Many Americans enjoy researching family histories. But a Johnstown native who’s also a noted history writer takes the practice to a higher level in his new book.
Admittedly, Russell Shorto also had unusually rich material to work with. “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob” (W.W. Norton & Co.) is a painstakingly researched, multi-generational look at his grandfather’s career as a mobster in Johnstown, Cambria County, and how it affected those close to him.
Shorto was born in 1959, and his grandfather, also named Russell Shorto, lived until 1981. They knew each other, but “Smalltime” could easily never have happened.
Shorto is known for nonfiction books including “The Island at the Center of the World,” about the 17th-century North American Dutch colony New Netherlands, and “Revolution Song,” about the American Revolution. Yet the fascinating life of his own namesake ancestor might have remained unwritten if not for a chance encounter several years ago with an older relative who prodded him to look into it.
“He said to me, ‘Hey, you're a writer. What are you going to do about the story?’” said Shorto, in an interview held outdoors recently, in Johnstown’s Central Park. “And I realized, ‘I write history for a living. This is maybe a pretty cool history.’”
The elder Russell Shorto was the son of a Sicilian immigrant who, as teenager, started on the path that led him to become the brother-in-law and right-hand man of Joe Regino. Russ made his name as a gambler – “a cheat,” as Shorto puts it bluntly. Little Joe ran the mob that, in Shorto’s telling, basically ran Johnstown for decades.
At its post-World War II peak, the operation employed 100 and brought in millions each year in today’s dollars, mostly through gambling and nightclubs. But author Shorto’s father, Tony, never went into the “family business,” and Shorto himself split the struggling Rust Belt town after high school.
“The idea that my grandfather was involved in the mob is something that I always knew,” said Shorto, who now lives an hour away, in Cumberland, Md. “But there was a little bit of a family veil of silence, kind of an unofficial thing. You just didn't talk about it.”
The excavation process was revealing in ways both big-picture and personal. Searching archives and FBI documents, and filing Freedom of Information Act requests, Shorto uncovered the little-discussed history of small-town mobs, which like their big-city counterparts sprang up during Prohibition and continued flourishing into the 1960s. Regionally, they were active not just in Johnstown and the hub of Pittsburgh, but also in New Kensington, Greensburg, and Braddock, and all across the country.
“It was in Anchorage, Alaska; Butte, Montana; Amarillo, you know, in Schenectady,” said Shorto.
If the mob was especially prevalent in places with big concentrations of Italian-Americans, that was largely because Italians in those days were typically denied full rights, by custom if not law. Shorto learned that Italian-Americans – many of whom came to Western Pennsylvania for work in the coal mines -- couldn’t get jobs in the burgeoning steel mills, or even open bank accounts.
The mobsters crafted remunerative workarounds. “These guys admired American capitalism and they admired the titans of capitalism, you know, Astor and Carnegie and those guys,” said Shorto. “And they also admired the fact that they seem to get away with murder. You know, they could do whatever they wanted. So they kind of created their own system within that.”
Denied access to traditional banks, Russ and Little Joe started the “GI Bank,” a numbers game whose name was redolent of post-war patriotism. And indeed, says Shorto, “People thought when they were playing the numbers it was an investment.”
While Shorto doesn’t romanticize the mob, he does note that unlike their big-city counterparts, Johnstown’s small-timers kept out of drugs and prostitution. As he learned, Russ and Little Joe and their colleagues were simply woven into the fabric of Johnstown, whose population peaked at under 70,000 in the years before World War II. (It's less than one-third of that now.)
“Everybody in town, everybody I talked to over the age of like 75, knew them, was on a first-name basis with them,” he said. Shorto spoke while sitting by a park fountain less than one block from both City Cigar – the pool hall that served as Johnstown’s mob headquarters – and City Hall. Politicians and police were duly paid off, and police conducted regular pro forma raids to keep up appearances. “It was all in the open.”
Many of Shorto’s sources for “Smalltime” were survivors of the generation who came just after Russ and Little Joe, “all the younger guys who had looked up to them and admired them.”
“To them, these were great stories of back in the day when they were in their prime, and when the town was alive, so they were very forthcoming,” he said. “Almost everybody I talked to, in my family and out, just really wanted to talk about this story because … among other things, they wanted to correct the idea that the mob was only about, you know, murder and extortion and all that.” (Though it should be noted that portions of “Smalltime” center on the mysterious killing of a bookie.)
Many of these interviewees were made available through familial connections – and indeed, Shorto acknowledges, some agreed to talk only because his name was “Russell Shorto.” Eventually, the author acquired another, and unexpected research assistant: His father, Tony, who had never really spoken of his own father’s profession.
“The great thing about the book was that my dad was willing to do this with me,” said Shorto. “My dad lived in Johnstown all his life. He grew up admiring his father, but being kind of pushed aside by his father. So he had this real chip on his shoulder. And then he was willing to do this with me, to take me around town, to open doors.
“I mean, my dad knew the chief of police who gave me access to the town records. And there I saw, you know, arrests of my grandfather and all that kind of thing. I think in a way, it was a little bit like therapy for my dad, too.”
Tony Shorto died just as his son was completing research for “Smalltime.”
“For someone of my age, it was particularly meaningful because that was the most time I spent with my father since I was a kid,” he said. “And it was right at the end of his life and as we were trying to understand his relationship with his father.”