The epic saga of the Genovese crime family
In the 1980s Vincent "Chin" Gigante was a familiar sight on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village where he lived with his mother. The large middle-aged man was often seen wandering around in his pajamas, robe, and slippers with a cap pulled down over his head. He would mumble to himself as he shuffled along. Usually he showed a few days growth of beard on his sagging, expressionless face. His downcast eyes were dull and vacant, allegedly the result of his daily medications, which included Valium and Thorazine. His family, particularly his brother Father Louis Gigante, a Catholic priest, adamantly insisted that Vincent was mentally ill and suffered from diminished mental capacity, but the authorities contended that there was nothing wrong with Vincent and that he was in fact the boss of the biggest crime family in the country. In public Father Louis would point to his brother, a pathetic hulking figure who didn't seem to know where he was, and ask how a man in such a state could be the leader of anything. But the police felt that this was just an act and that late at night, when surveillance eyes weren't watching, the real Vincent Gigante emerged.
Gigante first used the mental-patient act to beat a conspiracy rap in 1970. He had been inducted for bribing the entire five-man police force of Old Tappan, N.J., in an attempt to obtain information regarding a state investigation into Genovese activities in that state. His attorneys hired psychiatrists who testified that Gigante was a "paranoid schizophrenic, suffering from hallucinations." The ruse worked, and Gigante was acquitted. He apparently decided that it was a worthwhile preventative measure because he continued to play the role for years to come, reinforcing it with voluntary visits to St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in Harrison, N.Y. Between 1969 and 1990, he checked himself in 22 times. With support from his doctors, he managed to avoid prosecution for nearly three decades.
As a young man, before he allegedly went crazy, Gigante had tried to make it as a prizefighter, starting out as a middle weight, then fighting as a light heavyweight. Under the tutelage of his manager, future Genovese family boss Tommy Eboli, Gigante had a career record of 23 wins and one loss, though it's said that he mainly fought palookas until he faced a real fighter, Jimmy Slade, who defeated him in seven rounds. By 1957 he had beefed up to over 300 pounds when he fired the single shot at boss Frank Costello and missed. Gigante was considerably slimmer by the time he was tried for the attempt on Costello's life, but no one—not even Costello—would swear that he was the shooter, and as a result he was found not guilty. In 1959 he became one of the victims of the plot to overthrow Vito Genovese and was sentenced to seven years in prison on drug charges.
Sometime after his release from prison, Gigante made the leap from reliable soldier to leadership material. By some accounts he served as consigliere under Funzi Tieri, and when Fat Tony Salerno was convicted in 1987, Gigante took over as acting boss. But some believe that Gigante became boss as early as 1981 after Salerno suffered a stroke, keeping Salerno on the throne as an "up-front" boss to insulate the real seat of power.
Gigante's extraordinary degree of caution gave him one of the longest runs as boss in Mafia history. Genovese members were forbidden from uttering his name for fear of hidden listening devices. According to mob turncoat Sammy Gravano in Peter Maas's Underboss, "Family members were under strict orders never to breathe his name in passing on his [Gigante's] wishes. They were simply to point to their own chins when referring to him." (The nickname "Chin" did not refer to his face or taking it on the chin as boxers sometimes do. It was the shortened version of "Vincenzo," which is what his mother called him when he was a child.)
Former Lucchese acting boss and mob turncoat "Little Al" D'Arco once testified that at Gigante's Sullivan Street headquarters, Chin would sit at a table and receive his men one by one, whispering in their ears so as not to be overheard. A World War II vintage poster hung on the wall over his head: "The Enemy is Listening," the poster said. D'Arco claimed that Gigante was the only boss in America to have a fourth position at the top of his leadership pyramid, the messagrio or messenger. The messenger delivered Gigante's wishes to the membership and provided yet another layer of insulation between Gigante and the crimes his family committed. Gigante took secrecy to a new level, and he managed to rule the largest Mafia family in America for many years before it was generally known that he was the boss.