By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
As Hercule Poirot would have said, “Ah, but my dear sir, the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point.”
And yet, the “why” is everything in this story.
In the 1990s, someone caught a yellow-cab in Manhattan, finished their journey and left the vehicle. History does not make it easy by giving us the dates and times.
It was winter and snowing, so probably in December or January. A man then hailed the driver near Radio City Music Hall on Sixth Avenue, in mid-town. When he left, at his destination, he took with him a large bag that the previous fare had somehow forgotten on the back-seat. At the least errant, in the worst case illegal-a theft of common property. For obvious reasons, details are scarce. The man and the bag disappeared into history.
The bag contained a large ring-binder containing over eight-hundred-pages, weighing close to three pounds. Not something easy to forget. Especially as it is the property of the federal government.
This is the first “why.”
The man who found the bag was involved with the film industry in Hollywood. We don’t know if he was based in New York or California. The temptation to steal the bag and its contents is obvious, but waiting years before doing something with it? That’s our second one. Another why.
The third revolves around the publication in 2007 of the massive tomb of a book simple called “Mafia.”
HarperCollins, the New York based publishers, had this to say when they released the files as a book in 2007:
“Some time in the early 1960s, during the golden age of organized crime in America—the era that would inspire The Godfather; Goodfellas, and even The Sopranos—federal investigators pulled every known piece of information on over 800 Mafia members worldwide into a thick, phone-book-sized directory. From old-school gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Mickey Cohen to young Turks like Paul Castellano and Vinny “The Chin,” Gigante, the guide offered at-a-glance profiles of small-time thugs and major dons alike... and was allegedly the book Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy used to investigate the mob.
Recently discovered, and published for the first time in this facsimile edition, Mafia is a treasure trove of info on the underworld in mid-century America—a revelatory artifact and an irresistible read.”
Rudyard Kipling once said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
This file collection review offers them in interesting effect to usurp the truth somewhat, selling a product which is simply a collection of mug-shots, collected over many years by The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and copies created by The Treasury Department, had been in circulation in the 1950s.
The government created the FBN in 1930. After many refits and name changes, we know it today as The Drug Enforcement Agency. They had been after the Mafia almost from day one. Like a dog with a bone, they just wouldn’t let go. Years before America’s premier federal police force, the FBI would even admit to its existence, the drug bureau knew who the bad guys were in the narcotic business. And they were not all in the secret society.
The Book of Mafia confirms this.
At least fifty copies of this giant catalogue were in circulation within the agency during the 1950s and early 1960s, showing a partial record of the many suspects tracked over the years by FBN agents.
Why Jewish drug-dealers and French traffickers along with Corsican gangsters appear in a book called “Mafia” is a conundrum, and our third why.
The hundreds of files offer a tantalizing look at the men who were organizing the spread of illegal drugs across America. And they seemed to be everywhere. Not just in big cities like New York or Chicago.
Luigi Gratto lists as the “most influential member of the Mafia in the State of Iowa.” Probably because he was the only one! There are five of them in Nebraska. Four in Baltimore, and one, Vincent Todara, is based in Herndon, in Fairfax County, Virginia, just down the road from the Capitol.
There are all the usual suspects as well. Men such as Carlo Gambino, Frank Costello (who probably is the least-likely drug trafficker imaginable,) Vito Genovese, who the bureau claimed to be a “financial backer for international narcotic smuggling,” Salvatore Lucania, aka Charley Luciano, Gaetano Lucchese, and on page one itself, Joseph Bonanno, the head of a New York crime family he claimed never touched drugs, but were in fact, one of the most active in the field, across the USA and Canada.
Each page lists a brief biography of a man of interest to the bureau. His name, aliases used, family details, residential addresses, lists of known associates, many of who cross-reference in the book, and almost always, a photograph taken at some stage of his criminal life. However, in the 843 pages, there are many missing an image. One of them is Calogero Orlando. Not only is he short of a photograph, he may also lack a purpose in this collection.
Was he, in fact, ever a part of the Mafia?
The omitted image and the details listed on his page lead us into a history of a man who was very much more than the sum of his parts. It’s possible he represents all of them, and yet none of them.
Born in April, 1906, he grew up in Terrasini, a small, sea-side town about twenty miles to the north-west of Palermo City, in Sicily. His father, Nicola, was a wholesale grocer, and for their times, the family was relatively well-off. In 1922, following the death of his mother, Francesca Bommarito, Calogero, then sixteen, travelling with his sister, Caterina, a year older, left Sicily from the port of Palermo aboard the ship, SS Patria, on August 12. Ten days later, their ship docked in New York. Described as five-three with a rosy complexion, he still had some growing to do.
The brother and sister were heading to Detroit to join their grandfather, Calogero Bommarito. There were members of the Detroit Mafia with this surname, but none seem to link into Orlando, who pops up on records aboard another ship, this one the SS Conte Grande, arriving in New York at the end of April 1929, so he’s come and gone and coming back to America. Now, he’s five-seven with a fair complexion. Growing done.
In 1934, living in Cleveland, the government grants him U. S. Citizenship. He marries Katherine Vaccaro in 1935 and they have two sons and a daughter. They live in Ohio and at some stage, California, and finally in New York.
By the time he makes entry into the Mafia Files, he’s living at 4549 Delafield Avenue in The Bronx, and his business office is at Orlando Food Co, 99 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan. His home is five beds, four baths, lots of luxury in an expensive neighborhood. Calogero has come a long way in the years he has lived in America.
He travels constantly by ship and aeroplane across the Atlantic Ocean, back and forth to Italy. A frequent traveller long before they coined the phrase. He’s a business owner of some success, import and export. Foods, fish, stuff in tins and containers, barrels and sacks. Great places to hide small packets of heroin. Which the FBN obviously thinks he is doing. Yet his life is barely smudged by only one arrest in 1932, which seems to have resulted in no kind of adverse verdict.
