The first Mafia gang in Sicily

The first Mafia gang in Sicily

A cattle rustling gang from Corleone were the first documented members of the Sicilian Mafia in history.

The 1830s were hard times in Sicily. Feudalism ended a generation before, and the common lands on which peasants once scraped out an existence were closed to them. Competition from Russia and the United States in the international wheat market, combined with legal “reforms” in Sicily, made life very difficult for the poorest peasants. In this charged atmosphere, the first Mafia gangs appeared in western Sicily.

Typically, armed gangs in the countryside of western Sicily organized around kinship ties and personalities. Mainly young and unmarried men came together to operate in the summer and dispersed to their homes in the winter. Successful bandits had client-patron relationships with mafiosi, who bought their stolen goods (or protected their broker) and provided some protection from police. Bands without such relations were quickly destroyed. Even those with Mafia connections did not typically survive beyond the youth of their founders, distinguishing gangs from more durable social organizations.

In January 1834, members of the armed gang led by the Palumbo brothers of Corleone were actively pursued by police, but were welcomed into their parents’ homes and even counted in the Church census. Although most of its members were killed by police, the escape of its leaders is remembered in popular legend. 

Two pairs of brothers whose families were bound through compareggio formed the nucleus of the gang. Bernardo Palumbo and his younger brother, Antonino, were the gang’s leaders. Antonino Palumbo’s godparents were the parents of Biagio and Paolo Jannazzo, who were in the Palumbo brothers’ gang. Active from 1832 until their destruction in 1836, there were as many as eighteen members, fifteen of whom are known from vital records. They were young peasant men between the ages of twenty-two and thirty, most of them from Corleone. 

Most notable in Mafia history, this Corleone-based gang was documented in the years just preceding the first record of Luca Patti’s cattle rustling ring, covering the same territory in the interior of the province of Palermo. Many consider Patti the first instance of a Sicilian mafioso in recorded history, but his ring appears to have had a predecessor, or possibly competition, in the Palumbo brothers’ gang. 

When I first wrote about the gang in 2016 I called them the Rapanzino gang, after another leading member: Giuseppe Castro. The nickname refers to abduction, a common category of Mafia crime. Castro was often named in combination with Nicolò Ciavarello, who was called “Puntillo,” a name which means “stubbornness.” 

The other members were:

Salvatore Blanda, from Prizzi

Calogero Caponetto, from San Giuseppe Jato

Luciano Catania

Antonino Leone

Leoluca Mondello

Filippo Pecorella

Giuseppe Petralia, from Palazzo Adriano

Giuseppe Piazza, aka Francesco Piazza, aka Baglione

and Salvatore Pomara, aka Reina

The gang rose to police attention in 1833. Despite being officially wanted men, several members were reported to be living with their parents and siblings in the Church’s census of households in Corleone, taken early in 1834. Appearing in the same census is Don Pietro lo Cascio, one of two police captains leading the pursuit. 

Sometime in 1834 or 1835, three members of the gang escaped from the jail in Corleone with two other prisoners, one of them a cousin of one of the escaping gangsters. Three more members, including the Palumbo brothers, were reportedly guillotined in Palermo in December 1835. It’s rumored that the brothers and possibly “Baglione” Piazza, the third brought to Palermo, escaped justice. The same month, thirteen members escaped from prison in Palermo and got the gang back together. In March, bounties were set on them all. They were picked off by police, killed and arrested, through mid-July. 

Although the gang was almost entirely exterminated by police, the descendants of their closest family members include an impressive roster of mafiosi. Along with Giuseppe Morello’s stepfather Bernardo Terranova and Michelangelo Gennaro, 1920s boss of Corleone’s Mafia, the Fratuzzi, are Morello counterfeiters Pasquale and Leoluca Vasi, New Orleans connector Serafino Saltaformaggio (father-in-law of Lucia Terranova), and the current boss of the Genovese Family: Barney Bellomo.


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What happened to Frank Borgia?

What happened to Frank Borgia?

Los Angeles sugar man Frank Borgia died as he lived.

Borgia was a tough subject for Mafia Genealogy, considering he has no death certificate, and I couldn’t find a record of his birth. My interest is in the relationships among mafiosi, which often explain why they do what they do. Joe Ardizzone (1881-1931) and Frank Borgia (c. 1893-1951), both active in Jack Dragna’s (1891-1956) Los Angeles Mafia, were said to be cousins with roots in Piana dei Greci. Frank Borgia claimed to have been born in Gela (today, called Terranova). His parents, known from Frank’s marriage and migration records, were from Piana dei Greci (today, Piana degli Albanesi).

Los Angeles gangsters Frank Borgia and Joe Ardizzone are first cousins, once removed.

There is no death record for Borgia because he disappeared: what they call a “lupara bianca” in Sicily. By most accounts, Mafia associate and vineyardist Frank Borgia was last seen early in December 1951. Judith Moore says it happened six months later, after a wedding the following June. I found one fleck of shaky evidence, written long after the fact, which said Borgia came home to his wife a few days after he was reported missing in December (Blackstock, 2015). Based on this, it looked as though he went missing, came home, and then disappeared for good. However, his return was falsely reported in contemporary sources, and later ruled out by police. I emailed Joe Blackstock about his 2015 reporting and he graciously responded:

“Unfortunately, shortly after that column was published I learned that the information about the reappearance of Borgia was incorrect. A hint that he had returned was later concluded by police to be false information.” (Personal communication, 18 April 2022.)

The marriage of Frank Borgia and Pauline Enna. The license (top portion) is witnessed by Jack Dragna and Frances Rizzotto.

Joe Ardizzone and Frank Borgia are first cousins, once removed. It was likely Joe’s brother, Stefano, who Frank Borgia called his uncle and destination contact when he emigrated in 1914 (Manifest of the Caserta). Borgia and Jack Dragna were also very close, though they were of no relation. In 1922, Frank Borgia and Jack Dragna married a week apart. Jack and his future wife were the witnesses at Frank’s marriage to Pauline Enna (Marriage of Frank Borgia and Pauline Enna, 1922).

Frank Baumgarteker, wife Mary, and son Herbert, in a 1924 passport application.

In November 1929, wealthy Austrian-born vineyardist and trucking contractor Frank Baumgarteker (1886-1929) disappeared (Frank Baumgarteker passport application, 1924; Missing man in purple car, 1929; Baumgarteker’s wife asks grand jury, 1930). He was a close friend of Frank Borgia’s; both owned property in Cucamonga. (Upland, Ontario, and Rancho Cucamonga are all within three miles of one another.) Police believed Baumgarteker was “taken for a ride” and buried in the desert. His body was never found. Borgia and Ardizzone were suspected in the wealthy man’s disappearance.

Map showing locations of Sunland (where Joe Ardizzone once lived), Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, an hour from Sunland; the Mojave Desert, and at the bottom of the screen, San Diego and Tijuana. (c) OpenStreetMaps contributors.

Bootlegger Tony Buccola (c. 1888-1930) made enemies among his Italian colleagues, who ran him out of town for years. When they let him return to Los Angeles, out of sympathy for his sick mother, Frank Borgia made a show of forgiving Buccola, befriending him, and giving him a job. Tony’s brother George said that Borgia, Ardizzone, and Dragna, the same men who had run him out of town, had taken Tony out just a few nights before he disappeared, in May 1930. George blamed the three powerful mafiosi for his brother’s disappearance (Moore, 1997).

The year after Buccola went missing, Joe Ardizzone survived two attempts on his life, one of them in a hospital, then vanished in October. He’d been on his way to Joe Cuccia’s ranch to pick up his cousin, Nick Borgia, who’d just come from Italy and was staying at Cuccia’s. This time, Jack Dragna and Frank Borgia were suspected in the Iron Man’s disappearance. Joe’s brother Frank Ardizzone told one investigating officer, “Don’t bother looking for any enemies. It’ll be one of his friends that did it” (L.A. cellar searched for bones of Ontario vintner, 1949).

“Don’t bother looking for any enemies. It’ll be one of his friends that did it.” —Frank Ardizzone

Borgia managed a wholesale grocery for George Niotta (1889-1955). According to Dragna and Niotta descendant J. Michael Niotta, Borgia tricked Big George, who could not read or write, into signing over the grocery to him. Serendipitously for Niotta, this resulted in Borgia being the only one indicted for bootlegging, despite both being involved.

Through his wholesale business, Borgia was a “sugar man,” supplying brewing ingredients to moonshiners during Prohibition: the crime for which he was arrested in December 1931 (Frank Borgia posts bond for rum trial, 1931; Niotta, 2017, p. 54). By the time he was convicted and went to prison in 1935, Prohibition was over. He served not quite two years and was released in November 1937 (Washington, McNeil Island prison records).

After prison, Frank Borgia worked in manufacturing, bought property, and became wealthy and influential. He was once again a big rancher, and now also an industry representative and business community leader (OPA drops wine grape ceilings, 1944; CC directors elected at meet, 1951).

In March 1951 the Kefauver hearings were televised. Late that year, Frank sold his winery in Cucamonga for $125,000 (Dragna pal, 1951). According to his wife, it was some grape acreage that he sold (Long-missing, 1951). Either way, this windfall prompted an extortion attempt, planned by Jack Dragna and executed through a secret partner, Gaspare Matranga (1898-1971), a San Diego mafioso from Piana dei Greci (Gaspare Matranga 73 dies, 1971). (There is a thicket of relationships among US Mafia families from Piana dei Greci.) Borgia complained strenuously to Dragna about Matranga’s demands for $25,000 from the sale of his vineyard (Valin, n.d.; May, 2009).

Several sources report that his Cadillac was found abandoned in Tijuana, an hour’s drive south of San Diego (Dragna pal, 1951; Niotta, 2017, p. 61). The car was reported to San Diego police by Tijuana authorities on 14 December, and the SDP notified Mrs. Borgia, who arranged for the car to be recovered (Missing vintner, 1951).

Judith Moore wrote about Borgia’s end in the San Diego Reader and a book about San Diego Mafia boss Frank Bompensiero, titled A Bad, Bad Boy. According to Moore, Borgia went to the wedding of a family friend’s daughter in San Diego, driving himself in his black Buick Roadmaster (Moore, 1999). (The 1950 Cadillac coupe de ville and 1950 Buick Roadmaster are similar in appearance.) He checked into a room in the U.S. Grant and drove to the wedding venue, St. Joseph’s Cathedral. There are photos of the guests throwing rice and smiling, the author tells us, and Borgia identifiable among them (Moore, 1999). She doesn’t reproduce the photograph or tell us what other evidence she has besides Demaris’ book.

