The ruthless mafia don who ruled Philadelphia
Even in the bloody world of the East Coast mafia, Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo was regarded as a man of exceptional brutality. As head of the Philadelphia–southern New Jersey mob in the 1980s, the 5-foot-5 kingpin gleefully lashed out at allies and enemies alike, ordering dozens of killings. In 1981, he arranged the Christmastime slaying of Philadelphia Roofers Union boss John McCullough, who was shot dead in his kitchen by a poinsettia-carrying deliveryman. Three years later, Scarfo had one of his top lieutenants, Salvatore Testa, executed in a candy store because he thought the young mobster was getting too popular. “What Little Nicky lacked in height,” said prosecutor Louis Pichini in 1988, “he more than made up for in viciousness.”
Scarfo was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., “to an Italian immigrant family from Naples and Calabria,” said The New York Times. His parents weren’t involved in the mob, but three of his uncles were, and after establishing a reputation as a “notoriously volatile amateur boxer,” Scarfo moved to Philadelphia to work for them as a numbers runner. His career was interrupted in 1963, when he was convicted of manslaughter for stabbing a dockworker to death in a diner following an argument over a seat. Scarfo’s bosses thought he was too hotheaded, and after his release from prison six months later, exiled him to Atlantic City. It “turned out to be an ideal location” for a budding gangster, said The Times (U.K.). The city saw a casino boom following the legalization of gambling there in 1976, and Scarfo became the mob’s man on the scene. His construction companies poured concrete for new gambling palaces, including one that opened as Harrah’s at Trump Plaza, and he skimmed the coffers of the casino workers’ union. Scarfo began to rise rapidly through the ranks, and in 1981 became head of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra.
“Well-groomed and always meticulously dressed, Scarfo relished his role as a mafia don,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer. He openly boasted about the murders he’d committed and the convictions he’d dodged. But Scarfo’s penchant for violence would be his undoing—fearing for their lives, several of his associates entered a witness protection scheme and provided testimony that brought down the mob boss. He was convicted on racketeering and murder charges in 1988 and was serving a 55-year sentence when he died in prison.