In 1958, Luciano Leggio started a mafia war that lasted five years, and killed more than fifty people, starting with Dr. Michele Navarra, the former boss in Corleone. The victory was short lived, as police swept up dozens of mafiosi from Corleone and Palermo in the early 1960s. Three major trials were held in mainland Italian cities, the first to prosecute mafia members for criminal association. The third of these, the Corleonesi trial, held in the spring and summer of 1969 in Bari, Italy, mainly revolved around Leggio’s war. The charges ranged from criminal association to homicide.
The prosecutor, Cesare Terranova, initially charged 116 people, including one whose name was unknown. Of those, sixty-four went to trial in Bari. Among them is Giuseppe Ruffino, originally from Lucca Sicula, suspected in a triple homicide. Five of his co-defendants are from Palermo. There are a handful from other towns in the province, but the majority, fifty-five of the sixty-four, were born in Corleone: three women and fifty-two men, including Luciano Leggio, Leoluchina Sorisi, Bernardo Provenzano, and Toto Riina.
Of the fifty-five, fourteen are my cousins, some of them admittedly pretty distant ones. The closest relations are the Majuri brothers, Antonino and Giovanni, who are my second cousins, twice removed. Their father, Pietro, and two of their uncles, were active in the mafia in Corleone around 1900. The Majuri brothers are also first cousins, once removed, of Giuseppe Morello. (I talk about my connection to Morello, through the great-aunt Biagia who stayed behind while my ancestors immigrated, in my first entry on this blog.)
Affiliates of both Navarra and Leggio appeared together at the Sicilian Mafia trials. Calogero Bagarella, said to be one of the assassins of the brothers Marco and Giovanni Marino, and of Pietro Majuri, who were all part of Dr. Navarra’s cosca, stood charged alongside the Majuri brothers. Calogero’s father, Salvatore, and brother, Leoluca, were also defendants. After the trial, Calogero Bagarella was among those who executed Michele Cavataio, instigator of an earlier mafia war, in Palermo. In the exchange, Calogero was also killed.
Filippo Gennaro, son of the former capo Michelangelo, was a defendant at Bari. So was Salvatore Briganti, second cousin once removed of “Mr. Vincent” Collura, a suspect in the killing of Placido Rizzotto. Briganti and Collura are related through a common ancestor on their mothers’ sides, named Leoluca Criscione; also charged was Briganti’s nephew, Biagio Criscione. John Follain and Gordon Kerr say Collura and another defendant, Angelo di Carlo, were instrumental in rebuilding the mafia after WWII. Di Carlo, Ruffino, and a third co-defendant, Salvatore Pomilla, all died in custody, awaiting trial.
Toto Riina was a defendant, as were his second cousins, once removed, the brothers Pietro and Giacomo Riina. Giacomo’s wife, Maria Concetta Leggio, her brothers, Francesco and Vincenzo, and their father, Leoluca, were all defendants, too. Francesco Leggio and his wife, Maria Riina, were in a double in-law marriage: she is the sister of Pietro and Giacomo, and Giacomo’s wife is Francesco’s sister. Maria was not charged, herself, but four of her sons were. Despite the common surname, I can find no relationship between Leoluca and Luciano Leggio, going back five generations. The four sons of Francesco and Maria are third cousins of Toto Riina, through their mother. Even the killers and their victims, in this small town, can trace some convoluted relationship: through connections to the Palumbo and Grizzaffi families, the extended Leggio clan, Dr. Navarra, the Majuri brothers, and I are all related.
That summer of love in Bari, an anonymous note threatened the lives of the judge, the prosecutor, and the jury, warning that if even one of the “honest gentlemen from Corleone” were convicted, they would be “blown sky high, you will be wiped out, you will be butchered and so will every member of your family.” The note closed with a supposed Sicilian proverb, “A man warned is a man saved.” All sixty-four of the defendants at Bari were acquitted.
How fascism moved from left to right, and the Mafia’s enduring relationship with Freemasonry.
