This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Nothing, at least nothing widely known, has happened at the Ravenite Social Club since Christmas Eve thirty-one years ago, when it became the court of John Gotti. Some 200 well-wishers filed across its rosette-tiled floor to pay their respects to the newly anointed boss of the Gambino crime family. FBI detectives concealed in a van watched the procession as the start of a new dynasty began.
Gotti emerged from his position as one of the family’s mid-level operatives to greet his new charges in an empire that at the time was grossing $500 million each year from loan sharking, gambling, narcotics and rigged construction contracts. Nine days earlier, on December 16, 1985, Gotti had orchestrated the murder of his predecessor, “Big Paul” Castellano, in what turned out to be “one of the most notorious nights in crime history in New York City,” as the former Daily News photographer Tom Monaster described it in a video about the case. Monaster’s photo of the slain, besuited 70-year-old mobster lying on the road in front of the Sparks Steakhouse in midtown filled the front page of the Daily News the next day, headlined, “MOB HITS BIG PAUL.”
That night, Gotti had waited in a Lincoln sedan around the corner as two suited men emerged from another car of the same model parked in front of the steakhouse. Castellano made his way toward the restaurant door with his deputy Thomas Bilotti. Four trench-coated executioners shot them both dead in a hail of gunfire from their semi-automatic handguns before the two men got close. Gotti’s car drove past the bloody scene to confirm the deaths and then pulled swiftly away.
The Ravenite soon became Gotti headquarters: the meeting place, hangout and center of the family’s criminal operations. By the time Gotti took control, 247 Mulberry in Little Italy had been a mobster hangout since the 1930s, passing through the decades from notorious mob bosses like Joseph La Forte Sr. and Aniello Dellacroce, to Castellano. But long before its mafia incarnation, the otherwise unremarkable five-storey red brick building at Mulberry, near Prince Street, had played host to everything from petty crimes to violence at various points since its construction in 1887.
Today, like many nearby buildings, a rusty fire escape snakes down its facade and chipped plastic signs signal takeout food opportunities along the road. No longer does the building bear any sign of its storied past. A Welsh-sounding placard above the front door— CYDWOQ—(read it: sidewalk) does nothing to indicate that the building was once the heart of mafia New York and is now a designer leather shoe shop. All that remains is the scuffed original floor that generations of mobsters once walked.
“Where the very off-scourings of all humanity seem to find lodgment… a seething mass of humanity, so ignorant, so vicious, so depraved that they hardly seem to belong to our species.” —Allan Forman, The American Magazine, 1885
In the late 19th century, 247 Mulberry was in the heart of Five Points, the city’s most notorious slum, sometimes called “Mulberry Bend,” bounded by Broadway, the Bowery, Houston and Worth. A chapter by George Pozzetta in the book Little Italies in North America explains that the area was already a slum when the first significant wave of Italian immigrants arrived. Crumbling tenement houses, stables and warehouses crowded around a filled-in basin known as the “Collect,” where residents dumped trash and dead animals. Italian saloons and gambling houses popped up across the road from churches like Old St. Patrick’s, New York’s first cathedral. Crimes were commonplace. “Bombings, extortion attempts, Black Hand kidnappings and threats, shootings, stabbings and counterfeiting operations” were among the regular aspects of life for Mulberry Bend residents, many of whom were poor.
There was no common space yet on the ground floor in July 1876, the night a female tenant of one of its apartments started a fight in the street with a neighbor’s mistress. Police arrested both women, and in their absence, their partners, upon learning about the altercation, blamed the other man’s companion for causing the arrest. In Mulberry Bend fashion, the dispute was resolved with violence— one man stabbed the other, leaving him with “entrails protruded.” The episode made The Evening Telegram, tucked away as an item in the Sunday’s Crimes section next to its story about a Boston murder and nearby reports of a dull stock market.
No. 247 Mulberry Street made the crime section of the papers again in July, 1892. On Friday morning, The Press reported “a peculiar theft.” Miss Annie Walsh, a young secretary who the newspaper described as “the possessor of a beautiful head of hair” that almost touched the floor, was standing in the hallway when an unidentified man ran up to her and cut off her prized tresses. “A MEAN THIEF SURE ENOUGH” was the headline.
By 1906, the building housed the office of an undertaker, Theodore Palumbo. He conducted his business relatively uneventfully, aside from a period in May, 1906 during a hearse drivers’ strike, when he had bodies to bury and no hearses to transport them, despite having granted all the demands of the funeral drivers’ union. Palumbo achieved notoriety in February, 1909, when a rival undertaker’s employee tipped police off to a mysterious padlocked cast-iron box in 247 Mulberry, believed to contain a corpse. The 1,000-pound chest was nine feet long and four feet wide, the New York Times reported on Feb. 28. The Health Department confiscated it.
