This Thing of Ours Is Bananas

This Thing of Ours Is Bananas

Organized crime in Ohio in 1909 was built around the family business.

The Antenati website is down today with errors from their upgrade, so I’m going to take this break from research to tell you what I’ve learned so far about the members of the Society of the Banana, in particular, those from Termini Imerese.

Salvatore Catanzaro

The Society of the Banana may not sound threatening. The name may even make you laugh. But to the families who were extorted, it was a danger with no defense except to pay. 

Dozens of men from Termini sold fruit in the United States. They owned businesses in New Orleans, Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, and Chicago, and in smaller towns like Apollo and Saltsburg, both in Pennsylvania; Vidalia and Evanston, in Illinois; Marion and Bellefontaine, in Ohio; Utica and Buffalo, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska. In most of these places, I’ve found extended families from Termini helping one another as they emigrate, and new arrivals joining their hosts in the fruit trade. Some families were very successful and built businesses they handed down to the next generation. And in most of these places there are stories of extortion and violence in the Italian communities, whose targets were the families who’d found the most enviable success. 

At the turn of the 20th Century, fresh fruits and vegetables were a cutthroat business, quite literally. It’s a fragile product made shippable by steam power and tight schedules. Products that will rot while the parties argue over terms are subject to extortion at every point along the transit path where a delay can be engineered. Fruit dealers had to be tough. Pittsburgh’s “Banana King,” Salvatore Catanzaro, regarded as one of the city’s earliest Mafia bosses, sustained life-threatening injuries in a knife fight against industry competitors in 1892. 

As southern Italians frequently did, fruit merchants worked with their close family members, almost exclusively. Catanzaro had a brother who partnered with him early in his career, a business which moved from San Francisco to a small town in Pennsylvania, McKeesport, before landing in Pittsburgh. Salvatore Calderone, who Nicola Gentile described as the leader of a Mafia council in the greater Pittsburgh area, was a fruit merchant in Apollo, PA, along with two of his brothers.

In 1909, US postal police conducted an investigation into an extortion ring based in the railroad town of Marion, Ohio. Two of the victims, John Amicon and his brother, Charles, lived in Columbus, Ohio, about 35 miles away. Like other victims of the Society, they received escalating threats of kidnapping and bombing, in the form of illustrated letters demanding payment. The drawings of skulls, weapons, blood, and hands on the letters were crude but effective, and gave the extortion method its name: the Black Hand. 

Salvatore Arrigo

The victims of the Society of the Banana were successful Italians in the US, some living as far west as the Dakotas, with most in Ohio and Pennsylvania. A member of the Society in their local Italian community nominated them to receive a letter. Someone would be given the job of approaching them personally if they did not respond promptly to its demands. Targets could refuse to pay and often enough nothing happened: after all, it took little effort to write a Black Hand letter. But then a business was bombed, a child stolen, or a man shot dead by strangers who melted away into the darkness. Stories of these tragedies circulated, ensuring that at least some of those who received the letters, paid.

The Lima brothers of Marion, Sam and Sebastian, were observed mailing handfuls of letters, and making regular, large cash remittances to Sicily. By marking the stamps they sold and tracking recipients of an invitation to a March 1909 meeting, postal police were able to identify members in several cities and states. Federal and local law enforcement coordinated to arrest most of the suspected extortionists on the eighth and ninth of June 1909.

Those arrested included:

  1. Salvatore “Sam” Lima, leader of the Society, lived in Marion, Ohio, from Trabia, sentenced to sixteen years
  2. Sam’s brother Sebastian Lima, a Marion fruit dealer, got ten years
  3. Sam Lima’s brother-in-law Joe Ignoffo, a cobbler in Marion, ten years
  4. Salvatore Arrigo (1844-1922), a foundling from Termini living in Cincinnati, was listed with no occupation at his arrest but had been a fruit dealer; he succeeded Lima as leader
  5. Salvatore’s son Vincenzo Arrigo, Cincinnati fruit dealer, got a new trial
  6. Agostino Marfisi (1865-1946), successful Dennison merchant from Termini who avoided prosecution
  7. Antonio “Tony” Vicario (1888-1958) from Galati Mamertino, Messina, worked as a fruit dealer for Agostino Marfisi in Dennison, Ohio
  8. Antonio’s brother Calogero “Charles” Vicario (b. 1880), a fruit dealer in Bellefontaine
  9. Salvatore Demma (1880-1959), Dayton fruit dealer from Termini, brother of Maria Demma, intimidated Charles Amicon with Saverio Ventola
  10. Saverio “Salvatore” Ventola, a carpenter in Columbus
  11. Orazio Rumfola, Pittsburgh fruit dealer, got six years
  12. Antonio Lima of Pittsburgh, fled to Italy
  13. Pippino Galbo, a fruit dealer in Meadville, PA, four years
  14. Francesco Sbadara/Spadero, a saloonkeeper in Cincinnati, made boss after Lima, two years, said to be from Termini
  15. Antonino Nusso (b. 1878) from Caccamo, fruit peddler in Cleveland
  16. Antonino’s brother Joseph Nusso (d. 1913), also a Cleveland fruit peddler
  17. Salvatore Rizzo, a railroad section hand in Marion, probably from Trabia
  18. Joseph Battaglia, Marion
  19. Tony Bicherio, Columbus

The Limas were in Marion, and came from Trabia. Regarded as the ringleaders of the Society, they received the longest sentences. Salvatore Rizzo, whose wife was from Trabia, was probably also from the Limas’ hometown. The Amicon brothers, whose complaint sparked the investigation, were originally from Molise. The Vicario brothers were from Galati, and the Nusso brothers from Caccamo. Salvatore and Vincenzo Arrigo, Agostino Marfisi, and Salvatore Demma were all from Termini.

Salvatore Demma

Another fruit merchant from Termini who was not swept up in the investigation, merits attention with regard to the Society of the Banana. While he evaded indictment by being dead in June 1909, his employee was arrested for his part in the extortion scheme, and spent time in a prison in upstate New York as a consequence. Other details about Salvatore Cira’s life in Ohio add up to the profile of a mafioso

Born Biagio Cira’ in Termini Imerese, he was called Salvatore Cira’ in Bellefontaine, Ohio, where he ran a fruit store which, for some reason, bore a surname that wasn’t his. Cira’ was the senior partner of Demar’s Fruit Store. Demar was the name of the man who killed him.

Cira’ arrived in Bellefontaine from Dayton between the births of two of his children, in 1902 and 1907. His wife was Maria Demma, sister of Salvatore Demma, one of the nineteen men tried in the Amicon case in 1909. Salvatore Demma went with Saverio Ventola to further intimidate the Amicon brothers after the Society bombed Charles Amicon’s house.

Other Demmas from Termini used the name Demar, like Cira’s store. He employed a series of junior partners, among them Joe Demma, Charles Demar, and Calogero Vicario. The news called Joe and Charles cousins, and Cira’, Demar’s uncle. I haven’t been able to find Charles Demar in vital records to identify him. The Antenati site has records going back to 1820 for Termini, but I did not find a common ancestor for Joe Demma and Cira’s wife. Joe’s first cousins include two successful fruit merchants, one in New Orleans and one in Lincoln, NE. There are many Demmas in Termini and it may be that some branches of the family had a trading advantage in the US which Cira’ was able to make use of by employing Joe. Having secured the networking contacts, however, Salvatore Cira’ may have had no further need for his services.

Agostino Marfisi

His employees found Salvatore Cira’ hard to get along with: violent, overbearing, and a cheat. The local police thought Cira’ was a mafioso, because he hosted large gatherings of men from all over the country. Even the local priest was convinced, by the negative opinion held of him in the Italian community of Bellefontaine, to refuse to celebrate Cira’s mass at his burial.

One night in March 1907, Cira’ was walking with his employees Joe Demma and Charles Demar, when a gang of strangers appeared on the road and shot Joe. Salvatore and Charles ran for their lives, or so Charles thought, until they stopped running. Away from the scene of the attack, Salvatore shocked the younger man by threatening him never to speak of what had happened to anyone. Demar suspected Cira’ had Joe killed, but he said nothing about it for a year.