The historic relationship between the Mafia and Freemasonry is a fascinating one, for the role that its members have taken in world events. It’s a story that unfolds over centuries, crosses oceans, and takes many turns. But once I started asking the internet about connections between Freemasonry and the Mafia, it wasn’t long before I was neck deep in conspiracy theories about shadow governments run by corrupt pagan cultists in high places. What is true about the relations among Church, state, Mafia, and Freemasonry?
Some connections—like those between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry—are discredited. But sometimes true stories get lumped in with those that can’t possibly be true. The Mafia and Freemasonry, although both secret organizations, are not centrally governed, making the “New World Order” under their totalitarian rule, a dystopian fantasy, not a reasonable conclusion based on the facts. What has been true through much of their shared history in Italy, is that Freemasonry has been a shield behind which the elites in politics, business, and criminal enterprise meet in brotherhood and secrecy, allowing corruption to flourish.
Freemasonry today distinguishes work in stone—operative masonry—from the culture that developed through lodges, known as speculative masonry. The organization we know today as Freemasonry is believed by most historians to have evolved out of medieval guilds of master stonemasons. The term “freemason” originally referred to the advanced, operative masonry skill to shape decorative stone. From the late 17th century, lodges of speculative Freemasons—men who studied the principles of organized, operating freemasons, and applied their philosophies in other aspects of their lives—began to organize in Scotland and England. By the early 18th century, leadership of the Freemasons in the UK became the domain of the nobility. At the same time, American colonial leaders including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were active Freemasons.
Freemasonry is organized into independent Orients and Lodges, by geographical location. No group or individual rules over all Freemasons. Some bodies within Freemasonry do not recognize one another. Propaganda Due (P2), for example, was a Masonic lodge operating under the Grand Orient of Italy from 1945-1976, when its charter was withdrawn. It continued to operate covertly until 1981. The banking scandal of Michele Sindona was linked with P2.
Instead, members share bonds forged by a common authoritarian culture, and mutual recognition of rules and values. Salvatore Lupo says Freemasonry and the Mafia are similar, both by design and membership overlap. Both organizations share values of humility, a respect for the rules, and for the hierarchy. Like Freemasonry, the Mafia is made up of local organizations that are independently run, but share alliances and concerns with other families, or cosci.
Since before Freemasonry’s introduction to Sicily during the Napoleonic wars, the Catholic Church has considered Masonic membership a violation of Catholic values. As early as 1738, Pope Clement XII denounced Freemasonry, and membership remains grounds for excommunication. The Church argues that the fraternal organization teaches deism, a belief in a kind of Creator as Engineer of the Universe, which precludes such concepts as grace, in the Catholic sense of all help coming from G-d. Freemasonry requires its membership to believe in a creator, but does not further specify what relationship people should have with such an entity, making membership open, from the organization’s perspective, to a wide array of faiths. The Mafia, at least in legend, began as a mutual aid society. Masons, too, swear an oath of loyalty to help fellow members. But the Church calls for men to seek such help from G-d.
In Catholic countries, the Church competes with the state for power, particularly in periods of liberal rule, when the Church and its clergy tend to have their roles limited. The land seizures from the Church by the state, even in the Bourbon period, benefited the mafia, who were positioned to rig auctions, and had the capital to buy formerly Church-held land as it came onto the market. Liberal periods of rule after the Risorgimento also correlated with greater levels of political corruption. The lodge was where politicians, business leaders, and criminals, all at the highest levels in their fields, could meet on a level playing ground, under neutral auspices. During periods of state repression, Masons met publicly, but under other names, such as the “Centro Sociologico Italiano.”
Yet it was a vertical alignment of social classes, from high to low, that Salvatore Lupo argues made the Mafia possible in western Sicily. At the turn of the 19th century, Sicilians learned the principles of the French Revolution from Napoleon’s armies. An Italian sect of Freemasons known as the Carbonari, or “charcoal burners,” emerged, the name a reference to a now-illicit activity common among peasants, of burning wood to make charcoal in the baron’s woods. Sicily’s anti-Bourbon nobles flocked to the Carbonari and found themselves imprisoned for sedition.
