Pigeon coop tip-off

Pigeon coop tip-off
Pigeon coop tip-off

For some reason a fair number of mafiosi keep pigeons. Whatever lies behind the practice, it is sometimes helpful to authorities. Every once in a while a pigeon-keeper will vanish, and the police will be in the dark about what happened to him. However, if a short time later the pigeon coops are taken down, it is a sure sign that the mobster is no longer among the living.

That was the case of Sonny Black, a high capo and for a time acting boss of the Bonanno family. Black had been conned by undercover operative "Donnie Brasco"—FBI agent Joe Pistone—to whom he trustingly gave entrée into mob activities.

When Brasco emerged from his cover, Black, who refused to seek refuge as an informer, went to a mob meeting where damage and guilt was being assessed. A week later two men were seen taking down Black's pigeon coops, and the FBI concluded Sonny Black was dead. His body was discovered about a year later.

Pushcart Rackets

Pushcart Rackets
Pushcart Rackets

A century ago pushcart rackets were a big deal for the emerging American Mafia. They shook down dealers and demanded tribute for allowing small-time vendors to operate and to keep out competitors. Today, the pushcart rackets appear to outsiders to have faded away. Surprisingly, that is far from the truth. The new Mafia has learned how to milk an old-time racket and in fact add considerable profitable scams.

The offshoot revenues justify keeping their eye on pushcarts. Today a vendor cannot simply open up wherever he or she wishes without expecting some unhealthy consequences. And equally unhealthy is a vendor's trying to get supplies on his or her own. Vendors are required to deal with suppliers who are either mob dominated or ones who have made an accommodation with the mobsters.

Included are beverage and butane suppliers. Once when Joe Bonanno's son Bill was attempting to make it big in the mob, he received an education when he took part in a jurisdictional dispute between vendors of the Bonanno and Lucchese families. The Luccheses demanded the rights to two spots held in the Wall Street area, big money-making enterprises despite the prosaic appearances. Bill couldn't see the dispute as worth fighting over, but there was a real possibility that it might come to that.


As it was, the Bonannos won out. There was a mess of money involved. The stands each did hundreds of sales in sodas each day, and the mob held the loyalty of the vendors by underselling other beverage suppliers. Key to this was the fact that under bottle and can deposit rules the vendors paid 3.5¢ for each deposit item, so if cans were returned, vendors could collect the standard 5¢ deposit and net an extra profit of 1.5¢. In practice, however, no one returns cans to the pushcart for a refund.

But the mob, meanwhile, has made an extra profit simply by importing cans and bottles from a deposit-free state such as Pennsylvania. For the privilege of engaging in this scam the vendors gladly allow the mob to store their carts after hours for a fee the competition cannot or dares not match. Add to this the price of weiners, rolls, napkins and the like, and the mob is really cutting the mustard.

The big money the mob has learned is the deposit money, and they have expanded it in other outlets, especially in Chinese takeout, with the savings considerable since the custom in many Chinese food outlets is to award one or more free cans of soda depending on the amount purchased by a customer. In recent years the mob has used their "expertise" at this to supply street fairs with all the drinks at bargain prices.

Far from being a penny-ante operation, the racket in all its variables, is a multimillion-dollar business that can warrant a pushcart war if necessary.

Ragen’s Colts

White mob hunts for blacks
White mob hunts for blacks

The recalcitrant Irish gangsters were the most reluctant to join with other ethnic gangs in what was to become organized crime in America. Many important Irish gangsters, unable to conform to the syndicate mold, had to die. There were Mad Dog Coll in New York and Dion O'Banion in Chicago, to name two. But some Irish gangsters were finally tamed and joined up, their descendants today important allies of mafiosi in many cities.

In Chicago Al Capone's toughest chore was making peace with Irish gangsters. He was far more successful with the Jews, the Poles and even the blacks. There were times when he must have felt sure that Ragen's Colts were a lost cause.

The Colts were at the pinnacle of their power in the first two decades of the century, dominating the South Side of Chicago around the stockyards. Described as racists, jingoists, political sluggers, bootleggers and murderers, they, like many other gangs in early Chicago, started out as a baseball team. Frank Ragen, the star pitcher, was also the star political operator of the outfit which was officially called Ragen's Athletic and Benevolent Association.


