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Monday, February 23, 2009

A sit down with Mob writer Tom Hunt

After much ado I was finally able to snag an interview with the prolific Mafia expert Thomas Hunt (first introduced to DGIS readers on August 19, 2008). Tom is the co-author of Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia. He is the editor and publisher of Informer: The Journal of American Mafia History, he has three websites relating to the Mafia and has authored numerous articles on the subject.

This interview has taken awhile because, well to be blunt, Tom seemed a bit paranoid. For some reason he didn’t want to come out to the DGIS studio. So after much back and forth we agreed to meet at an old Italian restaurant in the Bronx. It was very quaint, even had one of those old fashion toilets with the pull chain. Feeling a little paranoid myself I had an old friend of mine, a cop name Captain McCluskey, tag along. Since I hate taking notes I, as usual, brought the tape recorder. Here is the transcript.

Captain McCluskey: How’s the Italian food in this restaurant?

Dead Guys In Suits: Good. Try the veal. It’s the best in the city.

CM: I’ll have it.

DGIS: I’m gonna speak Italian to Tom.

CM: Go ahead.

DGIS: Parla inglese?

Tom Hunt: Si. Parla inglese?

DGIS: Si. Ok, I guess we’ll speak English then. So Tom, books, articles, newsletter, websites. Haven’t you ever heard of YouTube, Guitar Hero II or the Game Show Network? There are other things to do with your time why the Mafia?

TH: Don’t ask me about my business. I’ve told you never to ask me about my business.

DGIS: Well then I’m afraid you’re going to have to pay for your own meal.

TH: Well, all right, I’ll talk to you about my business just this one time. I’ll have a cup of pasta fagiole and a glass of water. OK… “Why the Mafia?” A number of factors contributed to my interest in the subject. Being born two weeks before JFK’s assassination into a family that adored the Kennedys probably had something to do with it. By the way, I entered the world just a few blocks from here, over at Misericordia Hospital. My mother’s side of the family is a mix of Sicilian and Neapolitan, and stories passed through the generations of encounters with racketeers. It probably also helped that my dad regularly brought home copies of the New York Post. That tabloid’s coverage of the underworld often caught my eye. More recently, my interest has been fueled by the interest of others. Personally, I’m fascinated by all aspects of history, from the founding of civilization to last week’s weather. But I’ve come to grips with the fact that there’s very little market for last week’s weather. (I’m not sure there’s much of a market for the Game Show Network either.)

DGIS: Speaking of the Game Show network lets play a little Match Game. “Albert Anastasia was so crazy he once blanked a guy just for blanking.

TH: I can tell by the smiles on Brett Somers’ and MacLean Stevenson’s faces that either they know this answer or one of them has just passed wind. The answer is: Albert Anastasia was so crazy, he once pantsed a guy just for putting the wrong fingers in his mouth when whistling for a taxi.

DGIS: Let’s go to the panel,
Brett Somers? Pantsed for putting the wrong fingers…
Mclean Stevenson? Pantsed for putting the wrong fingers…
Fannie Flag? Pantsed for putting the wrong fingers…
Richard Dawson? Pantsed for putting the wrong fingers:
Charles Nelson Reilly? Pantsed for putting the wrong fingers…
John Wesley Hardin? Once shot a man just for snoring.
Five out of six, not bad.
Tell us about your book Deep Water. What is it about and how did you come to write it?

TH: Deep Water tells the story of 19th Century New Orleans businessman Joseph P. Macheca and his relationship to the fledgling American Mafia. It was written over a period of about four years in partnership with a descendant of the Macheca line, Martha Macheca Sheldon... Chandler’s Brothers in Blood first brought Macheca to my attention. There were a number of statements in that book that seemed terribly unlikely, so I started to investigate. I shared my work online through a website. Martha was doing some genealogical research online and bumped into the site. We exchanged emails and quickly decided to work together to set the Macheca historical record straight… I believe we were both surprised at the wealth of material we found in local, state and federal archives. As we pieced things together, we came to understand that organized crime and organized politics in late 19th Century New Orleans were very much the same thing… I’m very happy at how well Deep Water has been received and very proud of the silver medal we won in the regional nonfiction category of the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards. At this point, Martha and I are looking for a publisher for a revised second edition of the book.

DGIS: Is there another book in the works?

TH: I recently completed a concise (21,000 words) history of the American Mafia for an organized crime reference work to be published by Millennium House. The book will also include sections on the Sicilian Mafia and other criminal societies… Researcher Michael Tona and I continue to work together. We have written a few well-received articles on Mafia history for the On the Spot journal and my website. Lately, we’ve been working on a more substantial project. Mike is an extraordinary researcher and also a frighteningly thorough editor... Louis Cafiero and I are in the research stages for a possible biography of New York Mafioso Saverio Pollaccia... Hey, that veal looks and smells terrific. I feel like an idiot with this little cup of soup. They didn’t even give me any crackers.

CM: In case anyone was wondering, I’ve frisked a thousand young punks.

