If and only if you’re near the Pioneer Valley, plan to hang out with nerds on Monday night. I’ll be there!
Mafia nerds, rejoice and be refreshed! I’ll be speaking Monday evening, August 13th, at Nerd Nite Noho, a monthly gathering at the World War II Club in Northampton, Massachusetts. Join us! I’ll be in a double header: the other half of the evening will be on feminist comics. So much cool, they turn off the A/C. (Just kidding. It’s very comfortable. And there’s a bar!)
When the Patriarca family tried to take over Springfield, Massachusetts, in the late Eighties, the local Genovese crew struck back.
In the 1960s, Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano and Salvatore Annunziato, both of the Colombo family, ran New Haven together in a grudging alliance. Tropiano, who once killed his whole crew to save his own skin, was in charge of the bookmakers while the diminutive former boxer, who once fought as “Midge Renault,” headed labor.
Tropiano and one of his bookmaking associates, William Grasso, were going to go into the trash hauling business together, when their attempts to create a monopoly were revealed. Grasso was convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. This turned out to be the greatest stroke of luck in his criminal career.
Mafia relations in Massachusetts can be divided into two eras: before Patriarca and after him. For a generation following the end of Prohibition, the various gangs in Boston were run semi-independently and each leader was the equal of any boss of Springfield, in the western part of the state. Joseph Lombardo, regarded by most Mafia historians as a long time underboss in Boston, was said by Vincent Teresa to be the chair of a council of New England bosses. In this formulation, Springfield came under Boston’s jurisdiction. The undisputed boss of Springfield, who was “Big Nose” Sam Cufari in those years, would require, for at least some activities, the permission of “Mr. Lombardo” in Boston.
After Patriarca consolidated Boston and Providence’s operations, he went on to forge strong relationships with the Genovese and Colombo families of New York. His principal rivals in Boston were the Irish gangs, the Winter Hill Gang chief among them.
In the federal pen, Grasso’s cellmate was Ray Patriarca, Sr. When Grasso returned to Connecticut in 1978, he had a new protector. His old mentor, Whitey Tropiano, who had avoided indictment in the conspiracy with Grasso, was the victim of an unsolved murder in 1980. Thomas “The Blond” Vastano, was a Genovese associate who was said to be running the family’s gambling operations in Connecticut, was killed the same year.
Illegal gaming would figure prominently in Grasso’s demise. By 1989, Big Nose Sam had passed away and his successor, “Frankie Skyball” Scibelli, was in prison. His associate, Anthony Delevo, was running the Springfield crew in his absence. Meanwhile, the Scibelli family held a monopoly in the Springfield area on illegally retrofitted video game machines. S&M was a distributor of pool tables, video game machines, and the like to area restaurants, bars, and clubs, owned first by Albert “Baba” Scibelli, brother of Frankie Skyball, and later by Baba’s son-in-law, restaurateur and real estate developer Michael Cimmino.
The game machines in question were fixed in such a way that venue owners were not only complicit but active in the conspiracy. They could adjust how often players won, and split proceeds 50-50 with S&M. It was a lucrative racket: one venue that kept records earned $40,000 over four months through these machines. The existence of the gaming racket was revealed in a massive raid in 2001.
Like Grasso, Frank Salemme’s rise through the ranks of the Patriarca organization began in prison, where he met soldier Anthony Morelli in 1957. Through Morelli, Salemme was introduced to the crime family he would later attempt to take over with support from Whitey Bulger.
Bulger and his close associate, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, were both long time FBI informants by 1989. Bulger became an FBI informant in 1975, and his Somerville based Winter Hill Gang’s activities were largely overlooked by law enforcement as a result. Flemmi, who also moved between the Winter Hill and Patriarca circles, was what Professor Elin Waring calls a connector of co-offending networks.
Ray Patriarca Sr. died in 1984. Three years later, Grasso became underboss to Ray Patriarca, Jr, when the new boss’ first choice went to prison. Meanwhile, by 1986, Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme had become a trusted aide of Whitey Bulger. He fought on the Winter Hill side of the Irish Gang Wars, then went into hiding after participating in a 1968 car bombing targeting the lawyer of an informant on the Patriarca crime family. He was caught and imprisoned in 1972. After his release from prison in 1988, Salemme promptly began working to take over the Patriarca family. By the time of the shooting, in June, 1989, he was the right-hand man of Bill Grasso, underboss of the Patriarca family and the organization’s most powerful member.
