The Enforcer: Johnny "Pops" Papalia: A Life and Death in the Mafia

by Adrian Humphreys
280 pages,
ISBN: 0006384935

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by Hugh Gra

Railway Street, a one-block dead-end in Hamilton, Ontario, witnessed both the birth of Ontario Mafia boss Johnny Papalia seventy-five years ago, and his murder in November of last year. Today, the little enclave remains as obscure as ever, an oddly bucolic lane of Victorian houses covered in insulbrick, and, hidden near the end, the modern, factory-like office from which Papalia had directed his operations. As notorious as Railway Street is to those who have followed the career of Johnny Pops in the papers and now in Adrian Humphreys’ recent biography, The Enforcer (HarperCollins, 280 pages, $29 cloth, ISBN: 00020000164), I was told by passers-by that they had never heard of it—and they were only two blocks away. It is the aspect of obscurity, of an infamy that is hidden and grungy, that turns out to be the most fascinating aspect of Humphreys’ chronicle. Papalia, having done two prison stints in mid life, lived out a peaceful, final stretch poking around Hamilton and managing various rackets—among them, an empire of vending machines and a network of scams that seems to have stretched farther than anyone knew. And that’s when we realize not only that he had been a bachelor for most of his life, but that his various rented houses and apartments and his penthouse—all on home turf—were a squalid mess inside while he toured around immaculately dressed, squiring the ladies whom he seems to have kept at arm’s length. Having rented a house with a fellow-mobster, his main concern was that people would think he was “queer”. A dozen unsolved murders touch on Johnny Pops, but none will stick. Yet, somehow we guess that for the way he started—running liquor in the Depression for his Calabrian Mafia (‘Ndrangheta’) father on Railway Street and beating people up for protection—and for the company he kept, some, if not most, of the killings must have been his. Johnny Papalia may have been even more teflon than the Teflon Don, John Gotti, who hasn’t had the good luck to meet a decent mobster’s end on his home street in quiet old age, but rots in a penitentiary. All the more since Johnny ‘Pops’ himself had been a ‘made man’, key player and Canadian link in the French Connection heroin ring of big US mafiosi; and through the Buffalo Magaddinos, he was tight with the New York Bonanno family and its underboss, Carmine Galante. And while scores of top Mafia leaders in the US went behind bars in the great racketeering prosecutions of the 1980s, Johnny continued to cruise quietly around the Niagara region, making sure that his goons forced terrified restaurant owners to accept his pop and cigarette machines. Mr. Humphreys sometimes leans a little hard on the old yellow-journalism style of true-crime, but he tells his story quickly and with impact and must be commended for setting up the complex world and context for Johnny’s scams. A musty, indecipherable web that seems to cling between Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, Buffalo, and New York becomes marvellously clear and we even feel a perverse bit of Canadian pride that a rather tacky homebody mobster may have reached further and stayed alive longer and freer than many of his US counterparts. One only wishes that Mr. Humphreys had told the end of his story first—teasing us with the mystery of old, careful, and suspicious Johnny Papalia, and with how the extent of his influence may only have been revealed by a death at the hands of a lower-level Hamilton Mafia family, and the power vacuum it left—mainly because the conventional birth-to-death narrative deprives us of the strange and oddly touching personality we don’t really get to know until the end. Still, The Enforcer is more than a biography: it’s a fascinating look at the crummy, asphalt and chain-link fence world of shallow marshes and seedy night clubs of Great Lakes Ontario. And if it was moving and chilling to see Railway Street itself, Mr. Humphreys is very much to thank for it.

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