TH: He did a very thorough job. I don’t think I’ve been checked out that closely since my last prostate exam. You really have to admire a guy who has so much enthusiasm for his work.

DGIS: Note to self: insist on being frisked on the way home. Now, for those who don’t want to wait for the periodic Mob book release you have Informer. Why don’t you tell us about that.

TH: Informer is a quarterly journal devoted to American Mafia history and current events. It exists primarily as an outlet for Mafia historians - there are very few publication options for responsible historians who wish to explore subjects in some depth. Of course, it’s helpful that people are interested in reading it and advertising in it… Rick Mattix, who publishes the On the Spot journal, inspired me to start the Mafia publication… I have a fairly extensive background in journalism and launched a short-lived weekly newspaper years ago. So the problems related to publishing have been in the back of my mind for a while. It occurred to me that the Internet, combined with electronic document formats, document sharing services and print-on-demand publishing, has resolved many of the old problems. And the September 2008 launch of Informer was far more successful than I had hoped.

DGIS: In the old days if the mob killed somebody they trussed them up and put them in barrels or stuffed them in sacks. We don’t really see the same commitment these days. How do you account for that?

TH: There will always be some homicidal maniacs who take pride in their craft. For example, Gambino Crime Family member Roy DeMeo got very involved in his work in the 1970s and 80s. I think a lot of these guys are committed... A lot of them should be committed.

DGIS: Speaking of barrels and sacks. I see that the Morello-Terranova clan scored their own website. Are they of special interest to you?

TH: Yes they are, though I am actually in the process of folding the cagedwolves.com website back into my broader Mafia history website at onewal.com. My specific interest is in Ciro Terranova. Targeted by underworld enemies and law enforcement for so many years, Terranova managed to avoid assassination and prison and to serve as a mentor to guys like Charlie Luciano... Thinking about Terranova’s 1938 death in relative obscurity calls to mind the end of that old gangster movie, The Roaring Twenties. Remember the line? A policeman asks Panama Smith about the dead guy on the church steps and she responds, “He used to be a big shot”… Before Deep Water came along, I hoped to write a book about Terranova and his extended family. But that project has been pushed repeatedly to a back burner. I’m glad to see that authors like Pat Downey, Dave Critchley and now Mike Dash are giving the Morello-Terranova family its due.

DGIS: One of my favorite mob nicknames is Hop Toad. Do you have any favorites?

TH: There are so many great ones: Three-Finger Brown, Abbadabba, Zopo, Louie Lump-Lump, Benny Eggs, Louie Bagels, Joe Bananas, Big Tuna, Johnny Sausage… Of all the nicknames, the one name that guys seem to admire most is “Matty the Horse.” If I had to have a gang nickname, I think I’d want to be known as “Tommy the Horse.” But I suspect I would end up as “Tommy Sneakers,” “Tommy Salami” (my nickname in grade school) or “Three-Finger Typist.”

DGIS: Did you ever notice that your initials are Hop Toad reversed?

TH: Yeah, and I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. “Hop Toad” also has the same number of letters as “Tom Hunt.” Something to think about.

DGIS: It is, we missed that one. Someone is getting fired.

CM: Ok, maybe it wasn’t thousands. Hundreds, definitely hundreds of young punks.

DGIS: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Mafia?

TH: Lately, I’m bothered more by blind revisionism than by all the gangland myths. We can at least be sure that there is a kernel of truth somewhere within a myth, no matter how deeply it’s buried. The revisionist tendency to discard these legends because of the presence of incorrect details does us all a disservice. Historians must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

DGIS: Just curious, why do you think so many authors lie about the death of Frank Nitti? They all say he killed himself but thanks to Hollywood we now know that Eliot Ness threw him off a Courthouse roof.

TH: Well, all seriousness aside, Nitti had it coming to him after he killed Sean Connery! … It’s obvious that Hollywood moviemakers, like many salesmen, politicians and news commentators, suffer from an inability to tell the unvarnished truth. It’s also obvious that Mafia moviemakers have access to vast quantities of varnish. Fortunately, in the case of the Untouchables movie, the script was so fictionalized that no reasonable person would expect any part of it to be true.

DGIS: It wasn’t? I mean, oh yeah, right…Ok, so book, websites, newsletter, articles. What media will Tom Hunt bring the mob to next?

TH: How does a Broadway musical sound? I see Nathan Lane as “Fat Tony” Salerno and Christopher Lloyd as “Vinny the Chin” Gigante in kind of an “Odd Couple” with bullets. The conflict is introduced as prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani (Rick Moranis) attempts to figure out which of them is actually the boss of the Genovese Crime Family.

DGIS: How do I invest? Well Tom, I guess that about covers it. Anything else you want to add before you excuse yourself and go to men’s room to get that gun?

TH: Yeah…, if McCluskey isn’t going to eat that last piece of veal, could I have it?

CM: Ok, I admit it. I never frisked a punk in my life. I was a desk jockey.

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