The Castellammarese War

The Castellammarese War

At the end of Prohibition, the Young Turks fought a colonial war for the Sicilian Mafia in New York.

The Families of the Genovese and Lucchese trace their roots directly to two mafiosi from Corleone: boss Giuseppe Morello, and his captain, Gaetano “Tommy” Reina. During the first Mafia war in New York, between the Corleonesi and the Napolitani, Morello’s half-brother Nick Terranova was killed by one of the Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia), and their brother Vincenzo took over the Morello-Terranova Family. Reina left and formed his own Family, which he put under the protection of Joe Masseria (originally from Menfi, a coastal town in Agrigento province) in the late 1920s.

Prohibition strengthened the Mafia, providing them the opportunity, according to Joe Valachi, to get into racketeering in a big way, on the level with other, non-Mafia criminal organizations operating in the US. In 1922, Masseria survived an assassination attempt. He made Morello his conisigliere. Increasingly, the Mafia in the US overcame its provincial prejudices enough to forge working relationships with Jewish, Irish, and African-American criminals, and for the first mixed gangs to form. Yet a long simmering antagonism between Sicilians from Corleone and those from Castellammare del Golfo flared once more at the end of Prohibition.

The Castellammarese War of 1930 in New York was a colonial war. On one side was Joe Masseria, the most powerful figure in organized crime, with a coalition of allies including the Corleonesi Giuseppe Morello, Lucky Luciano (from Lercara Friddi), and Al Capone (born in New York of Italian mainland parents). On the other side were Salvatore Maranzano and the Castellammarese, backed by Don Vito Cascio Ferro, one of the most powerful men in Sicily at the time. Cascio Ferro sent Salvatore Maranzano to New York to form a monopoly on criminal enterprise. When Joe Valachi got out of prison the first time, he emerged to learn of “trouble in the air” between Tom Gagliano and Ciro Terranova. This was the beginning of the war.

This war is often characterized as one between the “Young Turks” behind Masseria, and the “Mustache Petes” on Maranzano’s. Although Masseria was killed first, it was the Young Turks who ultimately won New York.

Cascio Ferro had lived for a few years in the US, in New York and in the South, like the Morello-Terranova family. He escaped prosecution for his participation in Morello’s counterfeiting racket, and returned to Sicily in 1904. His power there extended over several towns, including Corleone, where he temporarily eclipsed the native Fratuzzi. In 1909, he ordered the murder of the American policeman, Joe Petrosino, who pursued him on charges of killing Benedetto Madonia in New York, the famous “Barrel Murder.” Following his arrest in 1925, Ferro’s star began to fall. Mussolini’s prefect in Palermo, Cesare Mori, attempted to stamp out the Mafia entirely, from 1925-29. Ferro was imprisoned for life, beginning in 1930.

Before the Castellammarese War, Tommy Reina began paying tribute to Joe Masseria. Masseria put additional pressure on Reina, who may have switched to Maranzano’s side. Whether he did or not, the rumor of it reached Masseria, who ordered Reina’s murder. Masseria was killed in April 1931. Accounts of Masseria’s assassination vary and legends abound. It appears that the animosity came from his own men, who resented the war’s effects on their own profits.

Maranzano, the victor, held a meeting in which he laid out many of the structural details that would later form Lucky Luciano’s “Commission”: the rules that would permit the peaceful coexistence of New York’s Five Families, as well as Mafia families in other American cities. Despite these signs of progress, Maranzano was regarded by his lieutenants as another “Mustache Pete.” Besides his support from the clannish Castellammarese, there was his distrust of Luciano’s Jewish associates. The “Young Turks” struck again. Maranzano was killed five months after Masseria.

Featured Image: Vito Cascio Ferro (left), Joe Masseria (top right), Charles “Lucky Luciano” (bottom right)

Looking for Steve LaSalle

Looking for Steve LaSalle

I almost wrote this post about a different man.

There are three first cousins from Corleone who immigrated to New York around the same time, and had the same name: Stefano la Sala. One was born in 1881, another in 1888, and the third in 1892. One would become known as Steve LaSalle, a high-ranking member of the Lucchese crime family for half a century.