Ragen soon proved invaluable to the Democratic Party in the city, offering Colts' firepower and muscle in campaigns. Many members of the city council and state legislature owned their election to the gang. "When we dropped into a polling place," one Colt bragged, "everybody else dropped out."

By 1902 the gang numbered 160, and just six years later it adopted a motto, "Hit Me and You Hit 2,000," which was probably only a slight exaggeration. Over the years the list grew of aldermen, sheriffs, police brass, country treasurers and numerous other officeholders beholden to the gang. Even Ragen himself took a job as a city commissioner.

But, as always, the most notable members of the gang were accomplished criminals. Among such worthies were Gunner McPadden with a list of homicides to his credit so large that no one, McPadden included, could make an accurate count; Dynamite Brooks, a saloon keeper with the reputation of killing when he got drunk; Harry Madigan, another saloonman and owner of the Pony Inn in Cicero, who was charged with several kidnappings and assaults during various elections; Stubby McGovern, a deadly hit man who bragged he never failed in an assignment; Danny McFall, who despite murdering two business competitors was named a deputy sheriff; Yiddles Miller, a boxing referee and notorious racist, who denounced the Ku Klux Klan as a bunch of "nigger lovers"; and Ralph Sheldon, a fearless bootlegger and hijacker said to "take no prisoners."

Besides providing political muscle duty and operating a number of rackets, the Colts were always ready to provoke a race riot, starting one in 1919 that nearly destroyed the city. A black youth swimming off a South Side beach strayed into white, segregated waters. Bathing Colts promptly stoned and drowned him. The Colts then took to the streets baiting blacks.

After nightfall they roared into the Black Belt, shooting blacks on sight, dynamiting, and looting shops and homes and setting others on fire. Black veterans of the war seized up their service weapons and fired back. Rampaging blacks in turn overturned streetcars and automobiles carrying whites and destroyed property. The rioting continued for four days before finally wearing itself out, leaving 20 whites and 14 blacks dead, with another 1,000 burned, injured and maimed.

With the onset of Prohibition even the Ragen Colts had no time for organized bigotry. They shifted into bootlegging. Ralph Sheldon formed a splinter group which had little interest in making or importing booze, much preferring to hijack the wares of other gangs, a habit not conducive to peaceful racketeering.

Still, Capone showed extreme tenderness dealing with the Colts although he was forced to do battle with them, seeing the possibility of winning their cooperation, something he had consistently failed to do with the forces of other Irish mobsters like Dion O'Banion and Spike O'Donnell. Eventually most of the Colts, even Sheldon who for a time had shifted alliances from one group to another and would do so again, joined the combination. Today the descendants of the original wild Colts remain important figures with organized crime.

Pillow Gang

Carmelo Fresina, the pillow gang leader
Carmelo Fresina, the pillow gang leader
Carmelo Fresina was, in his own fashion, the most colorful mafioso in St. Louis, heading up what was certainly the most colorfully named criminal group, the Pillow Gang. Fresina would arrive at a sit-down of the gang, put on his chair the trusty pillow he always carried and, easing himself down, discuss such sundry criminal activities as extortion and murder. Then when the meeting was over, he would pick up his pillow and leave.

The Pillow Gang added a bizarre touch to Prohibition-era St. Louis criminality, in the early part of this century marked by curiously ineffectual bands of mafiosi. This is surprising since St. Louis was one of the early settling spots of the Mafia in this country. Some of the first mafiosi to arrive in New Orleans in the 19th century soon headed north to avoid police trouble and nested in St. Louis.

The city boasted its first Black Hand activity in 1876. Yet, perhaps due to the quality of the mafiosi involved, the Italian criminals failed to achieve dominance for a long time. During the Prohibition era five gangs of major importance operated in St. Louis: Egan's Rats, perhaps the most important; the Hogan Gang; the Cuckoo Gang, mostly hoodlums of Syrian descent; the so-called Green Dagoes, composed mostly of Sicilians; and a gang of Americans of Italian descent, who could be described as Young Turks, in the same sense as Lucky Luciano played that role in New York.

