Lou Ferrante was a mobster who worked for the Gambino crime family and made a trade out of hijacking trucks loaded with expensive goods. Eventually, the law caught up with him and he ended up in prison. There, he discovered a love for reading and writing which set off a personal transformation that led to him leaving the mafia. After his stint in jail, Lou went on to become an author and the host of a Discovery Channel documentary series called Inside the Gangsters’ Code.
Today on the show, I first talk to Lou about his early life of crime and the autodidactic education he gave himself in prison. Lou shares the books that had the biggest impact on him, including works of history, philosophy, and fiction. We then shift gears to discuss Lou’s work on Inside the Gangsters’ Code, the idea of honor that the mafia and other gangs share, and what it means to practice omertà. We end our conversation discussing why young men join gangs and the human needs they fill.
- How Lou got involved in the mafia in the first place
- How he got caught jacking trucks and ended up in prison
- The experience in prison that made Lou turn his life around
- How reading and self-education transformed Lou’s life
- The classic authors and books that Lou gravitated to
- How Lou improved his vocabulary and taught himself to write
- What was Lou’s plan for after he got out of prison?
- What sorts of gangs did he visit and interact with on Inside the Gangsters’ Code?
- Is the gangsters’ code similar across the world?
- What is omertà?
- Why do young men join gangs? What need are they filling?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Inside the Gangster’s Code show
- Peter Gotti
- The Importance of Building Your Vocabulary
- Why Men Should Read More Fiction
- 100 Books Every Man Should Read
- Why Every Man Should Study Classical Culture
- Why Every Man Should Read Jane Austen
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Ferrante’s Mob Rules
- Colombo crime family
- AoM series on honor
Connect With Lou
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Lou Ferrante was a mobster who worked at the Gambino crime family and made a trade out of hijacking trucks loaded with expensive goods. Eventually the law caught up with him, and he ended up in prison. There he discovered a love for reading and writing, which set off a personal transformation that led to him leaving the Mafia. After his stint in jail, Lou went on to become an author and the host of Discovery Channel’s documentary series called Inside the Gangsters’ Code.
Today on the show, I first talk to Lou about his early life of crime and the autodidactic education he gave himself in prison. Lou shares the books that had the biggest impact on him, including works of history, philosophy, and fiction. We then shift gears to discuss Lou’s work on Inside the Gangster Code, the idea of honor that the Mafia and other gangs share, and what it means to practice omertà. We end our conversation discussing why young men join gangs and the human needs they fill. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/gangsterscode. Lou joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right. Lou Ferrante, welcome to the show.
Lou Ferrante: Hey, thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: You are a writer, you hosted a show called Inside the Gangsters’ Code, you’re a lecturer. But before that, you were a member of the Gambino crime family. Let’s start there. We’ll talk about what you’re doing now, but let’s start there. How did you get involved with the Mafia?
Lou Ferrante: I guess it’s a long evolution. Nobody, unless your family is Mafia, which mine wasn’t, then you’re brought into that world and you know it since you’re born. With me, it’s a long evolution of criminal conduct. Devolution would be a better word, but in the context of our conversation, evolution, where I started stealing cars as a kid. From there, a friend of mine’s uncle owned a body shop, an auto body collision shop, and we started supplying him with parts from stolen cars. From there, we got some more orders from different collision shops. Then we started running a chop shop. So as I’m aging, from 13, probably, when I was in my first stolen car, to like 17, I went from just joyriding to selling the parts to running my own chop shop and supplying most of the collision shops around Queens. Most of the crooked ones, that is, and most of them at that time were crooked, believe it or not.
From there, I was in an auto body shop one day, and I’m talking to this guy and I’m BS-ing with him. There was this huge tool chest next to us. And it was one, if you’ve ever been in a body shop, these mechanics have these big tool chests that are probably like shoulder height. And I said, “Wow, look at the size of this baby. What’s this go for?” And he said, “You know, whatever, five grand.” So I said, “Yeah, really?” And he said, “Yeah. The truck comes once a week to sell tools for that chest, and they even got a couple of the chests usually in the truck.” “What’s the truck worth?” “Probably got about $100,000 worth of stuff in it.” So I said, “You want one?” He said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “I’ll take one for you if you want it. You going to pay me?” We negotiated a price, and that was the first truck I hijacked.
Hijacked it with friends of mine from the neighborhood, and from there we ended up figuring that hey, look, you know what? By the time you steal a car and piece it out and you’re working all night overnight, chopping this thing down, you got to get rid of the chassis, you got to get somebody to rent us the building that we usually abandon, because it would be rented under a phony name. We would fill up a warehouse with skeletons. Sometimes we’d dump the skeletons in different parks in Queens. And it was a lot of work. So here I am hijacking a truck, and $100,000 worth of merchandise in five minutes, in my possession. So we did that.
An interesting thing happened with that first hijacking. We got underway. I put a gun to the guy, took the truck. My friends jumped on board after that, and we were underway. And we had tied him up, and we were driving, and at some point… We were nice to him. We said, “Look, notwithstanding the horrible thing we were doing, we weren’t bad people. We came from good families. We weren’t like evil and malicious. We didn’t want to hurt the guy, we just wanted the truck,” and we let him know that. “You’ll be home tonight at 5:00 eating dinner with your family. Just sit tight and don’t cause us a problem.”
We had to drive to Jersey with the truck, so it was a little bit of a ride, and at some point we loosened the bonds on him and we stuck a pillow under his ass. We asked him if there’s anything in the truck that he needed. He said, “There’s some pictures of my family on the visor. There’s also a manifest sheet in one of those metal sort of like bulletin board folders.” And he goes, “Can you give me that? Stick it under my arm, so that it’ll help me when I assess what was stolen.” So we did all that for him. We asked him if he’s thirsty. We could stop at a Quick Mart or something, get him a drink. We were very nice to the guy, again, notwithstanding that I had just stuck a gun in his mouth, to be completely blunt and clear.