In Corleone, it’s not unusual for a boy to have the same name, first and last, as his cousins. If the boy is the oldest in his family, and he has five paternal uncles, he can expect to have up to five first cousins with exactly the same name as his own. Like himself, the oldest sons of his father’s brothers would be named after their paternal grandfather. The tradition of naming the first born boy and girl after their paternal grandparents is followed by practically every family in Corleone.

When I mentioned Steve LaSalle in this blog a couple weeks ago, I’d only discovered two of the three Stefano la Salas from Corleone. Not only that, I’d found so many clues connecting the oldest cousin to Morello’s crime family, that I was sure he was LaSalle. He is not, but he has his own Mafia connections. I’ll come back to him next week.

Of the three cousins, the youngest, son of Simone la Sala, is the one I found last, and know the least about. When he registered for the WWI draft in 1917, this Stefano la Sala, born in 1892, was living in East Harlem with his mother. He worked in the piano manufacturing business, for Strauch Bros., at 13th St. & 10th Ave in Manhattan. Little as I know of him, I can be sure he is not Steve LaSalle, either: he’s too young to be mistaken for a man born in November 1888 or 1889, as he’s described in Critchley’s “Organized Crime in America.”

The middle cousin, born seven years later, is the son of Biagio la Sala, a baker. Biagio and his older brother, Francesco, the father of the oldest Stefano, immigrated to New York together, with their wives and children, in the mid 1890s. Both families settled in the Bronx.

Based on his reported birth date (Critchley), the year he immigrated, 1897, from Richard Wagner and his co-authors, and the names of his brothers, it is the middle cousin, born in 1888, who was Steve LaSalle. His baptismal record from Corleone confirms  Stefano la Sala was born 5 November 1888. This does not match the date of birth reported on LaSalle’s WWI draft card, which says he was born on the eighth. However, his home address is a match for the census, where he lives with so many family members there is no question as to his identity, and so is his profession as a plasterer.

A 1972 feature on the Mafia in LIFE Magazine says “The old man, Steve LaSalle, the underboss of New York’s Luchese [sic] family, was himself born into a Mafia family.” I have not found any evidence so far of the La Sala family’s involvement in the Fratuzzi, the Mafia in Corleone. On Steve’s mother’s side, the Liggio men were successful millers. On his father’s, the baker’s paternal grandmother was from a family of merchants who immigrated to Corleone from the Papal States in the early 19th century. The LaSalles are of no relation to Luciano Leggio or the other Leggio family members who are defendants at the 1969 Mafia trial in Bari. However, they are related to the Moscato family, by marriage and godparenthood. The Moscato family in Corleone are all descendants of a man from Siculiana, in Agrigento province. They have organized criminal ties going back to Rapanzino’s gang, in the 1830s, and continue to appear in Italian records of mafia activity into the 1960s. Francesco Moscato, Steve LaSalle’s first cousin, was in the Morello gang. It appears that at least one and possibly two of Steve’s brothers were also involved.

The Morello gang’s bread and butter was counterfeiting. According to Bill Feather, Steve had a criminal record from 1909 for counterfeiting, as well as murder and grand larceny. Steve and his brother, Vito, ran a numbers racket that was one of the largest in New York around 1930, according to The Valachi Papers. Another brother, Calogero, is mentioned in lists of known mafiosi, though I haven’t been able to find out anything in particular. It appears that he was active in the Morello gang, but that after the Mafia-Camorra War, he was no longer connected with organized crime.

Steve is named as a participant in the Mafia-Camorra War, on the Morello-Terranova side. On 24 June 1916, he attended a meeting of the Morello gang with the Navy Street and Coney Island gangs, where he argued—by some accounts with Nick Terranova—for the assassination of Joe DeMarco. On 20 July, Steve joined “Louis the Wop,” Nick Sassi, and Ciro Terranova in recruiting Lefty Esposito to help them kill Joe DeMarco. Other than the Terranova brothers, the key targets of the Camorra included Steve LaSalle, Eugenio Ubriaco, and possibly Joseph Verrazano: more evidence that LaSalle was highly placed in the organization.

Steve LaSalle was arrested on 4 September 1916, and still in custody three days later when Nick Terranova and Ubriaco were assassinated, by Camorra member Alessandro Vollero. (At least one source calls the other victim Nick’s bodyguard.) No doubt, Steve’s arrest saved his life.