In her account, after the wedding he went back to his hotel and parked in the hotel garage. Early that evening in June 1952, Tony Mirabile, who was Frank Borgia’s best friend, picked him up from his hotel and took him to Joe Adamo’s house. There, Frank Bompensiero and Jimmy Fratianno were waiting with a rope with which they strangled Borgia to death. His body was never found. His car was retrieved from the parking garage when a hotel employee notified the San Diego police (Moore, 1999).

Moore’s story comes partly from Ovid Demaris’ novel, The Last Mafioso, which was written using interviews of Jimmy Fratianno, some 25 years after the events described. The murder in Joseph Adamo’s house, and the shakedown by Dragna and Matranga, both appear in Allan May’s account. He dates the plans to murder Borgia vaguely to the early 1950s, and doesn’t mention the wedding (May, 2009). Sifakis (2006) confirms the extortion and involvement of Dragna, Matranga, Bompensiero, and Fratianno.

In newspaper coverage of Frank Borgia’s disappearance, and mentions of it in news of his estate, it’s consistently reported that Frank Borgia left home on the second of December 1951 and had not been seen since (Missing vintner not in Hanford, 1951; Trustee is asked, 1952; Moonshine king’s widow, 1952). 

Pauline Borgia, Frank’s wife, was evidently used to her husband’s long absences, assumed he’d left home on a business trip, and further assumed he’d gone to Hanford, north of Bakersfield, when she received checks he’d written from their bank. (For those unfamiliar with 20th Century banking practices, a paper check with the bearer’s signature on the reverse was presented to the bank for funds, and following the exchange, the endorsed check was returned to the writer by mail.) The checks, it was later discovered, had been left by Borgia on an earlier trip in anticipation of buying some grapes (Missing vintner, 1951). 

Whether she feigned ignorance or practiced it regularly in her marriage, Pauline was not much help in determining her husband’s whereabouts. The most reliable testimony is the one given by Jimmy Fratianno. He is the only witness who has spoken about the murder. 

There might be some truth in Moore’s version, but she offers no evidence of it in her book. The details she provides beyond what Demaris published are unprovable (who is the friend’s daughter who married?) or contradicted by a preponderance of evidence (the type of car Borgia drove and where it was recovered, the month and year he disappeared). The author has passed away, so we cannot ask her. In April I emailed the Wylie Agency, which represents the late author’s estate, hoping to access notes on her investigation into Frank Borgia’s disappearance, but I’ve had no response. 

What we know about Frank Borgia is that he evidently died as he lived: betrayed by his friends, and then gone without a trace. 

Sources

Baumgarteker’s wife asks grand jury inquiry of disappearance of mate; asserts police inactive. (1930, April 27). The Sun (San Bernardino, CA). Vol. 66 No. 58. P. 7. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19300427.1.7&srpos=18&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Baumgarteker——-1

Blackstock, J. (2015, June 1). Vintner’s disappearance still a mystery despite plenty of ‘clews.’ Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. https://www.dailybulletin.com/2015/06/01/vintners-disappearance-still-a-mystery-despite-plenty-of-clews/ 

CC directors elected at meet. (1951, November 15). The Cucamonga Times (Cucamonga, CA). P. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/747935010/ 

Dragna pal, long missing, feared slain. (1951, December 26). Daily News (Los Angeles, CA). P. 8. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DNLA19511226.1.8&srpos=18&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Borgia——-1 

Frank Baumgarteker passport application. (1924). “United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99DQ-KRV?cc=2185145&wc=3XC5-82Q%3A1056306501%2C1056394301 : 22 December 2014), (M1490) Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925 > Roll 2459, 1924 Apr, certificate no 386850-387349 > image 696 of 761; citing NARA microfilm publications M1490 and M1372 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.)

Frank Borgia posts bond for rum trial. (1931, December 25). San Pedro News Pilot. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SPNP19311225.2.66&srpos=3&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Borgia——-1 

Gaspare Matranga, 73, dies; Mafia tie recalled. (1971, July 6). The Sun (San Bernardino, CA). P. C-3. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19710706.1.21&srpos=1&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Gaspare+Matranga——-1 

Long-missing Cucamonga man’s friend vanishes. (1951, December 27). The Sun (San Bernardino, CA). P. 16. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19511227.1.16&srpos=8&e=——195-en–20-SBS-1–txt-txIN-Borgia——-1 

Manifest of the Caserta. (1914, December 5). Line 12. https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger-details/czoxMjoiMTAwNTM4MDMwMTA5Ijs=/czo4OiJtYW5pZmVzdCI7

Marriage of Frank Borgia and Pauline Enna. (1922, April 23). “California, County Marriages, 1850-1952,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K8F1-LYX : 9 March 2021); citing Los Angeles, California, United States, county courthouses, California; FHL microfilm 2,074,277.

May, Allan. (2009, October 14). Frank Bompensiero San Diego hit man, boss, and FBI informant. http://www.crimemagazine.com/frank-bompensiero-san-diego-hit-man-boss-and-fbi-informant 

Missing man in purple car. (1929, November 29). San Pedro News Pilot. Vol. 2. No. 230. P. 7. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SPNP19291129.2.79&srpos=11&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Baumgarteker——-1

Missing vintner not in Hanford. (1951, December 28). San Bernardino Sun. P. 1. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19511228.1.1&srpos=3&e=——195-en–20-SBS-1–txt-txIN-Borgia——-1

Moonshine king’s widow named estate trustee. (1952, August 29). Daily News (Los Angeles, CA). P. 41. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DNLA19520829.1.41&srpos=4&e=——195-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Borgia—-1952—1 

Moore, J. (1997, January 9). San Diego mafia in the 1950s used slayings to enforce rules. San Diego Reader. https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1997/jan/09/cover-honest-to-god-crooks-with-blood-on-their-han/

Moore, J. (1999, February 11). How Frank Bompensiero met his fate in Pacific Beach. San Diego Reader. Retrieved from https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1999/feb/11/concert-shot-dark/ 

Moore, J. (2009). A bad, bad boy. Reader Books.

Niotta, J. M. (2017). The Los Angeles sugar ring: Inside the world of old money, bootleggers, & gambling barons. The History Press.

OPA drops wine grape ceilings. (1944, July 22). San Pedro News Pilot. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SPNP19440722.2.70&srpos=11&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Borgia——-1 

Sifakis, C. (2006). The mafia encyclopedia. Infobase Publishing. P. 211.

Trustee is asked for Frank Borgia’s $500,000 estate. (1952, August 8). Daily News (Los Angeles, CA). P. 15. Retrieved from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DNLA19520808.1.15&srpos=5&e=——195-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Borgia—-1952—1 

Valin, E. (n.d.) Salvatore Piscopo. The man who betrayed Johnny Roselli. The American Mafia. Retrieved from https://mafiahistory.us/rattrap/salvatorepiscopo.html 

Washington, U.S., U.S. Penitentiary McNeil Island, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1887-1939 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008.

Want to know more about how I find records and histories that illuminate the lives of Mafia members and their associates? I break down the search for Frank Borgia’s records for my biggest fans in a post on Patreon.

How did Lucia Terranova’s first Mafia marriage end?

How did Lucia Terranova’s first Mafia marriage end?

For years, I assumed Lucia Terranova’s first marriage ended with her husband’s murder in 1903.

Lucia Terranova is the oldest of the Terranova children, the half-sister of New York City boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello. She was born in Corleone in 1876. At sixteen, she emigrated with her parents and younger siblings to New York City. 

The financial panic of 1893 put the family in dire straits. Unable to find work, Giuseppe scouted in Louisiana among their extended kin and associates from Corleone. On this trip, he likely brokered Lucia’s marriage to a young man from a Mafia family, Antonino Saltaformaggio. Lucia married him shortly after turning eighteen.

For years, I assumed Lucia Terranova’s first marriage ended with her husband’s murder in 1903. Then I saw this census record.

The 1900 census, taken in June, shows Lucia living with her parents and unmarried siblings in New York City, and working as a cigar maker. FamilySearch has them indexed as the “Tresanobe” family, and Lucia as “Lizzie” — but Warner, Santino, and Van ‘t Riet found them, and gave the sheet number in their 2014 article in Informer (p. 45). This is definitely Lucia Terranova’s family.

This document is a considerable update on her life. Lucia Terranova married Saltaformaggio in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on 3 February 1894, Mike Dash wrote in his book, The First Family, citing private information from the family (2009, pp. 113-114). Cynthia, a descendant of Santo Calamia and Teresa Saltaformaggio wrote on an Ancestry message board in 2001, looking for members of Lucia’s family. She gave the same date and place of the marriage, at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, and adds they had one child named Serafino, who was known as “Joe Fino.” (Warner et al cite this message board post in their article as evidence of Lucia’s first marriage.) Teresa is Antonino Saltaformaggio’s sister. 

Santo Calamia was a gangster in New Orleans and an associate of Giuseppe Morello’s. Santo and Teresa, called “Tessie,” married in 1901. He led a bloody assault on the Luciano brothers in their grocery/saloon in the summer of 1902 on behalf of the mafioso Francesco Genova. While Calamia was in jail awaiting trial, his brother-in-law Antonino Saltaformaggio was a frequent visitor. (Calamia, in turn, visited Morello when he was imprisoned in Atlanta.)

I conversed by email with Cynthia and her brother, Ken, in 2019. They said Joe Fino was born around 1900, that Lucia’s second family with Vincenzo Salemi had no idea she’d been married once before, and that a Salemi granddaughter they’d spoken with thought Lucia might have had a daughter named Jennie while the family was living in Texas.

The document Ken sent as evidence of Joe Fino’s existence is a Social Security application for Joe Feno, born on the first day of 1901 in New Orleans to Tony Feno and “Rose Bazline,” which is not “Lucia Terranova,” even if you squint. Joe died in 1980. I haven’t been able to find him in census records from his childhood under either name, Serafino Saltaformaggio or Joseph Fino (or “Feno”) so I don’t know who raised him. When he registered for the draft for the first World War, he named Vincent Balznie, who might be related to Rose. Searches for either of them have not turned up any results so far.