So he said, “You guys are nice guys. You ever think this stuff will catch up with you?” And it was the first hijacking that I had ever done and that they had ever done, my future… Part of these guys became my gang. It just went right over my head. How could you imagine that something’s going to catch up with you when you’re doing your first time? So yeah, I didn’t. But years later, sitting in a prison cell, with cockroaches crawling all over me, knife attacks, I was in Lewisburg for murders, when inmates were hacked to death with machetes. It all came back to me, and I said, “Wow, that guy saw my whole future when he said, ‘Have you ever thought, do you think this would catch up with you?'” It was my first time, and it was like that was a springboard for a whole career in hijacking, which led to armored cars, which led to truck heists.
You name it, we stole. Safes. I remember the agents, when they arrested us, they said to my lawyer that I was bigger than Jimmy Burke, and my lawyer said, “Louie never killed anybody.” And he said, “I meant the heists.” Jimmy Burke was the guy played by Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. And another agent once said that we were like Heat. And once again, if you take Heat, if you ever watch the movie Heat with De Niro and Pacino, we were as fine-tuned as that gang. We just weren’t as violent. We weren’t killing people, shooting up the streets. And now, looking back, I had time to obviously digest it all later on when I turned my life around and I regretted everything I did, I thank God that we never had shootouts in the street or anything, because it could have happened.
Here’s a bunch of guys. None of us were trained to use firearms, and we’re running around the streets like cowboys and committing havoc. At any point in time, somebody could have tried us, and it would have been a shootout in the street. And we could have not only got killed ourselves, which wouldn’t have been as bad, I think, but maybe killed an innocent person, which would have been worse. I mean, look, in relation to the reference of being like the movie Heat, I would say yeah, potentially as dangerous, but we weren’t, thank God. Fortune was with us in that sense, where we pulled off all our heists seamlessly, got away from the crime scene, went home, and just congratulated each other and went out for a drink or something. But we were able to never have that mayhem in the street, which could have happened.
Brett McKay: Right. How far up did you get up in the organization? Were you just a foot soldier?
Lou Ferrante: Oh yeah, that was the original question, how I got into the Mob. The hijacking trucks basically led to like the Mafia is. For example, let’s say you own a store, and you open up a store, let’s say, in I don’t know where, in Los Angeles, and you’re selling surfboards. You might not be selling surfboards in Los Angeles, but wherever. Eventually you’re making good money, you think everything’s great. At some point, the IRS is going to knock on your door and say, “Look, you owe the government taxes. Did you know that?” And you’re going to have to start paying your taxes. If you didn’t know that already, you’re going to have to start.
The Mafia is a government within a government, and if you’re hijacking trucks and making a lot of money and pulling down scores, they’re going to hear about you, as they did with me. And then they’re going to approach you. They’re the IRS of the underworld, and they want to know what’s going on and how much you’re going to pay. But it’s not just like a one-sided relationship, because if it was, a lot of guys would be like, “F you,” and there’d be a lot of bloodshed, a lot more. A lot of bloodshed is saved, because it’s a symbiotic relationship. It works for both parties, because once I’m in with the Mob, I have tremendous power. I have much more power than I had ever had alone or with just my crew.
Now I’m getting tips. Instead of one truck at a time, I’m getting tips on a million dollar score. I may have to kick back to a skipper, a capo captain, or whoever gave me the tip, or my tip guy, but I’m making way more money. And now I’m able to loan shark the money, put it out on the street once I make it. So now I’m starting my own bank. The benefits to being in the Mob, there’s no limit to it, and also too, they benefit by having you, because you’re making them money as well. The Mob is a pyramid scheme. The money flows up to the top.
So that’s sort of like how that happened, without giving up names of the original people who brought me around. But one guy led to another, to another, and at some point or another, I was running my own crew within the Gambino crime family, and I was answering directly to the heads of my family. I actually practically lived in Peter Gotti’s house. Pete was John Gotti’s oldest brother. He was a captain in the family, and I was in and out of his house for probably about five or six, maybe seven years, every day. That’s where my home was. You could draw the conclusions from there. I was not yet a made man when I went away. I was 25 years old. I would have been made, it was only a question of time, and I got pinched. The FBI pinched me, the Secret Service pinched me, and the Nassau County Organized Crime Task Force.
When I went to jail, I thought it was like the worst thing in the world, because I didn’t get my button yet. And I had friends who I did crimes with every day who were coming up to see me on visits and saying, “I just got straightened out, I got my button. You’ll get yours when you come home.” They were going to put me up when I got home. One of them still tried to when I came home and I was a completely different man and I didn’t want it. He said, “I heard that, but I didn’t think you were serious,” because he wanted to sponsor me. And I said, “No, it’s legit. I’m really done with the life. That’s it.” But I’m jumping ahead of the story. Basically, that’s sort of like where I sat and how it evolved.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about, in prison you had this massive change that happened to you. Was there a moment in prison where you could pinpoint and say that was the moment where that change started happening?
Lou Ferrante: There was.
Brett McKay: Yeah, okay, what was it?
Lou Ferrante: I’ll work up to that monumental moment that really clicked in my head, but the first thing that was happening was I was starting to… I believed in the rules of the Mafia. I believed in loyalty and the code, honor, omertà. I believed in all those things, and I thought it was the greatest thing on earth, to have something like that. It’s the same reason why young guys might join the Marines. They want that camaraderie and that “the few, the proud.” That’s how I thought I was in my neighborhood, with the Marines of my neighborhood, in my mind. Not to compare us to the Marines, but it’s not far of a stretch in our minds.
When I was in jail… First, on the street, guys would sometimes disappear, a guy got killed, and you would think that automatically you would just assume that he did something against the family, he committed some type of treason against the family. And just as if you commit treason against the country, you could get executed. So that’s what happened. You didn’t ask no questions. If you did, people are wondering why. Why are you asking? Are you a rat? Why you want to know what happened to so-and-so? You just keep your mouth shut. The guy disappeared and that’s the end of it. Or he was left on the street, that’s that. Or one of my dear friends was in a trunk. He was stinking for a week before someone found him. I didn’t ask any questions.
But then I’m away, and I’m around guys who were fighting their murder cases, and I lot of guys that I know died. I’m starting to realize that they died for different reasons, not necessarily because they committed an offense against the family, which could imperil all of us, but because somebody was screwing a guy’s wife, and he wanted to kill the husband so he could have the wife to himself. Another one was over money. They owned a business together, and if he kills him he’s worth a million dollars a year more, so he killed him. They come up with reasons. The guy’s a rat, I got to kill him.
