The Cement Shoes Torture Method
Welcome back, sadists, to our series about the worst punishments in history. We’ve given you crimes against humanity from the ancient world – like scaphism and Brazen Bulls – as well as modern methods of pain and torture, like caning and waterboarding. Today, we’re going to be looking at something in between – one of the most legendary punishments supposedly meted out by the Italian-American mafia. That’s right, on this episode of The Infographics Show, we’re going to be discussing the infamous Cement Shoes. What are they, how did they work, who used them, and most importantly, are they even real?
Come join us down here, sleeping with the fishes, to find out.
The American Mafioso
Whether they’re of the tuxedo-clad Don Corleone variety, or the more casual, polo-shirt-wearing Tony Soprano type – is pretty much a mythic figure. Real life mobsters like Al Capone and John Gotti are household names, and from the 1983, pre-code gangster movie Scarface to Martin Scorsese’s recent release, “The Irishman”, these half-villain, half-folk-hero figures have been immortalised in film. The image of the ruthless, mysterious Sicilian gangster is so powerful that it’s transcended culture.
Oh, and in case you didn’t know, they killed a lot of people.
According to data from The Mob Museum, mobs worldwide killed over a million people from the year 2000 to 2017. And in the mob’s heyday – whether it’s the prohibition and bootlegging era, or the revitalised mob of the seventies and eighties – it’s likely they killed even more. But the use of cement shoes has somehow stood out from this almost century-long murder spree. So, how were they supposed to work?
The Infamous Cement Shoes
Simple. Let’s say you’ve been making some trouble for the local outfit – maybe you’ve been double dealing, or speaking to the cops. Those are some of the easiest ways to get yourself on a Mafia kingpin’s hit list. And if you particularly annoyed the said Mafia boss, it’s possible that he’d want something special done to you in return.
That’s when he’d pass the message along to a capo, who – in turn – would delegate the job of whacking you to a few of his enforcers. It’s likely you’d suddenly be staring down the barrel of a .22 calibre pistol, then shoved into a mafia vehicle and dragged to the edge of town. Once you’re there, you’re manhandled into a room, and your legs are forced into a bucket. You can feel something wet on the skin of your feet – it seeps into your shoes; between your toes. That’s when you catch the tell-tale stench: It’s cement.
The enforcers hold you there for hours on end, working in shifts. You begin to get the sense that you’re not going to leave this warehouse. At least, not in the way you want to.
Once the cement around your feet hardens, you’re wearing a fashionable pair of this season’s latest cement shoes. It’s a real shame nobody but the enforcers will ever see you in them. Technically, “cement shoes” is a misnomer. The compound that binds the feet together is only partly cement, the actual finished product is concrete. And, you definitely wouldn’t recognise cement shoes as shoes. What it’d actually be is a large, solid block of concrete binding your feet together.
The Cement Shoes categories
There are a few different variations upon the cement shoes, such as the “cement coffin” or “cement overcoat.” These two variants on the original method involve encasing the victim in a large holding container with cement – such as a barrel or oil drum. Though neither of these have become as enduring in pop culture as the classic cement shoes.
You’d be lucky if the punishment ended with you being left in a warehouse with an inconvenient concrete block wrapped around your loafers. But when you think of the word “Mafia”, you don’t also think “kind and merciful.” The enforcers responsible for making you disappear would then spirit you away to a nearby body of water – most likely whatever dock or port is nearest. There, you’ll learn the true, first-hand meaning of the mafia expression “sleeping with the fishes.”
You’ll either be thrown into the water from the docks, or – if your killers feel like being real thorough with you – they’ll take you out for one last sailing trip on one of their boats. From there, you’ll be tossed overboard, and plummet down to the depths of the ocean below.
The torture that is Cement Shoes drowning
The jury is often out on whether drowning is a peaceful, elegant exit or a horrible, painful way to die, so we’ll just take you through the process. Chances are, this hit was carried out in the middle of the night, so you’ve suddenly transitioned from the gloom of the night outside to something much deeper and darker. The second you hit the freezing water, it takes your breath away. You suck in a lungful of saltwater as you’re plunging, and naturally, you start to panic. Every time you attempt to cough or splutter, it just sucks in more water.
You try to swim up to the surface, but you can’t. That big block of concrete is weighing you down. You struggle, and even try to scream, but it comes out silent. You let out your last breath, and go limp. Typically, in salt water, you’d float to the surface. You won’t this time though, because you’re anchored to the seabed. The actual process from dunking to death only takes sixty seconds, and if you’re lucky, the shock of the initial plunge might’ve killed you already. Drowning most commonly occurs in freshwater, and in salt water, the process is a little different.
Freshwater Vs. Saltwater drowning
Fresh water drowning occurs, typically, because the water invades unprotected cells in the body – though particularly lung cells – and causes massive tissue damage. This is why, even if you avoid immediately drowning in fresh water, you can pass away hours later from your injuries. Salt water drowning is a little more like being strangled by an invisible hand. The concentration of salt in the water you ingest creates an impermeable barrier around your lungs, meaning air physically can’t pass through. If you’re fully submerged – which you are – you literally have no chance.
It doesn’t end there
However, while you might be dead, the humiliation isn’t over yet.