When Charles Demar shot Salvatore Cira’ in their store in April 1908, he said it was in self-defense—that Salvatore was reaching for a gun. Cira’ frequently went armed. The news reported more than one reason why Demar said he shot Cira’. There was the gun, but before that, they might have been quarreling, or Demar may have decided to kill his employer because he wasn’t paying him as agreed. Regardless, the jury agreed with Demar’s defense, and he was let go. 

A year later, police sprang their trap and arrested the Society members. But that wasn’t the end of their association in Bellefontaine. Charles Vicario, brother of Tony, who had been one of the last people to work for Salvatore Cira’, was listed in his widow’s household in the 1910 census, along with her brother, while all three men were still in prison. After their release, Tony Vicario married their daughter Providence Cira’, and Charles married her older sister, Maria. Salvatore Demma married Katie Lombard in 1911. Her brother, John, married twice, the second time in 1942 to Angeline Rose Vicario, daughter of Tony and Providence. His daughter from his first marriage, Dorothy Lombardo, married Joseph Vicario, Angeline’s brother, in 1950.

The squares with an orange border are in the fruit business, and those with black three-quarters fill are known or suspected members of organized crime.

Finding endogamy through Social Network Analysis

Finding endogamy through Social Network Analysis

Family trees are like Ore graphs: everyone has two parents, and no one is their own ancestor.

In my most recent post here on Mafia Genealogy, about the hierarchy of a Mafia “Family,” or cosca, I briefly demonstrated the utility of network science in understanding how the Mafia is organized. 

Looking at the hierarchy from above, and privileging connections over status, fundamentally alter our perspective on the Mafia Family’s organization.

An extended family can be understood as a kind of social network, one that operates under special limitations. For example, while in many kinds of social networks, people can have an unlimited number of relationships of any sort, in a network diagram of a 19th Century person’s ancestors, each person has two and only two parents (though one or both may be unknown to us). In most social network visualizations there is the understanding that it is a snapshot in time, and everyone in the network is in stable, synchronous contact, whereas in most family trees there is a chronological axis, with generations being the rough and overlapping unit of time. 

For an endogamy and pedigree collapse experiment I’m conducting, one of the tests I’m running on both the Mafia and control subjects is to look for the shortest paths between two (and among three or more) members through direct descent. I hypothesize that Mafia subjects are more closely related to one another than a random set of people born in Corleone in the same years. To measure that, I’m creating family trees and counting the people in them.

Rendering a family tree as a kind of graph with special rules is both complicated and limited. Converting family trees to data sets lets you take really big sets of relationships and perform calculations on them. There is social network analysis software that lets you visually analyze your data, calculate and rank shortest paths, and find clusters and central figures. I’m working with a relatively small data set, and wanted to understand how the SNA apps do what they do, in this case, to know if I’m counting nodes correctly. My intuition told me that I needed to include the parents of each node in a path, but I didn’t know why that was the right answer.

I found a recent, scholarly article by Bokhare and Zainon (referenced below) that reviews family tree visualization software and describes the three kinds of graphs that are used: the Ore graph, the p graph, and the bipartite p graph. To get a sense of what they capture and how they differ, I converted this family tree into three kinds of graphs.

Family tree of the most closely related Mafia subjects in an endogamy study
This Ore graph is of the same family tree as pictured just above

The same family tree rendered as a p graph. Nodes can contain a single person or a married couple. In both kinds of p graphs, the arcs are gender coded. Note that they run in the opposite direction in this p graph as they do in the Ore graph.

The horizontal bar that links parents to their children in a typical family tree can be considered a node, and in some graphing methods, it is. One way or the other, you have to solve for the problem of where nodes come from. Where do babies come from in flatland, where babies are vertices in a graph? A node doesn’t come directly from another node; it comes from the union of two nodes, which is itself a different kind of node, or you construct the universe such that every node has two ancestral arcs (one of the conditions of an Ore graph). 

A bipartite p graph has two kinds of nodes, one for marriages and one for people

Between the two methods of turning a family tree into a process graph (or p graph), one of them treats a reproductive union as a node which contains the parents, and the other creates two different kinds of nodes, one for each of the parents and one for the union that gives rise to their descendants. Parents and children are related to the unions with arcs going in different directions: pointing into the marriages they create, and pointing out of the marriages from which they were born. 

There are more nodes in a bipartite p graph than in any of the other models, but I don’t think it aids understanding of distances between people in a social network to include them. An Ore graph has the same number of nodes as a family tree, but it doesn’t have an orientation corresponding to generations. Ore graphs and family trees have the same number of nodes, provided I follow the rule that each node in a path I measure has to include both parents of the node. With that caveat, I can treat a family tree as a kind of Ore graph. 

This is a family tree containing 23 nodes, which includes seven Mafia subjects, six of them related through direct descent. A subset of this tree containing just nine nodes has three Mafia subjects. Another subset of this tree with ten nodes has four Mafia subjects.

A family tree with 23 nodes, of whom seven are Mafia subjects

Not counting subjects related through marriage, the smallest tree containing two Mafia subjects has six nodes. 

Out of 15 controls born in Corleone in the same years as my Mafia subjects, the smallest tree connecting the two most closely related subjects from the control group contains fourteen nodes.

The smallest family tree that includes more than one control group member is of second cousins, once removed. 

Finding the smallest possible tree containing three control group members is more of a challenge. The only other control group member with a duplicate great-grandparent isn’t related to either of the two most closely related members. The next closest ancestor links the same two control group members. 

Instead of focusing on the shortest distances to a common ancestor, I looked for other controls who shared an ancestor with either of the two most closely related controls, Lanza and Zabbia. Antonia Valenza-7 is the 3GG of both Zabbia-22 and Jannazzo-158. The smallest tree connecting Lanza, Zabbia, and Jannazzo has thirty nodes, more than three times the size of a comparable tree for Mafia subjects.

The smallest tree connecting three subjects from the control group through direct descent has thirty nodes.

The smallest tree containing Buccheri, Lanza, and Zabbia has 31 nodes. 

This is the smallest tree containing four control subjects and their relationships through direct descent.

I’ve known for some time that I could draw a family tree that includes many of the most important mafiosi from Corleone. What my experiment demonstrates is that the family tree containing two, three, or four members of Corleone’s Mafia elite is much smaller than a comparable tree drawn for randomly selected subjects born in Corleone. 

The high degree of relation that binds Mafia members and their wives in Corleone is not typical among their unaffiliated peers. Close blood ties through direct descent link the highest levels of Mafia membership in Corleone: to one another and to their wives. Their families have been choosing one another for generations. The result is an endogamous Mafia clan within Corleone.


Thom L. Jones tells me that Dr. Michele Navarra’s will named his wife, Tommasa, but no children among his beneficiaries.


Bokhare, S.F., Zainon, W.M.N.W. (2019, Jan 15). A review on tools and techniques for family tree data visualization. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 96 (1), pp. 121-132.

How is the Mafia organized?

How is the Mafia organized?

What is the internal structure of a Mafia Family? Does it resemble a corporation or a quasi-military body?

An institutional model of the Mafia

The image above is from the FBI website, and is based on the testimony of Joseph Valachi, and the work of Donald Cressey, whose book Theft of a Nation (1969) influenced a generation of criminologists and law enforcement professionals (Kelley, 1987). Terms like boss, capofamiglia, captain, lieutenant, soldier, and “made man” tell us that associates of a Mafia Family are stratified. But not every Mafia writer uses a similar taxonomy.

A Mafia cosca is like an artichoke, designed to defend the heart

Another popular model of the Family is the metaphor of the cosca (Blok, 1974, p. 137). A cosca is literally anything that is shaped like an artichoke. All of the hard, spiny leaves are connected to the heart and curve around to protect it, like the members of a Mafia cosca around its leader.

Further complicating the question of Mafia organization, for more than a hundred years, Italian authors have described a High Mafia composed of politicians, judges, and industrialists, and a Low Mafia of murderers, extortionists, and thieves. How do the cosca and High/Low models interact? If the boss is at the top of the hierarchy, where do the politicians they influence appear? What roles do non-members play in the Mafia?

The FBI’s Mafia Org Chart is the most familiar picture of Mafia organization, but it’s not the model most scholars have used in the past forty years, because it doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining how the Mafia works over time and in a variety of scenarios.

“Form follows function.”

