Pip the Blind

Pip the Blind

Joseph Gagliano, who was known by the nickname “Pip the Blind,” was called “the mastermind of one of the biggest opium rings in the country” by the assistant district attorney who prosecuted him for narcotics trafficking in 1946. 

Mike Coppola and Joseph Gagliano
“Trigger Mike” Coppola, left, and Joseph “Pip the Blind” Gagliano

It would be easy to assume that Joseph, whose family was from Corleone, was related to Tommy Gagliano, boss of the Lucchese crime family. In fact, Pip the Blind is of no known blood relation to Tommy Gagliano. They are distantly related through marriage. (The links in this paragraph go to Wikitree, the repository of the vast majority of my genealogical research into the families of Corleone. There are primary sources documenting all of the relationships; they’re in the profiles.)

Another easy—but wrong—guess would be that Joseph and Tommy Gagliano are somehow related to “Fat Frank” Gagliano and his son, Joseph, both made members of Carlos Marcello’s Mafia Family in New Orleans. The NOLA Gaglianos are from Porto Empedocle, on the southern coast of Sicily, and of no close relation to any of the New York Gaglianos mentioned here.

With all of the red herrings that suggest who Joseph Gagliano was, his relative importance, and where his power came from, it’s easy to miss the real story. In fact, everywhere I look in Joseph’s biography, there are close ties to power. The web of Gagliano-Rao family connections tie the diminutive-sounding Pip the Blind to the highest echelons of political power in New York: to Mayor La Guardia, and even to FDR.

Joseph Gagliano’s closest criminal relation, his uncle Angelo, met Joseph’s family when they got off the boat from Sicily: the SS Sicilian Prince, in 1905. Nine years later, Angelo Gagliano employed a young Jack Dragna at his laundry. In those years, both Gagliano families lived on and around the same block of East 107th Street. Angelo’s early associates included Steve LaSalle and Vincent Rao, who would become his son-in-law.

“Pip” was born 18 February 1903 in Corleone as Giuseppe Gagliano, the son of Vincenzo Gagliano and Marianna Ortoleva. When Giuseppe was not much more than a baby, his family emigrated to the United States, joining his uncle in East Harlem. Vincent Gagliano soon found work as a plasterer. By 1915, the family lived in the apartment at 220 East 107th Street that would be Pip’s home until the day he died, in 1947.

***

In a 1950s “true crime” radio show called “The Silent Men,” Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays the roles of undercover officers in dramatic reenactions of real investigations. One episode from 1951 is “The Empire of Pip the Blind,” in which Fairbanks’ narcotics detective pretends to be a heroin wholesaler from San Francisco, visiting New York in order to establish a relationship with kingpin “John Bartello,” also known as “Pip the Blind.” A backstory is invented for his nickname: that the blind spot in his eye is called a “pip.” I suspect the real origin of “Pip” is “Giuseppino,” the diminutive for “Giuseppe.” 

Through his mother, Marianna Ortoleva, Joseph Gagliano is the descendant of nobility: he is the third-great grandson of the Baron Don Angelo Cala’. On his father’s side, Vincenzo Gagliano’s grandfather was part of Corleone’s petite bourgeoisie, a master shoemaker.

Pip and his brothers followed their father into the plastering trade. When Vincent died, in 1931, Joseph and his brothers supported their mother and younger siblings. In 1940, four of Marianna’s sons, ranging from Angelo, age 29, to Benny, the oldest, at 45, were all unmarried, still living at home, and working as plasterers.

Building construction wasn’t Joseph Gagliano’s only occupation. He was an early burglary associate of Joe Valachi, and other future members of both the Genovese and Lucchese crime families. At his 1936 arrest for running a lottery on Long Island, Joseph told police he’d been arrested for “every crime under the sun.”

 

Joseph had other criminal relations in New York. His first cousins Calogero and Vincent Rao were close associates of Lucchese boss and construction racketeer Tommy Gagliano. Gagliano and the Rao brothers grew wealthy together in the construction business. Calogero Rao was an unindicted co-conspirator in Tommy Gagliano’s 1932 tax evasion trial.

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The politician Alfred Santangelo, whose campaign flyer appears above, was related to the Lucchese associate Calogero Rao through his wife, Betty

Calogero’s daughter, Betty, married Alfred Santangelo, an attorney who was assistant district attorney for New York County for the latter half of Prohibition, and a close associate of Fiorello La Guardia, the “tough on crime” candidate who won the New York City mayoral race with support from Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected president in 1933. The new mayor quickly went after Ciro “the Artichoke King” Terranova: smashing his illegal slot machines for the delighted press, and legislating the monopoly he held on baby artichokes out of existence. 

