Taboo Topic? Mafiosi and the Church

In America, it's with a heavy dose of pragmatism that many Cosa Nostra members seemingly turn to their faith.
Frank Costello's mausoleum, with the front gate blown apart. "Lilo" heralding his return to the streets....
This is a revise of an old story that I've been sitting on entirely too long....
Italy has exported two global entities -- the Mafia and the Catholic Church. Ironic.

Made men generally are Roman-Catholics. Still, not much has been generally written about Mafiosi making (or not making) peace with the New Testament God before shuffling off this mortal coil.

At the same time, Sicilian or Italian mobsters are very dedicated to their faith. In fact, some of them study the bible. "In Italy, there is not a single Mafioso who isn't religious," Padre Nino Fasullo, an anti-Mafia priest in Italy, once said. "For a phenomenon like the Mafia, which has no intellectual justification at all, religion may represent the only ideological apparatus to which it can refer. ... We're all in the church. Even the Mafia. Unfortunately. The church is embroiled in it. But regrettably not everyone in the church is convinced that opposition to the Mafia is necessary."

As noted, Toto Riina never sleeps in his prison bed without pictures of the saints pasted on the wall around his head...and Bernardo Provenzano's knowledge of the Bible's details is legendary. When finally arrested police found on his bedside table no less than four bibles, each brimming with annotations and underlinings.

In America, it's with a heavy dose of pragmatism that many Cosa Nostra members seemingly turn to their faith. Due to the Rite of Penance, one's sins are forgiven, absolution of one's sins, no matter who they are, is provided to those who seek it. Sometimes even if the person is unconscious and on the verge of death, a priest can wash away their sins (Extreme Unction, it is called).

The thinking in America -- and perhaps Italy -- seems to be: Why take a gamble on the chance of hell actually existing?

These are men who lived their lives leaving as little as possible to chance, by their very nature. Especially in the case of mobsters who are bosses or have some rank -- they hold a place in the hierarchy that another might be willing to murder them for. Why was Anastasia killed? Paul Castellano?

A savvy boss sits with his back to the wall, especially if tempers on the street are flaring. He posts his gunmen around him -- as Donnie Brasco learned when he helped show the Bonanno flag by guarding Lilo while he attended a sit down. These men know all too well how easily they might end up dead when they least expect it -- shot dead in midtown Manhattan in front of a steakhouse, blown apart with a shotgun while sitting idly in a car or shot in the head, then multiple times in the face while frying sausage and peppers, perhaps for the very man who came to kill him.

Carlo Gambino, the unofficial Boss of Bosses for decades supposedly made a deathbed confession and died in a "state of grace," washed of probably the most violent sins of which a human being is capable.

Mobsters like Stephen "Beach" DePiro think nothing of parading their religion before a judge when seeking parole, but the true test for such men is how they act when the Grim Reaper confronts them.

Rosario "Russell" Bufalino, boss of the tiny Pennsylvania crime family from 1959 to 1989, "got religion" while in prison. He got out and died at age 91 in a nursing home. In 1980, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, now defunct, claimed Bufalino ran the most powerful organized-crime family in the state. That's interesting for those who know that Philadelphia is in that state.

Gambino sought forgiveness for his sins toward his life's end.

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 when thieves stole a relic from a New York church. Profaci mobsters recovered the relic and, the rumor says, strangled the two thieves with rosaries. (This has been proven not to be true, but the fact so many believed it for so long, might say something about Profaci's nature.)

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.

Fat Tony, on his deathbed, ordered a hit.

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-time Cosa 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."

Frank 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.)

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.

Rather than regale you with his life story, some 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.

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."

(Speaking of Castellano, John Gotti declined a priest's offer to meet. According to Peter Gotti, John Gotti's son, on a television interview, he watched his father turn down an offer many other men in his shoes probably wouldn't have been able to refuse. He then expressed to Peter that he'd lived his life on his own terms, and was not about to go running to the church and be a hypocrite. There's something admirable in that. Can't such acts of integrity hold a deeper meaning beyond our perception? (A number of times, the bible uses phrases that basically mean: who is man to dare to try to understand the working of God's mind...? Which is what I tend to recall when listening to some Christian ministers pontificate and condemn others.... Benefits of 12 years of Catholic education.)

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...