Chicago Joe Aiello

Chicago Joe Aiello

While Al Capone’s Outfit was fighting its way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, one of his chief rivals was the mafioso Joe Aiello. Aiello was president of the Unione Siciliane, synonymous with the Mafia in Chicago. For this reason alone, he earned the title of “the boss of the Sicilian Mafia in Prohibition-Era Chicago.” Beyond the Windy City, Aiello had powerful friends in Detroit and New York City, where he affected the outcome of the 1930 Castellammarese War. 

Joe was born Giuseppe Aiello in Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo, in 1890. At seventeen, he sailed to New York, joining two older brothers, Nunzio and Andrea, upstate in Utica. A halfway point between Lake Ontario and Albany along the Mohawk River, Utica drew a large immigrant population to work in manufacturing and transport. Among them were Sicilian merchants, some of them associated through family and business ties with the nascent Mafia in Utica. Fruit wholesalers, in particular, were closely tied to one another and organized crime. It may have been while Aiello lived in Utica that he formed ties with the Maggadino Family in Buffalo. 

Joe Aiello and his partner in a Utica saloon, Sam La Fada, were charged in 1917 with firing upon Antonio Gagliano, a competing saloon owner. Aiello tried hiding from the police in the home of his father- and brother-in-law, who were charged with interfering with a police officer. Aiello was found in possession of a recently fired handgun, and a license to carry. La Fada was killed in Buffalo a few months later.

It’s often reported that Aiello left Utica after taking part in the 1917 shooting. Joe was married to Caterina Amara. Their daughter, Lena, was born late in 1918. Son Carlo was born in Utica in 1919. A news item about the scalding death of Joe’s daughter, in March 1921, shows the family still living on Bleecker Street in Utica. Two and a half year-old Lena Aiello ran into her mother and maternal grandmother, who had just boiled water for the family’s baths. She survived for five hours.

Joe moved his family to Chicago shortly after this tragedy. Their next child, Antonino, was born in Chicago in July 1922.

Joe’s brothers moved to Chicago ahead of him, starting with the oldest, Nunzio, who married there in 1916. Andrea, also married, registered for the draft from a Near North Side address the following year. Nunzio’s address on Locust Street was in Little Sicily, also in Chicago’s Near North Side. 

In the years leading up to Prohibition, Chicago’s criminal underworld was still broken up into neighborhood territories. “Big Jim” Colosimo’s network of brothels was beginning to encroach on these boundaries, but there was not yet a monopoly on criminal power, and there was no overarching leadership: not among organized criminals, nor even among mafiosi in the city.

 The Genna brothers, from Marsala, Sicily, were one of the earliest Mafia families in Chicago. They were based in Little Italy, in the Near West Side. To the east of the Genna territory was Goose Island, where the Irish North Side Gang ruled. The Gennas controlled the Unione Siciliane and fought the Irish gang, led by Dean O’Banion. On the other side of Goose Island was Little Sicily, where a Corleonese Mafia family was dominant. The Nicolosi brothers ruled from their Gault Court saloon, a territory they inherited from their murdered father-in-law.

In Chicago, the Aiello family worked for the railroads, then became fruit dealers, and owned bakeries and at least one confectionery shop. Father Carlo Aiello, a fruit merchant, arrived from Bagheria in 1920 and died in Chicago three years later. 

Joe Aiello began his ascent to power by partnering with Antonio Lombardo of the Unione, but then alienated his patron when he made an alliance with Bugs Moran, who was O’Banion’s successor in the North Side Gang. The Gennas were killed by the Irish gang in 1925. Joe and his brothers took over the old Genna brothers’ territory: in particular, control of the Unione. Allied to the North Side, the Aiello gang became prominent targets for Al Capone’s Outfit. 

The Outfit was never part of the Sicilian Mafia. Its members were engaged in organized crime, and most of them were Italian or Italian-American, but they were not part of the same organization as the Genna, Nicolosi, and Aiello families, who all came from Sicily. Only after the Commission was formed, after the Castellammarese War, did the Outfit become part of an American Mafia, on equal footing with Sicilian American Mafia families.

By 1927, the tension between the Outfit and Joe Aiello’s family reached a breaking point. The Aiello family bakery in Little Sicily was riddled with bullets in a drive-by attack. Joe, who had already made multiple attempts on Capone’s life, was forced to leave Chicago. Regardless, he won the presidency of the Unione Siciliane the following year. In 1928, Aiello enjoyed the support of the Nicolosi brothers, but their representative at the Cleveland Conference, Sam Oliveri, lost a brother to Capone’s men, and was afterward suspected by police of brokering a new deal that cut out the Aiello family.

