How John Gotti Got His Iconic Nickname

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John Gotti Sr. may have grown up poor in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but by the 1980s, he rose to power in the Gambino crime family and created a criminal empire that nobody else could replicate. In 1985, he took over the family by organizing the murder of his predecessor, crime boss Paul Castellano. And, with it, Gotti moved the organization's money-making interests into territory Castellano had avoided, including narcotics, pornography, prostitution, and labor racketeering. 

Over the course of his career in the mafia, Gotti earned a number of nicknames, some favorable and some not-so-flattering. Early in Gotti's career in crime, his longtime friend, Angelo Ruggerio, gave him the private nickname of "Black John," according to author Selwyn Raab, in his book, Five Families. It was a designation for his menacing personality, as well as his physical appearance. For similar reasons, an older mobster began calling him "Crazy Horse." But Raab points out that as Gotti rose up the ranks and gained respect within the Gambino family, he also got nicknames that showed more admiration, including "Johnny Boy" and "the Good-looking Guy."

Two nicknames stuck with John Gotti Sr.

Once Gotti became head of the Gambino family in 1985, he cultivated a different image in the media and among his subordinates. Gotti still wanted to be known as an intimidating figure, but with a more refined side. He wanted to be feared and respected. Gotti became known as "The Dapper Don" for his habit of sporting expensive, perfectly tailored Brioni suits that carried price tags in the thousands of dollars, silk shirts, and handmade ties at $400 a pop, according to the Independent. There was also never a picture taken of "The Dapper Don" with a hair out of place. And, frequently, he was found dining in some of New York's fanciest restaurants.

The other nickname that Gotti had until his death had a bit of irony to it. Because Gotti managed to get out of federal charges in the 1980s for assault and racketeering, the media named him "The Teflon Don," per the Mob Museum. Of course, he was able to get off on those charges not because he was innocent, but because of jury tampering and witness intimidation. And the "Teflon Don" moniker didn't really fit because Gotti had served multiple prison sentences dating back to the 1960s.

However, "The Teflon Don" nickname truly didn't stick after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1992. Gotti died from cancer in federal prison, per The New York Times, on June 10, 2002, at the age of 61.