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.
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.
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:
- Salvatore “Sam” Lima, leader of the Society, lived in Marion, Ohio, from Trabia, sentenced to sixteen years
- Sam’s brother Sebastian Lima, a Marion fruit dealer, got ten years
- Sam Lima’s brother-in-law Joe Ignoffo, a cobbler in Marion, ten years
- 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
- Salvatore’s son Vincenzo Arrigo, Cincinnati fruit dealer, got a new trial
- Agostino Marfisi (1865-1946), successful Dennison merchant from Termini who avoided prosecution
- Antonio “Tony” Vicario (1888-1958) from Galati Mamertino, Messina, worked as a fruit dealer for Agostino Marfisi in Dennison, Ohio
- Antonio’s brother Calogero “Charles” Vicario (b. 1880), a fruit dealer in Bellefontaine
- Salvatore Demma (1880-1959), Dayton fruit dealer from Termini, brother of Maria Demma, intimidated Charles Amicon with Saverio Ventola
- Saverio “Salvatore” Ventola, a carpenter in Columbus
- Orazio Rumfola, Pittsburgh fruit dealer, got six years
- Antonio Lima of Pittsburgh, fled to Italy
- Pippino Galbo, a fruit dealer in Meadville, PA, four years
- Francesco Sbadara/Spadero, a saloonkeeper in Cincinnati, made boss after Lima, two years, said to be from Termini
- Antonino Nusso (b. 1878) from Caccamo, fruit peddler in Cleveland
- Antonino’s brother Joseph Nusso (d. 1913), also a Cleveland fruit peddler
- Salvatore Rizzo, a railroad section hand in Marion, probably from Trabia
- Joseph Battaglia, Marion
- 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.
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.
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.