What happened to Frank Borgia?

What happened to Frank Borgia?

Los Angeles sugar man Frank Borgia died as he lived.

Borgia was a tough subject for Mafia Genealogy, considering he has no death certificate, and I couldn’t find a record of his birth. My interest is in the relationships among mafiosi, which often explain why they do what they do. Joe Ardizzone (1881-1931) and Frank Borgia (c. 1893-1951), both active in Jack Dragna’s (1891-1956) Los Angeles Mafia, were said to be cousins with roots in Piana dei Greci. Frank Borgia claimed to have been born in Gela (today, called Terranova). His parents, known from Frank’s marriage and migration records, were from Piana dei Greci (today, Piana degli Albanesi).

Los Angeles gangsters Frank Borgia and Joe Ardizzone are first cousins, once removed.

There is no death record for Borgia because he disappeared: what they call a “lupara bianca” in Sicily. By most accounts, Mafia associate and vineyardist Frank Borgia was last seen early in December 1951. Judith Moore says it happened six months later, after a wedding the following June. I found one fleck of shaky evidence, written long after the fact, which said Borgia came home to his wife a few days after he was reported missing in December (Blackstock, 2015). Based on this, it looked as though he went missing, came home, and then disappeared for good. However, his return was falsely reported in contemporary sources, and later ruled out by police. I emailed Joe Blackstock about his 2015 reporting and he graciously responded:

“Unfortunately, shortly after that column was published I learned that the information about the reappearance of Borgia was incorrect. A hint that he had returned was later concluded by police to be false information.” (Personal communication, 18 April 2022.)

The marriage of Frank Borgia and Pauline Enna. The license (top portion) is witnessed by Jack Dragna and Frances Rizzotto.

Joe Ardizzone and Frank Borgia are first cousins, once removed. It was likely Joe’s brother, Stefano, who Frank Borgia called his uncle and destination contact when he emigrated in 1914 (Manifest of the Caserta). Borgia and Jack Dragna were also very close, though they were of no relation. In 1922, Frank Borgia and Jack Dragna married a week apart. Jack and his future wife were the witnesses at Frank’s marriage to Pauline Enna (Marriage of Frank Borgia and Pauline Enna, 1922).

Frank Baumgarteker, wife Mary, and son Herbert, in a 1924 passport application.

In November 1929, wealthy Austrian-born vineyardist and trucking contractor Frank Baumgarteker (1886-1929) disappeared (Frank Baumgarteker passport application, 1924; Missing man in purple car, 1929; Baumgarteker’s wife asks grand jury, 1930). He was a close friend of Frank Borgia’s; both owned property in Cucamonga. (Upland, Ontario, and Rancho Cucamonga are all within three miles of one another.) Police believed Baumgarteker was “taken for a ride” and buried in the desert. His body was never found. Borgia and Ardizzone were suspected in the wealthy man’s disappearance.

Map showing locations of Sunland (where Joe Ardizzone once lived), Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, an hour from Sunland; the Mojave Desert, and at the bottom of the screen, San Diego and Tijuana. (c) OpenStreetMaps contributors.

Bootlegger Tony Buccola (c. 1888-1930) made enemies among his Italian colleagues, who ran him out of town for years. When they let him return to Los Angeles, out of sympathy for his sick mother, Frank Borgia made a show of forgiving Buccola, befriending him, and giving him a job. Tony’s brother George said that Borgia, Ardizzone, and Dragna, the same men who had run him out of town, had taken Tony out just a few nights before he disappeared, in May 1930. George blamed the three powerful mafiosi for his brother’s disappearance (Moore, 1997).

The year after Buccola went missing, Joe Ardizzone survived two attempts on his life, one of them in a hospital, then vanished in October. He’d been on his way to Joe Cuccia’s ranch to pick up his cousin, Nick Borgia, who’d just come from Italy and was staying at Cuccia’s. This time, Jack Dragna and Frank Borgia were suspected in the Iron Man’s disappearance. Joe’s brother Frank Ardizzone told one investigating officer, “Don’t bother looking for any enemies. It’ll be one of his friends that did it” (L.A. cellar searched for bones of Ontario vintner, 1949).

“Don’t bother looking for any enemies. It’ll be one of his friends that did it.” —Frank Ardizzone

Borgia managed a wholesale grocery for George Niotta (1889-1955). According to Dragna and Niotta descendant J. Michael Niotta, Borgia tricked Big George, who could not read or write, into signing over the grocery to him. Serendipitously for Niotta, this resulted in Borgia being the only one indicted for bootlegging, despite both being involved.