Other Patriarca capos resented Grasso and Salemme for their proximity to the Patriarcas, but also for their ruthlessness and lack of loyalty to their fellows. Chief among the disgruntled captains was Vincent “The Animal” Ferrara.
Salemme was injured in what appears to have been an attempted assassination, in a drive-by shooting outside an IHOP, on the morning of the sixteenth of June, 1989. That afternoon, William Grasso’s body was found by fishermen, on the bank of the Connecticut River in Wethersfield, near the Massachusetts border.
While the drive-by attack on Salemme was carried out in public view, and in broad daylight, the men who took down William Grasso used another, time tested Mafia approach to execution. His trusted associates picked him up for a meeting that never was.
Grasso, who was sixty-two and a recent widower, was famously cautious as well as dangerously violent, so he clearly trusted the company with whom he traveled. The four who took Grasso for his last ride were Gaetano Milano, a newly made man in the Patriarca family; his childhood friend and business partner, Frank Colantoni Jr.; and the Pugliano brothers, Frank and Louis. Like Flemmi, the Pugliano brothers and Gaetano Milano were connectors linking the internally feuding New England family and the Springfield crew.
All four were long time residents of the Springfield area. Milano, who was born in Naples, came to the area as a teenager: he graduated from Longmeadow High School. The Pugliano family has owned and operated a restaurant in Hampden, just outside Springfield, Massachusetts, since 1934. Frank “Pugs” Pugliano was described in 1990 as an associate of the Patriarca Family but a “made” member of the Genovese Family, of which the Springfield crew is a part.
Milano and Colantoni were in their mid-thirties, and the Pugliano brothers, in their early sixties. The man they were supposedly going to see was another elder in the New England mob scene: Carlo Mastrototaro, who ruled Worcester. Mastrototaro, who died in 2009 at age 89, was supposed to mediate a dispute between Grasso and Springfield interests regarding territories for the illegal vending machines that S&M distributed. Frank Pugliano, according to the indictment, set up the talks that led to Grasso’s shooting.
At the time of the shooting, Grasso and Milano were passengers in a van being driven by Louis Pugliano, along with Louis’ brother and Milano’s friend. Gaetano Milano shot Bill Grasso once in the neck, killing him. Colantoni helped his friend dispose of the body and clean the van. That was on the thirteenth of June. Three days later, coming out of an IHOP in Saugus, Massachusetts, “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was the target of a drive by shooting, which he survived by running into a nearby pizza shop.
Although the killing and dumping of Grasso’s body all happened in Genovese territory, initial suspicion for the two shootings fell on the Patriarca family: captains Vincent Ferrara, Joseph A. Russo, and Robert Carrozza.
At his murder trial in 1990, Milano described the killing as the outcome of a conflict among leadership in the Patriarca family. The shooters in the attack on Salemme, and the Springfield hitmen, all maintained that they were likely to be killed by their victims if they did not strike first. It would be seven more years before Whitey Bulger’s control of the FBI, and his use of agents to spread rumors like these among his enemies, would become public knowledge.
Between the Winter Hill Gang’s false flag and genuine threats from Grasso against the Scibelli family monopoly, and considering the close relationships of Milano and his associates to the warring families, it seems likely that a consortium of Patriarca capos, led by Ferrara, could have obtained the active support and participation of the Springfield crew, in their successful strike against Grasso. The support for Milano in Longmeadow in raising his bail, as I’ve written previously, was notable. This coordinated takedown of the leader, in all but name, of the New England crime family, would likely have been seen as mutually beneficial by both Mafia families. Its orchestration by an Irish gang leader in Boston was not even suspected by the participants, much less by its victims.
It appeared that few people mourned the passing of William Grasso. Although he was considered deeply loyal to the Patriarca bosses, the other capos resented Grasso, and his soldiers hated and feared him. The funeral was highly surveilled, but no mafiosi came to pay their respects to the almost universally despised gangster. He was laid to rest beside his wife, Anna.
Despite the suspicion that fell on the Patriarca capos who had opposed Grasso and Salemme, Ferrara and his presumed allies did not benefit from the shootings. In the immediate aftermath, Patriarca men from Providence were put in charge of Connecticut to replace the slain Grasso. Hartford, which had always been an open city, reportedly came under the control of the Genovese family.