Alfred’s brother George Santangelo, a physician, married another of Calogero Rao’s daughters, Rosalia. A third Santangelo brother, Robert, was Joseph Gagliano’s defense attorney in the narcotics trial that sealed his doom in 1946.

Robert V Santangelo
A young Robert V. Santangelo, in his passport application photo

Robert V. Santangelo had a celebrated legal career. In 1921, he was one of the promising Italian-American college students sent on a cultural tour of Italy by Bank of America (which was formerly the Bank of Italy). The passport photo above was taken for this trip. Before retiring, Robert served as a New York Supreme Court judge. When he died in 1984, his obituary named one of his surviving sisters, “Eleanor Roosevelt of Staten Island.” The former First Lady of this name, wife of FDR, died in 1962. So what was the connection? The Santangelo family were wealthy and politically prominent. Their father, Michele, was an immigrant from Potenza, in the Neapolitan region of Italy, and like Tommy Lucchese and Calogero Rao, he was a building contractor. Michele’s daughter Eleanor Santangelo, born in 1915 in Staten Island, married Martin Rosenfelt in 1947. Mr. Rosenfelt died in 1978. Eleanor’s married name was misspelled in her brother’s obituary, leading to the suggestion that the Santangelos had married into not just one, but two of the most notable families of New York. 

***

In 1935, a rival lottery gang in Copiague, Suffolk County, New York, tipped off police to Joseph Gagliano’s operation on Long Island. In the resulting raid, not only Joseph, but two of his teenage sisters, and the wives of two of his associates, were also arrested. Gagliano, age 32, was described as a member of the old Schultz gang, a reference to the Bronx bootlegger and policy racketeer, Dutch Schultz.

Based on the 1940 census, in which Joseph is still a single man living at home, and news of his death in 1947, which names his widow, Joseph married some time between 1940 and the end of 1946. His wife, Grace, came to live with Joseph, his mother, and siblings, at 220 East 107th. I have not found his marriage record, or evidence the couple had any children.

Despite their modest address, Gagliano’s illicit wealth and power were so well-known that when he was arrested on narcotics charges in December 1946, his bond was set at $150,000: worth over $2 million today. Four men arrested in connection with Joseph were given bonds of just $15,000 each, while a fifth, in the hospital with a broken leg, was considered not to be a flight risk.

Gagliano and his fellows were charged with selling five ounces of heroin to an informant. Joseph’s lawyer, Robert Santangelo, claimed he was suffering from an incapacitating mental ailment. Pip said that people were poisoning his food. Nonetheless, three psychiatrists agreed that he could stand trial. His prosecutor called him “the mastermind of one of the biggest opium rings in the country.” 

Joseph “Pip the Blind” Gagliano, the ringleader of what was one of the largest narcotics trafficking operations on the East Coast, was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Sing Sing. He arranged to be held temporarily in the city, while he had interviews with local prosecutors, to whom he was still considered a valuable potential witness. 

On 10 April 1947, Joseph hanged himself in his Bronx jail cell. He was 43.

Sources

Policy Ring Seized In Armed Hide-Out. (1935, July 6). The New York Times. P. 28. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1935/07/06/95515143.html?pageNumber=28

Berger, M. (1946, December 21). $150,000 Bail Holds Narcotics Suspect. The New York Times. Pp. 1, 20. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1946/12/21/305216962.html?pageNumber=1

Three Found Guilty of Narcotics Sales. (1947, February 20). The New York Times. P. 7. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1947/02/20/96692330.html?pageNumber=7

Narcotic Peddler Ends Life In Cell. (1947, April 11). The New York Times. P. 10. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1947/04/11/archives/narcotic-peddler-ends-life-in-cell-joseph-gagliano-facing-5-to-10.html?searchResultPosition=1

Crook, J. (1984, April 6.) ROBERT SANTANGELO, EX-JUDGE ON THE STATE SUPREME COURT. The New York Times. Section B, Page 5 Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1984/04/06/obituaries/robert-santangelo-ex-judge-on-the-state-supreme-court.html 

See Joseph Gagliano’s profile on Wikitree for vital records.

Featured image: Calogero Rao and his wife, Maria Canzoneri, front; Alfred Santangelo, top right

Capitano’s Lucchese connection

Capitano’s Lucchese connection

The friends of Angelo di Carlo turn out to be “friends of friends.”

