7 Ways the Mafia Made the U.S. a Better Place: 'Renegade History'

Recently by Thaddeus Russell: Why I Got Fired From Teaching AmericanHistory

Imagine an America without jazz. Imagine an America in which alcohol is still illegal. Imagine an America without Broadway, Las Vegas, or Hollywood. Imagine an America with no racial integration or freedom to be gay in public. In my new book, A Renegade History of the United States, I show that all you have to do is imagine American history without organized crime … Here are 7 ways that gangsters made America a better place:

By the end of the 19th century some 300 Sicilian mafiosi controlled substantial portions of the New Orleans economy, most significantly the many brothels, saloons, and nightclubs that defined New Orleans as the pleasure capital of the South. When respectable Americans shunned the new music called "jass" as black and criminal jungle music but many others demonstrated a willingness to pay to hear and dance to it, New Orleans gangsters happily made it their business. The first buildings in which the music eventually renamed "jazz" was played professionally – brothels in the Storyville district near the French Quarter – were owned by Sicilian mobsters. In 1917, a teenaged Louis Armstrong received his first wages for playing the trumpet at a tavern owned by Henry Matranga, leader of the Matranga family and arguably the most powerful criminal in the early 20th-century United States. Armstrong and the other black inventors of jazz such as Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, and Joe Oliver also received their first pay from George Delsa, manager of Anderson’s Rampart Street café, one of the first clubs to feature jazz, who used his Mafia connections to protect the club and the prostitutes who worked there from the police.

In Chicago and New York, Italian and Jewish gangsters operated many of the most important early jazz clubs. Al Capone, who controlled several of the clubs in Chicago that introduced jazz to mainstream audiences, was an aficionado of the music and was the first to pay performers a better than subsistence wage. Mob-owned clubs on State Street in Chicago employed the musicians who made jazz a national phenomenon, including bands fronted by Armstrong, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman. According to one performer, "the worst places on State Street always had the best music." The same was true in New York City, where, according to one jazz musician, the clubs where the music was being invented rather than just performed for mainstream audiences were "run by big-time mobs not tramps . . . who had a way of running them better than anyone else."

According to the scholar Jerome Charyn, "There would have been no ‘Jazz Age,’ and very little jazz, without the white gangsters who took black and white jazz musicians under their wing."

Organized criminals were primarily responsible for making Prohibition the most spectacularly unsuccessful moral reform movement in American history. Beginning on January 16, 1920, the day the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect, rumrunners employed by Italian and Jewish crime syndicates delivered liquor all along the coasts of the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico. In the North, giant sleds carrying cases of liquor were pulled across the border from Canada. Thanks to these efforts and the overwhelming desire of Americans to drink, consumption of sacramental wine jumped by 800,000 gallons during the first two years of Prohibition. Speakeasies, many of which were owned by criminals, could be found in every neighborhood in every city in the country. In Manhattan alone, there were 5,000 speakeasies at one point in the 1920s. Women, who had been barred from most saloons before Prohibition, were welcome in speakeasies and became regular customers. When a rumrunner boat escaped a Coast Guard ship off Coney Island one summer day, thousands of people on the beach stood and cheered.

Very few people were more important in the development of Broadway as an entertainment center than Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein, a man credited with turning organized crime into big business (and a major character in the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire). Rothstein gained massive wealth first by investing in speakeasies, underground casinos, and horse tracks, then by gambling on poker games, horse races, and sporting events (including the 1919 World Series) that he "fixed." In the 1920s Rothstein moved into bootlegging and narcotics trafficking and by 1927 was considered to be in control of virtually the entire U.S. drug trade. Along the way, Rothstein, whose unofficial office was Lindy’s restaurant at 49th Street and Broadway, invested heavily in the burgeoning musical theater industry in midtown Manhattan. He financed the opening of several venues, including the famous Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street, as well as various productions that brought tens of thousands of patrons to Broadway and helped establish it as the first entertainment capital of America.

