Southern fried Mafia: the story of Chicken Louie

Southern fried Mafia: the story of Chicken Louie

The story of Dallas gangster “Chicken Louie” Ferrantello is a southern gothic portrait of the Sicilian Mafia. 

The South has been alive with organized crime for longer than any of those Yankee cities you usually read about. The Mafia would have to fight for its share from among smugglers, gamblers, thieves, and murderers of every ethnic background who’d populated New Orleans since long before the Italians got there. Immigrants from southern Italy, some of them mafiosi and the ancestors of future American gangsters, passed through the port town on their way to the sugar plantations and mills. Following the coastline west, travelers found cattle country, like the interior of Sicily, and settled in ethnic enclaves like Bryan, Texas, outside Houston. Where rivers, rails, and roads intersected, they made cities. If you drew a line from Houston, north, and one from Shreveport, going west, the lines would meet in Dallas.

Chicken_Louie
“Chicken Louie” Ferrantello

Louis Ferrantello was born in sugar cane country, in Schriever, Louisiana, in 1918. Both his parents were from Corleone, where Louis’ maternal grandfather was a rural guard: a profession closely associated with the Mafia in Sicily. His father, Liborio, emigrated as a teenager with his mother in 1891. Louis’ mother, Caterina, came from Corleone two years later with a sister. Liborio owned a grocery store: the kind of family-owned business that was so popular with new Italian immigrants, but in particular, with Italian gangsters, who liked having their own businesses as fronts for their illegal side hustles. Future Mafia bosses Carlo and Joe Piranio were both in Dallas by the 1910 census: in the grocery trade, like Liborio Ferrantello.

 The Mafia in Dallas was active by the eve of Prohibition, founded by the elder brother, Carlo Piranio, who also came from Corleone by way of Louisiana. Schriever, where the Ferrantello family first lived upon emigration, is just outside New Orleans. Many Corleonesi immigrants found their twisting way north, up the Mississippi River through sugar cane country to Baton Rouge, or into Louisiana’s vast interior, five times the size of Sicily, to do agricultural labor. Shreveport, some 300 miles north-northwest of New Orleans, was like Corleone in that it was a transportation nexus in the interior of a country with a lot of shoreline. Shreveport linked the only overland east-west route to Texas with the Red River, which emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Piranio and Ferrantello families are distantly related: Louie and the Piranio brothers are third cousins, twice removed, with multiple common ancestors. Despite their distance in Louisiana, they certainly knew each other from Corleone, and the Piranios may have even invited the Ferrantellos to join them in Dallas. Joe Zabbia, another early member of the Dallas crime family originally from Corleone, moved to the city in 1927 from Chicago, where he was working as a hod carrier: another profession, particularly in Chicago, with connections to organized crime. 

The Ferrantello family moved to Dallas, Texas, around 1928. Liborio continued to work as a grocer, while the Piranio brothers had expanded into real estate, a tobacconist’s shop, and fencing stolen war bonds. 

In February 1930, Carlo Piranio died from cancer of the spine, leaving the Dallas crime family to his brother. Joe Zabbia died that November from rectal cancer, and later that month, Liborio Ferrantello died from a ruptured ulcer. 

After the death of their father, Louis Ferrantello and his siblings supported their family by starting a company, the Texas Poultry and Egg Co., that earned Louis the nickname “Chicken Louie” among his associates in the Dallas Mafia. In addition to the poultry business, Ferrantello was a nightclub owner and a bookmaker. He served in World War II, married Miss Dorothy McCully, and had one child, a son. 

In the early 1950s, he was under investigation for his ties to organized crime and gambling. Joseph Civello, who succeeded Joseph Piranio upon his death in 1956, ran gambling operations. In a surprise raid on Civello, Chicken Louie and two other men were arrested. Ferrantello pleaded the fifth before the legislative committee over one hundred times. There was insufficient evidence to incriminate him, so he was cited for contempt, and sentenced to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. (He appealed, and lost.)

After his release from prison in 1954, Ferrantello divorced his wife so that she could live a “normal” life. He claimed to be “going straight” after his prison term, but Ferrantello still owned a gambling venue in Arlington, Texas, when he died.