Palumbo gave his thoughts on the matter to The Sun, on Feb. 28. “Let me tell my story in full and judge for yourselves,” he said. “First let me state that there is no body in the box— of that I am confident.” He said he received the box from a friend who asked him to store it for an Italian doctor who needed its contents for his work on a new embalming process. Palumbo had at first been concerned about what the box might contain and even directed his drivers to shake it when they collected it. Nothing moved. “It took six men to get it into a wagon,” he said. “As an undertaker I know had there been a body in that box I would have told it at once.” As it happened, Palumbo said, the Italian doctor moved back to Italy, thus never returning to claim his possession. Until the police came looking for it, the box remained for months in plain view just inside his office door.
“PADLOCKED BOX MYSTERY,” and “Eternally Embalmed” were the newspaper headlines over the coming days. By March 1, health department officials found a corpse inside, and journalists, apparently more interested in the corpse, did not mention Palumbo again.
By 1910, Mulberry Bend had reached its peak population of 10,000 people. For the next 20 years, the neighborhood steadily emptied, until by 1930, the number of residents dwindled to half. Little Italy’s saloons, however, thrived, attracting a steady clientele of Italian railroad workers, who gambled and played mora, biscola and tresette throughout the winter season as they waited for construction season to come around again. It gave the neighborhood’s residents a reputation among outsiders for being lazy, unproductive and criminal, George Pozzetta wrote. Social clubs like the Ravenite became the nexus of each mini-community, providing a meeting point, somewhere to relax, and somewhere to conduct illegal business. This did not escape notice of the police, especially during the Ravenite’s heyday from 1970 to 1990.
Original alteration requests by the owner of the basement apartment, Levine D’Ugo, show that the building’s first-floor shop storeroom turned into a “meeting room” or “club room” in 1966. Within four years, the club came under the control of 55-year-old Aniello Dellacroce, a businessman and top mafia gangster who lived in an apartment across the street. He used the club as an “underworld kangaroo court” to seek support for his scheme to dethrone Carlo Gambino, the original head of the Gambino crime family, who was suffering from a chronic cardiac condition that threatened his control over the family’s burgeoning criminal operations.
Dellacroce never took control of the Gambino family; instead, that position went to Castellano, whose control ended with his death in 1985 and Gotti’s ascension. It was during Castellano’s reign that police investigations into the Ravenite first began. In March, 1980, the New York Citizen reported that a grand jury was investigating whether the club was being used to plan crimes like drug trafficking, murder conspiracies, loan sharking and theft. The day-to-day criminal life of the Gotti-era Ravenite will come to life in The Ravenite: A Very Antisocial Club, a documentary due to be released in March, 2017.
The “Mafia Commission Investigation” was a nationwide assault on organized crime. In New York, the FBI worked for five years to try and wipe out the city’s five crime families, including the Gambinos, from 1980. A highly publicized trial began in September 1986. Key was the placing of FBI wiretaps in social clubs like the Ravenite and by early 1985, they had helped lead to the indictment of eight mafia leaders, including Dellacroce and Castellano. It was while Castellano was out on bail that his murder took place.
Gotti’s takeover of the Ravenite soon made 247 Mulberry Street part of the headlines again.
The club, with a green wooden facade and two tiny American flag emblems pasted on the door, was the site of a party last Christmas Eve, when Mr. Gotti appeared to have consolidated his rule over the organization. Yesterday afternoon a man inside the club closed a curtain when a visitor approached. ”No one here,” he said through a closed door. “No one here.”
In the wake of convictions from the FBI investigation, the Gambinos were left as almost the last functioning mafia family standing in New York. For five years, Gotti ruled from the headquarters of the Ravenite, appearing there flanked by henchmen almost daily in his thousand-dollar suits (which gave him the press nickname of “Dapper Don”). FBI archives detail how, while he attended exclusive parties and planned the family’s illegal dealings, the FBI were building a case against him, undeterred by several acquittals he orchestrated through witness intimidation and jury tampering. In December, 1990, Gotti was arrested. He was convicted on 13 counts, including Castellano’s murder, in April, 1992.
As for the Ravenite, seven years after the FBI arrested Gotti outside, the U.S. Marshals Service returned with a “warrant of arrest” for the club, penned by the very same judge who had sentenced Gotti to life imprisonment. When the Marshal notified the club’s tenants that they were losing the Ravenite for good, he received an icy response, the New York Daily News reported.
“Listen, fella,” one obviously agitated club member said last night before slamming the door on a Daily News reporter, “we been here 90 years. We’re losing the place. We have no plans.”