Through his wholesale business, Borgia was a “sugar man,” supplying brewing ingredients to moonshiners during Prohibition: the crime for which he was arrested in December 1931 (Frank Borgia posts bond for rum trial, 1931; Niotta, 2017, p. 54). By the time he was convicted and went to prison in 1935, Prohibition was over. He served not quite two years and was released in November 1937 (Washington, McNeil Island prison records).

After prison, Frank Borgia worked in manufacturing, bought property, and became wealthy and influential. He was once again a big rancher, and now also an industry representative and business community leader (OPA drops wine grape ceilings, 1944; CC directors elected at meet, 1951).

In March 1951 the Kefauver hearings were televised. Late that year, Frank sold his winery in Cucamonga for $125,000 (Dragna pal, 1951). According to his wife, it was some grape acreage that he sold (Long-missing, 1951). Either way, this windfall prompted an extortion attempt, planned by Jack Dragna and executed through a secret partner, Gaspare Matranga (1898-1971), a San Diego mafioso from Piana dei Greci (Gaspare Matranga 73 dies, 1971). (There is a thicket of relationships among US Mafia families from Piana dei Greci.) Borgia complained strenuously to Dragna about Matranga’s demands for $25,000 from the sale of his vineyard (Valin, n.d.; May, 2009).

Several sources report that his Cadillac was found abandoned in Tijuana, an hour’s drive south of San Diego (Dragna pal, 1951; Niotta, 2017, p. 61). The car was reported to San Diego police by Tijuana authorities on 14 December, and the SDP notified Mrs. Borgia, who arranged for the car to be recovered (Missing vintner, 1951).

Judith Moore wrote about Borgia’s end in the San Diego Reader and a book about San Diego Mafia boss Frank Bompensiero, titled A Bad, Bad Boy. According to Moore, Borgia went to the wedding of a family friend’s daughter in San Diego, driving himself in his black Buick Roadmaster (Moore, 1999). (The 1950 Cadillac coupe de ville and 1950 Buick Roadmaster are similar in appearance.) He checked into a room in the U.S. Grant and drove to the wedding venue, St. Joseph’s Cathedral. There are photos of the guests throwing rice and smiling, the author tells us, and Borgia identifiable among them (Moore, 1999). She doesn’t reproduce the photograph or tell us what other evidence she has besides Demaris’ book.

In her account, after the wedding he went back to his hotel and parked in the hotel garage. Early that evening in June 1952, Tony Mirabile, who was Frank Borgia’s best friend, picked him up from his hotel and took him to Joe Adamo’s house. There, Frank Bompensiero and Jimmy Fratianno were waiting with a rope with which they strangled Borgia to death. His body was never found. His car was retrieved from the parking garage when a hotel employee notified the San Diego police (Moore, 1999).

Moore’s story comes partly from Ovid Demaris’ novel, The Last Mafioso, which was written using interviews of Jimmy Fratianno, some 25 years after the events described. The murder in Joseph Adamo’s house, and the shakedown by Dragna and Matranga, both appear in Allan May’s account. He dates the plans to murder Borgia vaguely to the early 1950s, and doesn’t mention the wedding (May, 2009). Sifakis (2006) confirms the extortion and involvement of Dragna, Matranga, Bompensiero, and Fratianno.

In newspaper coverage of Frank Borgia’s disappearance, and mentions of it in news of his estate, it’s consistently reported that Frank Borgia left home on the second of December 1951 and had not been seen since (Missing vintner not in Hanford, 1951; Trustee is asked, 1952; Moonshine king’s widow, 1952). 

Pauline Borgia, Frank’s wife, was evidently used to her husband’s long absences, assumed he’d left home on a business trip, and further assumed he’d gone to Hanford, north of Bakersfield, when she received checks he’d written from their bank. (For those unfamiliar with 20th Century banking practices, a paper check with the bearer’s signature on the reverse was presented to the bank for funds, and following the exchange, the endorsed check was returned to the writer by mail.) The checks, it was later discovered, had been left by Borgia on an earlier trip in anticipation of buying some grapes (Missing vintner, 1951). 

Whether she feigned ignorance or practiced it regularly in her marriage, Pauline was not much help in determining her husband’s whereabouts. The most reliable testimony is the one given by Jimmy Fratianno. He is the only witness who has spoken about the murder. 

