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Al "Scarface" Capone
Al Capone got his nickname after having his face slashed open with a broken bottle at the Harvard Inn bar in Coney Island.
It was before the infamous bootlegging king of Chicago took over the Windy City that he made an indecent remark to a woman. Her brother left Capone with new scars — and a nickname he hated.
Capone died of cardiac arrest in 1947, after complications from pneumonia, a stroke, and syphilis.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
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Israel "Ice Pick Willie" Alderman
Israel "Ice Pick Willie" Alderman (sixth from left) worked as a ruthless mob enforcer in Minneapolis — with his penchant for jabbing his namesake into a victim’s brain through their ear canal.
Similar to Al Capone, Alderman was incarcerated for tax evasion — rather than his gruesome crimes.Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project
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Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll
Irish-born New Yorker Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll was a hitman for the mob in the 1920s and 1930s. Vincent was notorious for kidnapping other gangsters for ransom money and his nickname resulted from one such kidnapping attempt in 1931.
His target was bootlegger Joseph Rao, but the ensuing gunfight saw a five-year-old boy killed in the crossfire. It was New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker who dubbed him a "Mad Dog." Coll was murdered outside of a drugstore in 1932.Wikimedia Commons
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Philip "The Chicken Man" Testa
Philip "The Chicken Man" Testa was briefly the leader of the Philadelphia crime family. He garnered his nickname because of his involvement in the poultry business.
Testa was murdered during the Ides of March, killed by a nail bomb planted under his front porch. It sparked a mob war, and inspired Bruce Springsteen’s "Atlantic City" lyrics: "Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night/And they blew up his house too."Wikimedia Commons
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Tommaso "The Boss Of Two Worlds" Buscetta
Tommaso Buscetta was the first member of the Sicilian Mafia to break omertà — the group's stringent code of silence. As "The Boss of Two Worlds," the Sicilian drug smuggler become a pentito, or informant, who testified in court against mobsters and corrupt politicians.
Buscetta died of cancer in April 2000 at 71 years old, and was buried under a false name in Miami, Florida.Wikimedia Commons
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Ciro "The Artichoke King" Terranova
Ciro "The Artichoke King" Terranova was born in Corleone, Sicily — like The Godfather, himself. After moving to New York in 1893, he ventured into organized crime during a power vacuum and took over the Morello family.
His nickname came from his regular purchase of all the artichokes that came into New York, before selling them for as much as thrice the price. After two strokes, Terranova died of heart failure, or of “a broken heart” as another mafioso, Joe Valachi, would later claim, at age 49, in February 1938.Wikimedia Commons
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Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno
Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno directed one of the five original New York City crime families. He detested his nickname, because it implied he was crazy.
On the other hand, he did illegally sneak into the United States from Sicily and violated the Mafia's code of secrecy when he published a tell-all book and appeared on 60 Minutes. He died of heart failure in 2002.Bill Bridges/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone
Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone was born in Detroit to Sicilian parents. Since there were countless other gangsters named Anthony, Giacalone's nickname was one of necessity rather than artistry.
When Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in the 1970s, Giacalone's name garnered more attention — as he was in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that opposed Hoffa's wish to returning to their ranks. Giacalone died of heart failure in 2001.Wikimedia Commons
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Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme
Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme worked at a body shop and specialized in Cadillacs before he became a murderer. However, he earned the moniker by having an employee key every 30th or 40th car, just so he could charge customers for a repair.
Salemme was suspected of murdering a federal witness, a Boston nightclub owner, in 1993, decades before vital evidence could imprison him. Finally, in 2016 they found the remains. Salemme remains behind bars.Ed Farrand/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
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Donald "The Wizard Of Odds" Angelini
Donald "The Wizard of Odds" Angelini was a member of the Chicago Outfit, which was previously run by Al "Scarface" Capone. He was not only its primary enforcer in Las Vegas, but also operated an extremely lucrative sports betting empire in the desert city.
Angelini was sentenced to 37 months in prison in 1989 as a result of illegal gambling charges. He died in 2000.Pinterest
He garnered his nickname after FBI Special Agent William Roemer referred to him as "that little pissant." Unfortunately for the media, they couldn't use the term — leading to the shortened moniker. The murderous gangster was found dead and half naked in an Indiana cornfield in 1986.Getty Images
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Anthony "Big Tuna" or "Joe Batters" Accardo
Anthony "Big Tuna" or "Joe Batters" Accardo once ruled the Chicago Outfit, and earned his "Joe Batters" nickname during Prohibition from murdering three disloyal gangsters with a baseball bat.