Form follows function. Organization—how the Mafia is structured—is interdependent with facts on the ground, and the Mafia’s other essential qualities, such as membership, purpose, and methodology. Organizational models should inform answers to such critical questions as:

  • How did the Mafia’s culture and challenges lead to the organization it has today?
  • What are the organizational model’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How does the Mafia change its structure in response to new opportunities and threats?
  • Where do new members come from?
  • How is a member’s value determined?
  • How are new laws ratified?

The hierarchy can be flattened to reveal the network

If we rotate our view of the hierarchy so it’s flattened into concentric circles, the most critical members are in the center: the mafioso, or a small clique of mafia chiefs, and their closest family members. Who takes on the secondary, tertiary, and so on positions in the model can inform us as to the organization’s goals and membership roles.

Hess envisions a landscape in which new mafiosi compete with more established ones, and non-members are farthest from the center of the cosca (Hess, 1973/1998, pp. 80, 94-5, 187; Hess, 2011, p. 5).

Mafia scholars have described the Mafia as having a highly regimented structure, as having no structure at all, and every point in between. They disagree as to exactly when and how the Mafia originated: among revolutionary soldiers, on the inland estates, in the citrus orchards, or at the port of Palermo. They have different theories as to the Mafia’s core function: whether it’s to get respect or wealth, to engage in crime or violence, for mutual aid or state-making. There is similarly a lack of agreement as to the Mafia’s essential attributes: whether it is dependent upon a modern state or its absence, if it resembles any other institution, is premodern or transnational, modeled on a biological family, or none of these things.

In Paoli’s model, a layer of non-members form the closest ring around the nucleus, with members, affiliates, and the community at large in progressively more distant rings (Paoli, 2003, pp. 78, 106-8).

Since the 1980s, network and enterprise models of the Mafia have been developed to answer the fundamental questions of precisely what the Mafia does and how. Instead of concentric circles of influence and trust, individuals are considered as nodes in a network. The lines of social connection can be of different types and degrees of intensity, but what has turned out to be important are the distances between nodes—the degrees of separation between two people—the tendency to introduce our friends to one another, and to find popularity attractive. There are also the seeming paradoxes of networks, like the power of weak ties to bring in new information (Hogan, 2018). The difference between having followers, and bringing people together, is not a metaphysical one, but an objective fact that can be demonstrated with network diagrams.

In network models of the Mafia, hierarchies and boundaries disappear and are replaced with clusters and cliques. Bosses, members, their friends and family members, business associates, fraternity brothers, and so on, become points in a network. The cosca’s leaves, as it turns out, are more interconnected than an artichoke’s. The extent of Mafia is revealed to be something far beyond its membership, revealing its true resilience.

In this network of pallbearers, relationships to the deceased have been removed to reveal clusters of his associates who are related to one another.

A magnifying lens turned upon the “spirit” of the Mafia reveals transactions and a web of densely connected actors. We can zoom out and see trends: by occupation, geographical, chronological. The confusions of high and low, capo and associate, are replaced with something measurable in networks of business associations, votes, phone calls, neighborhoods, and every other piece of data on organized crime that we can quantify. Questions of how Mafia cosche interact with one another, how they recover after a loss of key personnel, and the relationships among enterprise, cosca, and kin, can all be studied using network analysis.

Network analysis is a tool that changes our model of the Mafia, partly by getting us out of our own way. The FBI model is still popular because people who read true crime think they know this much is true, that the Mafia is made up of bosses and captains and soldiers. Mafia scholars can hold biased views, too, only seeing what fits their preconceived notion of what the Mafia is and does. Network models can be helpful in taking that bias out of the picture.

When the organizational model proposed isn’t a good fit for the environment, personnel, activities, and goals of the organization as we know them from direct observation, we know it isn’t accurate. As I discussed above, every fundamental trait of the Mafia has been argued, and the where, when, what, and why of the Mafia are not exceptions, which means that for every model of Mafia organization, there is a framework of theory that goes along with it of how that model arose, how it works, and how it can change. A strictly hierarchical model proponent may claim, for example, that their greater stratification provides an advantage in fighting the state, and fail to note the vulnerability of long command chains in a criminal organization. One school of Mafia theorists posit the Mafia is a business enterprise operating in a marketplace like any other. Variations on this theme point out how the market for Mafia business is different, that the conditions and products and basis for competition in organized crime are fundamentally unique; or acknowledge a continuity of Mafia far beyond the life cycle of an enterprise.

Inter-cosca relations need to be explained in a Mafia theory framework. Early in the 20th Century, a prevailing view was that the Mafia was one, single, hierarchical organization, with a capo di tutti capi somewhere that directed the cosche bosses of the world, like a huge army or international corporation. At the low end of the institutionalization continuum, a sociological theory of inter-cosca organization is that members of different cosche recognize one another as being the same, and that mutual respect and cooperation proceed from this.

A theory of knowledge transfer in corporations holds that the hierarchical structure of executives, administrators, and associates that we see in a modern company tells you practically nothing about how the company gets things done (Stephenson, 2013). The same can be said for the Mafia. In both legitimate and illegal job markets, people get job offers based on referrals, they freelance and change companies, they form critical friendships and mentorships that make them more efficient at their jobs: in other words, hierarchical and enterprise-driven organizational theories don’t explain what makes associates good at what they do, but network models do. Trust-based ties form durable, informal, heterogeneous networks of expertise that can last beyond the lifetime of an individual member. Catanzaro proposes layers of organization, with the enterprise distinct from a mostly kinship-based network from which the Mafia most directly emanates (1988/1992, p. 213).

The data I’ve collected and analyzed from Corleone, Sicily, reveals dense networks of kinship which connect the families from whom Mafia membership has been drawn, in Sicily and in the United States, for over a hundred years. Nothing creates trust and loyalty like family, and the Mafia has hijacked family-reproducing structures like a virus. Mafiosi don’t learn to do their jobs well in school, or by attending a human resources seminar. The values that make Mafia distinct and effective are not simply taught, but are ingrained from earliest childhood, altering the psychology of everyone involved: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. It takes a village to raise a Mafia.

Blok, A. (1974). The mafia of a Sicilian village, 1860-1960: a study of violent peasant entrepreneurs. Harper Torchbooks.

Catanzaro, R. (1992). Men of respect: a social history of the Sicilian Mafia. Translation by Raymond Rosenthal. The Free Press (A Division of Macmillan, Inc.) New York. (Original work published 1988)

Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & mafiosi: origin, power and myth. (E. Osers, Trans.). London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. (Original work published 1973)

Hess, H. (2011). Approaching and explaining the mafia phenomenon: attempts of a sociologist. Sociology. Available online at

Hogan, B. (2018, March 13). Social network analysis – Introduction to structural thinking . Retrieved 13 July from

Kelley, R. J. (1987, September). The nature of organized crime and its operations. Chapter in Major issues in organized crime control (H. Edelhertz, Ed.) Pp. 5+. Retrieved 30 May 2021 from

Paoli, L. (2003). Mafia brotherhoods: organized crime, Italian style. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephenson, K. (2013, August 12). Trafficking in trust: The art and science of human Knowledge networks. In L. Coughlin, E. Wingard, and K. Hollihan. (Eds.). Enlightened power: How women are transforming the practice of leadership (pp. 243-264). Jossey-Bass. Retrieved 20 July 2020 from

Three “tells” of Mafia families

Three “tells” of Mafia families

The extended family of brothers Ciro and Vincent Terranova and their nephews, Jimmy and Joe “Baker” Catania, have three distinctive “tells” of Mafia families.

The Artichoke King was the most successful of the Morello-Terranova brothers. One measure of his success was that he was the only one of his brothers to die in bed. At the peak of his power, he could afford to be generous to his relatives. He raised the three orphaned children of his brother, Vincenzo, and gave a house to his sister and her husband, the mafioso Ignazio Lupo. When his nephew, Giuseppe “Joe the Baker” Catania was killed by Maranzano’s soldiers in 1931, Ciro paid for a lavish funeral, including a Depression-defying procession of limousines, floral arrangements, and a golden casket fit for a king.

Giuseppe “Joe Baker” Catania. Joe and his older brother, Calogero/Jimmy emigrated as infants from Palermo with their mother to join their father, a baker, in New York City.

