A former member of the Pagans tells how an attack against the South Philly mob helped create a biker legend.
"Those who do not belong to It, and whose native land It is not, cannot endure It. The One who sits there at the Lands End to guard the gates is called Dark Surt. He has a flaming sword, and at the end of the world He will come, He will harry, and He will vanquish all the Gods and burn the whole world with fire."
--Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, 13th-century Pagan Iceland
And there He sat.
Horned and cross-legged, and holding His flaming sword like a cross. The grim image of Dark Surt, embroidered under the name on the backs of the sleeveless blue denim vests that we wore over our well-worn black leather motorcycle jackets.
Frank Friel, the head of the Philadelphia Police-FBI Organized Crime Task Force, called us the most "violence prone motorcycle gang in America."
We called ourselves "the Pagans," the baddest of the ass-kicking, beer-drinking, hell-raising, gang-banging, grease-covered, roadkill-eating, 1960s motorcycle clubs, chromed cavaliers and swastika- studded scooter jockeys.
Spawned on the marshy flatlands of Southern Maryland, we were a band of motorized highwaymen who ruled the roads from the Pine Barrens of Long Island and New Jersey to the glistening moonlit peaks of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Across the Dutch farmlands of Pennsylvania and down the Great Valley of Virginia, in the back alleys of the old steel, mining, railroad and paper-mill towns of the Appalachian rustbelt, it was all Pagan country.
By the late '70s we had wormed our way from the wide-open roads and cornfields of Dutch country clear down to the narrow streets and crowded stalls of the Italian Market in South Philly, where some of the brothers were getting caught up in the shadowlands of the Philadelphia underworld and popping up on the radar screens of Frank Friel and his FBI task force.
The shit finally hit the fan on a March morning in 1980, when someone put a gun to the head of Angelo Bruno, the man they called the Gentle Don because he believed he could run a criminal empire by peace and persuasion rather than violence and coercion. When the gunman squeezed the trigger, Bruno's head burst into a river of blood, and so did the streets of Philadelphia. All peace and persuasion died with Bruno and the city was engulfed in the most violent crime war in American history.
When the bodies stopped falling and the river of blood dried to an occasional trickle, Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo emerged as the new head of Bruno's criminal cartel, which has been called, among other things, the Society of Men of Honor.
Physically, Scarfo was little more than a dwarf, but he had the ambition of a giant. He dreamed of becoming the biggest crime czar in America, ruling an empire that stretched from the sunny casino-studded boardwalk of Atlantic City to the dingy smoke-filled backroom betting parlors in the bars and clubs of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.
Gambling, drugs, entertainment, extortion, labor unions, construction firms, trucking companies, vending machines: from tattoo parlors and pizza joints to pool halls and massage parlors, whatever the enterprise, legal or illegal, he wanted to run them all.
In building his empire Little Nicky did not have the patience of the Gentle Don. He believed that there were quicker and more efficient means of putting people in line than peace and persuasion. From his throne room in the back of a rundown warehouse on South Bancroft Street, Little Nicky issued an edict demanding that every drug monger, bookmaker, tattoo artist, titty-bar owner, pizza twirler and chop-shop grease monkey in Philadelphia pay tribute for the privilege of doing business on the streets of his empire.
To collect this tax he dispatched a band of thugs, who determined the rate by how scared their victims looked and how much they thought they could squeeze out of them. Those who didn't pay were beaten senseless with baseball bats, usually on the open street, as a warning to Little Nicky's other subjects who might prove recalcitrant. But when Nicky's tax collectors paid a call on the Pagans, the bearded bikers did not look scared at all. In fact, they laughed right in the faces of Scarfo's clean-shaven wops.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4