Frank Salemme’s bid for power was successful, at least for a time. The career criminal who was not eligible to become a made man under Patriarca Sr., because of his mixed Italian and Irish heritage, was the family’s de facto leader in 1991. Just two years after he was nearly killed by them, Salemme came to lead the organization whose former boss and namesake wouldn’t have him as a member. His son, Frank Salemme, Jr., was reportedly a made man in his father’s crime family.
After a 1995 federal indictment for racketeering, Salemme learned his associates in the Winter Hill Gang were informants. More details came out in Bulger’s 1997 trial. In 1999, Salemme, still in prison, flipped on Bulger and was rewarded with witness protection.
Salemmi was on release from prison and living under an assumed name in Atlanta when the body of nightclub owner, Steven DiSarro, was discovered in Providence in 2016. Salemme is currently on trial in connection with the 1993 murder, attributed to Frank Jr., who died in 1995 from lymphoma.
Nothing could tear apart these early Mafia families in Utica, New York. Not even murder.
Pietro Lima and his brother-in-law, Dominick Aiello, were in a hurry the night they were killed, summoned by a late night phone call. It was November, and the men left home in such a rush that neither was fully dressed; they’d thrown coats over slippers and pajamas. The men were found dead in their car in the morning, evidently shot at close range by someone sitting in the back seat. In other words, they were executed by someone they trusted. Though never charged, it’s widely believed that the powerful Falcone brothers were behind their deaths.
The Falcones were long time associates of Pietro Lima and his extended family, who had been running and distilling illicit alcohol in Utica since the start of Prohibition. Even after its repeal in 1933, the families continued to dodge taxes with their unlicensed stills. They were also part of a network of criminals that spanned the United States. Despite indictments for conspiracy in the early 1940s, the Falcones were not identified by federal investigators as Mafia bosses until their arrest at the famous 1957 gathering in Apalachin, New York.
The elder of the two murder victims, Pietro Lima, was born in 1869 or 1870 in Bagheria, a few miles from the city of Palermo. He immigrated around the turn of the century with his wife, Providenza Aiello, and their oldest child, Grace. They settled first in Brooklyn, where the rest of Pietro and Providenza’s children were born. By 1920, the family had moved, with several of their extended relations, to Utica, in Oneida County, New York, about 75 miles east of Lake Ontario. Across the water was Prince Edward Island, in Canada. It was a good location for transporting alcohol into the US during Prohibition, an activity Pietro was involved in with the husband of his niece, Rosario Gambino. The two were stopped together in 1924 in a car full of Canadian ale, but they were able to overturn their conviction the following year on the grounds the police did not have a search warrant.
In 1928, Pietro and Rosario were both prosperous business owners in Utica, and the fathers of large families. Rosario, formerly a longshoreman, owned a gas station. Pietro, a grocer, owned his home next door to his eldest daughter, Grace, and her husband. His son, Joseph, was most likely being groomed to take over the family business. He had been married for four years to Nellie Caputo, whom he’d vigorously courted in her family’s Brooklyn bake shop, and they had one child, a son.
Based on interviews the police conducted with family members, Nellie sparked the fateful argument that November by remarking on how Joseph had let “some Italian girl” wreck his car. The fight escalated and Nellie left the house with their son, going to the home of Rosario Gambino, a couple blocks away.
The Lima, Aiello, Gambino, and Falcone families, all of whom moved to Utica in the years leading up to Prohibition, were related by marriage, as well as through their criminal activities. All recent immigrants from Palermo and Bagheria, they also shared a connection in Brooklyn, having spent time there, upon their arrivals in the US, living in the same Cobble Hill neighborhood. A Falcone stood as godfather to Joseph Lima, in 1901 in Brooklyn, and the Caputo family bakery where Joseph wooed Nellie is still operated by the original owner’s descendants.
It’s not clear why Nellie went to the Gambino home after her argument with her husband. Perhaps she spent a lot of time with Angelina Gambino, making it a natural choice. She may have come to know the Gambinos well in Brooklyn and sought them out as old friends after her marriage brought her to Utica. But she could not have been ignorant of the power play she was about to make.
At around ten o’clock that night, Joseph Lima and his father, who’d both been drinking, decided it was time to bring Nellie back home. They got one of Joseph’s brothers, Charlie, and Grace’s husband, Lawrence, to go with them to the Gambino home to retrieve her. But Nellie refused to leave with them, and Rosario Gambino backed her up, increasing the stakes for the Lima men. He said she could stay the night if she wanted.
