Worcester mafia boss Frank Iaconi’s war with the Providence mob

by Steven R. Maher

Nicholas D. Braniff of Webster Massachusetts had a dog named Rowdy. One night in February 1938 Rowdy began living up to his name, barking loudly, furiously and incessantly. It was the beginning of an incredible chain of events that would destroy the political career of Massachusetts Governor Charles F. Hurley, lead to the impeachment of Governors’ Councilor Daniel H. Coakley, and spark an internecine Mafia gang war.

Braniff was convinced that Rowdy’s nonstop barking was being provoked by burglars inside the next door United Optical plant, which manufactured gold eyeglass frames, and where $8,000 in gold was stored. Braniff summoned patrolman Armand Tourangeau, and headquarters was contacted for reinforcements.

Tourangeau and five other officers surrounded the plant and, believing there were several intruders inside, called for the men to come out. The February 24, 1938 report in the Webster Times said one of the men emerged. “Put your hands in the air,” Tourangeau shouted, and fired a warning shot. The man surrendered.

The cops entered with flashlights and found another man hiding under a work table. “Come out, and with your hands up,” barked Tourangeau. The man, who gave his name as John Roma, complied. But John Roma was none other than Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca, the future Godfather of the New England Mafia. A gun was found nearby.

It was not Patriarca’s first Webster heist. In 1932 Patriarca was charged, together with Tony Santello and another man, with robbing at gun point $10,000 from the Webster National Bank. Patriarca was found not guilty of the 1932 robbery after the witnesses who identified him recanted their testimony at trial. This time Patriarca would not be so lucky; he was caught in the act by six cops, not defenseless civilians who could be bribed or threatened. In August 1938 Patriarca was sentenced to a three to five year prison term for the Webster burglary.

Outside the United Optical plant in Webster was Patriarca’s car, containing “..one of the most complete set of burglar tools ever seen in this part of New England…” A Worcester Telegram photograph of the suit case containing the burglar tools had a caption describing gloves, a drill, hammer, and pinch bar, all commonly used for safe cracking.

Inside this suit case police also found an oddly shaped gold pin that they realized came from a Brookline factory robbed of $12,000 in jewelry a few days earlier. The Brookline robbery had been an audacious job, since the place was located only two blocks from the police station. Patriarca held a gun to owner Clarence A. Wallbank as Wallbank opened up the company safe. After ordering Wallbank and two other victims to strip naked, Patriarca and his accomplices fled with their loot and, on the way out, threw away their victims’ clothes and stole Wallbank’s car.

Wallbank confirmed several items found in Patriarca’s car were from his factory and identified Patriarca in a Brookline court as one of the men who robbed him. In September 1938 Patriarca cut a deal. Patriarca agreed to two concurrent three to five year terms for the Brookline robbery and stealing Wallbank’s car, to be served concurrently (simultaneously) with the Webster sentence.

Law enforcement was satisfied, believing that the perpetrator of a number of unsolved robberies, a major figure in organized crime, had been put out of action.

Worcester native
Raymond Patriarca was born in Worcester on March 17, 1908 on Shrewsbury Street, the heart of Worcester’s Italian community. When Patriarca was three his family moved to Providence, where his immigrant father Eleuterio ran a package store.

In 1925 the seminal event of Patriarca’s emotional development occurred. His father died. The strong Italian family structure, which has produced so many legitimate success stories, was fractured in the Patriarca household. Patriarca later told Congressional investigators that his father’s death was the turning point, when he drifted into a life of crime. In his lifetime Patriarca was able to transform a small criminal backwater into a thriving multi-billion dollar illicit empire. It is interesting to speculate on what success Patriarca would have achieved in the legitimate world had his father lived to instill in him a stronger moral structure; one can easily picture Patriarca as the CEO of a highly profitable global conglomerate.

Patriarca began in the wild halcyon days of prohibition and quickly exhibited the organizational characteristics which were to one day make him a Don. He began as a guard for liquor shipments, moving swiftly up the ladder. There is a legend, probably apocryphal, that Patriarca arranged the hijacking of liquor shipments that he was hired to guard.

In 1927 Patriarca was arrested for a bootlegging offense – transporting liquor – and gave an address on Bonodow Street in Worcester. In addition to living in Worcester, there is record that Patriarca interned in the Worcester Mafia. A biographical sketch of Patriarca in the 1973 crime encyclopedia ‘Bloodletters and Badmen’ maintains that Patriarca started out as a soldier for Frank Iaconi and in 1933 superseded Iaconi.

“Frank Iaconi is the head of the gambling rackets in Worcester Massachusetts,” organized crime expert Virgil W. Peterson testified to the Senate Kefauver Committee. “Patriarca and Iaconi were associated together during rum-running days. Iaconi worked for the Patriarca gang as a Providence-Worcester agent. Booze was run between the two cities. Iaconi then left the bootlegging racket and began operating beano games, then horse betting, and then numbers.” Years later a central Massachusetts judge told the press: “Every schoolboy in Worcester knew he [Iaconi] controlled the gambling rackets.”