The Cuckoos cooperated with the American-born Italians in waging war against the Sicilians, of which Fresina and his Pillow Gang were an important branch. Fresina had once been shot in the buttocks and thereafter he carried a pillow with him to use when sitting. Somehow, Fresina's pillow tended to detract from the dangerous image the mob tried to project. It did not promote a feeling of terror in others.


It remained for that illustrious senatorial prober, Estes Kefauver, to sum up Fresina's career with a humor he seldom seemed to possess: "Eventually Fresina, an extortionist and bootlegger, was dispatched with two bullets in the head and no longer needed his pillow."

It would be many years after the fall of the Pillow Gang before the Mafia would become a powerhouse in St. Louis crime. The impetus came around World War II, from Kansas City, which dispatched Thomas Buffa and Tony Lopiparo to set up a branch of the K.C. family there and build up an organization primarily on the narcotics trade. Buffa eventually was assassinated, in 1946, and over a period of time the St. Louis crime family was to pass to the control of Anthony Giordano. While he was in prison in the 1970s James Giammanco became acting boss.

Pineapple Primary

Pineapple Primary
Pineapple Primary

Probably no U.S. election in the 20th century can match the violence or social disregard of the April 1928 Republican primary in Chicago. Referred to by the press as the "Pineapple Primary," the event was characterized by the bombs, nicknamed pineapples, used in wholesale lots by gangsters seeking to have their ticket succeed. Both sides employed professional terrorists and the Capone ranks provided most of the bomb throwers. The police seemed singularly unable to stop any of the violence.

In the primary, a rebel faction headed by Republican senator Charles S. Deneen challenged the ruling faction headed by Mayor Big Bill Thompson and State's Attorney Robert E. Crowe. Thompson and Crowe were aligned with Governor Len Small, who, like the former pair, was a friend of mobsters. Deneen, carrying the banner of reform, was backed by racketeer Diamond Joe Esposito, who clearly desired to seize the Capone mantle for himself.

Violence erupted on both sides at the primary. The first attack victims were the Thompson-Crowe men. The homes of Charles C. Fitzmorris, Thompson's city controller, and Dr. William H. Reid, the commissioner of public service, were bombed. Further bombings of Thompson-men homes followed when the mayor announced, "When the fight is over, the challengers will be sorry."


In due course, the homes of Judge John A. Swanson, Deneen's candidate for Crowe's seat as state's attorney, and Deneen's own home were blasted, and Esposito, having ignored death threats from the Capones, was assassinated. A black-humored couplet, written by a Chicago newsman, probably best summed up the terror of the Pineapple Primary:
The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that Chicago's still there.
Two days before the primary, on Easter Sunday, the united clergy of Chicago—Protestant, Catholic and Jewish—denounced the Thompson-Crowe-Small forces: "We have a governor who ought to be in the penitentiary. . . . Ours is a government of bombs and bums.... O Lord! May there be a reawakening of public spirit and consciousness. Grant that we may be awakened to a sense of public shame...."

The appeal was not enough against the muscle, guns and bombs of the Capone forces, who supported the Thompson machine. And Cook County chicanery and fraud never reached a higher state of perfection than in this primary; ballot-box stuffing, voting under fictitious names, and harassment of voters numbered among the less violent crimes. Ultimately the Capone forces carried the day.

Mayor Big Bill Thompson
Mayor Big Bill Thompson

In the general election, however, the result was stunningly different. Capone was astute enough to realize that the national and international outcry against the Pineapple Primary was the death knell for the Thompson machine. When 75-year-old civic leader Frank J. Loesch, the founding member of the Chicago Crime Commission, called on him and insisted that he allow a peaceful general election vote, Capone did so.

"All right," Capone, who was famed for bragging that he owned the police, said, "I'll have the cops send over squad cars the night before the election and jug all the hoodlums and keep 'em in the cooler until the polls close."

Capone's word became the police's duty. A dragnet swept the streets clean.

"It turned out to be the squarest and the most successful election day in forty years," Loesch later related in a lecture at the Southern California Academy of Criminology. "There was not one complaint, not one election fraud and no threat of trouble all day."

