He’s not Steve LaSalle, but he’s connected.
The Mafia has long been entwined with the construction industry, particularly in New York City. An early example of this association is the story of Giuseppe Morello and his building co-operative, the Ignatz Florio Co-operative Among Corleonesi. Chartered at the end of 1902, it was a successful, and by all accounts legitimate, business until the financial panic in the summer of 1907.
For much of the 20th century, Mafia controlled construction in several ways. They extorted developers, charging a kickback to winning bidders on contracts, and later, once work was under way, by controlling both labor and supply lines. In the late 1980s, the Mafia controlled 75% of construction in New York City, through ownership of concrete supply companies, and union infiltration.
Early in the century, Italians were a formidable work force in the City. Over two million Italians came to New York between 1900 and 1910. Immigrants in the construction trades literally built parts of America, bridges and tenements that stand today. Stefano La Sala and his family members were among them. So, in his way, was Giuseppe Morello. The fearsome criminal known as “The Clutch Hand,” because of the birth defect that crippled his right hand, was not a builder in the literal sense, but his Co-op was one of the earliest developers of Italian neighborhoods in East Harlem and the Bronx.
The first president of the Ignatz Florio Co-operative Among Corleonesi was Antonio B. Milone. Giuseppe Morello was the Co-op’s first treasurer, and his future brother-in-law, the Palermitan Ignacio Lupo, was also a partner in the venture. The Co-op’s mission was to build housing for the Italian community in New York. Initially, the Co-op sold inexpensive shares, of two or five dollars, to Italian immigrants. Upon the completion of a building, shareholders earned dividends, which they could either take in cash or reinvest in the Co-op’s next venture. Most kept their money with Morello.
Three men, all born Stefano La Sala in Corleone, Sicily, all immigrated to New York. The youngest had no known connection to organized crime. The middle cousin, who I wrote about last week, was later known as Steve LaSalle, of the Lucchese Family. The oldest of the cousins did not Americanize his name. He was born and baptized on the first day of 1881, the first of ten children of Francesco La Sala and Domenica Guidera. His father is descended, on his mother’s side, from a merchant family who moved to Corleone from the Papal States. His mother, Domenica, was born in Palermo and raised in Corleone. Stefano’s paternal aunt and uncle, who stood as his godparents, are the parents of New York gangster Frank Moscato, an associate of Giuseppe Morello.
It’s uncommon to see Sicilian families moving from town to town. Yet the La Sala family was living in Marineo, about halfway between Corleone and Palermo, when their son Isidore was born in 1895. They immigrated to New York the same year.
By this time, Giuseppe Morello had already immigrated to the US with his first wife, Maria Rosa Marsalisi, and extended family. They were agricultural workers in the South for a number of years. Rosa returned to Corleone, where she died in 1898. Giuseppe and his family moved back to New York, where his and his brothers’ criminal interests included extortion and counterfeiting. At the end of 1902, Morello founded the Ignatz Florio Co-op.
Stefano was a teenager when the La Sala family immigrated to New York. His father, Francesco, was a mason by profession. Stefano and at least two of his brothers, Domenico and Isidore, would follow their father into masonry and construction contracting.
In New York, Stefano married his second cousin, Francesca Castro, in 1902. Giuseppe Morello remarried the following year to another Corleone native, Lena Salemi. By this time, it’s likely that Stefano and Giuseppe were already partners in the construction of two tenements in East Harlem. Stefano sold four lots on 105th Street in August 1904: two to the New York Security and Trust Company, and two to the Ignatz Florio Co-op. The mortgages on each of the sales were of the same value, $65,000 (more than $1.6M today), and in the sale to the Co-op, the assessment on which the sale was made, was determined during the course of construction, indicating a new structure. The Co-op’s practice was to construct new tenements on land purchased relatively cheaply, being on the outskirts and undeveloped, and then to resell the buildings. (According to Zillow, buildings in the 105th block now go for around $7M.)
One of the clues that there were at least two men born Stefano La Sala, who had associations with the Morello gang, was this real estate record. At the time it was conducted, the youngest of the three was only twelve years old. The middle cousin, born in 1888, was the future Lucchese associate, Steve LaSalle. He would later work as a plasterer, notably at Sing Sing. But in 1904 Steve LaSalle was just sixteen years old. The census taken in 1905 calls him a “laborer.” The oldest cousin, on the other hand, was 23 years old and married. Most importantly, he was a builder, in the same profession as his father.