It was a lot of like disgusting things that I’m observing in jail, while we’re all talking about our indictments. And here I am, I just got heists and hijackings, and after the score I whacked up the money with everybody fairly. We all took our cut and went home. I kicked a piece up to my boss, and that was that, and end of the day. I wasn’t looking to kill somebody treacherously to take something that was somebody else’s, whether it be a wife, a sister, or money or a business. It just wasn’t in me. If you gave me a billion dollars to kill somebody, I would have told you you’re nuts. Why would I kill somebody for money?
But if you told me that somebody raped your daughter, I would have said, “Wait for me outside. I’ll be there in five minutes,” and whoever did it was going in my trunk. That’s what I believed in. That was different. So now I’m in jail, and I’m weighing all of this, and then a lot of things were weighing on me. I went to the hole. I was going to the hole now and then. I was quick with my hands. Look, I got a Napoleon complex. I’m like 5’4″, maybe 5’5″ on a good day with sneakers on. I had a chip on my shoulder, maybe, but if somebody got out of line, I cracked them hard. Let’s do this. And I always was quick to fight. And I’m in jail, and I’m acting the same way, so I’m going to the hole now and then.
And then at one point I go to the hole for something I didn’t do. I did not do. What happened was, it’s considered assault. One of the guards, the hacks on duty called us late for our visits, and everybody was mad. It was in a holdover in MDC, Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. One of the guys that night got up out of his bunk, took a apple, and wung it at the guard, and it broke apart. Cracked him in the eye, gave him a shiner, broke apart on his head. The guy hit the floor, and next thing you know, everybody’s throwing stuff at him. So he was assaulted, but it came from my direction. I hung out with all the old-timers, and it was an old-time Sicilian gangster who did it.
So they came up, and they figured I was the only young guy in that row, so they locked me up. They roughed me up all the way to the hole. They’re like, “Who did it?” I go, “F you, who did it. Your sisters did it, that’s who did it.” I’m in the hole now, and they strip me, and they take my clothes. And when they bring you to the hole, they take your clothes in case you got like a razor sewn into something or whatever, and they give you clothes that are designated for the hole, that have been washed. There’s no way you could kill yourself or commit any type of violence, supposedly. Obviously, there’s ways convicts get around all that.
But they’re supposed to give me another uniform for the hole, like a jumpsuit, and they didn’t. I’m naked in my cell. I didn’t get my mattress, I didn’t get my pillow. They want to know who assaulted the guard, if it wasn’t me. So obviously, nobody can say they said I did it, because I didn’t. The guard could have lied, but he didn’t. He must have said it came from my direction, they figured pick me, it should have been me. It wasn’t. So now they keep saying, “Who did it?” I’m telling them, “Go find out yourself, Sherlock.” So now I got no clothes, no mattress, no pillow. Eventually, slowly but surely, I got all that stuff back, but then the captain of the guards came down and asked me who did it. I said, “Look, that’s on you, buddy. I’ll stay here all year if I have to, so who’s going to give first, me or you?”
He laughed, he said, “No food.” So now I’m not eating. Now I’m like, oh man, I can’t believe it, and I’m starving. And when you’re in jail and you’re in the hole, all you have to look forward to is the breakfast, the lunch, and the 4:00 dinner. Then you got to make sure, after 4:00 there’s no picking, so whatever you got at 4:00 that you ate, it’s got to last you to tomorrow at 6:00, 7:00 a.m. So you look forward to the meals, and you got nothing else going on but staring at a brick wall, and wondering at that point, because I hadn’t changed yet, wondering how I’m going avenge whoever’s ratting on me, how I’m going to torture them, how I’m going kill this guy and get that guy and the whole thing.
At some point or another, the captain of the guards the next day… Oh, what happened was that night, though, first, there was a Spanish guy from South or Central America who used to sweep the floor and then mop it. He was an inmate in the hole himself, and he was the orderly. So I go, “Amigo, amigo.” There’s like this bulletproof glass that you could see, that’s eye level with the human head, and then there’s this food slot that’s waist level that your trays are shoved through. So I was looking through the glass, banging on the glass. I go, “Amigo, amigo,” That’s Italian, eat. I figured he’ll figure it out in Spanish.
He goes, “Uno memento, Uno momento,” and he comes back and he shoves bread under my door. That just barely fit under my door. I had to squeeze it through. So I eat this dusty, dirty bread, and then he shoved these little jelly packets that he crushed, and I sucked them dry. “Gracias. Gracias, senor.” So now I’m like, all right, I got a guy to feed me, so I ain’t afraid of this captain of the guards once again. The next day, he comes, he opens the food slot, he bends down, he goes, “Hey, Ferrante, you going to tell me now that you’re not eating, whatever, you going to tell me who assaulted the guard?” And I said, “No, matter of fact, I’m not.” And I walk over to the food slot and I go, “And another thing,” and I reach my hand through and I grab him by the tie, the necktie, and I yank it. I wanted to strangle this guy, this SOB. I mean, you’re going to play a game with me? I’m in the hole anyway. May as well assault a cop if I’m here for one anyway.
I pulled the tie off his neck. It was a clip-on. I’m like, “You dirty bastard,” and I threw the tie back at him. He slams the food slot, and he’s looking at me, and he goes, “Of course it’s a clip-on.” He says, “You think we’d wear real ties with you animals in here?” He says, “You’re nothing but a lowlife animal, because look at yourself. You’re in a cage.” He goes, “If the prison ain’t good enough for you, you got to be in a prison inside of a prison.” And he was right, you know? I mean, I don’t remember exact words, but the context of it was just that.
So I’m like, man. That day, that was the click. Everything probably was building up in me already, but that was the click. Now, at that moment I felt like an animal, and I realized that my mother, my poor mother who died in my arms when I was young, didn’t raise me like this. She didn’t raise me to shoot people or stab people or punch people or hijack trucks and stick guns in people’s mouths. My mother taught me to hold the door for people, to be polite, to always care for the older people on my block. She gave a good moral code, I just wasn’t using it. My mind was all twisted up.
