Chapter 3: Making My Bones
How did you advance in the Matranga Mafia family?
The following year, Carlos developed an idea to smuggle rum from Jamaica to New Orleans through the swampy marshes of Cajun country. The Matranga bootlegging operation was limited to distributing booze delivered to New Orleans by the Chicago outfit. Carlos shared his idea with Silver Dollar Sam, who presented the idea to Don Matranga. The Don reluctantly agreed to finance Carlos’s project, which allowed him to travel to Jamaica and Chicago several times during that year. I was envious. Despite Carlos’s request that I accompany him on those trips, I was ordered to keep things running in the Quarter.
Being Capo of the entire Quarter in New Orleans for the Matranga family was a lot of responsibility. The Quarter has always been the heart of New Orleans—hell, the heart of all of Louisiana, for that matter. The two biggest problems that I had to deal with were rednecks and niggers—ouch!
That pain in your head is the LEM reminding you that you cannot use that word. It’s against the law. You may refer to African Americans as such, or you may refer to them as being black.
Oh yeah. I forgot. You’ve got some really fucked up laws—no, wait. Forget that. I don’t need a reminder to not criticize the government. Anyway, as I was saying, Klansmen and blacks were my biggest headaches, no pun intended.
You see the city and the Mob had this arrangement. Tourism has always been important to New Orleans, and when someone gets robbed or molested in the Quarter it’s bad for business. That’s where the Mob came in. We could handle things in a way that the police never could.
One Saturday night, an African American forgot his place and came into the quarter. A confrontation with some out-of-town visitors got the attention of some of my associates, and the next thing I know I’m getting summoned to the warehouse on Tchoupitoulas. There he was, tied up, beaten up, and ready for the meat hook. Thing was, no one could find the meat hook for some reason.
It was my time to make my bones, and the guys were all looking at me. Carlos could tell that I didn’t want to do it, so he instructed another man to shoot the poor black kid in the head. Carlos instructed everyone there to congratulate me on making my bones. Everyone there swore to keep our secret.
Have you ever committed murder?
How did you become affiliated with the New York Mobsters?
Carlos's efforts paid off in 1922, which was an important year in our careers. Rumors circulated that Silver Dollar Sam was growing impatient with the Don's lack of ambition in the bootlegging operation and was pressuring him to step aside so the Family could maximize opportunities. Whatever the reason, Don Matranga retired and Silver Dollar Sam became the boss.
Carlos and I were officially declared top lieutenants in the family. Like I said before, contrary to local beliefs and Mafia traditions elsewhere, Carlos and I never participated in any type of ritual or swore an oath to obtain my position. It was years later, when Carlos became the boss in New Orleans, before such rituals were required of made men. He got that by copying New York families.
Before that, no one in the New Orleans Mafia needed to swear an oath of secrecy called omertà. Everyone connected knew the ramifications of being a rat. Besides, there was no one to rat to—the police and politicians from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and every small town around was either on the family’s payroll or looked the other way out of fear or admiration of Silver Dollar Sam.
For this same reason, bootlegging in Louisiana was easy and virtually devoid of violence. No one objected to the brothels or gambling houses that were operated in plain view, and bootlegging was actually supported by the populace and the police. Ships carrying rum from Jamaica and Cuba would be met by speedboats just beyond the territorial waters of the United States, which was only three miles out back then. Even with a full load of cargo, these speedboats were much faster than the coast guard boats patrolling the coastline. Furthermore, the coast guard boats were piloted by men who were unfamiliar with the waters of South Louisiana, which had many twists and turns. A dead-end bayou in the marsh looks just like an open river until it just simply and suddenly ends. Virtually every structure on the bayous and river in south Louisiana served as safe houses for bootleggers.
New Orleans became the point of entry for most of the booze entering the Gulf Coast of the United States from the Caribbean and Latin America. New Orleans received whisky and beer from Chicago by train and riverboats Carlos and I were charged with opening new markets for our booze. Soon we were supplying nearly all of the booze that was purchased in Louisiana, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mobile, and the Florida Panhandle to all the way to Panama City. We supplied east Texas to Dallas and parts of Arkansas with our rum.
