a close up shot of the tail light of a vintage cadillac coupe de ville
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News outlets recently noted the death in prison of one-time Patriarca Family crime boss Francis Salemme, better known in La Cosa Nostra circles as “Cadillac Frank.”

One might think the nickname derived from a love of those high-end cars, but urban legend says otherwise, asserting that when he once worked at a Boston auto body shop he specialized in getting damaged Cadillacs back on the road. 

There are other theories as well, but such differences aren’t unusual around here, where mob nicknames and curiosity about their origin have long been part of the record.

As yarns are spun, matters of nuance can arise – that’s why you’ll find references to both Luigi “Baby Shacks” and Luigi “Baby Shanks” Manocchio. Which is correct for the former Providence gangland figure?

Both have made their way onto the list of curiosities that grew as the cops took names: Some accounts say “Baby Shacks” referred to a penchant for hooking up with young women. Others say “Baby Shanks” referred to Manocchio’s short legs.

Once I asked a local crime-stopper, who requested identity protection, about some of the names he encountered over the years, and he listed among his favorites the transgressor known as “Take-a-Peek.”

And he was called this why?

Because, said my source, “The guy was not what you would call an exceptionally handsome 

person, and when people spotted him for the first time, the only thing they could think of to say was, “Take a peek!”

Another worthy of mention was “Canvasback.”

“The guy at one time was a professional fighter,” said my source. “He got knocked down so many times they used to ask him how many lights there were on the ceiling of the Rhode Island Auditorium.”

Among others we discussed were “Joe the Dope,” “Weasel,” “Ratface,” “Blackjack,” and “Popeye.”

Rhode Island news archives reveal a plethora of such nicknames: “Moron” (no relation to Joe the Dope), “The Animal,” “Fat Tony,” “Buckles,” “Peanuts,” “The Turk,” and “The Fox.” That last one is emblematic of the darker side of all this – Louis “The Fox” Taglianetti was an organized crime figure killed in 1970 by a shotgun blast outside his Cranston apartment building.

On a national level, one of the most familiar gangland nicknames has to be “Scarface,” hung on Al Capone.

An opposite portrait is invoked by the Bronx crime boss Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano, who owned a beauty shop called “Hello Gorgeous.”

Then there was Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, known in New York not for a distinctive waddle, but for his ability to duck subpoenas.

New York crime boss Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno got his name from the newspapers, who played off his name and how they rated his mental capacity. 

While the origin of some gangland nicknames is obscure, others are all too obvious: It takes little imagination to figure out why Minneapolis mob enforcer Israel Alderman was known as “Ice Pick.” 

Getting back to the late citizen “Cadillac Frank,” Channel 12’s Tim White reported several years back, quoting Boston crime writer David Boeri, that Salemme never even liked Cadillacs — he was a BMW man.

But he made a profit selling Cadillacs – ones that were “accidentally” scratched at a local dealership and so could not be sold as new. He bought them at bargain rates, buffed out the scratches at his auto body shop, and re-sold them at a healthy markup. 

How was Salemme able to pull off the dealership scam? Easy, said crime writer Boeri in language quickly understood around here: “He knew a guy.”

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.