Lupo writes, “According to a document dated 1818, the distinction between freemasonry and carboneria was the openness of the carboneria movement to the lower classes, to the ‘good craftsman, [to] the honest farmer,’ perhaps even to the ‘common riff-raff.'” In prison, the seditious barons shared their ideas with the men they met there, who spread the radical idea among other mafiosi. The Carbonari were singled out for excommunication by Pope Pius VII after they played a key role in the uprisings of 1820-21.
One of the Italian Carbonari, and a 33rd Degree Freemason, was Giuseppe Mazzini. By the 1830s, he had founded Young Italy, a secret movement organized around the principle of “Italian unification as a liberal republic.” Despite his use of the term “liberal,” by most analyses Mazzini’s politics are on the far right of the political spectrum. He called for “class collaboration,” a vertical alignment of social classes, to use Lupo’s phrase, that made Mazzini “an enemy of both communism and capitalism.” (Karl Marx, on more than one occasion, called Mazzini a reactionary old ass.)
Vincenzo Bentivegna of Corleone was influenced by Mazzini’s ideas, and began to spread his philosophy among other young people who were, like him, the children of Carbonari. The Marquis of Chiozi, Ferdinando Firmaturi, of the only noble family that lived in Corleone at this time, was converted by Vincenzo. Don Giuseppe Catinella, who would later represent the district in Palermo, was a Carbonaro. One of his close friends and advisors was Francesco Bentivegna, a cousin of Vincenzo’s, and an ardent Republican revolutionary.
However, the revolution of 1848 was not successful. The mafia, initially supporters, switched sides and were rewarded by the Bourbon king with lucrative government contracts. By 1856, the Bentivegna brothers, and the revolution they came to represent, had been betrayed, the brothers themselves imprisoned, or killed.
Another follower of Mazzini’s ideas, Giuseppe Garibaldi was inducted into Freemasonry in 1844, while in exile, and used his networks of Freemasons and socialists, among others, to gain support for Italian unification. Garibaldi conquered Sicily in 1860, but he no longer believed, as Mazzini wrote, that popular insurrection was the only way to unite Italy. Instead, Garibaldi handed the conquest of the Thousand to Piedmont, who he believed was the only force powerful enough to unite Italy against foreign rule. Francis Marion Crawford gives credit elsewhere. In his nonfictional account, Rulers of the South, he writes that “when the Mafia joined Garibaldi, the Bourbons fell.” (There is a third theory of Garibaldi’s success in Sicily, which credits the saints of Corleone.)
The term “fascism” was originally applied to organisations on the political Left. “Fasci” are bundles of sticks, like in the parable. Band together, like a bundle of sticks tied together, and no one can break you. The Fasci Siciliani was a peasant movement to organize labor, similar to the guilds of master tradesmen. The term was subverted to serve Mazzini’s far-right political agenda during World War I, when Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist party in Italy.
Bernardino Verro (my third cousin, three times removed) was an early labor organizer, and Corleone native. In the summer of 1893, he hosted a labor conference in Corleone. That was also the year Verro joined the Fratuzzi, the local mafia, to “give teeth” to his labor unions. Their relationship was strained from the start, with Verro’s organizing in direct opposition to the concerns of the nobility, which were protected by the Mafia. A year and a half after taking office as the first Socialist mayor of Corleone, Verro was killed, in November 1915. “Socialist carpenter” Carmelo lo Cascio (no known relation by blood, though he is by marriage) replaced him as mayor. Although there was a trial, there were no indictments for Verro’s murder.