When Angelo di Carlo was interned during WWII, he was labeled by American intelligence as an alien enemy potentially dangerous to the United States, for several reasons. One was that confidential sources described him as a “man of respect” in the Italian community of New York. People called him “Capitano.” His reputation extended even to the Italian Embassy.

Angelo’s business associate in Esperia Film, Francesco Macaluso, says that Angelo had occasional business with the Embassy, regarding their films. For his part, Angelo claims he went merely to ensure his military pension was being paid out properly. In either case, he was granted private audiences on his visits to the Consulate: an uncommon courtesy. Angelo’s military rank—stripped from him when he failed to appear on murder charges in 1926—was also given as a reason for American intelligence to be concerned, during the war.

Angelo was found not guilty of murder by the Italian court in 1926, due to lack of evidence. But in 1930, he was found guilty of criminal association, which would make it difficult for him to conduct business in Sicily when he returned there in 1937, at the death of his father.

Mafia association is not a crime in the US, but it’s still an excellent detection method. Most crimes are never prosecuted, and with the exception of the occasional state’s witness, most mafiosi do not reveal their membership to non-members, not even to their wives and children. For Mafia genealogists, the challenge is not to find judicial proof, which is rare, or a membership roll, which is nonexistent, but to demonstrate that an individual does what mafiosi do. This includes having close business and personal contacts among men who are known members of the Mafia.

Some of the most telling of Angelo’s associations are those who signed affidavits in support of his release from internment at Fort Missoula in the summer of 1943. After nineteen months in custody, a letter writing campaign on his behalf gained some traction. Four affidavits were sent from Angelo di Carlo’s attorney, and seven more from his wife, Luigia, to the US Attorney General’s offices in Washington and New York. Luisa included affidavits from Rosario Loiacono, Edward S. Reitano, Louis Di Frisco, Domenick Tavolacci, Nunzio Pomilla, Stefano La Sala, and Pietro Castro. The attorney, Avel B. Silverman, sent affidavits from Angelo’s brother, Calogero, and from Ignazio Milone, Leoluke Calcaterra, and Costantino Castellana.

All of the men testified that they knew Angelo well, that he was no threat to the US government, and that they would sponsor him if he were released. Three of the affidavits are from men with close ties to Tommy Gagliano, boss of the Lucchese crime family:

Nunzio Pomilla is Tommy Gagliano’s brother-in-law and lathing business partner.

Leoluca di Frisco, who is known as Louis, is married to Tommy Gagliano’s niece. He owns a bakery and a lathing company.

Ignazio Milone’s first cousin is married to Tommy Gagliano.

There is another man by this name, a known Giuseppe Morello associate, who is also from Corleone. That Ignazio Milone is twenty years older, born in 1878. He is this man’s third cousin. The older man was killed in 1934.

(Another man who swore on Angelo’s behalf was Stefano la Sala, who I wrote about here a couple weeks ago. Like Milone, La Sala has a same-name cousin, a powerful member of the Lucchese family.)

All three of the Lucchese connections are men from Corleone. Ignazio Milone has been a blacksmith, a stone cutter, and a plasterer. Never married, he lived in the Bronx with his sister and brother-in-law. Milone and Pomilla both knew Angelo since they were children. Milone and Leoluke Calcaterra, a milliner, affirmed Angelo’s difficulties in Sicily. Each of them was in Corleone, visiting family, at some time during the two years Angelo was there. They claim that his harassment by the police, and fruitless efforts to secure a passport for himself and his wife, were generally known to people in Corleone. Costantino Castellano, who is from Palermo, was in Sicily in the summer of 1937. He was in contact with Angelo during that time, and confirmed Milone and Calcaterra’s statements.

A common thread is proprietorship in the construction trades. Louis di Frisco and Nunzio Pomilla owned lathing companies. Stefano la Sala was a building contractor. Pietro Castro, also called Peter, who is both Stefano and Angelo’s brother-in-law, was a plasterer who owned his own business.  Pietro’s son, Anthony, was also a plasterer. Two of Angelo’s brothers were plasterers. Rosario Loiacono was a plasterer, as were two of his brothers, his father-in-law, Joseph Tavolacci and his brother-in-law, Domenick. Domenick Tavolacci is Peter Castro’s son-in-law, and was business partner in a plastering business with Angelo’s brother, John.

