Here comes the ice man

Here comes the ice man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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