The power that emanated from New York City was felt everywhere by the Mafia. Al Capone and several of his closest associates in the Outfit were from New York. One of them was “Little Davey” Petillo, a native of New York City. As a young man, Petillo worked with Lucky Luciano as a hitman, narcotics trafficker, and pimp. After working for Joe Aiello in Chicago, Petillo rejoined his New York associates in the Outfit, and was Al Capone’s bodyguard at Aiello’s death in 1930.

Meanwhile in New York City, Joe “The Boss” Masseria’s power was growing and threatened to encompass all Mafia activity in the United States. Aiello had long been aligned with Salvatore Maranzano and the other mafiosi from Castellammare del Golfo, including Gaspar Milazzo in Detroit, and Maggadino in Buffalo: both Mafia bosses who’d started out in the Castellammarese stronghold of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Masseria came to openly support Capone’s bid for control over Chicago, widening the partisan divide throughout the Mafia in America, in the lead up to the Castellammarese War. Aiello financed Maranzano’s campaign against Masseria through the summer, before falling to Capone’s hitmen in October. Joe was forty.

Lucky Luciano turned on first Masseria, and then Maranzano, before assuming a consciously more modest position than either predecessor as a leader among equals in the new American Mafia. In Luciano’s Commission, Al Capone was the representative for the city he finally dominated, though not for long. In 1931, Capone was charged with tax evasion, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.

Omerta in Utica

Omerta in Utica

Nothing could tear apart these early Mafia families in Utica, New York. Not even murder.

Pietro Lima and his brother-in-law, Dominick Aiello, were in a hurry the night they were killed, summoned by a late night phone call. It was November, and the men left home in such a rush that neither was fully dressed; they’d thrown coats over slippers and pajamas. The men were found dead in their car in the morning, evidently shot at close range by someone sitting in the back seat. In other words, they were executed by someone they trusted. Though never charged, it’s widely believed that the powerful Falcone brothers were behind their deaths.

 

Pietro Lima
Pietro Lima

The Falcones were long time associates of Pietro Lima and his extended family, who had been running and distilling illicit alcohol in Utica since the start of Prohibition. Even after its repeal in 1933, the families continued to dodge taxes with their unlicensed stills. They were also part of a network of criminals that spanned the United States. Despite indictments for conspiracy in the early 1940s, the Falcones were not identified by federal investigators as Mafia bosses until their arrest at the famous 1957 gathering in Apalachin, New York.

 

The elder of the two murder victims, Pietro Lima, was born in 1869 or 1870 in Bagheria, a few miles from the city of Palermo. He immigrated around the turn of the century with his wife, Providenza Aiello, and their oldest child, Grace. They settled first in Brooklyn, where the rest of Pietro and Providenza’s children were born. By 1920, the family had moved, with several of their extended relations, to Utica, in Oneida County, New York, about 75 miles east of Lake Ontario. Across the water was Prince Edward Island, in Canada. It was a good location for transporting alcohol into the US during Prohibition, an activity Pietro was involved in with the husband of his niece, Rosario Gambino. The two were stopped together in 1924 in a car full of Canadian ale, but they were able to overturn their conviction the following year on the grounds the police did not have a search warrant.

Joseph Lima 1928 Utica
Joseph Lima

In 1928, Pietro and Rosario were both prosperous business owners in Utica, and the fathers of large families. Rosario, formerly a longshoreman, owned a gas station. Pietro, a grocer, owned his home next door to his eldest daughter, Grace, and her husband. His son, Joseph, was most likely being groomed to take over the family business. He had been married for four years to Nellie Caputo, whom he’d vigorously courted in her family’s Brooklyn bake shop, and they had one child, a son.

Based on interviews the police conducted with family members, Nellie sparked the fateful argument that November by remarking on how Joseph had let “some Italian girl” wreck his car. The fight escalated and Nellie left the house with their son, going to the home of Rosario Gambino, a couple blocks away.

The Lima, Aiello, Gambino, and Falcone families, all of whom moved to Utica in the years leading up to Prohibition, were related by marriage, as well as through their criminal activities. All recent immigrants from Palermo and Bagheria, they also shared a connection in Brooklyn, having spent time there, upon their arrivals in the US, living in the same Cobble Hill neighborhood. A Falcone stood as godfather to Joseph Lima, in 1901 in Brooklyn, and the Caputo family bakery where Joseph wooed Nellie is still operated by the original owner’s descendants.