Lucia appears in the census as a single woman with no children, living with her parents and siblings. She and her sister, Salvatrice, worked as cigar makers. If the reportage that Antonino left a wife and infant son in Louisiana at his death in April 1903 is correct, Lucia returned to her husband sometime after the census and they had a child. Based on Joe Feno’s self-report, he was born either two months after the census was taken, or six. (His draft card and Social Security application do not give the same date of birth.) If Joe was two or three years old, he might still have been called an infant in the newspaper.

If the documents point to the right age for Lucia’s son, she was pregnant when the census was taken. I can imagine her returning to her family (despite the long journey) to give birth to her first child. She was a young woman with no close, female blood relations in Louisiana. But would she have gone to her family and then worked in a factory while pregnant? This seems unlikely. Joe Feno’s draft card doesn’t specify a place of birth, but his Social Security application says he was born in New Orleans.

Before seeing the 1900 census, I’d assumed Lucia rejoined her family after her husband’s death, and left her son with the Saltaformaggios in New Orleans. I suppose she might have left and rejoined her husband, or been erroneously reported in the 1900 census, but neither seems as likely as that she left him in Louisiana sometime between their marriage in February 1894 and the 1900 census in June. 

Within a year after her marriage, Lucia’s parents and siblings moved on to Bryan, Texas, where they fell ill with malaria. They moved back to New York early in 1897. It seems probable that of all the times Lucia might have rejoined her family, it would be on their way out of the South. As for the rumor that she had a daughter named Jennie while living in Texas, this doesn’t match up with the fact that she was married to Antonino Saltaformaggio at the time. By the traditions of both their families, a daughter should have been named Caterina, after Antonino’s mother. If the child’s father didn’t claim her, she would have been named after Lucia’s mother. I’ve seen Jennie as a nickname for Giovanna and even for Vincenza, but not for Angelina.

We don’t know for sure, but it’s been theorized that Saltaformaggio was killed in retaliation for Santo Calamia’s attack on the Luciano brothers. Coincidentally, Saltaformaggio was killed the same month as Benedetto Madonia, the “Barrel Murder” victim of Morello’s counterfeiting gang, in New York City. If Saltaformaggio was having marital problems with the sister of the most powerful mafioso in the entire United States, that could have shortened his life, too.

As for Joe Feno, what if Antonino Saltaformaggio was his father, and “Rose Bazline” was a woman he lived with in the years after Lucia left him: the unnamed wife from the newspapers? The scenarios in which Lucia leaves Antonino and then returns seem less probable than one in which she remains with her family in New York. 

The man she would marry next, Vincenzo Salemi, was a member of her brothers’ gang. Dash’s account of the double in-law marriage between the Morello-Terranova and Salemi families differs from the story the records tell. Giuseppe Morello, a widower since 1898, had a child out of wedlock in 1901. This prompted his mother to search for an appropriate wife for him. Dash says Marietta, Giuseppe’s sister, was dispatched to Corleone to bring back the Salemi sister Giuseppe had chosen from a couple of photos. With them came Vincenzo, their brother.

According to a 1910 emigration record, Vincenzo Salemi first arrived in New York City in 1901. I haven’t yet found a record for Vincenzo’s arrival before his marriage in New York. Five months after her husband’s murder, Lucia Terranova appears on the Sardegna, coming back from Sicily with her older half-sister Marietta, Marietta’s young daughter, and both Salemi sisters. The Salemis say they’re joining their cousin Sebastiano Di Palermo, a known Morello gangster, at the same address where the Terranova family lives. Vincenzo is not on this voyage. And Sebastiano Di Palermo is not a cousin of the Salemi sisters.

It would seem that Giuseppe did not pre-select his bride, since both sisters made the voyage. Nicolena’s older sister, Francesca, returned to Corleone and married in 1905.

Lucia and Vincenzo married right after Christmas in 1903, the same month in which Nicolena married Giuseppe. Lucia and Vincenzo’s marriage record indicates this was a first marriage for them both. They had six children together before Vincenzo was killed in a gang war in 1923.

Sources

Babin II, D. (2015, April 28). Bumped off on the bayou: the macaroni wars. Retrieved 2 February 2019 from https://louisianamafia.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/bumped-off-on-the-bayou-the-macaroni-wars/  

Critchley, D. (2009). The origin of organized crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge.

Dash, M. (2009). The first family: Terror, extortion, revenge, murder, and the birth of the American Mafia. Random House.

Manifest of the Konigin Luise. (1910, October 22). “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C9T3-YGKT?cc=1368704&wc=4XBX-3J7%3A1600412417 : 26 January 2018), Roll 1588, vol 3499-3501, 3 Nov 1910 > image 788 of 1303; citing NARA microfilm publication T715 and M237 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Manifest of the Sardegna. (1903, September 23). “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G16T-KLP?cc=1368704&wc=4FMB-7NB%3A1600272377 : 26 January 2018), Roll 396, vol 718-719, 22 Sep 1903-23 Sep 1903 > image 578 of 683; citing NARA microfilm publication T715 and M237 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Marriage of Vincenzo Salemi and Lucia Terranova. (1904). Certificate no. 249. NYC DORIS website. Retrieved 29 March 2022 from https://a860-historicalvitalrecords.nyc.gov/view/4571088  

The Murdered Italian Found at Whitecastle. (1903, May 7). Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA).

Terranova household. (1900, June 12). Lines 52-59. “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-6S7W-S88?cc=1325221&wc=9B7R-HZG%3A1030551901%2C1035804001%2C1036212201 : 5 August 2014), New York > New York County > ED 907 Borough of Manhattan, Election District 21 New York City Ward 32 > image 56 of 92; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Warner, R., Santino, A., and Van ‘t Riet, L. (2014, May). The early New York mafia: an alternative theory. Informer Journal. Pp. 4+. 

Did the Mafia begin with the Sicilian Vespers?

Did the Mafia begin with the Sicilian Vespers?

A commonly told origin myth of the Sicilian Mafia would make the secret, criminal organization over 700 years old. But is it true?

By the oldest claims, the Mafia is more than seven hundred years old, dating back to Norman rule and the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, or even earlier, to the Emirate of Sicily, in the 9th Century. 

What was the Sicilian Vespers?

In 1266, the younger brother of France’s King Louis IX, Charles I of Anjou, took Sicily from the Swabian dynasty. The new Angevin king increased taxes on Sicilian subjects, and this coupled with abuse by French soldiers, sparked a peasant revolt called the Sicilian Vespers. Anyone who looked or sounded French was killed by the Sicilians.

The result of the Sicilian Vespers was not self-rule, but the division of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After Charles was ousted from the island of Sicily, he retained the mainland Kingdom of Sicily while Peter III of Aragón was crowned King of Sicily beyond the Lighthouse, or the Kingdom of Trinacria, by the island’s barons. The Aragonese dynasty held Sicily for the next four hundred years. 

Beginning with Peter III, Sicily was ruled from Palermo by the Sicilian branch of the Aragonese dynasty, with a strong parliament in which the Sicilian language was spoken. A period of relative independence, in the 14th century, forged a Sicilian national identity, distinct from their ethnic heritage, or the lands from which their rulers came.

This golden age for the island of Sicily is the time that Mafia propaganda reaches back to for nostalgia. They try to take credit for forcing out a foreign monarch, and the “good old days” when the king ruled from Palermo, and Sicilian was spoken with pride. The Mafia’s version of history glosses over the next five hundred years, in which Spanish kings held Sicily and ruled its people into misery with neglect and taxation. 

Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the successful revolution against the Bourbons

The Mafia has attached itself, when convenient, to independence movements for Sicily. Its power was decisive in the revolutionary movement which united Italy, for the first time ever, in 1860, after several failed attempts. But it followed this coup by supporting a Sicilian independence movement, briefly, before settling into a cozy arrangement with the Christian Democratic party. The Mafia’s wild political swings betray its true purpose: to bring about circumstances from which Mafia bosses could materially benefit.

A timeline of Sicilian foreign rule

The time frame during which the Vespers origins camp requires belief in a Mafia—with no evidence to support its existence—is truly vast. “Proof” in the form of 19th Century mafiosi who claim the Mafia’s origins were in the Sicilian Vespers is not a primary form of evidence, coming as it does 600 years after the fact, but only tells us how old the legend is. 

Most theories of Mafia formation cluster in the early-to-mid-1800s. If you had to pick a year when the Mafia began, it might be 1838: the year Luca Patti, son of Giuseppe, a gabellotto from Corleone, was said to be leading a cattle-rustling ring which stretched to Messoiuso and Termini Imerese (Hess, 1973/1998, p. 98; Dash, 2009, p. 83).

In discussing Mafia origins, the question of “when” might be resolved with a mean or average of proposed start dates. For other aspects of Mafia formation—who, how, with what resources, and why—a longer, qualitative discussion is in order. To continue exploring an array of theories on how the Mafia began in Sicily, follow this link to the Mafia Genealogy blog at Patreon. Associates who support Mafia Genealogy have access to this and other exclusive content.

Introduction to my work on Patreon

Sources

Dash, M. (2009). The first family: Terror, extortion, revenge, murder, and the birth of the American Mafia. Random House.

Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. (E. Osers, Trans.). London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. (Original work published 1973)

Title image:  I vespri siciliani, by Michele Rapisardi

The destruction of Antonino Luciano

The destruction of Antonino Luciano

The Mafia came for Luciano and he fought back.

They turned the store into a fortress, drilling holes to allow shooters to defend the entrance from the second floor, and stashing guns behind a sofa in the card games annex. Although they had a saloon and had started keeping later hours, the brothers began closing at 9 PM (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). Vincenzo Vutera parked himself there a few days before the shootout, and remained a guest of the Lucianos until he was carried out by the coroner’s office.

Read Parts I, II, and III in this four-part series on the Macaroni Wars:

New Orleans, 1905: Who is Sam Sparo?

The 800-pound gangster

Francesco Motisi, alias Genova

The Macaroni Wars, in most tellings, covers primarily the 11 June 1902 shootout in the Luciano brothers’ store. The larger story of the conflict begins with Francesco Genova’s arrival, around 1900, and continues until Tony Luciano’s death in 1903. At least seven men died in a fight that was ostensibly over a small pasta factory. As with the Mafia wars that came before and after it in New Orleans, the true spark, actors, and stakes in the violence have sometimes been distorted or overlooked. The Mafia came for Luciano and he fought back. He wasn’t a mafioso, but as a Sicilian man, he and his adversaries shared certain outlooks and principles. Men of Luciano’s class were the model of gentleman that mafiosi like Genova strove to emulate.

