The Mafia I knew
By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
This is Mr. La Sorte's first contribution to AmericanMafia.com
We are proud to bring it to you.
Endicott, NY, was founded in 1900 by the Endicott Johnson Shoe Co. Behind the factory complex was a hill that became the residence of the immigrant shoe workers. That neighborhood was called the Nob. For the native-born Endicotters it was definitely the wrong side of the tracks. The immigrants on the Nob, especially the Italians, were viewed with suspicion and fear. Perhaps some of that fear was exaggerated, but not all of it. There was a group of men that made up the Mob on the Nob that engaged in a variety of illegal activities, including gambling, extortion, prostitution as well as threats to legitimate enterprises.
In the 1950s, Endicott was a village of 20,000, part of the Tri-Cities, including Johnson City and Binghamton. Six miles from Endicott, on the opposite bank of the Susquehanna River, was the hamlet of Apalachin. Outside of Apalachin, overlooking the Susquehanna valley, a man named Joe Barbara owned a 130-acre farm estate (625 McFall Rd.). On that farm he had a resident farm tenant, nicknamed Slim, whom I got to know quite well. The family residence was a large 12-room fieldstone house. Joe lived there with his wife, Josephine, a daughter and two sons, Joey Jr. and Petey. Behind the house was a building with a 40 by 28 foot great room filled with comfortable sofas and upholstered chairs. On the left of the house was an impressive barbecue area.
In Endicott Joe was known as a legitimate businessman, the affluent owner of a beer distribution and soft drink bottling plant, situated two blocks from my house. His fleet of trucks served the needs of the Tri Cities and beyond. Few in Endicott were aware of Joe's previous life. To most he was a hard-working immigrant who had made good. That he was. He also was, as we say, "connected" to the underworld. The exact nature of that connection in the old days and what it remained in the 1950s is even today a question of debate. Much has been assumed but little has been proven. Had he continued to be active in the underworld? I have my doubts. Whatever the case after settling in Endicott he did have some kind of ongoing relationship with the upper echelon of what we call today the Mafia. This rather precarious balancing act that Joe was effecting, as both legitimate businessman and mob affiliated, was in 1957 to be brutally exposed.
What happened at Joe's house on Nov. 14, 1957, became known as the Big Barbecue or the Mobfest. That morning state and federal officers blocked the entrance to the Barbara estate and rousted out a large number of mob figures from several cities who were meeting and feasting in the great room. Josephine, seeing the police vehicles from her bedroom window, ran to the great room to alert her husband. What happened next resembled a Keystone Kops comedy. Rather than remaining calm, the men, not wanting to be identified, ran to their cars, while others scattered to the nearby fields and woods. An unknown number made a clean getaway. Of those, two got to a neighboring house and asked the housewife to use the phone to call a cab. When questioned later, the woman adamantly refused to believe that the men were criminals. "Dangerous!" she said, "I don't believe that. They were such well-dressed gentlemen, polite and soft-spoken.
Why they even offered to pay for the phone call." Another escapee managed to flag down a delivery truck.
Barbara did not want the meeting at his house. He had premonitions of disaster. It had been said that even though he was paying off the police to look the other way their continued surveillance made him nervous. The police had sniffed out rumors that there had been a meeting at the house the year before. Some wanted the 1957 meeting to be in Chicago. But Stefano Magaddino, the Buffalo boss, to whom Joe was indebted, insisted on Apalachin, and would not take no for an answer. He felt that Apalachin was the perfect place for the meet. Joe was a great host and his place was suitably isolated and remote. And the boys could commune with nature, after ingesting 330 pounds of prime beefsteaks that Joe had on hand for the barbecue. Fifty-eight men were caught in the police net. They were taken to the police barracks where they gave their names and addresses, took off their shoes and emptied their pockets. $300,000 in cash was counted. When asked what they were doing, they all said they just happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to visit their good friend Joe, who had been ill and was recuperating.
The Justice Department brought conspiracy charges against twenty of the men, although clearly solid evidence was lacking. In a trial at nearby Owego, in January of 1960, the men were convicted of conspiring to commit perjury and given lengthy jail sentences. That November the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned all the convictions on the grounds that no illegal activity had been proved. The Court stated: "Their conviction for a crime which the government could not prove…cannot be permitted to stand." The men had been taken into custody, detained and searched without probable cause that a crime had been committed.
