The 800-pound gangster

The 800-pound gangster

News of the shootout at the Poydras street boardinghouse described one of the victims as weighing “fully 800 pounds.” 

One of the first men killed in the Macaroni Wars was Vincenzo Vutera, placed in the Luciano’s business to suppress the opposition during a raid led by Santo “Joseph” Calamia. Like Vutera, Calamia is described as a “big, fat man” who could nonetheless move quickly. Straining credulity, local reporting on his death claims Vutera’s weight was “fully 800 pounds” (Sicilians in battle to death, 1902).

Another standout quality Vutera possessed was being from Corleone, the hometown he shared with Calamia’s professed brother-in-law, Giuseppe Morello, and his actual brother-in-law, Antonino Saltaformaggio, whose body turned up in a canal near White Castle in 1903. Hundreds of people from Corleone emigrated to Louisiana for work, with most of them dispersing into the plantations along the Mississippi River. Several families from Corleone lived in Donaldsonville, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Bayou Lafourche

1895 map of Louisiana showing the course of the Bayou Lafourche before it was dammed.
In this 1895 map, New Orleans is centered, just south of Lake Pontchartrain. The Mississippi River enters the frame from the northwest and intersects Donaldsonville and the Bayou Lafourche between the “S” and the “I” in “LOUISIANA.”

In 1902, after a particularly bad flood season, the bayou was dammed, and a series of locks were discussed but never built. With access from the river blocked, 130 miles of navigable stream through coastal wetlands became accessible only from the Gulf of Mexico. The temporary dam permanently harmed the economy and health of Bayou Lafourche, Donaldsonville, and the surrounding area. The Mississippi no longer supplied fresh water to the bayou, devastating the ecosystem. The city of Donaldsonville, once the capital of Louisiana, entered a period of decline from which it did not rally until automobile traffic replaced riverboats as the primary form of transportation. 

For the owners of a macaroni factory in Donaldsonville, the new dam was bad news. Easy access to half a dozen towns they might have provisioned along the bayou was suddenly cut off. Antonino Luciano had $4,000 tied up in the factory: about $129,000 in 2022 dollars. His partner was the duplicitous Paolo Di Christina, a mafioso in league with Francesco Genova. 

Genova had sworn to destroy Luciano, and Di Christina was part of his plan. Step 1: Place men loyal to the Mafia boss in the business to be overtaken. Step 2: Make the business a source of debt and woe for the rightful owner. Step 3: Sap the owner’s funds, credit, and good name, until he has no choice but to abandon the property to his antagonistic partners. The Mafia has attacked business owners this way for most of its existence. 

The showdown on Poydras Street in New Orleans was an escalation of a fight that began in the Donaldsonville macaroni factory. In the story that unfolded in the newspapers, and echoes in more contemporary tellings, Vincenzo Vutera is sometimes painted as an ally of the Luciano family, brought down from Donaldsonville to aid them in defense against Genova’s men, and at other times described as a plant, one of several men Genova either installed or turned to his purposes.

Illustration of the interior of the Poydras Street store/saloon/boardinghouse accompanying coverage of the shooting in The Times-Democrat (Bloody battle, 1902).

Vincenzo Vutera was born in Corleone in April 1872, and emigrated as a young man with his mother and his first cousin, also named Vincenzo Vutera, who was three years older. The older cousin returned to Corleone and married there in 1906, which is how I can be sure he was not the one shot to death in New Orleans in 1902.

Vutera married his first cousin, Giovannina “Jennie” Cusimano, in Donaldsonville in 1894. His wife’s godparents were her first cousin, once removed and her husband. They were also the parents of Los Angeles Mafia boss Jack Dragna. Dragna and Vutera (and Cusimano and Dragna) are second cousins.

A family tree including Vincenzo Vutera, his same name cousin, his wife, and Jack Dragna
A family tree showing the lines of direct descent shared by Vincenzo Vutera, his emigrating cousin, his wife, and the mafioso Jack Dragna. In this diagram, the godparent relationship Giovannina Cusimano has with her aunt and uncle is illustrated with solid green lines. Vincenzo Vutera, his mother, and his same-name cousin who emigrated together are connected by dotted black lines. All the people with a blue outline migrated to Louisiana. (Jack Dragna’s parents later emigrated to New York, where he grew up. Read more about the Dragna family’s early life in America in Informer.)

An expanded family tree including everyone from the first tree plus Vutera's widow's second husband, Vincenzo "Charles" Peranio.
After Vutera’s death, his widow remarried to another first cousin, Vincenzo Piranio. The fathers of Vincenzo Piranio and Jack Dragna, each marked with a pink upper left quadrant in this tree, were both born of unknown parents. They married first cousins Anna and Rosalia Vutera.

Vutera’s same-name cousin has a maternal uncle, Mariano Colletto, who was a captain in the Fratuzzi, the Mafia of Corleone. The older Vutera may have run into some kind of legal trouble in Louisiana: in November 1901, one of the cousins ran an ad claiming not to be the V. Vutera who was decided against in a local court case. The younger Vincenzo Vutera was, at the time of his death, a grocer with a store in Dorseyville, eleven miles from Donaldsonville, which he ran under the name “A. Cusimano” because his own credit was so poor. The real A. Cusimano was Vincent’s brother-in-law and first cousin, Antonino Cusimano, who named Vincent as his destination contact when he emigrated to White Castle—near Donaldsonville—in 1897.

In January 1902, a notice ran for a “Constable Sale.” At auction were the provisions and equipment from Vincenzo Vutera’s Dorseyville grocery, being sold to satisfy his obligation to “A. Luciano.” The same Antonino Luciano who Genova swore to destroy was one of Vincenzo Vutera’s creditors. 

The same Antonino Luciano who Genova swore to destroy was one of Vincenzo Vutera’s creditors.

Given this history, it’s little wonder that Genova found a willing accomplice in Vutera. “The Lucianos thought it rather strange when Vincenzo Vutera, the big, fat storekeeper, who was running a general merchandise place in Dorseyville under the name of Cusimano, to deceive his old creditors, came to their place a few evenings back and asked for a bed,” The Times-Picayune reported. The Lucianos, who had turned their business into a fortress, welcomed him into their boardinghouse.

Vutera’s debt with Luciano and the auction to pay it were not reported in the days following his death in the shootout. Instead, there was confusion about whose side of the deadly conflict Vutera had fought on. Had he been placed there by Calamia? Or, as Tony Luciano told the police and reporters, did Vutera die in a vain attempt to defend his brother Salvatore Luciano, the target of the attack?

New Orleans police believed Tony’s statement was a ruse. Based on statements from other witnesses and evidence on the scene, members of Calamia’s party killed Salvatore Luciano, and then Tony, his brother, killed Vincenzo Vutera. Tony may have also shot Joseph Gerrachi, who died weeks later in the hospital, and Joseph Calamia, who took two bullets in his left hand. Both Vutera and Gerrachi are described in the newspapers as managers of Luciano’s macaroni factory. A Luciano cousin who was injured in the shootout claimed Vutera was a traitor who had brought Gerrachi with him from Donaldsonville. 

