Chapter 2: The New Orleans Mafia
What was your role in the New Orleans Mafia, and how did that come about?
As instructed, we met with Sam the Banana Man that next Monday morning. He was a Russian immigrant who bought ripe bananas from the United Fruit Company and delivered them to market before they went bad. The United Fruit Company could make money selling green bananas to grocers, but ripe bananas would go bad too quickly for the grocers. The Banana Man found that he could sell the ripe bananas to neighborhood grocers in the Quarter for a bargain price and still make a profit. He made millions. In fact, he made enough money to buy his own ships to import his own bananas. He became one of the wealthiest men in the world.
We delivered bananas by day, and worked for Silver Dollar Sam at night and on weekends. At first, we followed him around officially serving as his bodyguards, but in reality we were students in Silver Dollar Sam’s School for Mobsters. We learned that there was an order to things; a hierarchy, that must be respected at all times. People who stepped out of line often bought a one-way ticket to a swamp tour. I recalled how my mother had tried to prepare me to respect men such as Silver Dollar Sam and Don Matranga. Sicilian traditions carried on in America and were to be taken seriously. Silver Dollar Sam gave us small responsibilities to test our skills and decision-making abilities. We were given territories in the French Quarter to collect protection money.
We collected from every business in our territory, or “turf,” on behalf of Don Matranga. It was easy because proprietors had grown accustomed to making such payments. Nevertheless, we had to get rough on some occasions. When this happened we usually notified Silver Dollar Sam and he would send a team of much bigger goons to get physical, but sometimes Carlos and I would have to do it ourselves. Carlos loved that part of the job.
Passage of the Volstead Act that prohibited the sale of alcohol changed everything for us. New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana did not support prohibition. The Don’s clubs, gambling houses, and brothels needed alcohol to keep tourists and local patrons coming. It became our job to help keep the booze flowing in the Quarter. We also worked with restaurants, such as Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s, to sneak booze to them and to devise methods of hiding inventory from the rare visits by federal officers. The local police and authorities were paid to look the other way, which may not have been necessary, because they were just as unhappy with prohibition as anyone…well, the Matranga family was actually happy about prohibition. Our incomes increased tenfold almost immediately in 1920 when booze could only be gotten from guys like us.
Carlos and I no longer had to collect protection money; we now had people reporting to us that did that. We made enough money that we were able to get our own apartments. I lived on Royal and Carlos had a place on Frenchmen.
Charlie’s Club on Bourbon Street belonged to the Don. Strippers danced and entertained men on the first floor. Upstairs, men could go all the way, if they had enough cash. Carlos and I met there one night after receiving a call from Joe, known as “the fisherman.”
Joe explained that a patron had gotten a real beating a few weeks ago for refusing to pay after screwing one of the girls, and he had returned tonight. “He’s drunk and fondling the girls, and I suspect he doesn’t plan to pay his bill. I tried to reach Silver Dollar Sam, but couldn’t find him, so I called y’all.”
Although Carlos was known as “the little man” in the family, no one who wasn’t like us—in the family that is—dared to call him that to his face. He may have been little, but he was tough and had a very short fuse. He was born in Tunisia, but he was 100 percent Sicilian and he had the temper to prove it. Because we worked for Don Matranga, people begin to say that we were connected, even made men in the Matranga family.
The truth is, we never confirmed or denied our status as made men, but it was beneficial to our health and well-being to be known that way. In fact, I never went through any type of initiation, swore an oath, or anything like that.
Only the occasional redneck tourist who had no idea what being a made-man meant dared to challenge us. We had plenty of backup too. If I had to get rough with someone, Silver Dollar Sam had a crew of enforcers that would rush to my assistance. More than a few rowdies got a real beating for stepping out of line. But we didn’t have our usual backup this night, and this drunken redneck had no idea who we were. To make matters worse, he was huge. He looked like he might have been a riverboat hand or something like that.
I approached the big guy from behind, grabbed his shoulder, and turned him to face us. In a commanding voice, Carlos instructed him to step outside.
The belligerent redneck responded: “Who the fuck says so?” and then he raised the lower portion of his shirt to display a revolver tucked into his pants.
Carlos sprang into action by grabbing a beer bottle and smashing it over the redneck’s head. People screamed and ran for the exit. The redneck drew the gun and shot off a round. He missed Carlos, but the bullet struck one of the strippers. Instinctively I tackled him. Within moments Carlos and I had disarmed and subdued the drunken man. Joe and two of the club bouncers jumped in and helped drag the redneck into a back room of the club where we tied him securely to a chair. Bound and gagged, the man remained in the back room until Silver Dollar Sam arrived.
Upon hearing the story and learning that one of his girls had been injured, Silver Dollar Sam instructed us to beat the man unconscious and then transport him to one of the Don’s warehouses on Tchoupitoulas. Carlos did most of the beating and took pleasure in making the man suffer. Once the man was unconscious, Silver Dollar Sam injected him with heroin so that he would not wake on the trip to the warehouse. I hadn’t seen anything like this before but I have to admit it got my adrenalin flowing. We dragged the redneck through the club and out the front door so that everyone could see what happens to those who step out of line.
Once inside the warehouse, Silver Dollar Sam had one of his men who were there waiting for our arrival place the redneck on a meat hook and then ordered one of his goons to cut him into small pieces with a saw. My excitement turned to disgust. This was the most gruesome thing I had ever seen—up until that time.
Afterward, Silver Dollar Sam ordered us to pack the bloody body parts into a crate that was loaded in the bed of a truck. Several miles outside of the city, deep into the marshes, we dug a hole where the body parts were dumped. Silver Dollar Sam had us cover the body parts in lye before the burial. Silver Dollar Sam explained that the lye helped to accelerate the process of decaying.
We were now part of the inner sanctum of the Matranga crime family, and Carlos had become the favored protégé of Silver Dollar Sam. We didn’t have to deliver bananas any more.
In the days and weeks that followed, relatives of the departed redneck came to New Orleans seeking clues as to what had happened to their loved one. His name was Ted Conway. They went door to door telling everyone that he had disappeared without a trace. No one in New Orleans would dare implicate anyone connected to the Matranga family in his disappearance. The more the family searched, the more people heard about the incident. Our reputations grew as being men to respect and to fear.