There are two explanations of how the cops knew about the Apalachin meeting. This is what a now retired state police officer said in 2002. On the day before the meeting he and another officer were investigating a bad check complaint at a motel in nearby Vestal when Barbara's son Joey walked in. They overheard Joey reserve a block of rooms for what he called a convention of Canada Dry beverage distributors. Joey charged the rooms to his father. The police then moved fast to establish their plan.
The other explanation has a certain gangland appeal as it involves a mob internecine power struggle created when Albert Anastasia, a NYC crime boss, was assassinated in a barbershop on the 25th of October, 1957. Vito Genovese, another NY boss, called for the meeting. Vito, it is said, masterminded the Anastasia hit and now saw an opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum. Genovese was an ambitious man, some thought ruthless, who had delusions of grandeur and wanted to ascend to the position of Boss of all Bosses (capo di tutti capi). There was turmoil in the ranks, in part created by Vito, who had stepped on a number of underworld toes. The state police, the story goes, received an anonymous tip to keep an eye on Joe's place because a big meeting was going down. And that tipster was the long time syndicate boss Meyer Lansky. Meyer was peeved at Vito. They had been fighting a low-grade war. How better to discredit Genovese then to have his party rained on. Certain rumors of impending problems were circulating in the underworld and that is why some who were invited stayed away.
Let's go back briefly to the 1920s and 30s to understand how the Italians rose in the rackets to assume in NY a dominant position over the Irish and Jewish gangs. For our purposes our story begins in a fishing village in NW Sicily called Castellammare, one of many along the gulf of the same name. Barbara was born there in 1905. A significant number from that area arrived in the 1920s partly as a result of the Mussolini crackdown on the Sicilian mafia, a police action that imprisoned 1000s and forced others to flee to the more fertile America. These Castellammaresi settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Buffalo, Penn., Ohio, Detroit, as far west as Chicago. They were part of a Sicilian subculture called the Tradition. These men of honor, which included some from the educated middle-class, had a code of conduct that had been hammered out over centuries of foreign oppression on an island that had seen its share of conflict and bad government.
The Italian boss in Brooklyn, in the 1920s, was called Masseria, a forceful man to be reckoned with. He was of the older generation of immigrants, pre-World War I. He and those like him were called Mustache Petes. They were of older vintage, crusty men, set in their ways, who had carried Sicily with them to the United States. Masseria became concerned about the growing boldness and increasing numbers of Castellammaresi. The upstart newcomers, in return, viewed the Mustache Petes as hopelessly out of date and wanted them out. The result, in 1930, was the Castellammaresi war with Masseria summarily removed and the new generation taking over. They included men like Joe Bonanno, who had been a schoolmate of Joe Barbara. This modern Mafia, which evolved in the 1930s, had two architects, the gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. The two were bosom buddies who as youngsters were to come out of the mean streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side to become the Mafia moguls of that era. Their reshaping what they called the Syndicate or Commission as an business enterprise with a corporate structure, combining Irish, Jewish and Italian racketeers, was a watershed event in organized crime history.
Thus began the Americanization of the Mafia and with that process a new organized crime culture. The Tradition brought from the Old Country, which included the values of honor, respect, family and especially the code of silence, began to erode and to be replaced by American capitalistic values, mainly individualism, greed and the fast buck. The FBI has gone so far as to suggest that this breakdown of the Tradition caused mob bosses so much concern that young Mafia wannabes were sent to Sicily for toughening up, a kind of Mafia boot camp. Apparently it did not do much good.
Barbara arrived in NY in 1921 as a teenager. According to the official record, he left NY because of trouble and went to Buffalo to serve as an enforcer. The Buffalo boss, Magaddino, a cousin of Bonanno, was a major player with interests in Western New York, Ohio, Penn., and into Canada. Barbara was a shadowy figure. He had in his youth been investigated for killings that had connections with both narcotics and bootlegging during Prohibition. Throughout his life, Joe was convicted of only one crime, the acquisition of 300,000 pounds of black market sugar during WW2. He was fined $10,000. It was with that conviction that the local police became aware of him. Despite his lack of access to sugar, Joe continued to bottle soft drinks. I remember sampling some of that product. It was awful.