There might be some truth in Moore’s version, but she offers no evidence of it in her book. The details she provides beyond what Demaris published are unprovable (who is the friend’s daughter who married?) or contradicted by a preponderance of evidence (the type of car Borgia drove and where it was recovered, the month and year he disappeared). The author has passed away, so we cannot ask her. In April I emailed the Wylie Agency, which represents the late author’s estate, hoping to access notes on her investigation into Frank Borgia’s disappearance, but I’ve had no response. 

What we know about Frank Borgia is that he evidently died as he lived: betrayed by his friends, and then gone without a trace. 

Sources

Baumgarteker’s wife asks grand jury inquiry of disappearance of mate; asserts police inactive. (1930, April 27). The Sun (San Bernardino, CA). Vol. 66 No. 58. P. 7. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19300427.1.7&srpos=18&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Baumgarteker——-1

Blackstock, J. (2015, June 1). Vintner’s disappearance still a mystery despite plenty of ‘clews.’ Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. https://www.dailybulletin.com/2015/06/01/vintners-disappearance-still-a-mystery-despite-plenty-of-clews/ 

CC directors elected at meet. (1951, November 15). The Cucamonga Times (Cucamonga, CA). P. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/747935010/ 

Dragna pal, long missing, feared slain. (1951, December 26). Daily News (Los Angeles, CA). P. 8. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DNLA19511226.1.8&srpos=18&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Borgia——-1 

Frank Baumgarteker passport application. (1924). “United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99DQ-KRV?cc=2185145&wc=3XC5-82Q%3A1056306501%2C1056394301 : 22 December 2014), (M1490) Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925 > Roll 2459, 1924 Apr, certificate no 386850-387349 > image 696 of 761; citing NARA microfilm publications M1490 and M1372 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.)

Frank Borgia posts bond for rum trial. (1931, December 25). San Pedro News Pilot. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SPNP19311225.2.66&srpos=3&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Borgia——-1 

Gaspare Matranga, 73, dies; Mafia tie recalled. (1971, July 6). The Sun (San Bernardino, CA). P. C-3. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19710706.1.21&srpos=1&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Gaspare+Matranga——-1 

Long-missing Cucamonga man’s friend vanishes. (1951, December 27). The Sun (San Bernardino, CA). P. 16. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19511227.1.16&srpos=8&e=——195-en–20-SBS-1–txt-txIN-Borgia——-1 

Manifest of the Caserta. (1914, December 5). Line 12. https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger-details/czoxMjoiMTAwNTM4MDMwMTA5Ijs=/czo4OiJtYW5pZmVzdCI7

Marriage of Frank Borgia and Pauline Enna. (1922, April 23). “California, County Marriages, 1850-1952,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K8F1-LYX : 9 March 2021); citing Los Angeles, California, United States, county courthouses, California; FHL microfilm 2,074,277.

May, Allan. (2009, October 14). Frank Bompensiero San Diego hit man, boss, and FBI informant. http://www.crimemagazine.com/frank-bompensiero-san-diego-hit-man-boss-and-fbi-informant 

Missing man in purple car. (1929, November 29). San Pedro News Pilot. Vol. 2. No. 230. P. 7. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SPNP19291129.2.79&srpos=11&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Baumgarteker——-1

Missing vintner not in Hanford. (1951, December 28). San Bernardino Sun. P. 1. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SBS19511228.1.1&srpos=3&e=——195-en–20-SBS-1–txt-txIN-Borgia——-1

Moonshine king’s widow named estate trustee. (1952, August 29). Daily News (Los Angeles, CA). P. 41. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DNLA19520829.1.41&srpos=4&e=——195-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Borgia—-1952—1 

Moore, J. (1997, January 9). San Diego mafia in the 1950s used slayings to enforce rules. San Diego Reader. https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1997/jan/09/cover-honest-to-god-crooks-with-blood-on-their-han/

Moore, J. (1999, February 11). How Frank Bompensiero met his fate in Pacific Beach. San Diego Reader. Retrieved from https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1999/feb/11/concert-shot-dark/ 

Moore, J. (2009). A bad, bad boy. Reader Books.

Niotta, J. M. (2017). The Los Angeles sugar ring: Inside the world of old money, bootleggers, & gambling barons. The History Press.