Eventually, Joseph and the other young men left, but Pietro Lima remained in his onetime partner’s driveway, drunk and yelling insults at the house. Close to midnight, Rosario came outside again with his eighteen year old son, Peter, and told Pietro to go home. Pietro refused. Rosario then told his son to move their car, and as Peter started to comply, he saw Lima reach for a gun. Peter leaped in front of his father to protect him. A gun fired, and Peter went down, hit in the chest.
More shots were fired—both Pietro and Rosario were armed with handguns—and the two men managed to seriously injure one another. Rosario was shot in the stomach, and Pietro was struck at least twice, in the leg and the scrotum.
Pietro’s sons and son-in-law returned to the scene, and Charlie and Lawrence took Rosario Gambino, who was evidently the most seriously injured, to the hospital in their car. Meanwhile Pietro and the young Peter Gambino limped off together to find a doctor for themselves. They made it a few blocks before the older man collapsed. His gun was dropped into a sewer, and later retrieved from its catch basin as evidence.
Police arrived at the Gambino home, and the women inside would not let them in, so officers broke in and began searching for evidence. They quickly found Rosario’s gun, hidden in a warming oven. Joseph Lima arrived and claimed to be there to visit his wife, who had been ill. He demanded to know what was going on.
On the street corner where Pietro Lima collapsed was a cafeteria from which an ambulance was called to take the two injured men to the same hospital as Rosario. All three men were operated upon. Peter Gambino had been struck in the collarbone, but was expected to survive.
By the following morning, Rosario was dead. He left a widow and ten children, the youngest under two. A collection was taken at the viewing, to pay for his burial. The following day Peter, still in the hospital, was finally informed of his father’s death. Nearby, Pietro Lima was recovering from his own injuries, and expecting to face manslaughter charges upon his release.
Following news of Rosario’s death, it was reported in the newspaper in Utica that Nellie’s relatives were coming from Brooklyn to take her home with them. Police found Pietro’s discarded gun, as well as those stashed in the Gambino home, and learned that Peter Gambino’s injury came not from Pietro Lima, but from the gun of his late father. A suit was filed by the dead man’s estate against Pietro Lima, to support the widow and children.
As bad as it seemed, immediately after the shooting, it appears that the families worked things out. The manslaughter case against Pietro would be hard to press without the cooperation of the Gambinos. Peter was the only witness to his father’s shooting. In the end, Pietro was charged only with having an unregistered gun, and even in this, his niece, whom he had widowed, pleaded with the judge for a lenient sentence. The practical reasons are clear: better that Pietro was free and earning to support both their families, than for him to be imprisoned. Pietro Lima pleaded guilty to the gun charge and got a suspended sentence and a fine, on the understanding he wouldn’t be prosecuted in Rosario Gambino’s death.
Six years later, when it was Pietro and Dominick who were killed, money and family ties once again kept the victims’ families silent. Four years after her husband’s murder, Paolina Aiello was discovered to possess a high volume, state of the art “super still” in her home. After massive arrests in an alcohol conspiracy netted the Falcone brothers, reporters came around to Mrs. Aiello’s little grocery, which she had run from the family’s garage since the early years of her marriage. She had nothing but good things to say about Mr. Falcone, whom she had known for twenty years and whose son, a lawyer, was married to Mrs. Aiello’s daughter. It was Mrs. Aiello whose real estate holdings financed Salvatore Falcone’s $20,000 bail.
What is the connection between the Stonewall riots and organized crime?
On Wednesday, 2 May at 7 pm, I’ll be delivering a presentation at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts. My subject is the little known history of the Mafia’s involvement in the LGBT community in New York City, and how this culminated in the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, in 1969, where a new and powerful wave of LGBT activism was unleashed. Northampton’s own Pride Parade, which happens this year on the Saturday after my talk, has its roots, like all similar pride events worldwide, in the Stonewall riots.
This lecture is suitable for teens and adults. (I mention, but do not discuss, charged subjects including prostitution, drug use, and violence.) Admission is free.
Last summer, Mayor Domenic Sarno proclaimed June 2017 Immigrant Heritage Month in Springfield, Massachusetts. To kick off the event, Sarno was quoted on the city’s Facebook page:
“I’m a first generation Italian/American. My parents, Alfonso and Clara Sarno are Italian immigrants, who as children survived underground in Italy during the Nazi occupation of World War II. My dad, a barber, and my mom, a seamstress, legally immigrated to Springfield and became American citizens. They opened their own businesses. They made sure to make myself, my sister Giovanna and brother Alfonso Jr. proud to be American, but they never let our family lose touch of our Italian roots and foundation of family – “a familia,” [sic] – faith, education, traditions and of course our food. I continue to instill these values in my own family with my wife Carla and daughters Cassandra and Chiara.”
