Are Toto Riina and Tommy Reina related?
A few days ago, I discovered that I confused the histories of two different gangsters from Corleone, Toto Riina (b. 1930- ) and Luciano Leggio (1925-1993), in this blog, a couple of weeks ago. I wrote that Leggio’s father was killed in an explosion that was, in fact, based on a story about Toto Riina’s father. Born five years apart, Riina succeeded Leggio as the head of the mafia in Corleone, when the latter finally went to prison in 1974 for ordering the assassination of his predecessor, Dr. Navarra.
This week, I’m exploring whether Salvatore “Toto” Riina, the “Beast” of Corleone, and Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, also from Corleone, and the founder of the Lucchese crime family in New York, are related.
From studying the vital records, I know there are not separate “Reina” and “Riina” families in Corleone, only two spellings of the same name. Although in both Italian and Latin, the word for queen is “regina” (“riggina” in Sicilian), in Spanish and French, the word drops the middle “g” sound and is spelled “reina” or “reine.” The latter two cultures ruled Sicily in the medieval period, when family surnames were coming into regular use.
Because Corleone is a relatively small town with excellent records, I felt confident that I could trace both Toto and Tommy’s ancestry, and that there was a good chance they were related. I began with clues from one of the most frequently cited sources on the subject of the Five Families, David Critchley’s The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. (Routledge: New York, 2009). In his book, Critchley provides Tommy Reina’s hometown, birth month and year, and names his parents. With such a wealth of information, it should have been easy for me to find Tommy’s baptismal record, and yet there was none that matched Critchley’s dates.
I tried reverse-engineering his research. He cites a newspaper, the New York Tribune, dated 18 August 1921. That issue is indexed on The Library of Congress website, Chronicling America, but there is no article about Tommy Reina on or around that date. Wider searches on Chronicling America and on Fulton History yielded some obituaries about the murdered ice box magnate (I mention Tommy’s brother-in-law in my post on the ice trade), on 26 February 1930, but no mentions of Giacomo and Carmela, Tommy’s parents. The stone marking his grave in New York gives his birth year only, as 1889.
Critchley provides another clue to Tommy Reina’s origins. Bernarda Reina, wife of Giuseppe Morello’s half-brother Vincent Terranova, is called the daughter of Giacomo. Were Bernarda and Tommy Reina sister and brother? Tommy was a long-time captain in the Morello gang. It would fit mafia marriage patterns, for his sister to marry one of his criminal associates. But the records available for Bernarda do not suggest she is Tommy’s sister.
There are three vital records available online that give Bernarda’s parents names: those of her baptism, marriage, and death. These all agree that her parents were Giacomo Riina and Giuseppa di Miceli. There are a few spelling variations—Reina is usually spelled “Riina” in the original Church records from Corleone, and in the civil records, too. (There’s another Bernarda Riina, of unknown relation, in this 1895 index of births.) By the time Bernarda dies in New York, she is known by her nickname, “Bessie,” and her mother is called “Josephine di Miceli” in the American record of Bernarda’s death. (Josephine is the English form of Josepha, the Latin form of Giuseppa.)
After failing to find him in the records for September 1889, I started looking for Gaetano Riina, son of Giacomo, in the Corleone baptismal records, moving in widening circles. The only one that came close was born the following year, in September of 1890. (The next closest births of a child by this name in Corleone are thirteen years in either direction, in 1877 and in 1904.) The boy born in 1890 is the first born son of Bernardo Riina and Giuseppa Zabbia, who married the previous year.
Bernarda Reina is from a well-connected family. One of her great-grandfathers on her father’s side, Giuseppe Fratello, was a gabelloto, and her mother’s first cousin was Bernardo di Miceli, a known member of the mafia in Corleone, and the godfather of Dr. Navarra. Another cousin of theirs, also named Bernardo di Miceli, was a broker by trade, and married Caterina Riina, Bernarda’s sister.
Toto Riina, whose father really did kill himself, one of his children, and a mule by detonating a German WWII bomb he intended to dismantle for the gunpowder inside, was born Salvatore Riina in 1930. Like virtually all firstborn sons in Corleone, he was named after his paternal grandfather. And like most boys named Salvatore, he was called “Toto” from childhood.
Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, who was killed in New York the same year Toto was born, was also named after his paternal grandfather. Like other Sicilian boys named Gaetano, he was probably called “Tanu” growing up, and this may be the source of his American nickname. Some names don’t translate well—Calogero is another one, frequently converted to “Charles” in the US. Gaetano is a distinctly Italian name, with no English equivalent.
Both being gangsters, and born in Corleone, with forms of the same surname, I had to wonder: Were Toto Riina and Tommy Reina related? It’s not an idle question: Genealogical relationships are valuable clues to the genealogy of the mafia itself. The mafia is rooted in traditions that privilege family ties and the loyalty they engender. The criminal organization relies upon these relationships both to reinforce ties among its members, and to maintain a traditional, positive image outside the mafia, among the Sicilian diaspora. In recent years Toto Riina’s daughter, Lucia, has provided the mafia such a PR boost, when she expressed pride in her family name, and devotion to her incarcerated father.
Tommy Reina, forming the Lucchese family in New York, and Giuseppe Morello, father of the Genovese crime family, were the first generation of the Corleonesi mafia abroad. What are the implications in the next generation, following World War II? To understand the spread of the mafia, and its global network of relationships, requires knowledge of the kinships among its members. To learn the connection between the Lucchese family in New York and “the Beast of Corleone,” I would have to untangle Toto’s roots from the clues in mafia scholarship, as I had with Tommy’s.
In the 1969 mafia trial in Bari, Toto Riina is named, along with his birthdate and the names of his parents, Giovanni Riina and Maria Concetta Rizzo. Attilio Bolzoni and Giuseppe d’Avanzo, in their book, “The Boss of Bosses,” describe Toto’s father, Giovanni, as a member of the “class of 1897.” There’s one Giovanni Riina born that year, on the first of January. Giovanni’s godfather is Francesco Zito, who is named among mafia leadership around this time, by Dino Paternostro, in a 2004 article, “‘Fratuzzi’, antenati di Liggio e Riina.”
Based on these clues, I was able to dig up the roots of each of their families, and to document them far enough back to find a common ancestor for all three. I have determined that Tommy and Bernarda Reina are second cousins to one another , and second cousins, once removed, from Toto Riina. All are descended from Gioachino Riina, who was born around 1788 in Corleone. Gioachino’s brother, Nicolo’, married a first cousin of Antonino Palumbo, one of the brothers in Rapanzino’s gang in the 1830s. Nicolo’ lived near his in-laws on the strada di Mannina in 1834. (This paragraph was substantially revised on 14 Feb 2017. -JC)
Toto married the sister of one of his captains and they have four children. Today, Toto Riina is an old man, living in prison. His predecessor, Leggio, having met the same fate, died there in 1993.