedy administration cracked down on organized crime and the FBI closed in on a number of modest mob outfits throughout the nation. Some fled to Florida, others quietly receded into the background. In time, like I mentioned earlier, they were usurped in our imaginations by Tony Soprano and the big crime families in the big cities who continued to dominate headlines. But as Shorto so fascinatingly captures, their contribution to the mob’s DNA here in America is anything but small-time.