A stranger in this town

A stranger in this town

At the height of the cholera epidemic, a foiled Republican plot for independence leads to mob violence.

Strangers are the enemy in every story of Sicilian revolution. This is because the Sicilian story is one of constant invasion and foreign control. In 1282, during the Sicilian Vespers, anyone who looked or sounded French was killed. The shibboleth was “cece,” the local word for a common food staple, the chickpea. If a stranger could not pronounce the word, he was killed as a foreign invader.

The same fear of outsiders aroused by the Sicilian Vespers was inflamed by the cholera epidemic of 1837. In “The Betrothed,” (called “the most widely read work in the Italian language”) one of the lovers, Renzo Tramaglino, is taken for an “anointer” because he looks like a foreigner. An anointer was someone who, according to the rumor, was sent as an agent of the king, to poison the Sicilian populace with cholera. The story fueled an insurrection, which was violently suppressed by the Bourbon King Ferdinand II.

Early in the 19th century, laws regarding debt, land ownership, and the rights of leaseholders had oriented the agricultural marketplace toward short term gains that enriched an already ascendant class of gabelloti. In 1789 and 1820, estate managers had taken advantage of reforms to grab land and reinforce their power over landowners and the peasantry alike. Denis Mack Smith writes in his history of Sicily, “All the ingredients of the mafia were present [by 1831] except the word itself.”

In 1837 in Sicily, a liberal movement for independence from the Bourbon king was spreading among educated nobles like the Bentivegna family of Corleone, guildsmen, dissident groups including the Carbonari and Freemasons, and criminals, the latter of whom learned of the political movement in prison. The revolutionary leaders of 1848 and 1860, Francesco Bentivegna and Giuseppe Garibaldi, were both Republicans. In the year of Bentivegna’s revolt, 1848, there would be another outbreak of cholera, and again in 1867, but in 1837, when Francesco Bentivegna was seventeen years old, a third of his town fell ill, and half of those people died. That was the year he became a believer in Republicanism.

“Colera,” in Italian as well as in Spanish, has two meanings: the deadly disease caused by various strains of Vibrio cholerae, and emotional passion, which people once believed was caused by an excess of bile. In the novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez uses the word’s double meaning to warn against the dangers of an excess of passion.

In the days when health was still a matter of balancing the bodily humors, cholera morbus was a catchall term for any kind of stomach flu. “Morbus” sounds worse in English than its meaning in Latin, which is simply “disease” or “ailment.” “Cholera” is derived from the Greek khole which means “illness from bile.”

“Asiatic cholera,” which is what we recognize today as the deadly disease, cholera, caused by various strains of Vibrio cholerae, used to be thought of as merely a more aggravated form of  cholera morbus. Before it spread to western Europe, Asiatic cholera was endemic to India, and spread through shipping ports. It was seen in England as early as the mid 17th century. It’s possible it was seen in Sicily before 1837, but this was the first time the disease spread to such devastating effect.

Patients infected with cholera died from a rapid depletion of bodily fluids, and as their bodies broke down, they exhibited the symptoms first of dehydration, and then of oxygen deficiency, which made their extremities cold and blue. At first, cholera victims thrashed and screamed, and their muscles spasmed. The disease was presumed to be spread by bad air, not contaminated water. Treatments included bloodletting, opiates, and mercury.

Within just a day in most cases, patients were exhausted and unresponsive. It was an agonizing death, and terrifying to behold. American medical records of the time reported bodies that twitched for hours after expiration. In a later cholera epidemic in Sicily, in 1888, the British Consul at Palermo reported that the people there had lived for some months in a state of “savage panic.”

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King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies took the throne in 1830. At first, he appeared to be a progressive ruler, like his grandfather and namesake, the first King Ferdinand of Sicily, son of the Bourbon king of Spain. He commissioned the Royal Palace of Ficuzza, the King’s hunting lodge in the Ficuzza woods, near Corleone.  

Ferdinand II opened institutions in support of the sciences, including agriculture and statistics, and built the first railroad, in mainland Italy. Garibaldi’s Thousand famously rode the train to Rome in 1860, but the Industrial Revolution would be slow to reach Sicily: the island would not have its first rail service for decades.