So from that day on, I had a lot of thinking to do, and I did. Everything sort of like flipped. Now, everything flipped in my mind, but I didn’t flip. That’s the key. At the risk of jumping ahead in your story here, but I never became a rat. And because I realized that what I had done was wrong, a lot of rats go, “Oh, I realized what I was done was wrong, so I started to cooperate.” They just want the door. I’m not going to dishonor myself or put my friends in jail because of what I did. And that’s what galls me about rats. I hate them. I try not to. I say I don’t anymore. I like to say I don’t, because God is the only judge, and everybody has to meet their maker one day or face natural justice in this world, whatever you might believe. But I do believe in natural justice and karma, so I like to try not to hate them, but for me at that point, I did, and I wasn’t going to be a rat.
But I was going to change my life. So I got out of the hole, and I asked my buddy Fat George, who was a caretaker at John Gotti’s social club, I asked him to… He had tattoos all over his body. He had all biblical verses and stuff written on his body. He was covered from head to toe in tattoos, a 400-pound man. You can imagine how much art was on him. And I go, “Hey, Fatso,” I called him up, “Hey, Fatso, you got stuff written all over your body. Do you read?” He says, “Yeah, I read.” “So can you send me some books?” He goes, “Yeah, what kind of books you want? Big boobs, fat asses, what are you into?”
I go, “No, no, a book to read, and I want to read something.” “Oh, okay. What do you want to read?” I go, “I have no idea. Go to the bookstore, tell whoever’s working all about me. Maybe they’ll have some ideas. I just want to just clear my head, get it away from all this stuff from here.” This is when I got out of the hole, by the way. And when I got out of the hole, everybody greeted me, because I did the honorable thing. I didn’t rat for something I didn’t do. I did the time, while I didn’t even do the crime, so everybody was greeting me like a hero, and it just didn’t move me anymore. Normally, that would have pumped up my ego. I would have felt proud of myself. I did my time in the hole for somebody else, yeah. They make you a dish of pasta. Everybody’s really kind to you when you get out of the hole, and I didn’t even care. I was like, I just want to get away from these guys now and just think.
So Fat George sent me in three books. I was playing pinochle when I got the books. My partner was the boss of the Colombo family at the time, Vic Orena, and Vic goes, “Where you going?” I go, “I got to go to the package room.” And that was the last time I ever played pinochle. I got my books, came upstairs. Oh, it’s kind of funny. I opened the box, and he sent me Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Napoleon by Vincent Cronin, and Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler. So I’m like, oh man, what the F is this? I call up George, and I go, “Hey, Fatty,” I go, “I got the books, but where’d you get them ideas?” He goes, “From the girl.” He goes, “You told me, go to the bookstore. I told the broad at the bookstore all about you, and she gave me those books.” I go, “What did you tell her?” He says, “I told her you were short and bossy, and so she picked three dictators.”
So that was the first books I ever read, and I almost understood nothing of what I was reading, but the fact that I was really a determined guy all the time, I always persevered if I was going to do something, I stuck with it and I read the books cover to cover. I understood almost… I mean, what the hell? Who the hell could understand Hitler’s national socialist movement, even today, what the hell he was talking about? If you go back today and read Mein Kampf, you’re going to be like, what is this moron talking about? And so imagine me trying to understand it after hijacking trucks. I just totally, I didn’t understand anything.
To give you an idea of how distant I was from history at that point and how little I understood, at some point years later I became like the guru for questions about anything. History, philosophy, science, you name it, they came up to me. I was like Google in jail. A couple of gangsters were arguing, and they came up to me, and they go, “Hey Lou, you got to settle this beef for us. Who won when Napoleon fought Caesar?” I go, “They was 1,800 years apart. What do you mean who won?” I laughed, but meanwhile, I wouldn’t have known before I read, before I understood history. How do you know these things?
That began, though, the journey for me for education. That was the start, and to get back to your question, that was the monumental moment in which my mind just like totally… And then I had nothing but time after that hit me, after I pulled the cop’s necktie off. I had nothing but time to sit in my cell and think in that hole until I was released, which was a benefit. God works in mysterious ways. I don’t know. All your listeners may or may not believe in God. I believe there’s a higher power, or I believe in fortune or fate, if you don’t want to attribute it to God. But something leads us along this journey here on earth. We’re not just like dumped out of the sky. There’s something, there’s a plan, and I think you need to follow it. And I was happy that at that point in my life, I noticed that there was a path for me, and I followed it, and it was a life-changing decision.
I would just counsel any of your listeners that if you have that wake-up moment, don’t discard it. Think about it, dwell on it, and go for it. Don’t discard it, because there’s meaning behind it, and as long as it’s leading you in a good way, a good path, do it. If you have this big moment where you think, “Oh, God just told me to kill my neighbor, so they shut the music off so I could sleep,” that’s not coming from God. I can’t imagine that. But if it’s a good thing, follow it.
Brett McKay: I’m curious more about your readings. I know our listeners are readers.
Lou Ferrante: Oh, good.
Brett McKay: So the first three books you read were bios of Napoleon, the Gallic Wars, and Mein Kampf. What did you start reading after you started reading those books?
Lou Ferrante: What I did was, those were really hard for me, and at some point I probably should have been reading like the adolescent version of Huck Finn, something really rudimentary. I don’t know what I should have been reading, but not those books. At some point, what I did was, I realized that I liked history, and so I gravitated towards history and biographies. But I probably took a step back and picked easier books to get through. I started reading, biographies and history were my favorites, and how I taught myself how to write is by, I fell in love with the masters of 19th century fiction, like Gustave Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy the Englishman, even 20th century, Thomas Wolfe the American, the early American Thomas Wolfe, Can’t Go Home Again. The Bronte sisters, George Eliot, you name it, I read it. Stendhal.
I couldn’t get enough of those books, and I couldn’t digest them quickly enough, and I fell in love with them, because they were stories where they were easier for me to sort of like follow a story. In the beginning, my vocabulary really sucked, so I bought a dictionary for a stamp in jail. It was missing XYZ, So my vocabulary was a little weaker in that area. But every word I didn’t understand, I looked up. I used to write across from the words, I probably remembered this from middle school or something, I used to write the definition and then study it every night before I went to bed in my cell. So that’s how I expanded my vocabulary.