The price was a stay at Sing Sing Prison, where Steve registered for the draft for WWI the following summer. Steve worked as a plasterer in prison. Several of the sons of Francesco and Biagio la Sala, including the two cousins born 1881 and 1888, worked in construction trades. Francesco and the oldest Stefano la Sala, his son, started a stone and brick masonry company in 1908. Steve LaSalle and his brother, Charlie (born Calogero) were both plasterers. Their brother Victor (born Vito) la Sala was later a bricklayer, but at this time owned a garage, where he employed another brother, Dominick.

Following his release from prison, Steve was affiliated with Tommy Reina’s gang, and would remain so until his retirement. (Reina, who was a captain in Morello’s organization, formed his own Bronx-based gang around the time of the Mafia-Camorra War.) Steve, Victor, Dominick, and Charlie lived with their parents in the Bronx in 1920, along with three sisters. Three of the brothers were in construction but Dominick, no longer employed by his brother’s garage, was now in ladies’ hats. (The garment industry was a popular racket, and one closely associated with LaSalle.)

Their father died in 1924, and their mother, in 1930. Based on his children’s ages, Victor married by 1926 to Margaret, from Nebraska. They had two children, a girl and a boy. Neither Steve nor any other member of the LaSalle family appear in the 1930 federal census at their previous Bronx address.

Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, who had avoided the Mafia-Camorra War that fragmented the Morello gang, was killed in 1930, in the Castellammarese War. His operations were taken over by Tommy Gagliano, who ran the family until his death in 1951. Gagliano and Reina, both from Corleone, are distantly related by marriage: Gagliano’s second cousin, once removed, was Reina’s wife. Gagliano and Reina are each related to LaSalle, though even more distantly.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Bill Feather reports that LaSalle lived in the Bronx, ran a large numbers operation, and became a power player in the garment industry. At the same time, he maintained a relatively low profile. His home is described as a “modest, two-family house” by the retired police officer interviewed in Pileggi’s 1972 article. Census and military records point to LaSalle living in New Jersey in 1940-42.

Today’s maps show a small, brick condominium, built in 1927, at LaSalle’s Cliffside Park address. In the 1940 federal census (the most recent publicly available) Steve, unmarried and living alone in Bergen County, calls himself a plasterer. Between 1940-42, his brother, Victor, moved his family from Fairfield, CT to Englewood Cliffs, NJ, five miles from Steve’s address. In his WWII draft registration, Steve named his brother, Victor, as his contact person. (Victor named his wife.)

Critchley writes, “LaSalle would become an influential member of the post Gaetano Reina organized crime Family under its various titles, reaching the post of consiglieri.” Other sources say he was made the underboss of the Lucchese family around 1951, under Gaetano “Tommy” Lucchese. LaSalle and Lucchese may have attended the Apalachin Summit together in 1957. He continued to serve under Lucchese’s successors: “Eddie” Coco and Carmine Tramunti.

LaSalle retired from the Lucchese family around 1972. According to the LIFE article published that year in March, his income came from ownership of a small garment factory. He was reportedly making $20,000 a year , an income equivalent to $110K today. He married and had a son.

Pileggi wrote early in 1972 that “Today, LaSalle, who is 83 and almost blind, is still being watched.” Although at least one source reports his death in 1974, an SSDI record that matches his name and date of birth tells us that Steve died at the age of 87, in November 1975. According to the record of his death, his last address was in Queens.

 

Sources

“The Apalachin Meeting.” Tutti Mafiosi. http://la-mafia.wikidot.com/the-apalachin-meeting Accessed 5 March 2017.

Black, Jon. “The Struggle for Control.” http://www.gangrule.com/events/struggle-for-control-1914-1918 Accessed 7 March 2017.

Critchley, David. The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge: New York, 2009.

“Guests at the Mafia Bar-B-Que”. http://www.greaterowego.com/apalachin/guests.html Accessed 5 March 2017.

Maas, Peter. The Valachi Papers. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968. Print.

Pileggi, Nicholas. “The Decline and Fall of the Mafia.” LIFE, 3 March 1972.

Tuohy, John William. “Joe Petrosino’s War on the Mafia.” http://mywriterssite.blogspot.com/2016/12/joe-petrosinos-war-on-mafia.html Accessed 7 March 2017.

Legacy of the Rapanzino gang

Legacy of the Rapanzino gang

While most of Rapanzino’s gang was exterminated by the police in the mid-1830s, their legacy continues, with a clear line of descent, all the way to the Five Families of New York and the Mafia in Corleone today.

