Friday, July 25, 2008

Mob Tours

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NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. – When the mob takes you for a ride, don’t expect to be home any time soon.

When Michael Rizzo, founder of Mob Tours, takes you for a ride, it takes about 90 minutes and some of the highlights along the way include former hideouts, hangouts and homes of Niagara Falls, N.Y.'s best-known criminals.

Some of the history he talks about on the tour relates to former mafia don Stefano Magaddino and his brothers, Gaspare and Nino, who ruled Western New York with iron fists.

“There are about a dozen locations that we go past, and we tell some stories about bookmaking and the history of Stefano Magaddino,” said Rizzo. “Everything is from the 1920s to the 1970s. We talk about prohibition, bootlegging, and we see some sites where there were some bombings, murders, bookmaking operations and where people lived.”

Rizzo, 43, a businessman, author and historian, came up with the idea about five years ago. He started research because there is so much history shared between the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., criminal activity and the mob.

He put it aside for awhile, then last year decided to look into running a tour.

Mob Tours opened in mid-June and will run weekends and holidays. Reservations can be made through the website, Tickets cost $29.95.

Rizzo said while the Magaddinos were alive, the city was known as a sin centre.

“We just try to capture some of that former drama and entertain our visitors for a short time, so that they have another reason to remember their visit to the Falls.”

Rizzo said historical accuracy is an important aspect of the tour. While there is very little information available about Magaddino in general circulation, as a researcher he knew where to find it and is now making it available with his tour.

He hopes the tour appeals to fans of organized crime, "The Sopranos," or mafia movies.

Included is a stop at the Magaddino Museum, which features one-of-a-kind memorabilia from the Magaddinos era and the Niagara Falls mob.

Magaddino, known to be involved in the bookmaking and bootlegging trades, was a respected – and feared – head of the mafia in the 1930s and early 1940s.

He controlled a considerable amount of territory in the Buffalo and Niagara area and had influence in southern Ontario, especially in the Toronto-Hamilton area.

“People in the circle obviously knew him. He had a large territory, but he was not well documented over the years. He didn’t make a lot of press noise, so up until Apalachin in 1957 he was pretty much unknown,” said Rizzo.

The infamous Apalachin crime 'conference' – a meeting of the most powerful mafia heads of the day, coming from The U.S., Italy and Canada – was held Nov. 14, 1957 at the home of mobster Joseph 'Joe the Barber' Barbara in Apalachin, N.Y.

Police became suspicious after they noticed expensive cars with licence plates from around the country starting to arrive. Officers raided the meeting, causing mafiosi to flee into the woods and the surrounding area.

The get-together proved disastrous for the mob, and many underworld bosses were detained and indicted. That meeting confirmed for the first time the existence of a national crime syndicate.

Until then, the Federal Bureau of Investigations refused to acknowledge such a thing even existed.

That meeting was planned as an opportunity for some of the most powerful mafiosi to socialize and resolve problems within their organization relating to gambling, casinos and narcotics operations.

Appalachin has been referred to in a number of movies, including the 1990 film "Goodfellas," 1999's "Analyze This," and in the novel "The Godfather Returns."

Don Stefano Magaddino was known as “the undertaker,” because the family owned a funeral parlour in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

“The funeral home is about half a mile from the casino and it was open until the 1990s. It’s now sitting vacant,” said Rizzo.

At one time, there was talk of turning that property into a mob museum, but nothing has materialized.

Asked if he had concerns about his own safety for starting a business that tells mob stories, Rizzo said it crossed his mind. But he’s basically talking about “ancient history,” he said, because Magaddino has been dead more than 30 years.

“Most of the family is out of the area, but there are a few people still around,” said Rizzo. “After Stefano died, the (mob) family changed hands so his family is not in it any longer.”

He noted the tour is more about the history of Stefano Magaddino and his relationship with the city, and not necessarily about the Niagara Falls or Buffalo mafia.

“I’m actually surprised that there aren't any books about him yet, considering how long it has been since he died. And that he had such a big area, you would think someone would want to put a book out about him,” said Rizzo.

Magaddino has been mentioned in books, but nothing has been written specifically on him.

While his name was often associated with the city of Buffalo – and one book on the mafia even referred to him as the old don of Buffalo – he lived in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and later in Lewiston, N.Y.

In November 1968, the FBI raided Stefano’s home in Lewiston, along with several others that belonged to members of his family including his son, Peter Magaddino. The father and son were arrested and charged with interstate bookmaking. One source says when the FBI searched Peter Magaddino’s home, they uncovered close to $500,000 in cash inside a bedroom wall. Another source claims the money was found in a suitcase under a bed.

The street where the family lived in Lewiston was referred to as Mafia Row.

Stefano Magaddino, who had a number of heart ailments over the years, died of a heart attack in hospital July 19, 1974. He was 82. He is remembered for being a crime boss for more than 50 years – possibly the longest reign in history.

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