OPA drops wine grape ceilings. (1944, July 22). San Pedro News Pilot. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SPNP19440722.2.70&srpos=11&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Frank+Borgia——-1 

Sifakis, C. (2006). The mafia encyclopedia. Infobase Publishing. P. 211.

Trustee is asked for Frank Borgia’s $500,000 estate. (1952, August 8). Daily News (Los Angeles, CA). P. 15. Retrieved from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=DNLA19520808.1.15&srpos=5&e=——195-en–20–1–txt-txIN-Borgia—-1952—1 

Valin, E. (n.d.) Salvatore Piscopo. The man who betrayed Johnny Roselli. The American Mafia. Retrieved from https://mafiahistory.us/rattrap/salvatorepiscopo.html 

Washington, U.S., U.S. Penitentiary McNeil Island, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1887-1939 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008.

Want to know more about how I find records and histories that illuminate the lives of Mafia members and their associates? I break down the search for Frank Borgia’s records for my biggest fans in a post on Patreon.

The 800-pound gangster

The 800-pound gangster

News of the shootout at the Poydras street boardinghouse described one of the victims as weighing “fully 800 pounds.” 

One of the first men killed in the Macaroni Wars was Vincenzo Vutera, placed in the Luciano’s business to suppress the opposition during a raid led by Santo “Joseph” Calamia. Like Vutera, Calamia is described as a “big, fat man” who could nonetheless move quickly. Straining credulity, local reporting on his death claims Vutera’s weight was “fully 800 pounds” (Sicilians in battle to death, 1902).

Another standout quality Vutera possessed was being from Corleone, the hometown he shared with Calamia’s professed brother-in-law, Giuseppe Morello, and his actual brother-in-law, Antonino Saltaformaggio, whose body turned up in a canal near White Castle in 1903. Hundreds of people from Corleone emigrated to Louisiana for work, with most of them dispersing into the plantations along the Mississippi River. Several families from Corleone lived in Donaldsonville, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Bayou Lafourche

1895 map of Louisiana showing the course of the Bayou Lafourche before it was dammed.
In this 1895 map, New Orleans is centered, just south of Lake Pontchartrain. The Mississippi River enters the frame from the northwest and intersects Donaldsonville and the Bayou Lafourche between the “S” and the “I” in “LOUISIANA.”

In 1902, after a particularly bad flood season, the bayou was dammed, and a series of locks were discussed but never built. With access from the river blocked, 130 miles of navigable stream through coastal wetlands became accessible only from the Gulf of Mexico. The temporary dam permanently harmed the economy and health of Bayou Lafourche, Donaldsonville, and the surrounding area. The Mississippi no longer supplied fresh water to the bayou, devastating the ecosystem. The city of Donaldsonville, once the capital of Louisiana, entered a period of decline from which it did not rally until automobile traffic replaced riverboats as the primary form of transportation. 

For the owners of a macaroni factory in Donaldsonville, the new dam was bad news. Easy access to half a dozen towns they might have provisioned along the bayou was suddenly cut off. Antonino Luciano had $4,000 tied up in the factory: about $129,000 in 2022 dollars. His partner was the duplicitous Paolo Di Christina, a mafioso in league with Francesco Genova. 

Genova had sworn to destroy Luciano, and Di Christina was part of his plan. Step 1: Place men loyal to the Mafia boss in the business to be overtaken. Step 2: Make the business a source of debt and woe for the rightful owner. Step 3: Sap the owner’s funds, credit, and good name, until he has no choice but to abandon the property to his antagonistic partners. The Mafia has attacked business owners this way for most of its existence. 

The showdown on Poydras Street in New Orleans was an escalation of a fight that began in the Donaldsonville macaroni factory. In the story that unfolded in the newspapers, and echoes in more contemporary tellings, Vincenzo Vutera is sometimes painted as an ally of the Luciano family, brought down from Donaldsonville to aid them in defense against Genova’s men, and at other times described as a plant, one of several men Genova either installed or turned to his purposes.

Illustration of the interior of the Poydras Street store/saloon/boardinghouse accompanying coverage of the shooting in The Times-Democrat (Bloody battle, 1902).

Vincenzo Vutera was born in Corleone in April 1872, and emigrated as a young man with his mother and his first cousin, also named Vincenzo Vutera, who was three years older. The older cousin returned to Corleone and married there in 1906, which is how I can be sure he was not the one shot to death in New Orleans in 1902.