Capone allegedly said, "Boy, this kid's a real Joe Batters."
The other moniker was birthed by the city's press after Accardo was photographed with a large tuna he caught on a fishing trip. He died in 1992 — after which the executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, Robert F. Fuesel, said the Capone era had finally ended.Wikimedia Commons
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Frank "Superfly" Lucas
Frank "Superfly" Lucas was immortalized on celluloid when Denzel Washington portrayed the 1970s drug kingpin in American Gangster. Decades earlier, Lucas built an empire by smuggling 98-percent-pure heroin from Vietnam into the U.S. and becoming Harlem royalty.
The nickname stemmed from the famous chinchilla attire he was photographed in, drawing comparisons to the 1972 blaxploitation classic about a black pimp and cocaine dealer.Wikimedia Commons
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Albert "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum
Albert "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum was a professional hitman for Murder, Inc. — the official enforcement arm of the Italian-American Mafia, Jewish mob, and other criminal entities operating in New York.
The World War I veteran worked at a resort upstate that was routinely frequented by Jewish mobsters from Manhattan. His nickname came from the fact that he just couldn't shut up — with his restless nervousness reminding New York mobster Jacob Shapiro of a clock.
Tannenbaum died in 1976.Pinterest
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Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson
Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson derived his nickname from a bump on the back of his head he had since birth. He was sent to live in Harlem with his sister, after the family fled South Carolina fearing a lynch mob.
Johnson was convicted in New York for conspiracy to sell heroin in 1951, and died of congestive heart failure in 1968.Wikimedia Commons
Not only was he an essential part of the Castellammarese War in the 1930s, but he also survived an assassination attempt and successfully retired before the U.S. Senate indicted him.
Costello died of a heart attack in February 1973, and was buried in Queens, New York.Wikimedia Commons
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Vincent "The Chin" Gigante
Vincent "The Chin" Gigante ran the Genovese crime family for nearly 25 years. The former professional boxer garnered his nickname from his resilience in the ring.
Gigante failed to murder Frank Costello, yet scared him enough to make him retire. Convicted of racketeering and murder conspiracy in 1997, Gigante died in a federal prison in 2005 and was buried in anonymity in New York. His relatives still earn $2 million per year as gainful employees of corporations on the New Jersey waterfront.Apic/Getty Images
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Salvatore "Little Caesar" Maranzano
Salvatore "Little Caesar" Maranzano was nicknamed for a penchant right out of a Martin Scorsese movie. The mobster was purportedly so fascinated by Ancient Rome and Julis Caesar that his less-educated peers were not only annoyed with him but also gave him the cheeky nickname in response.
Maranzano became capo dei capi, or "boss of all bosses," before Charles "Lucky" Luciano murdered him, fearing a hit on his life. Luciano was right to act first as Maranzano had planned just that. "Little Caesar" died in September 1931.Wikimedia Commons
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Charles "Lucky" Luciano
Charles Luciano, the Italian-born gangster who operated largely in the U.S., was nicknamed "Lucky" after surviving a vicious beating and having his throat slashed in 1929 when he refused to work for another mob boss.
Others believe it was his gambling, or a simple mispronunciation of his last name, that made the moniker stick. He became the biggest crime boss in America when Salvatore Maranzano died. Luciano himself died of a heart attack in Naples International Airport in 1962.Wikimedia Commons
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James "Whitey" Bulger
James "Whitey" Bulger was both Boston's crime boss and an FBI informant. He garnered his nickname from the cops, who dubbed him "Whitey" for his starkly blonde hair.
Bulger purportedly hated the name, and preferred to be called "Boots" for his penchant for wearing cowboy boots. He was a subject of the CIA's LSD experiments while incarcerated in the 1950s, and beaten to death in prison in 2018.Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Enoch "Nucky" Johnson
Enoch Lewis "Nucky" Johnson was the son of Atlantic County, New Jersey's sheriff. He became an important figure in Atlantic City politics, and was criminally involved in bootlegging and gambling.
While his nickname holds no particularly engrossing backstory, his life and crimes — as chronicled in the hit-series Boardwalk Empire — are certainly enthralling. Johnson died in December 1968 at a convalescent home of natural causes.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein
Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein was a gambler, racketeer, and the kingpin of the Jewish mob in New York City. This is the man who is widely believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series — and mentored Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lanski, and Frank Costello.
