Sour grapes: the bitter legacy of the Lemon King

Sour grapes: the bitter legacy of the Lemon King

Envious family members, neighbors, and colleagues are among the suspects in The Lemon King’s demise. 

Termini Imerese is on the northern coast of Sicily, in the same province as the larger port city of Palermo. It was founded in prehistory as a literal city on a hill. Wealthy Romans traveled to bathe in Termini’s legendary hot springs. In medieval times, the port was an important center for the collection and export of wheat. Like many places in Sicily, Termini Imerese saw its population decline with the rise of steam travel.

Imported fruit was a huge business in the early years of the 20th Century. Steam-powered ships and trains moved people and produce with speed and regularity, making possible the Great Migration from southern and eastern Europe, and new specialty professions: the strawberry farmer, the peddler of lemons and oranges, the bananas wholesaler.

In cities and small towns all over the United States, there were self-employed immigrant Italian fruit sellers ranging from street vendors with a bag of lemons to multi-million dollar wholesalers who dominated regional traffic. A large proportion of them were from Termini.

Gaspare Di Cola

Gaspare Di Cola was born here in 1866. His father, Maestro Giovanni, was a miller: one of the guilded professions in Sicily, and typically one of the wealthiest. As a young man he was required to serve in the Italian Army. Upon his return to Termini, he began an affair with Antonina Re, five years his senior, and married to Mariano Bova Conti. 

Soon after, he first emigrated to the United States and started a commercial produce brokerage in Boston. The success of this business gave Di Cola the title, in newspaper headlines, of “The Lemon King.” In the next US census, Antonina Re lived with Gaspare as his wife. A live-in domestic servant completed their household.

Neither of her children, who were eleven and thirteen in 1900, appears in the census with their mother. Newspapers and trial notes disagree on whether Antonina brought her older son, Antonino Bova, with her from Termini, or left him behind in the care of an aunt. The story told in the newspapers was that Antonino Bova resented his mother’s affair, and spent his youth in their Boston apartment pleading with his mother to marry Di Cola. In this version, he moved out when he reached the age of majority, but in what must have been a galling turn, his existence continued to be financed by Di Cola. The implication was that the young man with no connections in Boston naturally had difficulty establishing himself in a strange country. A summary of the court case in which Gaspare Di Cola’s relatives contested his will notes that it was reputedly Antonino’s complaints to an attorney about his mother and Di Cola’s relationship which prompted his parents’ divorce.

From the records I was able to find, Antonino Bova did not live in Boston until he was seventeen, arriving at the beginning of 1905. He turned eighteen a month later, and in September he married Agostina Palmisana, also eighteen. On the marriage license, Antonino Bova’s address is where Gaspare and his mother lived, on Hanover Street. After his marriage, Antonino worked as a barber. Antonino and Agostina had three children, all of whom lived at one time or another with Antonino’s mother.

The Lemon King lived with perpetual threats to his wealth, life, and happiness. His industrial might, prominence in the Italian community, and what must have been a well-known secret among their fellow Termitani—that Mrs. Annie Di Cola was another man’s wife—were openings for blackmail. In the months before his death, Di Cola received Black Hand letters, written demands for cash, which he refused to pay.

It has been supposed by at least one Mafia writer that Di Cola may have preceded Gaspare Messina as the first Mafia boss of Boston. Messina arrived in Boston in 1915, and was recognized as the city’s leading mafioso in the year Di Cola was killed. The Lemon King’s murder was never solved, and the details of how Messina achieved his reputation in Boston aren’t clear, but the well-liked grocery wholesaler was named boss of bosses again in 1930 when Joe Masseria was stripped of the position. (Messina’s Mafia, based in Boston, merged in 1932 with the Providence-based organization to form today’s Patriarca crime family.)

Mariano Bova Conti arrived in Boston early in 1916 with the intention of persuading his wife to return with him. Not only did she refuse, she initiated divorce proceedings. In June, she was free of him. But she and Gaspare did not marry right away.

The couple moved from Boston proper to Brookline, a 33-minute ride on the Green Line from the city center. It was here, near their home across the street from the train station, that two men shot at Gaspare Di Cola as he returned with Antonina, late in the evening, from a meeting of the Dante Aligheri Society in Boston. Only Gaspare was injured in the attack. He was rushed to the hospital, where he called for his lawyer to join them. Gaspare was dying. In accord with Sicilian custom, neither he nor Antonina would say anything about who had shot him. Gaspare had a new will drawn up, but he was too weak to sign it, so he authorized it with an X. Di Cola died the next morning from his injuries, on 21 September 1916. His death record notes that he died from gunshot wounds to the back.