That evening, with Tony Luciano in custody, police told him Vutera had fired Gerrachi from his position in the factory. This appeared to confirm for Luciano his realization that Vutera (and perhaps also Gerrachi) had betrayed him, because it elicited from Luciano the names of the men who had invaded along with Calamia. Gerrachi, who was described as a merchant from Donaldsonville, was one of them, as well as Bartolo Ferrara, and two men who evaded arrest, Vincent Scaffino and Joe Galderone. Di Christina was seen across the street, immediately after the attack. Genova, the most powerful mafioso involved, was not part of the raid, but it was for the restoration of his honor that Salvatore Luciano was killed. Salvatore, Tony’s “hot-headed” brother, shot at Genova and Di Christina a month earlier, and was warned to leave the country or forfeit his life. 

Vincenzo Vutera was playing cards in the annex, to the rear of the store, with Louis and Tony Luciano when Calamia and his men arrived. Salvatore Luciano, sitting near the annex, was killed by multiple stab wounds and a gunshot wound to the head. Vutera was killed by three gunshot wounds that entered the right side of his body, lacerating his lungs and liver, and a knife wound to the head. It’s likely that Vincenzo shot Salvatore, who had already received mortal injuries, and then Tony killed Vincenzo. In his pockets were a knife that had shattered on the impact of another bullet aimed at his chest, and some letters signed from “A. Cusimano.” Based on the letters, the coroner correctly assumed this was Vutera’s alias and included it in his death certificate. 

Death record for Vincent Vutera, alias A. Cusimano, of Dorceyville, Louisiana. Married merchant, age “42 Yrs?” died from multiple gunshot wounds on 12 June 1902 in New Orleans.

Luciano avoided indictment in the Poydras Street shootings. Calamia stood trial for Vutera’s murder but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Vincenzo Vutera was only thirty years old, though the coroner indicated he was much older. He left a wife and four children, the youngest just four months old. Jennie Cusimano remarried a few years later to Charlie Peranio, born Vincenzo Piranio in Corleone, with whom she had two more children. 

On this sheet of the 1910 census, taken in Dorseyville, Louisiana, the first family listed is Jennie’s. Vincenzo Peranio, a grocer, is the head of household. Jennie’s uncle and father-in-law from her first marriage, Leoluca Vutera, an elderly widower, lives with them.


Babin II, D. (2015, April 28). Bumped off on the bayou: the macaroni wars.

Bloody battle. (1902, June 12). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA).

Constable sale. (1902, January 11). The Weekly Iberville South (Plaquemine, LA). P. 2.

Kendall, J. S. (1911, October 1). The Mafia in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 33.

Kingman, W. A. (n.d.) The Axeman of New Orleans. Retrieved 29 January 2019 from

Krist, G. (2014). Empire of sin: A story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. Crown. 

Luciano lured to a mafia murder. (1903, August 10). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 1.

More murder in the feud of Sicilians. (1902, June 13). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). Pp. 1+.

Notice. (1901, November 20). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA).

Sicilians in battle to death. (1902, June 12). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA).

Read Part 3 in this series on The Macaroni Wars: Francesco Motisi, Alias Genova

New Orleans, 1905: Who is Sam Sparo?

New Orleans, 1905: Who is Sam Sparo?

In 1902 in New Orleans, Tony Luciano and his family fought a battle to the death against Francesco Genova and his allies. Following months of deadly conflict—called the Macaroni Wars—and two murder trials, Sam Sparo penetrated Luciano’s defenses and killed him in broad daylight. After his execution for murder, it was revealed that Sparo was an alias. Who was Sam Sparo?

Samuel Aspara, a native of Italy, age 40, died 21 April 1905 at the parish prison in New Orleans of a fracture of the neck from legal hanging. He was married, and last resided at 1117 Tchoupitoulas St. in New Orleans. His undertaker is P. Lamana of St. Philip Street, who would be the victim of an extortion scheme turned tragic, when his son was abducted and killed in 1907. Francesco Genova, leader of the Mafia, was arrested in a broad dragnet of Italians brought in for questioning. “Mr. Cristina,” likely Paolo Di Christina, Genova’s associate, was also said to be involved. After his release from custody, Genova left the country. Like their hit man, both Genova and Di Christina were living in New Orleans under aliases.

Death certificate for Samuel Aspara

Sam Sparo, as he was sometimes called in the papers, was arrested, indicted, and sentenced to death under the name “Sam Asparo.” The month after his execution, an article ran in The Times-Picayune with the headline, “Sparo was alias.” While doing research for the trial, the district attorney found Sparo’s marriage as Sebastiano Giunta. The article includes the details of this document, which I have found and reproduced below.

Sebastiano Giunta, a native of Palermo, Italy, son of Giorgio Giunta and Maria Giunta, and Angelina Jasmin, daughter of Flavillo J. Jasmin and Marie Lacoste, were married before witnesses on 9 August 1897 in New Orleans. 

Sebastiano Giunta and Angelina Jasmin’s marriage record. This one is harder to read, so you might want to look at the image on FamilySearch, where you can zoom in and adjust the brightness.

Police sought one of Sam’s brothers-in-law and brought him to the jail, where upon meeting Sparo he admitted to their relationship. The Times-Picayune article describes Sam’s wife as bringing the only moments of joy to his long and lonely confinement. She was a New Orleans native who spoke Italian and was initially assumed to be of Italian heritage, but was from a Creole family. She did not converse with anyone else in the prison on her visits.

I don’t know how the DA was able to connect Sam Aspara to Sebastiano Giunta, but once he had, he could easily find the Jasmin family. Angelina, her parents, and siblings were the only Jasmins in the city directory. 

The article makes no mention of another alias, which makes me wonder if the investigator found other records for Sam and Angelina’s family. The year after Sebastiano Giunta and Angelina Jasmin married, Joseph Sparacello was born in New Orleans, the son of Sebastiano Sparacello and Angelina Jasmin. The following year, Mary Sparacello was born to the same couple.

If Sebastiano and Angelina were following the southern Italian naming convention in which the first son is named after the paternal grandfather, the second son after the maternal, and likewise for the daughters, then his father was named Joseph, or Giuseppe, not Giorgio, and his mother Mary, or Maria. Among Italian-Americans, this naming tradition remained strong, sometimes for generations. 

The Sparacellos’ next child died in infancy. Paul Sparacello died at seven days of age at 1613 Ursuline St., New Orleans, on 13 August 1902. He was a native of New Orleans and Colored. His father was born in Italy and his mother in New Orleans.

Infant Paul was recorded as Colored, like his mother, although his two older siblings were registered as White. Angelina and her family of origin appear in vital records as Mulatto or Colored. Her sisters and brothers have French names and married in the Catholic Church. The Times-Picayune called them Creole.

Paul’s death record does not name his parents, and I haven’t found the matching birth record, but I am confident he is Angelina and Sebastiano’s child. No one else in town has the surname “Sparacello,” and his parents named another son Paul: twins Paolo and Giovanni Sparacello were born 29 August 1903 in New Orleans. No information about their race has been captured in the indexed versions of their birth records online.