Most of the words I had, by the time I wrote a novel in jail myself, most of the words that I was writing and using in my mind regularly, I had never even heard spoken. I would hear a word, my lawyer would say a word, and I’d say, “What the hell did he just say?” And it was a word I knew, but he had pronounced it differently than my mind pronounced it, because I had never ever ever seen these words, other than in print. I never heard them, rather.
So that was interesting, but at some point, I started to say to myself in the midst of reading history, biographies, and I started to realize that there was a bibliography in the back where you could use one book to find others. So that was nice, because I would read something in a book, maybe I was reading Winston Churchill, and they referenced Pitt the Elder or Pitt the Younger. Maybe he had a picture of him in his room or something, I don’t know, just hypothetically. And then I would say, “Oh, who’s Pitt the Elder or Pitt the Younger?” And then I would look for him and then read about the Pitts. And things like that would sort of like lead me from one direction to another. And I realized that, although I wasn’t the type to sit in a classroom. I hated school and never went to college. I did graduate high school, because I promised my mother, who I loved, that I would, and she died shortly after.
But I cheated my way through high school. My friend Jorge Avila used to help me cheat. He used to slip the answers to me or write them on his wrist and put his hand behind his back. Andrea, Angela, people did homework for me. I hated school, but now here I am and I can’t get enough education. I’m absolutely in love with books, and I’m reading 18 hours a day. The muscles in my eyes would ache by the time I’d go to bed, and I’d start first thing in the morning once again. And I realized that I did love education. It was just I loved the free networking of education, the free association, just go where your mind takes you.
And that was the best thing for me. It wasn’t where I could sit in a classroom and, I don’t know, some teacher who maybe I don’t connect with was trying to tell me, “You have to do this and you have to do that, and I want to see it.” And then he judges my work. My attitude would have been then, who the hell is this guy to judge me? What are you doing? Who are you, big cheese, you think you’re going to judge me? That was my attitude at the time, but I loved reading. I fell in love with education. So at some point, the books I was reading, the nonfiction I was learning, I was learning about science, philosophy. I went back to the early philosophers. I read the ancient Greeks. I read the plays. I read up until, rather, the Romans, then up through the Enlightenment philosophers, the French philosophers. And I fell in love with all that stuff.
But besides that, I was teaching myself how to write, by every time I picked up a novel, I would read. Let’s say it was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I would read it, but I would take meticulous notes in the margins, like how did Tolstoy introduce a character? How did he weave his plot? How did he develop his plot? How did he exit a character? How did his chapter begin and end? I would take meticulous notes, so sooner or later, these great authors, whoever they might been, Jane Austen, who knows? Charlotte Bronte. Everything they know, everything Charlotte Bronte knew about writing is in Jane Eyre, right? So if you take that one single masterpiece, it’s a university lesson, times a million, in writing. Because no professor has ever achieved what Charlotte Bronte has in the field of writing, and everything she knew was dumped into Jane Eyre.
So if you know how to dissect what she’s doing and basically take it apart and teach yourself, it’s a course in writing. So every, then, book that I read thereafter, whether it be, let’s say, Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, whatever I was reading after that became my university lesson in writing. I had the luxury of isolation, which at first killed me. I wasn’t the kind of guy, I was a social character, I was very gregarious all my life, and now here I am trapped in this cell. But once I was learning and educating myself in writing, I realized that isolation was a blessing, and this was a good thing. This wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
And then also too, nowadays I write. My last book was an international bestseller in 20 languages, but I have to discipline myself and lock myself in a room, but I also have to come out of that room now and then and pay the bills and figure out how I’m going to get through the month and through the year. That’s a big burden on any writer’s shoulders, unless he or she is living on a trust fund, and most people aren’t. I had that luxury also of I’m living in a cell, but I’m being fed my meals three times a day, while all I have to do is read for 18 hours. So I kind of shifted the whole torture of prison, and I say again, by the grace of God or what have you, something in my life had changed, and I think whenever we change our lives, the tragedies become blessings. And that tragedy of prison and the isolation and the torture of prison, because prison is torture, it just became a moderate light torture to me.
But ignorance is a heavier set of chains than prison, and I was enchained in ignorance before I went to prison. So now here I was, and I had escaped my ignorance, but I was in a prison cell. But I’d rather escape ignorance and be in a prison cell than be free and be enchained by ignorance. I saw the blessing in having nothing to do but just teach myself how to write, and I fell in love with books. I thank God for that. I just kept writing.
Brett McKay: I love that story of how books contributed to your transformation. So you educated yourself, and part of your education, you actually appealed your own conviction. You learned the law. And you get out, and you made the decision while you were in prison, you didn’t want to go back to the life. So you decided… What was your plan? What was your plan after you got out?
Lou Ferrante: When I went to my final team meeting, they have team meetings in prison where they bring you into this room and the prison administration is around this big table, and they ask you what you’re up to, and they want to know when you’re ready to go home what your plans are. And the system is disgusting, by the way. It’s horrible. They really don’t prepare people for the outside world. Most people just vegetate in front of a television. They commit violence. They do drugs. Everything is available in prison. And then they’re ready to be just tossed out onto the street, and they’re asked a few rote questions, that as long as they push back the right answers to this administration, they’re let out and told, “Oh, sounds good.”
A guy could go, “Oh, I’m going to be an electrician.” “Okay, sounds good. Talk to you later. Next.” I went in front of this team meeting, and they asked me, “How are you, Mr. Ferrante?” “Very good, thank you.” “What do you intend to do when you go home?” “I’m going to be a bestselling author.” “Ah, ha ha ha,” they were hysterical around the table. So they said, “No, for real, what do have lined up?” And I said, “No, no, for real, I’m going to be an author, hopefully bestselling.” “Ah, ha ha ha,” he was hysterical again. So I said, “Well, that’s really all I have planned. I can’t tell you I’m going to go into construction. I really don’t have any interest in it.”
