Remembering Philly and the Chicken Man

By BILLY LONG,

Lately, I have been watching “The Irishman,” a new Netflix movie, and it has brought back memories of my time living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night.

Now they blew up his house too.

Down on the boardwalk,

they’re gettin’ ready for a fight,

Gonna see what them racket boys can do.”

— Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City”.

While growing up on a cotton farm in rural northeast Mississippi, most of my relatives lived nearby. This large group of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were an extended family comparable to Jed Clampett’s clan living in our Mayberry-like setting. My only awareness of the “mafia” was from what I had seen on television, and those shows seemed unreal and from another fantasy universe.

After graduation from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1973, I remained in Jackson and completed an internal medicine residency. I was married after my third year of medical school. Next, I spent two years in the U.S. Public Health Service doing medical research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Then, my wife Rebecca and I moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1977. We lived there for four years. The first two years, I completed my gastroenterology fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The last two years, I served as assistant professor of Medicine on the Penn faculty. (There’s a good chance that I could be among the few Ivy League professors to come from Jugfork, Mississippi.)

In 1978, New Jersey approved the first and only casino, Resorts Atlantic City, to open in the United States outside of Nevada. Soon after, the “mob turf wars” began between the New York City and Philadelphia crime families. They were fighting for control of the soon-to-be built casinos and their employees’ labor unions, not to mention the drugs and prostitution turfs. There were frequent “hits” between rival crime families. We in Philadelphia saw frequent reports in the news of dead bodies found in trash cans or car trunks.  These dead mafia members usually had some sign or subtle message to make sure the victim’s “family” knew which opposing “family” should now be feared. I was no longer living in Mayberry!

Back then, the “Don” of the Philly mafia was Angelo Bruno. His first lieutenant was Phillip Testa, known locally as “Chicken Man.” Mr. Testa had a face that only a mother could love. He appeared to have been scarred by chicken pox or acne, or something unknown. His nickname may have reflected his appearance or may have come from his legal business in the poultry industry. Nonetheless, if anyone had to pick Testa out of a police line-up, he or she would say, “Yep, Mafia!” 

The oldest and first hospital to open in the United States is Pennsylvania Hospital (1755), located two blocks from Independence Hall. In 1979, my gastroenterology rotation took me for a stint at Pennsylvania Hospital. One afternoon, I was summoned to the emergency room to see a patient whose complaint was “abdominal pain and my ulcer is acting up.” I had just become Phillip Testa’s physician.

I was aware of who Mr. Testa was from the news. As I pulled the curtain back, Chicken Man was lying on a stretcher surrounded by four large bodyguards, two on each side of him. After getting Mr. Testa’s history, during which he mentioned that he had vomited blood, I did his physical exam and ordered lab work. I told him that I would like to place a naso-gastric tube (passed through the nose and into the stomach) to see if indeed he was bleeding. Mr. Testa did not find that appealing, but finally acquiesced.

I returned to the bedside a few minutes later and attempted to insert the tube. He choked and coughed. The four bodyguards all took steps towards me and seemed to reach for something inside their jackets. I quickly made the decision to abandon the need for the N-G tube. Mr. Testa then said that he really felt bad and needed admission to the hospital. At that point, I was more than willing to comply.  Also, I may have needed to wipe the perspiration off my face and change my undergarments.

On the drive to the hospital the next morning, I was listening to the radio news.  The reporter said something like - “it appears Phillip Testa will be unable to appear in court today since he has been admitted to a local hospital.” I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked my lucky stars that I had probably not been added to Phillip Testa’s hit list. That morning at the hospital when I saw him, he reported feeling much better. And since all his tests were normal, he was discharged home. I never saw Mr. Testa in person again.

About a year later, as the killings between mafia mobs continued, on March 21, 1980, Don Angelo Bruno was shot in the right temple and killed trying to get out of his car in front of his home in the Little Italy section of Philly. After his murder, the New York mob specifically told Philadelphia’s police and EMT’s not to touch Bruno’s body and to let it remain in his car as a brutal message to all. Angelo Bruno’s corpse sat slumped over in his Cadillac for three days without being moved. The war over territorial claims between the New York Genovese Family and the Bruno Family of Philly was now in full force.

Phillip Testa then became the “Don” of the “La Cosa Nostra” in Philadelphia.  Early on the morning of March 16, 1981, my wife, our 20-month-old son and I were in a taxi going to the airport for a trip to Mississippi. As we bantered with the driver about the news of the day, he asked us had we heard about Philip Testa. Since we had been consumed with packing, getting necessities for our son and hurrying to catch our flight, we were not aware. The prior evening, March 15, as Mr. Testa was entering his home, a nail bomb that was planted under his porch blew up and killed him. His death was allegedly ordered by his Philly underboss. The murder sparked a bloody internal war in the Philly mafia family.

His rivals had “blown up the Chicken Man in Philly last night,” as Bruce Springsteen (The Boss) wrote, recorded and then sang in concerts all over the world. Now you know.

Billy Long is a Northsider.

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