“Meek appearing, bespectacled, and a quiet dresser, Iaconi, for all his intimacy with politicians and other bigwigs, has always shunned notoriety,” wrote a Worcester Telegram reporter. “He has never been known to flaunt his power or wealth. Whether in Worcester, Rhode Island, Florida, or elsewhere, Iaconi has always shunned notoriety.”

The way Iaconi comported himself appears to have impressed Patriarca. Decades later, as a mob boss, Patriarca would dress well but conservatively, and travel without bodyguards. He displayed none of the flashy, gaudy excess of a John Gotti. In 1963 Patriarca was called to testify before a grand jury. Patriarca arrived alone, without any bodyguards, driving a Volkswagen. The waiting media overlooked him, expecting a Mafia boss to be driving a cadillac or chauffeured in a limousine, surrounded by a retinue of bodyguards. It was the type of low key approach Iaconi would have appreciated.

In 1929, according to Boston Globe reporters Gerard O’Neil and Dick Lehr in their biography “Underboss”, Patriarca became a made member of the New York Mafia. This is when the traditional ceremony would have taken place, in which Patriarca swore a blood oath by pricking his trigger finger to draw blood, holding in his hands a burning picture of a saint, and vowing eternal fealty to the Mafia. Seven decades later Patriarca’s son would be tape recorded by an FBI bug performing a similar induction ceremony for four new members.

This also means that Patriarca, aged 21, had likely “made his bones”, i.e., participated in a murder, the other prerequisite to Mafia membership.

The Knave of Boston

Patriarca was born on Saint Patrick’s Day, a happy coincidence that Patriarca must have used as a conversational lubricant with the Irish politicians he dealt with. One Irish politician Patriarca oiled well was Governors Councilor Daniel H. Coakley.

Coakley became a rogue long before he crossed paths with Patriarca. “Clever enough to have made an honest fortune, he preferred trickery, the double deal, turning the tables,” wrote Francis Russell in his vivid illustration of Coakley in an American Heritage Magazine article, aptly titled ‘The Knave of Boston’. An attorney, Coakley started out as a 19th century version of an ambulance chaser, specializing in representing clients who suffered injuries while using public street cars.

Coakley graduated to criminal defense lawyer and bagman. Criminals would pay Coakley a large amount of money, Coakley would meet with an assistant district attorney and the charges would be dropped. “Some of the less sympathetic would even call it bribery,” writes Russell. “Coakley considered it more a matter of oiling the wheels of justice.”

More lucrative for Coakley was the “badger game”, in which Coakley maneuvered wealthy married men into compromising situations with comely young maidens and have them photographed. Coakley would then appear on the scene and offer, in exchange for exorbitant fees, to hush up the situation. Playing the “badger game”, Coakley drained several wealthy Bostonians out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Coakley later claimed that by 1922 he had accumulated $800,000 in cash in two hotel strong boxes.

In 1932 Coakley made the transition from paying bribes to accepting bribes. He was elected to the Governor’s Council. “The council had been around since colonial times, and consisted of eight members whose primary responsibility was confirming the governor’s judicial nominations, as well as his commutations and pardons,” Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr wrote in his book ‘The Brothers Bulger’. “[T]he governor needed to have a majority of the eight councilors permanently on his side. Whoever the governor was, Democrat or Republican, rogue or reformer, he would almost always be willing to toss a few bones their way – judgeships, and clerkships, as well as the occasional pardon.”

Offer he couldn’t refuse
Patriarca’s brother Joseph now appears in our chronicle. Joseph Patriarca would act as his brother’s surrogate over the years. In 1981 the Boston Globe reported that Joseph Patriarca and other associates held the Patriarca crime family together in the late 1960s, when Raymond went to prison for murder.

In early December 1938 Joseph Patriarca met with Coakley twice. The first meeting was for two hours at Coakley’s Parker House room. Coakley clearly understood it would be easier to arrange a pardon of Patriarca for the Webster burglary than for the far more serious Brookline armed robbery.

One newspaper account of the House committee impeachment proceedings summed up what happened next: “[T]hose persons interested in the Raymond L.S. Patriarca case succeeded by the payment of money in influencing certain important government witnesses in the prosecution of said Patriarca for the armed robbery at C.H. Wallbank Co., in Brookline, and that these people were not averse to spending substantial sums of money in said Patriarca’s interest and were familiar with the people and methods necessary to accomplish the results they desired.”