Sketch of Antonino Luciano from his trial

Antonino Luciano was born in 1866 in Palazzo Adriano, the son of a master builder (Atto di nascita Salvatore Luciano, 1875). In 1894, he married Ignazia Chiovaro in Mezzomorreale, a district of Palermo (Atto di matrimonio Antonino Luciano and Ignazia Chiovaro, 1894). The civil announcement of their marriage calls Luciano a “possidente,” which translates to “landowner,” and means that he owned enough property that he did not have to work for a living.

Antonino and Ignazia emigrated in 1895 to New Orleans (Manifest of the Montebello, 1895). They may have lived in Donaldsonville, 75 miles away, for a time before opening a grocery on Poydras Street in New Orleans in 1897. Their first child was born in February 1898. Salvatore, Antonino’s younger brother, arrived in time for the 1900 census, in which he appears in his brother’s household, working as a clerk in their grocery store. Ignazia gave birth to a daughter later that year.

Francesco Genova and Paolo Di Christina, both fugitive killers using aliases, were criminal associates from Sicily. Di Christina may have first worked for Antonino Luciano as a salesman at his New Orleans store before they jointly opened a pasta factory in Donaldsonville. Genova, who had quickly established himself as the leading mafioso in New Orleans, was the driving force behind Di Christina in a plot to take over the factory. 

Di Christina made himself a disagreeable partner in the venture, so that hiring a manager and splitting the proceeds became the most sensible solution (Bloody battle, 1902; Kingman, n.d.). Genova used the split to place even more of his men in the business. Vincenzo Vutera, a grocer in financial ruin, was one whose bitterness at owing money to Luciano was easily turned to Genova’s advantage. 

According to a most unreliable source, a 1902 article titled “The other side of the vendetta story,” one of the raiders that night, Bartolo Ferrara, lived with the Luciano family in New Orleans for a long time, and conducted their correspondence. When he wanted to open his own store, Tony advanced him money and merchandise (The other side of the vendetta story, 1902). Ferrara died in debt to the Lucianos, on their books owing $288.81. His partner in his new store owed Luciano a similar amount. Vutera, and even Joseph Calamia, a successful grocer in the neighborhood, also owed Luciano money.

By the spring of 1902, Tony must have known he was in trouble. If he did not yet know he was being played by Di Christina, or that Genova was his more powerful, silent partner, he would soon. Tony recruited a cousin, Louis Luciano, who came from Tampa with his wife, to add his manpower to the defense (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). Louis, who made cigars, opened a small factory in an outbuilding behind Tony’s store. 

A month after Louis’ arrival, Salvatore saw an opportunity: Genova and Di Christina were sitting together on a wagon across the street, and Salvatore fired at them. They chased him into the Lucianos’ store, where they were forced to retreat from Tony, ready at the defense. No one was seriously harmed, and Genova refused to press charges, but privately Salvatore was warned to leave the country or “pay for his assault upon the leader of a secret order of Sicilians who swear by stilettoes” (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). In “The other side of the vendetta story,” it’s Salvatore who offers an ultimatum to Genova—leave or die—and his rash stubbornness is presented as the reason violence erupted a month later.

The Lucianos prepared to defend themselves. Although they had started keeping later hours, they began locking the doors at 9 PM (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). Joseph Calamia, who knew of the changes, led four men into the store just as the Lucianos were closing for the night. With him were Bartolo Ferrara; Joseph Gerrachi, who worked for Luciano as a manager of his macaroni factory; and two men whose descriptions are vague and contradictory, Galdarone and Scaffino. In the same article that names Joe Galdarone as a wagon driver for Tony Luciano, and Vincenzo Scaffino, a fruit dealer with a stand nearby, they are called “two vagabonds who wash the holds of fruit ships” (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). Another writer calls them drifters recruited for the attack (Kingman, n.d.). Police sought but did not find them, further frustrating efforts to identify the two men.

Unloading bananas, New Orleans (Library of Congress)

When Calamia and his gang entered the Poydras Street storefront, Salvatore Luciano was writing a letter to his mother. His brother and cousin were in an annex at the rear of the store, playing cards with Vincenzo Vutera, who was a guest in their boardinghouse. As many as three of Calamia’s men, one of them Bartolo Ferrara, rushed in and stabbed Salvatore many times with knives and stilettos. The attack came so quickly that Salvatore did not even have time to reach for his gun. Louis was wounded in the chest or shoulder. Tony Luciano shot and wounded Gerrachi and Calamia, who both ran off. After his accomplices stabbed Salvatore Luciano, Vutera shot him in the head. Tony Luciano then shot Vutera, perhaps with all three of the bullets the coroner found in the big man’s torso; he died on the scene. 

Calamia’s injury was slight, but Gerrachi, who was shot in the urethra or the bladder, died in the hospital weeks later (Death of Giuseppe Gerachi, 1902). Both men told police they’d come to the Lucianos’ on business and been caught in the crossfire of a fight they knew nothing about.

Police interviewed other survivors and witnesses, including Ignazia and Annie, Louis’ wife, but their testimonies contradicted one another and the physical evidence. Tony and his family members were arrested; he was held overnight. With what would prove to be characteristic boldness, Bartolo Ferrara visited Tony in jail after the shooting, and tried to have him released. If he’d succeeded, Tony later said, he was sure Bartolo would have tried to kill him.

The next day, Antonino was released from jail to attend his brother Salvatore’s burial. He came home to find his brother’s remains being attended to by a mortician. Tony stayed beside the body for hours, praying. In the afternoon Ignazia had a fainting spell and went upstairs to rest; she was in the first trimester of what would prove her most difficult pregnancy.

In the hours before the viewing, a police officer spotted an “ugly” man lurking around the Luciano establishment on Poydras Street. The officer drove him away twice, but apparently didn’t recognize the little grocer from Julia Street as one of the assailants from the night before (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). 

The store was full of mourners when Ferrara entered. Salvatore was laid out in a coffin on the card table in the annex. His face was covered with a cloth. Ferrara made his way to the body he had stabbed nine or a dozen times the night before. His victim’s grief-stricken brother sat beside him as if in a trance. Bartolo lifted the gauze from Salvatore’s face and kissed him on the lips. Tony stirred, but did not display any anger. 

Ferrara was playing a dangerous game, pretending to be so intimate with the deceased. Tony would bring them closer. I’m glad you came, Tony murmured. Let’s go out to the yard and talk. He led his colleague to an enclosure, where he had a shotgun hidden. In broad daylight, and with dozens of witnesses close by, he stuck the barrel end in Bartolo’s chest and shot him four times, then used the gun stock to beat his head to a pulp. Ferrara was still breathing when police arrived, though he could not speak. He lived for twenty minutes (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902).

Antonino Luciano evaded indictment in the deaths of Vutera and Gerrachi, but he went to trial for the brutal murder of Bartolo Ferrara. His defense attorney was Chandler Luzenberg, who would go on to defend Tony’s assassin.

Tony had the resources to hire the best legal counsel available. Although his storefront on Poydras was described as a cheap boarding house whose clientele were mainly Sicilian farm laborers, New Orleans historian John Smith Kendall writes, as storekeepers in New Orleans “The Lucianos were men considerably above their occupation in education and abilities.” (Kendall, 1911, p. 45, col. 1, para. 3). A “possidente” when Antonino married, at emigration he was listed as a merchant, distinguishing him from the vast majority of Sicilian men arriving in the port of New Orleans, almost all of whom were farm laborers. His other brother, John, followed their father’s profession and worked as an architect in Italy; their sister, Rosa, was a school teacher. However, most of Tony and Ignazia’s wealth was tied up. At the time of the dispute with Di Christina, Tony had $8,000 invested in the Donaldsonville macaroni factory (More murder in the feud of Sicilians, 1902). In an inventory conducted while Luciano was on trial, the value of the store’s equipment and inventory was a fraction of this amount, and their liquid assets were about $650 (Succession of Ignazia Chiavaro, 1903). (Multiply these numbers by thirty for their approximate 2022 values, adjusted for inflation, or use the Inflation Calculator.)

While awaiting trial, Luciano’s wife, Ignazia, moved the family business to a new location near the jail/police station where Tony was held. Pregnant, with two young children, and her husband on trial for murder, she ran the store alone, making deliveries and fetching merchandise from the port with a horse-drawn wagon. While out on business, Ignazia’s wagon was struck by an electric car, and she broke her leg in the accident. After weeks of convalescence, she broke the leg again. Ignazia delivered a baby girl on December 4th, and died hours later (Death of Ignazia Luciano, 1902; Luciano lured to a mafia murder, 1903). 

After her death, an inventory of the Luciano estate was conducted: standard practice to protect the assets belonging to their young children. The total value was about eight thousand dollars. In addition to Bartolo Ferrara and his business partner, Salvatore Lo Biundo, both of whom carried three-digit debts with the Luciano store, regular customers included the mother of Antonio Saltaformaggio, whose brothers were mafiosi in Corleone; “A. Cusimano,” most likely Vutera; and Joseph Calamia (Succession of Ignazia Chiavaro, 1903).

Luciano was acquitted of killing Ferrara in February 1904. He had become more religious during his confinement. Upon his release, he paid for a celebratory saints’ day dinner to be served to the jury in his trial and the residents of the jail with whom he’d lived for months (Peña, 2018). His celebration was cautious and short lived. Soon after reuniting with his family, his infant daughter died (Death of Ignazza Antonina Luciano, 1903). 

In freedom, he lived like a hunted man. Though he had evaded legal consequences for the men he killed, Tony Luciano remained marked for death by the Mafia. In his last months on Earth, Tony watched everyone but close kin with suspicion. He retreated to his new business, a store and saloon like the old place on Poydras, but operating within sight of the police station.

In May, Sam Sparo moved into a rented room nearby, and became a regular fixture in Tony’s family saloon. Noting that the widower did not do his own marketing—for fear of assassination—Sparo offered to shop for the Luciano family when he went to get his own provisions. Tony’s brother and sister, who had come from Sicily to help after his wife died, were still living with him, caring for his two young children, and helping to keep his businesses running. John Luciano and local police regarded the newcomer with suspicion, but Tony appeared to trust his new friend (Luciano lured to a mafia murder, 1903). 