While the story of Joe Catania and his brothers is usually relegated to a sentence or two in someone else’s story, the marriages between the Terranova and Catania families point to a deep level of involvement. The “tells” of Mafia families in vital records—of business ownership, unexplained wealth, and marriages arranged to preserve power—put the Catania family at the center of an extended organized crime family. 

The Catanias emigrated from Mezzomonreale, a district of the city of Palermo. Brothers Frank and Tony Catania and their brother-in-law, Rosario La Scala, emigrated to New York and worked as bakers. The Catania brothers had a bakery in Little Italy, then began working out of the Reliable Bronx Italian Bakers. Rosario La Scala worked for a different bakery in the same cooperative. 

According to the paint on the building, still visible on Google Maps, they were established in 1918. The original location was at 2383 Hoffman St.

In the second generation, Tony’s sons Calogero and Giuseppe Catania inherited the family business from their father, and followed their uncle Ciro Terranova into organized crime. Jimmy, as Calogero was called, went to prison for robbery in 1925. The younger brother, called Joe the Baker, was an alleged loan shark and bookmaker. In 1934, Jimmy was arrested with Ignazio Lupo for extortion. Joe was arrested for vagrancy after an armed robbery at a Tepecano Democratic Club-sponsored dinner honoring Magistrate Vitale, part of a NYPD policy of harassing known criminals. Ciro Terranova was routinely harassed by police with the same charge, in the latter years of his career. 

Donato “Danny” Iamascia was another Terranova associate who rated a “glittering pageant” of a funeral when he was killed in 1931.

Joe Catania’s death was said by police to be the result of a war over “brick grapes,” desiccated California wine grapes sold during Prohibition with detailed instructions on how not to make wine from them. In fact, his death came during a short but deadly war between Joe “The Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano for total dominance of New York’s criminal underworld.

Immediately after Morello and Lupo’s release from prison for counterfeiting, Ciro requested permission to travel to his native Corleone, in Sicily. This is his passport application photograph from 1921, requested for this trip.

Terranova and his nephews were under Masseria’s leadership when Maranzano soldiers mortally assaulted Joe Catania in front of a candy store near his home on Belmont Avenue, in the heart of Bronx’s Little Italy, on 3 February 1931. His uncle Ciro, whose power was at its apex, was hit hard by the death of his nephew and trusted aide. Terranova’s reputation began to weaken. He died in 1938 following a stroke.

Rosario La Scala, the maternal uncle of the Catania brothers, diversified in the 1920s and 30s, operating a live poultry market in East Harlem, and a bakery in the Bronx. Rosario was married to Rosalia Catania, a sister of Ciro Terranova’s wife, Tessie Catania. Their son, Salvatore, married Angelina Terranova, daughter of the late Vincenzo “The Tiger “ Terranova.

In 1930, Jimmy and Joe Catania’s younger brother, Ciro, was in a reformatory. When Joe was killed, he left a wife and two daughters. Ciro married his brother’s widow in 1935. The year before they married, Ciro took a trip to Cuba with his cousin, Salvatore La Scala. In 1940, Ciro appeared in the census twice, once as a candy store owner living with his father, and again with his wife and their children, as the manager of a garage.

Angelina Terranova’s younger brother, Vincent, lived with her and Salvatore for years. Another of Salvatore’s brothers-in-law, Frank Cina, drove a delivery truck for the La Scala bakery in the Bronx, then employed Vincent Terranova in a trucking company. Vincent and his sister Josephine married the children of a fruit dealer from East Harlem: first Josephine in 1934 to Salvatore Ciccone and then Vincent to his sister, Immacolata, known as Margie. 

Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone, born in 1934, a captain in the Gambino crime family

Madonna Louise Ciccone traces her Italian roots to Pacentro, according to her Wikipedia biography

It’s been claimed without attribution in online biographies that Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone is the brother of Salvatore and Margie Ciccone. They have a brother named Anthony, but he is fifteen years older than the Gambino capo from Staten Island. The same sources on Sonny Ciccone that name his parents as Sebastiano Ciccone and Gelsomina Piccolo (or badly transcribed variations of these names) say the family is from Pacentro, in Abruzzo, suggesting a possible relationship to another famous Ciccone, Madonna Louise. Sebastiano and Gelsomina are from Brusciano, in Naples, and are of no known relationship to either the Material Girl or the mafioso who share their surname. Neither was I able to find a relationship to a third Ciccone, William, who tried to kill John Gotti in 1987 and whose body was subsequently found in the basement of a Staten Island confectioner. William Ciccone was from a family of longshoremen in Brooklyn who emigrated from Bagnara Calabra. Their different ancestral hometowns, in three distinct regions of Italy, tell us that the families are unlikely to be close kin.

Unlike the coincidences of the Ciccone surname repeating itself through New York Mafia history, alliance marriages among Mafia family members are deliberate. Just like the marriages among the Morello-Terranova siblings, the marriages of the La Scala cousins and the Catania sisters, between the well-connected Catanias and the powerful Terranovas, Vincent Terranova’s children and the Ciccones, and the marriages of Louisa Longo to two of the Catania brothers, were all designed to preserve, enhance, or reinforce power and influence. La famiglia is sacred throughout the Italian diaspora, but in the Mafia, it’s especially true as the family is the source of strength, the building block of organization, and the regenerative source of Mafia myth and manpower. Where the line between family and business is nonexistent, marriage is transactional: the mergers and acquisitions department of the family business.

The extended family tree of the Terranova brothers and their nephews, the “Baker” brothers

Feature image: John Savino, Daniel J. Iamascia and Joseph ‘the Baker’ Catania. Original photo from The Niagara Falls Gazette, 3 January 1930. P. 15. Savino, Iamascia, Catania, and Ciro Terranova were accused of orchestrating the armed robbery at the Roman Gardens.

Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court

Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court

Early in the 20th Century, before Prohibition and the Outfit, there were two Sicilian Mafia territories in Chicago: Little Italy and Little Sicily. Little Italy was in the Near West Side of Chicago, close to the heart of the city.

The Italian neighborhoods in Chicago

The Mafia that dominated Little Italy were led by the Genna brothers from Marsala, Sicily. North of the Genna stronghold was Goose Island, home to an Irish gang, and on the other side of the island was the Near North Side’s Little Sicily neighborhood. Mariano Zagone, a counterfeiter from Palermo, is the earliest known Mafia boss of Chicago’s Little Sicily. Following Zagone’s murder, the Nicolosi brothers of Corleone ruled Little Sicily. 

Gault Court, the center of operations for the Mafia in Little Sicily, is just west of the southern tip of Goose Island, in the center of this 1910 map.

Little Sicily no longer exists. Once called “Little Hell” for the gasworks nearby, these streets have been renamed over the years, and the shanty housing occupied by a series of immigrant communities was razed and rebuilt as in the 1940-50s as the Cabrini-Green high-rise public housing apartments. The contrast between the poverty of this neighborhood and the opulence of the Gold Coast immediately to its east, on the shore of Lake Michigan, has been documented for over a hundred years. 

Corleonesi began to move into the neighborhood just before the turn of the 20th century. The most significant extended family to the local Mafia were the Spataforas. Gioachino Spatafora immigrated from Corleone in 1898 with his wife, Biagia “Bessie” Cutrone, and their children. Gioachino’s nephew, Giuseppe Nicolosi, operated a saloon on Gault Court (today called Cambridge Avenue). Mariano Zagone, the Mafia boss, treated the saloon as his own headquarters.

In 1902, Gioachino was dead, and his widow had remarried to Zagone. (Rumor has it Zagone seduced her before Spatafora’s death.) Gioachino and Bessie’s daughter, Leoluchina, who was called Laura Spatafora, married her cousin, Giuseppe Nicolosi. A few years later, Giuseppe’s brother, Carmelo, joined them on Gault Court.

The Nicolosi brothers and their first cousins who lived in Chicago’s Little Sicily

On four different occasions between 1902 and 1909, people tried to kill Mariano Zagone, once shooting Laura’s brother, Vincenzo, by accident. It was another brother, Joseph Spatafora, who succeeded in killing his stepfather by gunning him down at the Nicolosi saloon. After Zagone’s murder, the Nicolosi brothers took over the Mafia in Little Sicily.

