A family business

A family business

Mafia leadership for the past hundred years in Corleone have all been related to one another, through blood and marriage.

Cattle theft in Sicily, before the twentieth century, was like car theft today, in that it was a crime that required a village. A thief who takes a car needs a network of criminals to help conceal the crime and profit from it. There are chop shops and resellers, those who strip it down for parts or sell it whole. And there are other people who will tow your car away to a lot, and guard it there until you come and pay a fee to get it back. In either scenario, criminals need places large enough to secure large items away from their owners, until such time as they can be liquidated or redeemed.

Paolino Streva, with the help of one of his subordinates, Giuseppe Morello, was stealing cattle, using his network of resources for this complicated crime. The job of the guard Giovanni Vella, was to find the stolen cattle and deal with the thieves. He might do this by negotiating a return of the cattle to their owner—this was a standard practice—or by killing the thief. Vella believed Streva and Morello were behind the large number of cattle thefts that year in Corleone. Given Streva’s social position, however, murdering him was out of the question.

The Mafia boss at that time, Salvatore Cutrera, and his nephew, Paolino Streva, were among an elite of landowners in Corleone in the late 1880s. Despite his age—Streva was only nineteen in 1889—he was one of his his uncle’s chief subordinates. When Giuseppe Morello rose in the Corleonesi mob, it was under Paolino and Cutrera. According to William J. Flynn, Morello killed the guard, Vella, and following that, killed again, to silence a witness to his crime. 

When Paolino was 23, he married his first cousin once removed, Anna Giovanna Streva. Anna was just fifteen, and an orphan, the ward of her uncle Angelo. Anna’s father, who was also called Don Paolo Streva, married the mother of his children on his deathbed. Four years later, the witnesses at Anna and Paolino’s marriage were a student, Filippo Bentivegna, who would become a doctor, and Giuseppe Battaglia, the new boss in Corleone.

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Paolo Streva’s marriage record, signed by himself, his uncle, his father, and two witnesses, including Giuseppe Battaglia

Battaglia is distantly related to future bosses Angelo Gagliano and Michele Navarra through his wife, Maria Rosa di Miceli, a second cousin of Gagliano’s mother, Leoluchina lo Bosco. Battaglia was boss until 1920, when he was succeeded by Michelangelo Gennaro. Michelangelo Gennaro is related to known mafiosi through both of his parents. On his father’s side, he’s the nephew of Cutrera by marriage. On his mother’s, he’s the first cousin of Don Antonino Cascio.

Don Antonino comes from a line of landowners. He was a witness at the wedding of Dr. Michele Navarra’s parents. And he is called a “capofamiglia” in a 1962 Italian Senate hearing. His daughter, Tommasa, married Dr. Navarra in 1936.

Antonino’s wife, Rosalia di Miceli, is his first cousin, once removed. Rosalia’s sister, Giovanna, was married to Angelo Gagliano, a powerful, and violent, mafioso with business on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s also the uncle of Michele Navarra.

Gennaro served for four years as the head of the Corleonesi Mafia, and was followed by Angelo Gagliano, who was killed in 1930. Before his death, it’s possible there was another boss, Dr. Marcellino Benenti. After 1930, the boss in Corleone was Don Calogero lo Bue, gabellotto of the Donna Beatrice estate. Calogero was married to Giovanna Lampo, who was a second cousin of the di Miceli sisters, and the third cousin of Michele Navarra. He ruled until his natural death, from diabetes complications, in 1943. Thereafter the boss was the hospital director and son of a teacher, Dr. Michele Navarra. Through Navarra’s second cousin, once removed, Lucia Cannaliato, he is related, somewhat distantly, both to Michelangelo Gennaro, another second cousin, once removed, from Lucia, and to Toto Riina. Lucia’s husband, Giacomo Riina, was Toto’s great uncle. Navarra was assassinated in 1958 on the orders of his successor, Luciano Leggio.

Luciano Leggio’s grandfather, Girolamo, had a sister in law, Biagia Cascio, who was a second cousin of Michelangelo Gennaro and Antonino Cascio. Leggio ran the mafia in Corleone until he was imprisoned in 1974. From then until his 1993 capture, Toto Riina was the boss. Toto’s brother, Gaetano, assumed leadership, and was himself arrested in 2011, at the age of 79.

Sources

Mike Dash. “The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia.” Random House, 2009.

William J. Flynn. “The Barrel Mystery.” New York: The James A. McCann Co., 1919.

