Infamous gangster Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) famously quipped that “once you’re in the racket, you’re always in it”. The seasoned gangster knew the pitfalls of a life of crime and conditions that apply. He was convicted on October 18, 1931, of tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in prison. On November 16, 1939, Capone was released from prison due to effects of Syphilis which had spread to his brain. The disease continued to cause deterioration in the mobster and on January 25, 1947, Capone did in his sleep. It was a sad ending for America’s most famous mobster but less violent than the grisly fates met by other gangsters “in the life”. Carmine “the Snake” Persico (1933-2019), a former Colombo Family boss, also escaped a grisly fate but remained in prison until his death on March 7, 2019. And with his passing was the end of another era in New York City history. In his prime, Persico was one of the City’s most notorious figures and implicated in scores of mafia-related crimes, including the murder of Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia (1902-1957), revisited by here by Frank DiMatteo is a Brooklyn native raised in the Park Slope neighborhood controlled by the Persicos, with whom his father was affiliated. This is the story of Carmine Persico and the terror his mob family unleashed on the City of New York.
Readers familiar with Park Slope might be surprised to learn how saturated the area was with mobsters in the past. Today, the area has changed significantly but remnants of the old days still exist there as they do in other parts of New York. The early part of the book focuses heavily on the Park Slope area where the budding gangsters are getting experience on the gritty streets of Brooklyn. The crimes are petty and routine, until Carmine and older brother Alphonse Persico (d. 1989) have a fateful encounter with a friend turned rival named Steve Bove. At this point in the book, the writing is on the wall that Carmine is destined for a life of crime. From this point on, the schemes become more daring and the violence deadlier. Yet, Persico always manages to slip out of tense situations, earning him the nickname of “the Snake”.
Though Matteo is writing about Persico’s life, a bonus is that the book is filled with information about mob events that shocked the city. Sadly, there are no “smoking guns” that have not been previously revealed but he does offer information that might explain why the events happened. In particular, the murder of Joseph “Joe” Colombo (1923-1978) remains controversial. The assailant Jerome Johnson, was shot and killed immediately by one of Colombo’s bodyguards but the woman he was with, masquerading as a reporter, has never been found along with a second man in their group. The hit has never been fully explained but has been blamed on Colombo’s rival at the time, Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) and his brothers at odds with Colombo and the family’s prior boss, Giuseppe “Joe” Profaci (1897-1962). DiMatteo discusses the Colombo murder, and it is possible that Gallo was telling the truth when he stated he had nothing to do with the shooting. As the author shows, Colombo was respected by not well-liked, and the list of people who might have wanted to see him removed was long. The truth about the crime may be lost to history. But there is no question regarding the bad blood between the Gallo and Colombo factions, a simmering animosity that caused division within the family. The feud between them became so infamous that a part of it was reenacted on screen in The Godfather Part II. I won’t go into detail here, but if you have seen the movie and read this book, you will know which scene it is. Also provided is a satisfying amount of inside information about the production of the Godfather films and the filmmakers’ interactions with real-life gangsters including Persico. DiMatteo does mention other notable crimes in mafia lore such as the Air France Cargo robbery in 1967 and the Lufthansa Heist in 1978, both of which are depicted in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic ‘Goodfellas‘. The crimes are well-documented, so the author does not devote too much of the book to them, but they are discussed in relation to Persico’s story and the state of the mafia at the time.
Hollywood eventually moved on, but as we see in the book, the mob was getting stronger, and more blood was spilled on the streets of New York City before peace was established. But the difference is that the next war was within the family. With Colombo in a comatose state, the grabs for power kicked into high gear. And at Persico’s side was notorious hitman Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa (1928-1994). Scarpa’s reputation in mob history is cemented as someone not to cross. The section about Scarpa is not a biography but readers unfamiliar with him may want to read Peter Lance’s ‘Deal With The Devil: The FBI’s Secret Thirty-Year Relationship With A Mafia Killer‘ and the account by Scarpa’s daughter titled ‘The Mafia Hitman’s Daughter‘. Scarpa was a dark figure and the battles between the Persico faction and the soldiers loyal to acting boss Vittorio “Little Vic” Orena feel like a story out of the motion picture industry.
The story takes a significant turn at this point and is nothing short of wild. Combined with the inter-family wars brewing, Persico is also on the radar of the U.S. Government and was indicted multiple times as detailed by the author. Franklyn, it seemed that as soon as he was released, he was back inside yet again facing more charges. The unbelievable story as told by DiMatteo highlights the lengths to which federal prosecutors were willing to go in their mission to dismantle the Italian American mafia. The introduction of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as the “RICO Act”, signaled that the end was near for the mob. The legislation drafted by attorney G. Robert Blakely became an invincible tool in the Government’s arsenal that is still used to this day. As the convictions piled up, mobsters facing RICO charges knew the only options were to make a plea or face life in prison. Persico ended up with life in prison and had to live with the fact that his sons “Allie Boy” and Michael also followed their dad down the path of no return.
The sad fates of the major players compose the concluding section of the book and there are no happy conclusions. Death, incarceration, and financial ruin decimated the mobsters who found themselves targets of the Government. DiMatteo finished the story before Persico’s death resulting in the epilogue not containing mention of his passing. However, the sentence Persico received made it clear that he would die behind bars and that is exactly what happened. At the time of his death, the power, fame, and money he enjoyed on streets was gone but at his height, his life was one heck of a ride that even Hollywood could not have scripted. This is a fascinating look at the mob and the reality of life in it.