Fat Tony: A Mobster's Mobster to the End

Much has been written about Mafiosi making their peace with God before shuffling off this mortal coil. Carlo Gambino, the unofficial Boss of Bosses for decades when he ruled the underworld, made a deathbed confession and died in a "state of grace," washed of probably the most violent and horrible sins of which a human being is capable. 

Castellano was perhaps first among equals, but Fat Tony would have been the other most powerful figure on the East Coast."

His successor, Paul Castellano, was not so lucky. John Gotti might have robbed him of a lot more than his life and position in the Mafia.

Mobsters like Stephen "Beach" DePiro think nothing of parading their religion before the judge when they are seeking parole, but the true test of a believer is how he acts when the Grim Reaper comes a-knocking.

Russel Bufalino also got religion waiting to meet his maker while dying at the Springfield prison hospital. These were men who, at least the smarter ones, left little to chance; otherwise, they would have ended up dead in the streets much, much earlier in their careers; it takes a certain something -- a special combination of cunning and courage, daring, poise and, to an extent, even fear -- to make it in the life. Pragmatism also plays a role. So if there were the chance of an afterlife, why spend it burning in hell for murdering however many people when all it takes is a little remorse expressed to a priest (a nice, fat donation doesn't hurt either).

Old-time Godfather Joe Profaci had a rather bizarre notion of what it meant to be a good Catholic: Profaci was devout and made generous cash donations to Catholic charities. His New Jersey estate actually contained a private chapel. But then on one occasion, two thieves stole a relic from aNew York church. Profaci mobsters recovered the relic and reportedlystrangled the two thieves with rosaries. In 1949, a group of New York Catholics petitioned Pope Pius XII to confer a knighthood on Profaci. However, the Brooklyn District Attorney quashed it.

Perhaps the earliest and most famous deathbed "conversion" in mob land was that of Dutch Schultz (born Arthur Flegenheimer). In 1935 in an effort to avert a pending conviction, Schultz had gone to The Commission for permission to kill New York Prosecutor Thomas Dewey -- and his request was declined. Lucky Luciano and others were concerned, however, that Schultz would kill Dewey anyway (and he probably would have) so his assassination was ordered that same year. So... he was critically wounded on an October evening of that year while holding court with three cronies in the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey. Rushed to a hospital, he registered as being of the Jewish faith. But the next morning, feeling sure that he was going to die, he called for a Catholic priest.

Father Cornelius McInerney was summoned. Schultz wanted to die a Catholic. Father McInerney gave him a few simple instructions, baptized him, and gave him the last rites of the Catholic Church. Dutch Schultz died on Oct. 28, 1935, and was buried in a Catholic cemetery, the Gate of Heaven, in New York City.

Salerno holding court at his long-time social club. 

It would seem that no such epiphany ever came to Tony Salerno, at least based on what was probably his last act as a Mafiosi; but the thoughts/inner feelings of another human being are inscrutable to us, unless the person in question tells us. Tony didn't tell us. I am just conveying facts and reasonable assumptions based on those facts. And the facts are, while dying in the same prison hospital that Bufalino had resided in but at a different time, Salerno put out a contract to have someone killed and gave it to another inmate in the sick ward, an outlaw biker named Sailor, who was dying of cancer but poised to be released on a medical hardship. Salerno sent Sailor to whack someone who had testified against the old-timeCosa Nostra street boss in one of his trials, according to an anecdote buried near the end of Charles Brandt's, "I Heard You Paint Houses."

Sheeran, the book's subject, who was in the hospital with Salerno, witnessed these events, he said.

Salerno served as the "front" boss of the Genovese clan, actually tricking the Feds and something like half the mob into believing he was the boss, when he really wasn't. (Chin Gigante, a criminal mastermind who outplayed so many lesser but higher-profile men, was happy being in the shadow, limping around the Village in his ratty bathrobe in a rehearsed, beard-stubbled psychotic stupor.)

Back in the mid 1980s, when so much was made about John Gotti being the mobster from Central Casting, to me, it was Fat Tony who was the embodiment of the real mobster. There are no books about his life, but that's the way it should be. The Mafia is a "secret society," even though it is covered on a daily basis by nearly every major newspaper in the world.

Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno (August 15, 1911 - July 27, 1992) was convicted in 1986 as part of the Commission Case, which put away most of the legendary bosses, including Tony Ducks Corallo. Who could forget the precious few news clips of Salerno, fedora planted firmly on his head, cigar in mouth, waving his cane and barking at the surrounding paparazzi. Gotti, refusing to duck, smiled and bowed at the mobs of press--like a prince offering his blessings to the f---ing peasants--Salerno hit them with his cane. There's the difference.

I am not going to regale you with the story of his life, but I will touch on the highlights.

Born in East Harlem in 1911, Salerno established his base there and never strayed far from the community, maintaining his headquarters at the Palma Boys Social Club, much like Neil Dellacroce did downtown in Little Italy at the Ravenite.

By the 1960s, Salerno was said by prosecutors to helm Harlem's biggest numbers racket, which they estimated earned as much as $50 million a year. Yet despite his notoriety among prosecutors, Salerno's first criminal conviction did not occur until 1978, when he pleaded guilty to Federal tax and gambling charges, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison. The infamous Roy M. Cohn, Salerno's lawyer, described his client as a "sports gambler" in a New York Times article.

