By Matthew Barnidge
Concordia Parish, like the rest of Louisiana, has a long and storied gambling tradition that dates to the earliest periods of settlement.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Cosa Nostra mafia organization, allied with U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long and later Gov. Earl K. Long, monopolized and capitalized on vice in the state like never before, ushering in a hoard of one-armed bandits and call-girls that invaded every corner of Louisiana.
Prostitution was never a secret in Concordia Parish nor was gambling and for a period of time Ferriday may have been the only town in the country with a slot machine in the U.S. Post Office.
An examination by The Sentinel of FBI reports, state archival material and books reveals the New York Cosa Nostra mafia organization formed and maintained an alliance with the Long political machine and established a criminal network that reached out from New Orleans into every corner of the state, including Concordia Parish.
At the heart of the enterprise was Carlos Marcello, the mafia don who first gained control of vice in New Orleans and later much of Louisiana. The Sentinel’s review is part of its ongoing examination of this corruption and how it grew statewide from the 1930s to its height in the 1960s.
When LIFE Magazine reported in 1967 that Carlos "Marcello-controlled brothels and gambling joints in Vidalia, La...continue to flourish," Dist. Atty. W.C. Falkenheiner subpoenaed the LIFE writer before a parish Grand Jury. Vidalia Mayor Sidney Murray said at the time that the report caused "great harm" to Vidalia.
Falkenheiner didn't deny that prostitution and gambling had long existed in the parish, but noted that he had personally shut down the notorious Morville Lounge in 1967 after being elected District Attorney in late 1966. He said efforts were underway to totally eradicate both vices from the parish.
He wrote LIFE about the story, noting, "I do not believe that your statement as given is correct, but the principal purpose of this letter is not to engage in any controversy with you but to solicit your cooperation with my office in exposing and putting an immediate and permanent end to these conditions..."
INVITATION & OPERATION
Were it not for the Long brothers, the mafia's firm grip on gambling and prostitution may not have been so formidable.
FBI files on Huey and Earl Long recently reviewed by The Sentinel confirm the existence of a relationship between the Longs and New York Cosa Nostra boss Frank Costello.
Southeastern Louisiana history professor Michael Kurtz, in his book, “Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics,” claims U.S. Sen. Huey Long first met Costello near Costello’s home in Sands Point, New York, in 1933.
A June 21, 1939, FBI letter from New Orleans agent B. E. Sackett notes that during "the early part of 1933, the late Senator Huey P. Long is supposed to have entered into a deal in New York City with Frank Costello and Phil Kaistel, whereby they were to have exclusive rights to place slot machines in the city of New Orleans."
Likewise, an FBI crime survey dated October 15, 1948, says when in 1934 "Mayor LaGuardia ran slot machines out of New York City, Costello and his lieutenant, Phil Kaistel, made a tie-up with the late Huey P. Long in Louisiana and took over the slot machine racket in New Orleans.”
Costello admitted to the relationship in testimony before a special committee of the U.S. Congress in 1951. He said he met with Long at the New Yorker Hotel in 1934, adding that they already knew one another at that point. Costello said he started his slot machine operations in Louisiana in 1935, with an invitation from Long.
FBI records show Costello ran his business through a front, Louisiana Mint Company, and used Kaistel as his Louisiana lieutenant. Costello admitted to receiving more than $70,000 in profits from this company in 1944.
Records also show the Longs enlisted their political allies in New Orleans, including Mayor Robert Maestri, Roosevelt Hotel owner Seymour Weiss, and Dock Board member Abe Shushan, to work with the mafia vice syndicate.
A July 25, 1936, letter from the FBI’s New Orleans field office to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said, “Seymour Weiss and Robert Maestri are generally credited with the management of the slot machines,” which are “controlled by New York.” As the Long machine unopposed Democratic Party nominee, Maestri was elected mayor of New Orleans in 1936.
Louisiana State University history professor Alicia Long said Maestri “was essentially given the office of Mayor of New Orleans because of his stroke inside the Long machine.”
The FBI reported several instances where Long cronies were receiving payoffs, including to one Long associate, Clem Shert, who was receiving $8,000 per week through a levee board employee who collected the money from the owner of the Marine Bar Room, codenamed “Mabel,” at 731 Conti Street in New Orleans.
THE NEW ORLEANS AREA
In New Orleans itself, FBI documents report that the mafia installed slot machines in any establishment they could and notified Hoover that “throughout the city of New Orleans, in practically every bar-room, restaurant and drug store, there are slot machines, all of which are branded ‘Chief,’” the brand distributed by the mafia syndicate.
The operation counted on cooperation from local and state police. New Orleans detective John Grosch said he “knew better than to touch the slot machines.”
In a May 27, 1939, memorandum to Hoover, the FBI New Orleans field office detailed the existence of casinos in both Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes and asserted the syndicate also controlled prostitution.
Just as the operations in New Orleans required police cooperation, the report indicates Jefferson Parish Sheriff Frank Clancy protected vice operations in his jurisdiction. This type of cooperation from parish sheriffs, who were important political figures in their own right, allowed the mafia vice operation to extend beyond the New Orleans area, providing powerful allies in rural parishes, records indicate.