My father referred to Joe using the term highwayman. Father told me that Joe moved to Endicott from Scranton in 1926, the same year he arrived. Joe may or may not have committed homicide. Father suggested probably not, because there was another guy in the gang who took care of business. When Father mentioned his name, lo and behold I knew him. He was a salesman at Joe's bottling plant where I worked. He would come into the plant, say good morning to us and walked into the office. Well-dressed, solemn, dark complected, a Sicilian Moro, he was always very polite and correct in his manner. When I told Father, he said, Stay away from that guy. I had one occasion to deliver beer to his house. It was an ordinary place, nothing special about it, only I could not help but notice that the backyard was adjacent to the village cemetery. Father had an Italian grocery on the corner of Washington Ave. and North St. Across North was the main entrance to the E.J. shoe complex and across Washington was a corner cigar shop. Above that shop, Joe began his career in Endicott by setting up a house of prostitution. Joe would come into my father's store and that is how they first met. Father was very upset when Joe pursued and wed Josephine, who also shopped at the store. Father called her the most beautiful girl in town. He told me: I don't know how that thug did it, getting her.
In 1935, Father had his first brush with the Mob on the Nob. A man entered his store and said to him that the people he represented were moving into the milk business. From now on, Father was told, he was to buy the store milk from them. Father replied, No, thanks, I already have a milkman and he is a good friend of mine. A week later the man returned, this time with a more aggressive and threatening posture. Father had a long fuse, but on this occasion it burned short. He looked down on the little guy, I say little because Father was 6-4 and on a good day tipped the Toledos at 280 pounds, and told him that no one was going to tell him how to run his business. Father was worried, there was no doubt about that. He decided to turn to a friend, Zicari. I went to school with Zicari's son and later I knew Zicari as the night boss at the Barbara bottling plant. He was an amiable man with an easy-going affability. Zicari was to be caught up in the police raid at the Mobfest in 1957. He testified at the subsequent trial but was not indicted. In 1934, Zicari and a few others were arrested and convicted for falsifying documents. While Zicari served time, Father took care of his family. Now Zicari was to return the favor. Zicari told Father that his case was on the agenda for the next Mob on the Nob meeting. Father asked Zicari whether they meant harm. Zicari's reply was direct: You know who they are. Well, Father said, if they shoot at me, as big as I am they can hardly miss. At the meeting, Zicari told the men to lay off: he is a friend of mine, he won't budge, he doesn't scare, he won't take a kickback, he's an honest businessman. And that was that.
I was eleven years old when I first met Joe Barbara. My brother, Frank, and two of his friends were looking for summer jobs. They decided to try the bottling plant. I tagged along. We walked into Joe's office as bold as brass and told him we were ready to work. He looked at me and said, You want a job? Yes, I said. You think you can do a man's work? Absolutely, I said. After some gentle kidding around he gave us his blessing and we left. At age 16 I went back and began working.
Joe had a brother Charlie who was the office manager at the plant. He handled the cash money brought in by the drivers delivering beer and soft drink. Charlie and Joe were polar opposites. Charlie played by the rules-Joe played the rules. Joe dressed in sartorial splendor-Charlie wore dark suits, consistent with the Old Country. Joe was talkative-Charlie said little. Joe was charming-Charlie was bland. Joe pressed the flesh, bought bar drinks all around. Charlie was the consummate family man. Joe had frequent outbursts-I never saw Charlie get excited about anything. Needless to say, I never saw the two brothers together.
America did not make a dent on Charlie. When his daughter was ready for marriage, he got a boy from Castellammare to come over to marry her. I asked her what that was all about. She told me that Charlie did not trust American boys. You mean guys like me, I asked. Yes, she replied.
Charlie had his standards. One night I returned to the plant after a long day delivering beer. Charlie carefully counted the receipts. I was 50 cents short. Go back and get the 50 cents, he told me. Charlie, I said, I gotta drive 10 miles for a lousy 50 cents? That's crazy. Take the money out of my pay. Get the 50 cents, he repeated. I did.
You could never figure out Charlie. One time, Zicari's son and I held a college beer blast to raise money…for more beer blasts. We ran out of keg beer at 10 o'clock and were close to a riot. With some hesitation, we drove over to Charlie's house. He came to the door in his pajamas. Charlie, we said, we have a dire emergency. We need two kegs of beer to avert a disaster. He didn't say a word. He got his hat, we went to the plant, got the beer and drove him back. When I went to pay him, he waved me aside and closed the door. We arrived back at the busted beer blast amid a general acclamation.
Mr. Renda was one of Joe's associates. Renda died young, in the early 1930s, leaving behind two young boys, Christy and Joe. Mrs. Renda was mostly an absentee mother, letting her boys run wild. They teamed up with their father's unsavory friends. Christy was a chunky, happy-go-lucky kid with a ready smile. But with age he hardened. He ran a small crew of sour-faced men out of a furniture store on North St. that never sold a stick of furniture. Joe, by contrast, was tall and slim with a vulnerable personality. I met Joe in the 3rd grade and we became tight school chums. He dropped out of school, becoming a marginal figure, a night person, a loner, who gambled.