Unless you’re destined to freak out some fishing trawlers in the near future, you’ve just experienced a Lupara Bianca. This is a piece of journalistic slang, meaning a Mafia murder committed with the intent of the body never being found. The name means “White Lupara”, the Lupara being the Mafia’s sawn-off shotgun of choice. Other methods of Lupara Bianca consist of having your body encased in concrete beneath a Mafia-run construction site, or dissolved in a bathtub or oil drum full of acid, Breaking-Bad-style. Unlucky for you, your method of disposal is the only one that happens while you’re still alive.
So, what happens afterwards?
Thanks to a 2014 study conducted by Gail Anderson and Lynne Bell, using the carcasses of pigs to study saltwater corpse decomposition, we have some ideas. Over the course of about ninety days, your body will decompose slowly in this low-oxygen environment, while fish and crabs slowly pick your bones clean. If your execution happened far enough out at sea, the chances that your body will ever be found are incredibly low. Unless the police are using submarines, your case will probably be filed under “Missing, presumed dead.”
Now, this next part will either be disappointing or relieving, depending on your perspective. Chances are, despite the punishment’s iconic place in popular culture, gangsters didn’t resort to using cement shoes all that often. The idea of sending someone to the depths like this is a romantic and indeed cinematic one – made popular by Hollywood movies like Lady in Cement and Billy Bathgate – but in practice, murdering someone like this would be extremely impractical.
On the bright side…
Even modern quick-set cement can take around four hours to dry sufficiently for supporting heavy objects. And in this time, the victim is likely to thrash and move their legs around, creating wiggle room that could help them escape later. To have to wait around and hold the victim still while the concrete dried would be almost as gruelling for the mobsters as it would for the victim getting encased. However, the impracticality of this method of execution has never stopped rumours from circulating in organised crime and law-enforcement circles.
The case of Rocco Perri
One such rumour involves the mysterious disappearance of Ontario bootlegger Rocco Perri, called “The King of the Bootleggers” by some, who fell off the face of the earth on April 23rd, 1944. Rocco Perri was heavily involved with Stefano “The Undertaker” Magaddino, the boss of the Buffalo crime family from New York, and Johnny “The Enforcer” Papalia, boss of the Papalia crime family in Ontario. It’s widely believed by Mafia insiders that Magaddino and Papalia wanted to move in on Perri’s territory in Ontario. In order to move into that territory, they needed Perri out of the way first. They needed Perri to disappear.
The last time Rocco Perri was ever seen, he was going out to get some air, and never returned. His body was never found, so we’ll likely never truly know how exactly he died, but word began to circulate around the criminal underworld that he was taken out with cement shoes. A statement from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police admitted they don’t expect to see anything of Perri again until the bay dries up.
Concrete and bootlegging seem to go hand in hand, and concrete – as we now know – is a gangster’s best friend. An Associated Press report from 1935 shared the grim tale of Providence, Rhode Island, bootlegger Danny Walsh, who – possibly along with his girlfriend – was believed to have been killed with cement. Some reports indicate the use of cement shoes, others suggest the cement overcoat. Much like Perri, the bodies were never conclusively found.
Other stories of concrete-related murders circulated throughout the golden years of Sicilian mob rule across North America. In 1935, there was speculation that mob hitman Abraham “Bo” Weinberg met his end either in a cement overcoat or cement shoes in the East River. Associated Press once again reported in 1940 that gangster Harry Westone was murdered with a cement mixer, and met his final resting place underneath a highway in upstate New York. Even when concrete isn’t directly involved in the death of the victims, it often makes a valuable tool to mobsters in the aftermath of a more conventional murder.
For example, small-time racketeer Johnnie Goodman from Philadelphia was found dead in a creek in New Jersey. He’d been murdered by fellow criminals, tied to a forty-pound concrete block, and tossed into the river. Ernest “The Hawk” Rupolo, a dyed-in-the-wool Mafia hitman himself, most likely met his death at the hands of John “Sonny” Franzese at the behest of mob boss Vito Genovese, his former employer. Rupolo made the mistake of becoming an informant against Genovese, and – for his trouble – ended up at the bottom of Jamaica Bay with his hands tied and a concrete block bound to each of his legs. No honour among thieves.
Cement Shoes: Fact or Fiction?
While Mafia hearsay and tabloid reporting is one thing, there wouldn’t actually be a confirmed instance of someone being murdered with the legendary cement shoes until very recently. On the seventh of May, 2016, the body of twenty-eight-year-old Peter Martinez, a suspected gang member, washed up on the shores of Brooklyn. According to the Chief of the New York Police Department, Robert Boyce, Martinez was encased in “black plastic bags, his arms were tied behind him, and his feet were submerged in poured concrete.” In another disturbing detail, Martinez’s head was also wrapped entirely in duct tape. It was asphyxia from the duct tape that was classified as his official cause of death.
While this is still likely a gang-related slaying, it’s unlikely the Sicilian Mafia was in any way involved with this particular killing. Peter Martinez was believed to have been involved with a splinter group of the Crips in the past, but whether they had anything to do with his unfortunate death is yet to be seen. Whatever the case, it’s a fascinating echo of a Mafia legend almost a hundred years in the making.
So, that’s the story of cement shoes, one of the worst punishments the Mafia ever devised. It has one foot encased in reality, and the other in epic mobster myth. The truth is likely somewhere in between. But one thing is absolutely for sure – whether the concrete ends up on you before or after death, if you decide to irritate a mob boss, things won’t end well for you.