The Honorable Charles Buckley, who would lead the Bronx Democratic machine in the 1950s and 60s, was a bricklayer with his own construction business when he entered politics, breaking the unwritten rule that district leaders had to own saloons. The successor to “Boss Flynn,” Buckley was a strong believer in the political machine. If you needed something done in the Bronx, you saw your assemblyman, and if he couldn’t fix it for you, Buckley might. In the 1930s and 40s, he served fifteen terms in Congress. Among Buckley’s achievements in the Bronx was to bring in federal funds to pay for housing projects and highways: a boon for those in the construction industry.

At Peter Castro’s request, Buckley wrote a letter to the Attorney General. The letter made its way to the director of the Alien Control Unit, Edward J. Ennis, who wrote Peter Castro to suggest that his brother-in-law apply for a rehearing.

 

Sources

“Charles Buckley Dead at 76; Bronx Boss Had Farm Here.” Published in The Journal News on 23 January 1967. Accessed https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5737509/charles_buckley_dead_at_76_bronx_boss/ on 27 February 2017.

Hermalyn, G. “The Bronx.” Accessed http://bronxhistoricalsociety.org/about/bronx-history/the-story-of-the-bronx/ on 27 February 2017.

 

Feature Image: Democratic Boss Hon. Charles A. Buckley (left); “Capitano” Angelo Di Carlo (center); Leoluke Calcaterra, milliner, from his 1921 passport application (right)

Looking for Steve LaSalle

Looking for Steve LaSalle

I almost wrote this post about a different man.

There are three first cousins from Corleone who immigrated to New York around the same time, and had the same name: Stefano la Sala. One was born in 1881, another in 1888, and the third in 1892. One would become known as Steve LaSalle, a high-ranking member of the Lucchese crime family for half a century.

In Corleone, it’s not unusual for a boy to have the same name, first and last, as his cousins. If the boy is the oldest in his family, and he has five paternal uncles, he can expect to have up to five first cousins with exactly the same name as his own. Like himself, the oldest sons of his father’s brothers would be named after their paternal grandfather. The tradition of naming the first born boy and girl after their paternal grandparents is followed by practically every family in Corleone.

When I mentioned Steve LaSalle in this blog a couple weeks ago, I’d only discovered two of the three Stefano la Salas from Corleone. Not only that, I’d found so many clues connecting the oldest cousin to Morello’s crime family, that I was sure he was LaSalle. He is not, but he has his own Mafia connections. I’ll come back to him next week.

Of the three cousins, the youngest, son of Simone la Sala, is the one I found last, and know the least about. When he registered for the WWI draft in 1917, this Stefano la Sala, born in 1892, was living in East Harlem with his mother. He worked in the piano manufacturing business, for Strauch Bros., at 13th St. & 10th Ave in Manhattan. Little as I know of him, I can be sure he is not Steve LaSalle, either: he’s too young to be mistaken for a man born in November 1888 or 1889, as he’s described in Critchley’s “Organized Crime in America.”

The middle cousin, born seven years later, is the son of Biagio la Sala, a baker. Biagio and his older brother, Francesco, the father of the oldest Stefano, immigrated to New York together, with their wives and children, in the mid 1890s. Both families settled in the Bronx.

Based on his reported birth date (Critchley), the year he immigrated, 1897, from Richard Wagner and his co-authors, and the names of his brothers, it is the middle cousin, born in 1888, who was Steve LaSalle. His baptismal record from Corleone confirms  Stefano la Sala was born 5 November 1888. This does not match the date of birth reported on LaSalle’s WWI draft card, which says he was born on the eighth. However, his home address is a match for the census, where he lives with so many family members there is no question as to his identity, and so is his profession as a plasterer.

A 1972 feature on the Mafia in LIFE Magazine says “The old man, Steve LaSalle, the underboss of New York’s Luchese [sic] family, was himself born into a Mafia family.” I have not found any evidence so far of the La Sala family’s involvement in the Fratuzzi, the Mafia in Corleone. On Steve’s mother’s side, the Liggio men were successful millers. On his father’s, the baker’s paternal grandmother was from a family of merchants who immigrated to Corleone from the Papal States in the early 19th century. The LaSalles are of no relation to Luciano Leggio or the other Leggio family members who are defendants at the 1969 Mafia trial in Bari. However, they are related to the Moscato family, by marriage and godparenthood. The Moscato family in Corleone are all descendants of a man from Siculiana, in Agrigento province. They have organized criminal ties going back to Rapanzino’s gang, in the 1830s, and continue to appear in Italian records of mafia activity into the 1960s. Francesco Moscato, Steve LaSalle’s first cousin, was in the Morello gang. It appears that at least one and possibly two of Steve’s brothers were also involved.