The Rapanzino gang of cattle thieves, active in the early 1830s in Palermo province, were closely related to known mafia members in Corleone. Two of the members,  Bernardo and Antonino Palumbo, were brothers, and their second cousin, Leoluca Mondello, was also in their gang. Mondello and the leader, Rapanzino, were killed on the same day by the police. Two other members of the gang were Biagio Jannazzo and his older brother, Paolo. Although not closely related to the Palumbo brothers, by blood or marriage, the two families were evidently close: Biagio and Paolo’s parents were Antonino Palumbo’s godparents.

Ninetta Bagarella
Ninetta Bagarella

On their mother’s side, the Palumbo brothers were cousins of Vincenzo Maida, a rural guard. A common practice in that time, was for guards like Maida to negotiate for the return of stolen property. For this reason, it was a requirement of the position, that guards have close relations with criminals. Salvatore Lupo describes a typical arrangement: a mafia boss would go to the victim of a theft to express his sympathy, and to say maybe he can make some inquiries and find out what happened to the stolen goods. But he’s behind the theft and makes his money from the owner who pays to restore his goods.

Denis Mack Smith writes that the most common crimes in Sicily around this time were smuggling food into towns to avoid taxation, the illicit control of water, extortion—often through threats of arson to crops—and “abigeato”: stealing farm animals. It’s likely that Rapanzino’s gang worked with Maida, and other rural guards, to whom the thieves would kick back a proportion of their gains.

It’s not clear to me, what forces led to the police action against this band. Possibly the geographic scope of their activity brought the thieves from Corleone into conflict with neighboring mafias, each district an ecosystem of peasants, thieves, guards, and landowners. Or members of the band may have angered their local boss in some way. At any rate, by 1833, they were being hunted down by police, on orders from Palermo.

Despite being a wanted man in June 1834, the young widower Nicolo’ “Puntillo” Ciavarello remarried in Corleone, to Maria Marino. The Palumbo brothers were guillotined in Palermo the following year… that is, unless they escaped to Tunis, as legend has it. Paolo Jannazzo’s fate is not known. He did not marry in Corleone, and there is no record of his death there, either. Possibly he met the same fate as the Palumbo brothers.

In 1838, “Puntillo” and his wife stood as godparents to Mariano Cascio, Maria’s first cousin. Puntillo’s old band mate, Biagio Jannazzo, married Rosa Cascio, the sister of Mariano, in 1843. Rosa and Mariano’s sister, Emmanuela, married Vincenzo Maida, the guard, in 1849. Another of their sisters, Lucia, was the mother of future boss, Michelangelo Gennaro.

In 1840, a sister of the Jannazzo brothers, Lucia, married Vincenzo Terranova. Their son, Bernardo, is a known member of the mafia in Corleone, and the stepfather of Giuseppe Morello, a founding member of the Genovese crime family in New York.

Rapanzino, killed at age 27, didn’t marry. His niece, Maria Carmela Milone, married Domenico Moscato. Domenico’s cousin, Maria Carmela Chiazzisi, married Spiridione Castro, a cart driver—one of the rural entrepreneurial professions associated with the mafia. Spiridione’s nephew, Luciano Castro, is called a mezzano, an “intermediary” or middleman, in the 1853 civil record of his son’s birth: another mafia-related profession.

One of Biagio Jannazzo’s daughters, Leoluchina, married Bernardo Moscato, first cousin of Domenico. Leoluchina and Bernardo’s daughter, Domenica, married Placido Crapisi, son of mafia member Luciano. Her brother, Luciano, married their first cousin on his mother’s side, Angela Gennaro, sister of Michelangelo.

Biagio’s youngest son, born in 1849 and named Paolo, after his uncle, married twice, the second time to his long time domestic partner, when Paolo was considered to be “in extremis,” close to death, in 1906. He lived another nine years.

Epifanio Palumbo, the uncle of the Palumbo brothers, is the third great grandfather of Ninetta Bagarella. Ninetta is the youngest daughter of Salvatore Bagarella, a soldier in the Liggio-Navarra war. Salvatore and two of Ninetta’s brothers were named as defendants in the 1969 trial in Bari. She is the wife of Toto Riina. The family has been in the news recently, after a local Church confraternity paid homage at Ninetta’s home in Corleone. The “inchino” (a word that translates to “bow” or “curtsy”) a gesture of respect made during religious processions, is forbidden toward known Mafia figures by decree of the archbishop in Monreale. When it has occurred elsewhere in Italy, as in Caltagirone in March, there have been charges of disruption of public order. The family and the mayor of Corleone both deny that the inchino happened there.

