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 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.
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.