By 1924, Carlos and I had earned more than a million dollars for the family. Of that amount, my split was about a hundred grand, which was a lot of money back then. Carlos bought an antebellum home on St. Charles in Uptown with his earnings, and I bought a home on Magazine in the Garden District. We bought our first cars.
That same year, the Don appointed Carlos as his underboss. Carlos made it a priority to promote our family’s standing among Mafia bosses in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere. He brokered territorial agreements with the bosses of St. Louis and Tampa. For me personally, the most important connection he made was with Chicago’s Al Capone.
Carlos arranged for Capone to visit New Orleans to see how we could expand our operations. He enjoyed the New Orleans cuisine and admired some of the gambling houses and brothels. I returned from Biloxi just in time to attend the meeting in Plaquemines Parish with Capone, Carlos, and Silver Dollar Sam. The local sheriff and two of his deputies guarded the entrance to the dirt road that led to the houseboat, where the meeting was held. Capone was impressed with our setup, especially the support from the local sheriffs and citizens.
We met at an old, run-down houseboat. When the Silver Dollar Sam, Carlos, and I arrived, we were greeted at the entrance to the long dirt road leading to the meeting place by the local sheriff, two of his deputies, and a half-dozen heavily armed guards dressed in business suits—Capone’s men. The sheriff recognized us and waved us to drive through the roadblock.
Upon stepping onto the tiny houseboat, we were instructed by one of Capone’s men to follow him to the other side of the boat where we met Al Capone. He was sitting in a rocking chair with his legs crossed, feet on the boat’s side handrail. It was the first time I had ever been in his presence, but when he saw me Capone seemed to know me and, to everyone’s surprise, called out to me: “Lucky?…What are you doing here?”
I was taken back. This was the infamous Al Capone. Even though Capone and I were the same age, he had climbed to the number two position with the most powerful crime family in Chicago. This was a much bigger deal than being the number three man in New Orleans. The outfit that Capone worked for was led by Johnny Torrio and had nearly two thousand soldiers. The entire Perini family consisted of barely one hundred soldiers. Our power over New Orleans was, in large part, the result of the misconception by many that we were much more than we were; and the exploits of men like Capone helped promote that perception in New Orleans. The story of how Capone had rigged the mayoral election in his hometown of Cicero had circulated throughout the French Quarter, especially in the Italian district. The story goes that the new mayor, once elected, publicly claimed that he was going to run Al Capone out of town, so Capone punched the new mayor in the face and knocked him down a flight of stairs in front of a crowd of reporters. The mayor never said a cross word about Capone afterward. Another tale that circulated among Italian American communities was that Capone had killed powerful, connected men, seemingly spontaneously, when he lost his temper. Supposedly, he called a meeting of his top capos and crushed one of the men’s skull with a baseball bat because he had made a mistake that Capone deemed serious.
Despite the fact that Carlos and I had witnessed gruesome murders committed by gangsters and participated in others, we were genuinely fearful of the Mafia families of Chicago and New York. We ruled New Orleans because it benefited them.
Capone seemed to be agitated by my presence, which was not a healthy situation. Instinctively, I looked behind me to see if he were addressing someone else, but there was no one else. He stood quickly, stepped past the Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos, and stood uncomfortably close to me. Carlos and I had been schooled by our Don, Silver Dollar Sam, as to the importance of showing respect to men of honor, like Capone; to always look made men in the eye, but never in a threatening way. Capone’s eyes were dark, and he wasn’t smiling. I’ve rarely been afraid of another man but I must admit this man made me nervous. This put me in a dangerous position. If I angered Capone I risked finding myself as alligator bait and if I showed my fear I risked embarrassing the family. Either way, I could be a dead man.
“I asked you a question,” he repeated in his New Yorker accent.
“He’s with me, Al. He is one of my most trusted men,” said Silver Dollar Sam.