He invited Sparo to join him for a short wagon trip to Snell’s photography studio at the corner of Rampart and Canal, where new proofs of Luciano’s family, posed in front of their store, awaited his examination. After inspecting the portraits together, they left the third-floor studio. On the first landing, Sparo hesitated and Luciano, abandoning his usual caution, went down the stairs first. Sam shot him in the back at such close range, Tony’s jacket caught fire. He turned and Sam continued unloading his weapon into Luciano’s body. Tony managed to return fire, but missed his target. He died soon after arriving in the hospital (Kendall, 1911; Babin, 2015).

So thoroughly did Genova destroy Luciano with his campaign of vengeance that no one came to his wake. Police officers and news reporters were drafted to carry his coffin to the tomb (Luciano lured to a mafia murder, 1903; Work of the dreaded mafia, 1903).

A year later, John Luciano disappeared while on collections rounds for his late brother’s estate. He’d gone into the Louisiana countryside in the company of a known mafioso from the Gulotta (or Culotta) family. His fate is still unknown (Fear that John Luciano is missing, 1904; Babin, 2015).

Sources

Atto di matrimonio, Antonino Luciano and Ignazia Chiovaro. (1894, November 18). Record no. 13. “Italia, Palermo, Palermo, Stato Civile (Tribunale), 1866-1910,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L97B-VZRL?cc=2051639&wc=MCTM-4M9%3A351055601%2C351055602%2C351736301 : 22 May 2014), Palermo > Palermo > Matrimoni 1892-1903 Cittadinanze 1866-1896 Morti 1866-1868 > image 457 of 2836; Tribunale di Cagliari (Cagliari Court, Cagliari). 

Atto di nascita, Salvatore Luciano. (1875, January 21). Record no. 13. “Italia, Palermo, Palermo, Stato Civile (Tribunale), 1866-1910,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G97B-V5JH?cc=2051639&wc=MCTM-2WL%3A351055601%2C352853301%2C954437801 : 22 May 2014), Palermo > Palazzo Adriano > Nati, pubblicazioni, matrimoni, cittadinanze, morti 1867-1875 Indici decennali (vari) 1866-1875 Nati, pubblicazioni, matrimoni, cittadinanze, morti 1876 Indici decennali (vari) 1876-1885 > image 1139 of 1584; Tribunale di Cagliari (Cagliari Court, Cagliari).

Babin II, D. (2015, April 28). Bumped off on the bayou: the macaroni wars. Retrieved 2 February 2019 from https://louisianamafia.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/bumped-off-on-the-bayou-the-macaroni-wars/ 

Bloody battle. (1902, June 12). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA). 

Death of Giuseppe Gerachi. (1902, July 1). “Louisiana, Orleans Parish Death Records and Certificates, 1835-1954,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS9Z-T99D?cc=3559088 : 28 March 2020), > image 1 of 1; Louisiana, Department of Health. Bureau of Vital Records, New Orleans.

Death of Ignazza Antonina Luciano. (1903, March 17). “Louisiana, Orleans Parish Death Records and Certificates, 1835-1954”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:CT14-GQ3Z : 9 April 2020).

Death of Ignazia Luciano. (1902, December 5). Vol. 128, P. 900. Ancestry.com. Louisiana, U.S., Statewide Death Index, 1819-1964 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2002. State of Louisiana, Secretary of State, Division of Archives, Records Management, and History. Vital Records Indices. Baton Rouge, LA, USA.

Kendall, J. S. (1911, October 1). The Mafia in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 33.

Kingman, W. A. (n.d.) The Axeman of New Orleans. Retrieved 29 January 2019 from Serialkillercalendar.com

Luciano lured to a mafia murder. (1903, August 10). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 1.

Manifest of the Montebello. (1895). “Louisiana, New Orleans Passenger Lists, 1820-1945,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5V7-WZV?cc=1916009&wc=MFVK-VNL%3A1029673801%2C1029690701 : 8 October 2015), 1820-1902 (NARA M259) > 081 – 1 Apr 1895 – 31 Dec 1895 > image 86 of 343; citing NARA microfilm publications M259 and T905 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

More murder in the feud of Sicilians. (1902, June 13). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). Pp. 1+.

New Orleans, Louisiana, City Directory, 1897 Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

The other side of the vendetta story. (1902, June 15). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 10.

Peña, C. G (2018, October 8). Death over a diamond stud: the assassination of the Orleans parish district attorney. Arcadia Publishing. 

Sicilians in battle to death. (1902, June 12). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA).

Succession of Ignazia Chiavaro, Inventory of estate. (1903, January 26). Images 1791- 1810 of 1995. Case Papers, 1880-1929; Author: Louisiana. Civil District Court (Orleans Parish); Probate Place: Louisiana Notes: Civil District Court Case Papers, No 69203-69337, 1902 Ancestry.com. Louisiana, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1756-1984 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

Work of the dreaded mafia. (1903, August 12). The Minneapolis journal. (Minneapolis, Minn.). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045366/1903-08-12/ed-1/seq-1/>

Francesco Motisi, alias Genova

Francesco Motisi, alias Genova

The New Orleans Mafia boss killed more men with lies than with bullets.

After the lynching of nineteen Italians in the New Orleans jail, there was a period of relative calm in which people outside the Sicilian community were not troubled by violence from the Mafia. What is usually described as a hate crime against Sicilians, was the culmination of a battle over control of the docks between two Mafia gangs. Charles Matranga and his Stupppagghieri emerged triumphant, and enjoyed a decade without serious opposition. 

The respite ended with the arrival of Francesco Motisi, alias Genova. The convicted murderer had been on the run with his family, living first in London and then New York City, where he became associated with Giuseppe Morello. He arrived in New Orleans around 1900 and started calling himself “Genova.”

Francesco Genova appeared to be an Italian gentleman, the sort the American press found charming and Sicilians rightly regarded as dangerous to cross. Genova closely fit the mold of the old country mafioso. He owned a successful business in New Orleans, heard and settled disputes, dispensed advice and favors, and was well-informed about his newly adopted community. It appears that no one recognized him, or knew that Genova was an alias.

Francesco Motisi was born on 24 June 1862 in Mezzomorreale-Oreto, a district of the city of Palermo. He married Cristina Pedone in 1892 and their first five children were born in Palermo. 

Francesco Genova’s closest co-conspirator, Paolo Di Christina, was also a fugitive murderer from Palermo, living in New Orleans under an alias. They were in the driver’s seat of a wagon together when Salvatore Luciano fired upon them in May 1902. When Luciano missed, he signed his own death warrant. Genova’s refusal to press charges, or even admit to a police officer that he’d been shot at, were exactly what one would expect from a mafioso. The court date came, and neither of the wronged parties appeared before the judge. The message was clear: Salvatore and his brother, Antonino, knew judgment was coming for them. 

Genova was not present at the shootout in the Luciano brothers’ place on Poydras Street, but he undoubtedly set it in motion. His multi-fronted war upon the Luciano brothers spans years, and begins soon after his arrival in New Orleans. As described in the previous installment, he staged a takeover of Antonino Luciano’s Donaldsonville macaroni factory by planting key personnel, including Luciano’s partner, Di Christina, Vincenzo Vutera, and Joseph Gerrachi. These men also came to the shootout to prevent Antonino from intervening while members of a raiding party assassinated his brother, Salvatore. 

If his cunning is not yet evident, consider the third front on which Genova attacked: the Luciano brothers’ reputation. 

“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

It’s been said that “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” A story Genova spun for the news, “The other side of the vendetta story,” (1902) gained traction, and was reported as fact. Genova let it be known that his aunt and uncle in Palermo were suppliers of Antonino Luciano’s store in New Orleans. The honest and elderly merchants sent him consignments of goods and he returned payment. But over time, his payments became less consistent. When questioned about this, Luciano’s reply was surprising. He suggested they send their daughters to him, because he was sure he could find them good husbands in America. Even more surprising was that Genova’s aunt and uncle did as Luciano advised, and he met their daughters at the dock when they arrived. However, he immediately refused to assist them. The two young women managed to find cheap rooms on Poydras Street and worked menial jobs to survive. When their parents learned their fate, they cut ties with Luciano. Salvatore, Tony’s hot-tempered brother, decided to mend the rift by marrying one of the sisters and courted her, but was rebuffed. 

Genova, learning of these events, was outraged. As the hero of his tale, he resolved to rescue his cousins and take revenge upon Luciano. He came from Palermo to New Orleans, studied his enemy’s businesses, and emulated them at close range, directly competing with Luciano’s enterprises, beginning with his store on Poydras Street. Genova’s aunt and uncle began supplying his store on Julia Street instead of Luciano’s. Soon, Francesco Genova was successful enough to consider buying a macaroni factory.

To understand why Genova wanted to take over Luciano’s businesses does not require a romantic tale of family honor and virtue. The traditional mafioso seeks a monopoly in his territory: at a minimum, over his own profession, in which he is self-employed. This pattern is repeated everywhere by old school mafiosi. Pasta was big business in Louisiana, the bar for entry was low for Sicilian immigrants, and situated as Tony Luciano’s factory was, in the midst of thousands of Sicilian agricultural workers, at the confluence of two major waterways, it might as well have been printing money. Best of all, it was a legal venture. Using violence and intimidation to achieve a business advantage is a classic Mafia mode of operation.

The story of how Genova came to be living in New Orleans, and chose to buy a factory 75 miles away in Donaldsonville, was contrived purely to defame Luciano. It paints the Lucianos in such an unflattering light, there’s no way the story came from them. If there were any truth to it, Tony could have revealed Genova’s true identity to the press. Francesco Motisi was a wanted man in Italy, and local law enforcement would have been glad for a reason to deport the mafioso.

As the aunt and uncle were a fiction, so were certain other parts of Genova’s story. He did not outperform his competitors through shrewd and honest dealing, but by spreading gossip and threats among Luciano’s customers, and making himself a useful friend to his biggest debtors. Genova’s words were his principal weapon in the Macaroni Wars. His threats, backed up by his intimidating new friends, diverted Luciano’s stream of customers toward Genova’s store.

Despite the Lucianos being massively outgunned in the shootout, Tony managed to kill one of Genova’s men, mortally injure another, and wound his captain. The following day, another of Genova’s men was shot dead. Their war raged through Luciano’s imprisonment, and continued after his release. Bodies showed up in the vicinity of Donaldsonville. Luciano’s old friends and neighbors in that town moved away, in fear for their lives.