By 1835, the King had lost interest in remediating the island of his birth, and his rule veered right. He shut down clubs, and increased censorship of foreign books. Land reforms and a growing market in Russian and American wheat meant that for Sicilian peasants, bread and pasta were increasingly luxuries, and meat, rare: the typical Sicilian peasant subsisted on cactus fruit and chickpeas. Even natural resources were diminishing, due to poor land management that resulted in soil erosion, deforestation, and flooding. In times of great poverty, peasants increasingly turn to banditry. The early years of Ferdinand II’s reign were the years in which Rapanzino and his band were active, stealing cattle and hiding them near the King’s hunting grounds.

At this time, practically everything came from abroad. The basic necessities of life, from bricks to buttons, were imported. In June, 1837, the first to be affected by cholera were two sanitation guards in the port of Palermo, who the historian and priest, Don Giovanni Colletto tells us were also smugglers. The district attempted a quarantine by putting up barricades, but the disease swept through the city and out to the countryside, with the citizens who had fled the city, attempting to escape the epidemic. A rumor began circulating that “anointers,” agents of King Ferdinand II, were spreading the disease through their food.

In the minds of many Sicilians, the epidemic of 1837, a disease of unknown origin or cure, was fused to the known threat of Bourbon oppression. Cholera was called “the Bourbon disease.” (Italians called syphilis “the Spanish disease,” in much the same spirit.) Denis Mack Smith writes that even university professors (who were not the most highly educated) and the archbishop of Palermo (who might have been more so) believed cholera was spread by “anointers” from the mainland.

As part of their campaign against the rumor, the police published manifestos, ordinances, and posters correcting assumptions about the disease. This did not stop the lynch mobs, in towns throughout Sicily, from attacking suspected anointers. In Roccamena, close to Corleone, Colletto alludes to early signs of civil unrest: two citizens were held in a makeshift hospital, not because they were ill, but to protect them from rioting.

Word came to Corleone from Palermo on 12 June to take precautions against disease. Corleone established a cordon sanitaire around the city. In Don Pietro Scaglione’s fondaco (a marketplace/storage depot/hostel), near the church of San Antonio, there were ten people being held under observation. Other people suspected of illness were kept quarantined in their homes.

As the death tolls rose throughout the island, ordinary food supply channels were cut, towns closed their gates, and cities emptied. There was widespread hysteria, lynchings, and looting. People were dying from disease in Corleone. But on 1 July 1837, when the Church there recorded the event, they said they were suffering merely from cholera morbus.

On 21 July, violence broke out in Corleone. The town had been under a quarantine for more than a month. Maestro Gaetano Governali, his nineteen year old son, Giuseppe, and two more men, Ciro Boscarelli, and Leo lo Bue, were dragged to the Gatto bridge by a mob, beaten, and then shot to death with rifles. The main aggressors in the crowd were Giuseppe Catalinotto (called “Catinotto Moscoglione,” which is a rendering of his surname followed by a nickname that apparently means a weaver of spiderwebs), Liborio Perricone, Leoluca Milone, Simone Majuri (called “Maione” in two different accounts), and Benedetto Glorietti, all but the last, natives of Corleone. Two more men were murdered this day, according to the Church’s records of their deaths: Antonino Giaccone and Maestro Gesualdo Birritella.

Two days later, Antonio di Puma, who was called by the ingiuria “Lasagna,” was killed by Antonio Ciraulo. Also on the twenty-third, three women were killed by the nineteen year old Biagio Listi, called “Frattiglione (Frattaglione is a nickname and local place name) and his companion, 23 year old Simone Majuri, who was also involved in the killings on the Gatto bridge on the nineteenth. Their victims were Carmela Billera and two wives of the men killed: Maria Pomilla, the recent widow of Don Leo lo Bue, and Birritella’s widow, Angela Colletto. Another man killed this day was Don Ignacio Gennaro. Colletto tells us that the three women, and Di Puma, were all accused of spreading poison.

Catalinotto, Pirricone, Milone, Majuri, and Benedetto di Mitri, were all executed on 2 August. From another source, the list of those executed is longer, with some overlap to Colletto’s. In addition to Giuseppe Catinotto Moscoglione, Liborio Perricone, Leoluca Milone, Simone Majone (Majuri), Benedetto Glorietti Dimitri (this Monreale native is known by at least three versions of this name), and Biagio Listi Frattaglione di Antonino, this source lists among the executed Antonino Celauro (Ciraulo), Liborio Greco, Leoluca Trya (possibly Friia, or Traina), Antonino Palazzo, Vincenzo Palumbo, Pasquale d’Auria (d’Anna), Vincenzo Grimaldi, and Cosimo Notarbartolo. The execution was performed by a military battalion, as part of an island-wide crackdown on insurrection.