I lost track of Joe for several years until a chance encounter late one night in a bowling alley. He had just returned from operating a game on a carnival strip in Puerto Rico-- the kind where you knock down dolls with baseballs for prizes. Joe recounted his adventures in the underworld. The strip was mob-controlled, he told me, and the games were fixed. Each evening, at closing, two men came by to collect their cut. I asked Joe: Did you ever try to cheat them out of their percentage? That would have been a bad idea, he responded. Joe spoke in a patois I could barely comprehend. He got irritated when I kept asking what this or that word meant. Mike, he finally said, where have you been? I thought that one over for a minute, and then I said: In a different place, I guess.
The dolls could not be knocked down unless the guy behind the backdrop released them. One evening a drunk who was losing a substantial amount got angry and accused Joe of having someone behind the backdrop manipulating the dolls. Joe said: There's no one back there. The drunk said: We'll see, as he pulled out a pistol and shot into the screen killing the guy. What happened then? I inquired. Nothing, Joe said. And that was because the cops were being paid off. The mess was cleaned up nice and tidy.
Father constructed a large building in 1939. The A&P Co. moved in with a 30-year lease at $300 a month. The rising cost of living in the following years bit deeply into the investment until Father could barely meet expenses. He became increasingly unhappy and thought of unloading the building. Christy came forward and offered him $45,000 cash. I warned Father that he was about to be ripped off by Christy and his crew. But Father wanted out. To hell with it, he said. They can have it. Just as I expected, Christy turned right around and sold the property for $55,000, pocketing a sweet $10,000 profit. Poor Christy, he must have had a moment's crisis of conscience for pulling a fast one on the old man. He called and said, Look Mike, I made out pretty good. I want to give your dad a gift. We were to go to a mob store in Binghamton and pick out any TV we wanted. Not on your life, Father said, we are not going. I don't take anything from anybody. Oh yes we are, I said, as I packed him in the car. At the store Father pointed at the smallest TV and said: That's the one we want. No, no. I pointed to the largest TV and said: That's the one we want. The owner, who looked truly unhappy when we had walked in, now became really steamed. I stood my ground. What could he do? He had his orders from Christy. Finally the guy says: Take the damn thing. No, no, I said, you deliver it and do it this afternoon. Two years later when I returned home there was Father in front of his "mob" TV. Well Pa, I said, how do you like the TV? Great TV son, he said, but it isn't worth no $10,000.
Every summer Barbara gave a barbecue for his workers at the farm. That morning I drove with a coworker to set up the beer kegs. My co-worker thought he would play a little joke on Joe. We sold Gibbons and Trommers beer. On the spout of each keg was a glass ball that featured the name of the beer. So my dim-witted pal removed the Trommers ball and slipped on a Budweiser ball. Not a good idea, I warned him. As soon as Joe walked over to inspect our work, he spotted the offending ball. He blew a gasket and could be heard in the next county. We stood frozen to the spot. Hearing the racket, Josephine came out of the house. He turned on her and gave her some of the same. She didn't flinch. Who do you think your talking to, she said. I'm not one of your workers. Joe's transformation was immediate. Without a word, he turned and walked off. I replaced the Trommers ball and sped down the hill.
Mob bosses have high rates of coronary disease. Barbara was no exception. As Joe's condition worsened, Dr. Louis Borelli, his internist, called in my brother, Tony, who had moved to Binghamton to open his thoracic surgery practice. Tony examined Joe. Surgery was indicated. Here is Dr. Tony's description of that surgery in the spring of 1957.
"Evidently Joe had a history of previous coronary occlusions with resulting heart damage. Dr. Borelli told me there was scarring and some restriction in normal movement of the left ventricle of the heart. Joe was on heart medications for angina pectoris-taking nitroglycerine for chest pains due to restrictive blood flow to the heart. There were very few cardiac operations at the time to restore good coronary blood flow to the heart. One operation that was promoted was bilateral internal mammary ligation at the level of the second intercostal interspaces. The internal mammary arteries come off the subclavian arteries and are located alongside of the sternum on both sides. These arteries also give off branches to the heart. It was postulated that by tying off these small arteries at the second intercostal spaces would in effect backflow that blood to the heart. There was supporting research, of course. Many patients who had the procedure thought they had less angina pectoris. In the long run, the data indicated, there was a placebo effect. The operation had its heyday and then other procedures were introduced. Chances are that the placebo effect was the only benefit. Joe did claim he was helped greatly by the surgery."