Two years later, Ferrantello was killed by his pregnant girlfriend. Twenty-four-year old Betty Louise Barry came to his office in Antony’s Lounge, in the Lakewood section of North Dallas, to tell him that she was pregnant. She brought a gun, and threatened to kill herself if he wouldn’t marry her. The two struggled, with Ferrantello trying to prevent Miss Barry from shooting herself. According to her later testimony, she just “couldn’t stop firing.” She was struck in the knee, but Louis was fatally wounded. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital on 17 July 1956. Although Barry admitted to shooting him, she swore it was accidental.

Three months after his death, Louie Ferrantello’s former wife, Mary Dorothy McCully, was found murdered in Pasadena, California. (Later that month, Joe Piranio died from suicide, grief-stricken at the sudden loss of his wife in February, he’d become reclusive in the ensuing months.) An investigation into McCully’s death led directly back to her late husband and his criminal associates.

Nick Cascio Dallas
Nick Cascio

McCully’s boyfriend claimed that Louie’s associates made frequent visits to her apartment, where safe cracking tools were found after her death. These clues linked a Texas safe burglary ring, suspected of robbing a California hotel, with McCully. Authorities believed that her apartment was used as a headquarters for the crime. The investigation led to Dallas safecracker Nick Cascio, “the thief you could trust.” 

The self-described “self-employed speculator” was quoted by the press, explaining his profession this way: “I’m always speculating whether a safe is going to have any money in it or not.” Nick, whose criminal career was well documented in the press, was a “dapper,” “swarthy” thief, and a man of his word: rare in his profession. He was also a former lieutenant in the Lois Green gang of Dallas. Green was a powerful Dallas racketeer in the 1920-30s, and the largest of at least three serious competitors to the Piranio Family’s primacy in Dallas, before his assassination in 1949. Nick Cascio’s father was also a Dallas grocer, originally from Cefalù, a coastal town east of Palermo: the same place the Maceo brothers, also gang leaders in Dallas, were from. (Nick and his family are of no relation to the Piranio brothers, who have half-siblings named Cascio.)

Although Dorothy McCully’s gangster ex-husband said he wanted her to enjoy a “normal” life, she was not on track for that goal. In addition to letting her ex and his friends stash their tools in her home, McCully’s new boyfriend was also her boss. Walter G. Borchers, an insurance agent with money trouble, claimed that Louie’s associates made frequent visits to his secretary/girlfriend’s apartment, and that fear of them drove him to hire a private detective to spy on Dorothy, take out an insurance policy on himself, and name her as the beneficiary. 

That kind of controlling behavior never ends well. Like Ferrantello and Barry in the end, Borchers and McCully struggled over a gun. Unlike Barry, Borchers’ killing was not an accident. Walter and Dorothy were arguing in his car, when he shot her. He then hit her over the head, killing her. Dorothy was 31. Borchers drove around with her body in the trunk for the next 36 hours.

 

Sources

Atti di nascita, Caterina Mondello. (1884, January 25). Record no. 44, “Italia, Palermo, Palermo, Stato Civile (Tribunale), 1866-1910,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-897B-V6ND?cc=2051639&wc=MCTM-DTL%3A351055601%2C352253401%2C352269501 : 22 May 2014), Palermo > Corleone > Nati, pubblicazioni, matrimoni, cittadinanze, morti 1882-1893 > image 469 of 3063; Tribunale di Cagliari (Cagliari Court, Cagliari).

Cartwright, G. (1991, October). Benny and the Boys. Texas Monthly. Retrieved 20 April 2019 from https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/benny-and-the-boys/

Chicken Louie Ferrantello. Mafia Wiki Website. Retrieved 27 April 2019 from https://mafia.fandom.com/wiki/Chicken_Louie_Ferrantello

Death of Louis Ferrantello.  (1956, July 17). “Texas Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GY13-SZZY?cc=1983324&wc=9T4X-6TL%3A263835801%2C283349601%2C283625801 : 22 July 2014), Death certificates > 1956 > Vol 069-075, certificates 034130-037500, Jul, Bell-Jefferson counties > image 1163 of 3466; State Registrar Office, Austin.

