Tonawanda News — Mafia is one of those words that instantly evokes a certain level of excitement and interest by pretty much everyone who hears or reads it.
As such, the new book by local author and tour guide Michael Rizzo automatically draws some level of interest. When you combine that with the local angle he takes on La Cosa Nostra — succinctly outlined in the title of his book, “Gangsters and Organized Crime in Buffalo” — you have a book that would appear to be a natural must-read for any Western New Yorker or organized crime enthusiast.
And he delivers a book that is loaded with names, dates and various news accounts of the Niagara Frontier’s most notorious turn-of-the-century criminals. While it’s informative, “Gangsters” is a bit too heavy to digest, as it reads more like a textbook than a casual Buffalo criminal background check.
What Rizzo does not do is leave any stone unturned. He lists seemingly every low-level street thug and second-rate bank robber who ever menaced the public. While 20th century crime-fighting methods resulted in a decent number of arrests, it’s compelling how many of these criminals disappeared without a trace — something that would be pretty much impossible in the age of cell phones and “CSI” investigative work.
When it comes to hardcore gangsterdom in Western New York, the solar system of thugs revolved around the sun that was Stefano Magaddino. And much of “Gangsters” is devoted to the Niagara Falls don, who had his hands in pretty much every misdeed conducted in the northeastern United States and southern Ontario for some 50 years.
His family — just like his influence — stretched far, ensuring local mobsters a share of the take from gambling and other rackets as far away as Ohio. He abhorred the drug trade — although he didn’t mind its profits as much — and he ran several legitimate businesses to mask his criminal activities, including a Falls funeral home through which he was said to dispose of his victims in the caskets of paying customers.
From Magaddino’s home in the Town of Lewiston — he bought houses for himself and family members along one road that became known as Mafia Row — to his dealings in Buffalo and his downstate affairs, “Gangsters” takes the reader through every major event in the don’s life that’s known to the public.
The book also does that for its other profiled criminals. One of the book’s highlights is that it lists every known address for every event that took place in every criminal’s life, allowing crime-lovers to retrace the steps of the region’s past champions of crime. Many of these buildings are vacant, renovated or torn down, but literally being handed a guide of what once were the area’s criminal hotspots is — let’s face it — pretty darn cool.
Rizzo also does a decent job of detailing the mob’s brutal methods of “taking care of” people who stood in its way. In one particularly gruesome case, he described a death by which the victim had his hands tied behind back and his legs pulled back behind him while attached to a noose around his neck. As much as the victim wanted to, he’d eventually have to relax his legs, which would slowly hang him. Countless other victims were shot, beaten, brutalized and carved up in all sorts of gory methods, which mobsters would use as a sign to others to steer clear.
You will not want to steer clear of this book, though. It is not light bedtime reading — this scribe found it impossible to read for more than a few chapters at a time due to its information-heavy style.
The book could have been about 50 pages shorter while being written in a more conversational tone. But the knowledge it shares is worth ingesting if — for no other reason — than because it pertains to the mafia.
The author clearly knows what he’s talking about, and thankfully he’s willing to share the secrets mobsters worked so hard for decades to keep.
Contact Paul Lane
at email@example.com.• WHAT: "Gangsters and Organized Crime in Buffalo" • BY: Michael Rizzo • DETAILS: Published by History Press, 256 pages • GRADE: B-