In the election, Chicago's voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote against gangsterism. Governor Small and State's Attorney Crowe were swamped, and every Thompson candidate went down to defeat in the backlash of the Pineapple Primary.

However, Capone remained sanguine. His criminal machine had flourished during a previous reform regime, and he was confident it would survive another campaign of virtue. His power was too deeply intermeshed with the police, the courts and the ward politicians for him to be alarmed. His reasoning did not prove faulty.

Little Augie Pisano

Little Augie Pisano
Little Augie Pisano

Little Augie Pisano was perhaps the quintessential mafioso. Born Anthony Carfano, Little Augie took his nickname from a deceased East Side gangster. He came up the hard way as a gunman and sported a huge scar on his left cheek which he wore as a badge of honor, much in the style of an aristocratic Prussian duelist.

A longtime friend of Frank Costello and Joe Adonis (and for a time running Brooklyn rackets for the latter) Little Augie Pisano exhibited only one real sign of overwhelming ambition—he moved to Miami with plans to make it his private fiefdom. Miami represented an enormous rackets potential and required a fine touch with political circles.

But Meyer Lansky saw its potential too and that it would require a huge amount of underworld manpower and brains. Lansky urged that the cities of Miami and Miami Beach be declared "open territory" (as would be done later with Las Vegas) so that various crime families could skim their grand potential.


Despite Costello's closeness to Pisano he ordered him to curb his ambition and understand he had to work with Lansky. A dutiful soldier, Pisano did, and his loyalty thereafter to both Costello and Lansky never diminished. In the end, his loyalty was to prove the death of him.

In 1957 Vito Genovese, seeking to take control of the Lucky Luciano crime family, under the local direction of Costello since Luciano's deportation in 1946, ordered Costello assassinated. The job was botched and Costello survived.

Costello refused to tell the police who had tried to kill him, but Genovese, fearing all-out war, ordered all the important members of the crime family to report to his Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, mansion—now an armed camp surrounded by 40 gunners, as a demonstration of unity with his cause. Little Augie was the sole capo—at the time he ran the family's rackets in the upper Bronx— who refused to show.

It was a sin Genovese would not forget, but he had more pressing matters, dealing with Costello and the murderous Albert Anastasia who had vowed to stop Genovese. Although Anastasia was eliminated, Genovese was forced to let Costello retire from the rackets, and it was apparently part of the deal that Little Augie was accepted back in good grace.

The peace lasted until 1959 when Genovese ordered Little Augie hit. The would-be assassins had considerable trouble getting Little Augie alone. He was often with his good friend Tony Bender, chief operator of the crime family's rackets in Greenwich Village, and the killers asked if it was all right to blow away Bender at the same time. Genovese had a strong need for Bender at the time and vetoed the suggestion. Finally Bender discovered his good friend was being set up and he cheerfully agreed to put Little Augie on the spot.

On September 29 Little Augie was partying at the Copacabana with a friend, Mrs. Janice Drake, a former beauty queen, with whom, the cutting underworld comment went, he was having a platonic relationship. She was the wife of comedian Alan Drake, whose career Little Augie had helped. (Mrs. Drake's relationship with Little Augie was never clear. She was grateful to him and called him "Uncle Gus." It was possible she was merely a flamboyant symbol that the mobster liked having around as flattering to his image.)

Little Augie Pisano had been shot
Little Augie Pisano had been shot

They were joined, apparently by chance, by Bender who invited them and a few others to dine with him at Marino's restaurant, not far from the Copa. During dinner a phone call caused Little Augie to leave hurriedly, Mrs. Drake on his arm.

At 10:30 P.M., about 45 minutes later, they were found in Little Augie's black Cadillac on a dark street near La Guardia Airport in Queens. Both were sitting in the front seat, heads tilted toward each other like young lovers. Both had been shot in the back of the head.

Police later theorized that the killers had been hiding in the back seat of Little Augie's car and forced him to drive to his place of execution. Mrs. Drake, they said, had died just because she happened to be along for the ride.

Pittsburgh Phil

Pittsburgh Phil
Pittsburgh Phil
Pittsburgh Phil Strauss was once philosophizing with a friend early in his career as a murderer. "Like a ballplayer, that's me," Pittsburgh Phil mused. "I figure I get seasoning doing these jobs. Somebody from one of the big mobs spots me. Then, up to the big leagues."