Henner Hess. “Mafia and Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth.” NYU Press, 1988.

Nick Squires. “Head of Mafia in ‘The Godfather’ town arrested.” Telegraph. Published 1 July 2011. Accessed http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/8610833/Head-of-Mafia-in-The-Godfather-town-arrested.html 19 May 2016.

Senato della Repubblica, V Legislatura, Doc. XXIII. “Commissione Parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia in Sicilia.” 20 December 1962. Accessed http://en.calameo.com/read/0012258332ab89457a3a8 29 February 2016.

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The murder of Giovanni Vella

The murder of Giovanni Vella

Even the biographies of well-known mafia figures like Giuseppe Morello are made up, in part, of rumors and legends. Morello was called “The Clutch Hand” because three of the fingers on his right hand were fused at birth. His birth defect did not prevent Morello from learning to write, or to fire a gun. It’s said he killed thirty or forty people in Corleone before fleeing to the United States to avoid imprisonment. In New York, Morello and his associates were active counterfeiters and it was this activity that brought “The Clutch Hand” to the attention of one of his future biographers.

William J. Flynn was an American detective who spent much of his career pursuing organized crime figures like Giuseppe Morello and his half-brothers, the Terranovas. After leaving the Secret Service, Flynn semi-retired to private detective work and, according to Flynn’s biographer, Mike Dash, Flynn was a heavy drinker, and his detective business was not successful.

Where Flynn prospered was as a writer of crime fiction. He wrote “true crime” about his greatest cases, was a consultant to the film industry, and edited a crime fiction magazine. His book, “The Barrel Mystery,” is about his time in the Secret Service, battling counterfeiters in New York. Flynn wrote about Morello that, before leaving Corleone, he killed a Sylvan guard, Giovanni Vella. Morello went on to cover up his crime by killing as many as four more people, including an elderly woman named Anna di Puma.

At least some of Flynn’s “facts” were altered in stories like “The Barrel Mystery,” and were published as crime fiction. Yet many writers treat “The Barrel Mystery” as history. Richard Wagner provides the detail that Anna di Puma was an old woman. Blogger Joe Bruno adds one more name to the list of Morello’s victims, and so does Mike Dash, in his book, “The First Family.” Bruno says Michele Guarino Zangara was Giuseppe Morello’s neighbor, overheard the killer talking to his mother, and upon his discovery, was thrown off a bridge. Dash says that soon after killing Anna di Puma, Morello also killed Pietro Milone, who was like Vella, an honest police officer investigating a crime. (Vella was investigating cattle thefts at the time of his murder.)

There are few families in Corleone whose names are as intertwined as those of Frisella and Vella. In many records, family members are called by the double surname “Frisella Vella,” distinguishing them from another Corleone family, the Oliva Frisellas. In the 1885 baptism of Giovanni Vella’s daughter, Giuseppa, she is called “Frisella Vella.” In Church records, Catholics are called by the Latin form of their name: Giuseppa is “Josepha,” and Giovanni is called “Joannes.”

giovanni vella death

There is a death record for “Joannes Frisella,” dated 29 December 1889, in the records kept by the Catholic Church in Corleone. This record is unique on the page, and unique among the pages before and after this one. The difference is in one word, found in perhaps a few dozen records in a hundred years in Corleone. Frisella’s death, “obiit,” is modified by the word “interfectus,” which means “killed.” The time and place of Frisella’s murder match the accounts of Giovanni Vella, the Sylvan guard, given by Flynn and others. He is undoubtedly the same person.

The death records that cannot be found, in the pages surrounding Giovanni’s, are those of Morello’s other alleged victims. There is no old woman named Anna, (nor Antonina, nor Giovanna) either born “di Puma,” or whose mother was named di Puma (a common error), or who married a man by this name. There are no death records for men named Pietro Milone or any version of “Michele Guarino Zangara” (another double surname). There are no more murders reported in Corleone until the spring, when two men are found killed, and at least one more man was murdered in Corleone before Giuseppe Morello left the country. Whether there is any connection between Morello and these other deaths, are stories for another time. But the story of Anna di Puma, it would appear, is only that: a story. If there is any truth in it, the truth is so far from the accounts that have become part of Morello’s biography, as to be lost to history.

Morello fled Sicily in May 1892. Giuseppe’s mother and stepfather’s family joined him six months later. Morello, with his half-brothers, went on to lead the first Sicilian mafia family in New York. His wife died in Corleone.