Ray Patriarca ruled as the New England mob boss for 25 years from his Coin-O-Matic “vending business” on Atwell’s Avenue in Providence. He was a friendly guy but fatal, known for his ruthlessness and his political clout.
He rose to the top of organized crime in New England in the 1950s with the help of Dan Coakley, a Boston politician on the take. Coakley freed Patriarca from prison by inventing an Irish priest who pleaded to let the nice young man go home and take care of his mother.
It’s a classic tale featuring vivid characters: a New England mob boss called El Padrone, a Boston Irish pol named Dapper Dan, a governor nicknamed Chowderhead and a fictional Father Fagin, as in the Dickens character who led children into crime.
The pardon that Dapper Dan Coakley got for Ray Patriarca turned out to be a turning point for both men. It ruined Coakley, and it helped Patriarca’s rise in the mob.
Ray Patriarca, New England Mob Boss
He was born Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca on St. Patrick’s Day, 1908, in Worcester, Mass. His father, Eleuterio, had immigrated from southern Italy; his mother, Mary Jane DeNubile, had Italian ancestry.
Five years later the family moved to Providence, where his father ran a liquor store. Raymond left school at age eight to help support the family, shining shoes and working as a bellhop. Then Eleuterio died when Ray was 17, setting him adrift. He discovered that Prohibition offered upward mobility for a young man on the make—through smuggling, hijacking and armed robbery.
He had a pleasant manner, but he could order a hit on a wayward underling with an abrupt, “Do it.” Stealing, however, was his first love. “The happiest days of my life were when I was on the street clipping,” he once said.
In 1929 the Mafia (called “The Office” by Rhode Island mobsters) inducted him into its ranks. From Rhode Island, he forged ties with the New York Profaci and Genovese families, who began to view him as their “can-do” guy in New England.
As he approached 30 he had a reputation and a rap sheet as a .gunman, gambler, pimp, thief, extortionist, bootlegger, hijacker and murder suspect.
On Feb. 12, 1938, Patriarca and his accomplices held up the Wallbank Jewelry Company in Brookline, stealing $12,000 worth of gold and gems along with an employee’s car. Five nights later, they pulled off another heist at the United Optical Plant in Webster. A barking dog alerted police, who found Patriarca hiding under a bench. They arrested him.
In August he pleaded guilty to the Brookline robbery and, in a separate trial, a jury found him guilty of the United Optical break-in. A judge sentenced him to three to five years in Charlestown State Prison.
Dapper Dan Coakley preferred a more genteel form of crime–the graft, blackmail and bribery kind.
He was born to Irish immigrant parents in Charlestown, Mass., in 1865. He won acceptance to the bar after studying law at his brother’s law firm. In 1910 he defended Big Bill Kelliher, who’d robbed the National City Bank of Cambridge. Kelliher got 18 years in jail, and from prison he claimed he’d given Coakley $23,000 to bribe the U.S. attorney and the jury.
Coakley’s later attempts to bribe district attorneys succeeded. He became the fixer for anyone who wanted an unpleasant charge of larceny, theft, prostitution or fraud to go away.
Coakley wasn’t above committing the odd crime himself. He once got hold of railroad magnate H.H. Hunnewell’s love letters to his mistress, and charged him $150,000 to get them back.
In 1917, the film star Fatty Arbuckle came to Boston for a Copley Plaza dinner held by a group of movie producers. Afterward, they decanted to the Mishawum Manor, a house of ill repute run by one Brownie Kennedy. Brownie’s ladies accommodated the men in what the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court called an orgy of drink and lust… a debauch in a bawdy house … a stench in the nostrils of common decency. A photographer happened to be there, and a few days later Dan Coakley’s then-ally Mayor James Michael Curley called them to say they faced morals charges. It cost them $100,000 to make law enforcement forget the party.
Coakley’s antics eventually got him disbarred. But in 1936 he won election to the Executive Council, which soon began recommending pardons to juvenile delinquents and notorious criminals. Gov. Charles “Chowderhead” Hurley signed them.
As historian Francis Russell put it, “the quality of Massachusetts mercy grew so strained that more convicts seemed to be leaving prison than entering.”
Most of the pardon petitions came from the hand of Councilor Dapper Dan Coakley.
