Where do mob nicknames come from?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Feb. 7 2008 5:29 PM

Where Do Mob Nicknames Come From?

The origin of "Tommy Sneakers," "The Greaseball," and "Bobby the Jew."

State and federal agents took the entire Gambino family hierarchy into custody Thursday, along with dozens of other accused mobsters. Among those named in the indictment (PDF) are Thomas Cacciopoli ("Tommy Sneakers"), Domenico Cefalu ("The Greaseball"), Robert Epifania ("Bobby the Jew"), and Michael Urciuoli ("Mike the Electrician"). In an "Explainer" column published in 2005 and reprinted below, Daniel Engber traced the origin of mob nicknames.

On Friday, the convicted Chicago mobster Frank "Frankie Breeze" Calabrese pleaded innocent to a new charge of racketeering. Calabrese is one of 14 alleged mobsters who were indicted two weeks ago, at the conclusion of a long-running FBI investigation. Among those fingered are Frank "Gumba" Saladino, Paul "The Indian" Schiro, Frank "The German" Schweihs, and the apparent kingpin of the Chicago mafia, Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo. Where do mobsters get their nicknames?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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From family members, childhood friends, business associates, newspaper reporters, or the police. Not every mobster has a nickname, and some have more than one. Chicago boss Anthony Accardo, for example, was known to his colleagues as "Joe Batters." He got the name from Al Capone after he dealt out a pair of savage beatings with a baseball bat: "This kid is a real joe batters," Scarface said. But the press called Accardo "Big Tuna," after seeing a photograph of him on a sport-fishing expedition.

"Joey the Clown" Lombardo earned his nickname from the press, thanks to his fondness for zany public behavior and cheesy jokes. At the conclusion of one of his trials, Lombardo attempted to elude newspaper photographers by converting a newspaper into a makeshift mask with eye-holes and racing out of the courtroom. At a subsequent trial, Lombardo explained to reporters that a piece of his jewelry was made from "canarly stone": "You 'canarly' see it," he said.

Mobsters may not like the nicknames they get from reporters and cops. Tony "The Ant" Spilotro (whose murder almost 20 years ago plays a major role in the recent indictments in Chicago) got his from FBI agent Bill Roemer, who had tried to spread the longer and less polite nickname "Pissant" to his buddies in the press. New Yorker Carmine "Junior" Persico was given the unflattering name "The Snake" by a police officer. Persico hated it, especially after "The Snake" caught on among some fellow criminals.

Mobsters sometimes use nicknames with each other to avoid easy identification by the feds. The mob boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante (whose nickname was short for "Vincenzo") insisted that his name never be spoken aloud. His wiseguys were told instead to rub their fingers across their chin or, at one point, to refer to him as their "Aunt Julia." Meanwhile, the press dubbed Gigante "The Oddfather" after he began posing as a schizophrenic in the late 1960s.

Former head of the Gambino crime family John Gotti took pride in the fact that he had no nickname among his peers—everyone knew who you meant if you said "John." Members of the press called him the "Dapper Don," the "Teflon Don," and, following his conviction in 1992, the "Velcro Don."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jerry Capeci of Ganglandnews.com and Allan May of AmericanMafia.com.