A cattle rustling gang from Corleone were the first documented members of the Sicilian Mafia in history.
The 1830s were hard times in Sicily. Feudalism ended a generation before, and the common lands on which peasants once scraped out an existence were closed to them. Competition from Russia and the United States in the international wheat market, combined with legal “reforms” in Sicily, made life very difficult for the poorest peasants. In this charged atmosphere, the first Mafia gangs appeared in western Sicily.
Typically, armed gangs in the countryside of western Sicily organized around kinship ties and personalities. Mainly young and unmarried men came together to operate in the summer and dispersed to their homes in the winter. Successful bandits had client-patron relationships with mafiosi, who bought their stolen goods (or protected their broker) and provided some protection from police. Bands without such relations were quickly destroyed. Even those with Mafia connections did not typically survive beyond the youth of their founders, distinguishing gangs from more durable social organizations.
In January 1834, members of the armed gang led by the Palumbo brothers of Corleone were actively pursued by police, but were welcomed into their parents’ homes and even counted in the Church census. Although most of its members were killed by police, the escape of its leaders is remembered in popular legend.
Two pairs of brothers whose families were bound through compareggio formed the nucleus of the gang. Bernardo Palumbo and his younger brother, Antonino, were the gang’s leaders. Antonino Palumbo’s godparents were the parents of Biagio and Paolo Jannazzo, who were in the Palumbo brothers’ gang. Active from 1832 until their destruction in 1836, there were as many as eighteen members, fifteen of whom are known from vital records. They were young peasant men between the ages of twenty-two and thirty, most of them from Corleone.
Most notable in Mafia history, this Corleone-based gang was documented in the years just preceding the first record of Luca Patti’s cattle rustling ring, covering the same territory in the interior of the province of Palermo. Many consider Patti the first instance of a Sicilian mafioso in recorded history, but his ring appears to have had a predecessor, or possibly competition, in the Palumbo brothers’ gang.
When I first wrote about the gang in 2016 I called them the Rapanzino gang, after another leading member: Giuseppe Castro. The nickname refers to abduction, a common category of Mafia crime. Castro was often named in combination with Nicolò Ciavarello, who was called “Puntillo,” a name which means “stubbornness.”
The other members were:
Salvatore Blanda, from Prizzi
Calogero Caponetto, from San Giuseppe Jato
Giuseppe Petralia, from Palazzo Adriano
Giuseppe Piazza, aka Francesco Piazza, aka Baglione
and Salvatore Pomara, aka Reina
The gang rose to police attention in 1833. Despite being officially wanted men, several members were reported to be living with their parents and siblings in the Church’s census of households in Corleone, taken early in 1834. Appearing in the same census is Don Pietro lo Cascio, one of two police captains leading the pursuit.
Sometime in 1834 or 1835, three members of the gang escaped from the jail in Corleone with two other prisoners, one of them a cousin of one of the escaping gangsters. Three more members, including the Palumbo brothers, were reportedly guillotined in Palermo in December 1835. It’s rumored that the brothers and possibly “Baglione” Piazza, the third brought to Palermo, escaped justice. The same month, thirteen members escaped from prison in Palermo and got the gang back together. In March, bounties were set on them all. They were picked off by police, killed and arrested, through mid-July.
Although the gang was almost entirely exterminated by police, the descendants of their closest family members include an impressive roster of mafiosi. Along with Giuseppe Morello’s stepfather Bernardo Terranova and Michelangelo Gennaro, 1920s boss of Corleone’s Mafia, the Fratuzzi, are Morello counterfeiters Pasquale and Leoluca Vasi, New Orleans connector Serafino Saltaformaggio (father-in-law of Lucia Terranova), and the current boss of the Genovese Family: Barney Bellomo.
To learn more about the Palumbo brothers gang, their descendants, and their significance in Mafia history, become a member at Patreon.