The Fix Is In
Coakley filled his pardon petition for Ray Patriarca with lies. For starters, he called the future New England mob boss “a virtuous young man eager to be released from prison so that he might go home to his mother.”
A “Father Garneri” of Quincy signed a statement that he was anxious to express his opinion to the governor. Patriarca’s Providence pastor, “Father Fagen,” did the same. So did the Rev. Sixtus Brambilla of East Boston.
The Executive council granted the pardon and Patriarca was out the next day after serving 84 days of a three-to-five year sentence. Though he served for three different crimes, the pardon petition mentioned only one.
On Election Day 1938, Massachusetts voters, tired of Chowderhead Hurley’s shenanigans, voted to replace him with a straight-arrow Republican, Leverett Saltonstall. Saltonstall appointed a commission to look into the paroles and pardons granted over the last 10 years.
Ironically, Patriarca’s wife Helen’s sister worked for Saltonstall.
On Dec. 20, 1938, Joseph Patriarca, Ray’s brother, checked into Boston’s Parker House, saying he wanted a room as near as possible to Dan Coakley’s suite, room 978, the commission found. Joe Patriarca got room 944.
A number of meetings followed between Coakley, Joe Patriarca, witnesses and priests. Money exchanged hands.
The commission found that Father Garneri of Quincy was actually the Rev. Philip Guarino of Waverly. He didn’t know Ray Patriarca, never discussed his pardon and had never authorized his signature. Father Fagen didn’t exist, except in Dan Coakley’s imagination. Coakley said he couldn’t think of the priest’s name but was thinking of Fagin, the character in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Father Sixtus Brambilla said he signed the petition as a favor to a donor, who’d told him Patriarca had just committed minor juvenile delinquencies.
The petition also asked to pardon Patriarca for one crime, though he served time concurrently for three.
Coakley also told Governor Hurley that no one had identified Patriarca in the Brookline jewelry theft. They had, but recanted, like many witnesses to Patriarca’s crimes.
The commission recommended Dapper Dan Coakley’s impeachment.
Reporters dubbed the Senate trial the “Mud Bath.” It took the entire month of September 1941.
During the Mud Bath it came out that Patriarca didn’t even take care of his mother—his brother Joe did.
The trial also exposed Coakley’s Statehouse trickery. One executive councilor had told Coakley he would not vote for Patriarca’s pardon. But during the meeting to issue pardons he left for 15 minutes to take a phone call. The Patriarca pardon passed, and the councilor read about it in the newspaper the next day.
Patriarca even failed to give the customary thanks to the governor for the pardon.
Coakley offered a spirited defense, but the state Senate voted 33-6 to remove him from office.
As the senators filed out of the chamber, Coakley stood in the doorway greeting his supporters and glaring at those who voted against him. “I can say ‘forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do’,” he then said in a statement to the press.
New England Mob Boss
Getting out of prison won Ray Patriarca new respect from the mob because it showed he had political clout.
In 1954, New England mob boss Philip Bruccola returned to Sicily, helped along by an IRS investigation into tax evasion. Patriarca stepped into his Italian footwear and ran the mob for the next 25 years.
From his Coin-O-Matic building in Providence’s Italian section, Patriarca insisted he ran a legitimate vending machine company. Actually, he ran loan-sharking, gambling and pornography operations from Maine to Connecticut as well as real estate interests from Las Vegas to Florida.
Between 1962 and 1965, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had the Coin-O-Matic bugged without a warrant. FBI agents heard talk of bribes to lawmakers, judges and governors’ appointees in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But the FBI couldn’t admit the evidence in court.
Over his lifetime, Ray Patriarca was arrested or indicted 28 times, convicted seven and imprisoned four for 11 years. But he honored the code of silence — omerta –and he never snitched to law enforcement.
He died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 76. Dan Coakley died in 1952 at the age of 86. He never finished his autobiography, The Sparkling Past.
Images: Ray Patriarca By Rhode Island State Police – http://www.wrko.com/whitey-watch, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40688140the impeachment]. Massachusetts Statehouse By King of Hearts – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94906441.
With thanks to The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill and The Knave of Boston by Francis Russell for American Heritage August 1976. This story last updated in 2021.