Lois Green Shot at Sky Vu Club. (2018, March 4). Dallas Gateway website. Retrieved 20 April 2019 from https://dallasgateway.com/lois-green-shot-sky-vu-club/ 

Manifest of the Capitain. (1893). New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1963 The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1820-1902; NAI Number: 2824927; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Record Group Number: 85

Nick Cascio Arrested in Hotel Theft. (1956, October 20). Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), P. 1 Accessed 18 April 2019 via GenealogyBank.

Nick Cascio, Convict #84582. (1937). Texas, Convict and Conduct Registers, 1875-1945 Convict Number Range: B 079301-084740 Ancestry.com. Texas, Convict and Conduct Registers, 1875-1945 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.

Nick Cascio convict record, Serial no. 61232. (1952). Alabama, Convict Records, 1886-1952. General Volume: Volume 27: 1950-1952. Ancestry.com. Alabama, Convict Records, 1886-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Suspect’s Fear For Life Aired. (1956, October 18). Wichita Falls (TX) Times, p. 5.

Vincent Cascio Draft Registration (1917). “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9YBK-9KVN?cc=1968530&wc=9FH7-2NL%3A928313101%2C928739601 : 14 May 2014), Louisiana > Shreveport City; C-Q > image 182 of 5797; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Vincent Cascio family. (1940). US Federal Census. Year: 1940; Census Place: Dallas, Dallas, Texas; Roll: m-t0627-04177; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 255-140 Enumeration District: 255-140; Description: JUSTICE PRECINCT 1, DALLAS CITY (TRACT 30 – PART)

WBAP-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Script: Woman is Jailed in Slaying of Gambler], item, July 18, 1956; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc333508/m1/1/: accessed April 27, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.

WBAP-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Script: Woman Testifies in Ferrantello Inquiry], item, November 12, 1956;(https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc333569/m1/1/: accessed April 27, 2019),University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.

 

The Piranio brothers of Dallas

The Piranio brothers of Dallas

The Piranio brothers of Corleone founded the Dallas Mafia.

The Dallas crime family was founded around 1921 by brothers Carlo and Joseph Piranio from Corleone. The Piranio brothers were part of a network of immigrants from this town, related through blood and marriage, active in the Mafia in Corleone and in American cities including New York, New Orleans, Dallas, and Los Angeles, in the first half of the 20th century. Along with Giuseppe Morello, Leoluca “Mr. Luke” Trumbatore, and Ignacio “Jack” Dragna, Carlo and Joe Piranio are among the first Mafia bosses in the United States. All were born in Corleone.

Carlo Piranio source Viralnova
Billed as Carlo Piranio, this photo may actually be of Civello (Source: Viralnova; h/t Fabien Rossat

Carlo was born Calogero Piranio on 21 May 1875, the son of Arcangelo Piranio and Orsola Trumbatore. He was named after his paternal grandfather, as is traditional in Corleone for the first born son. The surname “Piranio” is sometimes misspelled “Pirano” when referring to Carlo and Joseph in Dallas. In Corleone, the original spelling of their family’s name is “Praino,” seen more often in older records.

Carlo’s brother, Joseph, was born Giuseppe on 11 August 1878, named after his maternal grandfather. Arcangelo died the following year, at just 32 years old. Orsola remarried within the year, to Leoluca Cascio. Orsola and Leoluca had at least four more children, the last known born in 1896.

According to his answers on future census records, Carlo had emigrated by this time. He lived first in Shreveport, Louisiana, where his brother, Joseph, joined him around the turn of the century. Thomas Hunt writes that Carlo developed a paralysis of the right arm around 1899, a few years before his brother arrived in Louisiana. The paralysis may have been related to Carlo’s ultimate cause of death.

Carlo and Joseph are distantly related to “Mr. Luke” Trumbatore, who led the New Orleans Mafia (which operated throughout the state). Trumbatore is a closer cousin of Giuseppe Morello, another distant cousin of the Piranios. Morello operated primarily in New York with his half-brothers, the Terranovas. Trumbatore initially emigrated to New York before relocating to New Orleans.