Although Mayor Sarno calls himself a first generation Italian-slash-American, the truth is more complicated. The mayor’s paternal great-grandparents lived in West Springfield as early as 1906. While they lived here, their son, Domenico, was born.
They returned to Italy sometime before 1920, taking their young family with them.
That year, Prohibition began in the United States, as did a period of ascendance for American fascism. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put a quota on Italian and other non-WASP immigrants, greatly reducing their numbers. The war in Europe slowed Italian immigration to the US to a trickle.
In the decades after WWII’s end, many families from Italy immigrated and settled in Springfield, including a young Al Bruno. The Sarno family moved back to Springfield in 1948. Domenico Sarno, who was born here in 1910, returned with his wife and their children, all of whom were born in Italy and yet, American citizens through Domenico’s status. Their son, Alfonso Sarno, the popular barber shop owner and father of the mayor, was twelve years old.
Today, Mayor Sarno uses his office to harass and intimidate South Congregational Church and the families they shelter from federal immigration. Advocates for refugee families criticize Sarno as “publicly inhospitable” to new immigrants. The mayor plays the respectability card when immigration comes up, such as when Trump called Haiti and African countries “shithole countries,” and Sarno pointed out that Dr. Harry Dumay, the president of Elms College, in Chicopee, where his oldest daughter is a student, is a native of Haiti. Sarno is quoted saying “No one is against legal immigration aspects, especially those who have played by the rules.” But he criticizes the legal activities of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, a resettlement agency, describing them as “using” Springfield as a ‘designated resettlement site.’
Springfield may not be a proclaimed sanctuary city, but that doesn’t mean Mayor Sarno can’t make different choices, ones that are more honest and less wasteful. He could prevent local law enforcement resources being diverted to assist a federal agency, refrain from launching a targeted investigation into one church’s status, and tell his family’s whole immigration story, not a version that make his political points.
Sarno’s personal and political base is an immigrant community that maintains close ties to its ancestral home, language, religion, and culture. He has many relatives on both sides of his family who have made Springfield their home. Not everyone who has sought refuge on these shores—from poverty, conscription, corruption, and war, as many southern Italians have—has been as lucky. Mayor Domenic Sarno, the son of immigrants, had the good fortune to be born the grandson of a native-born American citizen.
The Mayor did not respond to my requests for an interview.
Benedetto Madonia was killed for defending his brother-in-law from Giuseppe Morello. While he is known forever as the victim of “the Barrel Murder,” the story of what happened after his death is rarely told.
Benedetto Salvatore Madonia was born in Lercara Friddi, as were his parents, his wife and her parents, and all three of his children. (Lercara is also the hometown of a more famous mafioso, Salvatore Lucania, known as Charlie “Lucky” Luciano.) Benedetto married for the first time in 1891, when he was thirty years old, to Lucia di Primo. Lucia was a widow and her marriage record calls her a “civile,” which indicates she was from the upper class.
Madonia, on the other hand, was a sulfur miner, the lowest class of workers, who worked in often brutal conditions. A word that is synonymous with the sulfur miners of Lercara Friddi is “caruso,” which literally translates as “boy,” because young boys were sold by their destitute families to the owners of these mines, nearly always for life.
Benedetto’s family situation was not so dire. In 1900, Madonia immigrated, joining a brother in New York City. Two years later, his wife and three children, plus two older children from Lucia’s first marriage, joined him in Buffalo, New York, more than 300 miles from Manhattan, on the coast of Lake Erie. The Madonia family told their doubtful neighbors that Benedetto was a stonemason. In fact, the recent immigrant was already a high ranking member of Giuseppe Morello’s counterfeiting gang.
Madonia’s brother-in-law was also in Morello’s gang. Lucia’s brother, Giuseppe di Primo, had been in New York since 1891. His position was as a “queer pusher,” the low ranking men in the counterfeiting organization who circulated Morello’s bad bills. Di Primo also owned a grocery store, and was married with four children.
