Sour grapes: the bitter legacy of the Lemon King

Sour grapes: the bitter legacy of the Lemon King

Envious family members, neighbors, and colleagues are among the suspects in The Lemon King’s demise. 

Termini Imerese is on the northern coast of Sicily, in the same province as the larger port city of Palermo. It was founded in prehistory as a literal city on a hill. Wealthy Romans traveled to bathe in Termini’s legendary hot springs. In medieval times, the port was an important center for the collection and export of wheat. Like many places in Sicily, Termini Imerese saw its population decline with the rise of steam travel.

Imported fruit was a huge business in the early years of the 20th Century. Steam-powered ships and trains moved people and produce with speed and regularity, making possible the Great Migration from southern and eastern Europe, and new specialty professions: the strawberry farmer, the peddler of lemons and oranges, the bananas wholesaler.

In cities and small towns all over the United States, there were self-employed immigrant Italian fruit sellers ranging from street vendors with a bag of lemons to multi-million dollar wholesalers who dominated regional traffic. A large proportion of them were from Termini.

Gaspare Di Cola

Gaspare Di Cola was born here in 1866. His father, Maestro Giovanni, was a miller: one of the guilded professions in Sicily, and typically one of the wealthiest. As a young man he was required to serve in the Italian Army. Upon his return to Termini, he began an affair with Antonina Re, five years his senior, and married to Mariano Bova Conti. 

Soon after, he first emigrated to the United States and started a commercial produce brokerage in Boston. The success of this business gave Di Cola the title, in newspaper headlines, of “The Lemon King.” In the next US census, Antonina Re lived with Gaspare as his wife. A live-in domestic servant completed their household.

Neither of her children, who were eleven and thirteen in 1900, appears in the census with their mother. Newspapers and trial notes disagree on whether Antonina brought her older son, Antonino Bova, with her from Termini, or left him behind in the care of an aunt. The story told in the newspapers was that Antonino Bova resented his mother’s affair, and spent his youth in their Boston apartment pleading with his mother to marry Di Cola. In this version, he moved out when he reached the age of majority, but in what must have been a galling turn, his existence continued to be financed by Di Cola. The implication was that the young man with no connections in Boston naturally had difficulty establishing himself in a strange country. A summary of the court case in which Gaspare Di Cola’s relatives contested his will notes that it was reputedly Antonino’s complaints to an attorney about his mother and Di Cola’s relationship which prompted his parents’ divorce.

From the records I was able to find, Antonino Bova did not live in Boston until he was seventeen, arriving at the beginning of 1905. He turned eighteen a month later, and in September he married Agostina Palmisana, also eighteen. On the marriage license, Antonino Bova’s address is where Gaspare and his mother lived, on Hanover Street. After his marriage, Antonino worked as a barber. Antonino and Agostina had three children, all of whom lived at one time or another with Antonino’s mother.

The Lemon King lived with perpetual threats to his wealth, life, and happiness. His industrial might, prominence in the Italian community, and what must have been a well-known secret among their fellow Termitani—that Mrs. Annie Di Cola was another man’s wife—were openings for blackmail. In the months before his death, Di Cola received Black Hand letters, written demands for cash, which he refused to pay.

It has been supposed by at least one Mafia writer that Di Cola may have preceded Gaspare Messina as the first Mafia boss of Boston. Messina arrived in Boston in 1915, and was recognized as the city’s leading mafioso in the year Di Cola was killed. The Lemon King’s murder was never solved, and the details of how Messina achieved his reputation in Boston aren’t clear, but the well-liked grocery wholesaler was named boss of bosses again in 1930 when Joe Masseria was stripped of the position. (Messina’s Mafia, based in Boston, merged in 1932 with the Providence-based organization to form today’s Patriarca crime family.)

Mariano Bova Conti arrived in Boston early in 1916 with the intention of persuading his wife to return with him. Not only did she refuse, she initiated divorce proceedings. In June, she was free of him. But she and Gaspare did not marry right away.

