At the height of the cholera epidemic, a foiled Republican plot for independence leads to mob violence.

Strangers are the enemy in every story of Sicilian revolution. This is because the Sicilian story is one of constant invasion and foreign control. In 1282, during the Sicilian Vespers, anyone who looked or sounded French was killed. The shibboleth was “cece,” the local word for a common food staple, the chickpea. If a stranger could not pronounce the word, he was killed as a foreign invader.

The same fear of outsiders aroused by the Sicilian Vespers was inflamed by the cholera epidemic of 1837. In “The Betrothed,” (called “the most widely read work in the Italian language”) one of the lovers, Renzo Tramaglino, is taken for an “anointer” because he looks like a foreigner. An anointer was someone who, according to the rumor, was sent as an agent of the king, to poison the Sicilian populace with cholera. The story fueled an insurrection, which was violently suppressed by the Bourbon King Ferdinand II.

Early in the 19th century, laws regarding debt, land ownership, and the rights of leaseholders had oriented the agricultural marketplace toward short term gains that enriched an already ascendant class of gabelloti. In 1789 and 1820, estate managers had taken advantage of reforms to grab land and reinforce their power over landowners and the peasantry alike. Denis Mack Smith writes in his history of Sicily, “All the ingredients of the mafia were present [by 1831] except the word itself.”

In 1837 in Sicily, a liberal movement for independence from the Bourbon king was spreading among educated nobles like the Bentivegna family of Corleone, guildsmen, dissident groups including the Carbonari and Freemasons, and criminals, the latter of whom learned of the political movement in prison. The revolutionary leaders of 1848 and 1860, Francesco Bentivegna and Giuseppe Garibaldi, were both Republicans. In the year of Bentivegna’s revolt, 1848, there would be another outbreak of cholera, and again in 1867, but in 1837, when Francesco Bentivegna was seventeen years old, a third of his town fell ill, and half of those people died. That was the year he became a believer in Republicanism.

“Colera,” in Italian as well as in Spanish, has two meanings: the deadly disease caused by various strains of Vibrio cholerae, and emotional passion, which people once believed was caused by an excess of bile. In the novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez uses the word’s double meaning to warn against the dangers of an excess of passion.

In the days when health was still a matter of balancing the bodily humors, cholera morbus was a catchall term for any kind of stomach flu. “Morbus” sounds worse in English than its meaning in Latin, which is simply “disease” or “ailment.” “Cholera” is derived from the Greek khole which means “illness from bile.”

“Asiatic cholera,” which is what we recognize today as the deadly disease, cholera, caused by various strains of Vibrio cholerae, used to be thought of as merely a more aggravated form of  cholera morbus. Before it spread to western Europe, Asiatic cholera was endemic to India, and spread through shipping ports. It was seen in England as early as the mid 17th century. It’s possible it was seen in Sicily before 1837, but this was the first time the disease spread to such devastating effect.

Patients infected with cholera died from a rapid depletion of bodily fluids, and as their bodies broke down, they exhibited the symptoms first of dehydration, and then of oxygen deficiency, which made their extremities cold and blue. At first, cholera victims thrashed and screamed, and their muscles spasmed. The disease was presumed to be spread by bad air, not contaminated water. Treatments included bloodletting, opiates, and mercury.

Within just a day in most cases, patients were exhausted and unresponsive. It was an agonizing death, and terrifying to behold. American medical records of the time reported bodies that twitched for hours after expiration. In a later cholera epidemic in Sicily, in 1888, the British Consul at Palermo reported that the people there had lived for some months in a state of “savage panic.”

***

King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies took the throne in 1830. At first, he appeared to be a progressive ruler, like his grandfather and namesake, the first King Ferdinand of Sicily, son of the Bourbon king of Spain. He commissioned the Royal Palace of Ficuzza, the King’s hunting lodge in the Ficuzza woods, near Corleone.  

Ferdinand II opened institutions in support of the sciences, including agriculture and statistics, and built the first railroad, in mainland Italy. Garibaldi’s Thousand famously rode the train to Rome in 1860, but the Industrial Revolution would be slow to reach Sicily: the island would not have its first rail service for decades.

By 1835, the King had lost interest in remediating the island of his birth, and his rule veered right. He shut down clubs, and increased censorship of foreign books. Land reforms and a growing market in Russian and American wheat meant that for Sicilian peasants, bread and pasta were increasingly luxuries, and meat, rare: the typical Sicilian peasant subsisted on cactus fruit and chickpeas. Even natural resources were diminishing, due to poor land management that resulted in soil erosion, deforestation, and flooding. In times of great poverty, peasants increasingly turn to banditry. The early years of Ferdinand II’s reign were the years in which Rapanzino and his band were active, stealing cattle and hiding them near the King’s hunting grounds.

At this time, practically everything came from abroad. The basic necessities of life, from bricks to buttons, were imported. In June, 1837, the first to be affected by cholera were two sanitation guards in the port of Palermo, who the historian and priest, Don Giovanni Colletto tells us were also smugglers. The district attempted a quarantine by putting up barricades, but the disease swept through the city and out to the countryside, with the citizens who had fled the city, attempting to escape the epidemic. A rumor began circulating that “anointers,” agents of King Ferdinand II, were spreading the disease through their food.

In the minds of many Sicilians, the epidemic of 1837, a disease of unknown origin or cure, was fused to the known threat of Bourbon oppression. Cholera was called “the Bourbon disease.” (Italians called syphilis “the Spanish disease,” in much the same spirit.) Denis Mack Smith writes that even university professors (who were not the most highly educated) and the archbishop of Palermo (who might have been more so) believed cholera was spread by “anointers” from the mainland.