When Morello’s queer pushers were arrested passing the gang’s money in Pittsburgh, Madonia was sent to intervene, leading him to argue with Morello over the leader’s apparent lack of concern for his men. When their pushers were arrested again, this time in Yonkers, Giuseppe di Primo was one of the men who went to prison. Although he didn’t talk, his associate, Isadore Crocevera, may have fallen for the detective’s ploy, and told Morello that Di Primo talked to the police. In this version of events, Morello killed Madonia to send a message to Di Primo. But Madonia and Morello had their own quarrel, which was now coming to a head.
Madonia sent money to New York City for his brother-in-law’s defense, but Morello pocketed the cash—a thousand dollars, a great sum in 1903—and did nothing for the imprisoned man. So the weekend of Easter, Benedetto Madonia left Buffalo and went to New York. He told Morello he was coming, and demanded the return of his money. Madonia must have felt quite confident to talk to Morello this way, and not to sense the danger that lie waiting for him in New York.
When he got to the city, Benedetto went first to Sing Sing, to see his wife’s brother, Giuseppe. The next time the imprisoned man saw his brother-in-law, it was in a photograph, brought by a detective, so Di Primo could identify the man whose body had been discovered in an old sugar barrel, on East Eleventh Street, in the East Village.
There was a trial. Madonia’s oldest stepchild, Salvatore Sagliabene, identified a pawned watch as his stepfather’s. The pawn ticket was found in the possession of Tommaso Petto, a criminal associate of Morello’s who was called “the Ox.” Twelve men were arrested, but none were convicted of Madonia’s murder. Di Primo, once the criminal accomplice of the defendants, swore he would avenge his brother-in-law’s death.
The Ox, whose real name was Luciano Perino, was the first to be killed. He’d gone into hiding in a mining town in Pennsylvania, and was shot to death in October 1906. The next month, Girolamo Mondini was lured to an East Harlem address with a letter, and shot in the street. A year later, at Christmas, another of the gangsters, Nicola Nera, was killed in Palermo. Vito Laduca, Morello’s most prominent lieutenant at the time of Madonia’s killing, met his end in Carini a few months later.
It’s not certain that Di Primo was in Sicily when Nera and Laduca were killed, though the timing of his children’s births—John in February 1906, in Pennsylvania, and Mary, in May 1908 in New York—allows for the possibility. Just four months after Mary’s birth, Giuseppe was deported. His parting words to the officers who put him on a ship back to Lercara, were a warning that if Petrosino or his men came to Italy, they would not return. The following March, New York police detective Joseph Petrosino was shot to death in Palermo.
The story of Di Primo’s revenge killings appears in an uncredited 1909 story called “‘Getting’ Them One By One,” published in newspapers across the country. According to this article, of eight men suspected of involvement in Madonia’s murder, six were killed, the last being Giuseppe Farano, in Brooklyn, in 1913. Two men survived Di Primo’s vengeance, Vito Loboido and Ignazio Lupo.
The problem with the story, aside from being unable to confirm any of these reported deaths in vital records, is that the names of those arrested and the shorter list Di Primo was “getting” only partially overlap. The Schuylerville Standard reported on 13 April 1903 that nine men were arrested in connection with Madonia’s murder:
Joseph Fanaro, 24 (b. 1879), married, merchant
Antonio Genova, 38 (b. 1865), single, importer, aka Messina Genova
Three days later, The New York World reported twelve men being arrested, splashing their photos across the front page, and adding Testa, Lalamia, and Vito Lodma to the list. David Critchley reports their full names in The Origin of Organized Crime in America. The Christmas victim who the author of “‘Getting’ Them One By One” calls Nicola Nera might be Nicola Testa. “One by One” mentions Vito Loboido, but not his relative, Lorenzo.
When I searched for coverage of Girolamo Mondini’s arrest, I found Thomas Hunt’s timeline which cites the same 1909 article I had found, but in a different newspaper. A similar account of Di Primo’s revenge killings also appears in a 1925 article in the Buffalo Courier.
Months before Madonia’s death in April 1903, Salvatore Clemente, a known Morello counterfeiter, told Secret Service that two of the arrestees, Domenico Pecoraro and Giuseppe Morello, were responsible for the murder of Giuseppe Catania, a Brooklyn grocer whose body was found the previous summer. Pecoraro, the oldest of the men, does not appear in the article about Di Primo’s revenge. Morello, Pecoraro, and a third man, Antonio Genova, are called leaders of the counterfeiting gang by New York papers.