His funeral was both lavish and extremely well attended, in the mode of Mafia funerals of the period. I’ve written here before about Antonio Miranda, whose importance to the Mafia in Springfield, Massachusetts, was not suspected until his funeral drew suspiciously large numbers of mourners from far-flung cities. Thousands saw Gaspare Di Cola laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts. 

Mariano Bova Conti, still in the United States when Di Cola was shot, was unable to be found by police seeking an interview with the suspect. One of several motivations proposed for the murder was that Mariano’s son, Antonino Bova, was not named as a beneficiary in Di Cola’s will.

Gaspare’s brother, Giuseppe Di Cola, inherited the wholesale business, with the stipulation that he pay for Antonina Re’s support for the rest of her life. She received a small living allowance, some personal items, and the right to occupy the home at 21 Fairbanks in Brookline. In the 1920 census, taken in January, she lived there with a boarder, another Italian woman. In October, four years after Gaspare’s death, she remarried to Geremia Campagna, a mechanic from Sperlonga, Italy. They divorced a few years later.

Antonino Bova

In 1930, Antonina lived at 21 Fairbanks with her “niece” Antonia Bova, eighteen, and nephew Mario Bova, fourteen. Antonia was Antonino’s daughter—Antonina’s granddaughter—and a student at Brookline High School. In the 1940 census, Antonina shared her apartment with two of Antonino’s sons, Matthew and Anthony, both in their twenties.

Gaspare Di Cola’s shooters were never identified, and his murder went unsolved. He appears to be a victim of envy. Gaspare Messina coveted the power he wielded. Black Handers and next of kin were all desperate for his wealth. Mariano Bova Conti sought the ineffable: his wife’s loving devotion. All had motivation to cause his death.  

Antonino Bova, firstborn of his beloved, was twenty-nine in 1916. That Antonino and his father Mariano were the killers is not out of the question. Growing up in Termini, and then living as Di Cola’s guest in Boston, Antonino had been deeply divided by his loyalties to his parents. He made a hasty exit from the private garden of the Lemon King, but from there he went to live in Boston among his in-laws and neighbors, who were almost all Termitani fruit peddlers who doubtless depended upon the wholesaling giant for their livelihoods. Antonino may have steeped in bitterness, and harbored anger over his mother’s abandonment of the family, which his father could tap for his own revenge when he was rebuffed. 

Or it may be that Tony Bova, barber, husband, and father of three, made a fresh start in Christian forgiveness of his mother and her lover. Whatever role Antonino had in Gaspare’s death, he had to live with it, and with his mother, who had witnessed the shooting. If indeed it was Antonino and his father who shot Di Cola, all three of them took that terrible secret to their graves.

Springfield Strikes Back

Springfield Strikes Back

When the Patriarca family tried to take over Springfield, Massachusetts, in the late Eighties, the local Genovese crew struck back.

In the 1960s, Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano and Salvatore Annunziato, both of the Colombo family, ran New Haven together in a grudging alliance. Tropiano, who once killed his whole crew to save his own skin, was in charge of the bookmakers while the diminutive former boxer, who once fought as “Midge Renault,” headed labor.

Ralph_Whitey_Tropiano head on
Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano

Tropiano and one of his bookmaking associates, William Grasso, were going to go into the trash hauling business together, when their attempts to create a monopoly were revealed. Grasso was convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. This turned out to be the greatest stroke of luck in his criminal career.

Mafia relations in Massachusetts can be divided into two eras: before Patriarca and after him. For a generation following the end of Prohibition, the various gangs in Boston were run semi-independently and each leader was the equal of any boss of Springfield, in the western part of the state. Joseph Lombardo, regarded by most Mafia historians as a long time underboss in Boston, was said by Vincent Teresa to be the chair of a council of New England bosses. In this formulation, Springfield came under Boston’s jurisdiction. The undisputed boss of Springfield, who was “Big Nose” Sam Cufari in those years, would require, for at least some activities, the permission of “Mr. Lombardo” in Boston. 

 

william grasso
William Grasso

After Patriarca consolidated Boston and Providence’s operations, he went on to forge strong relationships with the Genovese and Colombo families of New York. His principal rivals in Boston were the Irish gangs, the Winter Hill Gang chief among them.

 

In the federal pen, Grasso’s cellmate was Ray Patriarca, Sr. When Grasso returned to Connecticut in 1978, he had a new protector. His old mentor, Whitey Tropiano, who had avoided indictment in the conspiracy with Grasso, was the victim of an unsolved murder in 1980. Thomas “The Blond” Vastano, was a Genovese associate who was said to be running the family’s gambling operations in Connecticut, was killed the same year.