Sources

“San Michele di Ganzaria tra inchieste e processioni sospese.” Published in Il Giornale d’Italia on 31 March 2016. Accessed http://www.ilgiornaleditalia.org/news/cronaca/875849/San-Michele-di-Ganzaria-tra-inchieste.html 7 June 2016.

Salvatore Lupo. History of the Mafia. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Columbia University Press, 2009.

Josephine McKenna. “Homage to Mafia boss angers Catholic Church.” Published 6 June 2016. Accessed https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/world/homage-mafia-boss-angers-catholic-church/ 6 June 2016.

Real Segreteria di Stato presso il Luogotenente Generale in Sicilia Ripartimento Polizia Repertorio anno 1836. Accessed at http://archiviodistatodipalermo.it/files/inventari/file/1263903377anno1836.pdf 6 August 2015.

Salvatore Salomone-Marino. Leggende popolari siciliane in poesia raccolte. Published 1880. Accessed online 5 April 2015.

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

 

Feature image credit: Giovanni Fattori, Cowboys of the Maremma Driving the Herds, 1893.

The family of Giuseppe Morello

The family of Giuseppe Morello

There are many undocumented claims made about the relationships between notable mafiosi. One mafia writer who has led me on a merry chase for the mythical relations of Giuseppe Morello is Joe Bruno. In a blog post from 2005, he repeats the legend that Giuseppe had an older brother named Antonio. Antonio Morello was born in 1864, Bruno writes, and another Morello brother, Nick, was born in 1866.

It’s true that Giuseppe had a younger half brother named Nick—Nicolo’ Terranova, born in 1890. But Antonio Morello, the made man of Corleone, never existed, although Joe Bruno says he was suspected of 30-40 murders in the 1890s.

Not to say Giuseppe Morello didn’t have family relations to organized crime in Corleone. His stepfather, Bernardo Terranova, was the nephew of Biagio and Paolo Jannazzo, who were both active in Rapanzino’s gang in the 1830s. Through Morello’s maternal grandmother, his Grizzaffi relations connect him to important families in the local mafia: Di Miceli, Gagliano, Streva, Cascio, and Majuri.

Antonio, Nick and Joe Morello were all inducted into the mafia in Corleone, Joe Bruno wrote on his mafia blog in 2010. He names two more half-brothers of Giuseppe Morello, Ciro Terranova, and Ignazio Saietta. In fact, Ciro was Morello’s half brother, as was Nick. Who Bruno calls Saietta is actually Ignazio Lupo: Lupo’s mother’s maiden name was Saietta. “Lupo” means “wolf,” which is how Ignazio got his nickname.

Bruno goes on to write that Antonio Morello was killed in 1898. There is a man by this name who died on 18 February 1898 in Manhattan. He was older than Joe says Antonio was, 46 (born around 1852). The decedent was married, and his parents’ names appear as Linone (which is probably a transcription error—possibly Simone) and Catrina. Giuseppe Morello’s parents’ names were Calogero and Angela.

Mike Dash dispels the myth of Antonio Morello in the preface to his book, “The First Family”:

“Another account held that Giuseppe had a brother, Antonio, who preceded him as boss in New York, and who once shot dead the dreaded leader of a rival criminal society, the Camorra. The battered transcripts of Antonio Morello’s 1892 murder trial, rescued in the early 1980s from a dumpster and now archived in an obscure law library, reveal that he was neither a member of the Mafia nor any relation to his more celebrated “brother,” and also that the man he killed was a one-armed organ grinder with no criminal record who had crudely insulted Morello’s wife.”

Giuseppe Morello is the son of Calogero Morello and Angela Piazza, who married in Corleone in 1866.

calogero morello angela piazza marriage record
The marriage record of Calogero Morello and Angela Piazza

Giuseppe was born the following year, named after his paternal grandfather. He had only one full sibling, Maria, named after their grandmother. Calogero died in 1872, and Angela remarried the following year to the mafioso Bernardo Terranova. Angela and Bernardo had six children that I know of: Lucia (1877), Salvatrice (1880), Vincenzo (1885), Ciro (1888), Nicolo’ (1890), and Rosalia (1892).