As part of their campaign against the rumor, the police published manifestos, ordinances, and posters correcting assumptions about the disease. This did not stop the lynch mobs, in towns throughout Sicily, from attacking suspected anointers. In Roccamena, close to Corleone, Colletto alludes to early signs of civil unrest: two citizens were held in a makeshift hospital, not because they were ill, but to protect them from rioting.

Word came to Corleone from Palermo on 12 June to take precautions against disease. Corleone established a cordon sanitaire around the city. In Don Pietro Scaglione’s fondaco (a marketplace/storage depot/hostel), near the church of San Antonio, there were ten people being held under observation. Other people suspected of illness were kept quarantined in their homes.

As the death tolls rose throughout the island, ordinary food supply channels were cut, towns closed their gates, and cities emptied. There was widespread hysteria, lynchings, and looting. People were dying from disease in Corleone. But on 1 July 1837, when the Church there recorded the event, they said they were suffering merely from cholera morbus.

On 21 July, violence broke out in Corleone. The town had been under a quarantine for more than a month. Maestro Gaetano Governali, his nineteen year old son, Giuseppe, and two more men, Ciro Boscarelli, and Leo lo Bue, were dragged to the Gatto bridge by a mob, beaten, and then shot to death with rifles. The main aggressors in the crowd were Giuseppe Catalinotto (called “Catinotto Moscoglione,” which is a rendering of his surname followed by a nickname that apparently means a weaver of spiderwebs), Liborio Perricone, Leoluca Milone, Simone Majuri (called “Maione” in two different accounts), and Benedetto Glorietti, all but the last, natives of Corleone. Two more men were murdered this day, according to the Church’s records of their deaths: Antonino Giaccone and Maestro Gesualdo Birritella.

Two days later, Antonio di Puma, who was called by the ingiuria “Lasagna,” was killed by Antonio Ciraulo. Also on the twenty-third, three women were killed by the nineteen year old Biagio Listi, called “Frattiglione (Frattaglione is a nickname and local place name) and his companion, 23 year old Simone Majuri, who was also involved in the killings on the Gatto bridge on the nineteenth. Their victims were Carmela Billera and two wives of the men killed: Maria Pomilla, the recent widow of Don Leo lo Bue, and Birritella’s widow, Angela Colletto. Another man killed this day was Don Ignacio Gennaro. Colletto tells us that the three women, and Di Puma, were all accused of spreading poison.

Catalinotto, Pirricone, Milone, Majuri, and Benedetto di Mitri, were all executed on 2 August. From another source, the list of those executed is longer, with some overlap to Colletto’s. In addition to Giuseppe Catinotto Moscoglione, Liborio Perricone, Leoluca Milone, Simone Majone (Majuri), Benedetto Glorietti Dimitri (this Monreale native is known by at least three versions of this name), and Biagio Listi Frattaglione di Antonino, this source lists among the executed Antonino Celauro (Ciraulo), Liborio Greco, Leoluca Trya (possibly Friia, or Traina), Antonino Palazzo, Vincenzo Palumbo, Pasquale d’Auria (d’Anna), Vincenzo Grimaldi, and Cosimo Notarbartolo. The execution was performed by a military battalion, as part of an island-wide crackdown on insurrection.

Antonio Ciraulo, who was executed on the second of August, is also known as Antonino Ciravolo: a cousin of mine, and the nephew of Nicolo’ “Puntillo” Ciravolo, a member of Rapanzino’s gang, most of whose members were killed by the police, the previous summer. Vincenzo Palumbo was the brother of two members of Rapanzino’s gang, Bernardo and Antonino Palumbo, who were both reportedly guillotined in Palermo in December 1835. Legend has it, the Palumbo brothers escaped to Tunis, but Vincenzo was not so lucky. He was executed on 19 August 1837 in the public square in Corleone.

Sources:

Denis Mack Smith, A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily After 1713. Dorset Press, 1988.

Charles E. Rosenberg. The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.) Accessed https://books.google.com/books?id=k2pL9c00rl4C&pg=PA74#v=onepage&q&f=false 24 April 2016.

The Lancet. “Dr. Smart on cholera in insular positions.” 19 April 1873. p. 555.

Giovanni Colletto. Storia Della Citta di Corleone (Siracusa: Tip. Littoriale, 1934.)

Death records 1747-1751, 2 August 1837, “Italia, Palermo, Diocesi di Monreale, Registri Parrocchiali, 1531-1998,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-266-11555-102038-84?cc=2046915 : accessed 22 April 2016), Corleone > San Martino > Morti 1837-1843 > image 91 of 194; Archivio di Arcidiocesi di Palermo (Palermo ArchDiocese Archives, Palermo).

Archivio storico siciliano, Volume 14, accessed https://books.google.com/books?id=q3JMAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA444&lpg=PA444&dq=Moscoglione&source=bl&ots=hINJuyeggI&sig=mefpuW2GKvMA3ZKHG5W9djfGrDg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiXydKLx6XMAhUCNT4KHabrCQMQ6AEIMzAE#v=onepage&q=Moscoglione&f=false 23 April 2016. Pubblicazione Periodica della Societa Siciliana per la Storia Patria. Nuova Serie, Anno XIV. (Palermo: Tipografia dello “Statuto”, 1889.)

Image credit: By Francesco Redenti (Correggio 1820 – Torino 1876) (Scan da “Il fischietto” del 20 gennaio 1857) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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