Although the Mafia and the Fascists were both on the Right, politically, they were in opposition to one another. The Fascist regime in Italy was strongly opposed to the Mafia—authoritarians do not like competition—and nearly destroyed the organization during WWII. In the 1920s, hundreds fled Sicily to avoid arrest. Not only the Mafia, but Freemasonry was also suppressed. The latter became a dog whistle for the former. Angelo di Carlo, who is later called an architect of the Mafia in Sicily after WWII, went to New York during the purges of the Twenties. Shortly after his arrival, the Italian government accused him of the politically motivated murder of a Fascist in Palermo. Rather than call him a member of the Mafia, the Fascists call di Carlo an opponent of Fascism and “a member of the Masonic fraternity.” This is a strange set of accusations, unless you’re keeping track of political alliances.
When the Allies occupied Sicily during WWII, the Mafia regained power because they were the only ones who “had no compromising dalliances with the Fascist regime.” Di Carlo began his involvement in a decades-long money laundering conspiracy that was later discovered in an investigation of Vito Ciancimino, mayor of Corleone in the early 1970s. The Fascists were again in control of Italy at this time, planting bombs to frighten the public away from the liberal philosophies spreading on college campuses. The government called di Carlo, who died in prison awaiting trial in 1967, an anarchist and a deserter during WWI.
In recent years, the Italian government has voiced the opinion that Masonic affiliation continues to provide criminals with networking contacts in every field. In 2013, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith made some remarks in the Catholic Herald, about the mafia in masonic organizations, that serve the same caution when applied to the state, or even to the culture. “Italian masonry is strongly identified with big business and banking, and the powerful secretive elites that are supposed to be the ‘real’ government of the country,” Father Lucie-Smith writes. “Masonry is also seen as strongly anti-clerical; thus a masonic lobby in the Vatican would be opposed to virtually everything the Church stands for, and a real enemy within.”
Commissione Parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia e sulle altre associazioni criminali similari (CPA: Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia) Relazione sui Rapporti tra Mafia e Politica, Page 59, Roma, 1993.
“Mafia” is a feminine term that means beautiful and proud. Paradoxically, women are both essential to and excluded from the criminal organization.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the mafia in Corleone was led by members of a new agrarian bourgeoisie (“nuova borghesia agraria”) of estate managers for absentee landlords. Author and labor organizer Dino Paternostro names three dozen in leadership of the Fratuzzi (“little brothers” in local dialect) around 1900. Many of these men are closely related, often through maternal lines and marriages. Arguably, some of the most important relationships a Corleonese man had, in this time, were his in-laws and maternal uncles.
Under Giuseppe Battaglia, the boss around 1900, the Fratuzzi were headed by Michaelangelo Gennaro, who was the nephew of former boss Salvatore Cutrera. Sources vary in describing their relationship, with some calling him the grandson of Cutrera. Salvatore was, in fact, Michaelangelo’s uncle by marriage: to Maria Carmela Gennaro, Michaelangelo’s paternal aunt. They married in 1859, six years before Michaelangelo was born.
In the next generation, Gennaro was replaced by Luciano Labruzzo and Giuliano Riela, a man from San Giuseppe Jato. Riela married into a well connected family. Salvatrice Cascio, my first cousin three times removed, was related to power on both sides of her family. On her mother’s side, she was Michaelangelo Gennaro’s niece.
Women have never been part of the formal organization except symbolically, but their real-life relationships are part of the essential glue that holds the mafia together. There’s a clear pattern of inheritance, not only from father to son, but through men’s maternal uncles. From one century to the next, even while the Sicilian mafia is evolving into an international crime syndicate, it remains traditional in this regard. This is one of the ways the mafia makes itself inextricable from daily life, by leveraging the power of family. One’s in-laws are also one’s sworn allies and business partners. They’re the people most likely to help you find a wife, further cementing loyalty. Even more common than cousin marriage, in my own family, are such double in-law marriages as those among Salvatrice Cascio’s siblings. Her sister, Angela, married Carlo Taverna, who is also named among mafia leadership in Corleone at this time. Their brother married Carlo’s sister.