The operation in the New Orleans area created the blueprint for expansion of the vice syndicate into other parts of the state. The mafia syndicate operated with the blessing of state and local politicians, and with the protection of state and local law enforcement. In most cases, the politicians and the police officers received payoffs for their cooperation.
EARL & THE STATE POLICE
After Huey’s death in 1935, the Long machine rallied around Earl Long and his cronies. Long and Maestri met with Costello in Arkansas in 1936 to solidify their deal with the mobster in which they would receive payoffs in exchange for non-enforcement of gambling laws. Kurtz also asserts Costello gave a sizable contribution to Long’s 1940 campaign for governor.
But the 1940s ushered in an era of reform in Louisiana as the people elected Sam Jones in 1940 and Jimmie Davis in 1944. It seemed Long’s political career was over. Maestri followed him into the political wilderness after de Lesseps Morrison unseated him as New Orleans mayor in 1946.
Despite the political reform movement, the mafia syndicate maintained its vice empire, records show. After an initial crackdown on vice in the state during the early 1940s, the vice issue largely dropped off the agenda and the slot machines and cat houses crept back in.
Kurtz wrote that in Louisiana many politicians switched sides and some anti-Long reformers even cooperated with the Long machine and the mafia syndicate.
New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission member Aaron Kohn, a recent arrival from Chicago at this point, said in that 1967 LIFE Magazine article that “in Chicago, people were generally on one side of the fence of the other – honest or crooked. But in Louisiana, there just isn’t any fence.”
By the time Earl Long reclaimed the governor’s post in 1948, the mob renewed the alliance with the Long machine.
The mafia vice syndicate survived another major police crackdown during the Gov. Robert Kennon administration when in 1953, the State Police, under the command of Lieutenant Francis Grevemberg, raided club after club, shutting down gambling joints and cat houses, and smashing up slot machines. A 1956 FBI Crime Report proclaimed the state police had "practically wiped out organized gambling" in the state.
But the syndicate held on and voters returned Earl Long to the governor's office. The same crime survey said “slot machines and other forms of gambling would come back when the new administration takes over.”
Grevemberg opposed Long for governor, running on an independent reform platform in 1956. He finished fifth and last in the race.
Long quickly reversed many of Kennon and Grevemberg’s policies, but continued to use state police crackdowns whenever convenient in order to provide the appearance he was doing something about vice.
MARCELLO -- THE 'LITTLE MAN'
The 5 foot 2 inch, Tunisian-born Sicilian Calogero Minacore, later called Carlos Marcello, came up in Costello’s organization in the 1930s. By 1948, the “Little Man” had gained control of the Louisiana vice syndicate and would bring it to every part of the state, including Concordia Parish, FBI records say. A 1969 report on organized crime to the mayor of New Orleans identified Marcello as an independent boss with the Cosa Nostra organization. The aforementioned 1967 LIFE magazine article claimed Marcello set up a semi-autonomous fiefdom in Louisiana, acting without instruction from New York but typically following the edicts of Cosa Nostra bosses.
The FBI began tracking Marcello around 1948. In a crime survey from October 15 of that year, Marcello’s name appears for the first time, giving a brief description of his personal history and criminal record, noting that Marcello had “the keys to the front door of Angola since Governor Earl K. Long has gone into power.”
A Congressional committee interrogated Marcello in 1959, but Marcello took the fifth amendment in response to almost every question, while an FBI agent informed Hoover that Long had received $120,000 in payoffs from the Marcello organization.
Marcello and his family controlled casinos in Jennings, Lafayette, Bossier City, West Baton Rouge and Morgan City. He owned an estate in Marrero called Churchill Farms, and controlled a corporation with the same name. He and his organization also controlled strip clubs, bookies, restaurants, bars, jukebox companies and a coin-operated machine company called Jefferson Music Company, which legally provided vending and pinball machines and may have illegally provided slot machines.
Marcello’s organization penetrated all parts of Louisiana, most often through the cooperation of parish sheriffs.
“Whenever possible, Marcello is kind to sheriffs,” wrote LIFE.
Yet Marcello did not invent the idea of cooperating with parish sheriffs. A May 27, 1939, memorandum from the New Orleans field office to Hoover said “the sheriff of the parish is generally conceded to be the political leader and in control of the political situation,” adding that “gambling and other vice is controlled, in the large, by local interests.”
The FBI maintained a file on notorious St. Landry Parish Sheriff D.J. “Cat” Doucet, a Long machine ally who may have protected Marcello’s interests in the parish.
Following the model Costello and Kaistel established in South Louisiana, Marcello extended mafia control of vice into all parts of the state, including influence in Concordia Parish.
In east central Louisiana in the 1960s, mafia activity formed an unlikely alliance with several resurging Ku Klux Klan organizations, which were experiencing popularity boosts because of resistance to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“In one section of east central Louisiana, Marcello controls gambling and other vice with muscle provided by the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote LIFE.
(Editor's Note: Matt Barnidge is a graduate student in journalism at LSU and is interning at the Concordia Sentinel this summer.)