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 his mother’s surname, 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 mother’s cousin, Antonino Rizzotto, who was also Jack’s 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 Los Angeles, fighting for dominance of the new market, in the port of San Pedro, south of LA. And even at this early point in the story, it’s not quite the beginning, because the Matrangas 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. The Matrangas of Los Angeles, originally from Monreale, near Palermo, were related to the founder of the Mafia in New Orleans, Charles Matranga. In Los Angeles, the Matrangas were engaged in a protracted feud with the Ardizzone/Cuccia gang, whose members were originally from Piana dei Greci (today, Piana degli Albanesi), near Corleone.

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. Salvatore has a brother, Ross (Rosario), who is named by Richard Warner in a 2010 article on Vito DiGiorgio. Their 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” a form of his mother’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.

Warner, Richard N. “The first crime boss of Los Angeles?” July 2010. Informer. Pp. 5+.

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The Piranio brothers of Dallas

The Piranio brothers of Dallas

The Piranio brothers of Corleone founded the Dallas Mafia.

The Dallas crime family was founded around 1921 by brothers Carlo and Joseph Piranio from Corleone. The Piranio brothers were part of a network of immigrants from this town, related through blood and marriage, active in the Mafia in Corleone and in American cities including New York, New Orleans, Dallas, and Los Angeles, in the first half of the 20th century. Along with Giuseppe Morello, Leoluca “Mr. Luke” Trumbatore, and Ignacio “Jack” Dragna, Carlo and Joe Piranio are among the first Mafia bosses in the United States. All were born in Corleone.

Carlo Piranio source Viralnova
Carlo Piranio (Source: Viralnova)

Carlo was born Calogero Piranio on 21 May 1875, the son of Arcangelo Piranio and Orsola Trumbatore. He was named after his paternal grandfather, as is traditional in Corleone for the first born son. The surname “Piranio” is sometimes misspelled “Pirano” when referring to Carlo and Joseph in Dallas. In Corleone, the original spelling of their family’s name is “Praino,” seen more often in older records.

Carlo’s brother, Joseph, was born Giuseppe on 11 August 1878, named after his maternal grandfather. Arcangelo died the following year, at just 32 years old. Orsola remarried within the year, to Leoluca Cascio. Orsola and Leoluca had at least four more children, the last known born in 1896.

According to his answers on future census records, Carlo had emigrated by this time. He lived first in Shreveport, Louisiana, where his brother, Joseph, joined him around the turn of the century. Thomas Hunt writes that Carlo developed a paralysis of the right arm around 1899, a few years before his brother arrived in Louisiana. The paralysis may have been related to Carlo’s ultimate cause of death.

Carlo and Joseph are distantly related to “Mr. Luke” Trumbatore, who led the New Orleans Mafia (which operated throughout the state). Trumbatore is a closer cousin of Giuseppe Morello, another distant cousin of the Piranios. Morello operated primarily in New York with his half-brothers, the Terranovas. Trumbatore initially emigrated to New York before relocating to New Orleans.

Giuseppe Morello mug shot
Giuseppe Morello

Like the Piranio brothers, Morello was born in Corleone, lost his father while he was still young, and was raised by a stepfather. The Morello-Terranova family spent some of the years between 1892-1903 in the American South, in both Louisiana and Texas. Giuseppe’s stepfather, Bernardo Terranova, was known to be active in the Mafia in Corleone. Leoluca Cascio, the Piranio brothers’ stepfather, was the son of a cab driver: one of the rural entrepreneurial professions associated with Mafia activity in Corleone.

Carlo married Clemenza Grimaldi, also from Corleone, and they had their first child, Angelo, in 1904 in Shreveport. Joseph also married around this time, to Lena la Rocca, who was born in New Orleans of Italian parents.

The brothers moved their young families to Dallas, Texas, by the 1910 census, when they shared a household on Main Street. Carlo was reportedly a grocery storekeeper at this time, and Joe a grocery salesman. When Carlo’s third child was born in 1917, the family lived on Dawson Street, and Carlo reported his profession as real estate agent. In 1919, Carl was charged with receiving thousands of dollars worth of stolen war bonds.

Prohibition began in 1920. That year’s census reports that Carlo was still a real estate agent. His brother owned a tobacco shop, the J.T. Piranio Company, wholesale cigar dealers at 603 Harwood St. near Cadiz. Joe’s brother-in-law, Frank Aloi, lived with him in that year’s census. Aloi owned a grocery store.

Joseph Civello was an associate of the Dallas Mafia who also brought his family to Texas from Louisiana. His family operated groceries in Dallas that were also fronts for illegal activities for at least two generations, beginning during Prohibition.

In 1928, Civello was assigned to kill Joe DeCarlo, a bootlegger and druggist who had stopped making tributary payments to Carlo Piranio. Civello met DeCarlo in a pharmacy while carrying a shotgun, which discharged, hitting DeCarlo in the abdomen. The gunshot was ruled an accident, in large part on the assertions of DeCarlo, himself, made before he died.

Carlo Piranio died early in 1930, at age 54, from a tumor of the spine. Upon Carlo’s death, Joe took over leadership of the Dallas Mafia from his brother and remained the boss until his death in 1956.

According to his biography on Find A Grave, Joe owned a number of bars and a construction business, as well as gambling operations and a construction labor racket. In the 1930 census, Joe is called a builder for a contractor. By this time, Joe’s parents in law had also joined them in Dallas, and lived a couple doors down from Joe and Lena. Living between Joe and his in-laws were the families of one of his capos, Frank Ianni, and of Louis Cascio, both merchants.

Joe’s daughter, Ursula, married Joseph Lisotta in 1932. Joseph’s father was born in Corleone. Originally trained as a civil engineer in university, and employed in this profession by the city of Dallas, Lisotta bought a tavern shortly after Prohibition’s repeal, in 1933. The tavern was a popular gathering place: according to one anecdote in his obituary, Joseph Lisotta would host “special customers” for after-hours spaghetti dinners. Lisotta’s Tavern shut its doors for good in 1956, when the district voted to become “dry.”

The same year the Tavern closed, Ursula’s parents both died: first her mother in February, and then her father, eight months later, by suicide. Joe Piranio, the boss of the Dallas Mafia until his death, was 78 years old. Joseph Civello took over leadership, which he held until his death in 1970.

 

Sources

Arther, Azure. “Tales From the Speakeasy: Who Is the Dallas Crime Family?” Published 24 December 2016. http://cw33.com/2016/12/24/tales-from-the-speakeasy-who-is-the-dallas-crime-family/ Accessed 4 September 2017.

Carlo T. Piranio on Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=30428215 Accessed 4 September 2017.

“Dallas crime family.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dallas_crime_family Accessed 4 September 2017.

Hunt, Thomas. “The Mafia of Dallas: 1910-1970.” Published July 2010 in Informer Journal. Pp. 16+.

Renfrow, David. “Joseph Lisotta Owned Oak Cliff Tavern.” Dallas Morning News. 19 January 2006. Metro:12B.

 

Feature Image: Elm St at Night, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons

 

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