Pittsburgh Phil had it right. He was spotted by some very discriminating experts, men named Louis Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Joe Adonis, and Albert Anastasia. And he achieved great success in his chosen field—murder. In time he became the most prolific killer Murder, Inc.,—and all of syndicated crime—ever produced.

Killing didn't seem to bother Phil, although he worried greatly for his own health. The contract murder of one Puggy Feinstein offers an example. Phil and a few of the boys lured him into a Brooklyn home and there Phil shoved Feinstein down on a couch and went to work on him with an ice pick.

Puggy, fighting for his life, sunk his teeth into Pittsburgh Phil's finger. Irate over such foul play, Phil yelled, "Give me the rope. I'll fix this dirty bum." Phil, with the aid of a confederate, put a loop around his neck and another around his feet and effectively trussed him up. As Puggy kicked he merely tightened the rope around his neck and in time strangled himself to death while the boys watched.

Then they took Puggy's body to a vacant lot and set it ablaze. The boys then adjourned to Sheepshead Bay for a seafood dinner. Phil, however, was not happy. "Maybe I am getting lockjaw from being bit," he worried. Phil was so upset about his finger that he barely managed to finish his lobster.


Born Harry Strauss—he adopted the name of Pittsburgh Phil, although he had never been to the smoky city—the Brooklyn-bred thug became so popular that when an out-of-town mob or crime family needed an outsider for a contract, they almost always requested Phil.

He packed his briefcase with a shirt, a change of socks, underwear, a gun, a knife, a length of rope and an ice pick, hopped a train or plane to his destination, pulled the job and caught the next connection back to New York. Often Phil did not even know the name of the person he had killed, and generally he didn't care to find out.

When investigators cracked Murder, Inc., in 1940, the office of Brooklyn district attorney William O'Dwyer developed solid evidence tying Phil to 28 killings. Law enforcement officers from Connecticut to California came up with a like number in which Phil was positively identified. That of course represented merely the known homicides attributable to him.

A present-day crime historian seriously suggests that Phil bumped off at least 500, but this seems nonsensical. However, there is little doubt that his murder toll well exceeded 100. This is an impressive figure, even by Murder, Inc., standards; the three next active killers in the mob, Dasher Abbandando, Kid Twist Reles and Happy Maione, in combination probably no more than matched Phil.

Pittsburgh Phil was also the dandy of the troop, noted for wearing $60 suits, in Depression times a princely sum. New York's incorruptible police commissioner, Lewis Valentine, once said of Phil in a police lineup: "Look at him! He's the best dressed man in the room and he's never worked a day in his life!"

Quite naturally the tall, lean, handsome Pittsburgh Phil was much-pursued by the young ladies of Brownsville. His love affair with Evelyn Mittleman, a Brooklyn beauty dubbed the Kiss of Death Girl, was one of the underworld's more touching, climaxed by Phil's eradication of a rival for her affection.

It is almost amazing that, between his Beau Brummel and Don Juan activities, Phil had the time for mass murder, yet he always seemed to complete his contracts. Once, at the very moment Commissioner Valentine had Phil in his office for an interrogation, his homicide detectives were slaving unbeknownst over one of Phil's labors. The corpse in question was one George Rudnick, suspected by labor extortionist Louis Lepke of being an informer.

Rudnick had been taking the sun one afternoon along Livonia Avenue when Phil and some of his colleagues snatched him up in a car. It was a short drive to the execution chamber, a garage at Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue. Some hours later Rudnick's body was found in a stolen car at the other end of Brooklyn. The medical examiner gives some indication of Phil's savagery:
This was a male adult, somewhat undernourished; approximate weight 140 pounds; six feet in height. There were 63 stab wounds on the body. On the neck, I counted 13 stab wounds, between the jaw and collar bone. On the right chest, there were 50 separate circular wounds. He had a laceration on the frontal region of the head. The wound gaped, and disclosed the bone underneath. His face was intensely cyanic, or blue. The tongue protruded. At the level of the larynx was a grooving, white and depressed, about the width of ordinary clothesline. When the heart was laid open, the entire wall was found to be penetrated by stab wounds. My conclusion was the cause of death was multiple stab wounds, and also ... asphyxia due to strangulation.
When the Purple Gang in Detroit marked a cunning mobster named Harry Millman for execution, they found they couldn't handle the job themselves. One try failed and Millman was on the alert. A hurried call brought Phil to Detroit. Millman moved in crowds and ate in congested restaurants to frustrate would-be assassins, but he could not figure on Phil's daring. Millman was in a packed restaurant one evening when Phil strode in with an assistant. They emptied two revolvers, killing Millman and wounding five other diners in the process, and calmly paraded out.