Giuseppe Morello mug shot
Giuseppe Morello

Like the Piranio brothers, Morello was born in Corleone, lost his father while he was still young, and was raised by a stepfather. The Morello-Terranova family spent some of the years between 1892-1903 in the American South, in both Louisiana and Texas. Giuseppe’s stepfather, Bernardo Terranova, was known to be active in the Mafia in Corleone. Leoluca Cascio, the Piranio brothers’ stepfather, was the son of a cab driver: one of the rural entrepreneurial professions associated with Mafia activity in Corleone.

Carlo married Clemenza Grimaldi, also from Corleone, and they had their first child, Angelo, in 1904 in Shreveport. Joseph also married around this time, to Lena la Rocca, who was born in New Orleans of Italian parents.

The brothers moved their young families to Dallas, Texas, by the 1910 census, when they shared a household on Main Street. Carlo was reportedly a grocery storekeeper at this time, and Joe a grocery salesman. When Carlo’s third child was born in 1917, the family lived on Dawson Street, and Carlo reported his profession as real estate agent. In 1919, Carl was charged with receiving thousands of dollars worth of stolen war bonds.

Prohibition began in 1920. That year’s census reports that Carlo was still a real estate agent. His brother owned a tobacco shop, the J.T. Piranio Company, wholesale cigar dealers at 603 Harwood St. near Cadiz. Joe’s brother-in-law, Frank Aloi, lived with him in that year’s census. Aloi owned a grocery store.

Joseph Civello was an associate of the Dallas Mafia who also brought his family to Texas from Louisiana. His family operated groceries in Dallas that were also fronts for illegal activities for at least two generations, beginning during Prohibition.

In 1928, Civello was assigned to kill Joe DeCarlo, a bootlegger and druggist who had stopped making tributary payments to Carlo Piranio. Civello met DeCarlo in a pharmacy while carrying a shotgun, which discharged, hitting DeCarlo in the abdomen. The gunshot was ruled an accident, in large part on the assertions of DeCarlo, himself, made before he died.

Carlo Piranio died early in 1930, at age 54, from a tumor of the spine. Upon Carlo’s death, Joe took over leadership of the Dallas Mafia from his brother and remained the boss until his death in 1956.

According to his biography on Find A Grave, Joe owned a number of bars and a construction business, as well as gambling operations and a construction labor racket. In the 1930 census, Joe is called a builder for a contractor. By this time, Joe’s parents in law had also joined them in Dallas, and lived a couple doors down from Joe and Lena. Living between Joe and his in-laws were the families of one of his capos, Frank Ianni, and of Louis Cascio, both merchants.

Joe’s daughter, Ursula, married Joseph Lisotta in 1932. Joseph’s father was born in Corleone. Originally trained as a civil engineer in university, and employed in this profession by the city of Dallas, Lisotta bought a tavern shortly after Prohibition’s repeal, in 1933. The tavern was a popular gathering place: according to one anecdote in his obituary, Joseph Lisotta would host “special customers” for after-hours spaghetti dinners. Lisotta’s Tavern shut its doors for good in 1956, when the district voted to become “dry.”

The same year the Tavern closed, Ursula’s parents both died: first her mother in February, and then her father, eight months later, by suicide. Joe Piranio, the boss of the Dallas Mafia until his death, was 78 years old. Joseph Civello took over leadership, which he held until his death in 1970.

Sources

Arther, Azure. “Tales From the Speakeasy: Who Is the Dallas Crime Family?” Published 24 December 2016. http://cw33.com/2016/12/24/tales-from-the-speakeasy-who-is-the-dallas-crime-family/ Accessed 4 September 2017.

Carlo T. Piranio on Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=30428215 Accessed 4 September 2017.

“Dallas crime family.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dallas_crime_family Accessed 4 September 2017.

Hunt, Thomas. “The Mafia of Dallas: 1910-1970.” Published July 2010 in Informer Journal. Pp. 16+.

Renfrow, David. “Joseph Lisotta Owned Oak Cliff Tavern.” Dallas Morning News. 19 January 2006. Metro:12B.

Feature Image: Elm St at Night, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons