The Lion, the Midget, the Warlord

lioncoverCrazy Joe Gallo got a bullet in the head in April of 1972. I wrote a post about it here. He was celebrating his birthday in the early hours at Umberto’s Clam House when gunmen came in through the back door and started blasting.

Joe overturned the table and made it outside but died in the street. It was the end of the Gallo brother’s dream of forming their own Mafia family.

But back in the 1950s that dream was still alive. Joe, elder brother Larry (the brains of the outfit), and younger bother Albert (‘Kid Blast’) were up and coming foot soldiers in the Colombo crime family. They ran their own corner of Brooklyn for the family, collecting debts and protection money, and hustling any opportunities that came their way.

The three brothers were the Mafia warlords of their block. They had money, guns … and a real life lion in the basement. And a little person club-owning friend to walk him through the Brooklyn streets.

Diversity in Action

 The Gallo crew was distinctly nontraditional in Mafia terms. Joe and his brothers were Italian-Americans but the gang was open to tough guys from other backgrounds.

Louie Hubella (The Syrian) was a gunman with a brain who acted as consigliere to the Gallo brothers. Hubella owned the Court Terrace Lounge on Atlantic Avenue where he ran sports betting and shook down anyone who owed money.

Hubella’s brother-in-law Sammy ‘the Syrian’ Zahralbam was also in the crew. He ran gambling dens, spoke like Edward G Robinson, and wasn’t much liked. More popular was Ali Hassen Waffa (Ali Baba), a cruise line cook who ran money lending and gambling in Arab neighbourhoods of South Brooklyn when he was in town.

In Mafia terms, the Gallow crew was about as diverse as it got. They even had a little person.

Tough Guy

Armondo ‘Mondo’ Illiano was under four foot tall and ran a social club on President’s Street that the gang sometimes used as a headquarters. He ran the club with his doting mother, a small woman dressed all in black and speaking broken English.

Mondo had a sideline running the local numbers racket. He would walk the streets with his German Shepherd, the dog about as tall as him, and hide the bookmaking receipts under its collar. The little guy became a talisman for the Gallo gang, running round a club dance floor to the Batman theme and ducking under girls’ skirts, getting dragged into a photo line up with other gang members after Joe Magnansco got killed, and tagging round with Crazy Joe and pretending to be his bodyguard.

In those days of tough talk and lack of sensitivity, Mondo was called a Dwarf or a Midget. These days that’s a derogatory term so excuse the title of this piece, although if he was still alive today Mondo wouldn’t care what people called him. He was a tough guy who walked a lion.

Cleo the Lion

One day an associate of the crew called Tom announced he could get a monkey. Crazy Joe was interested and the monkey lived at Mondo’s club for a few weeks. It looked cute but started throwing faecal matter at the customers. The monkey went back to Tom.

The Gallos still liked the idea of an exotic animal in the club and Tom put some feelers out. He got hold of a lion cub called Cleo. She lived in the basement of the club, fed on raw meat. Mondo used to take her for a walk round the neighbourhood on a chain.

Cleo’s main job was to frighten anyone who owed the Gallos money. Debtors got dragged down into the club basement and had their face shoved close to a pacing, chained up Cleo. The smell, the roars, the Mafia guys threatening to feed you to a lion if you didn’t pay up. They always paid up.

Eventually Cleo got too big for the basement and Tom took her back to wherever he got her from in the first place.

Basements and Presidents

The 1950s were the golden years for the Gallos. They were making money and running Brooklyn like warlords. In the decades ahead was a devastating split with the Colombo family that turned into a war, a long jail term for Crazy Joe, cancer for Albert, shoot outs and murder, and finally a mob hit in Umberto’s Clam House that put Joe underground.

We know a lot more about those days thanks to Frank Dimatteo, the son of a close Gallo associate who went into the Mafia life himself after Crazy Joe’s death. These days Dimatteo hosts a site called Mob Candy, full of gangster stories and bad girls in lingerie and news. He’s written an insider’s account of the Gallos that has lots of information about Crazy Joe, Mondo, Louie Hubella, and others.

You can get it as self-published book Lion in the Basement, which is chock full of spelling mistakes and run-on sentences, especially in the first half; or as a more professional effort called The President Street Boys, essentially the same book but proofread and slightly expanded.

The second book is the better read but the first seems more authentic as the voice of a Mafia wise guy. Your choice.

For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  books in paperback or ebook:

Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or]


Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or]


Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or]


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