The History of the Mafia in Connecticut
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For New Haven gangster Salvatore “Midge Renault” Annunziato (at left), 1950s New Haven was a paradise.
When the portly mobster was arrested for assault, New Haven’s sitting congressman Albert Cretella stepped forward to defend him, winning an acquittal.
Always a terrible driver, Annunziato was constantly losing his license. Not to worry. The city’s powerful Democratic Town Committee Chairman Arthur T. Barbieri wrote letters to state officials asking them to restore his driving privileges.
A former boxer—Midge Renault was his ring name—Annunziato beat up men with impunity, but victims and witnesses were almost always too terrified to testify. When they weren’t, juries acquitted him and judges were lenient.
If Annunziato did go to jail, it was hardly punishment at all. His wife or restaurants delivered all his meals, and he slept in the prison infirmary instead of a cell. He even was able to smuggle in liquor and provide gambling for fellow inmates—charging a fee and keeping the profits. Sometimes, his jailers even let him out for the night.
And then there was the union. As business agent for the state’s only heavy-equipment operator local, Annunziato reaped a fortune in kickbacks and bribes from workers and contractors.
The Nutmeg State was Annunziato's oyster. And he was far from alone.
Connecticut of the 1950s and 1960s was lousy with mobsters making a mint from labor racketeering, illegal gambling, loan sharking and trash hauling. The organization also burrowed into legitimate businesses, including used cars, restaurants, nightclubs and produce.
Anything that was illegal, seasonal or in short supply was fair game. Fireworks—long banned by the state—Easter flowers, grapes and watermelons all at one time lined the Mob’s pocket.
Almost nothing was beyond the organization’s reach and influence.
Six decades later, Annunziato and virtually all of his contemporaries are gone, of course. The once untouchable Mafia they belonged to is a desiccated shadow of its former self, undone by prosecutions, internecine warfare, legalized gambling, easier credit and a changed culture.
But secrets remain. No major Mafia figure here has ever turned state’s evidence. The state’s most powerful gangsters were assassinated before they could be tried for racketeering, and all their murders—save one—remain unsolved. Other big-time mobsters eluded prosecution and died in their beds.
The following, which is drawn from thousands of pages of FBI and other files, newspaper articles and dozens of interviews, seeks to fill in some of the blanks, chronicling the rise and fall of a secret criminal enterprise that once wielded huge influence in the Land of Steady Habits.
Around 1900, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began flooding into Connecticut, providing cheap labor to fuel its booming factories. The state’s cities exploded, doubling and tripling their populations with new arrivals speaking Italian, Polish, Yiddish and other languages.
The changes unnerved the state’s Yankees, descendents of the Puritans who settled Connecticut in the 1600s. They questioned the newcomers’ willingness and ability to assimilate, and loathed their Catholicism and Judaism. The world that they and their forefathers had built was disappearing, they feared.
By the 1920s, nativist fears in Connecticut, as in the nation at large, reached a fever pitch. Ethnic and religious prejudice was rampant. Ku Klux Klan membership skyrocketed, and the racist organization held regular cross burnings throughout the state. One nativist warned at a meeting in Meriden that the common expression “mac” as in “How are you, mac?” was code for “Make America Catholic.”
Everything urban and ethnic became suspect, including prize fighting, dancing and especially liquor. When the nation introduced Prohibition in 1920, old-line Yankees applauded.
But the state’s many immigrants scoffed. They were not going to give up drinking alcohol. Indeed, Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only of the then 48 states never to ratify the 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating beverages.
Someone had to quench the state’s thirst. That demand created gangs that would eventually evolve into the Mafia. Enforcement of the law soon became a joke, especially in the state’s immigrant-heavy big cities.
One New Haven gang would make national headlines just as Prohibition was going into effect. At Christmas in 1919, it distributed wood alcohol-laced liquor that killed dozens in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In a harbinger of the corruption to come, the gang distributed the “murder whiskey,” as the newspapers dubbed it, from the back door of a café just yards away from the police station.
Prohibition, meanwhile, created opportunities for men like Salvatore Annunziato’s father Francesco, a struggling immigrant from the Naples region. A day laborer and factory worker, he began brewing and selling bathtub gin to help support his wife and what would eventually be 10 children.
New Haven soon became the center of the state’s liquor trade.