While Angelina’s father is called Flavillo in her marriage record, in census and other vital records he more often appears as Jean. Based on one record calling him Flavillo J. Jasmin, “Jean” may be his middle name. The name “Paul” was important to the Sparacellos, too, since they named a second son Paolo after the first Paul died. “Giovanni” and “Jean” are the Italian and French versions of the English name “John.” Giovanni was named in honor of Angelina’s father. Who were Giuseppe and Paolo’s namesakes?

I don’t think the information Sam gives at marriage is truthful, for three reasons. The first is that he used another surname with his wife and children. There are no records of Angelina Jasmin and anyone named Giunta having children in New Orleans during the years they lived there. They consistently used the name Sparacello and passed it down to the next generation, with a small spelling change in one branch of the family. The second reason I doubt the marriage record’s veracity is that Sam doesn’t name any of his sons Giorgio, the name he reported as his father’s when he married. 

When Angelina Jasmin Sparacello died in 1961, her death record named her parents and her husband. Their oldest son, Joseph Michael, used the Sparacello spelling in 1918, and Sparcella when he died in 1982. In the 1940 census, Angelina Sparcello lives with her married daughter. Joseph’s obituary calls his parents John Sebastian Sparcella and Angelina Gueydon Sparcella. The addition to his father’s name may be an important clue to Sam Sparo’s true identity. (And “Gueydon” may lead me to more of Angelina’s relatives.) Of the four Sparacello children, none of them named a son Sebastian: the third reason I don’t believe the information “Sebastiano Giunta” gave on his marriage record. Possible clues to his real name are in the names of his grandsons. Two or three of his children had sons named John, and two had sons named Paul. 

Sam Asparo, whatever his real name was, married as Sebastiano Giunta in 1897, and had a son as Sebastiano Sparacello the next year. Last residential addresses appear on the death records of infant Paul and Samuel Asparo, but the family is at neither of them in the 1900 census. They never appear in the New Orleans city directory under any of these names. In what records exist for him, Sam appears as Sparacello until he went undercover, just barely, as Sam Asparo. 

Antonino Luciano was waging a defensive battle against Francesco Genova and Paolo Di Christina that had taken the lives of Salvatore Luciano, Vincenzo Vutera, Joseph Gerrachi, and Bartolo Ferrara: the latter three, members of the Genova faction. Tony Luciano was acquitted of murdering Bartolo Ferrara in February 1903. While he was still in jail, a body was found near Donaldsonville, the site of a contested macaroni factory, where Luciano had many friends. The victim had multiple stab wounds and a rope around his neck; he was never identified. In April, another body turned up in the same condition. This one was identified as Antonino Saltaformaggio, a brother-in-law of Joseph Calamia, who had led the charge that killed Tony’s brother, and of Giuseppe Morello, New York City’s most powerful Mafia boss. 

In May, Sam Sparo rented a room a block from Tony Luciano’s store, and began to slowly earn his trust. Three months later, on the 9th of August, his sixth wedding anniversary with Angelina, Sam shot Tony Luciano on the stairs outside a photography studio. Blocks away, his wife and their two young children waited for him to return. Angelina was nine months pregnant with twins, in New Orleans, in August; incredibly, her life was about to change for the worse.

Sam Sparo fled the scene of the shooting, but he was quickly caught. Tony Luciano died in the hospital awaiting surgery; a widower, he left two young children. Sparo was reported to laugh wildly from the window of the jail when Luciano’s funeral cortege passed in the street. 

Sparo went to trial in January 1904. Despite wearing the ragged clothes of a desperately poor man, he had the best legal representation—the same attorney who saw Luciano acquitted of murdering Bartolo Ferrara at his brother’s funeral. Sparo was not as lucky: he was found guilty of murder in early February. While waiting for a decision on his appeal, he remained in jail.

His appeal was denied the following January. Sentenced to hang, he was moved to Death Row. The man known as Sam Asparo or Sebastiano Sparacello was executed on 28 April 1905 at the parish prison in New Orleans.

Read the second part in The Macaroni Wars: The 800-pound gangster

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.

This Thing of Ours Is Bananas

This Thing of Ours Is Bananas

Organized crime in Ohio in 1909 was built around the family business.

The Antenati website is down today with errors from their upgrade, so I’m going to take this break from research to tell you what I’ve learned so far about the members of the Society of the Banana, in particular, those from Termini Imerese.

Salvatore Catanzaro

The Society of the Banana may not sound threatening. The name may even make you laugh. But to the families who were extorted, it was a danger with no defense except to pay. 

Dozens of men from Termini sold fruit in the United States. They owned businesses in New Orleans, Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, and Chicago, and in smaller towns like Apollo and Saltsburg, both in Pennsylvania; Vidalia and Evanston, in Illinois; Marion and Bellefontaine, in Ohio; Utica and Buffalo, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska. In most of these places, I’ve found extended families from Termini helping one another as they emigrate, and new arrivals joining their hosts in the fruit trade. Some families were very successful and built businesses they handed down to the next generation. And in most of these places there are stories of extortion and violence in the Italian communities, whose targets were the families who’d found the most enviable success. 

At the turn of the 20th Century, fresh fruits and vegetables were a cutthroat business, quite literally. It’s a fragile product made shippable by steam power and tight schedules. Products that will rot while the parties argue over terms are subject to extortion at every point along the transit path where a delay can be engineered. Fruit dealers had to be tough. Pittsburgh’s “Banana King,” Salvatore Catanzaro, regarded as one of the city’s earliest Mafia bosses, sustained life-threatening injuries in a knife fight against industry competitors in 1892. 

As southern Italians frequently did, fruit merchants worked with their close family members, almost exclusively. Catanzaro had a brother who partnered with him early in his career, a business which moved from San Francisco to a small town in Pennsylvania, McKeesport, before landing in Pittsburgh. Salvatore Calderone, who Nicola Gentile described as the leader of a Mafia council in the greater Pittsburgh area, was a fruit merchant in Apollo, PA, along with two of his brothers.

In 1909, US postal police conducted an investigation into an extortion ring based in the railroad town of Marion, Ohio. Two of the victims, John Amicon and his brother, Charles, lived in Columbus, Ohio, about 35 miles away. Like other victims of the Society, they received escalating threats of kidnapping and bombing, in the form of illustrated letters demanding payment. The drawings of skulls, weapons, blood, and hands on the letters were crude but effective, and gave the extortion method its name: the Black Hand. 

Salvatore Arrigo

The victims of the Society of the Banana were successful Italians in the US, some living as far west as the Dakotas, with most in Ohio and Pennsylvania. A member of the Society in their local Italian community nominated them to receive a letter. Someone would be given the job of approaching them personally if they did not respond promptly to its demands. Targets could refuse to pay and often enough nothing happened: after all, it took little effort to write a Black Hand letter. But then a business was bombed, a child stolen, or a man shot dead by strangers who melted away into the darkness. Stories of these tragedies circulated, ensuring that at least some of those who received the letters, paid.

