Author: Nicholas Kardaras, director
Documentary filmmaker, also program director at the Tribeca Film Festival
The Horseshoe club – long accused of ties to the mafia – seemed a logical place to start “Bloods and Sharks,” the title of our latest documentary.
Located on the upper floors of a South Philadelphia office building, this gentrified watering hole has been a hotspot of and symbol of organized crime in the city since its inception in the early 20th century.
Though Prohibition technically ended in 1933, thanks to the increasing popularity of rum-running and bootlegging by members of the northbound banditos, the Para-Mafia police – mostly made up of Sicilian locals (as many as a quarter of the local police force was once based in South Philly) – continued to patrol the streets, enforcing different criminal statutes (attempted extortion, carjacking, burglary, etc.) than their bosses in Italy.
The Horseshoe had become a club notorious for protecting the “boss’s” interests. In October 1958, 10 Horseshoe captains affiliated with La Cosa Nostra (the “Madman’s Circle” or Cosa Nostra) were sentenced to death. Soon after, Santo Trafficante’s men seized control of the club and began to execute its enemies.
Two women were shot in the club, shooting and killing club member Michael Gallo. The assassination marked the beginning of a 33-year battle between the Sicilian mobsters and Trafficante’s Colombo family. With the Horseshoe on the ropes, though, three local thugs created a sort of ‘Racketeering Unit’ of Horseshoe officers, police and city government representatives, with the express purpose of shutting down Horseshoe events and infiltration.
The legendary Horseshoe clubs began folding throughout the city, like the Crannog, the Satteros and others. And in what would prove to be an important decision, Mayor Cunningham vetoed the Philly Horseshoe’s centennial in 1977. There’s a reason it was the last of its kind, he explained.
Before Crime City: Networking, Renewal and the Rise of Gangs in South Philadelphia, was built, Cunningham himself joined in an informal boxing match, downing a pint or two of stout against James Russo, another historian. His reasoning? Cunningham viewed gangsterism – much less its mafia cousin – as a lesser evil than street violence.
This disagreement has borne fruit for seven years, and it could have ended if only Cunningham and Russo had found a more grudging winner. In 2002, in the wake of the Pittsburgh cartel scandal, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker threw his support behind “Soprano’s Murder Inc.” (an amalgamation of six mob groups), which was poised to expand and become a key feature of the much-derided “Menace to Society” initiative.
All of a sudden, you had all these real mob bosses playing baseball, watching kick-boxing, and watching Colts games, where they could possibly have their own teams, then about to count down the days until they could hit baseballs and make their own teams again.
The tragedy, of course, is that the bar never materialized, but the Horseshoe, used as a venue for conversations about crime and corruption, more than made up for it.
“Bloods and Sharks” follows a reporter, a television producer and a novelist as they set out to build an oral history, through interviews, in order to cast light on a forgotten, little-known chapter of Philadelphia history. What we hope to achieve is a deeper understanding of a complicated time when the South Philly mafia lived up to its name in driving social trends and solving the city’s social problems while ensuring that it remained a safe place to come of age and raise a family.
Edited by Adam Koussner
Produced by Rachel Forman, Katie Forrer, Adam Koussner, Nicholas Kardaras, Michael Lusher, Justin Weinberger, David Sullivan, Dan Borden, Stephanie Langley, Kurt Rhyne, Paul Zemmelman, Katie Roche, J’aime Brice, The British Hollywood Reporter