Illegal gaming would figure prominently in Grasso’s demise. By 1989, Big Nose Sam had passed away and his successor, “Frankie Skyball” Scibelli, was in prison. His associate, Anthony Delevo, was running the Springfield crew in his absence. Meanwhile, the Scibelli family held a monopoly in the Springfield area on illegally retrofitted video game machines. S&M was a distributor of pool tables, video game machines, and the like to area restaurants, bars, and clubs, owned first by Albert “Baba” Scibelli, brother of Frankie Skyball, and later by Baba’s son-in-law, restaurateur and real estate developer Michael Cimmino.

The game machines in question were fixed in such a way that venue owners were not only complicit but active in the conspiracy. They could adjust how often players won, and split proceeds 50-50 with S&M. It was a lucrative racket: one venue that kept records earned $40,000 over four months through these machines. The existence of the gaming racket was revealed in a massive raid in 2001.

Frank_Salemme_(mugshot)Like Grasso, Frank Salemme’s rise through the ranks of the Patriarca organization began in prison, where he met soldier Anthony Morelli in 1957. Through Morelli, Salemme was introduced to the crime family he would later attempt to take over with support from Whitey Bulger.

Bulger and his close associate, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, were both long time FBI informants by 1989. Bulger became an FBI informant in 1975, and his Somerville based Winter Hill Gang’s activities were largely overlooked by law enforcement as a result. Flemmi, who also moved between the Winter Hill and Patriarca circles, was what Professor Elin Waring calls a connector of co-offending networks. 

Ray Patriarca Sr. died in 1984. Three years later, Grasso became underboss to Ray Patriarca, Jr, when the new boss’ first choice went to prison. Meanwhile, by 1986, Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme had become a trusted aide of Whitey Bulger. He fought on the Winter Hill side of the Irish Gang Wars, then went into hiding after participating in a 1968 car bombing targeting the lawyer of an informant on the Patriarca crime family. He was caught and imprisoned in 1972. After his release from prison in 1988, Salemme promptly began working to take over the Patriarca family. By the time of the shooting, in June, 1989, he was the right-hand man of Bill Grasso, underboss of the Patriarca family and the organization’s most powerful member.

Other Patriarca capos resented Grasso and Salemme for their proximity to the Patriarcas, but also for their ruthlessness and lack of loyalty to their fellows. Chief among the disgruntled captains was Vincent “The Animal” Ferrara.

Salemme was injured in what appears to have been an attempted assassination, in a drive-by shooting outside an IHOP, on the morning of the sixteenth of June, 1989. That afternoon, William Grasso’s body was found by fishermen, on the bank of the Connecticut River in Wethersfield, near the Massachusetts border.

While the drive-by attack on Salemme was carried out in public view, and in broad daylight, the men who took down William Grasso used another, time tested Mafia approach to execution. His trusted associates picked him up for a meeting that never was.

Grasso, who was sixty-two and a recent widower, was famously cautious as well as dangerously violent, so he clearly trusted the company with whom he traveled. The four who took Grasso for his last ride were Gaetano Milano, a newly made man in the Patriarca family; his childhood friend and business partner, Frank Colantoni Jr.; and the Pugliano brothers, Frank and Louis. Like Flemmi, the Pugliano brothers and Gaetano Milano were connectors linking the internally feuding New England family and the Springfield crew.

gaetano j milano
Gaetano Milano

All four were long time residents of the Springfield area. Milano, who was born in Naples, came to the area as a teenager: he graduated from Longmeadow High School. The Pugliano family has owned and operated a restaurant in Hampden, just outside Springfield, Massachusetts, since 1934. Frank “Pugs” Pugliano was described in 1990 as an associate of the Patriarca Family but a “made” member of the Genovese Family, of which the Springfield crew is a part. 

Milano and Colantoni were in their mid-thirties, and the Pugliano brothers, in their early sixties. The man they were supposedly going to see was another elder in the New England mob scene: Carlo Mastrototaro, who ruled Worcester. Mastrototaro, who died in 2009 at age 89, was supposed to mediate a dispute between Grasso and Springfield interests regarding territories for the illegal vending machines that S&M distributed. Frank Pugliano, according to the indictment, set up the talks that led to Grasso’s shooting. 

