Believe it or not, but the Mafia actually has a rich and colorful history in Connecticut. Though many parts of Connecticut are rural and quaint, crime still managed to seep across the border and run rampant within its confines—particularly in New Haven.
For many gangsters, the picturesque town that is New Haven offers a nice, safe and above all, discreet, place to rest their heads at night. Moreover, city officials went out of their way to protect Mafia members from the law, with more than a few townsmen bending the law to help out a gangster in need. For these reasons, some of the most renowned gangsters in Mafia history have felt inclined to make Connecticut their home.
Midge “Annunziato” Renault, New Haven’s Favorite Gangster
By far one of Connecticut’s most famous gangsters, Midge Renault—who went by Annunziato to everyone who knew him and knew of him—terrified, delighted and titillated New Haven residents for more than 30 years. To those whom Annunziato liked, he had a heart of gold; to those whom he didn’t, he was a force to hide from.
Born Salvatore Anthony Annunziato on Christmas Eve 1919 to immigrants from Naples, Midge was the seventh of ten children. With so many mouths to feed, Midge’s parents were poor and their children often went without. Midge’s father was in the bootlegging business and brewed and sold gin straight out of the family bathtub. He also happened to dip into his own stash, and when he became drunk, he would beat his children. Midge’s mother took over the responsibility of providing for the family, working sun up to sun down to put food on the table.
Whether because they were just hungry or because it was in their nature, Midge’s five older brothers were delinquents almost from birth. One brother was sent off to reform school at age 9 and two others were arrested for the first time (but certainly not the last!) at ages 9 and 11. Midge himself was first arrested at the ripe old age of 9 as well, for an unspecified crime. None of the Annunziato boys or girls were what you’d consider star pupils, and the committed such obscene behavior that one teacher felt compelled to write home. “Normal children should not be expected to endure his presence among them,” she wrote of one brother.
By contrast, Midge was relatively good and “excelled” at school—at least by Annunziato standards. Though he stole occasional and regularly hit people (girls especially), his teachers described his attendance as “good” and his conduct as “fair.” He went on to finish the 8th grade, farther than any other Annunziato child ever did.
In 1933, Midge’s mother and second youngest brother died of rheumatic fever. It devastated Midge, and that year, he was arrested four times, a record for him. One arrest was for stealing a vehicle and running down a boy on his bicycle. Midge refused to take responsibility for the boy’s injuries, so the judge sentenced him to reform school. That was where he learned boxing.
Midge Takes Up Boxing
In 1936, when Midge was 16-years old and fresh out of reform school, he took to the ring for the first time. He stood at just 5’3” and weighed in over just 100 pounds. People called him “midget,” so he took the ring name “Midget Renault” (after his brother’s boxing name, Jack Renault), but after he proved what he could do in the ring, that nickname quickly evolved into Midge. He won his first state amateur flyweight championship that year.
Midge’s boxing career lasted for three short years. When it was over and he could no longer earn money by beating people’s faces in, he tried his hand at several different jobs, including shoe repairman, gun assembler and furniture upholsterer. Midge wasn’t satisfied, however, with neither the pay nor the menial labor, and so he turned to crime.
Once he turned to crime, he never looked back. Midge shot men, beat them, destroyed property and corrupted good people. He ran illegal card games, drank too much and fought anyone who stood in his way. He even attempted murder, though whether or not he was successful is not in public record.
When Midge wasn’t shooting people or stirring up violence, he was off making friends, giving people money, buying rounds of drinks and socializing with friends and family members. On the surface he was a good person, a likable person, which is precisely what made him so dangerous.
Midge escaped jail time often enough, and when he was in jail, it was more like a vacation than a punishment. Jailers would let him sleep in the infirmary, the warden allowed his wife to bring him homemade meals and booze and on occasion, he was even allowed out for the night. His sentences rarely ever stuck. However, in 1945, Midge was arrested for real and sent to prison. That could have been the best thing that could have happened to him.
Midge Meets Mele
Before being sent to prison, Midge ran a lucrative business in distributing gas ration coupons. What might have been a peaceable business was actually anything but, as the coupons he sold were stolen or counterfeit. He did pretty well for himself, until the war ended, when gas was free to flow. He was down on his luck when he was sent to prison, which may have (or may not have) played a role in the connections he choose to make while doing time.
