Even the biographies of well-known mafia figures like Giuseppe Morello are made up, in part, of rumors and legends. Morello was called “The Clutch Hand” because three of the fingers on his right hand were fused at birth. His birth defect did not prevent Morello from learning to write, or to fire a gun. It’s said he killed thirty or forty people in Corleone before fleeing to the United States to avoid imprisonment. In New York, Morello and his associates were active counterfeiters and it was this activity that brought “The Clutch Hand” to the attention of one of his future biographers.
William J. Flynn was an American detective who spent much of his career pursuing organized crime figures like Giuseppe Morello and his half-brothers, the Terranovas. After leaving the Secret Service, Flynn semi-retired to private detective work and, according to Flynn’s biographer, Mike Dash, Flynn was a heavy drinker, and his detective business was not successful.
Where Flynn prospered was as a writer of crime fiction. He wrote “true crime” about his greatest cases, was a consultant to the film industry, and edited a crime fiction magazine. His book, “The Barrel Mystery,” is about his time in the Secret Service, battling counterfeiters in New York. Flynn wrote about Morello that, before leaving Corleone, he killed a Sylvan guard, Giovanni Vella. Morello went on to cover up his crime by killing as many as four more people, including an elderly woman named Anna di Puma.
At least some of Flynn’s “facts” were altered in stories like “The Barrel Mystery,” and were published as crime fiction. Yet many writers treat “The Barrel Mystery” as history. Richard Wagner provides the detail that Anna di Puma was an old woman. Blogger Joe Bruno adds one more name to the list of Morello’s victims, and so does Mike Dash, in his book, “The First Family.” Bruno says Michele Guarino Zangara was Giuseppe Morello’s neighbor, overheard the killer talking to his mother, and upon his discovery, was thrown off a bridge. Dash says that soon after killing Anna di Puma, Morello also killed Pietro Milone, who was like Vella, an honest police officer investigating a crime. (Vella was investigating cattle thefts at the time of his murder.)
There are few families in Corleone whose names are as intertwined as those of Frisella and Vella. In many records, family members are called by the double surname “Frisella Vella,” distinguishing them from another Corleone family, the Oliva Frisellas. In the 1885 baptism of Giovanni Vella’s daughter, Giuseppa, she is called “Frisella Vella.” In Church records, Catholics are called by the Latin form of their name: Giuseppa is “Josepha,” and Giovanni is called “Joannes.”
There is a death record for “Joannes Frisella,” dated 29 December 1889, in the records kept by the Catholic Church in Corleone. This record is unique on the page, and unique among the pages before and after this one. The difference is in one word, found in perhaps a few dozen records in a hundred years in Corleone. Frisella’s death, “obiit,” is modified by the word “interfectus,” which means “killed.” The time and place of Frisella’s murder match the accounts of Giovanni Vella, the Sylvan guard, given by Flynn and others. He is undoubtedly the same person.
The death records that cannot be found, in the pages surrounding Giovanni’s, are those of Morello’s other alleged victims. There is no old woman named Anna, (nor Antonina, nor Giovanna) either born “di Puma,” or whose mother was named di Puma (a common error), or who married a man by this name. There are no death records for men named Pietro Milone or any version of “Michele Guarino Zangara” (another double surname). There are no more murders reported in Corleone until the spring, when two men are found killed, and at least one more man was murdered in Corleone before Giuseppe Morello left the country. Whether there is any connection between Morello and these other deaths, are stories for another time. But the story of Anna di Puma, it would appear, is only that: a story. If there is any truth in it, the truth is so far from the accounts that have become part of Morello’s biography, as to be lost to history.
Morello fled Sicily in May 1892. Giuseppe’s mother and stepfather’s family joined him six months later. Morello, with his half-brothers, went on to lead the first Sicilian mafia family in New York. His wife died in Corleone.