The Lima brothers of Marion, Sam and Sebastian, were observed mailing handfuls of letters, and making regular, large cash remittances to Sicily. By marking the stamps they sold and tracking recipients of an invitation to a March 1909 meeting, postal police were able to identify members in several cities and states. Federal and local law enforcement coordinated to arrest most of the suspected extortionists on the eighth and ninth of June 1909.

Those arrested included:

  1. Salvatore “Sam” Lima, leader of the Society, lived in Marion, Ohio, from Trabia, sentenced to sixteen years
  2. Sam’s brother-in-law (often reported to be his brother) [Edited 26 Dec 2021 to correct relationship] Sebastian Lima, a Marion fruit dealer, got ten years
  3. Sam Lima’s brother-in-law Joe Ignoffo, a cobbler in Marion, ten years
  4. Salvatore Arrigo (1844-1922), a foundling from Termini living in Cincinnati, was listed with no occupation at his arrest but had been a fruit dealer; he succeeded Lima as leader
  5. Salvatore’s son Vincenzo Arrigo, Cincinnati fruit dealer, got a new trial
  6. Agostino Marfisi (1865-1946), successful Dennison merchant from Termini who avoided prosecution
  7. Antonio “Tony” Vicario (1888-1958) from Galati Mamertino, Messina, worked as a fruit dealer for Agostino Marfisi in Dennison, Ohio
  8. Antonio’s brother Calogero “Charles” Vicario (b. 1880), a fruit dealer in Bellefontaine
  9. Salvatore Demma (1880-1959), Dayton fruit dealer from Termini, brother of Maria Demma, intimidated Charles Amicon with Saverio Ventola
  10. Saverio “Salvatore” Ventola, a carpenter in Columbus
  11. Orazio Rumfola, Pittsburgh fruit dealer, got six years
  12. Antonio Lima of Pittsburgh, fled to Italy
  13. Pippino Galbo, a fruit dealer in Meadville, PA, four years
  14. Francesco Sbadara/Spadero, a saloonkeeper in Cincinnati, made boss after Lima, two years, said to be from Termini
  15. Antonino Nusso (b. 1878) from Caccamo, fruit peddler in Cleveland
  16. Antonino’s brother Joseph Nusso (d. 1913), also a Cleveland fruit peddler
  17. Salvatore Rizzo, a railroad section hand in Marion, probably from Trabia
  18. Joseph Battaglia, Marion
  19. Tony Bicherio, Columbus

The Limas were in Marion, and came from Trabia. Regarded as the ringleaders of the Society, they received the longest sentences. Salvatore Rizzo, whose wife was from Trabia, was probably also from the Limas’ hometown. The Amicon brothers, whose complaint sparked the investigation, were originally from Molise. The Vicario brothers were from Galati, and the Nusso brothers from Caccamo. Salvatore and Vincenzo Arrigo, Agostino Marfisi, and Salvatore Demma were all from Termini.

Salvatore Demma

Another fruit merchant from Termini who was not swept up in the investigation, merits attention with regard to the Society of the Banana. While he evaded indictment by being dead in June 1909, his employee was arrested for his part in the extortion scheme, and spent time in a prison in upstate New York as a consequence. Other details about Salvatore Cira’s life in Ohio add up to the profile of a mafioso

Born Biagio Cira’ in Termini Imerese, he was called Salvatore Cira’ in Bellefontaine, Ohio, where he ran a fruit store which, for some reason, bore a surname that wasn’t his. Cira’ was the senior partner of Demar’s Fruit Store. Demar was the name of the man who killed him.

Cira’ arrived in Bellefontaine from Dayton between the births of two of his children, in 1902 and 1907. His wife was Maria Demma, sister of Salvatore Demma, one of the nineteen men tried in the Amicon case in 1909. Salvatore Demma went with Saverio Ventola to further intimidate the Amicon brothers after the Society bombed Charles Amicon’s house.

Other Demmas from Termini used the name Demar, like Cira’s store. He employed a series of junior partners, among them Joe Demma, Charles Demar, and Calogero Vicario. The news called Joe and Charles cousins, and Cira’, Demar’s uncle. I haven’t been able to find Charles Demar in vital records to identify him. The Antenati site has records going back to 1820 for Termini, but I did not find a common ancestor for Joe Demma and Cira’s wife. Joe’s first cousins include two successful fruit merchants, one in New Orleans and one in Lincoln, NE. There are many Demmas in Termini and it may be that some branches of the family had a trading advantage in the US which Cira’ was able to make use of by employing Joe. Having secured the networking contacts, however, Salvatore Cira’ may have had no further need for his services.

Agostino Marfisi

His employees found Salvatore Cira’ hard to get along with: violent, overbearing, and a cheat. The local police thought Cira’ was a mafioso, because he hosted large gatherings of men from all over the country. Even the local priest was convinced, by the negative opinion held of him in the Italian community of Bellefontaine, to refuse to celebrate Cira’s mass at his burial.

One night in March 1907, Cira’ was walking with his employees Joe Demma and Charles Demar, when a gang of strangers appeared on the road and shot Joe. Salvatore and Charles ran for their lives, or so Charles thought, until they stopped running. Away from the scene of the attack, Salvatore shocked the younger man by threatening him never to speak of what had happened to anyone. Demar suspected Cira’ had Joe killed, but he said nothing about it for a year.

When Charles Demar shot Salvatore Cira’ in their store in April 1908, he said it was in self-defense—that Salvatore was reaching for a gun. Cira’ frequently went armed. The news reported more than one reason why Demar said he shot Cira’. There was the gun, but before that, they might have been quarreling, or Demar may have decided to kill his employer because he wasn’t paying him as agreed. Regardless, the jury agreed with Demar’s defense, and he was let go. 

A year later, police sprang their trap and arrested the Society members. But that wasn’t the end of their association in Bellefontaine. Charles Vicario, brother of Tony, who had been one of the last people to work for Salvatore Cira’, was listed in his widow’s household in the 1910 census, along with her brother, while all three men were still in prison. After their release, Tony Vicario married their daughter Providence Cira’, and Charles married her older sister, Maria. Salvatore Demma married Katie Lombard in 1911. Her brother, John, married twice, the second time in 1942 to Angeline Rose Vicario, daughter of Tony and Providence. His daughter from his first marriage, Dorothy Lombardo, married Joseph Vicario, Angeline’s brother, in 1950.

The squares with an orange border are in the fruit business, and those with black three-quarters fill are known or suspected members of organized crime.

Finding endogamy through Social Network Analysis

Finding endogamy through Social Network Analysis

Family trees are like Ore graphs: everyone has two parents, and no one is their own ancestor.

In my most recent post here on Mafia Genealogy, about the hierarchy of a Mafia “Family,” or cosca, I briefly demonstrated the utility of network science in understanding how the Mafia is organized. 

Looking at the hierarchy from above, and privileging connections over status, fundamentally alter our perspective on the Mafia Family’s organization.

An extended family can be understood as a kind of social network, one that operates under special limitations. For example, while in many kinds of social networks, people can have an unlimited number of relationships of any sort, in a network diagram of a 19th Century person’s ancestors, each person has two and only two parents (though one or both may be unknown to us). In most social network visualizations there is the understanding that it is a snapshot in time, and everyone in the network is in stable, synchronous contact, whereas in most family trees there is a chronological axis, with generations being the rough and overlapping unit of time. 