Sam Sparo, a hitman who’d spent months wearing down Luciano’s defenses, finally ended the Macaroni Wars on the stairs outside a photography studio, a few blocks from Luciano’s home in New Orleans. Genova’s campaign to destroy his business, happiness, security, and reputation was complete. No one from the Italian community attended the viewing or proceeded with the body to the funeral. Since he had no family or friends left in the city, police officers and members of the press were drafted into service as pallbearers to carry Antonino Luciano to his final resting place.

Genova continued to rule the Mafia of New Orleans. After the trial for Vutera’s death, Di Christina, who was a witness, left town for New York. On the strength of a letter of recommendation from Genova, Di Christina found work with Giuseppe Morello and Ignazio Lupo as a bartender and counterfeiter. He did not remain long, and returned to New Orleans.

Francesco and his wife had five children who were born in Palermo, and four more in New Orleans, two of whom died in infancy (Birth of Salvatore Motisi, 1894; Birth of Giovanni Battista Matissa, 1905; Birth of Ignazio Motisi, 1906; Francisco Motisi family, 1911; Find a grave, n.d.). Although Francesco was still hiding behind an alias, vital records found for his family in New Orleans use the surname “Motisi” or a close approximation (i.e. “Matissa”).

In 1907, investigation into the Walter Lamana kidnapping and murder identified a number of suspects, among them a “Mr. Cristina,” who might have been Paolo. Being a known mafioso in New Orleans, Genova was taken into custody and questioned with regard to the crime, but was eventually released for a lack of evidence. Italy sent his criminal records to the US, and Genova/Motisi took the opportunity to leave the country with his wife and children.

Francesco Motisi appears in the 1911 census in Liverpool as a fruit merchant, living with his wife, their eight children, the youngest born in England in 1908, and a servant (Francisco Motisi family, 1911). Thom L. Jones (2019) writes that, according to the Italian Mafia historian Salvatore Lupo, he later went back to Palermo where he was again active in organized crime.

Di Christina seemed poised to take over the Mafia in New Orleans upon Genova’s departure, but his old boss intervened. In 1908, Giuseppe Morello, who was by this time regarded as the boss of bosses in the United States, visited the city and gave his public approval to Di Christina’s challenger, Vincenzo Moreci, sparking another war among the mafiosi of New Orleans.

Sources

Birth of Francesco Motisi. (1862, June 24). M.O. v. 864 n. 31. https://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/detail-registry/?s_id=877229 Img. 117 of 330

Birth of Giovanni Battista Matissa. (1905, July 22). “Louisiana, Orleans Parish Vital Records, 1900-1964,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QGVC-HWMT : 19 October 2018), Giovanni Battista Matissa, 22 Jul 1905; citing Birth 22 Jul 1905, New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana, United States, certificate ; Louisiana State Archives, Baton Rouge.

Birth of Ignazio Motisi. (1906, July 8). “Louisiana, Orleans Parish Vital Records, 1900-1964,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QGVC-5TDF : 19 October 2018), Ignazio Motisi, 8 Jul 1906; citing Birth 8 Jul 1906, New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana, United States, certificate ; Louisiana State Archives, Baton Rouge.

Birth of Salvatore Motisi. (1894, September 15). https://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/detail-registry/?s_id=877235 Img 156 of 433.

Critchley, D. (2009). The origin of organized crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. New York: Routledge.

Dash, M. (2009). The first family: Terror, extortion, revenge, murder, and the birth of the American Mafia. Random House.

Fear that John Luciano is missing. (1904, July 4). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 9.

Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 06 February 2019), memorial page for Ignazio Domenico Motisi (28 May 1903–14 Jan 1906), Find A Grave Memorial no. 140476117, citing Saint Roch Cemetery #01, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave (contributor 8) .

Francisco Motisi family. (1911). “England and Wales Census, 1911,” database, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XWTM-V3Z : 21 December 2018), Francisco Motisi, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, Lancashire, England; from “1911 England and Wales census,” database and images, findmypast(http://www.findmypast.com : n.d.); citing PRO RG 14, The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey.

Gauthreaux, A. G. (2014, February 4). Italian Louisiana: History, heritage & tradition. Arcadia Publishing.

Italians held for barrel murder. (1903, April 16). The World (New York, NY). Pp. 1-2. 

Jones, T. L. (2010, November 10). The sun king of the mafia. Retrieved 6 February 2019 from https://gangstersinc.org/profiles/blogs/the-sun-king-of-the-mafia 

Jones, T. L. (2019, April 7). Out of Africa: The story of New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello.

https://gangstersinc.org/profiles/blogs/out-of-africa-the-story-of-new-orleans-mafia-boss-carlos-marcello

Kendall, J. S. (1911, October 1). The mafia in New Orleans. The Times Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 33.

Krist, G. (2014). Empire of sin: A story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. Crown. 

Manifest of the SS Argentina, Line 21. (1919). “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C9T4-GZ1W?cc=1368704&wc=4X1L-Q3K%3A1600482430 : 26 January 2018), Roll 2716, vol 6335-6336, 5 Jan 1920-7 Jan 1920 > image 1105 of 1261; citing NARA microfilm publication T715 and M237 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Marriage of Francesco Motisi and Cristina Pedone. (1892, July 16). V. 157 No. 15.

https://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/detail-registry/?s_id=877206 Imgs. 387 and 422 of 585.

The other side of the vendetta story. (1902, June 15). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 10.

Rawson, R. (n.d.). The life and times of Vito Di Giorgio. https://www.nationalcrimesyndicate.com/the-life-and-times-of-vito-digiorgio/

Work of the dreaded mafia. (1903, August 12). The Minneapolis journal. (Minneapolis, Minn.). Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045366/1903-08-12/ed-1/seq-1/>

Read the last part in this series on The Macaroni Wars: The destruction of Antonino Luciano

The 800-pound gangster

The 800-pound gangster

News of the shootout at the Poydras street boardinghouse described one of the victims as weighing “fully 800 pounds.” 

One of the first men killed in the Macaroni Wars was Vincenzo Vutera, placed in the Luciano’s business to suppress the opposition during a raid led by Santo “Joseph” Calamia. Like Vutera, Calamia is described as a “big, fat man” who could nonetheless move quickly. Straining credulity, local reporting on his death claims Vutera’s weight was “fully 800 pounds” (Sicilians in battle to death, 1902).

Another standout quality Vutera possessed was being from Corleone, the hometown he shared with Calamia’s professed brother-in-law, Giuseppe Morello, and his actual brother-in-law, Antonino Saltaformaggio, whose body turned up in a canal near White Castle in 1903. Hundreds of people from Corleone emigrated to Louisiana for work, with most of them dispersing into the plantations along the Mississippi River. Several families from Corleone lived in Donaldsonville, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Bayou Lafourche

1895 map of Louisiana showing the course of the Bayou Lafourche before it was dammed.
In this 1895 map, New Orleans is centered, just south of Lake Pontchartrain. The Mississippi River enters the frame from the northwest and intersects Donaldsonville and the Bayou Lafourche between the “S” and the “I” in “LOUISIANA.”

In 1902, after a particularly bad flood season, the bayou was dammed, and a series of locks were discussed but never built. With access from the river blocked, 130 miles of navigable stream through coastal wetlands became accessible only from the Gulf of Mexico. The temporary dam permanently harmed the economy and health of Bayou Lafourche, Donaldsonville, and the surrounding area. The Mississippi no longer supplied fresh water to the bayou, devastating the ecosystem. The city of Donaldsonville, once the capital of Louisiana, entered a period of decline from which it did not rally until automobile traffic replaced riverboats as the primary form of transportation. 

For the owners of a macaroni factory in Donaldsonville, the new dam was bad news. Easy access to half a dozen towns they might have provisioned along the bayou was suddenly cut off. Antonino Luciano had $4,000 tied up in the factory: about $129,000 in 2022 dollars. His partner was the duplicitous Paolo Di Christina, a mafioso in league with Francesco Genova. 

Genova had sworn to destroy Luciano, and Di Christina was part of his plan. Step 1: Place men loyal to the Mafia boss in the business to be overtaken. Step 2: Make the business a source of debt and woe for the rightful owner. Step 3: Sap the owner’s funds, credit, and good name, until he has no choice but to abandon the property to his antagonistic partners. The Mafia has attacked business owners this way for most of its existence. 

The showdown on Poydras Street in New Orleans was an escalation of a fight that began in the Donaldsonville macaroni factory. In the story that unfolded in the newspapers, and echoes in more contemporary tellings, Vincenzo Vutera is sometimes painted as an ally of the Luciano family, brought down from Donaldsonville to aid them in defense against Genova’s men, and at other times described as a plant, one of several men Genova either installed or turned to his purposes.

Illustration of the interior of the Poydras Street store/saloon/boardinghouse accompanying coverage of the shooting in The Times-Democrat (Bloody battle, 1902).

Vincenzo Vutera was born in Corleone in April 1872, and emigrated as a young man with his mother and his first cousin, also named Vincenzo Vutera, who was three years older. The older cousin returned to Corleone and married there in 1906, which is how I can be sure he was not the one shot to death in New Orleans in 1902.

Vutera married his first cousin, Giovannina “Jennie” Cusimano, in Donaldsonville in 1894. His wife’s godparents were her first cousin, once removed and her husband. They were also the parents of Los Angeles Mafia boss Jack Dragna. Dragna and Vutera (and Cusimano and Dragna) are second cousins.

A family tree including Vincenzo Vutera, his same name cousin, his wife, and Jack Dragna
A family tree showing the lines of direct descent shared by Vincenzo Vutera, his emigrating cousin, his wife, and the mafioso Jack Dragna. In this diagram, the godparent relationship Giovannina Cusimano has with her aunt and uncle is illustrated with solid green lines. Vincenzo Vutera, his mother, and his same-name cousin who emigrated together are connected by dotted black lines. All the people with a blue outline migrated to Louisiana. (Jack Dragna’s parents later emigrated to New York, where he grew up. Read more about the Dragna family’s early life in America in Informer.)

An expanded family tree including everyone from the first tree plus Vutera's widow's second husband, Vincenzo "Charles" Peranio.
After Vutera’s death, his widow remarried to another first cousin, Vincenzo Piranio. The fathers of Vincenzo Piranio and Jack Dragna, each marked with a pink upper left quadrant in this tree, were both born of unknown parents. They married first cousins Anna and Rosalia Vutera.