Vutera married his first cousin, Giovannina “Jennie” Cusimano, in Donaldsonville in 1894. His wife’s godparents were her first cousin, once removed and her husband. They were also the parents of Los Angeles Mafia boss Jack Dragna. Dragna and Vutera (and Cusimano and Dragna) are second cousins.

A family tree including Vincenzo Vutera, his same name cousin, his wife, and Jack Dragna
A family tree showing the lines of direct descent shared by Vincenzo Vutera, his emigrating cousin, his wife, and the mafioso Jack Dragna. In this diagram, the godparent relationship Giovannina Cusimano has with her aunt and uncle is illustrated with solid green lines. Vincenzo Vutera, his mother, and his same-name cousin who emigrated together are connected by dotted black lines. All the people with a blue outline migrated to Louisiana. (Jack Dragna’s parents later emigrated to New York, where he grew up. Read more about the Dragna family’s early life in America in Informer.)

An expanded family tree including everyone from the first tree plus Vutera's widow's second husband, Vincenzo "Charles" Peranio.
After Vutera’s death, his widow remarried to another first cousin, Vincenzo Piranio. The fathers of Vincenzo Piranio and Jack Dragna, each marked with a pink upper left quadrant in this tree, were both born of unknown parents. They married first cousins Anna and Rosalia Vutera.

Vutera’s same-name cousin has a maternal uncle, Mariano Colletto, who was a captain in the Fratuzzi, the Mafia of Corleone. The older Vutera may have run into some kind of legal trouble in Louisiana: in November 1901, one of the cousins ran an ad claiming not to be the V. Vutera who was decided against in a local court case. The younger Vincenzo Vutera was, at the time of his death, a grocer with a store in Dorseyville, eleven miles from Donaldsonville, which he ran under the name “A. Cusimano” because his own credit was so poor. The real A. Cusimano was Vincent’s brother-in-law and first cousin, Antonino Cusimano, who named Vincent as his destination contact when he emigrated to White Castle—near Donaldsonville—in 1897.

In January 1902, a notice ran for a “Constable Sale.” At auction were the provisions and equipment from Vincenzo Vutera’s Dorseyville grocery, being sold to satisfy his obligation to “A. Luciano.” The same Antonino Luciano who Genova swore to destroy was one of Vincenzo Vutera’s creditors. 

The same Antonino Luciano who Genova swore to destroy was one of Vincenzo Vutera’s creditors.

Given this history, it’s little wonder that Genova found a willing accomplice in Vutera. “The Lucianos thought it rather strange when Vincenzo Vutera, the big, fat storekeeper, who was running a general merchandise place in Dorseyville under the name of Cusimano, to deceive his old creditors, came to their place a few evenings back and asked for a bed,” The Times-Picayune reported. The Lucianos, who had turned their business into a fortress, welcomed him into their boardinghouse.

Vutera’s debt with Luciano and the auction to pay it were not reported in the days following his death in the shootout. Instead, there was confusion about whose side of the deadly conflict Vutera had fought on. Had he been placed there by Calamia? Or, as Tony Luciano told the police and reporters, did Vutera die in a vain attempt to defend his brother Salvatore Luciano, the target of the attack?

New Orleans police believed Tony’s statement was a ruse. Based on statements from other witnesses and evidence on the scene, members of Calamia’s party killed Salvatore Luciano, and then Tony, his brother, killed Vincenzo Vutera. Tony may have also shot Joseph Gerrachi, who died weeks later in the hospital, and Joseph Calamia, who took two bullets in his left hand. Both Vutera and Gerrachi are described in the newspapers as managers of Luciano’s macaroni factory. A Luciano cousin who was injured in the shootout claimed Vutera was a traitor who had brought Gerrachi with him from Donaldsonville. 

That evening, with Tony Luciano in custody, police told him Vutera had fired Gerrachi from his position in the factory. This appeared to confirm for Luciano his realization that Vutera (and perhaps also Gerrachi) had betrayed him, because it elicited from Luciano the names of the men who had invaded along with Calamia. Gerrachi, who was described as a merchant from Donaldsonville, was one of them, as well as Bartolo Ferrara, and two men who evaded arrest, Vincent Scaffino and Joe Galderone. Di Christina was seen across the street, immediately after the attack. Genova, the most powerful mafioso involved, was not part of the raid, but it was for the restoration of his honor that Salvatore Luciano was killed. Salvatore, Tony’s “hot-headed” brother, shot at Genova and Di Christina a month earlier, and was warned to leave the country or forfeit his life. 

