Russell Shorto’s research usually takes him back centuries to places far away from his first hometown to tell the stories of long-dead historical figures.
But his work on “Smalltime” was much different.
For years, Shorto talked to relatives, combed through local newspapers and police records, and wrote about his grandfather’s connection to the Johns-town mob during the city’s mid-20th century heyday. The result is a memoir told in his familiar historical narrative style, similar to his other books, such as “Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom,” “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the “Forgotten Colony that Shaped America” and “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.”
Shorto, a Johnstown native and current Cumberland, Maryland, resident, spent more than an hour discussing his new book during an online forum, sponsored by Johnstown Area Heritage Association and Cambria County Library, on Thursday.
He fielded questions from some of the 250 people who registered to watch the presentation, including being asked how researching his family compared to his previous work.
“It’s certainly very different,” Shorto said. “I guess it’s difficult in one way. It was difficult living through, realizing when I was in the hospital when my dad was dying, that this was part of the story. I’ve since spoken with a number of people who have written memoirs – I think of this book as history, but also a memoir – and I’ve learned from people who have written memoirs about that experience and how difficult it is, but also how rewarding it is.
“You do this for catharsis, for healing and for sharing these things with your family.”
Shorto’s book focused on his grandfather, Russell “Russ” Shorto, who grew up in a Johnstown where Italians were discriminated against by society. He helped his mother sell moonshine during Prohibition and then later became a prominent figure in the city’s gambling rackets.
“I grew up with this sense as my grandfather as this very dark figure,” Shorto said. “And I grew, through the research, to come to have some sympathy for him because he was of his time, and there were no opportunities and here was this opportunity that he was given as a kid. And so he just went with it. He was a really smart kid. He followed it. I don’t think I would do anything different.”
“Smalltime,” published by W.W. Norton, explores the mob’s influence in Johnstown, life at City Cigar, the murder of bookie Joseph “Pippy” diFalco, gambling, politics and family.
“You’ve opened up a really interesting story, a light, a window on Johnstown that we all knew was there, but I think you were the only person that was able to unlock this,” JAHA President Richard Burkert told Shorto.
Toward the end of his presentation, Shorto encouraged listeners to explore their own past and to check out his family research course at tellyourfamilystory.com.
“I said before, I’m a big believer in family history,” Shorto said.
“It is such a meaningful way to understand who you are and to pass things down to your kids.”