Vutera’s same-name cousin has a maternal uncle, Mariano Colletto, who was a captain in the Fratuzzi, the Mafia of Corleone. The older Vutera may have run into some kind of legal trouble in Louisiana: in November 1901, one of the cousins ran an ad claiming not to be the V. Vutera who was decided against in a local court case. The younger Vincenzo Vutera was, at the time of his death, a grocer with a store in Dorseyville, eleven miles from Donaldsonville, which he ran under the name “A. Cusimano” because his own credit was so poor. The real A. Cusimano was Vincent’s brother-in-law and first cousin, Antonino Cusimano, who named Vincent as his destination contact when he emigrated to White Castle—near Donaldsonville—in 1897.

In January 1902, a notice ran for a “Constable Sale.” At auction were the provisions and equipment from Vincenzo Vutera’s Dorseyville grocery, being sold to satisfy his obligation to “A. Luciano.” The same Antonino Luciano who Genova swore to destroy was one of Vincenzo Vutera’s creditors. 

The same Antonino Luciano who Genova swore to destroy was one of Vincenzo Vutera’s creditors.

Given this history, it’s little wonder that Genova found a willing accomplice in Vutera. “The Lucianos thought it rather strange when Vincenzo Vutera, the big, fat storekeeper, who was running a general merchandise place in Dorseyville under the name of Cusimano, to deceive his old creditors, came to their place a few evenings back and asked for a bed,” The Times-Picayune reported. The Lucianos, who had turned their business into a fortress, welcomed him into their boardinghouse.

Vutera’s debt with Luciano and the auction to pay it were not reported in the days following his death in the shootout. Instead, there was confusion about whose side of the deadly conflict Vutera had fought on. Had he been placed there by Calamia? Or, as Tony Luciano told the police and reporters, did Vutera die in a vain attempt to defend his brother Salvatore Luciano, the target of the attack?

New Orleans police believed Tony’s statement was a ruse. Based on statements from other witnesses and evidence on the scene, members of Calamia’s party killed Salvatore Luciano, and then Tony, his brother, killed Vincenzo Vutera. Tony may have also shot Joseph Gerrachi, who died weeks later in the hospital, and Joseph Calamia, who took two bullets in his left hand. Both Vutera and Gerrachi are described in the newspapers as managers of Luciano’s macaroni factory. A Luciano cousin who was injured in the shootout claimed Vutera was a traitor who had brought Gerrachi with him from Donaldsonville. 

That evening, with Tony Luciano in custody, police told him Vutera had fired Gerrachi from his position in the factory. This appeared to confirm for Luciano his realization that Vutera (and perhaps also Gerrachi) had betrayed him, because it elicited from Luciano the names of the men who had invaded along with Calamia. Gerrachi, who was described as a merchant from Donaldsonville, was one of them, as well as Bartolo Ferrara, and two men who evaded arrest, Vincent Scaffino and Joe Galderone. Di Christina was seen across the street, immediately after the attack. Genova, the most powerful mafioso involved, was not part of the raid, but it was for the restoration of his honor that Salvatore Luciano was killed. Salvatore, Tony’s “hot-headed” brother, shot at Genova and Di Christina a month earlier, and was warned to leave the country or forfeit his life. 

Vincenzo Vutera was playing cards in the annex, to the rear of the store, with Louis and Tony Luciano when Calamia and his men arrived. Salvatore Luciano, sitting near the annex, was killed by multiple stab wounds and a gunshot wound to the head. Vutera was killed by three gunshot wounds that entered the right side of his body, lacerating his lungs and liver, and a knife wound to the head. It’s likely that Vincenzo shot Salvatore, who had already received mortal injuries, and then Tony killed Vincenzo. In his pockets were a knife that had shattered on the impact of another bullet aimed at his chest, and some letters signed from “A. Cusimano.” Based on the letters, the coroner correctly assumed this was Vutera’s alias and included it in his death certificate. 

Death record for Vincent Vutera, alias A. Cusimano, of Dorceyville, Louisiana. Married merchant, age “42 Yrs?” died from multiple gunshot wounds on 12 June 1902 in New Orleans.

Luciano avoided indictment in the Poydras Street shootings. Calamia stood trial for Vutera’s murder but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Vincenzo Vutera was only thirty years old, though the coroner indicated he was much older. He left a wife and four children, the youngest just four months old. Jennie Cusimano remarried a few years later to Charlie Peranio, born Vincenzo Piranio in Corleone, with whom she had two more children. 

On this sheet of the 1910 census, taken in Dorseyville, Louisiana, the first family listed is Jennie’s. Vincenzo Peranio, a grocer, is the head of household. Jennie’s uncle and father-in-law from her first marriage, Leoluca Vutera, an elderly widower, lives with them.

Sources

Babin II, D. (2015, April 28). Bumped off on the bayou: the macaroni wars.

Bloody battle. (1902, June 12). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA).

Constable sale. (1902, January 11). The Weekly Iberville South (Plaquemine, LA). P. 2.

Kendall, J. S. (1911, October 1). The Mafia in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 33.

Kingman, W. A. (n.d.) The Axeman of New Orleans. Retrieved 29 January 2019 from Serialkillercalendar.com

Krist, G. (2014). Empire of sin: A story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. Crown. 

Luciano lured to a mafia murder. (1903, August 10). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 1.

More murder in the feud of Sicilians. (1902, June 13). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). Pp. 1+.

Notice. (1901, November 20). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA).

Sicilians in battle to death. (1902, June 12). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA).

Read Part 3 in this series on The Macaroni Wars: Francesco Motisi, Alias Genova

New Orleans, 1905: Who is Sam Sparo?

New Orleans, 1905: Who is Sam Sparo?

In 1902 in New Orleans, Tony Luciano and his family fought a battle to the death against Francesco Genova and his allies. Following months of deadly conflict—called the Macaroni Wars—and two murder trials, Sam Sparo penetrated Luciano’s defenses and killed him in broad daylight. After his execution for murder, it was revealed that Sparo was an alias. Who was Sam Sparo?

Samuel Aspara, a native of Italy, age 40, died 21 April 1905 at the parish prison in New Orleans of a fracture of the neck from legal hanging. He was married, and last resided at 1117 Tchoupitoulas St. in New Orleans. His undertaker is P. Lamana of St. Philip Street, who would be the victim of an extortion scheme turned tragic, when his son was abducted and killed in 1907. Francesco Genova, leader of the Mafia, was arrested in a broad dragnet of Italians brought in for questioning. “Mr. Cristina,” likely Paolo Di Christina, Genova’s associate, was also said to be involved. After his release from custody, Genova left the country. Like their hit man, both Genova and Di Christina were living in New Orleans under aliases.

Death certificate for Samuel Aspara

Sam Sparo, as he was sometimes called in the papers, was arrested, indicted, and sentenced to death under the name “Sam Asparo.” The month after his execution, an article ran in The Times-Picayune with the headline, “Sparo was alias.” While doing research for the trial, the district attorney found Sparo’s marriage as Sebastiano Giunta. The article includes the details of this document, which I have found and reproduced below.

Sebastiano Giunta, a native of Palermo, Italy, son of Giorgio Giunta and Maria Giunta, and Angelina Jasmin, daughter of Flavillo J. Jasmin and Marie Lacoste, were married before witnesses on 9 August 1897 in New Orleans. 

Sebastiano Giunta and Angelina Jasmin’s marriage record. This one is harder to read, so you might want to look at the image on FamilySearch, where you can zoom in and adjust the brightness.

Police sought one of Sam’s brothers-in-law and brought him to the jail, where upon meeting Sparo he admitted to their relationship. The Times-Picayune article describes Sam’s wife as bringing the only moments of joy to his long and lonely confinement. She was a New Orleans native who spoke Italian and was initially assumed to be of Italian heritage, but was from a Creole family. She did not converse with anyone else in the prison on her visits.

I don’t know how the DA was able to connect Sam Aspara to Sebastiano Giunta, but once he had, he could easily find the Jasmin family. Angelina, her parents, and siblings were the only Jasmins in the city directory. 

The article makes no mention of another alias, which makes me wonder if the investigator found other records for Sam and Angelina’s family. The year after Sebastiano Giunta and Angelina Jasmin married, Joseph Sparacello was born in New Orleans, the son of Sebastiano Sparacello and Angelina Jasmin. The following year, Mary Sparacello was born to the same couple.

If Sebastiano and Angelina were following the southern Italian naming convention in which the first son is named after the paternal grandfather, the second son after the maternal, and likewise for the daughters, then his father was named Joseph, or Giuseppe, not Giorgio, and his mother Mary, or Maria. Among Italian-Americans, this naming tradition remained strong, sometimes for generations. 

The Sparacellos’ next child died in infancy. Paul Sparacello died at seven days of age at 1613 Ursuline St., New Orleans, on 13 August 1902. He was a native of New Orleans and Colored. His father was born in Italy and his mother in New Orleans.

Infant Paul was recorded as Colored, like his mother, although his two older siblings were registered as White. Angelina and her family of origin appear in vital records as Mulatto or Colored. Her sisters and brothers have French names and married in the Catholic Church. The Times-Picayune called them Creole.

Paul’s death record does not name his parents, and I haven’t found the matching birth record, but I am confident he is Angelina and Sebastiano’s child. No one else in town has the surname “Sparacello,” and his parents named another son Paul: twins Paolo and Giovanni Sparacello were born 29 August 1903 in New Orleans. No information about their race has been captured in the indexed versions of their birth records online.

While Angelina’s father is called Flavillo in her marriage record, in census and other vital records he more often appears as Jean. Based on one record calling him Flavillo J. Jasmin, “Jean” may be his middle name. The name “Paul” was important to the Sparacellos, too, since they named a second son Paolo after the first Paul died. “Giovanni” and “Jean” are the Italian and French versions of the English name “John.” Giovanni was named in honor of Angelina’s father. Who were Giuseppe and Paolo’s namesakes?

I don’t think the information Sam gives at marriage is truthful, for three reasons. The first is that he used another surname with his wife and children. There are no records of Angelina Jasmin and anyone named Giunta having children in New Orleans during the years they lived there. They consistently used the name Sparacello and passed it down to the next generation, with a small spelling change in one branch of the family. The second reason I doubt the marriage record’s veracity is that Sam doesn’t name any of his sons Giorgio, the name he reported as his father’s when he married. 