After Madonia’s murder, his family remained in the Buffalo area. Peter Benjamin Madonia, the youngest child of the late Benedetto, worked as an electrician. In 1920, he lived in Buffalo with his older stepbrother, Salvatore Sagliabene, a dry goods dealer, and his wife and children. As for the man who reportedly carried out six murders to avenge his death, in the same year’s census, Madonia’s brother-in-law Giuseppe, called Joseph Di Primo, appears with his wife, Angelina, and five of their children in Niagara, New York, twenty miles from Buffalo. He works as a sweeper in a carbide factory.
See the Wikitree profiles of Benedetto Madonia and his family members and associates, at the above links, for vital records and other sources used in this story.
The drawings of Laduca and Di Primo were published with William J. Flynn’s report for the New York Herald on 30 June 1912: “Lupo the Wolf, Caged, Still Fights the Secret Service.”
Was the Sylvan guard’s murder falsely attributed to the father of detective Flynn’s private stenographer? Correspondence sheds new light on the murder of Giovanni Vella.
In a letter dated 7 February 1911, James V. Ortelero asks for a favor from the superintendent of the federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia: obtain a murder confession from Giuseppe Morello.
According to his letter, Ortolero holds a confidential position in the office of the second deputy commissioner of police, William J. Flynn. But he’s not asking for his boss: the murder for which Ortolero hopes to obtain Morello’s confession is not under American jurisdiction. Neither can the crime be prosecuted by the Italian government, since it has passed the statute of limitations. Ortolero’s request is of a more personal nature, a matter of honor.
Ortolero and Morello are both from Corleone, where a Sylvan guard, Giovanni Vella, was killed in December 1889. If Morello confessed, it could do the imprisoned counterfeiter no harm, but it would be an honorable deed, clearing the name of an innocent man whom Ortolero says was framed for the murder, and is now on his deathbed in prison. The wrongly accused man is Ortolero’s father, Don Francesco Ortoleva.
According to Ortolero, his father was a highly respected man of means who was running for the position of chief of the Sylvan guard, in opposition to Vella. Ortolero describes Vella in the most positive terms, as a brave enemy of the Mafia in Sicily. Despite his excellent qualities, the two men disagreed politically, and argued publicly on a number of occasions. When a more highly placed figure in the Mafia ordered Vella’s murder, Morello and an accomplice carried out the assassination. Through a combination of public corruption and circumstantial evidence, Ortolero claims his father was found guilty and sentenced to prison for the crime. In one letter, Ortolero offers the warden a cash reward for the confession. Although it will not free his dying father from prison, it will clear his name.
James Ortolero was born Vincenzo Ortoleva on 3 November 1880 in Corleone, Sicily. The Americanization of his given name follows a familiar pattern for Sicilian immigrants: “Chenzo,” as he was probably called back home, sounds something like “James” to the English speaker. The modification of his surname is probably not significant. It may have been a deliberate move to obscure his identity from his countrymen, but this seems unlikely to have been effective. He was surely known to Morello and his associates, not only because they came from the same small town and lived in New York City at the same time, but because their families moved in the same circles in Corleone, and most of all, because of his father’s circumstances.
The Ortoleva family were landowners, descended from the Sicilian nobility through Don Francesco. One of his twice-great grandfathers had been a baron, and Francesco’s father was once mayor of Corleone. On his mother’s side, James was closely related to an aristocracy of Mafia families. One of his first cousins, once removed, is Paolino Streva, with whom Giuseppe Morello rustled cattle in the late 1880s. At the time of his death, Vella was investigating precisely this sort of activity.
The Sylvan guard, which Francesco Ortoleva and Giovanni Vella vied to run, were typically on friendly terms with local organized bands of thieves like Streva and Morello, with whom guards negotiated on behalf of the large landowners for whom they worked. Paolino Streva, Francesco Ortoleva, and Giovanni Vella were all from the landowning class.
According to Mike Dash’s account in his book, The First Family, Paolino Streva put Don Francesco Ortoleva up for election against Vella. Ortoleva was, in Streva’s view, a more pleasant and malleable chief than the honest and probing guard, and unseating Vella was preferable to killing him. Francesco was married to Paolino’s cousin, Laura Streva. Through intermediaries, Paolino had friends suggest to his cousin’s husband that he run. The day Ortoleva announced his candidacy, Vella got drunk and went to his apartment, and told his new opponent who was behind his run. The next day, Ortoleva withdrew from the election. That was when Streva told Morello to kill Vella.