The law never arrests him for drug trafficking, yet he features in a collection of criminals who have.
Perhaps living in the hinterland of an illegal landscape, but maybe never actually crossing into it, Orlando certainly mixes with some shady characters. One of them is the infamous Charley Luciano, another is Frank “Three-Fingers” Coppola, and yet another Sicilian, two-years Orlando’s junior, and just as mysterious, Santo Sorge. The backstory of these three men alone could have easily filled the Mafia book with their history. In his many visits to Sicily, Orlando becomes friendly with and visits the mysterious Baron Di Stefano, who lives in exile, in The Grand Hotel et des Palms, in central Palermo.
He appears on the radar of Italian law enforcement for the first time, at least in print, when he is allegedly one of many suspects who gather in Palermo in the autumn of 1957 to attend a meeting in this hotel, and then enjoy a long and leisurely lunch that stretches for hours at a famous sea-food restaurant, called Spano, near the city’s waterfront.
These men from America and Sicily were here to create the backbone of a series of drug-cartels that would develop over the coming years and also to iron-out various problems involving their secret society.
This is according to Michele Pantaleone, a famous Sicilian journalist and author who specialised in organized crime. Comments made by mob boss, Joseph Bonanno, who admitted in his biography, that in October 1957, he had attended a lavish dinner with many friends and associates at the restaurant, seems to support Pantaleone’s findings which were published in one of his books, and in newspaper articles he wrote for the Palermo daily newspaper, L’Ora.
Struggling through the post-war years to really understand what the Mafia truly represented, Italian law efforts could easily match the analogy of pornography as determined by the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. In a landmark case in 1964, he claimed when asked to describe his test for obscenity, said “I know it when I see it.”
The Palermo Flying Squad, State Police and Carabinieri (military police) spent years tracking, tracing and occasionally arresting criminals linked by their oaths and gang fealty without fully understanding their local and international links. The cops knew something was wrong, they just didn’t really have a route finder to show them how bad it was, and how deeply ingrained Mafia influence had become. They knew it when they saw it, but almost always, what they saw was simply a confusion of events, suspects and victims that lead them down endless dead-ends.
In 1965, the Italian law went after Orlando. In a big way.
Arriving in Palermo with his wife, on a business trip, they booked into The Grand Hotel et Des Palms. In the early hours of August 2, six detectives from the Palermo Flying Squad burst into his room and arrested him. Held in custody, with no changes being brought, they finally released him from Palermo’s infamous Ucciardone Prison after over five months. The government officially deported him from his country of birth and he and his wife left Sicily in early February, presumably, never to return.
He claimed in interviews in 1966 as the American media investigated his arrest and detention:
“The order (to deport me) stated that my deportation was ‘urgent’ both because of his (Orlando’s) dangerous nature and because of the influence which his presence might exert in Italy in given circles characterized by particular forms of criminal activities; with grave consequent damage to public order.”
Following this chaotic episode in his life, Calogero appears to have disappeared from the scrutiny of the FBN.
At some stage later in life, he and his wife moved to Florida, and he died in Fort Lauderdale, in June, 1980.
Was he anything like his listing in the FBN files?
Cary Grant, the actor, once said, “We all find ourselves where we put ourselves.”
Wherever else Orlando went, he will forever be on page 557 of The Book of Mafia.
Rubik-cubing history is frustrating, even when some data is empirical and long-established. The ambient voice of the Mafia leaves us little to play with and plenty of endless suppositions.
On June 22, 2011, Bonhams of Madison Avenue sold the Mafia portfolio at auction for $10980.00.
James Finkle, a retired undersheriff from Essex, New Jersey, was the highest bidder. Ironically, a law-enforcement folder, essentially stolen in the first place, ends up in the hands of someone who had practised law and order as a profession.
If we all, as some believe, are born ready to die, and life is simply an interval between the opening and closing acts, how we fill that space determines the way history will judge us. Calogero Orlando seemed to do a pretty good job, and apart from two hiccups, in 1932 and 1965, kept a low profile and avoided the law, even though the Bureau of Drugs was on his tail almost from the get-go.
His name lives on as part of a startlingly crazy story about how a government department created to uphold the law and chase down criminals, allowed one of its top-secret documents to disappear by an act of carelessness, recklessness, stupidity or simply the action of an inept human being.
The fourth and final why.
Which will, of course, forever beg the question: What were they doing with it in the first place?
Mafia. The Government’s Secret File on Organized Crime. Harper Collins. New York, 2007.
Targeting the Mafia:FBN, Organized Crime and Drugs. Dr. John Coleman, DEA Museum lectures series. November 6, 2014.
Valentine, Douglas. The Strength of the Wolf. Verso, New York. 2004.
Il Cirolaccio. 2014: 1957 Mafia Summit in Palermo.
Anti-Mafia. 20 June 2012. Ms. Alcohol and Smoke. Giuseppe Casarrubea.
Bonanno, Joseph and Lalli, Sergio. A Man of Honor: Simon & Schuster, New Nor, 1983.
Pantalone, Michele. Mafia e Politica 1943-1962: Giulio Einaudi, 1962.
La Repubblica. The Summit that decided the future of the mafia. 10/11 2017.
Old Mafia file sells at NY auction for nearly $11K. AP June 22, 2011.
Many thanks to Tom Hunt, crime historian, and internationally renowned expert on the Mafia, for his help in research on this article. The publisher of The Informer Magazine, its latest edition, will be on sale soon. Check it out at: https://informer-journal.blogspot.com/search/label/2022%20November%20issue
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