Vincenzo Vutera was playing cards in the annex, to the rear of the store, with Louis and Tony Luciano when Calamia and his men arrived. Salvatore Luciano, sitting near the annex, was killed by multiple stab wounds and a gunshot wound to the head. Vutera was killed by three gunshot wounds that entered the right side of his body, lacerating his lungs and liver, and a knife wound to the head. It’s likely that Vincenzo shot Salvatore, who had already received mortal injuries, and then Tony killed Vincenzo. In his pockets were a knife that had shattered on the impact of another bullet aimed at his chest, and some letters signed from “A. Cusimano.” Based on the letters, the coroner correctly assumed this was Vutera’s alias and included it in his death certificate. 

Death record for Vincent Vutera, alias A. Cusimano, of Dorceyville, Louisiana. Married merchant, age “42 Yrs?” died from multiple gunshot wounds on 12 June 1902 in New Orleans.

Luciano avoided indictment in the Poydras Street shootings. Calamia stood trial for Vutera’s murder but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Vincenzo Vutera was only thirty years old, though the coroner indicated he was much older. He left a wife and four children, the youngest just four months old. Jennie Cusimano remarried a few years later to Charlie Peranio, born Vincenzo Piranio in Corleone, with whom she had two more children. 

On this sheet of the 1910 census, taken in Dorseyville, Louisiana, the first family listed is Jennie’s. Vincenzo Peranio, a grocer, is the head of household. Jennie’s uncle and father-in-law from her first marriage, Leoluca Vutera, an elderly widower, lives with them.

Sources

Babin II, D. (2015, April 28). Bumped off on the bayou: the macaroni wars.

Bloody battle. (1902, June 12). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA).

Constable sale. (1902, January 11). The Weekly Iberville South (Plaquemine, LA). P. 2.

Kendall, J. S. (1911, October 1). The Mafia in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 33.

Kingman, W. A. (n.d.) The Axeman of New Orleans. Retrieved 29 January 2019 from Serialkillercalendar.com

Krist, G. (2014). Empire of sin: A story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. Crown. 

Luciano lured to a mafia murder. (1903, August 10). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). P. 1.

More murder in the feud of Sicilians. (1902, June 13). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). Pp. 1+.

Notice. (1901, November 20). The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA).

Sicilians in battle to death. (1902, June 12). The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA).

Read Part 3 in this series on The Macaroni Wars: Francesco Motisi, Alias Genova

Los Angeles, 1915: Jack Dragna and Sam Streva

Los Angeles, 1915: Jack Dragna and Sam Streva

Sam Streva was the mentor of Jack Dragna, the first modern American Mafia boss of Los Angeles.

If you’ve seen one photo of Jack Dragna, the Los Angeles Mafia boss of the 1940s and ‘50s, it’s probably this one:

Jack Dragna

What you may not have seen is where this photo came from:

Jack Dragna incarcerated as Rizzotto

This is Jack Dragna’s booking photo, after being arrested for extortion. Local news at the time reported that a Black Hand organization led by Sam Streva and including Jack Rizzotto and Ben Streva, had extorted a wealthy rancher, Dominico Lauricella, and threatened to kill his family. Lauricella went to the police, who arrested Jack Dragna, operating under the alias of Rizzotto, and Sam Streva, identified by police as the gang’s ringleader. A third extortionist, Ben Streva, is identified as Sam’s brother.

Jack Dragna was born Ignacio Dragna in 1891 in Corleone. He emigrated at least twice, first as a child with his parents and siblings. The family stayed in New York City with Jack’s cousin, Antonino Rizzotto, who was also his future father-in-law. (Jack and his wife, Francesca, were second cousins.) The family went back to Corleone, but Jack returned as young man, in the spring of 1914, joining his brother Tom, born Gaetano, who was already living in East Harlem. By the end of 1916, Jack was in San Quentin Prison, and Tom, Jack’s future consigliere, was getting married in New York. By 1920, Jack was out of prison, and his brother’s family was also living in Los Angeles.

Dragna goes down in Mafia history as the first boss of Los Angeles, because he was the one who made peace with the other Mafia families who were organized under Luciano’s Commission. But Dragna was not the first Sicilian organized criminal operating in Los Angeles. He inherited the interests of Joseph Ardizzone—and was suspected in the former boss’ disappearance. Even Ardizzone was not the first. Before Dragna, Bugsy Siegel, and Las Vegas, before the Commission and Prohibition, there were the Ardizzone and Matranga families of Piana dei Greci fighting for dominance of the new market, in the port of San Pedro, south of Los Angeles. And even at this early point in the story, it’s not quite the beginning, because a different Matranga family were already an established power in New Orleans, where it is currently believed, the first Mafia in America was at work within a decade of the Civil War’s end.

