The gospel according to Russ Shorto, big-frog mob guy in the small pond of Johnstown, Pennsylvania: “There’s two different kinds of people. With the first, you throw a handful of shit in a guy’s face and he knows it’s shit. You forget about that guy—you can’t make money off him. But with the other kind, you tell him the shit you’re feeding him is ice cream… and he’ll believe it. You let him think that—you get him to love the taste of it. And then you take every fuckin’ dime he’s got.”
Russ was “this dark and dangerous kind of figure,” says Russell Shorto, his grandson with the same name, author of Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob, an entertaining book about the Shorto clan intertwined with a history of the Italian mob, Sicilians in the U.S., and the rise and fall of Johnstown, a central Pennsylvania steel town whose main claim to fame is a disastrous 1889 flood that killed over 2,000 people.
“I had some awareness of the danger and damage he did to his family,” says Shorto of his grandfather, who was also a drunk and serial philanderer, “but on the other hand, I kind of feel he didn’t have many choices in life; had he had a different surname he might have gone a different way.”
Shorto is referring to the fact that after New York, Pennsylvania was the biggest destination for Sicilians when they emigrated to the United States. But because of their sometimes swarthy looks and suspicious natures—thanks to Sicily’s geographic isolation and countless invasions by outsiders—the caste system in the early 20th century found them often placed near the bottom, with African Americans. In fact, in his 1912 book The Man Farthest Down, Booker T. Washington alleged that Black sharecroppers in the South were better off than the Sicilian farm workers who made up the majority of the immigrant population.
“Most were in places like Johnstown,” says Shorto, “because they were working in coal mines. And that region played into the whole mob element.”
What Shorto means is that when Prohibition reared its ugly head, his grandfather and others like him saw an opportunity. He learned, says Shorto in the book, that “while the system appears rigid it is actually a highly fungible thing; that it’s possible for a tough-enough guy to leverage guts and power and recast it according to his will.”
So Russ, a tough-enough guy who always carried a gun but seems to have never used it (he knew how to hire muscle to convince recalcitrant debtors to pay up), became #2 to “Little Joe” Regino, the mob boss of Johnstown, a city that at its peak in 1920 had a population of only 67,000. Good at math, Russ helped his boss establish a gambling empire—numbers, craps, cards, a sports book—that grossed $15 million (about $370 million today) in the 15 years following the end of World War II.
Smalltime in some ways reads like a small-town version of a Scorsese mob movie. There are the requisite characters with nicknames like Johnny Atlantic, “Big Nose,” Fat Pete, Chumsy, Horsey, and Chooch; plenty of municipal corruption; interactions with big-time guys in Pittsburgh and Philly (Little Joe modeled his organization on the Philly mob, by opening a legit business as a front); and vacations in Atlantic City when it was a major entertainment mecca.
But there’s a significant difference between Scorsese’s big city bad guys and the atmosphere that existed in cities like Johnstown. “Everybody I talked to [for the book] over a certain age knew these guys,” says Shorto. “They provided a public service; that’s how most people looked at it. They provided entertainment. Everybody played the numbers and knew what they were doing. That was really a part of life.”
This sense of small-town intimacy also meant that the violence level was a lot lower than in the major cities. There is only one murder in the book—of a bookie named Pippy diFalco, whose killer was never found—and, says Shorto, “that murder shocked the community—an indication that that kind of activity was unprecedented. You see it in the press coverage. People I interviewed described the shock. My dad remembered his father and his associates running scared. The murder coincided with the federal crackdown on the mob. It brought it home. Suddenly the newspapers were talking openly about the rackets and how the community shouldn’t tolerate this activity. Until then, that kind of activity had been considered a harmless part of life.”
For Shorto, who has written books about the Dutch origins of New York City and a history of the American Revolution told through the eyes of several people from different walks of life, Smalltime was both a familiar, and new, experience. Research included poring through the archives of Johnstown’s chief of police, as well as FBI files. And, he says, “It’s such a different experience to do something within living memory, you can interview people who participated in the events. And people remember things differently, so you get into a Rashomon-like situation, and that’s when I tried to become a historian.”
Probably the biggest revelation in the book concerns Shorto’s father, a small-town businessman. “I had grown up with this story that my grandfather had tried to get his son into the organization, and my dad resisted,” says Shorto. “But it was the other way around—his father wouldn’t let him in, and he’d beat the shit out of him. That set off this dynamic between them that never really got resolved.”
The mob in Johnstown and other cities began to fracture in the ’60s when, after years of denial, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI finally accepted the existence of a nationwide organized crime network. Agents started to fan out all over the country, and raids in Johnstown led to the shutdown of Little Joe’s front business, which never reopened. Sometime between 1965 and 1970, Russ left the organization, and his life went steeply downhill. He died in 1981.
Ultimately, Smalltime does not pull any punches while telling its story. It’s strikingly personal, but also a peek into the uniqueness of the American experience. “It’s really an American immigrant story,” says Shorto. “I’m really aware of what the country is, how it is colored by American tribalism, and how people react to it.”