With a business savvy that led him to transform organized crime from primitive disarray to a corporate-like network, the nickname was more than apt. With a fortune estimated to be $50 million, Rothstein was assassinated at the age of 46 in November 1928 after refusing to pay $320,000 he'd lost during a poker game two months prior. Jack Benton/Getty Images
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Albert "The Mad Hatter" or "Lord High Executioner" Anastasia
Albert Anastasia had a slew of nicknames, from "The Mad Hatter" and "The One-Man Army" to "Lord High Executioner." The crime lord and hitman earned them from his ruthless killing as leader of Murder, Inc. — the enforcement arm of the New York mob.
From ice picks to bullets, nothing was off the table for Anastasia. He was assassinated in October 1957, aged 55, gunned down while relaxing in a barber's chair. Joe Petrella/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
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Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was one of the first celebrity gangsters. He was not only responsible for helping develop the Las Vegas strip, but was also influential in the Jewish mob and the American Mafia.
Those who knew him said he was always the first to shoot when things got hectic. Given his high temper and tendency toward spontaneous violence, fellow gangsters gave Siegel the moniker, believing he was "crazy as a bed bug." Wikimedia Commons
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Giuseppe "Joe The Boss" Masseria
Giuseppe "Joe The Boss" Masseria fought in the 1930s Castellammarese War to take control over crime in New York City. Unfortunately for him, the war ended with his murder.
As he became head of the Morello family in the late 1920s, the nickname was fairly direct. He replaced Salvatore D'Aquila to become capo dei capi, or "boss of all bosses," in 1928. He was murdered by Lucky Luciano and his men during a meeting in a Coney Island restaurant in April 1931.Wikimedia Commons
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Russell "The Silent Don" Bufalino
Russell "The Silent Don" Bufalino garnered his nickname from making decisions quietly with as little fanfare as possible. As depicted in Martin Scorcese's The Irishman by Joe Pesci, the mobster might've been responsible for Jimmy Hoffa's death.
He was born in Sicily but made his mark in New York City, rising from a petty criminal to a powerful figure in the American Mafia. He was arrested in 1977 for extortion, but remained head of his crime family until he was 90 years old. Bufalino died in a Scranton nursing home in 1994.Getty Images
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Tommy "Three-Finger Brown" Lucchese
Tommy "Three-Finger Brown" Lucchese was a founding member of the Mafia in the U.S. Lucchese ran one of the Five Families that dominated organized crime in New York City.
It was a 1920 arrest for auto theft when one of the booking officers noticed Lucchese's deformed hand — caused by an industrial accident that saw his right thumb and forefinger amputated. The officer compared Lucchese with Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown — a famous baseball pitcher.
He died of a brain tumor in July 1967 at home in Long Island.Wikimedia Commons
Castellano was one of the 61 high-ranking mobsters who attended the infamous Apalachin meeting, before authorities raided it and arrested everyone.
Castellano succeeded Carlo Gambino in 1976 and became a boss, but was murdered in December 1985 at a steakhouse in Manhattan. It's believed John Gotti oversaw the hit, and watched it happen from a car parked across the street.Getty Images
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Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran
Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran purportedly murdered his friend and famous teamster boss, Jimmy Hoffa. The order came from Russell Bufalino himself, after which Hoffa simply disappeared.
The non-Italian was dubbed as such for operating in a predominantly Italian organization, yet was portrayed by Italian-American Robert De Niro in the titular film, The Irishman. Sheeran died in December 2003 at 83 years old.Sheeran/Brandt/Splash
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John "The Teflon Don" Gotti
John Gotti was nicknamed "The Teflon Don" after three high-profile trials in the 1980s failed to convict the mobster of his criminal charges and saw him acquitted. His legal issues became a tabloid spectacle, sparking pro-Gotti demonstrations outside the courthouse and claims of Italian-American discrimination.
Unfortunately, "The Teflon Don" wasn't entirely impervious. In 1992, he was convicted on multiple charges, including the murder of five people, and sentenced to life in prison. Gotti died in June 2002 at the age of 61 from throat cancer.Keith Meyers/New York Times Co./Getty Images
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Salvatore "Sammy The Bull" Gravano
Salvatore "Sammy The Bull" Gravano was 13 when he joined the Rampers street gang in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. When he found out some locals had stolen his bike, he went to confront them and quickly got into a fight.
A few neighborhood gangsters watching this squabble noticed that Gravano never backed down, took on numerous people at once, and fought "like a bull." After a long career in the Colombo family, he became a made man himself, and helped John Gotti kill Paul Castellano before testifying against Gotti in 1993.
