New York Mafia Families: The Genovese

Vincent Chin Gigante doesn't walk around Mulberry Street anymore.

You can imagine him, walking next to you as you cross what used to be -- and now isn't anymore -- Little Italy.

In his pajamas, his blue bathrobe and his slippers, boxing against his own shadow.

He would have made for great company as you walk around what used to be his kingdom.

The Clan Out of Mulberry

Vincent Chin

Vicente Chin Gigante was The Village's most famous idiot. He was also a murderer who had committed practically every felony in the book.

He used to run the Genovese family, the most deadly and dangerous clan in New York City, and still he was the Village idiot -- a paranoid schizophrenic with mystical visions who would patiently put up with the tourists' jeers. His neighbors, who were better informed, would remain respectfully silent.

Vicenzo Gigante was born on March 29, 1928, to one of the many Italian families in New York. He was a third-generation New Yorker, meaning his parents could pay for him to go to school. And he was a good student. At 18, he started pursuing a career as a tailor. But then he changed his mind, deciding to become a boxer. He fought in 24 combats and won 23 of them.

People say of him, that he didn't take his punches very well and that his jaw seemed to be made of crystal. Some believe that's where his nickname came from -- Chin, referring to his jaw. Actually, it originated with his mother's habit of affectionately calling him Cinzino.

It was around the time of his boxing career when he decided to pretend he was insane, so he could weasel out of military service. He was dismissed on "antisocial behavior" grounds.

Vincent Chin

The Most Powerful Idiot in New York

He did, however, become a "soldier" in a different kind of army -- the Genovese family.

Its great boss, Vito Genovese, Don Vito, burdened him with a task so delicate and dangerous it only be commended to a genius or an idiot: to kill Frank Costello, his underboss and moderator between the rest of the mobster families. Don Vito wanted to govern the organized crime as capo di tutti i capi.

Gigante fastidiously prepared for this task. He would practice for hours on end in a clandestine shooting range. When he time came, he behaved like a true genius or a true idiot. Historians don't seem to agree on this. He approached Costello in a hotel lobby and, when he was within 8 feet of him, shot him straight in the head -- with such a good or bad shot that the bullet merely grazed Costello's cranium. No more was needed. Costello got the message, fled New York and was never heard of again. Gigante, who didn't resist his obvious arrest, was acquitted.

In 1950, he married a woman called Olympia Grippa and had five children with her. He also had a lover who, showing his great sense for being practical, was called Olympia as well. Olympia Esposito. He had three more children with her. Both wife and lover would stay with him all his life.

The Family Man

Vincent Chin

Vicenzo Chin Gigante became a capo in the 60s, a consegliere in the 70s and a wiseguy in the 80s. When his boss Anthony Salerno died, he became the boss of the Genovese family.

His strategy to run the clan was astutely simple -- he pretended to be stupid. The police refused to believe that that king-sized moron had the capacity to run a mafia family and spent the better part of their time looking for the real boss. Between 1969 and 1990, Chin Gigante was admitted to 22 mental hospitals, took gargantuan amounts of Valium, Thorazine and Dalmare, and was often seen walking around Mulberry street in his pajamas, his bathrobe and his slippers.

When he divorced his wife, he didn't move in with his lover, but with his mother. She also took Olympia, the wife, in. The couple reconciled under his mother's roof.

Yolanda Gigante, aged 96, moved out of her house and into a residence. Vicenzo Gigante, aged 68, wanted to move with her. He had to ask the District Attorney's permission first, because of his being on parole.

Of course, he also requested to visit his lover Olympia's nice Upper East Side mansion three times a week.

Fall of the Gigante Empire

But nothing lasts forever. In 1996, the police recorded a phone conversation held by one of Gigante's henchmen, called Anthony Fat Tony Salerno, where he expressed concern over the pressure of the FBI.

"If they get Chin," he said, "all these years of pretending insanity will have been for nothing." Salvatore Gravano, another member of the family, confessed that Chin was far from being either insane or stupid.

Chin's brother, a priest called Louis Gigante, swore in trial that Chin was indeed too crazy for his own good and had an IQ of 69. But it was useless. On January 23, 2002, Chin and his son Andrew were arrested. Gigante confessed to having feigned mental illness and was sentenced to 15 years in jail for racketeering and conspiracy.

He died in jail in 2005.