Capone raised his right hand, as if to say to the Don, quiet, yet never taking his eyes off me—he stared straight into my eyes. I realized at that moment that we—the Perini family—were small time. We had thought we were big shots, running Louisiana like kingpins, but we were really just the same punks who as kids had scammed drunken tourists visiting the French Quarter. Al Capone was big time. He could squash us like bugs. Even Silver Dollar Sam, who had deposed the feared Don Matranga, did not verbalize his objection to being disrespected in front of his men by Capone.
“What’s the matter, Lucky, you can’t speak for yourself?” Capone asked.
“Like the Don said; I’m with him and The Little Man—the name is Johnny Cado,” I said as I offered a handshake. This is the only time that I ever called Carlos by his Mafia-given name—and later that evening he made me aware that he did not appreciate it in such a way that I never did it again.
Capone’s gaze changed and he appeared a little bewildered and less agitated. “Is this some kind of fucking joke? We had an understanding that New Orleans belongs to Chicago, not New York. Is this some type of power play? And what’s with this bullshit, Lucky? Why are you pretending to be someone else? And why are you talking with that fucked-up, bullshit, backwoods, redneck accent?”
“I don’t know what to say, Mr. Capone, I’ve never been to New York,” I said in a confident voice that was contrary to my true feelings.
Eager to save me, Carlos interrupted and spoke on my behalf: “With all respect, Al, he’s telling the truth—I’ve known him all of his life. He’s never been to New York.”
Silver Dollar Sam, recognizing Carlos’s accidental disrespect in calling Capone by his first name without permission, spoke up to save me and Carlos: “Mr. Capone, I vouch for Johnny. He is one of my men. He can be trusted.”
Capone grabbed my face by my chin and turned my head to each side so that he could examine me closely. To my great relief, he smiled and said: “Well, I’ll be damned. You could be Lucky Luciano’s twin, except for that coon-ass accent of yours—are you related to Charlie?”
At that time, I had never heard of Charles “Lucky” Luciano and said so.
Capone stepped back and turned to the Don saying, “I believe we have a remarkable look-alike.”
Then looking back at me, he said; “Lucky is too full of himself to ever call me sir or Mr. Capone. Where are you from?”
“New Orleans.” I replied.
“No, where are you from, originally?” Capone asked in Sicilian.
I replied in Sicilian: “I was born in Palermo, but moved to New Orleans with my Mother when I was ten.”
“Ah, very good,” said Capone.
“Now that we’ve settled that, can we talk business?” the Don asked also speaking in Sicilian.
Capone turned to the Don and said in English, “Sure, Silver Dollar. That’s what we are here for. But I have a feeling that this guy—Johnny, is it? Could be very valuable to my New York friends.”
The rest of his time with us, Capone referred to me as Little Brother and kept looking at me as if he were making plans for my future. As it turned out, he was doing that very thing.
Weeks later, I received instructions from the Silver Dollar Sam to meet him for dinner at one of New Orleans’s finest restaurants, Galatoire’s. The purpose of the meeting was a mystery to me and even to Carlos, who was the conveyor of the message from our Don, Silver Dollar Sam. My instructions were to be there at eight, but upon my arrival I was told by the hostess that my party had already been seated and that I was to join them. Seated at the table with Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos were the mayor of New Orleans, the chief of police, and two dapperly dressed men I had never seen before. There was one remaining chair, which was reserved for me.
Silver Dollar Sam smiled and welcomed me to join them: “Johnny, let me introduce you to our esteemed mayor and police chief, and two very important guests from New York, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky. Gentlemen, allow me to present Johnny Cado, also known as Little Brother."
