The devil called a favorite son of his home over the weekend. After spending the last 30 years behind bars for murder and racketeering, former Philadelphia mafia boss Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, one of the most bloodthirsty and maniacal American organized crime figures of all-time, died of natural causes in a North Carolina federal prison hospital late Friday evening. He was less than two months shy of his 88th birthday.

The small, but explosive Little Nicky reigned from 1981 through the end of the decade and was responsible for an estimated two dozen gangland slayings. He was incarcerated in 1987. Even from within prison walls, Scarfo tried to pull strings on the street, first in the immediate aftermath of his January 1987 arrest, using his uncle Anthony (Tony Buck) Piccolo as his acting boss and then in the late 2000s through his son and longtime proxy, Nicky Scarfo, Jr., a made-man in New York’s Lucchese crime family who was eventually imprisoned for defrauding a bank of money his father had reportedly intended on buying his way back into power in South Philly with. The younger Scarfo is currently serving a 30-year prison term.

Scarfo’s rise to the top of the east coast underworld was equal parts due to good fortune, relentless ambition and sly politicking with administrators in New York’s so-called Five Families. Following stabbing a longshoreman to death in a dispute over a seat at a local South Philly diner in 1963, Little Nicky was for all intents and purposes booted out of Pennsylvania by sitting Godfather Angelo Bruno and stashed in then-dying resort town Atlantic City, New Jersey to look after Philadelphia mob affairs on the Boardwalk. As Atlantic City returned to prominence in the 1970s with the legalization of gambling and the forthcoming casino boom, Scarfo saw his star on the rise.

When Bruno is killed in a failed palace coup and Scarfo confidant Phil (The Chicken Man) Testa becomes boss in the spring of 1980, Little Nicky is promoted to Testa’s consigliere. Following Testa’s murder almost exactly a year later – in another unsuccessful internal coup effort –, Scarfo, supported by loyalists in New York, ascended to the throne and embarked on a treacherous tenure at the helm of the Philly mafia, fast to order the murder of friend and foe alike. A once stable, low-profile organization under Bruno, morphed into a violence-fueled gang of misfits careening out of control from almost the moment Little Nicky assumed command.

“His motto was ‘you kill and you keep killing,’ that’s how he viewed leadership in the mob,” one former associate said. “He’d threaten to bring hit men in from New York and wipeout the whole Family, just start over from scratch and not even bat an eye while saying it…….He wanted things done cowboy style, out in the open for everyone to see. The more bodies that littered the streets the better. In his twisted mind, it enhanced his brand.”

Scarfo’s kingdom crumbled upon the defection of several key lieutenants to the government and into the witness protection program, beginning with captains Thomas (Tommy Del) DelGiorno and Nicholas (Nicky Crow) Caramandi in 1986 and followed by his nephew, surrogate son, protégé and underboss Philip (Crazy Phil) Leonetti later in the decade. The handsome, baby-faced and business-savvy Leonetti, only 35 years old when he entered the “program,” wrote a book in 2012 entitled Mafia Prince (purchase a copy here.) Caramandi contributed to NY Times Best-Selling author George Anastasia’s classic Blood and Honor, published in 1991 (purchase a copy here)..

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