The woods to the northeast of Corleone were a natural place to hide stolen cattle.
Corleone is a crossroads and an agricultural community. To the northeast of town is the Ficuzza, a huge forest that was also one of the King’s hunting preserves. Locals couldn’t legally hunt game, but they could gather firewood, wildcraft mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and fresh greens, and some men would make charcoal there. The revolutionary Carbonari (“charcoal burners”) of 1820 took their name from this activity that, with the enclosure of the commons, became illicit. The woods were also a natural place to hide stolen cattle.
Being an agricultural village in central Sicily, the main crops were beef and wheat. It follows, then that the principal criminal activities circa 1820 were cattle rustling and protection rackets. Landowners generally paid whatever was required to prevent their crops being burned or herded off and hidden. Having avoided these calamities, additional protection money was required to get the harvest safely to Palermo, to get it onto a ship in the port, and for the shipment to pass the gauntlet of pirates who hung around in the port. Just between its home village and Palermo, Sicilian products doubled in value, because of the great expense of transporting them.
Today, the woods of Ficuzza are the largest, protected forest in Sicily. Once covered with trees, the island lost most of its wooded areas to agriculture in classical times, with the foundations of the latifondi. In recent centuries, additional lands were cleared by short sighted landowners and managers, further shrinking the forest, eroding the soil, and causing rivers to silt up. The Ficuzza is not a proper forest, says one nature writer. The trees there are too widely spaced, and the prevailing species are not very tall. This makes these woods an ideal place to hide stolen cattle. (Or to hunt game, if you’re King Ferdinand.) Even in the 20th century, Dr. Navarra was involved in cattle theft, and used the Ficuzza for this purpose.
Criminals with fierce enough reputations could eventually trade on their curriculum vitae for employment by large landowners, as field guards or gabelloti. One of the perks of these positions was protection from the police. A criminal band that evidently lacked these connections (at least until it was too late), was led by a man called Rapanzino. Given the quantity of manpower and time devoted to his band’s destruction, Rapanzino must have either failed to make powerful friends, or made an enemy of his protector.
Rapanzino was born Giuseppe Castro on 24 October 1811, the second of ten children. His family lived in the Porto Salvo district, in the southwest of the old città of Corleone. His ingiuria (a class of insulting nicknames endemic in Sicily) means “cropper” or “abductor,” and suggests that among his crimes were the theft of either cattle or men.
Stolen goods—and kidnapped people—would be hidden away until a family member or owner made contact with the abductors, usually through a middleman, or “mezrano,” to redeem them. One of my distant cousins, Luciano Castro (1807-1859), of unknown relation to Rapanzino, was a mezrano by profession.
Not content simply to lead other men’s cattle into the forest, the armed band evidently roamed the province, committing robberies and murdering people. A bounty for Castro’s capture or killing is issued in September 1833, naming both Rapanzino and one of his leading associates, Puntillo.
Other members of Rapanzino’s gang were mainly from Corleone, with a handful from other villages in the province. Despite being wanted men in the fall of 1833, Rapanzino and several of his men appear in the Corleone Church census, taken the following January: the Palumbo brothers, Bernardo and Antonino, lived at home with their widowed mother; Giuseppe Castro, with his parents, his grandmother, and his brothers and sister. Another member, Paolo Jannazzo, appears in the same census, near the Palumbos, living with his wife. Paolo, born in 1809, is the son of the godparents of Antonino Palumbo, his band mate. Another member is probably a cousin of the Palumbos: Leoluca Mondello.
The same year as this census was taken, five men were reported to have escaped the Arsenal, the Bourbon prison in Palermo. Three of them were from Corleone, and members of Rapanzino’s gang.
In the ensuing police chase, Bernardo and Antonino were captured, and some say they were guillotined in Palermo in 1835, while others say the brothers escaped to Tunis. The remaining members are named in a March 1836 bounty. The search is led by the locally stationed police captain, Don Pietro lo Cascio. Not a corleonese himself, Don Pietro appears in the 1834 census, living in Corleone with his wife and two servants, a few doors away from the politician and Carbonaro, Don Giuseppe Catinella.
Giuseppe “Rapanzino” Castro and one of his associates, Leoluca Mondello, were both killed on the same day in July 1836. Police reports of their deaths describe the event as completing the destruction of Rapanzino’s band. The Church record of Giuseppe Castro’s death record calls him “Rapanzino.”
At least two members of Rapanzino’s gang have ties to my family through my fourth-great uncle, Stefano Cascio, and they are among the only survivors of the 1836 manhunt. Biagio Jannazzo died in 1861, after eighteen years of marriage to Rosalia Cascio, Stefano’s daughter. (His brother, Paolo’s fate is not known.) Another of Stefano’s daughters married a Sylvan guard, Vincenzo Maida, who was also a first cousin of the Palumbo brothers.
Later in the century, Stefano’s son, Marco, and grandson and namesake, Stefano, were both landowners, a privilege that belonged almost exclusively to the nobility and the gabelloti. The younger Stefano was killed in 1893 at the Agricultural Society Casino, a known Mafia hangout.
According to the police record, most of Rapanzino’s band were captured or killed, in the summer of 1836.
Image credit: “Il bosco della Ficuzza ai piedi di Rocca Busambra” Di Utente:ramas7 – opera propria, CC BY-SA 3.0