Gangster Paradises Beyond the ‘Boardwalk’: Seven American True-Crime Capitals

Gangster Paradises Beyond the ‘Boardwalk’: Seven American True-Crime Capitals


On the South Jersey Coast and in spitting distance of Philly and New York, rife with posh casinos, resorts and dicier attractions, Atlantic City is prime territory for an old-fashioned good time. “The World’s Favorite Playground” also set the scene for one of the richest, filthiest mobster milieux of the 1920s, to which Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter pay respect in “Boardwalk Empire.” A.C. wasn’t always America’s favorite gangster playground, however–scope out these centers of vice and skinny ties as told through the books.

Atlantic City
“Boardwalk Empire,” by Nelson Johnson
Prime real estate for power players, it’s no wonder that Atlantic City was the inspiration for the board game “Monopoly.” In its heyday, the AC was ruled by a different sort of tycoon: Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, a smooth-talking fixer who was part gangster, part politician–with a blurry boundary between those callings. Nucky’s dominance of Prohibition-Era shady politics (eerily embodied by Steve Buscemi) and the city’s resurrection to a slightly more respectable status are recorded in Nelson Johnson’s riveting history of the city.

Las Vegas
“Casino,” by Nicholas Pileggi
The modern capital of gambling-crazed Gomorrahs, of course, is Las Vegas. What better place than a casino to house a mobster’s favorite activities? Money-laundering and graft, drug-running and prostitution, all in one convenient location. Gambling mastermind Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal sensed Vegas’s potential as a leading crime empire. He and his partner, Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, controlled enormous cash flow on the mafia’s behalf. Their racket was as vast as its demise was Shakespearean: For all their riches, Tony could not keep his eyes (and hands) off Lefty’s showgirl wife, Geri. The crumbling of Sin City’s mafia empire is retold by Nicholas Pileggi in “Casino.” He also cowrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s eponymous film in which Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci play the star-crossed best friends.

South Boston
“Black Mass,” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Despite his 16 years on the lam from federal authorities, the multiple murders he committed and his prominent placement on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, there are still some in South Boston who think of Whitey Bulger as a hero of the common folk–a kind of Irish Robin Hood. But Whitey also gained notoriety for his collusion with the FBI. The tough, Boston Irish mobster who famously loathed rats above all else—Jack Nicholson’s role in “The Departed” was based on Whitey—was himself a snitch. But it was Bulger who used the FBI; not the other way around. In exchange for information, the FBI (under the guidance of corrupt agent and mobster-wannabe John Connolly) protected Whitey and enabled him to rule the Boston criminal underworld. A classic of the genre, Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s “Black Mass” dishes up all the double-crossing details.

“Get Capone,” by Jonathan Eig

As mafiosos know well, nothing is ever so enticing as when it is forbidden. Hence, the rise of bootlegging in the Prohibition Era. And no individual was more notorious in the bootlegging enterprise than Al Capone, the gangster who controlled the flow of booze into Chicago. Capone didn’t corrupt Chicago alone (the windy city’s palms were greased before him, and long after), but he was the figurehead of a crime family called “The Outfit,” the biggest, ballsiest and most murderous gang the city has known. Jonathan Eig details the surprising story of how “Scarface” Capone was brought down (hint: it wasn’t just Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables”) in his book, “Get Capone.”

Chinatown, New York
“The Snakehead,” by Patrick Radden Keefe
Organized crime is ideal for smuggling many things: illicit sex, booze, money, drugs. And people: In “The Snakehead,” Patrick Radden Keefe details the sordidly fascinating empire of Sister Ping, the Chinese grandmother who ran a multi-million-dollar human smuggling operation out of a tiny Chinatown noodle shop. Sly mafia dons sometimes say they’re merely giving the people what they want. So was Sister Ping, who offered victims a new, albeit underground, life in America.

“L.A. Noir,” by John Buntin
The classic Los Angeles story of gangsters and the cops who strove to put them away naturally has walk-on roles for the rich and famous: Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Sammy Davis, Jr. The glitzy, bloody story John Buntin tells in “LA Noir” begins with a pugilist-turned-plunderer. After cutting his teeth in Al Capone’s Chicago “Outfit,” featherweight boxer Micky Cohen becomes an enforcer for Bugsy Siegel and makes his way up the ranks until the prize fighter is Siegel’s prize hitman. After Siegel’s murder, Cohen ascended to the heights (or depths) of the Los Angeles underworld. The Feds brought him down with a classic sucker punch: tax evasion.

South of the Border: Juarez
“Murder City,” by Charles Bowden
While most of these true-crime accounts detail heydays past, there is one city on the American border where organized murder, drug-running and extortion still rule: Juarez, Mexico. Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Juarez was once a thriving border town. Now, there are so many murders there–including those of thousands of “disappeared” women–that it’s become the world’s most violent city, outside of declared war zones. In “Murder City,” Charles Bowden goes behind the scenes to expose gangland at its most deadly.


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