The Nicolosi brothers, and the children of Gioachino Spatafora, had another mutual set of first cousins in Little Sicily: the Collettis. In 1906, Carmelo Nicolosi and his wife escorted their cousin Leoluchina Colletti, who was joining her brothers, Giuseppe and Rosario, in Chicago. Traveling with them on the Perugia was Rosaria Maria Varca, the mother-in-law of New York City mafioso Mariano Marsalisi.

1906 Perugia manifest, bottom left, shows passengers 24-29 are from Corleone. Line 24 is Maria Rosaria Varca, Marsalisi’s mother-in-law. Bernardo Vernagallo, who is Gioachino Lima’s brother-in-law on line 26, did not sail.
1906 Perugia manifest, bottom right shows the passengers’ destination contacts. The Chicago-bound passengers are all going to addresses on Gault Court.

There was another significant family from Corleone in Little Sicily. Antonino Marino arrived in the United States in 1894 and moved his family to New York for a few years before arriving in Chicago, when his son Angelo was born in 1906. In 1907, Antonino welcomed two young women, his nieces, who arrived on the Hamburg. There were six passengers from Corleone on this voyage: Marino’s nieces, a Spatafora cousin and her husband destined for Chicago, and my relatives, Lucia Soldano and her brother Tony, going to New York. 

1907 Hamburg manifest, first page shows passengers 21-26 are from Corleone. The first four are going to Chicago and the last two, my relatives, are going to New York. The names that appear to the right are their nearest relatives in their home country.
1907 Hamburg manifest, second page, contains destination contact information for the same passengers.

At least one of Antonino Marino’s visiting nieces has family ties to the Mafia. Lucia Canzoneri’s nephew, Leoluca Billeri, was a defendant at the 1969 Mafia trial in Bari, Italy. Her future husband, Carmelo Palazzo, immigrated to the United States in 1906 in the company of the newlywed son-in-law of a Fratuzzi member. Palazzo gave Mariano Marsalisi’s New York address as his destination. 

In Chicago in 1911, Marino’s six-year old son, Angelo, was lured away by neighbors on Gault Court and held for ransom. Among those responsible were the Nicolosi brothers, who later stood trial for the kidnapping, and their wives. Laura Spatafora’s sister-in-law, Paola Pomilla, was the ringleader, who returned the child an hour later, after Marino paid $500 to the brothers (more than $13K in 2021 dollars).

The Spatafora cousin on the Hamburg, Leoluchina Vutera, and her husband Paolo Fucarino were joining Leoluchina’s brother, Giuseppe in Chicago. In 1919, Paolo was a widower, but he remained close to his wife’s family. On his return from a trip to Sicily with his children, Paolo calls Carmelo Nicolosi his cousin and destination contact. Giuseppe Morello and Santo Calamia used a similar sleight of hand to stretch their in-law of an in-law relationship when Calamia visited Morello in prison.

The Marino and Spatafora families appear to have been close enough to travel halfway around the world together in 1907, at serious odds in 1911, and reconciled again by the latter years of Prohibition. In 1928, the Mafia of Little Sicily was allied to Joe Aiello, who had taken over Little Italy and the Unione Siciliane from the Gennas. Together they fought the encroachment of the Outfit into their neighborhood fiefdoms. Two of the last Corleonesi gangsters from this era are second cousins Sam and John Oliveri.

Sam Oliveri was born Salvatore Oliveri to a borgese (middle-class, as distinguished from a contadino or countryman) father and an unknown mother. Oliveri was a representative at the Cleveland Conference and later associated with the Mafia in Rockford, Illinois. Sam’s uncle is Andrea Oliveri of New York: an important early mafioso in East Harlem, and father-in-law of Tommy Reina. When he first immigrated in 1912, Sam went to Andrea’s son in New York City. By World War I, he and his second cousin, Giovanni “John” Oliveri both lived in Chicago’s Little Sicily. 

Sam and John Oliveri married sisters, Jennie and Stella Marino. The Marino sisters nieces of Antonino Marino, whose son was kidnapped by the Nicolosis. Antonino and his brother immigrated together through New Orleans in 1894. Stella was born there around 1895. The family moved north to Chicago, where Jennie (Vincenza) was born, three years later. 

John Oliveri lived on Cambridge Avenue in 1918 when he registered for the draft. When he became a naturalized citizen, Joe Nicolosi—Giuseppe—was one of the witnesses. John was killed by Capone’s men in 1928. 

Sam Oliveri moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he convinced a funeral home operator to make him a co-owner. The Gasparini & Oliveri Funeral Home was Oliveri’s Mafia headquarters in Rockford. Sam died in 1969. Oliveris continue to own and operate the funeral home today.

Interview with Bob Sorrentino on Italian Genealogy

Interview with Bob Sorrentino on Italian Genealogy

I’ve written here before about Angela Grizzaffi and my Cascio ancestors from Corleone, and about the olive oil business my great-grandparents ran from their kitchen in East Harlem. This past week, in preparation for an interview with Bob Sorrentino of the Italian Genealogy blog, I took another look at the immigration records of the Soldano side of the family and found a chain of migration that led to two distinct enclaves of mafiosi from Corleone: one in the New York City neighborhood where my Cascio and Soldano ancestors lived, and another in the Little Sicily neighborhood that once existed in Chicago.

I’ll write more about this soon. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about the early Mafia in Chicago, check out my last post on Joe Aiello. If you’d like to see me talking with Bob Sorrentino about what spurs my genealogy research, and what distinguishes old school gangsters from the New Mafia, you can listen or watch here.

Chicago Joe Aiello

Chicago Joe Aiello

While Al Capone’s Outfit was fighting its way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, one of his chief rivals was the mafioso Joe Aiello. Aiello was president of the Unione Siciliane, synonymous with the Mafia in Chicago. For this reason alone, he earned the title of “the boss of the Sicilian Mafia in Prohibition-Era Chicago.” Beyond the Windy City, Aiello had powerful friends in Detroit and New York City, where he affected the outcome of the 1930 Castellammarese War. 

Joe was born Giuseppe Aiello in Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo, in 1890. At seventeen, he sailed to New York, joining two older brothers, Nunzio and Andrea, upstate in Utica. A halfway point between Lake Ontario and Albany along the Mohawk River, Utica drew a large immigrant population to work in manufacturing and transport. Among them were Sicilian merchants, some of them associated through family and business ties with the nascent Mafia in Utica. Fruit wholesalers, in particular, were closely tied to one another and organized crime. It may have been while Aiello lived in Utica that he formed ties with the Maggadino Family in Buffalo. 

Joe Aiello and his partner in a Utica saloon, Sam La Fada, were charged in 1917 with firing upon Antonio Gagliano, a competing saloon owner. Aiello tried hiding from the police in the home of his father- and brother-in-law, who were charged with interfering with a police officer. Aiello was found in possession of a recently fired handgun, and a license to carry. La Fada was killed in Buffalo a few months later.

It’s often reported that Aiello left Utica after taking part in the 1917 shooting. Joe was married to Caterina Amara. Their daughter, Lena, was born late in 1918. Son Carlo was born in Utica in 1919. A news item about the scalding death of Joe’s daughter, in March 1921, shows the family still living on Bleecker Street in Utica. Two and a half year-old Lena Aiello ran into her mother and maternal grandmother, who had just boiled water for the family’s baths. She survived for five hours.

Joe moved his family to Chicago shortly after this tragedy. Their next child, Antonino, was born in Chicago in July 1922.

Joe’s brothers moved to Chicago ahead of him, starting with the oldest, Nunzio, who married there in 1916. Andrea, also married, registered for the draft from a Near North Side address the following year. Nunzio’s address on Locust Street was in Little Sicily, also in Chicago’s Near North Side. 

In the years leading up to Prohibition, Chicago’s criminal underworld was still broken up into neighborhood territories. “Big Jim” Colosimo’s network of brothels was beginning to encroach on these boundaries, but there was not yet a monopoly on criminal power, and there was no overarching leadership: not among organized criminals, nor even among mafiosi in the city.