Stefano and his wife appear in the 1905 census living with her brother, Peter Castro, who was not yet married. Like Stefano, Pete also immigrated as a teenager. He was a plasterer by trade, placing him in a natural alliance to the masonry contractor. In addition to being Stefano’s second cousin and brother-in-law, Pete is also the maternal uncle of Angelo Di Carlo, one of the people credited with rebuilding the Mafia in Corleone after WWII. Upon his marriage in 1913, Pete Castro would be even more closely related to the Mafia: he married his niece, Angelo’s sister, Rosa.
In 1907 there was a financial crisis, one of the first to be felt worldwide. In the days before the FDIC, the Banker’s Panic wiped out two dozen banks catering to the Italian community in New York, losing the life savings of thousands of families. It also brought down Morello’s successful building co-operative.
What appeared at the outset to be a legitimate business venture, if enacted by known criminals, eventually took on the familiar tones of more recent Mafia involvement in construction. One of the lures of union leadership to organized crime, besides the ability to order work slowdowns and strikes, is access to the often large pension and insurance accounts set up for union workers.
Early in 1907, the Co-op began altering its business strategy, from local sales of inexpensive shares to the community it served, to selling $100 shares to associates of the Morello-Terranova Family, all over the US. The Co-op regularly kept nearly all its capital in new construction projects, but Morello began to dip into what cash reserves existed, making a bad situation worse. A year after the panic, the formerly profitable Co-op, now heavily mortgaged, began defaulting on payments to vendors. One of their largest debts was to Philbrick & Brother, who brought them to court in 1910. The Ignatz Florio Co-op never recovered, and ceased operation in 1913.
Stefano became a naturalized citizen in 1905. He and his father started a masonry contracting company together in 1908. This legacy is mentioned in a 1984 profile of one of Francesco’s descendants, upon his purchase of 3.75 acres in Bronxville. In 1917, Stefano and Pete Castro reported to the WWI draft that they were macaroni manufacturers—possibly they owned shares in the same concern. Meanwhile, they continued to work in building contracting. When Giuseppe Morello was killed in 1930, his profession was still listed as “contractor.”
Stefano and Francesca had six children. They lived in the Bronx, and later in Yonkers, where they lived next door to Francesca’s brother, Pete. Their four sons joined Stefano in the masonry business, which “made it big” in the 1920s, during a housing boom. “They were one of the most successful mason contractors in New York, subsequently becoming multimillionaires,” writes family historian Vincent Di Carlo.
Through most of the 1920s, Morello’s half-brother, “The Artichoke King,” Ciro Terranova, lived in East Harlem. Then he paid cash for a big house in Westchester County. But after he was pushed into retirement in 1935, Ciro was forced to declare bankruptcy, and lost the house. He moved back to his old place in East Harlem, to a building the family still owned: 338 E 116th St, the headquarters of the old Ignatz Florio Co-operative. Ciro suffered a stroke there in 1938, and died two days later.
“116th Street Crew in ‘Little Italy’ Harlem NY, 1890s.” Published 24 July 2016. http://harlemworldmag.com/116th-street-crew-in-little-italy-harlem-ny-1890s/#more-70657 Accessed 14 March 2017
Di Carlo, Vincent Angelo. The Di Carlo Family: From Corleone, Sicily, Italy. 2013. http://www.dicarlofamiglia.com/uploads/3/7/3/5/37352841/dicarlo_family_05_18_2013.pdf Accessed 11 November 2015.
Dash, Mike. The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. Simon and Schuster, 9 June 2011.
Hunt, Thomas, “Sinistro: The Underworld Career of Giuseppe Morello (1867-1930),” The American Mafia, mafiahistory.us; http://www.onewal.com/a029/f_morello.html Accessed 5 March 2017.
Whitehouse, Franklin. “Sale of Tract Stirs Concern in Bronxville.” The New York Times, 23 September 1984. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/23/nyregion/sale-of-tract-stirs-concern-in-bronxville.html Accessed 8 March 2017.
Feature Image: Yard of tenement buildings at 107th and Park circa 1900, by Detroit Publishing Co., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18437859