Coakley advised Joseph Patriarca to visit Clarence Wallbank, who had identified Patriarca as the man who had robbed him. Joseph Patriarca saw Wallbank on two occasions and made Wallbank the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. Wallbank allegedly received $7,000, and probably had his life threatened. Whatever happened, from that point on Wallbank did everything he was told. Joseph Patriarca told Wallbank to see Coakley with a letter urging his brother’s pardon. Coakley read Wallbank’s letter, said it was insufficient, and threw it away. Coakley then dictated to his own stenographer a more satisfactory letter, which the compliant Wallbank signed.

According to the impeachment record, Coakley on December 14, 1938 “willfully, wrongfully, and corruptly prepared a petition with a statement appended thereto, then seeking the said Raymond L. S. Patriarca’s pardon of the crime of breaking and entering, containing many misrepresentations of fact and worded with a purpose to deceive the Governor and members of the Council.” On December 21, 1938 Coakley hand delivered the petition to Governor Hurley, who signed it. Coakley lobbied his fellow councilors to approve the pardon. Raymond Patriarca walked out of prison after having served 84 days. “Every scrap of officialdom’s red tape was cut to expedite Patriarca’s pardon,” sneered the Worcester Telegram.

What gratuity did Coakley garner for arranging Patriarca’s pardon? No dollar figure was ever proven. But during the impeachment proceedings it was determined that Coakley had deposited huge sums of cash into his bank account every year after being elected to the Governor’s Council. The year Patriarca received the pardon, Coakley deposited $28,995 in cash into his bank account.

“Virtuous young man”
There had been controversy before about the pardon system. But there had been nothing as glaring as this. Patriarca’s arrest had been big news, the subject of front page screaming headlines in the Worcester Telegram. Patriarca’s pardon provoked a firestorm almost unique in state history. An infamous and violent criminal had obviously bought his way to freedom. The media lambasted Hurley, Coakley, and the Governors’ Council. There were cries of outrage from every quarter, calls for impeachment, editorials urging investigations, and demands that the Governors’ Council be abolished.

Hurley’s political viability was destroyed; signing Patriarca’s pardon was signing his own political death warrant. Even more catastrophic consequences awaited Coakley. In 1941 he earned the dubious distinction of being the only state official in 120 years to be impeached. Of the fourteen articles of impeachment, half dealt with the Patriarca pardon. One of the other counts, not related to Patriarca, accused Coakley of soliciting a $2,500 bribe to grant a pardon. Among the charges relating to Patriarca:

● The pardon petition stated that it was supported by three priests: Reverend Philip Guarino, Father Sextus Brambilla, and Father Fagen. Writes Russell: “In a deposition Father Guarino denied that he had ever talked to anyone about Patriarca’s pardon, or ever authorized the use of his name. Father Brambilla deposed that his signature had been obtained by fraud, since he had been told that Patriarca’s record consisted merely of minor juvenile delinquencies. Father Fagen turned out to be completely nonexistent.”

● The pardon petition claimed, “In the Dedham Court, Wallbank and his secretary positively said that he [Patriarca] was not one of the men in that hold up..” Wallbank had never appeared in the Dedham Court; he had sworn in the Brookline court that Patriarca was one of the hold up men.

● The pardon request said that “..it is admitted by all that he, Patriarca, was wholly guiltless of the more serious offense of armed robbery,” when in fact Patriarca had pled guilty to armed robbery.

● Patriarca was depicted by Coakley as a twenty two year old who had erred chiefly through inexperience and running with bad company. Patriarca was in fact thirty years old at the time of the pardon, with a long criminal record.

● One claim was so ludicrous that it sounds like an inside joke. One can picture Joseph Patriarca and Coakley guffawing loudly as a line was inserted into the pardon petition saying Patriarca was “a virtuous young man eager to be released from prison so that he might go home to his mother.” The “virtuous” Patriarca’s arrest record at this point included charges for adultery, “lewd cohabitation” with a woman, and transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. One account of the pardon episode concludes: “The record showed Patriarca did go home but only for a change of clothing. He then departed with a blonde to Miami Beach.”

In October 1941 the Massachusetts Senate voted to remove Coakley from the Governor’s Council. Patriarca’s pardon was the catalyst; without such a blatant overreach Coakley would have remained in office.

Worcester gang war
Watching all this from Worcester, Iaconi sensed weakness on Patriarca’s part. Virgil Peterson told the Kefauver Committee what happened next: “In 1940, when Daniel H. Coakley, a member of the Governor’s Council in Massachusetts, was impeached for obtaining the release of Patriarca from the Massachusetts State Penitentiary, Iaconi informed Patriarca that he should stay out of Worcester.”

This set off a brief but interesting war between Patriarca’s Providence faction and Iaconi’s Worcester operation. The Hollywood version of a 1940s Mafia war involves gangsters with submachine guns mowing down their enemies. This war was different. Patriarca struck not at Iaconi but at Iaconi’s money. It was as if Patriarca was a corporate leader out to reassert his authority over a distant subsidiary, eager to exert control, while preserving his operating assets and seasoned personnel. Patriarca’s use of violence was extremely sophisticated and surprisingly surreptitious.

