The first Mafia gang in Sicily

The first Mafia gang in Sicily

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

Luciano Catania

Antonino Leone

Leoluca Mondello

Filippo Pecorella

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.


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Legacy of the Rapanzino gang

Legacy of the Rapanzino gang

While most of Rapanzino’s gang was exterminated by the police in the mid-1830s, their legacy continues, with a clear line of descent, all the way to the Five Families of New York and the Mafia in Corleone today.

The Rapanzino gang of cattle thieves, active in the early 1830s in Palermo province, were closely related to known mafia members in Corleone. Two of the members,  Bernardo and Antonino Palumbo, were brothers, and their second cousin, Leoluca Mondello, was also in their gang. Mondello and the leader, Rapanzino, were killed on the same day by the police. Two other members of the gang were Biagio Jannazzo and his older brother, Paolo. Although not closely related to the Palumbo brothers, by blood or marriage, the two families were evidently close: Biagio and Paolo’s parents were Antonino Palumbo’s godparents.

Ninetta Bagarella
Ninetta Bagarella

On their mother’s side, the Palumbo brothers were cousins of Vincenzo Maida, a rural guard. A common practice in that time, was for guards like Maida to negotiate for the return of stolen property. For this reason, it was a requirement of the position, that guards have close relations with criminals. Salvatore Lupo describes a typical arrangement: a mafia boss would go to the victim of a theft to express his sympathy, and to say maybe he can make some inquiries and find out what happened to the stolen goods. But he’s behind the theft and makes his money from the owner who pays to restore his goods.

Denis Mack Smith writes that the most common crimes in Sicily around this time were smuggling food into towns to avoid taxation, the illicit control of water, extortion—often through threats of arson to crops—and “abigeato”: stealing farm animals. It’s likely that Rapanzino’s gang worked with Maida, and other rural guards, to whom the thieves would kick back a proportion of their gains.

It’s not clear to me, what forces led to the police action against this band. Possibly the geographic scope of their activity brought the thieves from Corleone into conflict with neighboring mafias, each district an ecosystem of peasants, thieves, guards, and landowners. Or members of the band may have angered their local boss in some way. At any rate, by 1833, they were being hunted down by police, on orders from Palermo.

Despite being a wanted man in June 1834, the young widower Nicolo’ “Puntillo” Ciavarello remarried in Corleone, to Maria Marino. The Palumbo brothers were guillotined in Palermo the following year… that is, unless they escaped to Tunis, as legend has it. Paolo Jannazzo’s fate is not known. He did not marry in Corleone, and there is no record of his death there, either. Possibly he met the same fate as the Palumbo brothers.

In 1838, “Puntillo” and his wife stood as godparents to Mariano Cascio, Maria’s first cousin. Puntillo’s old band mate, Biagio Jannazzo, married Rosa Cascio, the sister of Mariano, in 1843. Rosa and Mariano’s sister, Emmanuela, married Vincenzo Maida, the guard, in 1849. Another of their sisters, Lucia, was the mother of future boss, Michelangelo Gennaro.

In 1840, a sister of the Jannazzo brothers, Lucia, married Vincenzo Terranova. Their son, Bernardo, is a known member of the mafia in Corleone, and the stepfather of Giuseppe Morello, a founding member of the Genovese crime family in New York.

Rapanzino, killed at age 27, didn’t marry. His niece, Maria Carmela Milone, married Domenico Moscato. Domenico’s cousin, Maria Carmela Chiazzisi, married Spiridione Castro, a cart driver—one of the rural entrepreneurial professions associated with the mafia. Spiridione’s nephew, Luciano Castro, is called a mezzano, an “intermediary” or middleman, in the 1853 civil record of his son’s birth: another mafia-related profession.

One of Biagio Jannazzo’s daughters, Leoluchina, married Bernardo Moscato, first cousin of Domenico. Leoluchina and Bernardo’s daughter, Domenica, married Placido Crapisi, son of mafia member Luciano. Her brother, Luciano, married their first cousin on his mother’s side, Angela Gennaro, sister of Michelangelo.

Biagio’s youngest son, born in 1849 and named Paolo, after his uncle, married twice, the second time to his long time domestic partner, when Paolo was considered to be “in extremis,” close to death, in 1906. He lived another nine years.

Epifanio Palumbo, the uncle of the Palumbo brothers, is the third great grandfather of Ninetta Bagarella. Ninetta is the youngest daughter of Salvatore Bagarella, a soldier in the Liggio-Navarra war. Salvatore and two of Ninetta’s brothers were named as defendants in the 1969 trial in Bari. She is the wife of Toto Riina. The family has been in the news recently, after a local Church confraternity paid homage at Ninetta’s home in Corleone. The “inchino” (a word that translates to “bow” or “curtsy”) a gesture of respect made during religious processions, is forbidden toward known Mafia figures by decree of the archbishop in Monreale. When it has occurred elsewhere in Italy, as in Caltagirone in March, there have been charges of disruption of public order. The family and the mayor of Corleone both deny that the inchino happened there.

Sources

“San Michele di Ganzaria tra inchieste e processioni sospese.” Published in Il Giornale d’Italia on 31 March 2016. Accessed http://www.ilgiornaleditalia.org/news/cronaca/875849/San-Michele-di-Ganzaria-tra-inchieste.html 7 June 2016.

Salvatore Lupo. History of the Mafia. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Columbia University Press, 2009.

Josephine McKenna. “Homage to Mafia boss angers Catholic Church.” Published 6 June 2016. Accessed https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/world/homage-mafia-boss-angers-catholic-church/ 6 June 2016.

Real Segreteria di Stato presso il Luogotenente Generale in Sicilia Ripartimento Polizia Repertorio anno 1836. Accessed at http://archiviodistatodipalermo.it/files/inventari/file/1263903377anno1836.pdf 6 August 2015.

Salvatore Salomone-Marino. Leggende popolari siciliane in poesia raccolte. Published 1880. Accessed online 5 April 2015.

Denis Mack Smith, A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily After 1713. Dorset Press, 1988.

 

Feature image credit: Giovanni Fattori, Cowboys of the Maremma Driving the Herds, 1893.