My family was in construction, by the way. My grandfather and my uncle drove bulldozers. That was supposed to be my trade before I started hijacking. I was on a bulldozer from when I was a kid, a backhoe. I drove all kinds of operating engineering equipment, and I didn’t like it. So I didn’t want to bounce around on gravel, digging holes in the street. Not to take away from anybody who does. I think it’s a great job if you like it. I didn’t. I wanted to do something different. So I told them, “I’m not going to tell you a lie. I’m going to be an author.” And they said, “Okay, fine, let him go. Next.” And that’s what I became. So I guess I had the last laugh in that sense.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you did exactly what you said you’d do. You got out and you wrote a bestselling book. It was Mob Rules, and other opportunities came out of that. And this is how I first learned about you, hosting a show on the Discovery Channel called Inside the Gangsters’ Code, where you travel around the world to the world’s most dangerous gangs to see what they’re like. And it’s just so fascinating, because you get up close and personal with these guys. So for those who aren’t familiar with the show, what sorts of gangs did you go and visit and interact with?
Lou Ferrante: Yeah. I’m glad you saw the show, too, and you liked it. Thank you. Inside the Gangsters’ Code was a one of a kind show at the time. Nobody had done really anything to that level, and the access we had was incredible. For example, we traveled to El Salvador and we met with the 18th Street gang, who sort of controls El Salvador along with MS-13. They’re basically the two gangs that have control of El Salvador in so many ways. Really, really, if you ever go to El Salvador, you would see how powerful they are in the country. We were able to get into the jungles and go to the prisons that were hidden away in the jungles, and lock in with the most vicious gangsters who had murdered.
One of the prisons I locked in with the gangsters and lived with them in there, right before we got there they had murdered a guy in a corner of the yard, right where I was standing with them, because they found out he was a snitch and that was it. The boss said cut him up, and that was the end of him. They hacked him up right in the corner.
And then another prison I was in, actually in Bilibid in the Philippines, which was a crazy prison, it was a world within itself, a hustling bustling world of its own, with a wall around it. It was like Escape from New York, if any of your older viewers remember the movie with Kurt Russell. It was like that. Right after I had left, a guy got shot right where I was standing, the gang leader, inside the prison, meaning that there were guns in the prison. They had machine guns, they had hand guns inside the prison. One of the gang leaders told me that off-camera. He said, “Look, I can’t say in on camera, but we’re fully armed in here.” And then shortly after I had left that prison, right after I left, a guy got killed.
Brett McKay: What I love about the show, it’s entertaining, but it’s also like you’re being a sociologist or an anthropologist when you’re talking to these guys. Let’s talk about the idea of the Gangsters’ Code. When you’ve gone and you’ve visited all these different types of gangs, and even your own experience being a member of a gang, does that code pretty much stay the same across gangs?
Lou Ferrante: Yeah, I mean, it’s not like a catalog of rules. People are intrigued by, there are a lot of like… In the Mafia, which probably has a lot more rules than regular gangs, in the Mafia, there’s sort of like this oral code. It’s almost like this Homeric epic, where all these stories about past Mob life are always retold, how so-and-so got killed and how so-and-so did this. That was what my book Mob Rules was based on. It was sort of like that Homeric Mafia code, or Talmudic, I should even say, where they go back and forth with how they should do something.
But the basic thing, aside from the minutiae of how to handle certain beefs or how to introduce yourself, the basic code of the Mafia is honor. Honor your fellow thieves, which is the twist of it. You can’t go with somebody’s wife. You can’t go with somebody’s sister without permission. Those are punishable by death. Ratting, snitching obviously is punishable by death. Here’s a story for you that goes back to the Homeric code, the Mafia’s Homeric epic code, let’s call it for the moment. My friend was in a beef with, his sister got cut at a park with a bottle by another girl. So when she came home bleeding all over the place, he ran to the park and beat up the girl. He figured if she could cut my sister with a broken bottle and act like a man, then I could treat her like a man and hit her.
What he did was wrong, because it was a mobster’s daughter, and you can’t beat up a mobster’s daughter, and you can’t beat up a girl. Those are against the rules. So the mobster, the father, when he heard about it, he went to my friend’s house and banging on the door with guns. A couple of friends, they had guns. And the mother answered the door and had a fight with them on the porch. And she’s wrestling with him on the porch and told him to get out of there. So when they went to the sit-down, it was ruled that my friend was wrong for beating up the girl, even though she was wrong for cutting his sister with a bottle. He should have went to the father and let the father discipline her.
Then, by the father going to the house, the house is sacred and it’s off-limits, so nobody’s supposed to go to somebody’s home. So by him going to somebody’s home, which he did, and offending the mother, then it was a wash. So the beef was squashed, and that was it. So those are the rules of the Mafia, how they’re applied. When I say the home is sacred, now it’s after the reign of Gaspipe Casso in the ’90s, the Lucchese family, they killed a guy. They killed somebody from my family, Bobby Borriello, in front of his house. There was another guy in the Colombo war, during the Colombo family war in the early ’90s, he was hanging Christmas lights in front of his house. He was shot in front of his house.
But before that, it was off-limits to go near someone’s house. That’s the degenerative slide the Mafia’s been taking over the last couple decades, where they do go to somebody’s house now. But back then, I wasn’t allowed to go to your house. If, let’s say for example, you, Brett, owed me $100,000, and I knew where you lived, I could literally be killed if I went banging on your door demanding my money, because I’m offending whoever lives with you, including your mother or your wife or your daughter or your sons or whoever. And by doing that, I’m offending your family, and family honor is everything, and that’s what it’s supposed to be about.
Now, I could catch you down the street and run you over with my car, and the family, the same family I don’t want to offend, has to visit you in the hospital and bring you flowers and buy you food from the outside, because hospital food stinks, et cetera, et cetera. But I have to follow the code. I’m allowed to kill you away from your house, but I can’t do it when you’re at home. So I believed in those little things. I thought that that was sacred, and for many decades, mobsters, no matter in the midst of the most brutal, savage wars, where the strife was like Fallujah, when the Marines went in, in Iraq, it was so tense. They could come and go in their houses and they knew that. They could sit in front of the television with the window open and watch TV, because nobody would attempt to go near your home, and that’s eroded. Those are how some of the rules have eroded as well over recent years.
Brett McKay: So it’s this sense of honor, that’s the code?
