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Bootleggers, burglars and a beauty

Early organized crime in Philly featured a bevy of characters

Utilization of confiscated bootleg paraphernalia c. 1920 | Library of Congress

In my last column, I interviewed Kathryn Canavan, the author of “True Crime Philadelphia: From America’s First Bank Robbery to the Real-Life Killers Who Inspired Boardwalk Empire.” 

Following up, I asked her about prohibition and the early days of organized crime. 

“Much has been made of the fact that alcohol was sold even in the city’s candy stores during Prohibition. A national magazine said Philadelphia was as wet as the Atlantic Ocean,” Canavan said. 

The Lanzetta brothers were notorious gangsters during this period. The fictional D’Alessio brothers in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” were based on the Lanzettas. I asked her how she would describe them.

The fictional D’Alessio brothers in the HBO series ‘Boardwalk Empire’ were based on the Lanzettas. Willie, pictured, was killed in an apartment and his body was dumped in the front yard of a Main Line estate in the summer of 1939. Image | Courtesy of the Special Collection Research Center. Temple University Libraries Philadelphia

“The newspapers of the day called them the most feared family of gangsters in city history. Reporters loved to say that three of them were named after Popes, but the similarities stopped there. Police said they were murderers, bootleggers, number writers and white slavers, and they were arrested more than 100 times, but none of the brothers was ever convicted of a crime that carried more than a 10-year sentence. Teo, the baby, was arrested five times in one week, two of them on the same day,” Canavan said. “Three of them were gunned down – Leo in front of his bar in 1925; Pius just as he was putting a straw in his soda pop on New Year’s Eve 1936; and Willie was killed in an apartment and his body was dumped in the front yard of a Main Line estate in the summer of 1939. By 1940, the remaining Lanzettas had disappeared from Philadelphia. Lucien joined the U.S. Army six months before Pearl Harbor. Teo was imprisoned on drug charges for most of the war years. Ignatius got a job at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich., where he rose to foreman.”

I asked about Boo Boo Hoff, a major criminal during Prohibition. 

“Boo Boo Hoff was one of a string of entrepreneurial young immigrants with mostly grade-school educations who became some of the most successful bootleggers in the country. Hoff was five foot two and he favored big bow ties, straw boater hats and conservative suits, but he carried a Colt revolver in each hip pocket,” Canavan said. “He was a millionaire before he was 24. His bootlegging empire grew so large that he had 175 phones in his downtown office in the 1930s.”

Hoff was never imprisoned, but he went broke after Prohibition was repealed. 

Al Capone was arrested in Philadelphia in 1929 for carrying a gun. I mentioned to Canavan that I visited Eastern Penitentiary a while back and saw Capone’s relatively plush cell.

“Capone was assigned a cell on the small airy cellblock prisoners dubbed “Park Avenue.” He got a plum job as a file clerk,” Canavan said. “He was allowed to meet with Frank Nitti and Jake Guzik in the warden’s office.” 

I noted that many believe Capone’s arrest and year-long prison sentence was a set-up to avoid the fallout of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. 

“It did lock Capone safely away 750 miles east of Chicago, but someone with Capone’s millions could have vanished with his wife and son and visited long-lost relatives in Italy until things cooled off,” Canavan said. “That seems preferable to trading his 11 1/2 carat diamond ring and his custom-made suit with a space for a shoulder holster for prison denims.”

Lillian Reis was so sexy she once was arrested for lewdness for doing the twist fully clothed. Image | Courtesy of the Special Collection Research Center. Temple University Libraries. Philadelphia.

I asked about Lillian Reis, a renown Philly beauty, and Ralph Staino, her mob associate boyfriend. 

“Ralph Staino described Lillian Reis as ‘the most gorgeous thing that was ever in Philadelphia.’ Staino was the bouncer at the Celebrity Room, the nightclub Reis owned. He became her lover for 54 years,” Canavan said. “Reis was so sexy she once was arrested for lewdness for doing the twist fully clothed.”

Canavan explained that, in 1959, Capt. Clarence “Fergy” Ferguson, Philadelphia’s most famous cop at the time, charged Reis with masterminding the biggest burglary in Pennsylvania history. The take from the burglary of a Pottsville mansion netted what would be $500,000 today. 

“Reis was so beautiful that conversation in the courtroom would drop to a low hush whenever she entered and newspapers would report on her outfit every day of the trial – “a tight white skirt with a tighter white sweater” or “a sheath that looked as if it had been sprayed on,” Canavan said.

“Fergy’s case fizzled when one witness against Reis was shot and stabbed while waiting for a bus, one was blown up in his car and a third was fished out of the Atlantic with a gunshot through his head and a heavy chain padlocked around his torso. The Daily News dubbed it ‘a seagoing murder.’”

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be contacted via pauldavisoncrime.com.

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  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com

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