Gravano was released from prison in September 2017.Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty Images
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Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski
Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski was a hitman sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for the murder of four men. In 2003, he received another 30-year sentence for confessing to the murder of a police officer. Authorities nicknamed him "The Iceman" after discovering he'd frozen one of his victims in an effort to disguise the time of death.
Kuklinski died in March 2006 of cardiac arrest after 18 years behind bars.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Giovanni "The Pig" or "The People Slayer" Brusca
Giovanni Brusca murdered anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, whom Tomasso "The Boss of Two Worlds" Buscetta worked with to expose members of organized crime and corrupt politicians. The pudgy, hairy murderer was dubbed "The Pig" for his unkempt appearance by fellow mobsters.
Brusca once claimed he had killed between 100 and 200 people. Buscetta said Brusca was "a wild stallion but a great leader." He has been imprisoned since 1996 for multiple murders.Wikimedia Commons
33 Crazy Gangster Names And The Even Crazier Things They Did To Earn Them
Al Capone hated his nickname. Though he earned the moniker "Scarface" after a bar fight in 1917, it was only after rising in the ranks as a mobster in the 1920s that the press popularized his epithet.
As an 18-year-old, Capone had yet to be invited by mob boss and mentor Johnny Torrio to relocate to Chicago, where he'd ultimately make his criminal mark on the world. Over drinks at the Harvard Inn, the low-ranking thug made the mistake of insulting a female patron — whose angry brother got revenge with a broken bottle.
While Capone tried to explain the marks away by claiming he'd gotten them in a war, other gangsters embraced their nicknames. Not only could they avoid naming lawbreakers by their legal names, but they could also instill fear almost immediately — a bonus for those in such a brutal line of business.
From Tommaso "The Boss of Two Worlds" Buscetta to Albert "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum, gangster nicknames let everybody know who it was they were dealing with. While the former was dangerously operating on both sides of the law, the latter was so nervous his clock-like banter never stopped.
The history of gangster names preceded the subsequent adoption of this practice by everyone from musicians to athletes. A chronicling of its beginnings and exploration of 33 captivating cases only serves to clarify how this practice came to be.
The Origin And Use Of Gangster Names
It wasn't uncommon for one mafioso to never learn another mobster's full name. Joining a secret society requires discretion and illegal endeavors benefit when individuals know as little as possible about each other.
A New York Post interview with former gangsters on how criminals get their nicknames.
Another largely overlooked factor is that a large swath of Italian men had the same exact first names, as a result of the predominantly Catholic heritage that relied on the names of saints. Nicknames were thus partially a necessity, as well as an element used for furthering intimidation.
The Stories Behind Mafia Nicknames
In June 2018, Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme was found guilty of murdering a South Boston nightclub owner in 1993. The former New England Mafia boss was long suspected of the crime, but there hadn't been evidence to formally charge Salemme until they dug up a body in Rhode Island in 2016.
While it was previously assumed he garnered his nickname by working at a Boston autobody shop, the truth is more indicative of the gangster's immoral resourcefulness. Salemme purportedly employed a friend to key and scratch every 30th or 40th new car — so he could charge to repair it.
Oddly enough, Salemme didn't even like Cadillacs. The now-incarcerated mobster owned BMWs, instead — one of which he was driving when he survived his assassination attempt in 1989.
Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty ImagesSammy "The Bull" Gravano garnered his nickname at 13, after fighting off thieves who had stolen his bike. A group of onlooking gangsters noticed his resilience at taking on several guys at once, remarking that he fought "like a bull."
Israel Alderman was what is commonly referred to as a mob enforcer. The ruthless killer was a reliable tool for higher-ups in need of a clean and discreet hit that left no trace to the client. As the "Ice Pick Willie" sobriquet implies, the Minneapolis-based gangster had a brutal weapon of choice.
Alderman typically stabbed his victims though the ear drum with the unnerving bartender tool. By puncturing the brain, he left no other sign of foul play or defensive wounds during subsequent autopsies. Alderman said he murdered at least 11 people this way at his own speakeasy in town.
The method that earned him this nickname was particularly practical as the victims would simply slump over the bar and appear to have had one too many. Alderman or his men would then simply drag the lifeless body out of the bar without a single second guess from unsuspecting guests.
Not unlike Al "Scarface" Capone, "Ice Pick Willie" was only nabbed by the Feds for tax evasion rather than his violent crimes. He went to prison, but only after becoming a Las Vegas casino investor and manager — where God only knows how many slumped-over drunks were escorted out.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.