James was just nine years old when his father’s political opponent was shot in the street on his way home from work. Morello fled the country three years later, in 1892, and moved to the American South with his family the following year. It’s not known when James Ortolero immigrated, or who may have joined him. James’ brother, Giuseppe, and sister, Emilia, both married in New York City, in 1903 and 1905, respectively. James married a woman from New Jersey, the former Eliza Mary Wright, in 1909.
In 1897, William J. Flynn, newly married, and until recently a plumber in Manhattan, embarked upon his government career. His first position was as an agent in the Secret Service. It was through the investigative work of Flynn and his operatives, working in collaboration with New York police detective Joe Petrosino, that Giuseppe Morello and his associates were charged with counterfeiting in New York in 1910. It is widely believed, and was the conviction of Flynn, that Morello was behind the assassination of Petrosino in Sicily in 1909.
Mike Dash’s account of James’ involvement in the United States begins in the summer of 1910, when he says that James went to New York with the hopes of convincing Flynn to help get his mother into the penitentiary in Atlanta, to visit Morello. Laura Streva hoped to extract Morello’s confession, herself, but Flynn suggested that he was not likely to confess to another crime while engaged in an appeal. According to Dash, Flynn liked the young man and offered him a job as his private secretary.
The warden in Atlanta, William H. Moyer, and James Ortolero exchanged several letters early in 1911. By degrees, the secret stenographer—his very position with Flynn was considered sensitive information—revealed his personal stake in Morello’s confession. In his letters, he never mentions any retaliatory murders of witnesses, following Vella’s shooting, though he claims that two women were “terrorized” into silence. Flynn, who would write about these events in his book, The Barrel Mystery, attributes as many as four more murder victims to Morello: Anna di Puma is named as a witness and subsequent victim in multiple accounts; Pietro Milone is identified by Mike Dash as another guard and “honest,” like Vella; and Michele Guarino Zangara is said to have been thrown from a bridge to his death after overhearing a conversation between Bernardo Terranova and his mother. No death records for any of these three, or for any other murders following Vella’s, appear in the Church records for Corleone, in the years between Vella’s murder and the debut of Flynn’s book in 1919.
Through the late winter and early spring of 1911, Ortolero followed up with the warden at intervals, eager for a report on Moyer’s efforts, but the warden’s replies amounted to excuses: in February there was no one he trusted to do the job, and then in March, he told Ortolero there was no qualified Italian interpreter available. In April, the stenographer wrote again to share what he had recently learned from a Secret Service agent (most likely Flynn): that Morello would confess as soon as he heard the result of his pending appeal. Their correspondence ends with a note from the warden’s secretary, acknowledging receipt of Ortolero’s last letter.
Dash tells us that Francesco Ortoleva, having served 21 years of a life sentence, was released from prison late in 1913, though it’s not clear how or why. Francesco appears in a ship manifest early in 1914, where it’s noted that he suffered from senility. He was 65. Don Francesco spent his remaining years in the United States with his family.
Morello’s appeal was denied. He remained in prison until 1920. Following his release, he spent some time in Italy to avoid a hit from a rival in New York. He returned to the city and enjoyed some prosperity during Prohibition, though he never rose to his former heights. He was killed in 1930. There is no evidence he ever confessed to Vella’s murder.
Feature image: William J. Flynn (1867 – 1928), the director of the Bureau of Investigation, by Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1909. Public Domain.
Critchley, David. The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. 2008: Routledge.
Dash, Mike. The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. 2011: Simon and Schuster.
Flynn, William James. The Barrel Mystery. 1919: James A. McCann Company.
Thomas Hunt has generously shared with me documents obtained from NARA including the following original correspondence between James V. Ortolero and William M. Moyer, the Warden of the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, GA:
Ortolero, James V. Letter to Superintendent of the Federal Prison in Atlanta GA. 7 February 1911.
—–. Letter to William M. Moyer. “In re Guiseppe Morello, Register #2882.” 15 February 1911.
—–. Letter to William H. Moyer, Esq., Warden, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Ga. Dated 23 March 1911, stamped received 25 March 1911.
—–. Letter to William H. Moyer. 17 April 1911.
Warden, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta. Letter to James V. Ortelero. “In re Guiseppe Morello, Register #2882.” 9 February 1911.
—–. Letter to James V. Ortelero. “Desired confession of Guiseppe Morello, #2882.” 18 February 1911.
—–. Letter to James V. Ortelero. “Confession from Morello, register #2882.” 25 March 1911.
—–. Letter to James V. Ortelero. “In re Guiseppe Morello, register #2882.” 19 April 1911.