It was in prison that Midge first connected with the Mafia. Ralph Mele, a local mob boss, was also doing time, as was Charles “Charlie the Blade” Tourine, a big dog in the New Jersey sector. When he got out of prison in 1949, Midge went to work for Mele.
While the relationship started off great, and while Mele was essential in Midge’s future, Mele quickly became troublesome for Midge and other bosses. He was drawing too much attention to the mob, creating a stir where there shouldn’t be any. One boss wanted him gone. One night, at Lip’s Bar & Grill in New Haven, Midge and Mele were both recorded as having been in attendance. They even talked to each other, one source says. When Mele left, he told his neice, who was with him, “I’ll be right back.” His body was found on the side of the road, with bullet holes in his face.
Of course, Midge became the prime suspect in the murder, but nothing was ever proved. A short time later, he went to Frank Costello, one of the most infamous mob bosses in history. According to sources, Costello “pricked Midge’s finger, smeared his blood on the card of saint, dropped the card into Midge’s hands and lit it. As the card burned in his cupped hands, Midge swore to put the mafia before everything in his life, including his own children. When it stopped burning, he rubbed the cinders to dust.” Midge was made.
Midge took over New Haven right away, but his reign would be short lived. Below is a chronology of New Haven’s mob history after Midge, and a brief overview of the rise and fall of the Mafia in Connecticut.
Prohibition Sparks Outrage
For nearly 300 years, Connecticut was composed of mostly Yankees, descendants of Puritans who lived their life just as their name implied: purely. So, when immigrants came flooding from oversea—Polish, Italian, Yiddish and others—the Yanks became fearful. Their way of life was being threatened and they didn’t know how to stop it from happening. When the federal government introduced Prohibition in 1920, they viewed it as a way of bringing back everything that was good, pure and familiar. Prohibition passed in the state of Connecticut.
Of course, the immigrants weren’t about to let someone, much less a body of people they couldn’t see and didn’t know, take away their right to drink. Gangs of people got together to make and distribute alcohol. Eventually, those gangs of people—outlaws, at the time—came to be known as the Mafia, and New Haven became the center of the state’s liquor trade.
Fighting for Influence
The American Mafia is organized into families, and in the 1930s, there was a family for each region, with New York getting five to itself. Connecticut, however, found itself without a family, and its loyalty was divided: some wanted to go with the New York family, others thought Boston would be better. Eventually, New York won. New Jersey’s wing of the New York-based Genovese family—by far the largest and most powerful family in the city—became the dominant force in New Haven. Once the Genovese took over, others started to move in, until eventually the mob was running the state.
When prohibition ended, the mob still wanted control over the small eastern state, and so they introduced a “lottery” or sorts. Connecticut had still not developed a lottery, so the mob introduced a game called “the numbers,” which allowed people to bet as little as a penny. Despite such small bets, people found themselves making a killing off the game, and it remained a lucrative business for the Mafia until the early 1970s, when the state introduced its own lottery.
The mob also had its hand in boxing, which is how Annunziato became familiar with it. They had connections in high places, and it’s rumored that Mele, from prison, was able to get a friend of his discharged from the army before he was sent to war.
Mele Takes Over, Then Falls
When Mele was released from prison in the 40s, he took over the New Haven chapter. He was doing well for his family when, in the 1950s, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had convened a commission on organized crime. The senator made it a mission to interrogate and capture mobsters and put them behind bars, where he felt they belonged. Frank Costello ordered everyone to stop their operations—or at least keep them quite—until the interrogations were over, but Mele didn’t think that was necessary. He kept expanding despite warnings from other bosses, until eventually he angered a Maine boss. On March 21, 1951, he was found dead, as mentioned above.
Of course, Mele’s murder only served to increase the amount of attention the mob was receiving, and Annunziato became a prime suspect. Nothing came from it, however, and Annunziato was given New Haven. However, it wouldn’t belong to just him.
Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano
Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano was rumored to have worked for the Murder Inc. hit squad in the late 30s, and his father worked at a New Haven café that sold whiskey that ended up killing a mass of people throughout several different states. In the 1940s, Whitey was arrested for two murders, yet the charges were mysteriously dropped. It quickly became apparent that Tropiano had some sort of pull in high places, it just wasn’t clear where that pull was coming from.