The couple moved from Boston proper to Brookline, a 33-minute ride on the Green Line from the city center. It was here, near their home across the street from the train station, that two men shot at Gaspare Di Cola as he returned with Antonina, late in the evening, from a meeting of the Dante Aligheri Society in Boston. Only Gaspare was injured in the attack. He was rushed to the hospital, where he called for his lawyer to join them. Gaspare was dying. In accord with Sicilian custom, neither he nor Antonina would say anything about who had shot him. Gaspare had a new will drawn up, but he was too weak to sign it, so he authorized it with an X. Di Cola died the next morning from his injuries, on 21 September 1916. His death record notes that he died from gunshot wounds to the back.

His funeral was both lavish and extremely well attended, in the mode of Mafia funerals of the period. I’ve written here before about Antonio Miranda, whose importance to the Mafia in Springfield, Massachusetts, was not suspected until his funeral drew suspiciously large numbers of mourners from far-flung cities. Thousands saw Gaspare Di Cola laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts. 

Mariano Bova Conti, still in the United States when Di Cola was shot, was unable to be found by police seeking an interview with the suspect. One of several motivations proposed for the murder was that Mariano’s son, Antonino Bova, was not named as a beneficiary in Di Cola’s will.

Gaspare’s brother, Giuseppe Di Cola, inherited the wholesale business, with the stipulation that he pay for Antonina Re’s support for the rest of her life. She received a small living allowance, some personal items, and the right to occupy the home at 21 Fairbanks in Brookline. In the 1920 census, taken in January, she lived there with a boarder, another Italian woman. In October, four years after Gaspare’s death, she remarried to Geremia Campagna, a mechanic from Sperlonga, Italy. They divorced a few years later.

Antonino Bova

In 1930, Antonina lived at 21 Fairbanks with her “niece” Antonia Bova, eighteen, and nephew Mario Bova, fourteen. Antonia was Antonino’s daughter—Antonina’s granddaughter—and a student at Brookline High School. In the 1940 census, Antonina shared her apartment with two of Antonino’s sons, Matthew and Anthony, both in their twenties.

Gaspare Di Cola’s shooters were never identified, and his murder went unsolved. He appears to be a victim of envy. Gaspare Messina coveted the power he wielded. Black Handers and next of kin were all desperate for his wealth. Mariano Bova Conti sought the ineffable: his wife’s loving devotion. All had motivation to cause his death.  

Antonino Bova, firstborn of his beloved, was twenty-nine in 1916. That Antonino and his father Mariano were the killers is not out of the question. Growing up in Termini, and then living as Di Cola’s guest in Boston, Antonino had been deeply divided by his loyalties to his parents. He made a hasty exit from the private garden of the Lemon King, but from there he went to live in Boston among his in-laws and neighbors, who were almost all Termitani fruit peddlers who doubtless depended upon the wholesaling giant for their livelihoods. Antonino may have steeped in bitterness, and harbored anger over his mother’s abandonment of the family, which his father could tap for his own revenge when he was rebuffed. 

Or it may be that Tony Bova, barber, husband, and father of three, made a fresh start in Christian forgiveness of his mother and her lover. Whatever role Antonino had in Gaspare’s death, he had to live with it, and with his mother, who had witnessed the shooting. If indeed it was Antonino and his father who shot Di Cola, all three of them took that terrible secret to their graves.

This Thing of Ours Is Bananas

This Thing of Ours Is Bananas

Organized crime in Ohio in 1909 was built around the family business.

The Antenati website is down today with errors from their upgrade, so I’m going to take this break from research to tell you what I’ve learned so far about the members of the Society of the Banana, in particular, those from Termini Imerese.

Salvatore Catanzaro

The Society of the Banana may not sound threatening. The name may even make you laugh. But to the families who were extorted, it was a danger with no defense except to pay. 

Dozens of men from Termini sold fruit in the United States. They owned businesses in New Orleans, Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, and Chicago, and in smaller towns like Apollo and Saltsburg, both in Pennsylvania; Vidalia and Evanston, in Illinois; Marion and Bellefontaine, in Ohio; Utica and Buffalo, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska. In most of these places, I’ve found extended families from Termini helping one another as they emigrate, and new arrivals joining their hosts in the fruit trade. Some families were very successful and built businesses they handed down to the next generation. And in most of these places there are stories of extortion and violence in the Italian communities, whose targets were the families who’d found the most enviable success. 