Today the most visited tourist destination in the United States, the Strip in Las Vegas, would be just a street in the desert were it not for gangsters. As with other illicit but popular amusements, gambling was first made profitable by those who most thoroughly disregarded social norms. In the 1930s, Meyer Lansky, leader of a Jewish crime organization known as the Syndicate, controlled more gambling operations in the western hemisphere than anyone, with major casinos in Miami, Saratoga Springs, NY, and Havana, Cuba. Then he set his sights on a dusty little town in Nevada with a population of about 10,000. In 1945, Lansky broke ground in Las Vegas for what would become the Flamingo hotel and casino. He handed over the operation to Bugsy Siegel, a rising star in Lansky’s syndicate and a prominent playboy who headed the mob’s operations in Los Angeles. Soon, the Flamingo became the foundation on which Las Vegas as we know it was built. The Syndicate essentially invented what is known as the "complete experience" resort. Instead of limiting its offerings to just a casino and simple accommodations, as had been the norm until then, the Flamingo staged spectacular theater productions and featured lavish rooms and massive swimming pools. Guests had no reason to ever leave the grounds. From then on, the hotel proved a smashing success, encouraging the Syndicate to devote much of its resources to building more resorts along the Strip. By the middle of the 1950s the Strip was lined with hotel-casinos, most of which were owned and operated by professional criminals, and Las Vegas was made.

Soon after he invented the motion picture camera and projector, Thomas Edison formed his own movie production and distribution company. In 1908, Edison joined with nine other film companies to form the Motion Picture Patents Company, a monopoly that attempted to control the making, distribution, and showing of all movies in the United States. Edison and "The Trust" pledged to make only movies that promoted wholesome, Christian, and "American" values. But on the Lower East Side, a group of entrepreneurial Jewish immigrants used Edison’s inventions to produce and screen their own films, which were shown in thousands of nickelodeons – five-cent movie theaters – in working-class neighborhoods all over the country. These "outlaw" filmmakers started out as vaudeville and burlesque promoters, and many of their movies were sexier, more violent, and far more entertaining than the bland fare put out by the Edison monopoly.

The great inventor was furious that "Jewish profiteers" were stealing his patent, getting rich from it, and using it to spread "smut" across America. So too were law enforcement officials. In 1907 a judge in Chicago wrote that the nickelodeons "caused, indirectly or directly, more juvenile crime coming into my court than all other causes combined." Shortly thereafter the Chicago city council passed an ordinance granting power to the chief of police to censor motion pictures played in the city. In New York in 1907, soon after the police commissioner recommended that nickel shows be wiped out entirely, Mayor George McClellan was so moved by the evidence of immoral motion pictures polluting the minds of his citizens that on Christmas Day he ordered that all of the illicit motion picture houses be shut down.

Moral condemnations and court injunctions didn’t stop the proliferation of nickelodeons that showed unseemly fare and violated Edison’s patent, so the inventor and his colleagues hired squads of thugs to shut them down. They seized film, beat up directors and actors, forced audiences out of theaters, smashed the nickelodeon arcades and set fire to entire city blocks where they were concentrated. But fortunately for the Jewish renegades, they lived and operated in neighborhoods where hundreds of soldiers stood ready and able to protect them – men like "Big" Jack Zelig, "Lefty Louie" Rosenberg, "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, Joe "The Greaser" Rosenzweig, and the leaders of the notorious Yiddish Black Hand, Jacob "Johnny" Levinsky and "Charley the Cripple" Vitoffsky. There were even women ready for the fight – fierce, well-armed "gun-mols" like Bessie London, Tillie Finkelstein, Birdie Pomerantz, and Jennie "The Factory" Morris.

Cameras, projectors, film, and sound equipment disappeared from the storerooms of Edison companies and showed up on makeshift movie lots on the Lower East Side. Bullets rained down on the Trust’s enforcers from the rooftops of nickelodeons. And massive fires destroyed the Edison distributors’ warehouses in the Bronx, Philadelphia, and Chicago. By 1915 the Trust had disbanded and the outlaw filmmakers moved west, where they could make bigger and better movies. Who were the men who, with the help of their nicknamed friends, fought Thomas Edison and the law and won? They were Marcus Loew of Loews Theatres and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, William Fox of Twentieth-Century Fox, and the brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner.