Giuseppe married twice, first in Corleone to Maria Rosa Marsalisi. Their first child, Angela, died in infancy. They had a son, Calogero, who immigrated with his mother and paternal relatives in March 1893. The extended Terranova family—Giuseppe’s mother and stepfather, siblings, his wife and their son—originally immigrated to New York. At some point, Maria Rosa returned to Corleone, where she died in 1898. Her son, Calogero, remained in the US with his father. The family moved south when the American economy collapsed in the 1910s. Their New Orleans contact was Giuseppe’s first cousin once removed, Leoluca Trombatore, from Corleone.

Another Corleonesi who lived in Louisiana was Vincenzo Collura. In 1908, Vincenzo’s brother, Giovanni, escorted his bride on the voyage to join him. Also traveling at that time were brother and sister, Leoluca and Serafina Grizzaffi, bound for another thriving southern community of Sicilians, in Bryan, Texas. The Grizzaffis were third cousins, once removed from both Leoluca Trombatore and from Vincenzo Collura, and third cousins of Giuseppe Morello. (There is another Vincenzo Collura from Corleone, eighteen years younger, and of no known relation. The latter, known as “Mr. Vincent,” also lived in the US for a time, but returned to Sicily and was an associate of Dr. Navarra’s after WWII.)

When the Terranova-Morello family returned to New York, Ignazio Lupo and Giuseppe Morello married, just weeks apart. Ignazio married Giuseppe’s half sister, Salvatrice. Giuseppe, a widower, remarried to another Corleone native, Nicolena Salemi, the daughter of a gabelloto. (Nicolena is my second cousin, four times removed.) At Giuseppe’s marriage, Ignazio and Salvatrice stand as witnesses.

Giuseppe’s son from his first marriage, Calogero, followed his father into the family business, and was killed in 1912. Giuseppe and Lena named their third child after him, around nine years later.

 

Sources

Joe Bruno on the Mob – The Morello Brothers. Accessed http://joebrunoonthemob.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/joe-bruno-on-the-mob-the-morello-brothers/  28 May 2016.

David Critchley.The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge: New York, 2009.

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

“New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W6B-8FD : accessed 29 May 2016), Antonio Morello, 18 Feb 1898; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,940.

Here comes the ice man

Here comes the ice man

People have been harvesting snow, to enjoy in the summer months, for thousands of years. The mafia has been in the ice business for hundreds of those years.

Businesses that provide what people are not willing to live without, prosper. Although best known today for their links to the vice trades, the mafia has deep roots in essential services: protection (racketeering) and transportation. One manifestation was the snow trade.

A thousand years before refrigeration, the Arabs brought sorbet and granita to Sicily, where they continue to define the local flavor. In the 18th century, the Parliament in Palermo was sardonically referred to as “the ice cream Parliament,” because its members were more interested in fine dining than legislation.

But snow was not just for the wealthy. Even poor Palermitans enjoyed snow-cooled drinks in the summer. In fact, the use of snow in summer is a practice older than antiquity. Proverbs 25:13 reads, “As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters.”

For the souls of Palermo to be refreshed in the sultry Mediterranean summer, required the services of an entire industry: the snow trade.

Snow harvests began in the mountains late in the winter, where workers pounded it into hard, icy blocks and stored them in caves, cellars, and on the shady sides of cliffs. Every day of the delivery season, blocks of pounded snow were wrapped in straw and salt, and placed on mule back for the arduous trek to market.

In the days before roads linked Sicily’s coastal cities with its interior, the principal form of transportation was by sea, in small boats that never strayed far from shore. Most land travel was along livestock runs called “trazzere.” Passable by horse, mule, or goat, they were impassable by carriage. In some central villages, people lived their whole lives never seeing a wheeled cart or carriage. Every product that traveled from the interior of the island to the coast, or the reverse, went by mule train.

Getting ice from the mountains to the city of Palermo was the sole domain of the mafia from the early 1700s, with only brief interruption by the Austrians in 1821, during one of Sicily’s unsuccessful revolts. Ice was considered so integral to the war effort, that it was deemed necessary to wrangle its transport monopoly from the local organizations which dominated the snow trade.