For an endogamy and pedigree collapse experiment I’m conducting, one of the tests I’m running on both the Mafia and control subjects is to look for the shortest paths between two (and among three or more) members through direct descent. I hypothesize that Mafia subjects are more closely related to one another than a random set of people born in Corleone in the same years. To measure that, I’m creating family trees and counting the people in them.

Rendering a family tree as a kind of graph with special rules is both complicated and limited. Converting family trees to data sets lets you take really big sets of relationships and perform calculations on them. There is social network analysis software that lets you visually analyze your data, calculate and rank shortest paths, and find clusters and central figures. I’m working with a relatively small data set, and wanted to understand how the SNA apps do what they do, in this case, to know if I’m counting nodes correctly. My intuition told me that I needed to include the parents of each node in a path, but I didn’t know why that was the right answer.

I found a recent, scholarly article by Bokhare and Zainon (referenced below) that reviews family tree visualization software and describes the three kinds of graphs that are used: the Ore graph, the p graph, and the bipartite p graph. To get a sense of what they capture and how they differ, I converted this family tree into three kinds of graphs.

Family tree of the most closely related Mafia subjects in an endogamy study
This Ore graph is of the same family tree as pictured just above

The same family tree rendered as a p graph. Nodes can contain a single person or a married couple. In both kinds of p graphs, the arcs are gender coded. Note that they run in the opposite direction in this p graph as they do in the Ore graph.

The horizontal bar that links parents to their children in a typical family tree can be considered a node, and in some graphing methods, it is. One way or the other, you have to solve for the problem of where nodes come from. Where do babies come from in flatland, where babies are vertices in a graph? A node doesn’t come directly from another node; it comes from the union of two nodes, which is itself a different kind of node, or you construct the universe such that every node has two ancestral arcs (one of the conditions of an Ore graph). 

A bipartite p graph has two kinds of nodes, one for marriages and one for people

Between the two methods of turning a family tree into a process graph (or p graph), one of them treats a reproductive union as a node which contains the parents, and the other creates two different kinds of nodes, one for each of the parents and one for the union that gives rise to their descendants. Parents and children are related to the unions with arcs going in different directions: pointing into the marriages they create, and pointing out of the marriages from which they were born. 

There are more nodes in a bipartite p graph than in any of the other models, but I don’t think it aids understanding of distances between people in a social network to include them. An Ore graph has the same number of nodes as a family tree, but it doesn’t have an orientation corresponding to generations. Ore graphs and family trees have the same number of nodes, provided I follow the rule that each node in a path I measure has to include both parents of the node. With that caveat, I can treat a family tree as a kind of Ore graph. 

This is a family tree containing 23 nodes, which includes seven Mafia subjects, six of them related through direct descent. A subset of this tree containing just nine nodes has three Mafia subjects. Another subset of this tree with ten nodes has four Mafia subjects.

A family tree with 23 nodes, of whom seven are Mafia subjects

Not counting subjects related through marriage, the smallest tree containing two Mafia subjects has six nodes. 

Out of 15 controls born in Corleone in the same years as my Mafia subjects, the smallest tree connecting the two most closely related subjects from the control group contains fourteen nodes.

The smallest family tree that includes more than one control group member is of second cousins, once removed. 

Finding the smallest possible tree containing three control group members is more of a challenge. The only other control group member with a duplicate great-grandparent isn’t related to either of the two most closely related members. The next closest ancestor links the same two control group members. 

Instead of focusing on the shortest distances to a common ancestor, I looked for other controls who shared an ancestor with either of the two most closely related controls, Lanza and Zabbia. Antonia Valenza-7 is the 3GG of both Zabbia-22 and Jannazzo-158. The smallest tree connecting Lanza, Zabbia, and Jannazzo has thirty nodes, more than three times the size of a comparable tree for Mafia subjects.

The smallest tree connecting three subjects from the control group through direct descent has thirty nodes.

The smallest tree containing Buccheri, Lanza, and Zabbia has 31 nodes. 

This is the smallest tree containing four control subjects and their relationships through direct descent.

I’ve known for some time that I could draw a family tree that includes many of the most important mafiosi from Corleone. What my experiment demonstrates is that the family tree containing two, three, or four members of Corleone’s Mafia elite is much smaller than a comparable tree drawn for randomly selected subjects born in Corleone. 

The high degree of relation that binds Mafia members and their wives in Corleone is not typical among their unaffiliated peers. Close blood ties through direct descent link the highest levels of Mafia membership in Corleone: to one another and to their wives. Their families have been choosing one another for generations. The result is an endogamous Mafia clan within Corleone.


Thom L. Jones tells me that Dr. Michele Navarra’s will named his wife, Tommasa, but no children among his beneficiaries.


Bokhare, S.F., Zainon, W.M.N.W. (2019, Jan 15). A review on tools and techniques for family tree data visualization. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 96 (1), pp. 121-132.

How is the Mafia organized?

How is the Mafia organized?

What is the internal structure of a Mafia Family? Does it resemble a corporation or a quasi-military body?

An institutional model of the Mafia

The image above is from the FBI website, and is based on the testimony of Joseph Valachi, and the work of Donald Cressey, whose book Theft of a Nation (1969) influenced a generation of criminologists and law enforcement professionals (Kelley, 1987). Terms like boss, capofamiglia, captain, lieutenant, soldier, and “made man” tell us that associates of a Mafia Family are stratified. But not every Mafia writer uses a similar taxonomy.

A Mafia cosca is like an artichoke, designed to defend the heart

Another popular model of the Family is the metaphor of the cosca (Blok, 1974, p. 137). A cosca is literally anything that is shaped like an artichoke. All of the hard, spiny leaves are connected to the heart and curve around to protect it, like the members of a Mafia cosca around its leader.

Further complicating the question of Mafia organization, for more than a hundred years, Italian authors have described a High Mafia composed of politicians, judges, and industrialists, and a Low Mafia of murderers, extortionists, and thieves. How do the cosca and High/Low models interact? If the boss is at the top of the hierarchy, where do the politicians they influence appear? What roles do non-members play in the Mafia?

The FBI’s Mafia Org Chart is the most familiar picture of Mafia organization, but it’s not the model most scholars have used in the past forty years, because it doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining how the Mafia works over time and in a variety of scenarios.

“Form follows function.”

Form follows function. Organization—how the Mafia is structured—is interdependent with facts on the ground, and the Mafia’s other essential qualities, such as membership, purpose, and methodology. Organizational models should inform answers to such critical questions as:

  • How did the Mafia’s culture and challenges lead to the organization it has today?
  • What are the organizational model’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How does the Mafia change its structure in response to new opportunities and threats?
  • Where do new members come from?
  • How is a member’s value determined?
  • How are new laws ratified?

The hierarchy can be flattened to reveal the network

If we rotate our view of the hierarchy so it’s flattened into concentric circles, the most critical members are in the center: the mafioso, or a small clique of mafia chiefs, and their closest family members. Who takes on the secondary, tertiary, and so on positions in the model can inform us as to the organization’s goals and membership roles.