Dr. Michele Navarra, born in 1905, was the son of a teacher with no family history of mafia involvement. On his mother’s side, however, his uncle by marriage was Angelo Gagliano, who is also named in Paternostro’s article. Gagliano, an associate of Giuseppe Morello’s and a capo in the Corleone mafia, is described as a particularly violent criminal. He appears to have been a successful one: Angelo can be found traveling to New York in 1899, carrying $1,000, which is worth more than $28,000 today. In New York, he owned a car wash where Jack Dragna claimed to work. Before long, Angelo returned to Sicily and married the daughter of another known mafia leader, his godfather, Bernardo di Miceli.
Angelo was indicted for attempted murder in 1910, and acquitted of the murder of labor organizer, Socialist mayor—and Fratuzzi member—Bernardino Verro in 1915. In 1928, a time when the fascists were rounding up hundreds of suspected mafiosi, Gagliano was acquitted of Verro’s murder. Two years later he was killed, at age 68.
The mafia dynasties evident at the turn of the century, continue for at least another generation. In 1936, Navarra married his first cousin, Tommasa Cascio. Like Salvatrice and Angela, her second cousins, Tommasa was from the “new agrarian bourgeoisie” in Corleone.
Senate hearings are one source for names of Mafia members.
As you may have noticed already, when I named this blog “Mafia Genealogy,” I had in mind more than one kind of lineage. There is the criminal enterprise called the mafia, and then there are the individuals who were its members. But how does one attempt to prove a connection between a person—such as your own ancestor—and a secret, illegal, and shadowy entity like the Sicilian mafia? I’ve charted connections among members of my own family, and the families of known mafiosi from Corleone. Here are some guidelines to help you avoid common mistakes, when doing your own mafia genealogy.
Know your own family tree. Much of the work of mafia genealogy is in being prepared to recognize a potential connection. (If you’re not of Sicilian descent, you can stop reading here, because you’re not related to the Sicilian mafia.) Two keys to preparation are knowing your family, and knowing the world that your family and the mafia inhabited together.
To find out if any particular gangster is your cousin, you have to know your extended family: not just your direct ancestors, but all of their sisters and brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews. The more you know about them, their kin, and other networking ties to other Sicilians, the more likely you are to find the connection to a known member of the mafia. I’ve traced all of my lineages in Corleone back at least six generations, but that is only part of my preparation. I’ve also looked for all of the children, siblings, second marriages, godparents, and neighbors I could find for my ancestors.
Know the historical context. Understanding such topics as the internment of Italians in the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the Mafia purges of the late 1920s by Cesare Mori under Mussolini, tell you the conditions under which your subjects lived, and the events that may have affected their choices. By knowing the history of political movements, and their relation to the mafia, you can draw some conclusions about motivation and alliances that were likely to be behind an event, whether it’s a gangland assassination or a family’s decision to immigrate.
Studying the records of the time and place your subject lived, can tell you if they’re exceptional or typical. Did they immigrate before nearly everyone else from that town, or were they leaving around the same time as their neighbors? Was their involvement in a political or social cause prescient or pragmatic? How much money did they have? Was that a lot, in today’s money, or compared with your subject’s neighbors?
This blog concentrates on the mafia from Corleone, but there are other towns in Sicily with reputations for organized crime. Once you have identified a place where both you and the mafia have ancestors, learn what you can about it, and the criminals who lived there. Whenever possible, create family trees for the mafiosi you learn about.
Keep track of your sources. Concentrate on the primary sources where possible. You’ll want to know whether you saw the same data being reported by two different sources, or if there are two primary documents that support the same claim. You’ll also want to be able to return to those sources to mine them for more information, to cite your sources when you report your findings, and to rank your sources by their reliability, so you can weigh this into your account.
Sometimes, it takes me years of searching to connect an author’s claim, and a primary source that confirms it. Some sources I’ve used or look for recently include the records of trials, the notes from legislative hearings, both in the US and in Italy, and memoirs of individuals who claim membership in the mafia. I read the work of journalists with respected reputations, who have written extensively about the mafia.