 The Genna brothers, from Marsala, Sicily, were one of the earliest Mafia families in Chicago. They were based in Little Italy, in the Near West Side. To the east of the Genna territory was Goose Island, where the Irish North Side Gang ruled. The Gennas controlled the Unione Siciliane and fought the Irish gang, led by Dean O’Banion. On the other side of Goose Island was Little Sicily, where a Corleonese Mafia family was dominant. The Nicolosi brothers ruled from their Gault Court saloon, a territory they inherited from their murdered father-in-law.

In Chicago, the Aiello family worked for the railroads, then became fruit dealers, and owned bakeries and at least one confectionery shop. Father Carlo Aiello, a fruit merchant, arrived from Bagheria in 1920 and died in Chicago three years later. 

Joe Aiello began his ascent to power by partnering with Antonio Lombardo of the Unione, but then alienated his patron when he made an alliance with Bugs Moran, who was O’Banion’s successor in the North Side Gang. The Gennas were killed by the Irish gang in 1925. Joe and his brothers took over the old Genna brothers’ territory: in particular, control of the Unione. Allied to the North Side, the Aiello gang became prominent targets for Al Capone’s Outfit. 

The Outfit was never part of the Sicilian Mafia. Its members were engaged in organized crime, and most of them were Italian or Italian-American, but they were not part of the same organization as the Genna, Nicolosi, and Aiello families, who all came from Sicily. Only after the Commission was formed, after the Castellammarese War, did the Outfit become part of an American Mafia, on equal footing with Sicilian American Mafia families.

By 1927, the tension between the Outfit and Joe Aiello’s family reached a breaking point. The Aiello family bakery in Little Sicily was riddled with bullets in a drive-by attack. Joe, who had already made multiple attempts on Capone’s life, was forced to leave Chicago. Regardless, he won the presidency of the Unione Siciliane the following year. In 1928, Aiello enjoyed the support of the Nicolosi brothers, but their representative at the Cleveland Conference, Sam Oliveri, lost a brother to Capone’s men, and was afterward suspected by police of brokering a new deal that cut out the Aiello family.

The power that emanated from New York City was felt everywhere by the Mafia. Al Capone and several of his closest associates in the Outfit were from New York. One of them was “Little Davey” Petillo, a native of New York City. As a young man, Petillo worked with Lucky Luciano as a hitman, narcotics trafficker, and pimp. After working for Joe Aiello in Chicago, Petillo rejoined his New York associates in the Outfit, and was Al Capone’s bodyguard at Aiello’s death in 1930.

Meanwhile in New York City, Joe “The Boss” Masseria’s power was growing and threatened to encompass all Mafia activity in the United States. Aiello had long been aligned with Salvatore Maranzano and the other mafiosi from Castellammare del Golfo, including Gaspar Milazzo in Detroit, and Maggadino in Buffalo: both Mafia bosses who’d started out in the Castellammarese stronghold of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Masseria came to openly support Capone’s bid for control over Chicago, widening the partisan divide throughout the Mafia in America, in the lead up to the Castellammarese War. Aiello financed Maranzano’s campaign against Masseria through the summer, before falling to Capone’s hitmen in October. Joe was forty.

Lucky Luciano turned on first Masseria, and then Maranzano, before assuming a consciously more modest position than either predecessor as a leader among equals in the new American Mafia. In Luciano’s Commission, Al Capone was the representative for the city he finally dominated, though not for long. In 1931, Capone was charged with tax evasion, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.

Southern fried Mafia: the story of Chicken Louie

Southern fried Mafia: the story of Chicken Louie

The story of Dallas gangster “Chicken Louie” Ferrantello is a southern gothic portrait of the Sicilian Mafia. 

The South has been alive with organized crime for longer than any of those Yankee cities you usually read about. The Mafia would have to fight for its share from among smugglers, gamblers, thieves, and murderers of every ethnic background who’d populated New Orleans since long before the Italians got there. Immigrants from southern Italy, some of them mafiosi and the ancestors of future American gangsters, passed through the port town on their way to the sugar plantations and mills. Following the coastline west, travelers found cattle country, like the interior of Sicily, and settled in ethnic enclaves like Bryan, Texas, outside Houston. Where rivers, rails, and roads intersected, they made cities. If you drew a line from Houston, north, and one from Shreveport, going west, the lines would meet in Dallas.

“Chicken Louie” Ferrantello

Louis Ferrantello was born in sugar cane country, in Schriever, Louisiana, in 1918. Both his parents were from Corleone, where Louis’ maternal grandfather was a rural guard: a profession closely associated with the Mafia in Sicily. His father, Liborio, emigrated as a teenager with his mother in 1891. Louis’ mother, Caterina, came from Corleone two years later with a sister. Liborio owned a grocery store: the kind of family-owned business that was so popular with new Italian immigrants, but in particular, with Italian gangsters, who liked having their own businesses as fronts for their illegal side hustles. Future Mafia bosses Carlo and Joe Piranio were both in Dallas by the 1910 census: in the grocery trade, like Liborio Ferrantello.

 The Mafia in Dallas was active by the eve of Prohibition, founded by the elder brother, Carlo Piranio, who also came from Corleone by way of Louisiana. Schriever, where the Ferrantello family first lived upon emigration, is just outside New Orleans. Many Corleonesi immigrants found their twisting way north, up the Mississippi River through sugar cane country to Baton Rouge, or into Louisiana’s vast interior, five times the size of Sicily, to do agricultural labor. Shreveport, some 300 miles north-northwest of New Orleans, was like Corleone in that it was a transportation nexus in the interior of a country with a lot of shoreline. Shreveport linked the only overland east-west route to Texas with the Red River, which emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Piranio and Ferrantello families are distantly related: Louie and the Piranio brothers are third cousins, twice removed, with multiple common ancestors. Despite their distance in Louisiana, they certainly knew each other from Corleone, and the Piranios may have even invited the Ferrantellos to join them in Dallas. Joe Zabbia, another early member of the Dallas crime family originally from Corleone, moved to the city in 1927 from Chicago, where he was working as a hod carrier: another profession, particularly in Chicago, with connections to organized crime. 

The Ferrantello family moved to Dallas, Texas, around 1928. Liborio continued to work as a grocer, while the Piranio brothers had expanded into real estate, a tobacconist’s shop, and fencing stolen war bonds. 

In February 1930, Carlo Piranio died from cancer of the spine, leaving the Dallas crime family to his brother. Joe Zabbia died that November from rectal cancer, and later that month, Liborio Ferrantello died from a ruptured ulcer. 

After the death of their father, Louis Ferrantello and his siblings supported their family by starting a company, the Texas Poultry and Egg Co., that earned Louis the nickname “Chicken Louie” among his associates in the Dallas Mafia. In addition to the poultry business, Ferrantello was a nightclub owner and a bookmaker. He served in World War II, married Miss Dorothy McCully, and had one child, a son. 

In the early 1950s, he was under investigation for his ties to organized crime and gambling. Joseph Civello, who succeeded Joseph Piranio upon his death in 1956, ran gambling operations. In a surprise raid on Civello, Chicken Louie and two other men were arrested. Ferrantello pleaded the fifth before the legislative committee over one hundred times. There was insufficient evidence to incriminate him, so he was cited for contempt, and sentenced to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. (He appealed, and lost.)

After his release from prison in 1954, Ferrantello divorced his wife so that she could live a “normal” life. He claimed to be “going straight” after his prison term, but Ferrantello still owned a gambling venue in Arlington, Texas, when he died.

Two years later, Ferrantello was killed by his pregnant girlfriend. Twenty-four-year old Betty Louise Barry came to his office in Antony’s Lounge, in the Lakewood section of North Dallas, to tell him that she was pregnant. She brought a gun, and threatened to kill herself if he wouldn’t marry her. The two struggled, with Ferrantello trying to prevent Miss Barry from shooting herself. According to her later testimony, she just “couldn’t stop firing.” She was struck in the knee, but Louis was fatally wounded. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital on 17 July 1956. Although Barry admitted to shooting him, she swore it was accidental.

Three months after his death, Louie Ferrantello’s former wife, Mary Dorothy McCully, was found murdered in Pasadena, California. (Later that month, Joe Piranio died from suicide, grief-stricken at the sudden loss of his wife in February, he’d become reclusive in the ensuing months.) An investigation into McCully’s death led directly back to her late husband and his criminal associates.