Some of the earliest Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans were not precisely from Sicily, but from a tiny island north of Palermo called Ustica. The musician Louis Prima traces his ancestry to Ustica: his mother was born there. Today, about 1,300 people live in Ustica, and are connected to Palermo by a daily ferry. But before 1763, no one lived there, due to the continuous threat from North African pirates.

Piracy had been an ongoing concern for centuries, dooming earlier attempts to settle the island. In the early 1700s, Austrians attempted to appease pirates and reduce raids on the slow moving grain ships leaving Sicily, by drawing up commercial treaties with the governments of the cities from which they hailed: Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers.

In 1734, Spain recaptured Sicily from Austria, and the new king, Ferdinand IV, colonized Ustica with people from Lipari, another island in the same sea north of Sicily, in another effort to deter piracy. One of those pioneering families were the Lauricella, who would venture forth once more to become some of the earliest Italian emigrants to New Orleans.

Dominick Lauricella was born in Ustica in 1858 and emigrated around 1871, when he was still a teenager. Some of his siblings settled in New Orleans, and had families there. One was his brother, Bartolo, a fruit dealer. Other members of the Lauricella family went west: one of his nieces died in San Francisco in 1918.

By 1900, Dominick was married and living in El Paso, Texas, where he owned a modest ranch with a few horses, one head of cattle, and a grocery. Ten years later, he was independently wealthy, and living in Long Beach, California, with his wife and children.

Beginning around 1905, the most prominent Italian gang in Los Angeles were the Matranga family, whose legitimate business was also in fruit vending. (It’s claimed the Matrangas of Los Angeles were related to the founder of the Mafia in New Orleans, Charles Matranga. No evidence has been forthcoming. (Updated: JC, 13 April 2020) In Los Angeles, the Matrangas were engaged in a protracted feud with the Ardizzone/Cuccia gang.

Sam Streva is called a mentor to Jack Dragna, the future boss of Los Angeles. He first appears in a 1902 Los Angeles city directory as a barber living in the Sicilian colony of San Pedro, a port town south of the city center. His first son, named Vincent, was born that year. By the 1910 census, Salvatore, also called Sam, was a fruit merchant. In 1915, when his arrest for extortion was being covered in the local news, Streva was named as the ringleader of the San Pedro gang extorting Dominico Lauricella.

Sam Steva at San Quentin

Sam Streva was tried in 1916, and sentenced to three years. “S. S. Strever” was 54 years old when he entered San Quentin in 1917, after being prosecuted for extortion in Los Angeles. While serving his sentence, he worked once again as a barber. The extortionist is a match for an 1863 baptismal record for Salvatore Streva, born in Corleone, whose father was named Vincenzo, the same as Salvatore’s older son. But I have not yet found his marriage to Anna Bonanno, whose surname is known from their children’s death records, either of their records of immigration, or another vital record that would confirm the baptismal record is Sam’s.

There are at least two men, each known by both of these names, Salvatore and Sam Streva, living in Los Angeles around the time Lauricella was being extorted by what he called “the Camorra.” They were both fruit merchants in 1910 and, if I have correctly identified the San Quentin inmate, the two men are second cousins from Corleone. Although stories of Sam Streva, the gangster, have conflated elements of both men’s lives, they are definitely two different people. The Sam Streva who did not go to prison in 1917 is twenty-two years younger, and has his own close ties to the Mafia.

The younger man was born Salvatore Streva in 1885 in Corleone, six years before Jack Dragna. He emigrated with his father and siblings in 1896, heading first to New Orleans. His niece, Angelina Oliveri, is married to Gaetano Reina, the Morello associate and gang leader in the Bronx. Sam is also the second cousin of Paolino Streva, the capo under whom Giuseppe Morello worked as a cattle thief in Corleone.

In 1910 Sam lived on Channing Street in Los Angeles with his mother and extended family, and ran a grocery store. The future extortionist was already married to Anna, with two sons by this time. In 1915, the younger man married for the first time, to Francesca Profita, a New York native whose family is also from Corleone. Their marriage record confirms his parents’ names from his baptismal record.

