Even as the power of the American mafia has declined in recent decades, the public’s fascination with it has not, Richard Hall writes
The camera points squarely at a tattooed man seated comfortably in a dark brown leather chair, a dim light illuminating his face and a dramatic violin score playing in the background. He is midway through his story, a retelling of his part in a gruesome double murder, to his hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube.
“Shots rang out in the night air. People running screaming, falling, scrambling all over to get away. A wave of people,” the man says, staring directly into the camera.
“Tommy Bolota was blown away laying in the middle of the street. Paul was on the sidewalk laying half in the street and half on the sidewalk. What do you think? Tommy’s dead. I’m sure he’s dead too.”
For decades, tales of life in the American mafia such as these have fascinated cinema and television audiences, and spawned countless movies about murders and criminal deeds. Now, mobsters are cutting out the middleman.
Sammy “The Bull” Gravano is one of a number of former high-profile mafia figures who have found huge audiences on YouTube in recent years. The former underboss of the Gambino crime family has 421,000 subscribers on his channel. His video podcast, “Our Thing”, in which he regularly tells stories of infamous mob hits in which he was directly involved, often clocks hundreds of thousands of views.
And he is not alone. Michael Franzese, a former caporegime of the Colombo crime family, has an even larger audience of 721,000 subscribers. He posts regular reviews of mob movies, tells stories about his time in prison and reveals intimate details about life in a mafia family.
Even as the power of the American mafia has declined in recent decades, the public’s fascination with it has not. Mobsters have for years used that interest for their own gain, but those stories have mostly been told with some distance from the subject, in semi-fictionalised dramatisations or in documentaries. On YouTube, there is no such filter. That ensures gripping content for the audience – a front row seat to history, even – but it may also raise some ethical questions for the $500bn (£365bn) video sharing platform. If someone can make money from recounting a killing in graphic detail on YouTube, are they profiting from their crimes a second time?
Patrick Bet-David, an entrepreneur and successful YouTuber in his own right, has spent years interviewing underworld figures for his own channel, including Gravano and Franzese. He has had a front-row seat to the rapid rise of former mafia members on the social media platform, and he believes their popularity will only grow.
“These stories are very compelling. You have people that listen to every word that comes out of their mouth. There’s an audience for it,” he tells The Independent. “They are both going to be million subscriber channels in no time,” he says of Gravano and Franzese.
Bet-David first interviewed Franzese back in 2017. The former Colombo crime family member had left the mob life behind and found God during his time in jail. When he got out, he authored several books and had found a new life as a motivational speaker. He gained a reputation as a storyteller through appearances in documentaries and his own writing. That first interview garnered tens of millions of views, and he knew he was on to something. Bet-David believes there is something about the mob life that produces good storytellers.
“Think about it, their entire life has been about sitting across from their boss and explaining what happened. You have to be so careful with the words you use because the wrong word could cost your life or your associate’s life or your cousin’s life or somebody else’s life,” he says.
Both Franzese and Gravano are, without a doubt, compelling storytellers. Franzese, 70, has the measured demeanor of a Fortune 500 CEO. He spends considerable time in his videos attempting to demystify and undo some of the glamour associated with mob life. In a recent video titled “Have I Killed Someone While I Was in the Mafia?” he sets out his stall: “Murder is ugly. It’s horrible. And it wasn’t the main course of action in that life. People have said to me: ‘Michael you’re not a real gangster because you weren’t a murderer. Thank you very much because I take that as a compliment’.”
Franzese followed his father, a powerful underboss in the Colombo crime family, into organised crime. In 1986, when he was 35 years old, the younger Franzese was listed by Fortune Magazine as number 18 on its list of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses”. That same year he was sentenced to 10 years in jail on conspiracy charges. During a second stint in jail in the early Nineties he became a born-again Christian and wrote his first book, Quitting the Mob. Upon his release in 1994 he became a motivational speaker and continued to write books about the innerworkings of the mob. His YouTube channel continues that informative approach. One of his most popular videos, with 1.4 million views, is titled: “8 Facts About The Mafia You May Not Know.”