The mafia is about relationships. There are only going to be a handful of people that you will ever be able to confidently say, “This person was without a doubt in the mafia.” But from those people, and their relationships, you can draw a larger network of people who marry and stand as godparents to one another, live and do business together, and belong to the same church confraternities and mutual aid societies. These connections show you who a person is likely to be loyal to, and who they might trust.
When studying immigration records, look at the whole manifest, not just the lines about your subject. Did this person travel alone? Who did they meet in the US? Did a lot of people who immigrated from the same place, with the same destination, indicate on the passenger manifest the intent to meet the same person? Your subject’s contact person is important: find out about them, too.
Construct timelines for your people of interest. Much of this advice is useful for any genealogical research, not only trying to find the black sheep. But since you will likely be comparing accounts in which you are not sure they mean the same person (such as an article about the Fratuzzi, and a marriage record containing the same name), a timeline will help. Along with certain relationships, like who their parents and spouses are, timelines will help you keep individuals distinct. When did they stand as a godparent, when did they marry, when did they immigrate, and did they come and go more than once? The many documented meetings, voyages, jobs, homes, periods of military service, births, and deaths, come together to construct a life story. Where there is a conflict—documents that put the same person in two far-flung places, at or near the same time, or give different dates for a vital event, different names for a person’s father or wife, or indicate a person had a child when they were five, or a hundred and five—these will become evident when you try to incorporate them into the known timeline of events in a person’s life.
Track duplicate names. People who share the same name can be a big issue in any genealogical search involving Sicily. First and second born boys and girls in Sicilian families are traditionally named after their grandparents. That makes it likely to find first cousins with the same name, of around the same age. It also means that full given names of men are likely to recur in alternating generations. Probably, those people were called by nicknames in their daily life, and it would have been obvious from context whether someone was talking about the boy or his grandfather, but in official documents, nicknames will almost never appear. Instead, there is the subject’s reported age, which is likely to be off by a few years, but not by twenty or thirty. Given names might also include fathers’ names—like Giuseppe Morello fu Calogero, or “Giuseppe, son of the late Calogero Morello”—so you can tell one person from his or her cousin of the same name. When you’re reading an accounting of mafia history, pay particularly close attention to ages and the names of close relations, as these will help you establish which person of that name, from that place, is being described.
Return to your sources. Sometimes I don’t absorb the facts that I’m facing, right there in a document, because I don’t understand their significance the first time I read them, or the second. When I began looking for my great-grandfather Leoluca Cascio in Corleone, I had no idea how common his name was, and began an inductive search. I was deep into the Cascios and had been for months before I found a clue that there were other forms of my family’s surname. There was no way for me to discover this fact, except to stumble over it. That’s why I say, keep studying history, keep collecting the facts surrounding your subjects’ lives, and when you’re trying to make progress with a biography or timeline, go back to the documents at intervals, in case there is more to glean.
Document contradictions and uncertainties. Any record, even a primary one, can contain errors. Lots of secondary sources have incorrect ages, which would lead you to the wrong birth year. Keep track of these and highlight them in your notes, rather than smoothing over them. For instance, if you’re not sure if Joe’s mother’s name is Jane or Jenny, and in one record it looks pretty clearly like Jane, but in the other it’s smudged, don’t make assumptions: document the smudge. With luck, a primary source will clear up the question.
Know the hallmarks of mafia activity. Besides the connections people have to known gangsters, the other kind of relationship that can lead you to conclude a person’s probable mafia involvement, is their relationship to their community. Someone who many people turned to as a godfather, or indicated on their passenger manifests they were going to meet, is a locally important person. The mafia’s main business has always been racketeering, so if you find an arrest for this crime, you can be confident the criminal was part of a larger organization. Likewise, for counterfeiting in New York around 1900.