There’s a third Salvatore Streva of note, born out of wedlock in 1884 in Corleone. He is the first cousin, once removed, of the extortionist of the same name, and second cousin, once removed, of the rancher born in 1885. The year before his parents married, legitimizing his birth, he emigrated to New York, joining an uncle there.

Charles Salvatore Streva 1920 passport photo

Salvatore was known in New York as Charles Salvatore Streva. He became naturalized in 1914, and made the first of two known trips to Havana, Cuba, in the spring of 1916. In the decade before Prohibition, Cuba was already a vice destination. Meyer Lansky lived in a hotel suite in Havana and worked as a consultant to casinos and a racetrack there. There was a small Italian community in Cuba. I have not found any evidence of Corleonesi who lived there, at any time. (If I did, it would be from a tertiary source, since records of Italian passengers to Cuba are unavailable to me.)

Charles documented his 1916 trip in 1920, the first year of Prohibition, when he applied for a passport to make another trip to Cuba on “personal business.” A surveyor in 1909, he was reportedly a clerk in 1920, living in the Italian neighborhood of East Harlem. Later, he moved to College Point, in Queens. He made at least one trip to Italy, returning in 1930. At his death in 1936, he was called an engineer.

A fourth Salvatore Streva is close in age to the others, born in Corleone, a close relation to the other three, and like his same-name cousins, an immigrant to the American South, and a merchant. This man, born in 1870, is Charles’ second cousin, once removed; a second cousin of the extortionist born in 1863; and first cousin of the rancher. He immigrated through New Orleans as a young man with his parents and siblings, and married Giuseppa Minitella in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, where there is a community of immigrants from Corleone. He and his wife lived in Patterson and had nine children. Sam owned a grocery store. The whole family moved to Houston, Texas, by 1930. Sam died in 1947.

San Pedro Long Beach 1915 AAA map
Detail from 1915 map of Los Angeles printed by AAA

3513 E Anaheim St Long Beach satellite view Google Maps
Contemporary satellite view of Los Angeles with Lauricella’s address in Long Beach marked

In Los Angeles Sam (b. 1885), the future rancher, who lived on Channing Street, and his wife, Francesca, had three children. In 1917, while the oldest Sam Streva (b. 1863) was still at San Quentin, Channing Street Sam, now a fruit merchant, declared his intent to petition for citizenship. He petitioned in 1920 and his petition was granted in 1921.

When Jack Dragna was arrested and imprisoned for extortion, he was known by the alias “Jack Rizotta”, his cousin’s surname: Rizzotto. Ben Streva, who is implicated in the crime along with Jack and Sam, is called Sam’s brother. There is no one by this name who was born in Corleone. I believe “Ben Streva” is Benigno Rizzotto. Bennie Rizzotto was born in Corleone in 1896, emigrated as an infant, and married in 1917 in Manhattan. He appears in Los Angeles in the 1920 census. Ben and Jack Dragna are second cousins and were future brothers-in-law in 1915. Jack Dragna’s family stayed with Benigno’s in NYC when they were children, in 1898, and the Dragnas first emigrated. In 1922, after being released from prison, Jack married Ben’s sister, Francesca, in Los Angeles.

Paroled in 1918 from San Quentin, “Strever” was discharged in 1919. In 1920, Sam Streva and his two sons, the younger twelve years old, are all listed in the city directory, in San Pedro. The 1920 census shows Sam working in a lumber yard. He died in 1928, at age 65.

In 1923, Sam Streva (b. 1885) appears in the San Fernando city directory on Devonshire. In subsequent years he is identified as a rancher at 16518 Devonshire St, and his wife’s name also appears in the voter rolls. They’re registered Democrats in 1924. In 1928, according to one unverified source, large scale wine production was discovered and seized from Sam Streva’s home and he was fined $350 in Van Nuys Municipal Court. This is the only report I have found so far of the younger Streva running afoul of the law. Sometime between 1950 and 1958, the Streva family all switched from Democrat to Republican. Sam was still registered at the Devonshire St address in 1960. He died in 1973.

Sources

“Fears plot, makes home fortress,” 25 November 1915. Oakland Tribune. P. 5.

“Makes Fortress of Home in Fear of Black Hand Death Plot.” 23 November 1915. Los Angeles Herald. P. 1.

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

Ustica Genealogy.

[Updated to remove an incorrect reference regarding Ross Streva. 6 June 2021. JC]