Iaconi’s money was out in the open, on the street in gambling dens. It could be hit. Patriarca had good intelligence. He knew Worcester well, having lived there in the 1920s and 1930s. He also had blood relatives in Worcester and, most likely, informants inside the Worcester Mafia. Patriarca sent his gunmen into Worcester to raid Iaconi’s gambling parlors. Instead of leaving bullet riddled bodies in the street, which would attract media attention, Patriarca resorted to robberies that went largely unnoticed by the press.

“There were about four robberies in a very few days,” said Peterson. “One of them involved Tony Santello, who handed over $21,000.” Santello was arrested along with Patriarca in the 1932 Webster National Bank robbery.

“Four days later there was a robbery of a Worcester barroom where Iaconi, a high city official, and four others were present,” continued Peterson. “After another robbery of an Iaconi gambling joint on Green Street in Worcester of $19,000, Patriarca was invited to come to Worcester and make peace with Iaconi. Since that time the Iaconi-Patriarca alliance has been functioning smoothly. Iaconi’s monopoly of gambling in Worcester is an important part of Patriarca’s gambling set up in that particular area.”

The Kefauver Committee was established by the U.S. Senate to investigate organized crime, and named after committee chairman Senator Estes Kefauver. After hearing Peterson’s testimony in 1950, Kefauver himself said the committee would examine Iaconi’s tax returns. This triggered an Internal Revenue Service investigation of Iaconi, who was indicted on five counts in February 1953 of failing to pay a total of $217,875 in taxes on $350,000 in rackets revenue. The indictment alleged Iaconi had tried to wash clean his gambling receipts by funneling cash through three legitimate enterprises in Worcester.

When he came to trial in July 1954 Iaconi had only two years left to live. He faced the real prospect of dying in prison. Iaconi probably could have cut a deal with prosecutors to give up Patriarca in exchange for his own freedom. But to use today’s vernacular, Iaconi was a “stand up guy”. Frank Iaconi showed himself to be a true Mafioso who would rather die in jail than give up his Don. He pled guilty to one count and served eleven months in federal prison in Danbury Connecticut. Not long after being released from prison Iaconi, already in bad health, died of natural causes.

By then Patriarca had become the Godfather of the New England Mafia, and one of the most powerful and flamboyant mobsters on the east coast. He was a member of the Mafia’s ruling council, the “commission”, and part owner of a large Las Vegas casino. At the pinnacle of his power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Patriarca’s influence in Rhode Island seemed all-pervading. Patriarca in one episode called up the Governor of Rhode Island to resolve a class scheduling conflict his son was having at the University of Rhode Island. Rhode Island Speaker of the House Joseph A. Bevilacqua, a future state supreme court chief justice, gave Patriarca a reference letter in 1973 for a parole request. It was a long way from Nicholas Braniff’s barking dog in Webster.

Patriarca maintained his ties with Worcester. “Patriarca frequently met with friends and business associates in Worcester over the years,” the Worcester Telegram reported when Patriarca died of natural causes in July 1984. “Patriarca also admitted to investigators he had attended the so-called ‘Little Apalachin’ conclave of East Coast mobsters at the former Bancroft Hotel on Franklin Street in Worcester in 1959.”

City Manager
Organized crime flourished in Worcester in the 1940s due to police and political corruption. The same grand jury that indicted Iaconi in 1953 also indicted a retired Worcester police lieutenant who was in charge of the vice squad during the 1940s. In 1946 Iaconi and Councilman Philip F. Sullivan were sued by a diemaker claiming he lost $19,000 betting on horses in an Iaconi Franklin Street gambling den. Reformers seized on the incident to claim that Worcester’s political structure was particularly vulnerable to organized crime subversion, and in 1947 passed the “Plan E” strong City Manager form of government. For the next sixty years, whenever serious attempts were made to amend the city charter, the Mafia bogeyman was trotted out, particularly by the Worcester Telegram, as an argument against any fundamental change to Worcester’s civic institutions.

Others were to assert that Worcester’s White Anglo Saxon Protestant business community foisted Plan E on Worcester less as measure to disempower the Mafia than as a means to avert a total takeover of city hall by Irish Catholic politicians. If this truly was the motive, the effort backfired completely when Francis J. McGrath became City Manager in 1951. For the next thirty four years McGrath successfully triangulated between the WASP business community and the Irish Catholic politicians, finding common ground between two mutually antagonistic ethnic groups, while putting a particularly Irish face on city government.

The process by which Worcester adopted the strong City Manager form of government, and how the Mafia was used as a justification for retaining Plan E, will be the subject of a feature story in an upcoming issue of the InCity Times.

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