The Mafia in New Orleans
“The Mafia is way better equipped to run New Orleans than the United States government, the state of Louisiana…”
When Steve Zahn’s character Davis McAlaray proposed a mafia-themed playlist for his radio show, I was immediately intrigued. New Orleans and Louisiana politics are well known for political corruption. But unlike other famously corrupt places, notably Chicago and New Jersey, New Orleans is not celebrated for its mobsters. And despite a longtime casual interesting in organized crime, I had never come across the New Orleans mafia.
The first thing I did after watching the first episode – besides listen to the theme song over and over – was look up Carlos Marcello. Marcello was mentioned by Davis McAlaray and his radio cohort by both first name and family name. I did this because I’m fascinated by the show’s dichotomy of cynicism and optimism. McAlaray’s – and dare I say the city’s – attitude feels like it could only have been arrived at after a long history of unceasing frustration. Mobsters like Carlos Marcello led to that frustration. It takes a special kind of desperation to pin hopes on guys like Marcello, especially when they are almost certainly responsible for many of the maladies and that your city faces.
Marcello’s story, it turns out, is as unlikely and interesting as any other celebrity mafioso you might care to Google. Marcello was born to Sicilian parents in Northern Africa, but came to Louisiana when he was just a year old, and got his criminal start with petty French Quarter stuff. Newspapers compared the young Marcello to Fagin from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. This despite the fact that in stature, he was closer to Dickens’ title character: Marcello was only 5’2” and from early on was known as “Little Man.”
After some stints in jail, Marcello got himself connected with Genovese crime family boss Frank Costello, who had a racket running slot machines down from New York to New Orleans. The slot machine industry run by Costello had recently been banned in New York City by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. But it was welcomed to Louisiana with explicitly open arms by a less morally rigorous politician named Huey Long. Via Costello and his slot machines, Marcello’s career took off. By the mid-1940s, he was running the entire the entire state of Louisiana’s illegal gambling racket and had been named Godfather of the New Orleans Mafia.
I haven’t been able to dig up much on Marcello’s actual reign as Godfather. He posed as a tomato salesman, and amassed sums of money well into the tens of millions of dollars. His reach spread to Florida and other nearby states, as well as New York and Las Vegas. Whether Marcello actually ran the city of New Orleans, as the characters in Treme surmised, is hard to tell. But for a big time mobster, Marcello did what appears to be an excellent job maintaining his stature. He managed to avoid usurpation at the hands of his competitors, and mostly avoided legal trouble. He spent six years of relative old age in jail, as well as a time in Guatemala, after being deported in 1961 by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
On a related and less New Orleans-themed note, I learned that Marcello has been often linked to the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers. Apparently Jack Ruby had contacted Marcello just days before the JFK assassination. The FBI investigated and found any links tenuous, but some writers and theorists are insistent. The story goes that the Kennedy brothers –especially Bobby as AG—were a little too hard on their “friends” in the mafia, and that Marcello teamed up with other mobsters including Jimmy Hoffa to conduct the hits.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that political corruption and organized crime go hand in hand. It doesn’t have to be as explicit as the Chicago mafia allegedly stuffing ballot boxes for JFK. In a way, corruption is a form of organized crime. So as we study Treme, I am making it a goal to study organized crime in New Orleans and the way it fits in with Louisiana’s famously corrupt politics. Despite McAlaray’s comment that the mafia could run New Orleans better than the government, I’m willing to bet that the mafia had something to do with the massive failures of the public sector both before and after Katrina.