Pennsylvania Reading

Pennsylvania Reading
Pennsylvania Reading

Cicero, Illinois, the longtime captive city of the Capone mob, was thought unique; a situation like Cicero could never happen again. But, it could and it did. Called the "Pretzel Capital of the World," Reading, Pennsylvania, was turned into a pretzel by the Angelo Bruno crime family of Philadelphia in an operation described as the outright rape of an American city.

Working together with local underworld figures, the Bruno operatives in the 1950s and early 1960s corrupted most of the Reading city administration from the mayor on down. In the heart of peaceful Pennsylvania Dutch country the Bruno hoodlums set up an illegal Las Vegas of the East, boasting what has been described as the biggest crap game east of the Mississippi and perhaps in the entire country.

The "Reading Game," as it was called, operated out of Philadelphia from the 1950s to 1962, when the FBI finally smothered it. Each night big gamblers from all over the East gathered in a restaurant in the heart of Philadelphia. They would be picked up by "luggers" and hauled 50 miles to Reading where the million-dollar dice game was played on high-rolling "California tables."

A hoodlum for a time involved in the operation later explained: "Everybody made a buck on the game. They rented their limousines from a funeral director, because they only used them from ten at night until seven in the morning."

He indicated how much freedom organized crime enjoyed in the Quaker City at the time, declaring: "They even had a cop out in front of the restaurant—he'd blow a whistle like a hotel doorman to signal a limo when he had a full load coming in for the game. It looked like opening night on Broadway. The cops never touched them."

Naturally, the game enjoyed official protection in Reading as well, and the gambling represented merely one symptom of the rape of Reading. In conjunction with the gambling, for the edification of the players, the largest East Coast red-light district flourished. Reading was also saddled with the biggest illegal still since Prohibition, and the operation was tied right into the city water supply.

Meanwhile Reading went down the drain. Industry started pulling out, and the downtown area turned into a near wasteland, with revenues diverted away from such frivolities as civic improvements.

As citizens became restive, the mob even brought in some "reformer" puppets to try to maintain the mob status quo. Finally a Justice Department task force moved in. Federal agents found only one civic improvement made in recent years—the installation of new parking meters.

It was an investigation into this situation and the fact that the company installing the meters had a history of paying off municipal governments to win such contracts that broke the Reading mess wide open. By 1962 the FBI had crushed the Reading Game and the Bruno crime family faced deportation back to Philadelphia.

The lesson of Reading however was more meaningful than the mere battle against a single Mafia family. The year 1962 was significant. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had been lighting fires under a reluctant FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to at last recognize the organized crime menace and the Mafia.

Reading was cleaned up rather quickly and one must wonder what conditions might have been in Reading in the 1960s had Hoover been forced to act against the emerging national crime syndicate in the early 1930s. For three decades Hoover had denied the existence of the Mafia and organized crime, instead concentrating on the most bumbling, incompetent, independent criminals he labeled "public enemies."

He refused to involve himself against crime syndicates which he insisted weren't there or to take assignments fighting Prohibition rackets or the narcotics trade. And he said his men had more important things to do than chasing after gamblers. Thus Hoover ignored the main sources of wealth for organized crime, which provided mobs the power and influence to seduce politicians, judges, police officials and other important figures both in and out of government.

Reading provides a symbol of how Hoover's intransigence and inaction became one of the three main reasons organized crime and the Mafia festered and flourished in the United States to an extent not seen anywhere else in the industrialized world.