From the colonial period through the early 20th century, the less "respectable" a saloon, brothel, or dance hall was, the more likely it was to allow the mixing of races. This was especially true of establishments owned by criminals.

An early and notable example was the tavern in colonial New York City owned by John Hughson – a thief, smuggler, and member of a gang of slaves, free blacks, prostitutes, and other criminals. Hughson’s tavern, near the site of what became the World Trade Center, was, according to court records, one of many low-class businesses that gave free and enslaved blacks a place "to resort, and be entertained privately (in defiance of the law) at all hours." A group of slaves who were regular customers at the tavern regularly bought and sold stolen goods with Hughson. They called themselves the Geneva Club, and they probably began one of the first and largest slave revolts in America.

In March of 1741, a fire swept through the New York governor’s house and Fort George on the southern tip of Manhattan. One week later, the home of Captain Peter Warren of the British Navy caught fire. Over the next month, houses, stables, and warehouses went up in flames across the city. Substantial evidence linked the fires to the members of the Geneva Club, all of whom were hanged or burned at the stake for plotting the rebellion.

In the mid-19th century, places called "concert saloons" gained popularity in cities across the U.S. Concert saloons – which by the end of the century were among the most popular sites of public socializing and entertainment in the country – offered liquor, music, dancing, and sex for sale. Many of the concert saloons in big cities were owned by criminals or African Americans or both, and most were known to host racially mixed clientele.

Brothels were also incubators of cross-racial relations. During the height of Jim Crow, the period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when lynchings were weekly events, countless thousands of black men had sex with white women with impunity in brothels. Police and moral reformers frequently reported on the high incidence of interracial sex in brothels. Especially common were "black and tans," which employed white and black prostitutes and catered to white and black customers. In big western cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the typical brothel contained not just black and white prostitutes but also women from China, Japan, Mexico, and all parts of Europe. There were Jewish madams and Italian madams and Cherokee madams. Chinese and Mexican madams controlled much of the commerce in early San Francisco and Los Angeles. There were many wealthy, powerful, and famous madams who had been born into slavery.

And then there were the dance halls that became all the rage in the 1910s and 1920s. Most were owned by Jewish or Italian immigrants, many of whom were affiliated with Jewish or Italian crime syndicates. The mixing of races in the dance halls was so prevalent that the Ku Klux Klan, which reached a membership of nearly 5 million by the middle of the 1920s, devoted much of its energy to destroying them. In hundreds of towns and cities where the Klan had organizations, it conducted campaigns against dance halls, which they called "vile places of amusement." They lobbied local governments to regulate or shut down dance halls and often, when that wasn’t successful, they burned them down.

Though famous for their ultra-masculinity, gangsters were nonetheless instrumental in fostering and protecting the gay subculture during the hostile years of World War II and the 1950s. Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino, leaders of the largest and most powerful crime families in New York, began investing in gay bars in the early 1930s.

By the 1950s, most of the gay bars in New York were owned by the mob. Because of the mafia’s connections with the police department and willingness to bribe officers, patrons of mob-owned bars were often protected from the police raids that dominated gay life in the 1950s. The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village had been a straight restaurant and a straight nightclub for many years when it was purchased in 1966 by three associates of the Genovese family and converted into a gay bar.

Many of the Mafiosi who managed the Stonewall and other gay clubs were themselves gay. The Stonewall’s manager was a man named Ed "The Skull" Murphy, a lifelong hood and ex-convict who chose to work as a bouncer at many of New York’s first gay clubs because he found it an easy way to meet and have sex with men. Murphy was also known for his fondness for black and Latino men, which contributed to the Stonewall’s reputation as the most racially diverse bar – gay or straight – in New York City.

The famous raid on the Stonewall in 1969 that gave rise to the Gay Liberation movement was actually part of a federal sting operation directed at the mob. The New York Police Department was not notified of the operation until the last minute, when it was forced by federal officers – who, unlike the city cops, were not on the mob payroll – to conduct the raid. Over the next decade, Murphy and the Genovese family funded the Gay Pride marches that became annual, international demonstrations of sexual freedom, and Murphy rode the route every year in an open-top car wearing a crown and a sash that declared him "The Mayor of Christopher Street."

November 25, 2010