At the turn of the 20th Century, fresh fruits and vegetables were a cutthroat business, quite literally. It’s a fragile product made shippable by steam power and tight schedules. Products that will rot while the parties argue over terms are subject to extortion at every point along the transit path where a delay can be engineered. Fruit dealers had to be tough. Pittsburgh’s “Banana King,” Salvatore Catanzaro, regarded as one of the city’s earliest Mafia bosses, sustained life-threatening injuries in a knife fight against industry competitors in 1892. 

As southern Italians frequently did, fruit merchants worked with their close family members, almost exclusively. Catanzaro had a brother who partnered with him early in his career, a business which moved from San Francisco to a small town in Pennsylvania, McKeesport, before landing in Pittsburgh. Salvatore Calderone, who Nicola Gentile described as the leader of a Mafia council in the greater Pittsburgh area, was a fruit merchant in Apollo, PA, along with two of his brothers.

In 1909, US postal police conducted an investigation into an extortion ring based in the railroad town of Marion, Ohio. Two of the victims, John Amicon and his brother, Charles, lived in Columbus, Ohio, about 35 miles away. Like other victims of the Society, they received escalating threats of kidnapping and bombing, in the form of illustrated letters demanding payment. The drawings of skulls, weapons, blood, and hands on the letters were crude but effective, and gave the extortion method its name: the Black Hand. 

Salvatore Arrigo

The victims of the Society of the Banana were successful Italians in the US, some living as far west as the Dakotas, with most in Ohio and Pennsylvania. A member of the Society in their local Italian community nominated them to receive a letter. Someone would be given the job of approaching them personally if they did not respond promptly to its demands. Targets could refuse to pay and often enough nothing happened: after all, it took little effort to write a Black Hand letter. But then a business was bombed, a child stolen, or a man shot dead by strangers who melted away into the darkness. Stories of these tragedies circulated, ensuring that at least some of those who received the letters, paid.

The Lima brothers of Marion, Sam and Sebastian, were observed mailing handfuls of letters, and making regular, large cash remittances to Sicily. By marking the stamps they sold and tracking recipients of an invitation to a March 1909 meeting, postal police were able to identify members in several cities and states. Federal and local law enforcement coordinated to arrest most of the suspected extortionists on the eighth and ninth of June 1909.

Those arrested included:

  1. Salvatore “Sam” Lima, leader of the Society, lived in Marion, Ohio, from Trabia, sentenced to sixteen years
  2. Sam’s brother-in-law (often reported to be his brother) [Edited 26 Dec 2021 to correct relationship] Sebastian Lima, a Marion fruit dealer, got ten years
  3. Sam Lima’s brother-in-law Joe Ignoffo, a cobbler in Marion, ten years
  4. Salvatore Arrigo (1844-1922), a foundling from Termini living in Cincinnati, was listed with no occupation at his arrest but had been a fruit dealer; he succeeded Lima as leader
  5. Salvatore’s son Vincenzo Arrigo, Cincinnati fruit dealer, got a new trial
  6. Agostino Marfisi (1865-1946), successful Dennison merchant from Termini who avoided prosecution
  7. Antonio “Tony” Vicario (1888-1958) from Galati Mamertino, Messina, worked as a fruit dealer for Agostino Marfisi in Dennison, Ohio
  8. Antonio’s brother Calogero “Charles” Vicario (b. 1880), a fruit dealer in Bellefontaine
  9. Salvatore Demma (1880-1959), Dayton fruit dealer from Termini, brother of Maria Demma, intimidated Charles Amicon with Saverio Ventola
  10. Saverio “Salvatore” Ventola, a carpenter in Columbus
  11. Orazio Rumfola, Pittsburgh fruit dealer, got six years
  12. Antonio Lima of Pittsburgh, fled to Italy
  13. Pippino Galbo, a fruit dealer in Meadville, PA, four years
  14. Francesco Sbadara/Spadero, a saloonkeeper in Cincinnati, made boss after Lima, two years, said to be from Termini
  15. Antonino Nusso (b. 1878) from Caccamo, fruit peddler in Cleveland
  16. Antonino’s brother Joseph Nusso (d. 1913), also a Cleveland fruit peddler
  17. Salvatore Rizzo, a railroad section hand in Marion, probably from Trabia
  18. Joseph Battaglia, Marion
  19. Tony Bicherio, Columbus

The Limas were in Marion, and came from Trabia. Regarded as the ringleaders of the Society, they received the longest sentences. Salvatore Rizzo, whose wife was from Trabia, was probably also from the Limas’ hometown. The Amicon brothers, whose complaint sparked the investigation, were originally from Molise. The Vicario brothers were from Galati, and the Nusso brothers from Caccamo. Salvatore and Vincenzo Arrigo, Agostino Marfisi, and Salvatore Demma were all from Termini.

