From the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel to anthrax-laced letters
Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels. By Jon Blackwell. Rutgers/Rivergate, 406 pp., $18.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Three hours before the start of a murder trial in New Jersey last week, someone gunned down the mother of a witness’s girlfriend. Defense lawyers dismissed the killing as a coincidence.
We have a lot of coincidences here in New Jersey, and Jon Blackwell serves them up in fine style in Notorious New Jersey. In this lively collection of 100 true-crime tales, Blackwell deals mostly with events so scandalous they made national news, or should have.
Take his profile of the Newark mob boss Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, whom Sopranos creator David Chase has called an inspiration for Tony Soprano (a fact oddly unmentioned in the book). Blackwell notes that the gangster lived in a stone mansion that Life magazine described as “Transylvanian traditional”:
“The road past his home in Livingston, New Jersey, was flanked by a pedestal on which stood a dozen painted busts of his family, staring blank-eyed like porcelain dolls. A statue of Boiardo himself, astride a white horse, towered above them. Vegetables and flowers grew in a grassy expanse marked by a sign, ‘Godfather’s Garden.’”
Ruggiero turned to his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and lieutenants like Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo when he needed help collecting kickbacks or disposing of bodies. At the age of 89, he became “the oldest mobster ever to be put on trial, anywhere” when the state tried to send him to jail for running a Mafia syndicate:
“Pleading ill health, he had the charges dismissed. He died four years later, having outlived his son and every other vestige of New Jersey’s swaggering gangland glory years.”
For all of its mobsters, Notorious New Jersey is more than a dishonor roll of leg-breakers of yesteryear. Blackwell’s masterstroke was to define “scandal” broadly. His book covers the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the anthrax-laced letters slipped into a Princeton mailbox in September 2001, the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel and the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander.
Then there are the corporate scandals, such as the cover-up at the Johns-Manville asbestos plant that Blackwell rightly calls “one of the worst corporate horror stories in U.S. history.” For decades the company withheld from its workers the news — gained from employee medical exams and X-rays — that many were gravely ill with lung-scarring asbestosis or other illnesses. The resulting litigation forced Johns-Manville into bankruptcy and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
Why does scandal thrive in New Jersey? In the weakest section of the book, Blackwell tries to explain it by saying that the state attracts gangsters because, with 566 municipalities, it has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes.
But most of Blackwell’s scandals don’t involve bribery, and some have more complex causes than he implies. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and density creates opportunity. The state also has entrenched political machines, powerful unelected officials whom voters can’t remove, and a legislature that refuses to close legal loopholes that foster corruption. The advent of casino gambling didn’t help, either.
The scandals — whatever their cause — are here to stay. Blackwell provides a useful recap of the events that led to the resignation of governor James McGreevey in August 2004, some of them overshadowed by his declaration that he was gay:
“In the summer 2004, McGreevey’s knack for choosing bad friends came back to haunt him. That July, one of his top fund-raisers, David D’Amiano, was indicted on bribery charges. It emerged that a Piscataway, New Jersey, farmer was upset at being offered too little money for his land as part of an eminent domain proceeding. He turned to D’Amiano for help, and the money man promised to sweeten the deal in exchange for $10,000. The farmer would supposedly know the deal was on if a certain state official used the code word ‘Machiavelli’ – and McGreevey was afterward heard using that very word in conversation with the farmer, who wore a wire. The governor insisted his use of the word was a coincidence.”
Best line: On Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.: “H. L. Mencken was only half-joking when he called it ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection.’ Crowds of ten thousand people mobbed the Hunterdon County courthouse on especially dramatic days of testimony. Vendors sold them miniature kidnap ladders and phony locks of the Lindbergh baby’s hair.”
Worst line: No. 1: “Of the fifty states, maybe New York, California, Texas, and Illinois can match New Jersey for sheer sensational crime, but no place surpasses its blatant rascality.” Blackwell appears to be discounting all the “rascality” against blacks before the Civil Rights era. If you count lynchings — and you should — any state in the Deep South might surpass New Jersey. No. 2: In a section on Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palmero, Blackwell leaves the impression that the DeCavalcante crime family may have inspired The Sopranos when the Boiardos seem more likely models www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/revealed-the-real-tony-soprano-444869.html.
Published: December 2007 rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/notorious_nj.html
Furthermore: Blackwell is a copy editor at the New York Post. Notorious New Jersey should not be confused with the popular Weird New Jersey books, which deal with offbeat or lighter-weight topics such as legends, unsolved mysteries and a family that keeps a bowling-ball collection on its front lawn.
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.