Lou Ferrante: That’s it, that’s it. Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell. Yeah, omertà. Omertà was originally supposedly also too, this is an interesting word, omertà. Omertà wasn’t just silence. We look at it today as Americans, we look at the word “omertà” and we say you keep your mouth shut. Don’t rat on people, be quiet. Or if people come from neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods when I was young, if there was like somebody was shot on the block, all the neighbors, even if they were legitimate people, knew to keep their mouth shut. They understood omertà. The cops came, “Anybody see anything?” Everybody said no, and the cops got in the car and went home. That was just the way it was.
But omertà, the original meaning of omertà in the Sicilian form, from Sicily originally when the Mafia first formed in Sicily, omertà meant being a man and doing something yourself. So for example, if I’m in jail, and let’s say you double crossed me and you’re outside, and you’re not giving me the money that’s due to my family. You’re supposed to drop off money at my house and give my family money that’s due to me while I’m in jail, but you’re not doing that. So I’m mad at you. Now, if I have to do 20 years, omertà means I have to handle things on my own. I have to wait the 20 years, come out, and then see you and take care of you. Or get my comrades on the street to go find you. But I don’t rat and get the police to help me get you.
But nowadays, people don’t follow omertà. They say, “Okay, Brett’s not paying my family, I’m going to rat Brett out. I’m going to become a confidential informant, or I’ll go into the witness protection program, and I’ll give Brett 20 years.” What you’re doing is you’re enlisting the government or the police force to be your co-conspirators in punishing your enemies. That’s not omertà. That’s why the Sicilians never went to the police. Omertà means if somebody shot my son yesterday, I don’t go to the police, and this was the old Mafia. You don’t go to the police, you take care of that justice yourself. You find out who shot your son, and you find the guy, and you take care of it yourself.
It was being a man, and it originated in Sicily, because Sicily couldn’t rely on the police. Here in America, we can rely on our police. We can rely on the FBI. They do a darn good job in keeping the streets clean. It’s why we could, notwithstanding some neighborhoods in this country that are very dangerous, for the most part, America is a place where your daughter could run out for milk and come home without anything happening to her. And I feel bad for the neighborhoods where that can’t happen, cannot. But in Sicily, you couldn’t rely on the police force to have the streets kept lawful, or the government, you couldn’t rely on. The Mafia did that.
The piazza don, the don who hung out in the piazza all day, controlled what happened in that neighborhood. So if something happened to your daughter while she went out to buy milk, you didn’t call the police, because they weren’t around. They couldn’t be relied on. What are they going to do? You called the piazza don, and you said, “Something happened to my daughter yesterday.” He puts word out, and next thing you know, whoever the culprit was is brought to justice. So that’s sort of where it came from, and it’s obvious why the word has lost its meaning in America, because we have a strong society. We don’t rely on the piazza don for justice. But in the small Italian neighborhoods when I was growing up, it was a dense…
For example, let’s say not even my neighborhood. My particular neighborhood where I grew up was a mix of German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, but let’s say Corona. Corona was a very small Italian enclave, and that enclave, they relied on internal justice. When I was a kid, if you did something wrong in Corona, you didn’t have to wait for the cops. You had to look out, not for the Plymouth with a red light on top. You had to look out for the Cadillac with tinted windows. That’s who was coming for you. So again, things have changed now. Neighborhoods are more diverse, where that strong Italian culture that came from Sicily or even Naples isn’t necessarily around as much nowadays. So the word has deteriorated along with the less and less of a need for it.
Brett McKay: Right, and I imagine the countries where gangs are prolific, the government’s typically weak there, and so that’s the alternative, right?
Lou Ferrante: There you go. I mean, you just said it. I kind of summed it up when I was talking about Sicily. El Salvador, they can’t rely on the police, the soldiers, the federal or state police, the soldiers. They can’t rely on them to keep them safe from the gangs. The gangs have overcome the streets. If you open up a McDonald’s in San Salvador, for example, if you open up a McDonald’s, you need to pay one of the gangs, either 18th Street or MS-13, depending on whose territory that is. And if you say to them, “Well, why don’t you go to the police?” they’re going to look at you have two heads, because are you asking me to kill myself?
There’s a story way back when. I don’t know if some of your listeners may remember, there was an old supermarket chain in Queens when I grew up. I don’t know how far it stretched across the country, if at all, but it was called Waldbaum’s, W-A-L-D-B-A-U-M-S, if I’m not mistaken. Waldbaum’s was like a supermarket chain started by a family, and Ira Waldbaum, I think, was the sort of the patriarch of the family. And at one point or another, he was told to sell Paul Castellano, the Gambino family Mafia boss, to sell Paul Castellano’s chickens or else. So Waldbaum puts Castellano’s chickens on the shelves, obviously, and he says, “What am I going to do, fight with Paul Castellano? If he wants his chickens on my shelves, I’ll put his chickens on my shelves.”
So the FBI went to Ira Waldbaum and asked him at that time, back in whatever it was, the ’70s, and said to him, “Hey Ira, why don’t you wear a wire, and why don’t you tell them no, and why don’t you… ” And he looked at them and said, “Why don’t you protect me from them? If you can’t keep them away from me, then don’t expect me to keep them away from me.” In other words, “You can’t rely on me to do it. You have to do that. If he doesn’t exist, Paul Castellano, then I don’t have to deal with him, but as long as he exists and he’s pointing a finger in my chest telling me I have to have his chickens, then I have a problem with him. And the best way to compromise that problem is to acquiesce.”
There’s a good example of… And nowadays, obviously, the FBI is strong enough to keep the Paul Castellano out of the… usually. They still have a hold in some places, the Mob, but they’re not as powerful as they used to be. I don’t believe they control the chickens anymore in New York, but they did at one time. So the more and more the FBI and the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, for example, gets ahold of what’s going on, the less and less people who are in business have to deal with Mafia elements.