Salvatore Demma

Another fruit merchant from Termini who was not swept up in the investigation, merits attention with regard to the Society of the Banana. While he evaded indictment by being dead in June 1909, his employee was arrested for his part in the extortion scheme, and spent time in a prison in upstate New York as a consequence. Other details about Salvatore Cira’s life in Ohio add up to the profile of a mafioso

Born Biagio Cira’ in Termini Imerese, he was called Salvatore Cira’ in Bellefontaine, Ohio, where he ran a fruit store which, for some reason, bore a surname that wasn’t his. Cira’ was the senior partner of Demar’s Fruit Store. Demar was the name of the man who killed him.

Cira’ arrived in Bellefontaine from Dayton between the births of two of his children, in 1902 and 1907. His wife was Maria Demma, sister of Salvatore Demma, one of the nineteen men tried in the Amicon case in 1909. Salvatore Demma went with Saverio Ventola to further intimidate the Amicon brothers after the Society bombed Charles Amicon’s house.

Other Demmas from Termini used the name Demar, like Cira’s store. He employed a series of junior partners, among them Joe Demma, Charles Demar, and Calogero Vicario. The news called Joe and Charles cousins, and Cira’, Demar’s uncle. I haven’t been able to find Charles Demar in vital records to identify him. The Antenati site has records going back to 1820 for Termini, but I did not find a common ancestor for Joe Demma and Cira’s wife. Joe’s first cousins include two successful fruit merchants, one in New Orleans and one in Lincoln, NE. There are many Demmas in Termini and it may be that some branches of the family had a trading advantage in the US which Cira’ was able to make use of by employing Joe. Having secured the networking contacts, however, Salvatore Cira’ may have had no further need for his services.

Agostino Marfisi

His employees found Salvatore Cira’ hard to get along with: violent, overbearing, and a cheat. The local police thought Cira’ was a mafioso, because he hosted large gatherings of men from all over the country. Even the local priest was convinced, by the negative opinion held of him in the Italian community of Bellefontaine, to refuse to celebrate Cira’s mass at his burial.

One night in March 1907, Cira’ was walking with his employees Joe Demma and Charles Demar, when a gang of strangers appeared on the road and shot Joe. Salvatore and Charles ran for their lives, or so Charles thought, until they stopped running. Away from the scene of the attack, Salvatore shocked the younger man by threatening him never to speak of what had happened to anyone. Demar suspected Cira’ had Joe killed, but he said nothing about it for a year.

When Charles Demar shot Salvatore Cira’ in their store in April 1908, he said it was in self-defense—that Salvatore was reaching for a gun. Cira’ frequently went armed. The news reported more than one reason why Demar said he shot Cira’. There was the gun, but before that, they might have been quarreling, or Demar may have decided to kill his employer because he wasn’t paying him as agreed. Regardless, the jury agreed with Demar’s defense, and he was let go. 

A year later, police sprang their trap and arrested the Society members. But that wasn’t the end of their association in Bellefontaine. Charles Vicario, brother of Tony, who had been one of the last people to work for Salvatore Cira’, was listed in his widow’s household in the 1910 census, along with her brother, while all three men were still in prison. After their release, Tony Vicario married their daughter Providence Cira’, and Charles married her older sister, Maria. Salvatore Demma married Katie Lombard in 1911. Her brother, John, married twice, the second time in 1942 to Angeline Rose Vicario, daughter of Tony and Providence. His daughter from his first marriage, Dorothy Lombardo, married Joseph Vicario, Angeline’s brother, in 1950.

The squares with an orange border are in the fruit business, and those with black three-quarters fill are known or suspected members of organized crime.