Hess envisions a landscape in which new mafiosi compete with more established ones, and non-members are farthest from the center of the cosca (Hess, 1973/1998, pp. 80, 94-5, 187; Hess, 2011, p. 5).

Mafia scholars have described the Mafia as having a highly regimented structure, as having no structure at all, and every point in between. They disagree as to exactly when and how the Mafia originated: among revolutionary soldiers, on the inland estates, in the citrus orchards, or at the port of Palermo. They have different theories as to the Mafia’s core function: whether it’s to get respect or wealth, to engage in crime or violence, for mutual aid or state-making. There is similarly a lack of agreement as to the Mafia’s essential attributes: whether it is dependent upon a modern state or its absence, if it resembles any other institution, is premodern or transnational, modeled on a biological family, or none of these things.

In Paoli’s model, a layer of non-members form the closest ring around the nucleus, with members, affiliates, and the community at large in progressively more distant rings (Paoli, 2003, pp. 78, 106-8).

Since the 1980s, network and enterprise models of the Mafia have been developed to answer the fundamental questions of precisely what the Mafia does and how. Instead of concentric circles of influence and trust, individuals are considered as nodes in a network. The lines of social connection can be of different types and degrees of intensity, but what has turned out to be important are the distances between nodes—the degrees of separation between two people—the tendency to introduce our friends to one another, and to find popularity attractive. There are also the seeming paradoxes of networks, like the power of weak ties to bring in new information (Hogan, 2018). The difference between having followers, and bringing people together, is not a metaphysical one, but an objective fact that can be demonstrated with network diagrams.

In network models of the Mafia, hierarchies and boundaries disappear and are replaced with clusters and cliques. Bosses, members, their friends and family members, business associates, fraternity brothers, and so on, become points in a network. The cosca’s leaves, as it turns out, are more interconnected than an artichoke’s. The extent of Mafia is revealed to be something far beyond its membership, revealing its true resilience.

In this network of pallbearers, relationships to the deceased have been removed to reveal clusters of his associates who are related to one another.

A magnifying lens turned upon the “spirit” of the Mafia reveals transactions and a web of densely connected actors. We can zoom out and see trends: by occupation, geographical, chronological. The confusions of high and low, capo and associate, are replaced with something measurable in networks of business associations, votes, phone calls, neighborhoods, and every other piece of data on organized crime that we can quantify. Questions of how Mafia cosche interact with one another, how they recover after a loss of key personnel, and the relationships among enterprise, cosca, and kin, can all be studied using network analysis.

Network analysis is a tool that changes our model of the Mafia, partly by getting us out of our own way. The FBI model is still popular because people who read true crime think they know this much is true, that the Mafia is made up of bosses and captains and soldiers. Mafia scholars can hold biased views, too, only seeing what fits their preconceived notion of what the Mafia is and does. Network models can be helpful in taking that bias out of the picture.

When the organizational model proposed isn’t a good fit for the environment, personnel, activities, and goals of the organization as we know them from direct observation, we know it isn’t accurate. As I discussed above, every fundamental trait of the Mafia has been argued, and the where, when, what, and why of the Mafia are not exceptions, which means that for every model of Mafia organization, there is a framework of theory that goes along with it of how that model arose, how it works, and how it can change. A strictly hierarchical model proponent may claim, for example, that their greater stratification provides an advantage in fighting the state, and fail to note the vulnerability of long command chains in a criminal organization. One school of Mafia theorists posit the Mafia is a business enterprise operating in a marketplace like any other. Variations on this theme point out how the market for Mafia business is different, that the conditions and products and basis for competition in organized crime are fundamentally unique; or acknowledge a continuity of Mafia far beyond the life cycle of an enterprise.

Inter-cosca relations need to be explained in a Mafia theory framework. Early in the 20th Century, a prevailing view was that the Mafia was one, single, hierarchical organization, with a capo di tutti capi somewhere that directed the cosche bosses of the world, like a huge army or international corporation. At the low end of the institutionalization continuum, a sociological theory of inter-cosca organization is that members of different cosche recognize one another as being the same, and that mutual respect and cooperation proceed from this.

A theory of knowledge transfer in corporations holds that the hierarchical structure of executives, administrators, and associates that we see in a modern company tells you practically nothing about how the company gets things done (Stephenson, 2013). The same can be said for the Mafia. In both legitimate and illegal job markets, people get job offers based on referrals, they freelance and change companies, they form critical friendships and mentorships that make them more efficient at their jobs: in other words, hierarchical and enterprise-driven organizational theories don’t explain what makes associates good at what they do, but network models do. Trust-based ties form durable, informal, heterogeneous networks of expertise that can last beyond the lifetime of an individual member. Catanzaro proposes layers of organization, with the enterprise distinct from a mostly kinship-based network from which the Mafia most directly emanates (1988/1992, p. 213).

The data I’ve collected and analyzed from Corleone, Sicily, reveals dense networks of kinship which connect the families from whom Mafia membership has been drawn, in Sicily and in the United States, for over a hundred years. Nothing creates trust and loyalty like family, and the Mafia has hijacked family-reproducing structures like a virus. Mafiosi don’t learn to do their jobs well in school, or by attending a human resources seminar. The values that make Mafia distinct and effective are not simply taught, but are ingrained from earliest childhood, altering the psychology of everyone involved: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. It takes a village to raise a Mafia.

Blok, A. (1974). The mafia of a Sicilian village, 1860-1960: a study of violent peasant entrepreneurs. Harper Torchbooks.

Catanzaro, R. (1992). Men of respect: a social history of the Sicilian Mafia. Translation by Raymond Rosenthal. The Free Press (A Division of Macmillan, Inc.) New York. (Original work published 1988)

Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & mafiosi: origin, power and myth. (E. Osers, Trans.). London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. (Original work published 1973)

Hess, H. (2011). Approaching and explaining the mafia phenomenon: attempts of a sociologist. Sociology. Available online at

Hogan, B. (2018, March 13). Social network analysis – Introduction to structural thinking . Retrieved 13 July from

Kelley, R. J. (1987, September). The nature of organized crime and its operations. Chapter in Major issues in organized crime control (H. Edelhertz, Ed.) Pp. 5+. Retrieved 30 May 2021 from

Paoli, L. (2003). Mafia brotherhoods: organized crime, Italian style. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephenson, K. (2013, August 12). Trafficking in trust: The art and science of human Knowledge networks. In L. Coughlin, E. Wingard, and K. Hollihan. (Eds.). Enlightened power: How women are transforming the practice of leadership (pp. 243-264). Jossey-Bass. Retrieved 20 July 2020 from

Three “tells” of Mafia families

Three “tells” of Mafia families

The extended family of brothers Ciro and Vincent Terranova and their nephews, Jimmy and Joe “Baker” Catania, have three distinctive “tells” of Mafia families.

The Artichoke King was the most successful of the Morello-Terranova brothers. One measure of his success was that he was the only one of his brothers to die in bed. At the peak of his power, he could afford to be generous to his relatives. He raised the three orphaned children of his brother, Vincenzo, and gave a house to his sister and her husband, the mafioso Ignazio Lupo. When his nephew, Giuseppe “Joe the Baker” Catania was killed by Maranzano’s soldiers in 1931, Ciro paid for a lavish funeral, including a Depression-defying procession of limousines, floral arrangements, and a golden casket fit for a king.