It’s not clear why Nellie went to the Gambino home after her argument with her husband. Perhaps she spent a lot of time with Angelina Gambino, making it a natural choice. She may have come to know the Gambinos well in Brooklyn and sought them out as old friends after her marriage brought her to Utica. But she could not have been ignorant of the power play she was about to make.

At around ten o’clock that night, Joseph Lima and his father, who’d both been drinking, decided it was time to bring Nellie back home. They got one of Joseph’s brothers, Charlie, and Grace’s husband, Lawrence, to go with them to the Gambino home to retrieve her. But Nellie refused to leave with them, and Rosario Gambino backed her up, increasing the stakes for the Lima men. He said she could stay the night if she wanted.

Peter Gambino Utica 1928
Peter Gambino

Eventually, Joseph and the other young men left, but Pietro Lima remained in his onetime partner’s driveway, drunk and yelling insults at the house. Close to midnight, Rosario came outside again with his eighteen year old son, Peter, and told Pietro to go home. Pietro refused. Rosario then told his son to move their car, and as Peter started to comply, he saw Lima reach for a gun. Peter leaped in front of his father to protect him. A gun fired, and Peter went down, hit in the chest.

More shots were fired—both Pietro and Rosario were armed with handguns—and the two men managed to seriously injure one another. Rosario was shot in the stomach, and Pietro was struck at least twice, in the leg and the scrotum.

Pietro’s sons and son-in-law returned to the scene, and Charlie and Lawrence took Rosario Gambino, who was evidently the most seriously injured, to the hospital in their car. Meanwhile Pietro and the young Peter Gambino limped off together to find a doctor for themselves. They made it a few blocks before the older man collapsed. His gun was dropped into a sewer, and later retrieved from its catch basin as evidence.

Police arrived at the Gambino home, and the women inside would not let them in, so officers broke in and began searching for evidence. They quickly found Rosario’s gun, hidden in a warming oven. Joseph Lima arrived and claimed to be there to visit his wife, who had been ill. He demanded to know what was going on.

On the street corner where Pietro Lima collapsed was a cafeteria from which an ambulance was called to take the two injured men to the same hospital as Rosario. All three men were operated upon. Peter Gambino had been struck in the collarbone, but was expected to survive.

By the following morning, Rosario was dead. He left a widow and ten children, the youngest under two. A collection was taken at the viewing, to pay for his burial. The following day Peter, still in the hospital, was finally informed of his father’s death. Nearby, Pietro Lima was recovering from his own injuries, and expecting to face manslaughter charges upon his release.

Following news of Rosario’s death, it was reported in the newspaper in Utica that Nellie’s relatives were coming from Brooklyn to take her home with them. Police found Pietro’s discarded gun, as well as those stashed in the Gambino home, and learned that Peter Gambino’s injury came not from Pietro Lima, but from the gun of his late father. A suit was filed by the dead man’s estate against Pietro Lima, to support the widow and children.

As bad as it seemed, immediately after the shooting, it appears that the families worked things out. The manslaughter case against Pietro would be hard to press without the cooperation of the Gambinos. Peter was the only witness to his father’s shooting. In the end, Pietro was charged only with having an unregistered gun, and even in this, his niece, whom he had widowed, pleaded with the judge for a lenient sentence. The practical reasons are clear: better that Pietro was free and earning to support both their families, than for him to be imprisoned. Pietro Lima pleaded guilty to the gun charge and got a suspended sentence and a fine, on the understanding he wouldn’t be prosecuted in Rosario Gambino’s death.

Six years later, when it was Pietro and Dominick who were killed, money and family ties once again kept the victims’ families silent. Four years after her husband’s murder, Paolina Aiello was discovered to possess a high volume, state of the art “super still” in her home. After massive arrests in an alcohol conspiracy netted the Falcone brothers, reporters came around to Mrs. Aiello’s little grocery, which she had run from the family’s garage since the early years of her marriage. She had nothing but good things to say about Mr. Falcone, whom she had known for twenty years and whose son, a lawyer, was married to Mrs. Aiello’s daughter. It was Mrs. Aiello whose real estate holdings financed Salvatore Falcone’s $20,000 bail.