When Angelina Jasmin Sparacello died in 1961, her death record named her parents and her husband. Their oldest son, Joseph Michael, used the Sparacello spelling in 1918, and Sparcella when he died in 1982. In the 1940 census, Angelina Sparcello lives with her married daughter. Joseph’s obituary calls his parents John Sebastian Sparcella and Angelina Gueydon Sparcella. The addition to his father’s name may be an important clue to Sam Sparo’s true identity. (And “Gueydon” may lead me to more of Angelina’s relatives.) Of the four Sparacello children, none of them named a son Sebastian: the third reason I don’t believe the information “Sebastiano Giunta” gave on his marriage record. Possible clues to his real name are in the names of his grandsons. Two or three of his children had sons named John, and two had sons named Paul. 

Sam Asparo, whatever his real name was, married as Sebastiano Giunta in 1897, and had a son as Sebastiano Sparacello the next year. Last residential addresses appear on the death records of infant Paul and Samuel Asparo, but the family is at neither of them in the 1900 census. They never appear in the New Orleans city directory under any of these names. In what records exist for him, Sam appears as Sparacello until he went undercover, just barely, as Sam Asparo. 

Antonino Luciano was waging a defensive battle against Francesco Genova and Paolo Di Christina that had taken the lives of Salvatore Luciano, Vincenzo Vutera, Joseph Gerrachi, and Bartolo Ferrara: the latter three, members of the Genova faction. Tony Luciano was acquitted of murdering Bartolo Ferrara in February 1903. While he was still in jail, a body was found near Donaldsonville, the site of a contested macaroni factory, where Luciano had many friends. The victim had multiple stab wounds and a rope around his neck; he was never identified. In April, another body turned up in the same condition. This one was identified as Antonino Saltaformaggio, a brother-in-law of Joseph Calamia, who had led the charge that killed Tony’s brother, and of Giuseppe Morello, New York City’s most powerful Mafia boss. 

In May, Sam Sparo rented a room a block from Tony Luciano’s store, and began to slowly earn his trust. Three months later, on the 9th of August, his sixth wedding anniversary with Angelina, Sam shot Tony Luciano on the stairs outside a photography studio. Blocks away, his wife and their two young children waited for him to return. Angelina was nine months pregnant with twins, in New Orleans, in August; incredibly, her life was about to change for the worse.

Sam Sparo fled the scene of the shooting, but he was quickly caught. Tony Luciano died in the hospital awaiting surgery; a widower, he left two young children. Sparo was reported to laugh wildly from the window of the jail when Luciano’s funeral cortege passed in the street. 

Sparo went to trial in January 1904. Despite wearing the ragged clothes of a desperately poor man, he had the best legal representation—the same attorney who saw Luciano acquitted of murdering Bartolo Ferrara at his brother’s funeral. Sparo was not as lucky: he was found guilty of murder in early February. While waiting for a decision on his appeal, he remained in jail.

His appeal was denied the following January. Sentenced to hang, he was moved to Death Row. The man known as Sam Asparo or Sebastiano Sparacello was executed on 28 April 1905 at the parish prison in New Orleans.

Read the second part in The Macaroni Wars: The 800-pound gangster

Sour grapes: the bitter legacy of the Lemon King

Sour grapes: the bitter legacy of the Lemon King

Envious family members, neighbors, and colleagues are among the suspects in The Lemon King’s demise. 

Termini Imerese is on the northern coast of Sicily, in the same province as the larger port city of Palermo. It was founded in prehistory as a literal city on a hill. Wealthy Romans traveled to bathe in Termini’s legendary hot springs. In medieval times, the port was an important center for the collection and export of wheat. Like many places in Sicily, Termini Imerese saw its population decline with the rise of steam travel.

Imported fruit was a huge business in the early years of the 20th Century. Steam-powered ships and trains moved people and produce with speed and regularity, making possible the Great Migration from southern and eastern Europe, and new specialty professions: the strawberry farmer, the peddler of lemons and oranges, the bananas wholesaler.

In cities and small towns all over the United States, there were self-employed immigrant Italian fruit sellers ranging from street vendors with a bag of lemons to multi-million dollar wholesalers who dominated regional traffic. A large proportion of them were from Termini.

Gaspare Di Cola

Gaspare Di Cola was born here in 1866. His father, Maestro Giovanni, was a miller: one of the guilded professions in Sicily, and typically one of the wealthiest. As a young man he was required to serve in the Italian Army. Upon his return to Termini, he began an affair with Antonina Re, five years his senior, and married to Mariano Bova Conti. 

Soon after, he first emigrated to the United States and started a commercial produce brokerage in Boston. The success of this business gave Di Cola the title, in newspaper headlines, of “The Lemon King.” In the next US census, Antonina Re lived with Gaspare as his wife. A live-in domestic servant completed their household.

Neither of her children, who were eleven and thirteen in 1900, appears in the census with their mother. Newspapers and trial notes disagree on whether Antonina brought her older son, Antonino Bova, with her from Termini, or left him behind in the care of an aunt. The story told in the newspapers was that Antonino Bova resented his mother’s affair, and spent his youth in their Boston apartment pleading with his mother to marry Di Cola. In this version, he moved out when he reached the age of majority, but in what must have been a galling turn, his existence continued to be financed by Di Cola. The implication was that the young man with no connections in Boston naturally had difficulty establishing himself in a strange country. A summary of the court case in which Gaspare Di Cola’s relatives contested his will notes that it was reputedly Antonino’s complaints to an attorney about his mother and Di Cola’s relationship which prompted his parents’ divorce.

From the records I was able to find, Antonino Bova did not live in Boston until he was seventeen, arriving at the beginning of 1905. He turned eighteen a month later, and in September he married Agostina Palmisana, also eighteen. On the marriage license, Antonino Bova’s address is where Gaspare and his mother lived, on Hanover Street. After his marriage, Antonino worked as a barber. Antonino and Agostina had three children, all of whom lived at one time or another with Antonino’s mother.

The Lemon King lived with perpetual threats to his wealth, life, and happiness. His industrial might, prominence in the Italian community, and what must have been a well-known secret among their fellow Termitani—that Mrs. Annie Di Cola was another man’s wife—were openings for blackmail. In the months before his death, Di Cola received Black Hand letters, written demands for cash, which he refused to pay.

It has been supposed by at least one Mafia writer that Di Cola may have preceded Gaspare Messina as the first Mafia boss of Boston. Messina arrived in Boston in 1915, and was recognized as the city’s leading mafioso in the year Di Cola was killed. The Lemon King’s murder was never solved, and the details of how Messina achieved his reputation in Boston aren’t clear, but the well-liked grocery wholesaler was named boss of bosses again in 1930 when Joe Masseria was stripped of the position. (Messina’s Mafia, based in Boston, merged in 1932 with the Providence-based organization to form today’s Patriarca crime family.)

Mariano Bova Conti arrived in Boston early in 1916 with the intention of persuading his wife to return with him. Not only did she refuse, she initiated divorce proceedings. In June, she was free of him. But she and Gaspare did not marry right away.

The couple moved from Boston proper to Brookline, a 33-minute ride on the Green Line from the city center. It was here, near their home across the street from the train station, that two men shot at Gaspare Di Cola as he returned with Antonina, late in the evening, from a meeting of the Dante Aligheri Society in Boston. Only Gaspare was injured in the attack. He was rushed to the hospital, where he called for his lawyer to join them. Gaspare was dying. In accord with Sicilian custom, neither he nor Antonina would say anything about who had shot him. Gaspare had a new will drawn up, but he was too weak to sign it, so he authorized it with an X. Di Cola died the next morning from his injuries, on 21 September 1916. His death record notes that he died from gunshot wounds to the back.

His funeral was both lavish and extremely well attended, in the mode of Mafia funerals of the period. I’ve written here before about Antonio Miranda, whose importance to the Mafia in Springfield, Massachusetts, was not suspected until his funeral drew suspiciously large numbers of mourners from far-flung cities. Thousands saw Gaspare Di Cola laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts. 

Mariano Bova Conti, still in the United States when Di Cola was shot, was unable to be found by police seeking an interview with the suspect. One of several motivations proposed for the murder was that Mariano’s son, Antonino Bova, was not named as a beneficiary in Di Cola’s will.

Gaspare’s brother, Giuseppe Di Cola, inherited the wholesale business, with the stipulation that he pay for Antonina Re’s support for the rest of her life. She received a small living allowance, some personal items, and the right to occupy the home at 21 Fairbanks in Brookline. In the 1920 census, taken in January, she lived there with a boarder, another Italian woman. In October, four years after Gaspare’s death, she remarried to Geremia Campagna, a mechanic from Sperlonga, Italy. They divorced a few years later.

Antonino Bova

In 1930, Antonina lived at 21 Fairbanks with her “niece” Antonia Bova, eighteen, and nephew Mario Bova, fourteen. Antonia was Antonino’s daughter—Antonina’s granddaughter—and a student at Brookline High School. In the 1940 census, Antonina shared her apartment with two of Antonino’s sons, Matthew and Anthony, both in their twenties.

Gaspare Di Cola’s shooters were never identified, and his murder went unsolved. He appears to be a victim of envy. Gaspare Messina coveted the power he wielded. Black Handers and next of kin were all desperate for his wealth. Mariano Bova Conti sought the ineffable: his wife’s loving devotion. All had motivation to cause his death.  

Antonino Bova, firstborn of his beloved, was twenty-nine in 1916. That Antonino and his father Mariano were the killers is not out of the question. Growing up in Termini, and then living as Di Cola’s guest in Boston, Antonino had been deeply divided by his loyalties to his parents. He made a hasty exit from the private garden of the Lemon King, but from there he went to live in Boston among his in-laws and neighbors, who were almost all Termitani fruit peddlers who doubtless depended upon the wholesaling giant for their livelihoods. Antonino may have steeped in bitterness, and harbored anger over his mother’s abandonment of the family, which his father could tap for his own revenge when he was rebuffed. 

Or it may be that Tony Bova, barber, husband, and father of three, made a fresh start in Christian forgiveness of his mother and her lover. Whatever role Antonino had in Gaspare’s death, he had to live with it, and with his mother, who had witnessed the shooting. If indeed it was Antonino and his father who shot Di Cola, all three of them took that terrible secret to their graves.

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-in-law (often reported to be his brother) [Edited 26 Dec 2021 to correct relationship] 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.