Giuseppe “Joe Baker” Catania. Joe and his older brother, Calogero/Jimmy emigrated as infants from Palermo with their mother to join their father, a baker, in New York City.

While the story of Joe Catania and his brothers is usually relegated to a sentence or two in someone else’s story, the marriages between the Terranova and Catania families point to a deep level of involvement. The “tells” of Mafia families in vital records—of business ownership, unexplained wealth, and marriages arranged to preserve power—put the Catania family at the center of an extended organized crime family. 

The Catanias emigrated from Mezzomonreale, a district of the city of Palermo. Brothers Frank and Tony Catania and their brother-in-law, Rosario La Scala, emigrated to New York and worked as bakers. The Catania brothers had a bakery in Little Italy, then began working out of the Reliable Bronx Italian Bakers. Rosario La Scala worked for a different bakery in the same cooperative. 

According to the paint on the building, still visible on Google Maps, they were established in 1918. The original location was at 2383 Hoffman St.

In the second generation, Tony’s sons Calogero and Giuseppe Catania inherited the family business from their father, and followed their uncle Ciro Terranova into organized crime. Jimmy, as Calogero was called, went to prison for robbery in 1925. The younger brother, called Joe the Baker, was an alleged loan shark and bookmaker. In 1934, Jimmy was arrested with Ignazio Lupo for extortion. Joe was arrested for vagrancy after an armed robbery at a Tepecano Democratic Club-sponsored dinner honoring Magistrate Vitale, part of a NYPD policy of harassing known criminals. Ciro Terranova was routinely harassed by police with the same charge, in the latter years of his career. 

Donato “Danny” Iamascia was another Terranova associate who rated a “glittering pageant” of a funeral when he was killed in 1931.

Joe Catania’s death was said by police to be the result of a war over “brick grapes,” desiccated California wine grapes sold during Prohibition with detailed instructions on how not to make wine from them. In fact, his death came during a short but deadly war between Joe “The Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano for total dominance of New York’s criminal underworld.

Immediately after Morello and Lupo’s release from prison for counterfeiting, Ciro requested permission to travel to his native Corleone, in Sicily. This is his passport application photograph from 1921, requested for this trip.

Terranova and his nephews were under Masseria’s leadership when Maranzano soldiers mortally assaulted Joe Catania in front of a candy store near his home on Belmont Avenue, in the heart of Bronx’s Little Italy, on 3 February 1931. His uncle Ciro, whose power was at its apex, was hit hard by the death of his nephew and trusted aide. Terranova’s reputation began to weaken. He died in 1938 following a stroke.

Rosario La Scala, the maternal uncle of the Catania brothers, diversified in the 1920s and 30s, operating a live poultry market in East Harlem, and a bakery in the Bronx. Rosario was married to Rosalia Catania, a sister of Ciro Terranova’s wife, Tessie Catania. Their son, Salvatore, married Angelina Terranova, daughter of the late Vincenzo “The Tiger “ Terranova.

In 1930, Jimmy and Joe Catania’s younger brother, Ciro, was in a reformatory. When Joe was killed, he left a wife and two daughters. Ciro married his brother’s widow in 1935. The year before they married, Ciro took a trip to Cuba with his cousin, Salvatore La Scala. In 1940, Ciro appeared in the census twice, once as a candy store owner living with his father, and again with his wife and their children, as the manager of a garage.

Angelina Terranova’s younger brother, Vincent, lived with her and Salvatore for years. Another of Salvatore’s brothers-in-law, Frank Cina, drove a delivery truck for the La Scala bakery in the Bronx, then employed Vincent Terranova in a trucking company. Vincent and his sister Josephine married the children of a fruit dealer from East Harlem: first Josephine in 1934 to Salvatore Ciccone and then Vincent to his sister, Immacolata, known as Margie. 

Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone, born in 1934, a captain in the Gambino crime family

Madonna Louise Ciccone traces her Italian roots to Pacentro, according to her Wikipedia biography

It’s been claimed without attribution in online biographies that Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone is the brother of Salvatore and Margie Ciccone. They have a brother named Anthony, but he is fifteen years older than the Gambino capo from Staten Island. The same sources on Sonny Ciccone that name his parents as Sebastiano Ciccone and Gelsomina Piccolo (or badly transcribed variations of these names) say the family is from Pacentro, in Abruzzo, suggesting a possible relationship to another famous Ciccone, Madonna Louise. Sebastiano and Gelsomina are from Brusciano, in Naples, and are of no known relationship to either the Material Girl or the mafioso who share their surname. Neither was I able to find a relationship to a third Ciccone, William, who tried to kill John Gotti in 1987 and whose body was subsequently found in the basement of a Staten Island confectioner. William Ciccone was from a family of longshoremen in Brooklyn who emigrated from Bagnara Calabra. Their different ancestral hometowns, in three distinct regions of Italy, tell us that the families are unlikely to be close kin.

Unlike the coincidences of the Ciccone surname repeating itself through New York Mafia history, alliance marriages among Mafia family members are deliberate. Just like the marriages among the Morello-Terranova siblings, the marriages of the La Scala cousins and the Catania sisters, between the well-connected Catanias and the powerful Terranovas, Vincent Terranova’s children and the Ciccones, and the marriages of Louisa Longo to two of the Catania brothers, were all designed to preserve, enhance, or reinforce power and influence. La famiglia is sacred throughout the Italian diaspora, but in the Mafia, it’s especially true as the family is the source of strength, the building block of organization, and the regenerative source of Mafia myth and manpower. Where the line between family and business is nonexistent, marriage is transactional: the mergers and acquisitions department of the family business.

The extended family tree of the Terranova brothers and their nephews, the “Baker” brothers

Feature image: John Savino, Daniel J. Iamascia and Joseph ‘the Baker’ Catania. Original photo from The Niagara Falls Gazette, 3 January 1930. P. 15. Savino, Iamascia, Catania, and Ciro Terranova were accused of orchestrating the armed robbery at the Roman Gardens.

Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court

Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court

Early in the 20th Century, before Prohibition and the Outfit, there were two Sicilian Mafia territories in Chicago: Little Italy and Little Sicily. Little Italy was in the Near West Side of Chicago, close to the heart of the city.

The Italian neighborhoods in Chicago

The Mafia that dominated Little Italy were led by the Genna brothers from Marsala, Sicily. North of the Genna stronghold was Goose Island, home to an Irish gang, and on the other side of the island was the Near North Side’s Little Sicily neighborhood. Mariano Zagone, a counterfeiter from Palermo, is the earliest known Mafia boss of Chicago’s Little Sicily. Following Zagone’s murder, the Nicolosi brothers of Corleone ruled Little Sicily. 

Gault Court, the center of operations for the Mafia in Little Sicily, is just west of the southern tip of Goose Island, in the center of this 1910 map.