At the time of the shooting, Grasso and Milano were passengers in a van being driven by Louis Pugliano, along with Louis’ brother and Milano’s friend. Gaetano Milano shot Bill Grasso once in the neck, killing him. Colantoni helped his friend dispose of the body and clean the van. That was on the thirteenth of June. Three days later, coming out of an IHOP in Saugus, Massachusetts, “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was the target of a drive by shooting, which he survived by running into a nearby pizza shop.

Although the killing and dumping of Grasso’s body all happened in Genovese territory, initial suspicion for the two shootings fell on the Patriarca family: captains Vincent Ferrara, Joseph A. Russo, and Robert Carrozza.

Whitey_Bulger_US_Marshals_Service_Mug1
James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr.

At his murder trial in 1990, Milano described the killing as the outcome of a conflict among leadership in the Patriarca family. The shooters in the attack on Salemme, and the Springfield hitmen, all maintained that they were likely to be killed by their victims if they did not strike first. It would be seven more years before Whitey Bulger’s control of the FBI, and his use of agents to spread rumors like these among his enemies, would become public knowledge.

Between the Winter Hill Gang’s false flag and genuine threats from Grasso against the Scibelli family monopoly, and considering the close relationships of Milano and his associates to the warring families, it seems likely that a consortium of Patriarca capos, led by Ferrara, could have obtained the active support and participation of the Springfield crew, in their successful strike against Grasso. The support for Milano in Longmeadow in raising his bail, as I’ve written previously, was notable. This coordinated takedown of the leader, in all but name, of the New England crime family, would likely have been seen as mutually beneficial by both Mafia families. Its orchestration by an Irish gang leader in Boston was not even suspected by the participants, much less by its victims.

It appeared that few people mourned the passing of William Grasso. Although he was considered deeply loyal to the Patriarca bosses, the other capos resented Grasso, and his soldiers hated and feared him. The funeral was highly surveilled, but no mafiosi came to pay their respects to the almost universally despised gangster. He was laid to rest beside his wife, Anna.

Despite the suspicion that fell on the Patriarca capos who had opposed Grasso and Salemme, Ferrara and his presumed allies did not benefit from the shootings. In the immediate aftermath, Patriarca men from Providence were put in charge of Connecticut to replace the slain Grasso. Hartford, which had always been an open city, reportedly came under the control of the Genovese family. 

Frank Salemme’s bid for power was successful, at least for a time. The career criminal who was not eligible to become a made man under Patriarca Sr., because of his mixed Italian and Irish heritage, was the family’s de facto leader in 1991. Just two years after he was nearly killed by them, Salemme came to lead the organization whose former boss and namesake wouldn’t have him as a member. His son, Frank Salemme, Jr., was reportedly a made man in his father’s crime family. 

After a 1995 federal indictment for racketeering, Salemme learned his associates in the Winter Hill Gang were informants. More details came out in Bulger’s 1997 trial. In 1999, Salemme, still in prison, flipped on Bulger and was rewarded with witness protection.

Salemmi was on release from prison and living under an assumed name in Atlanta when the body of nightclub owner, Steven DiSarro, was discovered in Providence in 2016. Salemme is currently on trial in connection with the 1993 murder, attributed to Frank Jr., who died in 1995 from lymphoma. 

Sources

Apuzzo, Matt. “11/28/2003: Bruno Slaying Creates Mafia Void; Hartford Seen As ‘Wide-Open Space‘” Published 28 November 2003 in The Hartford Courant.

Barry, Stephanie. “Read The FBI’s John Bologna Documents.” Published 23 May 2017 in The Republican.

Barry, Stephanie. “Slots come up lemons.” Published 31 March 2004 in The Republican. P. A01.

Burnstein, Scott. “GR Sources: One-Time Mafia Lord ‘Cadillac Frank’ May Hear FBI Knocking On His Door Again If Mob Associate’s Body Is Found.”

Claffey, Kevin. “4 from WMass held in slaying of Mafia boss.” Published 21 August 1990 in The Republican/Union-News. P. 1.

Claffey, Kevin. “Milano released on bail – $1.6 million bond posted.” Published 3 April 1990 in The Republican. Connecticut Edition. P. 1.

Hunt, Thomas. “Top New England mobsters targeted.” Published 16 June 2018 on The Writers of Wrongs.

Silverman, Mark and Scott Deitche. “An excerpt from Rogue Mobster: The Untold Story of Mark Silverman and the New England Mafia.”

Swenson, Kyle. “A buried secret leads to a Boston murder trial against a once powerful mafia boss.” Published 15 May 2018 in The Washington Post.

Taylor, David. “Mob Rules.” Published 14 January 2003 in The Village Voice.