This was a strange introduction, because the only person to have ever called me Little Brother was Al Capone. I shook the hand of each man, beginning with Silver Dollar Sam, then the mayor, who was dressed in an out-of-season, white linen suit, then the police chief, Colonel Molony. We didn’t refer to Silver Dollar Sam as the Don in front of anyone who wasn’t Italian. Next I shook the hand of Meyer Lansky. He was noticeably short, even smaller than Carlos, had a New York Jewish accent, and looked as if he were much younger than me. Lansky continuously stared at me as if he were looking at a ghost. Equally enamored by me was Costello. He, like Lanksy, wore a dark suit and tie, but he looked more sophisticated; maybe it was because he was a few years older, maybe five to ten years older than me, or maybe it was because his pin stripes were more pronounced. At the time, I had no idea how powerful, and dangerous, these men were to become—even more powerful than Al Capone, who was already infamous, at least in the Italian communities in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.
“Thank you for joining us for dinner, Johnny. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you ever since our mutual friend in Chicago told us about you,” Costello said with a deep, scruffy New York dialect and a hint of an Italian accent—but not Sicilian. Then he turned to Lansky and asked: “Whaddaya think, Meyer?”
“Remarkable,” Lanksy replied.
I took my seat and noticed that they had already eaten and there were three wine bottles on the table; two were empty. The waiter handed me a menu and filled my wine glass.
“Johnny, please order something to eat. We had other business to discuss before you arrived so we’ve already eaten, but don’t let that stop you,” Lansky said.
Carlos punched me on the arm and said, “You look good in a monkey suit.”
“I could say the same about you,” I said.
Carlos and I were street guys; as such weren’t accustomed to wearing formal attire, but such is a requirement to enter Galatoire’s. Then I noticed that Carlos was wearing an expensive three-piece suit—not a cheap second-hand suit like mine. I felt a sudden sting of envy and a slight feeling of betrayal. Carlos and I had grown up together as best friends and partners in crime. We were together always and had risen in the ranks together. We were thick as thieves—literally! Yet Carlos had been invited to attend an important meeting, from which I had been excluded, and apparently it was important to our Don, Silver Dollar Sam, for Carlos to dress as an important man—he had obviously prepared Carlos for this meeting, but he wasn’t concerned if I looked like a bum.
As I studied the menu, Colonel Molony began talking. “Like I was saying, the department has thirty-three automobiles and twenty-one motorcycles—”
The Mayor interrupted him to say: “And the department was nationally recognized this year as the only one in the entire nation thoroughly equipped for first aid in all of its bureaus and precincts.”
“That’s all very impressive,” said Lansky, but his eyes were still on me.
I placed my order; I believe it may have been veal piccata.
“I’m sorry for staring,” said Lansky to me.
“Yeah, me too,” said Costello.
“It’s just that you bear such an uncanny resemblance to a good friend of ours—Charlie Luciano—his friends know him as Lucky. Maybe you’ve heard of him?” Lansky continued.
“Only once, from Mr. Ca—”
“Shhh. Let’s just refer to him as our friend in Chicago,” Lanksy instructed me.
“No, I’m not familiar with your friend Charlie Luciano,” I replied.
Silver Dollar Sam politely explained to the mayor and the police chief that their business had concluded and that he had other matters to discuss with his guests from New York. The men thanked him for the delicious meal and for introducing them to Mr. Lansky and Mr. Costello. As they shook hands, Costello said to the mayor: “We will discuss Mr. Perini’s proposal with our partners, and if there is no conflict between our thing in New York and our agreement with the outfit in Chicago, we would be happy to work with you all in New Orleans.” My dinner was delivered just as the mayor and chief departed.
Lansky leaned forward with his elbows resting on the table and asked me: “Johnny, pardon me for asking, but how tall are you?”
“I’m five feet, ten inches. Why do you ask?”
Lansky explained that he was planning to have a party on New Year’s Eve and wanted me to come as his surprise guest, dressed as a Lucky Luciano look-alike. Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos were invited as well, but he made it clear that we were to tell no one because he wanted to surprise Lucky and the other guests with my appearance. Costello gave me a pen and note pad and told me to write down my clothing sizes so that they could have my wardrobe custom tailored to fit me. My envy of Carlos was beginning to wane, as Lanksy and Costello made me feel as if I were important.