Antonio Ciraulo, who was executed on the second of August, is also known as Antonino Ciravolo: a cousin of mine, and the nephew of Nicolo’ “Puntillo” Ciravolo, a member of Rapanzino’s gang, most of whose members were killed by the police, the previous summer. Vincenzo Palumbo was the brother of two members of Rapanzino’s gang, Bernardo and Antonino Palumbo, who were both reportedly guillotined in Palermo in December 1835. Legend has it, the Palumbo brothers escaped to Tunis, but Vincenzo was not so lucky. He was executed on 19 August 1837 in the public square in Corleone.

Sources:

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

Charles E. Rosenberg. The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.) Accessed https://books.google.com/books?id=k2pL9c00rl4C&pg=PA74#v=onepage&q&f=false 24 April 2016.

The Lancet. “Dr. Smart on cholera in insular positions.” 19 April 1873. p. 555.

Giovanni Colletto. Storia Della Citta di Corleone (Siracusa: Tip. Littoriale, 1934.)

Death records 1747-1751, 2 August 1837, “Italia, Palermo, Diocesi di Monreale, Registri Parrocchiali, 1531-1998,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-266-11555-102038-84?cc=2046915 : accessed 22 April 2016), Corleone > San Martino > Morti 1837-1843 > image 91 of 194; Archivio di Arcidiocesi di Palermo (Palermo ArchDiocese Archives, Palermo).

Archivio storico siciliano, Volume 14, accessed https://books.google.com/books?id=q3JMAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA444&lpg=PA444&dq=Moscoglione&source=bl&ots=hINJuyeggI&sig=mefpuW2GKvMA3ZKHG5W9djfGrDg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiXydKLx6XMAhUCNT4KHabrCQMQ6AEIMzAE#v=onepage&q=Moscoglione&f=false 23 April 2016. Pubblicazione Periodica della Societa Siciliana per la Storia Patria. Nuova Serie, Anno XIV. (Palermo: Tipografia dello “Statuto”, 1889.)

Image credit: By Francesco Redenti (Correggio 1820 – Torino 1876) (Scan da “Il fischietto” del 20 gennaio 1857) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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City of courage, city of faith

City of courage, city of faith

There are two versions of the events of the twenty-seventh of May 1860 in Corleone. There is the version every person from Corleone knows and celebrates in a church festival each spring, in the month following Easter. And then there is what really happened.

The popular story is that the revolution that birthed the Italian Republic, was aided by the miraculous intervention of one of Corleone’s patron saints, and one of the most important saints in Catholicism. Italian unification, the Catholic church, and the civic courage of Corleone are wedded in the miracle of 27 May 1860, and its annual commemoration with a race of the saints Leoluca and Antonio. This is a myth that unites a people. No wonder they don’t want to hear another story.

At least as powerful in mythology as the town’s association with the mafia, are Corleone’s reputations for faith, and revolutionary might. It is the town of a hundred churches, birthplace of the Sicilian Vespers and two saints, and the starting point of the revolution of 1848. In 1860, Corleone played a part in Garibaldi’s successful Expedition of the Thousand… the Corleonesi would say, a miraculous one.

Corleone’s hundred churches have (not quite) a hundred confraternities, many going back to medieval times, and each under the protection of a different saint. (Or pair of saints, like Constantine and his mother, Elena.) On important Church holidays, confraternities and their attendant marching bands hold processions, or parades, traveling between and among the churches of the town, in an order that holds religious significance, like the stations of the cross. On the festival of a saint important in Corleone, an icon, or life size effigy of the saint, is carried on a bier, like a king, and paraded through the streets.

In addition, many saints days have agricultural significance, marking times to harvest wheat, for instance (Santa Lucia) or slaughter pigs (Santa Teresa). In early spring is the best time to prune olive trees. San Leoluca’s feast day, on the first of March, is marked with bonfires that recall one of the saint’s miracles: a stack of firewood that carried itself.