There are not many years’ worth of civil records for Corleone, but they tell us people’s professions or stations in life, which were considered the same thing: it was what you were, and what you did. The vast majority are either villagers or peasants. (Hard to believe that decades after feudalism was formally abolished, the Italian Republic still used these terms in civil records, but there they are.) Some women are peasants and some are housewives. Among the men, I look for those who are called possidente, civile, or borgese, which all mean that he owns land and can vote. In Sicily in the 19th century, it was rare for individuals to rise to the landowning class without being involved in the organized criminal class of gabelloti. The other professions I look for are also associated with the rural entrepreneurial class: farm management, herding, and transportation.
None of these clues—being in the land owning or management classes, being called “don,” or being called upon by your neighbors, all by itself, is a sure indicator of mafia involvement, but when several occur, and when they occur in combination, the emerging pattern tells me what I want to know. Thomas W. Jones, PhD, FASG, and editor of the “National Genealogical Society Quarterly,” quotes the bible of his industry with this question to ask yourself about any element of your narrative: “do ‘at least two sources of independent information items agree directly or indirectly on a research question’s answer’”? Whether or not that person would have ever admitted to belonging to a secret organization, or had ever burned a saint and swore an oath of allegiance, may be impossible for me to ever know. But what I can know is whether they did what mafiosi do.
Image Credit: Mobster Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee. Al Aumuller, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. (Public domain.)
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.
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.
Even the biographies of well-known mafia figures like Giuseppe Morello are made up, in part, of rumors and legends. Morello was called “The Clutch Hand” because three of the fingers on his right hand were fused at birth. His birth defect did not prevent Morello from learning to write, or to fire a gun. It’s said he killed thirty or forty people in Corleone before fleeing to the United States to avoid imprisonment. In New York, Morello and his associates were active counterfeiters and it was this activity that brought “The Clutch Hand” to the attention of one of his future biographers.
William J. Flynn was an American detective who spent much of his career pursuing organized crime figures like Giuseppe Morello and his half-brothers, the Terranovas. After leaving the Secret Service, Flynn semi-retired to private detective work and, according to Flynn’s biographer, Mike Dash, Flynn was a heavy drinker, and his detective business was not successful.
Where Flynn prospered was as a writer of crime fiction. He wrote “true crime” about his greatest cases, was a consultant to the film industry, and edited a crime fiction magazine. His book, “The Barrel Mystery,” is about his time in the Secret Service, battling counterfeiters in New York. Flynn wrote about Morello that, before leaving Corleone, he killed a Sylvan guard, Giovanni Vella. Morello went on to cover up his crime by killing as many as four more people, including an elderly woman named Anna di Puma.
At least some of Flynn’s “facts” were altered in stories like “The Barrel Mystery,” and were published as crime fiction. Yet many writers treat “The Barrel Mystery” as history. Richard Wagner provides the detail that Anna di Puma was an old woman. Blogger Joe Bruno adds one more name to the list of Morello’s victims, and so does Mike Dash, in his book, “The First Family.” Bruno says Michele Guarino Zangara was Giuseppe Morello’s neighbor, overheard the killer talking to his mother, and upon his discovery, was thrown off a bridge. Dash says that soon after killing Anna di Puma, Morello also killed Pietro Milone, who was like Vella, an honest police officer investigating a crime. (Vella was investigating cattle thefts at the time of his murder.)
There are few families in Corleone whose names are as intertwined as those of Frisella and Vella. In many records, family members are called by the double surname “Frisella Vella,” distinguishing them from another Corleone family, the Oliva Frisellas. In the 1885 baptism of Giovanni Vella’s daughter, Giuseppa, she is called “Frisella Vella.” In Church records, Catholics are called by the Latin form of their name: Giuseppa is “Josepha,” and Giovanni is called “Joannes.”
There is a death record for “Joannes Frisella,” dated 29 December 1889, in the records kept by the Catholic Church in Corleone. This record is unique on the page, and unique among the pages before and after this one. The difference is in one word, found in perhaps a few dozen records in a hundred years in Corleone. Frisella’s death, “obiit,” is modified by the word “interfectus,” which means “killed.” The time and place of Frisella’s murder match the accounts of Giovanni Vella, the Sylvan guard, given by Flynn and others. He is undoubtedly the same person.