3 maps of Palermo province
Maps of Palermo province under the Roman Empire, in 1800, and 1890.

Because of its value and short shelf life, the safe and timely transportation of ice deliveries was a key concern. In 1800, there was only one road to Palermo from central Sicily: a number that had been stable since antiquity, but would double in the next fifty years. By the end of the 19th century, the island was finally served by railroads connecting its port cities. Their construction had taken decades, being continuously thwarted by the mafia, who correctly sensed competition.

Mule trains required security details to deter theft: like another Sicilian product in much demand, ice was subject to piracy. In the 19th century, citrus production was the leading economic indicator of mafia activity in Sicily. From the 18th century until after the second World War, refrigeration was supplied by the snow trade.

Regular deliveries of ice in the cities of Europe and the United States in the 19th century led to advancements in ice box technology. Plain wooden boxes evolved with insulating layers of materials from sawdust to zinc. In New York, in the first half of the 20th century, the ice man, making his daily deliveries, was a ubiquitous presence, like another relic of that time, the milk man. Vincenzo “The Tiger” Terranova, Giuseppe Morello’s half-brother and godson, was an ice man in New York City, frequently observed working his rounds, bringing solid blocks of relief to the sweltering tenements of New York.

In Eugene O’Neill’s play, “The Iceman Cometh,” set in 1913 in New York, there’s a recurring joke about an alcoholic salesman, Hickey’s wife being “in the hay” with “the iceman.” I grew up with similar jokes about the mailman: he made a convenient cuckold, the man with legitimate business on women’s doorsteps, while their husbands were off at work. (My father worked for the post office: my sister and I really were the mailman’s kids.) O’Neill’s iceman has a double meaning, one that could apply just as well to Terranova.

The Terranova-Morello gang would grow to become the current Genovese crime family in New York. While it would be reasonable to assume that Vincenzo’s ice delivery business was a cover, disguising the collection rounds of a racketeering business, it could have very well been an essential source of legitimate income. Despite his flashy mode of dress “the Morello elite lived only one step from penury,” says David Critchley, giving this as the reason for Terranova’s day job.

As the leadership of the Morello gang, Vincenzo (also called Vincent Terranova) and his associates engaged primarily in counterfeiting. (A business the family has engaged in for more than a century: in 2008, his estate was sued for selling counterfeit goods on Canal Street.) In a war against competing gangs in the 1910s, they bombed the tenements of their enemies in East Harlem, and their own home was bombed in retaliation. Vincenzo assaulted a policeman, and was sentenced to ten days in jail. A few years after that, his brother, Nick, was killed by members of a Brooklyn gang, and Vincenzo replaced him as boss of the Morello family.

Terranova was killed just blocks from his home, in a drive-by shooting in 1922, another casualty of the same gang wars that had taken his brother. Vincenzo, the ice man, was “on ice.”

In O’Neill’s play, Hickey’s wife is revealed to have been killed by her husband, so that his references to her sleeping with the iceman come to mean, in retrospect, that she is dead: sleeping with the fishes, as they say. Over the course of the play, the characters of Hickey and of the titular Iceman gradually merge into one. Like the ice delivery man, death comes to us all. To borrow the words of another 20th century writer, “Ask not for whom the iceman cometh; he comes for thee.”

Featured image credits: Left: By A. E. Abbey – Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1872, p.580, Public Domain. Right: Vincenzo “The Tiger” Terranova, Public Domain.

The godfathers of the American South

The godfathers of the American South

 

In Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone is called by the name of his hometown because he was fleeing the mafia. But why was he called “don”?

In the US, we don’t have a term similar to this Sicilian honorific. The Southern custom of calling elders “Mister” or “Miss,” along with their given name, like “Mister Vincent,” comes close. “Don”  began being used by Sicilian nobility during its centuries under Spanish rule. In rural settings, the titles were applied more loosely, not only to the marquis, the barons, and their families (the feminine form is “donna”), but also to priests, and to other respected men in the town. In Church records of marriages, baptisms, and deaths, the elite guildsmen are recorded with the title of “maestro,” and nobles, priests, and a very few others are called “don.” The vast majority of people are peasants, and are given no title at all.

