Major federal busts of the Bonanno and Gambino families earlier this month and the DeCavalcante family in 2015 suggest there’s there’s still a fair amount of Mafia activity in New York and New Jersey. But it's nothing on the scale of 40 or 50 years ago, when taking kickbacks from made guys was just how mayors got things got done. La Cosa Nostra diminished over time for a variety of reasons, from better law-enforcement to cultural assimilation to bloody infighting to changing economics. But even as the mob’s time-honored rackets started to run dry and The Sopranos convinced your baby-boomer parents to subscribe to HBO, New Jersey's real-life mafiosos remained a poorly understood bunch.
In Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey, out next month from Rowman & Littlefield, Mafia historian Scott M. Deitche—who we talked to about the bonds between cocktails and organized crime in 2015—provides a comprehensive survey of the mob in the state. We called him up to find out why New York gangsters get all the hype, who the lesser known (and most dynamic) New Jersey mobsters were, and, more recently, who—if anyone—The Sopranos were really based on. Here’s what he had to say.
To address the elephant in the room, experts and Mafia pundits have joked for years who The Sopranos are really based on, with the DeCavalcante family often described as the obvious answer. Where do you come down?
I think The Sopranos are kind of an amalgamation of different characters in the New Jersey underworld. It’s like The Godfather—who was he based on? People said [everyone] from Sam DeCavalcante to Carlo Gambino. I think its the same thing with Sopranos. There are people in the Lucchese family and the DeCavalcante family that could fit [the bill] for the characters. Of course, the DeCavalcante family was caught on an FBI wiretap comparing themselves and certain people in their crime family to Sopranos characters, so I think the DeCavalcantes being a smaller hometown, New Jersey Mafia family kind of mirrors The Sopranos in that sense.