In early 1981, after his release from prison, Salerno suffered a mild stroke and retreated to his Rhinebeck estate to recuperate. At the time of his stroke, Salerno was Genovese underboss.

During the 1980s, following the retirement of Philip Lombardo, Salerno ostensibly became boss of the Genovese family. He had reached the pinnacle of his power--and would spend almost all his remaining life behind bars.

And although law enforcement at the time thought that Salerno was the boss of the Genovese family, it later became clear that Salerno was not the true power: Salerno was only a "front man". Ever since the death of boss Vito Genovese in 1969, the real family leader had been "Benny Squint" Lombardo. Over the years, Lombardo used several acting bosses to disguise his true status from law enforcement and the other four New York crime families. At the same time Lombardo was grooming Vincent Gigante as his successor. According to "Fish" Cafaro, Salerno became front boss in 1981 to protect Gigante, who seems to have taken a page from Lombardo's book and ran all the way to the nuthouse with it.
Salerno's plot in St. Raymond's
Cemetery in the Bronx 

In a 1986 article, Fortune magazine rated Salerno the most powerful and wealthiest gangster in America, citing earnings in the tens of millions from loan sharking, profit skimming at Nevada casinos and charging a "Mafia tax" on New York City construction projects. At the time, he maintained a home in Miami Beach, a 100-acre estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and an apartment in Gramercy Park. (How on earth could Fortune calculate his net worth? And how could they know he was the wealthiest?)

"He was extremely powerful," said Howard Abadinksy, professor of criminology at St. Xavier University in Chicago and the author of several books on organized crime, in a New York Times article. He compared Salerno to the reputed head of the Gambino family at that time, Paul Castellano. "Castellano was perhaps first among equals, but Fat Tony would have been the other most powerful figure on the East Coast."

In 1986, after the Commission Case trial that helped establish the use of RICO statutes against the mob, Salerno and seven other defendants were convicted of operating the "commission" that ruled the Mafia throughout the United States. He and others were given sentences of up to 100 years.

Salerno also was convicted in 1988 for a scheme to allocate contracts and obtain payoffs for constructing the concrete superstructures of 16 Manhattan buildings, including the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center. He was sentenced to 70 years on that conviction.

Salerno, who had been in failing health since entering the prison system in 1989, died of complications from a stroke that he suffered on July 18, the officials said. But not before sending Sailor out on that little mission. Salerno was 80 years old.

On a wiretap at a mob hangout, Federal agents once recorded Salerno bemoaning a disrespectful young gangster who had called him "Fat Tony" to his face. "If it wasn't for me, there wouldn't be no mob left," Salerno said. "I made all the guys."

How true, Tony, wherever you are...


  1. There's a story that circulated around the streets after Fat Tony was sentenced. It was said that when he was being led out of court after being sentenced to a century in prison, he stopped by the U.S. Attorney who had convicted him and said, "I'm an old man and will never be able to do this hundred years. I'd appreciate it if after I die you do the rest of the time for me."

    True? Who knows? I wasn't there. But, that was Fat Tony.


  2. Tony and Benny were partners. Between them there was no boss. Benny, immortalized as On Onochio by breslin, was in reality also only a street boss. the true boss sat in a corner office overlooking central park and golfed at the westchester country club. when vinchenzo went to the psychiatric ward, twice a year, at the hospital on the country club grounds, it was really a front for a meeting to balance the books. this fmily is the royalty of mob business. not strictly italian, it was born of a raartnership between lansky and luciano, & still is ruled by a jewish italian hierarchy.

  3. Actually Don Vito himself liked to confused law enforcement -- and other crime families -- by using decoy bosses. While in prison, his three acting bosses were capo Michele Miranda, underboss Gerardo "Jerry" Catena, and acting boss Thomas "Tommy Ryan" Eboli. In 1962 Valachi stated that Lombardo was also a part of this panel. That same year Anthony Strollo disappeared and the role of front or acting boss was given to Thomas Eboli, who was gunned down in 1972.
    According to Cafaro, Lombardo had been boss since 1969 and had been using Eboli and Tieri as decoys. It then seems that he coincided his retirement with Tieri's death and named Vincent Gigante as his successor, making Anthony Salerno the new decoy boss.
    Tieri and Gigante manipulated members of the Philadelphia crime family into murdering their boss Angelo Bruno in 1979, and then killed off those same members to cover their tracks.
    Lombardo died in 1987; he was 78 and living in Florida.

  4. Judging from the Sheeran story that Tony sent someone to clip a witness against him and the speculation that he never called for a priest in his last moments, it's easy to assume he had no religious epiphany at the last moment. We speculate about the state of mind of historical characters all the time, especially in films, where dialogue is added. Fat Tony is certainly an historical figure. Don't see the big deal.

    P.S. There are three separate Lucky Luciano film projects in the works. I've read two of the screenplays. There is a lot of state of mind speculation in those, sometimes totally at odds with each other.

  5. dont really understand , if tony salerno mike miranda's topman was a front for the chin who was much younger and did not have the experience that tony had

  6. Funzi Tieri was acting boss


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