Every year on the last Sunday of May (usually the fourth Sunday after Easter), in a celebration called “Cursa Santu Luca,” (“cursa” is Sicilian dialect for “corsa,” which means “race”) the saints’ icons are carried at a run, from the Borgo Piano, now the Piazza Falcone and Borsellino, to “Santu Lucuzza,” a chapel at the end of the village. The “Pietro Cipolla” community band, which has been in existence since at least 1860, when they greeted Garibaldi himself, plays the March of the Bersaglieri (the “Sharpshooters”), keeping pace with the saints.


The 2013 Cursa

The people of Corleone believe that San Leoluca and Sant’Antonio saved their city from the Bourbons, but as the author remarks on Dino Paternostro’s website, “Città Nuove Corleone, “The historical fact has a different explanation, but this is of little interest to people.” (“Il fatto storico ha una spiegazione diversa, ma questo alla gente interessa poco.”) Enrico Morucci also makes the point that people don’t care what “really” happened. Having a modern notion of history and cause and effect is as useful in this situation, he says, “as milk is to lemon.” Faith rewards us with power over the unknown, and tells us that every action, no matter how small, can be consequential. The collective faith of a group of people can start a revolution.

There were riots in Palermo during the festival season of that city’s patron saint, Rosalia, in the summers of 1773, 1813, and 1820. The people were starving. Penitent brotherhoods flogged themselves and people in the crowds. Insurrection was in the air, but Sicily was not yet powerful enough to break her bonds.

In 1848, the Bentivegna brothers of Corleone led a revolution against the Bourbons, which was also, ultimately, unsuccessful. At first, the mafia supported the revolution, but when things looked bleak, they switched sides. After the revolution, the mafia was strengthened by their support of the Bourbon king, who gave them contracts for jobs like tax collection, which were privatized and extremely lucrative. In this way, the mafia consolidated their power, and by 1860, was the most powerful force on the island, deciding the course of the next revolution.

The mafia has achieved an unprecedented level of power when a new leader wants to conquer Sicily, and must have the criminal organization’s consent to do so. Austrian troops could take away the ice trade in 1820, and the mafia might have won by betting on the house in 1848, but in 1860, Garibaldi had the mafia’s support, and kept it through to the end. In Francis Marion Crawford’s nonfictional account, The Rulers of the South, he writes, “when the Mafia joined Garibaldi, the Bourbons fell.”

Giuseppe Garibaldi was a revolutionary, but no radical. He courted landowners, including the leadership of the mafia, and ensured a smooth transition that would not disrupt their power. Rather than being the champion of the peasantry, it was men like Sr. Giuseppe Catinella of Corleone, a Carbonaro from a wealthy family, and whose grandfather represented the district in 1816, who were given positions in Garibaldi’s Italy. Angelo Paternostro, a veteran of Forty-Eight, was made mayor of Corleone, the month of the invasion. The younger Catinella was appointed to his grandfather’s old position in July.

Sicilians believed in the Redshirts’ imminent arrival, and this faith spurred insurrection all over the island, beginning in Palermo on the fourth of April. Leaders of the mafia in Palermo who had supported the revolution in 1848 (and the Bourbons in 1849), were revolutionaries, once again. Denis Mack Smith writes in his history that police were attacked and killed with such brutality in Palermo, that many left their posts.

After landing in Marsala, to the west, on the eleventh of May, Garibaldi and his volunteers began marching toward Messina, the port city in the east, closest to the Italian mainland. He declared Salemi Italy’s first capital—and himself, dictator—on the fourteenth. Using a ruse Garibaldi devised himself, his troops lured the Bourbon army out of the city to be met by Colonel Vincenzo Giordano Orsini. They engaged in a fierce battle outside Corleone, on May 27th, but Orsini’s men were a diversion from the real attack, which Garibaldi led on insurrectionary Palermo.

When General von Meckel, at the head of the Bourbon army, realized this, he was poised to loot Corleone, as punishment for the revolutionary town’s part in Garibaldi’s ruse. But they were fiercely resisted by several hundred well armed peasants—or possibly, by the apparition of two saints. In either event, the Cursa Santu Luca evokes the rapid retreat of von Meckel’s army.

The Bourbons launched a devastating bombardment against Palermo, but the Redshirts emerged triumphant. The next day, Garibaldi declared the Bourbon authority deposed from Palermo. Six weeks later, having conquered Sicily, he and the Thousand would cross the strait of Messina to Naples.

 

Image credit: By Berlis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons