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American Mafia Website - Philadelphia Bosses

Mafiosi and Black Hand extortionists existed in the Philadelphia area from the turn of the 20th Century, possibly earlier. The earliest documented Mafia boss of the city was Salvatore Sabella. Historically, the Philly Mob's home territory has contained southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, including Atlantic City, and a portion of Delaware. Following legalization of casino gambling in the 1970s, Atlantic City became attractive to Mafia organizations from outside the area. (Note: A wealth of information on Philadelphia Mafia history is contained in Celeste Morello's meticulously researched series Before Bruno.)

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Salvatore Sabella

1919 - Salvatore Sabella (Born Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, July 7, 1891. Died Philadelphia, PA, Jan. 14, 1962.) Sabella was born in the same Sicilian city that produced Stefano Magaddino, Joseph Bonanno and Gaspare Milazzo. All moved into Mafia leadership positions in major American cities (Magaddino in Buffalo, Bonanno in New York, Milazzo in Detroit). Sabella reached the U.S. before 1915 with his family. The clan settled in the Castellammarese colony in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Sabella joined the Mafia in Brooklyn as a young adult. He was groomed for leadership by Giuseppe Traina, a trusted associate of boss of bosses Salvatore D'Aquila. Within a short time, Sabella was selected as "rappresentante" for Mafiosi in the Philadelphia area. He established a pro-D'Aquila organization and benefited from support from the D'Aquila and Magaddino families in Brooklyn. The core of Sabella's underworld organization looks to have been a Castellammarese colony to the north of Philadelphia, but his powerful allies caused south Philadelphia Sicilians to fall in line behind him. The Sabella Mafia feuded for a time with a gang led by the Zanghi brothers.

1930 - Sabella and his organization were part of a conservative Mafia faction in the U.S. that overthrew boss of bosses Giuseppe Masseria in the 1930-31 Castellammarese War. The victory of the conservative Castellammarese forces and the ascension of Salvatore Maranzano to the boss of bosses throne momentarily enhanced the status of Sabella and the Philadelphia Mafia.

John Avena

1931 - John Avena (Born Messina, Sicily, 1893. Killed Aug. 17, 1936). Following the assassination of Salvatore Maranzano and the dismantling of the old boss of bosses dispute resolution system late in 1931, Sabella stepped down from his underworld administrative duties in Philadelphia. (Sabella died of heart disease about thirty years later.) He designated Avena, known as "Nasone" or "Big Nose," as his successor. Avena had arrived in Philadelphia as a teenager in 1908. During Avena's relatively brief reign, the Mafia organization battled the rival Lanzetti brothers. The feuding ultimately cost Avena his life.

1936 - Joseph Dovi (Born Messina, Sicily, Feb. 11, 1889. Died New York City, Oct. 22, 1946.) John Avena was killed at the corner of Washington and Passyunk Avenues in 1936. His death appeared to be the result of a feud between the recognized Philly mob and a faction headed by the Lanzetti brothers. Joseph Dovi, known as "Joe Bruno" became boss. Dovi, like his predecessor, was a native of the Sicilian province of Messina. He arrived in the U.S. in 1906-07 and spent about a decade in Cortland, New York, outside of Syracuse, before moving to Philadelphia. As boss, Dovi largely kept his distance from the Philadelphia underworld, ruling from his residence in Bristol, about 20 miles northeast of the city. While he was boss, the feud with the Lanzetti brothers was settled.

1946 - Joseph Ida (Born Calabria, Italy, July 4, 1890. Died?). The death by natural causes of Joe Bruno allowed Ida to take the helm of the Philadelphia family. Ida had been a close supporter of Joseph Bruno and, like Bruno, lived a distance from Philadelphia. Ida's role in the underworld was exposed when he attended the Apalachin, New York, Mafia convention in November 1957. The exposure was not to Ida's liking, and he responded by fleeing the country. He returned to Italy late in 1958 or early in 1959, leaving Antonio Pollina as boss in Philadelphia. In spring 1960, Ida renounced his U.S. citizenship.

1957 - Antonio Domenick Pollina (Born Caccamo, Sicily, Sept. 20, 1892. Died Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 27, 1993.) The elevation of "Mr. Migs" Pollina to the position of boss fractured the crime family. Pollina, whose first public notice occurred during the war against the Zanghis, tried to deal with the split by undermining his primary rival Angelo Annaloro, known as Angelo Bruno. When the situation worsened, Pollina ordered Ignazio Denaro to kill Annaloro. Denaro did not do as ordered. Instead, he informed Annaloro of the death sentence. Annaloro took the matter to the Mafia's national Commission. In 1959, the Commission endorsed the replacement of Pollina by Annaloro and gave Annaloro the right to assassinate Pollina. Annaloro let his rival live but forced him into retirement. Retirement apparently suited Pollina, as he lived to age 100.

Angelo Bruno

1959 - Angelo Annaloro (Born Villalba, Sicily, May 21, 1910. Killed Philadelpha, PA, March 12, 1980.) Known as "Angelo Bruno," Annaloro commanded the underworld from his home on Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia. His reign was said to be one of conciliation and compromise, and newspapers referred to him as the "Docile Don." Beginning with his refusal to strike back at unseated boss Antonio Pollina, Annaloro attempted to smooth over the deep factional differences in the Philly Mob and succeeded for a time. Annaloro/Bruno became the longest-serving boss of the Philadelphia Mafia.

1976 - Casino gambling became legal within Atlantic City. (The first casino opened two years later.) While increasing the racket possibilities for the nearby Philadelphia mafiosi, casinos also made the region more attractive to outsiders.


1980 - Philip Testa (Born April 21, 1924. Killed March 15, 1981.) Angelo Bruno was shot to death on March 12, 1980. His assassination was allegedly ordered by New York crime bosses coveting access to Bruno's private fiefdom in Atlantic City. Bruno's consigliere Anthony Caponigro was also thought to have cooperated on the hit. Testa reigned over Philadelphia for one year with Peter Casella allegedly serving as underboss. During his reign, the Testa-Riccobene war erupted. The rebellious splinter group was led by Harry Riccobene.


1981 - Nicodemo Scarfo (Born New York City, March 8, 1929. Died Butner, NC, Jan. 13, 2017.) A bomb exploded at Testa's home on March 15, 1981, eliminating the Philadelphia crime boss. Underboss Peter Casella looked to be responsible. Nicodemo "Nicky" Scarfo, based in Atlantic City, was able to seize control of the family by bringing charges against Casella to the national commission.

1988 - Scarfo is found guilty of murder and extortion. He is given a long prison sentence.