Frank Papalia was ‘the rock’ of Hamilton mafia family

One of the last remaining figures from one of Ontario’s most infamous mafia dynasties, Papalia died on Tuesday at the age of 83.

'Conservative' younger brother to Johnny Papalia dies at 83

Frank Papalia appears in a 1981 police mug shot. (Courtesy of James Dubro)

He settled in a secluded home on Hamilton's West Mountain, swore infrequently and had a reputation for conducting business in a polite, gentlemanly manner.

Frank Papalia wasn’t known for the flashiness or the bluster of his older brother Johnny. He managed his family’s dealings from behind the scenes and served, as one crime writer has put it, as a “rock” for the formidable Hamilton, Ont., clan.

One of the last remaining figures from one of Ontario’s most infamous mafia dynasties, Papalia died on Tuesday at the age of 83.

With the former mobster’s death, “a piece of history is gone,” says author James Dubro, who wrote Mob Mistress, a 1989 exposé about Shirley Ryce, an ex-lover of Papalia’s and a former informant for the police.

Papalia’s legacy “is hard to say exactly,” he said. But the writer paints a picture of a man who was “conservative” and an “old-school gentleman-type.”

Different from his brother

Born in 1930 to bootlegger Antonio and wife Maria, Papalia came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Calabrian mafia dominated the Hamilton underworld.

“He was kind of the rock of the Papalia crime family. Johnny was too much like Sonny Corleone,” said Dubro, referencing James Caan’s hotheaded character in 1972’s The Godfather. “He flew off the handle too easily.”

Like the fictional Corleone, Johnny was gunned down in broad daylight. On May 31, 1997, the 73-year-old was fatally shot in front of Johnny’s Railway Street office. The shooter, hit man Kenneth Murdock, later testified in court that members of the rival Musitano family ordered the execution-style killing.

While older brother Johnny — a drug kingpin with a reputation for violence — became known as The Enforcer, Frank considered himself first and foremost a businessman, said Dubro. He was heavily involved in the operation of the family’s vending machine companies and ran a home insulation business that, in the late-1970s, ran afoul of the law. And it was Frank’s idea, Dubro said, to open the family’s invitation-only Gold Key Club, a private hangout for the city’s mobsters and other local power players.

Once in the 1980s, Dubro recalled, the writer entered the Papalias' office once to seek an interview, finding himself face-to-face with both Frank and Johnny. How each brother reacted to the request highlighted their differences.

“[Frank] was reasonably polite,” he said. “While his brother was screaming, ‘Get the f--k out of here, you c--------r,’ he would just say, ‘Leave.’ "

‘Detached, classy and a bit aloof’

Toronto Star journalist and organized crime expert Peter Edwards put the contrast in less colourful terms. Johnny, he said, lived in a downtown penthouse and was more accessible to people looking to meet with him.

“Frank lived in a very, very nice house on the escarpment… overlooking the city — detached, classy and a bit aloof. And I think he was a bit like that himself.”

Papalia’s relatively low-key demeanour didn’t spare him from troubles with the law. In the early ‘80s, Papalia got caught for organizing for Ryce, his mistress and a longtime employee of the Gold Key Club, to have sex with his then-lawyer. He was charged with procurement, but later pleaded guilty to the less lurid charge of obstruction of justice, Dubro wrote in his book.

Edwards said he believes Papalia was “deeply embarrassed” by the incident, which was reported about extensively in the press.

Papalia also faced fraud charges for allegedly bilking the Canadian government through the family's home insulation company, but the case was eventually dropped.


It’s significant, Dubro noted, that Papalia apparently chose not to retaliate for his brother’s violent death, opting instead for retirement.  

According to his death notice, Papalia is survived by his daughter Rachael and two grandchildren. Two of his siblings — brother Rocco and sister Antoinette Pugliese — are still alive.

The family is hosting a visitation from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday at Friscolanti Funeral Chapel (43 Barton St. E). A funeral for Papalia is scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the same location.

Media reports suggest that Papalia suffered from Alzheimer’s in his later years.

But even if Papalia could have reminisced in detail about his time as a mafia lieutenant, Dubro speculates, “he was never going to tell about it.”