Nick Cascio Dallas
Nick Cascio

McCully’s boyfriend claimed that Louie’s associates made frequent visits to her apartment, where safe cracking tools were found after her death. These clues linked a Texas safe burglary ring, suspected of robbing a California hotel, with McCully. Authorities believed that her apartment was used as a headquarters for the crime. The investigation led to Dallas safecracker Nick Cascio, “the thief you could trust.” 

The self-described “self-employed speculator” was quoted by the press, explaining his profession this way: “I’m always speculating whether a safe is going to have any money in it or not.” Nick, whose criminal career was well documented in the press, was a “dapper,” “swarthy” thief, and a man of his word: rare in his profession. He was also a former lieutenant in the Lois Green gang of Dallas. Green was a powerful Dallas racketeer in the 1920-30s, and the largest of at least three serious competitors to the Piranio Family’s primacy in Dallas, before his assassination in 1949. Nick Cascio’s father was also a Dallas grocer, originally from Cefalù, a coastal town east of Palermo: the same place the Maceo brothers, also gang leaders in Dallas, were from. (Nick and his family are of no relation to the Piranio brothers, who have half-siblings named Cascio.)

Although Dorothy McCully’s gangster ex-husband said he wanted her to enjoy a “normal” life, she was not on track for that goal. In addition to letting her ex and his friends stash their tools in her home, McCully’s new boyfriend was also her boss. Walter G. Borchers, an insurance agent with money trouble, claimed that Louie’s associates made frequent visits to his secretary/girlfriend’s apartment, and that fear of them drove him to hire a private detective to spy on Dorothy, take out an insurance policy on himself, and name her as the beneficiary. 

That kind of controlling behavior never ends well. Like Ferrantello and Barry in the end, Borchers and McCully struggled over a gun. Unlike Barry, Borchers’ killing was not an accident. Walter and Dorothy were arguing in his car, when he shot her. He then hit her over the head, killing her. Dorothy was 31. Borchers drove around with her body in the trunk for the next 36 hours.



Atti di nascita, Caterina Mondello. (1884, January 25). Record no. 44, “Italia, Palermo, Palermo, Stato Civile (Tribunale), 1866-1910,” images, FamilySearch ( : 22 May 2014), Palermo > Corleone > Nati, pubblicazioni, matrimoni, cittadinanze, morti 1882-1893 > image 469 of 3063; Tribunale di Cagliari (Cagliari Court, Cagliari).

Cartwright, G. (1991, October). Benny and the Boys. Texas Monthly. Retrieved 20 April 2019 from

Chicken Louie Ferrantello. Mafia Wiki Website. Retrieved 27 April 2019 from

Death of Louis Ferrantello.  (1956, July 17). “Texas Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 22 July 2014), Death certificates > 1956 > Vol 069-075, certificates 034130-037500, Jul, Bell-Jefferson counties > image 1163 of 3466; State Registrar Office, Austin.

Lois Green Shot at Sky Vu Club. (2018, March 4). Dallas Gateway website. Retrieved 20 April 2019 from 

Manifest of the Capitain. (1893). New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1963 The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1820-1902; NAI Number: 2824927; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Record Group Number: 85

Nick Cascio Arrested in Hotel Theft. (1956, October 20). Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), P. 1 Accessed 18 April 2019 via GenealogyBank.

Nick Cascio, Convict #84582. (1937). Texas, Convict and Conduct Registers, 1875-1945 Convict Number Range: B 079301-084740 Texas, Convict and Conduct Registers, 1875-1945 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012.

Nick Cascio convict record, Serial no. 61232. (1952). Alabama, Convict Records, 1886-1952. General Volume: Volume 27: 1950-1952. Alabama, Convict Records, 1886-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

Suspect’s Fear For Life Aired. (1956, October 18). Wichita Falls (TX) Times, p. 5.

Vincent Cascio Draft Registration (1917). “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 14 May 2014), Louisiana > Shreveport City; C-Q > image 182 of 5797; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Vincent Cascio family. (1940). US Federal Census. Year: 1940; Census Place: Dallas, Dallas, Texas; Roll: m-t0627-04177; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 255-140 Enumeration District: 255-140; Description: JUSTICE PRECINCT 1, DALLAS CITY (TRACT 30 – PART)

WBAP-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Script: Woman is Jailed in Slaying of Gambler], item, July 18, 1956; ( accessed April 27, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.

WBAP-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Script: Woman Testifies in Ferrantello Inquiry], item, November 12, 1956;( accessed April 27, 2019),University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library,; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.


Is the Mafia a cult?

Is the Mafia a cult?

Godfather-RingCults, gangs, and the Mafia are very similar. 

“Cults” and “Mafia” are just like religions and the state, without the widespread acceptance.

Cults are simply new religious movements. If they stick around long enough, they stop being persecuted in the same way, and are accorded the respect we give to mainstream religions. Likewise, the Mafia is a quasi-state which, if it were to overtake a whole country, would lose its “quasi” status as citizens, regional governments, and other nations were forced to deal with the Mafia to get things done.

A cult has three main features: a charismatic, authoritarian leader; a program of indoctrination or mind control; and exploitation. While the exploitation doesn’t seem obviously part of the cult, to the outsider, it is the feature that makes cults harmful. Idealism can very quickly turn to authoritarianism. The only difference between my infallible authority and yours, is that I agree with mine.

A mafia is very much like a cult, although you might reverse the order of its descriptors. The Mafia’s most fundamental trait is that it uses violence and threats of violence to achieve its aims. Those aims have changed over time: the traditional Sicilian Mafia sought control over a territory and personal respect, both more powerful currencies in the society where the Mafia arose. The Americanized “new Mafia” seen since the 1940s focuses on wealth and conspicuous displays of social status, and consequently, the two mafias reveal themselves through different methods: the original mafiosi modeled themselves on nobility, while the more modern version imitates American capitalism’s exemplars of success: the businessman, the Hollywood star, or the politician. 

All mafias—and gangs—have authoritarian leaders who rule on the strength of their personal traits—most especially, their reputation for violence. A gang is like a Mafia without ethnicity, or a cult without ideology. What all three share is the sense of belonging they offer to members. This is a powerful feeling for any of us, but particularly for people who are poor, marginalized, or in a tumultuous period in their lives. 

This takes us to the other defining attribute of both Mafia and cults, which is a program of indoctrination. The Mafia has belief systems that are widely disseminated through the subculture that gives it strength. The most widely known is omertà, most often interpreted as “silence,” but having its root, in fact, in a different concept: that of how to be a man. In the indoctrination system of the Mafia, a “real man” is tough and self-sufficient. He handles his own problems, and never turns to the state. You might say that other gangs have a similar ideology, known to the general public through the adage, “Snitches get stitches.”

Cults, like the Mafia, find fertile ground in the beliefs already held by the broader culture that they target for enrollment. Just as many successful cults are offshoots of Christianity, the Mafia’s values are rooted in the Sicilian(-American) subculture. Agricultural workers in central-western Sicily shared experiences—working on large plantation estates, having few police and an incessant banditry problem—that generated some of their distinctive cultural traits. Sicilians put their trust in family first, before neighbors, politicians, or employers. They are also strongly bound together by the Catholic Church, whose institutions were second only to the family for their permanence in Sicilian life.

The dangers of cult membership are becoming a more widespread problem. The ease of creating isolated communities of the like-minded online, greater penetration power of false messages through social media, and anonymity of the internet, have breathed life into hate groups. These online rage circles cause real violence, through harassment campaigns conducted online, and in the real world, including murder.

Even the old cult of the Mafia lives online. Communities that share stories and memes about the Mafia, both real and in popular culture, send messages that range from the relatively neutral, i.e. that the Mafia is newsworthy, to the cultish, such as polls of membership as to their “favorite” mobsters. The Mafia is undoubtedly a fascinating subject, and I’m hardly unbiased in saying so. The danger in the fascination, is in falling victim to their messages: excusing and justifying Mafia violence, and thereby weakening pressure for its prosecution. The Mafia is no more an honorable society than cults are made up of the anointed. If enough of us forget that, we make room for the quasi-state to rule, and the cult to become dogma. While the “strong man” leader might look good now, the time will inevitably come when you and he will disagree.

Pip the Blind

Pip the Blind

Joseph Gagliano, who was known by the nickname “Pip the Blind,” was called “the mastermind of one of the biggest opium rings in the country” by the assistant district attorney who prosecuted him for narcotics trafficking in 1946. 