Two days later Dr. Tony was making hospital rounds when in walks Vito Genovese. Vito was there to visit his good friend Joe and wanted to thank Tony for the successful surgery. He knew quite a bit about Tony's family and academic backgrounds, leaving the impression that Vito and others had passed on him. Vito earned his place in history two years later when he was serving time in the Atlanta penitentiary along with Joe Valachi, one of his soldiers. When Vito put a contract out on Valachi, he turned informer, testifying before a congressional committee and introducing the phrase La Cosa Nostra to the world.
In August, 1957, ten weeks before the Apalachin meeting, Barbara invited my father and Dr. Tony to one of his barbecues. Father fell into a conversation with Joe, who was in a state of irritation. His continuing association with the mob was getting on his nerves. He said: They want this from me. They want that. They keep pressuring me. I'm sick and tired of it. Well, Father said, why don't you get out? Get out? Joe replied. I got obligations. You don't say no to these people. Once you're in you're in for life.
Barbara remained a sick man. In early 1959 his physician told the State Investigation Commission that Joe was too ill to testify about the purpose of the Big Barbecue. The Commission had its own heart specialist examine him. In May, 1959, Joe was ordered to testify. One month later, in June, Don Giuseppe, as he was known to his associates, dropped dead, at age 55, of a massive heart attack. True to type, Joe took his secrets to his grave.
I didn't want to go to the funeral but my mother insisted. Mother never met a funeral she didn't like. It was her chance to socialize. The wake was held at the home of the Pezzolla family. Mrs. Pezzolla, a widow and a friend of Mrs. Barbara, gave her house over to the event. The police had cordoned off the streets around the house and the FBI photographed the mourners, of which there were few. I sat quietly next to Joey Jr. When I got up to leave, Joey leaned over and said: Mike, don't worry, we are coming back.
Joe Barbara's dream for his sons was that they would enter the professions. Petey, the youngest, was good in school. Joey was not. Concerned about Joey's less than stellar grades, Joe had gone to see my sister, Fran, who had Joey in class. Much to Joe's disappointment, Fran told him that Joey was not college material.
Joey grew up in normal fashion and did have promising athletic ability. He was a star tackle and co-captain of the Union-Endicott football team. One of his teammates was Ron Luciano who went on to become an All-American at Syracuse, was drafted by the Detroit Lions and later became a major league baseball umpire. He authored four bestsellers, including the autobiographical "The Umpire Strikes Back" in which he assesses his friendship with Joey.
After Barbara's death his business and property were sold and the family moved to Detroit. I soon found out what Joey meant by his cryptic last remark to me: We are coming back. It was evident the he had become a different kind of person. He was angry, frustrated, and revengeful, fully convinced that his father had gotten a raw deal. In 1962, Joey Jr. was initiated into the Detroit Outfit. He was sponsored by one of his father's former colleagues. He married the daughter of one of two brothers, both of them much older than Joey and longtime career criminals. Joey and the brothers formed an association called the Detroit Partners. The Partners founded the Tri-County Sanitation, a legitimate refuse collection business. The business prospered until Joey's fortunes took a turn for the worse. He was convicted of extortion in 1970 and served a seven-year prison term. The authorities dogged his steps until he was nailed a second time, in 1979, on income tax fraud and served another five years. Once released Joey learned the value of keeping a low profile. He severed his ties to the Detroit Outfit and now lives the quiet life.
Petey, who had dropped out of the Univ. of Buffalo because of his father's problems, did eventually earn a law degree. He was later to be disbarred. Their sister's engagement to an Endicott lawyer failed because of the adverse publicity. She later married and was divorced.
Over the past 40 years the former Barbara estate has changed hands a few times. Ideas for its use shifted back and forth. There was early talk of turning it into a Mafia theme park. That came to nothing. One of the many jokes in Endicott was that a mob rest home would be appropriate or even a religious retreat. As to why the state troopers staked out Joe's Big Barbecue, it was said they were peeved at not being invited, so they crashed the party. Finally, in August, 2002, the 150 items remaining in the house were put up for auction, with 1000 attendees vying for souvenirs, one of them a grandson of Joe Barbara. In March, 2003, Susan Deakin of Southport, CT, bought the property for $320,000.The horsewoman wanted, as she phrased it, "to get away from the hustle of Connecticut and just to have a quiet life." When asked if she planned any barbecues, she responded: Maybe, but I'll be very careful who I invite.
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