While many people suspect that it was the mob, Tropiano was actually caught robbing from the Mafia’s gambling operations. While the mob would have generally just killed anyone who did such a thing, they supposedly gave Tropiano a choice: kill your crew of gangsters or be killed. Over the next 18 months, 12 members of Tropiano’s gang would be found in the streets of Brooklyn.
With his debt satisfied, the mob just wanted one more thing from Tropiano before it let him off the hook. One member, Willie Moretti, was saying too much to the commission tasked with bringing down the mob. He needed to go. Tropiano was believed to have taken care of the job. And his reward? New Haven.
Apparently, Annunziato and Whitey hated each other, but they ran New Haven together, quite peacefully, for the next 30 years.
Not So Secret Gambling
In 1953, one of Mele’s buddies, Richard C. Lee, became a Town Committee chairman, officially giving the mob an ally in the New Haven city government. Once Lee took office, gambling became a non-issue.
Lee helped the mob in other unexpected ways. For instance, he asked for more money from the government in order to tear down old downtown and make it new again. For many mob members who had their hand in the construction business, such as Annunziato, this turned out to be a gold mine.
With Lee in a position of power, the mod continued to thrive in New Haven, despite Annunziato’s several run-ins with the law. Annunziato was arrested on an almost monthly basis for violence, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and trying to weasel restaurateurs out of business. However, even when he was sentenced to prison for one year, he was allowed to serve his year’s sentence in the county jail, where he had meals brought in and went out every night.
Unlike Annunziato, Whitey kept quiet.
Good times were soon to come to an end for both of them.
The Decline of the Mob
Annunziato’s year in jail cost him his job with the union. In the 1950s, with the federal government closing in on the mob bosses, Annunziato and Whitey were targeted. Shortly thereafter, his 15-year-old son was struck and killed by a car. In the 1960s, he was convicted of bribing an I-95 contractor, and after that, it was all downhill for Annunziato.
His drinking worsened, his rage heightened and he became highly unpredictable. In the 60s, he shot a man in New Haven and was sentenced to prison.
In the meantime, Tropiano was suspected of committing one of the state’s most brutal murders, and he too was convicted of bribing—however, he was convicted of bribing police offers.
With Annunziato and Tropiano on the decline, New Haven went up for grabs. Despite several attempts at gaining control, no one gang was very successful. One FBI agent made attempts at reestablishing the mob’s presence even more difficult, as he was able to infiltrate the underworld with his cunning.
One FBI agent learned of New Haven’s seedy underbelly and so gained entrance into the mob’s gambling ring with a $50,000 bankroll. What he witnessed startled him yet didn’t; he saw gangsters and some of the state’s most respected politicians smoozing with one other over craps and drinks. It’s like everyone was old friends.
After witnessing a mobster threaten Democratic Town Committee chairman Arthur Barbieri, who wanted to step down, the FBI agent was replaced. No arrests were ever made.
Towards the dawn of the 70s, Annunziato was in jail and Tropiano was out of the game. A new guy, William “Billy” Grasso—“The Wild Guy”—attempted to take over New Haven. He was largely successful.
While Grasso was rising to fame, Annunziato was talking. While in prison, he identified 21 living and dead Mafia members, all the while expressing his hatred for Grasso.
Outside of the cell’s walls, mob members were getting shot left and right, found in ditches, on the sides of the roads and in other conspicuous places as families warred with one another for control.
In June 1979, Annunziato got into a car with an old friend and was never seen from again.
Grasso, meanwhile, became the head of his family—the Patriarca Family—when the family boss died in 1984. However, he was collectively hated by his men, and in 1989, the Patriarca family went to war with itself. They were tired of Grasso—of his greed and cruelty—and so members of his crew lured him into a van and shot him.
In 1991, Milano was indicted for murder, as were several other members of the Patriarca family. With all the bad press surrounding the mob, what power and influence they did still have disappeared.
That said, the mob never truly went away. Today, law enforcement agencies still break up gambling rings, prosecute racketeers and uncover fixed schemes that have their roots in the Mafia. Though the mob’s presence is certainly not as strong as it once was, it has become clear that when the mob established its presence in Connecticut nearly 100 years ago, it was here to stay.