Little Sicily no longer exists. Once called “Little Hell” for the gasworks nearby, these streets have been renamed over the years, and the shanty housing occupied by a series of immigrant communities was razed and rebuilt as in the 1940-50s as the Cabrini-Green high-rise public housing apartments. The contrast between the poverty of this neighborhood and the opulence of the Gold Coast immediately to its east, on the shore of Lake Michigan, has been documented for over a hundred years. 

Corleonesi began to move into the neighborhood just before the turn of the 20th century. The most significant extended family to the local Mafia were the Spataforas. Gioachino Spatafora immigrated from Corleone in 1898 with his wife, Biagia “Bessie” Cutrone, and their children. Gioachino’s nephew, Giuseppe Nicolosi, operated a saloon on Gault Court (today called Cambridge Avenue). Mariano Zagone, the Mafia boss, treated the saloon as his own headquarters.

In 1902, Gioachino was dead, and his widow had remarried to Zagone. (Rumor has it Zagone seduced her before Spatafora’s death.) Gioachino and Bessie’s daughter, Leoluchina, who was called Laura Spatafora, married her cousin, Giuseppe Nicolosi. A few years later, Giuseppe’s brother, Carmelo, joined them on Gault Court.

The Nicolosi brothers and their first cousins who lived in Chicago’s Little Sicily

On four different occasions between 1902 and 1909, people tried to kill Mariano Zagone, once shooting Laura’s brother, Vincenzo, by accident. It was another brother, Joseph Spatafora, who succeeded in killing his stepfather by gunning him down at the Nicolosi saloon. After Zagone’s murder, the Nicolosi brothers took over the Mafia in Little Sicily.

The Nicolosi brothers, and the children of Gioachino Spatafora, had another mutual set of first cousins in Little Sicily: the Collettis. In 1906, Carmelo Nicolosi and his wife escorted their cousin Leoluchina Colletti, who was joining her brothers, Giuseppe and Rosario, in Chicago. Traveling with them on the Perugia was Rosaria Maria Varca, the mother-in-law of New York City mafioso Mariano Marsalisi.

1906 Perugia manifest, bottom left, shows passengers 24-29 are from Corleone. Line 24 is Maria Rosaria Varca, Marsalisi’s mother-in-law. Bernardo Vernagallo, who is Gioachino Lima’s brother-in-law on line 26, did not sail.
1906 Perugia manifest, bottom right shows the passengers’ destination contacts. The Chicago-bound passengers are all going to addresses on Gault Court.

There was another significant family from Corleone in Little Sicily. Antonino Marino arrived in the United States in 1894 and moved his family to New York for a few years before arriving in Chicago, when his son Angelo was born in 1906. In 1907, Antonino welcomed two young women, his nieces, who arrived on the Hamburg. There were six passengers from Corleone on this voyage: Marino’s nieces, a Spatafora cousin and her husband destined for Chicago, and my relatives, Lucia Soldano and her brother Tony, going to New York. 

1907 Hamburg manifest, first page shows passengers 21-26 are from Corleone. The first four are going to Chicago and the last two, my relatives, are going to New York. The names that appear to the right are their nearest relatives in their home country.
1907 Hamburg manifest, second page, contains destination contact information for the same passengers.

At least one of Antonino Marino’s visiting nieces has family ties to the Mafia. Lucia Canzoneri’s nephew, Leoluca Billeri, was a defendant at the 1969 Mafia trial in Bari, Italy. Her future husband, Carmelo Palazzo, immigrated to the United States in 1906 in the company of the newlywed son-in-law of a Fratuzzi member. Palazzo gave Mariano Marsalisi’s New York address as his destination. 

In Chicago in 1911, Marino’s six-year old son, Angelo, was lured away by neighbors on Gault Court and held for ransom. Among those responsible were the Nicolosi brothers, who later stood trial for the kidnapping, and their wives. Laura Spatafora’s sister-in-law, Paola Pomilla, was the ringleader, who returned the child an hour later, after Marino paid $500 to the brothers (more than $13K in 2021 dollars).

The Spatafora cousin on the Hamburg, Leoluchina Vutera, and her husband Paolo Fucarino were joining Leoluchina’s brother, Giuseppe in Chicago. In 1919, Paolo was a widower, but he remained close to his wife’s family. On his return from a trip to Sicily with his children, Paolo calls Carmelo Nicolosi his cousin and destination contact. Giuseppe Morello and Santo Calamia used a similar sleight of hand to stretch their in-law of an in-law relationship when Calamia visited Morello in prison.

The Marino and Spatafora families appear to have been close enough to travel halfway around the world together in 1907, at serious odds in 1911, and reconciled again by the latter years of Prohibition. In 1928, the Mafia of Little Sicily was allied to Joe Aiello, who had taken over Little Italy and the Unione Siciliane from the Gennas. Together they fought the encroachment of the Outfit into their neighborhood fiefdoms. Two of the last Corleonesi gangsters from this era are second cousins Sam and John Oliveri.

Sam Oliveri was born Salvatore Oliveri to a borgese (middle-class, as distinguished from a contadino or countryman) father and an unknown mother. Oliveri was a representative at the Cleveland Conference and later associated with the Mafia in Rockford, Illinois. Sam’s uncle is Andrea Oliveri of New York: an important early mafioso in East Harlem, and father-in-law of Tommy Reina. When he first immigrated in 1912, Sam went to Andrea’s son in New York City. By World War I, he and his second cousin, Giovanni “John” Oliveri both lived in Chicago’s Little Sicily. 

Sam and John Oliveri married sisters, Jennie and Stella Marino. The Marino sisters nieces of Antonino Marino, whose son was kidnapped by the Nicolosis. Antonino and his brother immigrated together through New Orleans in 1894. Stella was born there around 1895. The family moved north to Chicago, where Jennie (Vincenza) was born, three years later. 

John Oliveri lived on Cambridge Avenue in 1918 when he registered for the draft. When he became a naturalized citizen, Joe Nicolosi—Giuseppe—was one of the witnesses. John was killed by Capone’s men in 1928. 

Sam Oliveri moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he convinced a funeral home operator to make him a co-owner. The Gasparini & Oliveri Funeral Home was Oliveri’s Mafia headquarters in Rockford. Sam died in 1969. Oliveris continue to own and operate the funeral home today.

Interview with Bob Sorrentino on Italian Genealogy

Interview with Bob Sorrentino on Italian Genealogy

I’ve written here before about Angela Grizzaffi and my Cascio ancestors from Corleone, and about the olive oil business my great-grandparents ran from their kitchen in East Harlem. This past week, in preparation for an interview with Bob Sorrentino of the Italian Genealogy blog, I took another look at the immigration records of the Soldano side of the family and found a chain of migration that led to two distinct enclaves of mafiosi from Corleone: one in the New York City neighborhood where my Cascio and Soldano ancestors lived, and another in the Little Sicily neighborhood that once existed in Chicago.

I’ll write more about this soon. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about the early Mafia in Chicago, check out my last post on Joe Aiello. If you’d like to see me talking with Bob Sorrentino about what spurs my genealogy research, and what distinguishes old school gangsters from the New Mafia, you can listen or watch here.

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.