The death records that cannot be found, in the pages surrounding Giovanni’s, are those of Morello’s other alleged victims. There is no old woman named Anna, (nor Antonina, nor Giovanna) either born “di Puma,” or whose mother was named di Puma (a common error), or who married a man by this name. There are no death records for men named Pietro Milone or any version of “Michele Guarino Zangara” (another double surname). There are no more murders reported in Corleone until the spring, when two men are found killed, and at least one more man was murdered in Corleone before Giuseppe Morello left the country. Whether there is any connection between Morello and these other deaths, are stories for another time. But the story of Anna di Puma, it would appear, is only that: a story. If there is any truth in it, the truth is so far from the accounts that have become part of Morello’s biography, as to be lost to history.
Morello fled Sicily in May 1892. Giuseppe’s mother and stepfather’s family joined him six months later. Morello, with his half-brothers, went on to lead the first Sicilian mafia family in New York. His wife died in Corleone.
In legend, the mafia in Sicily dates to the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Two of the Five Families of New York, the Lucchese and Genovese families, are Corleonesi in origin. Their founders, Gaetano Reina and Giuseppe Morello, immigrated from Corleone, in the heartland of Sicily, to New York City, around the turn of the twentieth century. They came with their families, and settled in East Harlem.
In 1900, two of my great-grandparents were teenagers in Corleone. They were about to lose their fathers, and consequently, their lives would be dramatically altered. After the deaths of their fathers, Louis Cascio and Lucia Soldano both immigrated to America, each with their mothers and siblings, and settled around 106th St, on the northeast corner of Central Park in New York City. The census reports that my twice-great aunts and uncles found work, and supported their widowed mothers.
I don’t know if Louis and Lucia knew each other in Corleone, or how their marriage was arranged. (It was almost certainly arranged.) According to family lore, after they married, my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano, sold olive oil to the neighbors, produced and exported by one of Louis’ brothers-in-law back in Corleone. When I first heard this story, I didn’t realize how unlikely it was to be true.
Giuseppe Morello, aka “The Clutch Hand,” was a member of the mafia in Corleone, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, Bernardo Terranova. In New York, Gaetano Riina was one of Morello’s captains. Giuseppe’s half-brother, Vincenzo, married Gaetano Riina’s sister. Giuseppe’s cousin was married to my twice-great aunt Biagia Cascio, Louis’ sister: the one who stayed behind to marry the olive oil producer, while the rest of her family, her mother and all of her siblings, immigrated.
It’s the stories that yield themselves most grudgingly from the facts, that captivate me. Possibly this is because I am one of those people whose lives would have been lived entirely between the lines, if I’d been born in any other time and place in my family’s history. I realized a few years ago that I owed my good fortune to ancestors I didn’t know at all. So I started reading history: American, and Sicilian. I charted the histories of foreign domination and colonization, of feudalism and chattel slavery, and of two of the breadbaskets of a global economy.
And the juncture, where my Sicilian ancestors stepped into American history, coming with the first waves of the mafia: into New Orleans, Chicago, New York, into the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the strawberry fields of Louisiana. How Sicily built parts of the America we know. The intersection of cultures that made me, Atlantic City, and “Don Corleone.” A large part of the story of America’s Sicilian heritage, and my own, the myths and the reality, is about the mafia.
I don’t know for sure that Giuseppe Morello was helping his cousin, but it seems likely. What’s not very probable, is that Biagia’s husband produced all of that olive oil, himself. Most farmers didn’t own any land, and those who did, had very small plots, enough to support only a handful of trees: not enough to start an export business.
I am documenting the relationships among known mafiosi from Corleone: to one another, to other powerful figures, and to my own family. The mafia of the twentieth century has been written about many times. Few have attempted to trace the connections, as I have been doing, from father to son, through the generations, going back to the revolutionary period of the early 1800s in Sicily, maybe farther. Myths sometimes point to hidden truths. Myths tell us who we are. The story my great-uncle told was about how my family became American.