Children in Sicily call their godparents padrino and madrina (or cumpari and cummari), or they might call them “uncle” and “aunt” (zio, zia) or “grandpa” and “grandma” (nonno, nonna) but not “don” and “donna.” These honorifics are communal, not familial. Sicilian culture associates masculinity with self-sufficiency. In an agricultural setting, with little infrastructure or police presence, decisive—even violent—action can be necessary to survive. Men who command the resources to solve problems not only for themselves, but for others, prosper and earn the respect of their neighbors.

As a rule, the owners of large tracts of farmland in Corleone in the 19th century employed farm managers, agricoltore or gabelloti, to run their estates, and rural guards (guardia campestre) to protect them. Meanwhile, the landowners lived in Palermo, an arrangement that sheltered the landowner’s property, both within Palermo and outside of the city, from taxation. Because there were so few police working on the island, the guardia were a necessity in rural areas: so much so, that the state paid guards’ salaries (to protect land on which the state did not earn tax, a corporate loophole familiar to anyone who reads the US news). The nobles’ absence from small town life made the next rung down, the gabelloti and the guardia, the public face of authority to the peasantry. “Becoming a field guard was a familiar way of acquiring local power and influence,” writes Denis Mack Smith in his “History of Sicily.” They had the power to solve their neighbor’s problems, and some were so widely called “don,”the title appears in the Church records of their children’s baptisms and marriages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a system of patronage helped many new immigrants from Sicily find work and housing in America. The farm managers to whom peasant farmers went, hats in hands, to beg for work on the estates of Corleone, had money to loan.

With the advent of steamship travel, farmers who could no longer make a living in Sicily, could do so in America. Ships from Naples stopped in Palermo before crossing the Atlantic. One’s patron could secure passage from Palermo to New York, and from there, to a high-paying job in the American South. The Americans who had previously performed agricultural labor in the South were being lured north to cities, to work in new industries. Their vacancies were filled, in some degree, by immigrants from Sicily, through the connections of their patrons, their patrini. Because whoever sent them to Ramos, or to Bryan, knew the name of the don of that place, who would help their countryman.

Not all of the farmers in Corleone who wanted to go to America, were able. People who could afford passage were still turned away at the port in Palermo, because they had physical handicaps, or not enough money to reach their final destination. One of my twice-great grandfathers is listed on a 1906 ship manifest, and then crossed out, indicating he attempted to immigrate but was not allowed to sail. His wife and some of his children had already immigrated, and he was attempting to join them. Family legend says that he was blind. After he died, his two remaining children at home, both teenagers, joined the rest of the family in New York. One of them was my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano.

Besides the cost of a steamship ticket and the physical health necessary to travel and work, immigration required other resources. For an illiterate Sicilian who spoke no English to consider immigrating, he would need clothes, including shoes, suitable for travel, and enough advance money and food to make the journey. To be allowed to sail, he must provide the name and address of a contact person in America. Once he arrived, he needed work and housing. Besides these immediate concerns, Sicilians abroad depended on their local patrons for insurance against unemployment, disease, and death. The men called “don” solved such problems: for a fee. Like “Don Vito” Corleone, they helped their friends, who in turn would help their patron.

Many families from Corleone went to Ramos, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, and to Bryan, Texas, 100 miles inland from Houston, both places where large numbers of Sicilian immigrants settled. On one ship manifest, a bride travels with her brother-in-law to meet her husband in Ramos, and their neighbors from Corleone, the Grizzaffis, heading to Bryan to work. The bridegroom shares a name with “Mr. Vincent” Collura, another immigrant from Corleone, of unknown relation, who returns to Corleone after WWII.

The Morello-Terranova family spent time in each of these communities in the 1890s, planting sugarcane in the former, picking cotton and contracting malaria in the latter, before returning to New York. In the City, they delivered ice (an age-old mafia activity), ran saloons and coal cellars, and printed counterfeit money. That their story would be exceptional is evident from the passenger manifest: among mainly illiterate passengers, the men in Giuseppe Morello’s family could read and write. Despite Giuseppe’s birth defect, which left him with only one finger visible on his right hand, he was not turned away at the port. And while their neighbors had one or two bags each, the Terranova family brought more than a dozen pieces of luggage.

For the poorest of the poor, escape was impossible. For those with the ability to pay, however, the choice to escape the cycle of poverty was an easy one to make. Help from one’s “godfather” was an offer no one could afford to refuse.

 

Image: “Decatur Street Italians, 1938” Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons