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.

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.