How mobsters get their colourful nicknames — and why they need them

Adrian Humphreys has covered Canada’s underworld for 25 years and written three bestselling books on the subject. In this occasional series, he dissects the histories, mysteries and quirks of organized crime in Canada and beyond.

When a masked man waving a gun burst into a Toronto social club, a hulking mobster playing cards stood to confront him. A shotgun blast immediately knocked him off his feet, mangling his left leg to the point of needing amputation.

Once fitted with a prosthetic after the shooting, Enio Mora returned to the street in 1980 and found the shooting left him with something besides a noticeable limp: a new mob nickname. From then on, when referring to Mora, gangsters called him “Pegleg” or, the less imaginative, “The Guy with the Wooden Leg.”

This is one example of how mobsters get the colourful nicknames that are a popular element of dark humour in the real-life underworld, as well as in mob movies.

One of my favourite real underworld nicknames is that of Vincent Congiusti, a mob associate in Florida with a gruesome reputation for convincing people to do what the mob tells them through the brutal application of a cordless power drill. Mobsters called him “Vinnie Aspirins” — because he got rid of their headaches.

The nicknames, however, are not designed to amuse the public.

Joining a secret criminal society requires discretion. Often mafiosi are never told another mobster’s full name. Introductions are typically done on a first-name basis. Some gangsters go years without knowing a colleague’s legal last name — unless he is arrested and his name appears in the media.

Distinctive nicknames allow mobsters to refer to a specific fellow gangster without knowing, or saying, their real name.

It is an added bonus that gangsters benefit from having nicknames, even unflattering ones. Even if a real name is known, using a nickname helps mask his identity from police or other outsiders. Nicknames help mobsters keep a double life, having one name on the street and another at the bank, in the boardroom or during a parent-teacher interview with their children.

Nicknames seem far more prevalent in the underworld, generally, than in other occupations but they are a particularly prominent part of the Italian Mafia.

This might be because Mafia nicknames tend to be more insulting, and hence more hilarious or shocking, which are qualities that transfer well to news reports and movies, making them more memorable and in wider use.

I suspect the biting and colourful nature of mob nicknames is due, in part, to the cross-generational nature of the Mafia.

It starts with the mob sticking with schoolyard policy that a nickname is bestowed by others and not chosen. Since mafiosi are often born into the criminal life and nicknames tend to be coined when criminals are younger, their names can be more ribald or insulting. And, just like in the schoolyard, not every mobster likes his nickname, but nicknames, like gossip, cannot easily be shaken off.

Some mobsters try to enforce a flattering nickname, such as Salvatore Vitale, once the underboss of the Bonanno Family in New York, who insisted underlings call him “Good Looking Sal.” His vanity was mocked behind his back.

In the Russian mob, by contrast, the upper echelon of gangsters known as the vor v zakone, chose their nicknames, more as a “nom de guerre” and, not surprisingly, they tend to be more flattering.

Coupled with this is the problem of so many Italian men having the same popular first names, often the names of Catholic Saints. Using nicknames help mobsters tell each other apart.

A powerful Mafia clan with a presence in Canada and abroad, for instance, is the Cuntrera family. Many Cuntrera men are named Giuseppe.

Around Toronto’s underworld, each Giuseppe Cuntrera is delineated by their nickname: “Big Joe” (born in 1960), “Little Joe” (born in 1962), and “Venezuelan Joe” (born in 1956). To add to the mix, recent wiretaps of Hamilton mobster Domenico “Dom” Violi caught mobsters calling the Cuntreras, collectively, “the Coffee Guys.”

As colourful as some New World mob nicknames are, those in Italy are among the best (or worst) — such as a mobster in Palermo known as “Cosce Affumate,” which translates as “Smoked Thighs,” apparently because his legs are so hairy they look like they’re surrounded by smoke.

That kind of evocative visualization is not the only way nicknames are concocted. I’ve traced five common roots for a mobster’s nickname: from a mobster’s appearance, personal traits, past experiences, where he is from, or corruptions of his real name.

Sometimes, however, the origin of a nickname is unknown, even to gangsters using it and the man who wears it. I once asked a Montreal gangster why he calls another gangster by his nickname. He shrugged as if it was a stupid question, saying: “That’s how he was introduced to me.”

Vito Rizzuto, the hugely powerful Mafia boss of Montreal until his death in 2013, was often referred to as “The Tall Guy” in English. This was because he was distinctively taller than most of his Sicilian contemporaries. His underlings, trying to reach him by phone, can be heard on police wiretaps asking, “is The Tall Guy there?” before being patched through to the boss. This seems to be their way of not raising the profile, or culpability, of their boss.

When Rizzuto was indicted in the United States in 2004 for three gangland murders, however, prosecutors didn’t write his nickname on the indictment, and he almost stood out because of it.

Sharing the same indictment with Rizzuto were mobsters listed as being also known as: “Peter Boxcars”, “Patty Muscles”, “Jimmy the General”, “Louie HaHa”, “Peter Rabbit”, “Joe Shakes”, “Baldo”, “Mickey Boots”, “Mickey Bats”, “Tony Green”, “Stevie Blue” and “Big Ritchie.”

Some of these nicknames spring from real names, such as Generoso “Jimmy the General” Barbieri and Baldassare “Baldo” Amato. Louis “Louie HaHa” Attanasio got his name because he used to laugh whenever he heard about a murder.

Among those who were set to testify against Rizzuto, had he not pleaded guilty, were various turncoat mobsters, many with nicknames based on their appearance, including Richard “Shellackhead” Cantarella (because of his liberal application of pomade on his thick mane) and Frank “Curly” Lino (who had curly hair in his heyday).

Rizzuto’s man in New York, meanwhile, was a mobster named Gerlando Sciascia. He was known as “George From Canada.”

Rizzuto’s photo was placed on a large board of mugshots at the Brooklyn trial for his co-accuseds — right between Thomas “Tommy Karate” Pitera, who was a martial arts fighter, and Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, a gangster now famous for being portrayed by Al Pacino in the Hollywood movie Donnie Brasco. He was called Lefty because he always threw dice with his left hand.

Some nicknames are purposely ironic. There was a mob enforcer in Toronto, whose real name I can’t recall, known as “Snow White” — so named because of his dark complexion.

There are some well-known nicknames that are, however, not true mob nicknames at all.

Police or the media sometimes give mobsters a catchy sobriquet. I don’t consider these underworld nicknames. They can be useful as a device to give context, but they aren’t identifiers used on the street.

A prominent example is New York mob boss John Gotti. It is useful to know the media dubbed him “The Teflon Don” because charges against him wouldn’t stick, but gangsters weren’t slinking around the Bronx whispering “The Teflon Don” as a way to secretly refer to the boss of the Gambino crime family.

It is more of an epithet than a nickname.

The same was true of one of Ontario’s most powerful Mafia bosses, John Papalia. His true nicknames were “Johnny Paps” and later “Johnny Pops,” but, after gaining notoriety in the 1960s, he was dubbed “The Enforcer” in the press. It was a more evocative name for headlines, and also served well as the title for my book on Papalia, but gangsters never used it.

While many elements of Mafia movies deviate from reality, when it comes to nicknames, Hollywood gets it right.

The nicknames of fictional mobsters, as well as those of real-life mobsters, often become more famous or more notorious than the characters, or the real people, they represent.

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