Gravano’s channel strikes a different tone. In contrast to Franzese, the 76-year-old Gravano has been connected to 19 murders, and unlike Franzese, he does not claim to have completely turned his back on his former life. In a storied mob career, he was a member of two of the New York crime families, starting out with the Colombos and then later the Gambinos in Brooklyn, rising to become an underboss in that family. In 1991, Gravano became a government witness and his testimony was central to securing the conviction of famed mob boss John Gotti. After serving five years in jail, he entered the witness protection programme, but left in less than a year. In February 2000, Gravano was arrested on federal and state drug charges, and later sentenced to 20 years. He came out of prison in 2017. He started his YouTube channel in October 2020 with an introductory video titled: “Let the truth be told.” The theme was setting the record straight.
“There is your world, and then there’s my world. You think you know what it’s all about. What I’m all about. What do you think? What do you know? You think I’m just a killer? I’m a rat?
“Now as I look back I think to myself, there are things I always wanted to say that I have never said before, up until now.”
On his channel, Gravano recounts mob hits with all the drama of a Martin Scorcese movie, and lacking none of the menace from his years in the game. His recounting of the killing of Paul Castellano, which he orchestrated, is told over two parts, under the title “KILLING PAUL”.
“The shooters are ready. The back-up teams are ready. The back-up shooters are ready. I’m ready. My heart is pounding,” he says.
In one episode, an advertisement for a hat similar to the one he is wearing in the video pops up underneath him. One of his most popular videos, with 1.1 million views, is about a mob hit.
A common theme of both channels is their high production value. Gravano films his videos in front of a bull-shaped neon light in a moodily lit room. They are professionally directed with multiple camera angles, archival footage and the occasional voiceover. Franzese’s are similarly well produced and feature interviews with actors who play mobsters in film and TV, sports stars and fighters – Mike Tyson among them.
Bet-David has made the most of the two men’s popularity by producing a documentary about the mafia, starring Rudy Giuliani, in which the pair take part in a “sit-down.”
But is the mob muscling in on Jake Paul’s business any different to what has come before, or just a new way of telling an old story? Christian Cipollini, a crime historian and author of Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend, believes it is the latter.
“The trend of former organised crime figures transitioning, or parlaying their experiences and notoriety into pop culture media isn’t really a new trend at all,” he tells The Independent.
“The opportunity to get a book deal, film, or other medium has been going on for quite some time, at least back to 1930s with someone like Dixie Davis, Dutch Schultz attorney, giving tell-all interviews to magazines, and in the 1950s Lucky Luciano considered and negotiated a film of his life, but ultimately it turned into a book deal instead, albeit posthumously and arguably more of the author’s creating than actual Luciano reality, and Niccola Gentile’s 1960s memoir of a lifetime in the mafia.”
“So in other words, if an opportunity exists – well, they’re opportunists. The YouTube era provides a contemporary media vehicle for contemporary mobsters. The only difference between the old era and now is technology, and perhaps the generational attitudes and differences,” he adds.
But are there ethical concerns to this direct form of mob entertainment? Cipollini says it’s a bit of a grey area. He says these kinds of videos can be historically, culturally and, in a way, legally important or educational.
“For example, a convicted cartel hitman I am writing a book about cannot directly profit from whatever we might make from sales. It’s the Son of Sam law. But, anyone can ‘send’ him money to his inmate account,” he says.
“Ethically, I think this is a grey area, perhaps the biggest. I lean towards the historical and informational importance angle, but certainly understand the ethical implications and arguments. For me it’s subjective.”
But, he adds, that public fascination with the mob life is unlikely to go away any time soon.
“We love the mysterious element, the secrets revealed, the allure of this mystical thing called the mob. We love to live vicariously through the stories of outlaws, rebels, and underworld vistas we normally wouldn’t or couldn’t live for real. It’s an always-popular subject and never loses interest.”