How and when did you get hooked on history?
My parents, especially my Mom, always loved history so I grew up enjoying it as well. I was in AP history in high school and ended up with a minor in history in college (majored in marine science, my primary career). I clearly recall some of the earliest non-fiction books I read- one was about the seven wonders of the ancient world. I remember that book distinctly and can recite passages from memory.
I can’t find my sunglasses almost daily, but I remember a book I read in 1981.
What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
Well, with the writing I do, part of my spare time, which fishing used to fully occupy, has been replaced by digging into old court records or FBI files. With the opening up of so many more avenues to access primary source material and law enforcement/curt records, it’s been a boon for Mafia researchers ( mobologists in our science parlance) and writers.
The other area is personal family history. My paternal grandfather was a small time bookie who was arrested in 1970 in New Jersey for bookmaking and did a short prison stint. It’s become a great family story and I actually tell it in the introduction to my book Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey.
How does history play a part of your professional life/career?
So, even though I was always generally interested in history, around 1990, after seeing Goodfellas in the movies, I really started becoming more interested in organized crime history. I grew up in New Jersey, so the mob was always around. My mom loved old mob movies and we would get NYC TV, so obviously stories about gangsters were common fodder on the local news. I clearly remember eating dinner and seeing the breaking news that Paul Castellano had been killed, in December 1985. But after seeing Goodfellas, I really started diving into the available Mafia books at the time. In the mid-1990s I started getting into more of the research and digging up newspaper articles, and law enforcement reports. IN 1995, back when the web was very primitive, I met a historian from England, David Critchley, on an old text website about the Mafia (long since gone). He had a copy of the Kefauver hearings from Tampa (I had relocated to the Tampa Bay area by that time). After reading those, I became really hooked and started diving into the Tampa Mafia as well as some of the other families.
I started writing short articles for web sites like That Life (also long gone) and Rick Porello’s Americanmafia.com. And started writing my first book, Cigar City Mafia. I found an agent and sold the book in 2003. It was released in January of 2004, and my writing career began.
I also run the Tampa Mafia walking tours (www.tampamafia.com), which I have been doing for a little over 10 years now.
So another part of this is my primary career. As an environmental professional for a private engineering consulting firm, business development is a core part of my job. We have taken clients out on the walking tour (just last week in fact). And I lean into my love of history and the mob stuff many times while networking. It definitely sets a conversation apart from the usual small talk!
Why is studying/knowing history important?
History is the glue that holds our collective experience together, both good and bad. Certainly recent efforts against the teaching of true history, because it highlights some of the less than glamorous aspects of this country’s founding, is a testament to how important it is to preserve and teach history, especially forgotten and “uncomfortable” topics.
Crime history, especially when dealing with a subject like the Mafia, gives surprising windows in general American 20th century history. The Mafia are intertwined with various important subjects, from the labor movement in America, to World War II and the European campaign, the founding of one of our most popular cities (Vegas baby, Vegas!) to Cold War geopolitics, to maybe even (ok, getting a bit conspiratorial here) the assassination of a President. But even taking that last one off. Mafia history is truly American history.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I like the 1950s/60s era, especially in relation to Mafia-adjacent topics like pre-Castro Cuba, Las Vegas, and the Cold War. That interest seeps out in to my admiration for mid-century. Google architecture and cocktails of that era. Oh, and you can’t really be a mobologist, or mob author, without some love for the Rat Pack.
6. Why did Tampa become a center of organized crime activity?
Tampa was a thriving port City with a significant industry- cigar making. By the early 1900s it had attracted various ethnic groups to the Ybor City area- primarily Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian immigrants (there was a small German and Jewish population as well) Like many immigrant communities at that time, there was a certain level of intra-community crime, especially related to extortion and Black Hand activities. We see the emergence of a Mafia organization in the early 1900s in Tampa with tie to Mafia groups in New Orleans, New York, and other cities.
Prohibition really kickstarts the underworld in Tampa, Port Tampa Bay becomes a hotbed for rumrunners, illegal immigrant smugglers, and narcotics traffickers. By then the Mafia was coalescing as a hierarchal group in Tampa.
But the first significant crime boss was not a Mafioso. He was the son of one of the most prominent families in Tampa. His name was Charlie Wall. By the 1920s, he was in charge of most of the local rackets. Eventually he loses ground to the Mafia and steps aside. But he made many enemies along the way and was found dea din his house, throat cut and head bashed in with a blackjack, in April 1955.
7. How did organized crime shape Tampa in particular and Florida in general?
One of the most prominent ways it shaped the City was through political corruption. By the 1920s organized crime had already started to infiltrate the political sphere of the City, as well as corrupting law enforcement. Underworld figures were pouring money into political campaigns ranging from local offices, all the way up to gubernatorial races. This started under the reign of Charlie Wall and continued through the ascension of the Mafia. Things came to a head in 1950 when the Kefauver Commission chose Tampa as one of the sites to hold their hearings. In December 1950, Tampa citizens (called Tampans or Tampanians, though Tampenos is a term that is becoming increasingly popular of late) finally were able to see just how deeply organized crime had infiltrated City and county political offices, the police departments, and the Sheriff’s department.