Beach Books

Gangster Book Is More Vegetable Than Meat

The Beachcomber
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 23, 2013

In 2009, Marc Mappen – a former dean at Rutgers University then serving as executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission – and Rutgers University Press published a book titled There’s More to New Jersey Than The Sopranos.

It’s true, there is much more to the state than crime families real or imagined, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and exits off the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. New Jersey truly was the “Crossroads of the American Revolution.” The New Jersey Hall of Fame, founded in 2008, has inducted the likes of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Clara Barton, Buzz Aldrin, Toni Morrison, and Norman Schwarzkopf – and they were just part of the inaugural class.

Mappen and Rutgers University Press should therefore be congratulated for such a book, which uncovered some bits of Jersey history, lore and legend that might not be familiar to most readers. But why, oh why, did they follow it up this June with Prohibition Gangsters?

Mappen is now retired, but in the prologue of his new book he soon proved that you can take the man out of academy but you can’t take academy out of the man:

Cultural observers often speak of generations that share common experiences. Consider, for example, the Lost Generation that came of age in World War I, their Greatest Generation offspring who went on to win the Second World War, and their self-centered children who comprise the Baby Boom generation. More recently, pop culture analysts have identified Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, and the Millennial Generation. Traditionally, a generation is reckoned as a twenty-five year span; anybody born in those years is considered a member of that generation. … This book applies a generational perspective to the gangsters of the Prohibition era, men born in the quarter-century span roughly from 1880 to 1905, men who came to power with the Eighteenth Amendment when most were in their twenties. Virtually all were dead by the end of the twentieth century. This collective biography shows how these men were affected by the forces in the larger society, such as morality, immigration, economic conditions, and government crackdowns, and what befell them as the decades unwound.

Sounds like a rather intellectual exercise would follow, right? Maybe some figures showing how many immigrants were flooding into the country; perhaps some chapters exploring the nation’s internal migration from country to city; certainly some pages dedicated to the labor movement. In other words, Mappen would surely study that “larger society” as well as the gangsters. After all, it would make sense that one would have to understand the “market,” America’s insatiable thirst, to understand the bootleggers and mobsters who supplied that market.

Fortunately, Prohibition Gangsters did not turn into an academic treatise. Unfortunately, it turned out to be little more than a collection of short biographies of Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond, Waxey Gordon, Lucky Luciano, etc. Oh, to make its connection with New Jersey (because Rutgers University Press says in its mission statement that among other things it publishes “books of scholarly and popular interest on the state and surrounding region”), a chapter dealing with a meeting of top mobsters in Atlantic City called “Gangsters in the Surf” is included.

As a young teen, I devoured biographies of gangsters. Alas, there was very little in Prohibition Gangsters I hadn’t already read 45 years ago.

Oh, I hadn’t known that Al Capone had been imprisoned before being sent away for income tax evasion.  When the most notorious crime boss left the aforementioned gangster summit in Atlantic City, he was arrested in Philadelphia for carrying a concealed weapon and, within a mere 16 hours, was lodged in prison for a one-year term (a little quicker than the Jody Arias trial, eh?). In the end he served ten months.

Mappen speculates Capone may have wanted to be jailed for a bit – apparently he wanted to escape the “vengeance of rival gangsters.” At any rate, many books leave the impression that Capone could never be touched by the law until it used the failure-to-pay-taxes angle, and it was good that Mappen straightened out that issue.

This book also introduced me to a gangster who made his fortune not from illegal booze but a vegetable:

Another Italian racketeer was Ciro Terranova, a puffy-faced Mafioso who controlled the New York market for artichokes, a vegetable much desired by Italian households because it was a main ingredient in minestrone soup. The enthusiasm for this vegetable may have also had something to do with an ancient Italian belief that artichokes had an aphrodisiac effect… The stool pigeon Joseph Valachi later explained Ciro’s racket this way: “The way I understand it he would buy all the artichokes that came into New York… Being artichokes, they hold; they can keep. Then Ciro would make his own price, and as you know, Italians got to have artichokes to eat.”

I didn’t know! Although Ciro and his brothers branched out into other avenues of crime, his mainstay remained artichokes, and it was a good business. “He accumulated,” wrote Mappen, “enough money to purchase a $52,000 home in the Westchester town of Pelham.”

Some interesting stuff, for sure. But there wasn’t enough of it to make Prohibition Gangsters a truly informing read.

So, what is the purpose of this book? It introduces very little new information and it doesn’t come close to being the sociological study Mappen promised. It has only a tenuous connection with the Garden State. And I must disagree with author Nicholas Gage, who said on the dust cover that, “As chronicled by Marc Mappen, the true, violent, and extravagant lives of these men make dramatizations like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ look tame by comparison.” Sorry, but I’d recommend borrowing the DVDs of “Boardwalk Empire” or, for that matter, “The Sopranos,” from the library long before I’d recommend taking out this book. Mappen’s writing style is far from boring, but it is far from dramatic.

Plus, I’m not certain that the generation born from 1880 to 1905 would have appreciated being defined by mobsters any more than I, a Baby Boomer, was happy to be called self-centered.

What is up with Rutgers? In 2011 the University paid Snooki of “Jersey Shore” fame $32,000 to appear on campus – $2,000 more than author Toni Morrison received to deliver that year’s commencement address. Publishing a book about gangsters instead of, oh, printing a biography of one of so many truly influential Garden State residents in history seems to be the Rutgers University Press’ Snooki moment.

If RUP wants to help preserve the country’s general perception that New Jersey and mobsters go together like love and marriage, why not go all in and reinforce the idea that the Garden State is nothing but a turnpike/parkway, and sell it only at rest stops?

Rick Mellerup is a writer for The SandPaper and a long-time actor in community theater.

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