Mike Coppola and Joseph Gagliano
“Trigger Mike” Coppola, left, and Joseph “Pip the Blind” Gagliano

It would be easy to assume that Joseph, whose family was from Corleone, was related to Tommy Gagliano, boss of the Lucchese crime family. In fact, Pip the Blind is of no known blood relation to Tommy Gagliano. They are distantly related through marriage. (The links in this paragraph go to Wikitree, the repository of the vast majority of my genealogical research into the families of Corleone. There are primary sources documenting all of the relationships; they’re in the profiles.)

Another easy—but wrong—guess would be that Joseph and Tommy Gagliano are somehow related to “Fat Frank” Gagliano and his son, Joseph, both made members of Carlos Marcello’s Mafia Family in New Orleans. The NOLA Gaglianos are from Porto Empedocle, on the southern coast of Sicily, and of no close relation to any of the New York Gaglianos mentioned here.

With all of the red herrings that suggest who Joseph Gagliano was, his relative importance, and where his power came from, it’s easy to miss the real story. In fact, everywhere I look in Joseph’s biography, there are close ties to power. The web of Gagliano-Rao family connections tie the diminutive-sounding Pip the Blind to the highest echelons of political power in New York: to Mayor La Guardia, and even to FDR.

Joseph Gagliano’s closest criminal relation, his uncle Angelo, met Joseph’s family when they got off the boat from Sicily: the SS Sicilian Prince, in 1905. Nine years later, Angelo Gagliano employed a young Jack Dragna at his laundry. In those years, both Gagliano families lived on and around the same block of East 107th Street. Angelo’s early associates included Steve LaSalle and Vincent Rao, who would become his son-in-law.

“Pip” was born 18 February 1903 in Corleone as Giuseppe Gagliano, the son of Vincenzo Gagliano and Marianna Ortoleva. When Giuseppe was not much more than a baby, his family emigrated to the United States, joining his uncle in East Harlem. Vincent Gagliano soon found work as a plasterer. By 1915, the family lived in the apartment at 220 East 107th Street that would be Pip’s home until the day he died, in 1947.


In a 1950s “true crime” radio show called “The Silent Men,” Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays the roles of undercover officers in dramatic reenactions of real investigations. One episode from 1951 is “The Empire of Pip the Blind,” in which Fairbanks’ narcotics detective pretends to be a heroin wholesaler from San Francisco, visiting New York in order to establish a relationship with kingpin “John Bartello,” also known as “Pip the Blind.” A backstory is invented for his nickname: that the blind spot in his eye is called a “pip.” I suspect the real origin of “Pip” is “Giuseppino,” the diminutive for “Giuseppe.” 

Through his mother, Marianna Ortoleva, Joseph Gagliano is the descendant of nobility: he is the third-great grandson of the Baron Don Angelo Cala’. On his father’s side, Vincenzo Gagliano’s grandfather was part of Corleone’s petite bourgeoisie, a master shoemaker.

Pip and his brothers followed their father into the plastering trade. When Vincent died, in 1931, Joseph and his brothers supported their mother and younger siblings. In 1940, four of Marianna’s sons, ranging from Angelo, age 29, to Benny, the oldest, at 45, were all unmarried, still living at home, and working as plasterers.

Building construction wasn’t Joseph Gagliano’s only occupation. He was an early burglary associate of Joe Valachi, and other future members of both the Genovese and Lucchese crime families. At his 1936 arrest for running a lottery on Long Island, Joseph told police he’d been arrested for “every crime under the sun.”


Joseph had other criminal relations in New York. His first cousins Calogero and Vincent Rao were close associates of Lucchese boss and construction racketeer Tommy Gagliano. Gagliano and the Rao brothers grew wealthy together in the construction business. Calogero Rao was an unindicted co-conspirator in Tommy Gagliano’s 1932 tax evasion trial.

The politician Alfred Santangelo, whose campaign flyer appears above, was related to the Lucchese associate Calogero Rao through his wife, Betty

Calogero’s daughter, Betty, married Alfred Santangelo, an attorney who was assistant district attorney for New York County for the latter half of Prohibition, and a close associate of Fiorello La Guardia, the “tough on crime” candidate who won the New York City mayoral race with support from Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected president in 1933. The new mayor quickly went after Ciro “the Artichoke King” Terranova: smashing his illegal slot machines for the delighted press, and legislating the monopoly he held on baby artichokes out of existence. 

Alfred’s brother George Santangelo, a physician, married another of Calogero Rao’s daughters, Rosalia. A third Santangelo brother, Robert, was Joseph Gagliano’s defense attorney in the narcotics trial that sealed his doom in 1946.

Robert V Santangelo
A young Robert V. Santangelo, in his passport application photo

Robert V. Santangelo had a celebrated legal career. In 1921, he was one of the promising Italian-American college students sent on a cultural tour of Italy by Bank of America (which was formerly the Bank of Italy). The passport photo above was taken for this trip. Before retiring, Robert served as a New York Supreme Court judge. When he died in 1984, his obituary named one of his surviving sisters, “Eleanor Roosevelt of Staten Island.” The former First Lady of this name, wife of FDR, died in 1962. So what was the connection? The Santangelo family were wealthy and politically prominent. Their father, Michele, was an immigrant from Potenza, in the Neapolitan region of Italy, and like Tommy Lucchese and Calogero Rao, he was a building contractor. Michele’s daughter Eleanor Santangelo, born in 1915 in Staten Island, married Martin Rosenfelt in 1947. Mr. Rosenfelt died in 1978. Eleanor’s married name was misspelled in her brother’s obituary, leading to the suggestion that the Santangelos had married into not just one, but two of the most notable families of New York. 


In 1935, a rival lottery gang in Copiague, Suffolk County, New York, tipped off police to Joseph Gagliano’s operation on Long Island. In the resulting raid, not only Joseph, but two of his teenage sisters, and the wives of two of his associates, were also arrested. Gagliano, age 32, was described as a member of the old Schultz gang, a reference to the Bronx bootlegger and policy racketeer, Dutch Schultz.

Based on the 1940 census, in which Joseph is still a single man living at home, and news of his death in 1947, which names his widow, Joseph married some time between 1940 and the end of 1946. His wife, Grace, came to live with Joseph, his mother, and siblings, at 220 East 107th. I have not found his marriage record, or evidence the couple had any children.

Despite their modest address, Gagliano’s illicit wealth and power were so well-known that when he was arrested on narcotics charges in December 1946, his bond was set at $150,000: worth over $2 million today. Four men arrested in connection with Joseph were given bonds of just $15,000 each, while a fifth, in the hospital with a broken leg, was considered not to be a flight risk.

Gagliano and his fellows were charged with selling five ounces of heroin to an informant. Joseph’s lawyer, Robert Santangelo, claimed he was suffering from an incapacitating mental ailment. Pip said that people were poisoning his food. Nonetheless, three psychiatrists agreed that he could stand trial. His prosecutor called him “the mastermind of one of the biggest opium rings in the country.” 

Joseph “Pip the Blind” Gagliano, the ringleader of what was one of the largest narcotics trafficking operations on the East Coast, was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Sing Sing. He arranged to be held temporarily in the city, while he had interviews with local prosecutors, to whom he was still considered a valuable potential witness. 

On 10 April 1947, Joseph hanged himself in his Bronx jail cell. He was 43.


Policy Ring Seized In Armed Hide-Out. (1935, July 6). The New York Times. P. 28. Retrieved from

Berger, M. (1946, December 21). $150,000 Bail Holds Narcotics Suspect. The New York Times. Pp. 1, 20. Retrieved from

Three Found Guilty of Narcotics Sales. (1947, February 20). The New York Times. P. 7. Retrieved from

Narcotic Peddler Ends Life In Cell. (1947, April 11). The New York Times. P. 10. Retrieved from

Crook, J. (1984, April 6.) ROBERT SANTANGELO, EX-JUDGE ON THE STATE SUPREME COURT. The New York Times. Section B, Page 5 Retrieved from 

See Joseph Gagliano’s profile on Wikitree for vital records.

Featured image: Calogero Rao and his wife, Maria Canzoneri, front; Alfred Santangelo, top right