Phil always said he could learn more about murder. When he executed Walter Sage, a New York mobster who was knocking down on the syndicate's slot machine profits, he lashed Sage's body to a pinball machine after ice-picking him 32 times and then dumped him in a Catskills lake. Seven days later, the grisly package floated to the surface due to the buoyancy caused by gases in the decomposing body. "How about that," Phil observed sagely. "With this bum, you gotta be a doctor or he floats."

There seems to have been only one contract that Phil failed to carry out. He was sent to Florida and followed the intended victim about until the man went into a movie theater and sat down in the last row. Armed only with a gun, Phil felt it would make too much noise. Then his eyes fell on a fire axe in a glass emergency case. This, he reasoned, was an emergency.

Phil took the axe, but by the time he was poised to kill, the target had moved up several rows. In anger Phil tossed down the axe, walked out of the theater and headed back to Brooklyn, declaring the job was jinxed. As he told the troop back home: "Just when I get him set up, the bum turns out to be a goddamn chair hopper."

Usually, though, Phil could adapt to any situation. On another Florida job, he was to put away an old mafioso who spoke not a word of English. Phil went to him and by sign language showed him a suitcase full of weapons and made him believe he was out to kill someone else. The mafioso, eager to be helpful, picked up a rope and led Phil to a dark street where he indicated the deed could be done. Phil nodded, promptly strangled the man and went home.

Phil's murder career lasted a decade and had not Abe Reles—probably the most important stool pigeon ever to come out of organized crime—started talking he could conceivably still be at his chores, a very lethal senior citizen. Reles turned informer because he saw the law was closing in and was afraid that if someone else in Murder, Inc., informed first, he himself would go to the chair.

Actually, no one important in Murder, Inc., was ratting, only some minor hoods who could really prove nothing. However, there was enough for Phil, Reles, Happy Maione and Buggsy Goldstein to be brought in on suspicion. Then Reles started talking. Before he was finished, Murder, Inc., was out of business. Bigtimers like Lepke, Mendy Weiss and Louis Capone were sentenced to the chair.

Reles's canary act came to an abrupt end when he "went out the window" of a Brooklyn hotel while under what can only be described as remarkably inefficient police guard. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Phil was also doomed. He was indicted along with Goldstein for the Puggy Feinstein slaying. To be on the safe side the prosecution lined up five more homicide indictments against Phil if they proved necessary. They didn't.

The case against him was overwhelming so Phil did the next best thing; he did an insane act. He refused to wash, shave or change his clothes. When asked at his trial to give his name, he merely licked his lips. Returned to the defendant's chair, he spent most of the rest of his trial trying to chew off the leather strap on a lawyer's briefcase. Newspaper readers reveled over Phil's bizarre acts, but the jury was not impressed. They found him guilty of murder in the first degree.

Even in his death cell Phil kept up his insane act, hoping for a commuted sentence. On the last day of his life, he figured out the ploy wasn't going to work and he cleaned himself up and became his dapper old self. He bade farewell to Evelyn, the Kiss of Death Girl. And he further set the record straight by admitting that before his trial he'd offered to turn state's evidence if he was allowed to talk to Reles first.

The authorities knew better than to let Phil get into the same room with Reles. As Phil now admitted, he did not intend to turn informer. "I just wanted to sink my tooth into his jugular vein. I didn't worry about the chair, if I could just tear his throat out first." None of Phil's listeners doubted he would have done so if he could.

On June 12, 1941, Goldstein went to the chair, and a few minutes later, at 11:06 P.M., Pittsburgh Phil followed him. The syndicate had lost its best hitter.