My friend was a union boss. I think I could say his name, he died. Anthony Calagna, he was a Lucchese member. He was a leader of a union, and he was a great guy, and they loved him. He negotiated, he got them the best deal. When he inherited the job, he walks into an office and sits down, and he told me this story himself. He says, “Lou, day one on the job, these envelopes are coming on my desk. Guys are bringing 5,000, 10,000, and they’re dropping me off envelopes all week. You know, it’s built into the desk, and I just inherited it. It wasn’t something that I worked.” It might have been started by Tommy Lucchese, Three Fingers Brown Lucchese decades before Anthony Calagna ever came into the picture, but when he took over…
Now, I’m not saying he was an innocent man. He knew exactly what he was doing, but I’m just trying to make the point that when things are infiltrated, if there are innocent people, and Anthony wasn’t, he was a gangster, but if there are innocent people… There could be a secretary in Anthony’s office who just goes to work nine to five. It’s up to law enforcement to keep those people out. In places like El Salvador, they haven’t reached, I think, the level that we have with regard to law enforcement. Law enforcement in the United States is much stronger than in the countries I went to.
The Camorra in Naples, I went to visit the Camorra in Naples. The Camorra in Naples controls Naples. The police are doing a darn good job as best they can, but they don’t have ahold of it. They’re pretty much running Naples. If you go to Naples, and you said, “I’m going to build a nice hotel over here on the waterfront,” you’re going to get a knock on your door, and the Camorra’s going to tell you, “I don’t care if you go to the police or not, we’re going to chop you up and put you in a barrel and dump you out to sea, unless you do what we tell you to do.”
Brett McKay: I’m curious. In all the gangs you visited, what human needs were these gangs fulfilling? Obviously, they were like an alternative to government.
Lou Ferrante: Yeah, this is a great question.
Brett McKay: But what drew… I mean, typically men were the ones that are joining these gangs. Why that?
Lou Ferrante: Great question. I wanted to create a show, my idea was to create a show that has some educational value. I don’t want to just do. I get contacted all the time. “Hey, Louie, you want to do a Mob show? Hey, Vinnie Papa, what are you doing over here? Hey, go down, see Gino.” I don’t want to do those shows. I want to do something that helps people. Just like my books. If I write a book, I want it to help people in some way.
The same thing with my shows. I wanted to go inside the subculture of the gangs and find out what made them tick. In answer to your question, the best question that is illustrative of what makes these guys tick is El Salvador, the gangs in El Salvador. I went in there, and these guys love their families, and yet they were all killers. Every single one of them had to kill to get initiated into the gang. Every single one of them was a tried and true killer. And they had killed a guy, as I said, right before I got there.
So what was behind these guys? They love their families, they couldn’t wait to get visits from their mothers and their daughters and their wives. Hugging and kissing them. You know, that’s sort of like that, they had that Spanish, which is very like Italian, the warm culture where we kiss and hug a lot. Kissing and hugging on visiting day. I was there for visiting day. What made them tick? What happened was, there was a story behind it, and it was very interesting. When El Salvador got sucked into a civil war, a lot of the fathers were killed or fled the country or disappeared, and a lot of the sons had single moms. And a lot of the single moms desperately tried to keep the family together by working two jobs, three jobs. Some of them fled to the United States and would send money home.
And it became a very sad picture for these single young men, these young men who were basically orphaned. And they needed family, and the gang became their family. And they look at each other as family, just like the Mafia. It originally started as family. This is La Familia, La Cosa Nostra, La Familia. It’s the same thing with El Salvador. It was the family that was behind this, and the need for family, it was fulfilled by the gang. These are my brothers, these are my family. You’ll see that over and over in the El Salvador episode. These are my brothers, these are my family.
And when they get visits from the women, they love them. They kiss and hug them. They love their mothers, they love their wives, they love their daughters. They’re not insensitive men. They’re not monsters, and I wanted to show the human side of them. And I did that. I think I successfully did that. I cried with one of the guys at the end of the film. I mean, there’s no way. I thought I got to the heart of their humanity. There are heinous criminals, there are heinous crimes. Those people should be punished. I’m not a softie. I understand that we have to keep society safe from certain people. For a time, I thought society should be kept safe from myself. You know, I’m the first one to admit it. I’m running around the streets with guns. What am I doing?
But in another sense, I had humanity in me. Obviously, I’m talking to you now, and I hope your listeners can hear it. They did too. No one’s a lost cause. We’re all God’s children, and I wanted to show that. And I’m not saying people shouldn’t be punished and people should be let out of jail. You deserve to be punished for what you do, but don’t forget that people are human, and that’s what I think I achieved in that…
You know, look, in the end, at the end of the day, this country is torn apart right now so badly, our country, the United States. And I don’t want to get into politics, obviously, but with the political division here, I think the film sort of like from a left point of view, it was like we can’t show gangs, period. We can’t show people who are evil and people who are bad. And from a right point of view, we can’t show the good part of them. We can’t show the good side of them, because then we’ll think people like who are bad are really good. So I think I got caught in a crossfire, where both political sides found wrong in the films. But look, I’m not going to stop going out and doing what I think I do best, which is educating people as to sort of like these subcultures in society.
Brett McKay: Well, Lou, where can people go to learn more about the work you do?
Lou Ferrante: I guess the best thing, I haven’t updated my website in years. I should. I’m in the midst of writing a new book right now, and I’m tweaking the last edits on my novel that I’ll be coming out with also, beginning of next year, hopefully. But you could go to my website, louisferrante.com, L-O-U-I-S-F-E-R-R-A-N-T-E dot com. If there are any questions, you could drop me an email through there. There’s a contact sheet. I will get the email. That’s the best place. It shows my books and some of the work I’ve done, but I need to update the site. There’s a lot more I’ve done that’s not on there. At some point I will. I’ve just been like totally dedicating all of my time to writing my new book, which I’ll hopefully be done with next year and have it out next year as well, hopefully.
Brett McKay: Well, Lou Ferrante, thanks for so much time. It’s been a pleasure.
Lou Ferrante: Thank you, Brett. Absolute pleasure. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Lou Ferrante. He’s the author of a few books. Check out his books Unlocked, about his time as a mobster, also Mob Rules, about business lessons you can learn from the Mafia. You can also find out more information about his work at his website, louisferrante.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/gangsterscode, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about personal finance, health and fitness, how to be a better husband, better father. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to Stitcher Premium, sign up, use code MANLINESS to get a month trial free of Stitcher Premium. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and start enjoying new episodes of the AoM Podcast ad-free.
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