Benedetto Madonia was killed for defending his brother-in-law from Giuseppe Morello. While he is known forever as the victim of “the Barrel Murder,” the story of what happened after his death is rarely told.
Benedetto Salvatore Madonia was born in Lercara Friddi, as were his parents, his wife and her parents, and all three of his children. (Lercara is also the hometown of a more famous mafioso, Salvatore Lucania, known as Charlie “Lucky” Luciano.) Benedetto married for the first time in 1891, when he was thirty years old, to Lucia di Primo. Lucia was a widow and her marriage record calls her a “civile,” which indicates she was from the upper class.
Madonia, on the other hand, was a sulfur miner, the lowest class of workers, who worked in often brutal conditions. A word that is synonymous with the sulfur miners of Lercara Friddi is “caruso,” which literally translates as “boy,” because young boys were sold by their destitute families to the owners of these mines, nearly always for life.
Benedetto’s family situation was not so dire. In 1900, Madonia immigrated, joining a brother in New York City. Two years later, his wife and three children, plus two older children from Lucia’s first marriage, joined him in Buffalo, New York, more than 300 miles from Manhattan, on the coast of Lake Erie. The Madonia family told their doubtful neighbors that Benedetto was a stonemason. In fact, the recent immigrant was already a high ranking member of Giuseppe Morello’s counterfeiting gang.
Madonia’s brother-in-law was also in Morello’s gang. Lucia’s brother, Giuseppe di Primo, had been in New York since 1891. His position was as a “queer pusher,” the low ranking men in the counterfeiting organization who circulated Morello’s bad bills. Di Primo also owned a grocery store, and was married with four children.
When Morello’s queer pushers were arrested passing the gang’s money in Pittsburgh, Madonia was sent to intervene, leading him to argue with Morello over the leader’s apparent lack of concern for his men. When their pushers were arrested again, this time in Yonkers, Giuseppe di Primo was one of the men who went to prison. Although he didn’t talk, his associate, Isadore Crocevera, may have fallen for the detective’s ploy, and told Morello that Di Primo talked to the police. In this version of events, Morello killed Madonia to send a message to Di Primo. But Madonia and Morello had their own quarrel, which was now coming to a head.
Madonia sent money to New York City for his brother-in-law’s defense, but Morello pocketed the cash—a thousand dollars, a great sum in 1903—and did nothing for the imprisoned man. So the weekend of Easter, Benedetto Madonia left Buffalo and went to New York. He told Morello he was coming, and demanded the return of his money. Madonia must have felt quite confident to talk to Morello this way, and not to sense the danger that lie waiting for him in New York.
When he got to the city, Benedetto went first to Sing Sing, to see his wife’s brother, Giuseppe. The next time the imprisoned man saw his brother-in-law, it was in a photograph, brought by a detective, so Di Primo could identify the man whose body had been discovered in an old sugar barrel, on East Eleventh Street, in the East Village.
There was a trial. Madonia’s oldest stepchild, Salvatore Sagliabene, identified a pawned watch as his stepfather’s. The pawn ticket was found in the possession of Tommaso Petto, a criminal associate of Morello’s who was called “the Ox.” Twelve men were arrested, but none were convicted of Madonia’s murder. Di Primo, once the criminal accomplice of the defendants, swore he would avenge his brother-in-law’s death.
The Ox, whose real name was Luciano Perino, was the first to be killed. He’d gone into hiding in a mining town in Pennsylvania, and was shot to death in October 1906. The next month, Girolamo Mondini was lured to an East Harlem address with a letter, and shot in the street. A year later, at Christmas, another of the gangsters, Nicola Nera, was killed in Palermo. Vito Laduca, Morello’s most prominent lieutenant at the time of Madonia’s killing, met his end in Carini a few months later.
It’s not certain that Di Primo was in Sicily when Nera and Laduca were killed, though the timing of his children’s births—John in February 1906, in Pennsylvania, and Mary, in May 1908 in New York—allows for the possibility. Just four months after Mary’s birth, Giuseppe was deported. His parting words to the officers who put him on a ship back to Lercara, were a warning that if Petrosino or his men came to Italy, they would not return. The following March, New York police detective Joseph Petrosino was shot to death in Palermo.
The story of Di Primo’s revenge killings appears in an uncredited 1909 story called “‘Getting’ Them One By One,” published in newspapers across the country. According to this article, of eight men suspected of involvement in Madonia’s murder, six were killed, the last being Giuseppe Farano, in Brooklyn, in 1913. Two men survived Di Primo’s vengeance, Vito Loboido and Ignazio Lupo.
The problem with the story, aside from being unable to confirm any of these reported deaths in vital records, is that the names of those arrested and the shorter list Di Primo was “getting” only partially overlap. The Schuylerville Standard reported on 13 April 1903 that nine men were arrested in connection with Madonia’s murder:
Joseph Fanaro, 24 (b. 1879), married, merchant
Antonio Genova, 38 (b. 1865), single, importer, aka Messina Genova
Lorenzo Loboido, 48 (b. 1855), married, merchant
Vito Loboido, 24 (b. 1879), laborer
Domenico Pecoraro, 53 (b. 1850), married, farmer
Pietro Inzerillo, 44 (b. 1859), married, confectioner
Giuseppe Morello, 34 (b. 1869), agent, single
Tomasso Petto, 24 (b. 1879), married, clothing presser
Ignatz Lupo, 25 (b. 1878).
Three days later, The New York World reported twelve men being arrested, splashing their photos across the front page, and adding Testa, Lalamia, and Vito Lodma to the list. David Critchley reports their full names in The Origin of Organized Crime in America. The Christmas victim who the author of “‘Getting’ Them One By One” calls Nicola Nera might be Nicola Testa. “One by One” mentions Vito Loboido, but not his relative, Lorenzo.
When I searched for coverage of Girolamo Mondini’s arrest, I found Thomas Hunt’s timeline which cites the same 1909 article I had found, but in a different newspaper. A similar account of Di Primo’s revenge killings also appears in a 1925 article in the Buffalo Courier.
Months before Madonia’s death in April 1903, Salvatore Clemente, a known Morello counterfeiter, told Secret Service that two of the arrestees, Domenico Pecoraro and Giuseppe Morello, were responsible for the murder of Giuseppe Catania, a Brooklyn grocer whose body was found the previous summer. Pecoraro, the oldest of the men, does not appear in the article about Di Primo’s revenge. Morello, Pecoraro, and a third man, Antonio Genova, are called leaders of the counterfeiting gang by New York papers.
After Madonia’s murder, his family remained in the Buffalo area. Peter Benjamin Madonia, the youngest child of the late Benedetto, worked as an electrician. In 1920, he lived in Buffalo with his older stepbrother, Salvatore Sagliabene, a dry goods dealer, and his wife and children. As for the man who reportedly carried out six murders to avenge his death, in the same year’s census, Madonia’s brother-in-law Giuseppe, called Joseph Di Primo, appears with his wife, Angelina, and five of their children in Niagara, New York, twenty miles from Buffalo. He works as a sweeper in a carbide factory.
See the Wikitree profiles of Benedetto Madonia and his family members and associates, at the above links, for vital records and other sources used in this story.
The drawings of Laduca and Di Primo were published with William J. Flynn’s report for the New York Herald on 30 June 1912: “Lupo the Wolf, Caged, Still Fights the Secret Service.”