The Morello gang’s bread and butter was counterfeiting. According to Bill Feather, Steve had a criminal record from 1909 for counterfeiting, as well as murder and grand larceny. Steve and his brother, Vito, ran a numbers racket that was one of the largest in New York around 1930, according to The Valachi Papers. Another brother, Calogero, is mentioned in lists of known mafiosi, though I haven’t been able to find out anything in particular. It appears that he was active in the Morello gang, but that after the Mafia-Camorra War, he was no longer connected with organized crime.

Steve is named as a participant in the Mafia-Camorra War, on the Morello-Terranova side. On 24 June 1916, he attended a meeting of the Morello gang with the Navy Street and Coney Island gangs, where he argued—by some accounts with Nick Terranova—for the assassination of Joe DeMarco. On 20 July, Steve joined “Louis the Wop,” Nick Sassi, and Ciro Terranova in recruiting Lefty Esposito to help them kill Joe DeMarco. Other than the Terranova brothers, the key targets of the Camorra included Steve LaSalle, Eugenio Ubriaco, and possibly Joseph Verrazano: more evidence that LaSalle was highly placed in the organization.

Steve LaSalle was arrested on 4 September 1916, and still in custody three days later when Nick Terranova and Ubriaco were assassinated, by Camorra member Alessandro Vollero. (At least one source calls the other victim Nick’s bodyguard.) No doubt, Steve’s arrest saved his life.

The price was a stay at Sing Sing Prison, where Steve registered for the draft for WWI the following summer. Steve worked as a plasterer in prison. Several of the sons of Francesco and Biagio la Sala, including the two cousins born 1881 and 1888, worked in construction trades. Francesco and the oldest Stefano la Sala, his son, started a stone and brick masonry company in 1908. Steve LaSalle and his brother, Charlie (born Calogero) were both plasterers. Their brother Victor (born Vito) la Sala was later a bricklayer, but at this time owned a garage, where he employed another brother, Dominick.

Following his release from prison, Steve was affiliated with Tommy Reina’s gang, and would remain so until his retirement. (Reina, who was a captain in Morello’s organization, formed his own Bronx-based gang around the time of the Mafia-Camorra War.) Steve, Victor, Dominick, and Charlie lived with their parents in the Bronx in 1920, along with three sisters. Three of the brothers were in construction but Dominick, no longer employed by his brother’s garage, was now in ladies’ hats. (The garment industry was a popular racket, and one closely associated with LaSalle.)

Their father died in 1924, and their mother, in 1930. Based on his children’s ages, Victor married by 1926 to Margaret, from Nebraska. They had two children, a girl and a boy. Neither Steve nor any other member of the LaSalle family appear in the 1930 federal census at their previous Bronx address.

Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, who had avoided the Mafia-Camorra War that fragmented the Morello gang, was killed in 1930, in the Castellammarese War. His operations were taken over by Tommy Gagliano, who ran the family until his death in 1951. Gagliano and Reina, both from Corleone, are distantly related by marriage: Gagliano’s second cousin, once removed, was Reina’s wife. Gagliano and Reina are each related to LaSalle, though even more distantly.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Bill Feather reports that LaSalle lived in the Bronx, ran a large numbers operation, and became a power player in the garment industry. At the same time, he maintained a relatively low profile. His home is described as a “modest, two-family house” by the retired police officer interviewed in Pileggi’s 1972 article. Census and military records point to LaSalle living in New Jersey in 1940-42.

Today’s maps show a small, brick condominium, built in 1927, at LaSalle’s Cliffside Park address. In the 1940 federal census (the most recent publicly available) Steve, unmarried and living alone in Bergen County, calls himself a plasterer. Between 1940-42, his brother, Victor, moved his family from Fairfield, CT to Englewood Cliffs, NJ, five miles from Steve’s address. In his WWII draft registration, Steve named his brother, Victor, as his contact person. (Victor named his wife.)

Critchley writes, “LaSalle would become an influential member of the post Gaetano Reina organized crime Family under its various titles, reaching the post of consiglieri.” Other sources say he was made the underboss of the Lucchese family around 1951, under Gaetano “Tommy” Lucchese. LaSalle and Lucchese may have attended the Apalachin Summit together in 1957. He continued to serve under Lucchese’s successors: “Eddie” Coco and Carmine Tramunti.

LaSalle retired from the Lucchese family around 1972. According to the LIFE article published that year in March, his income came from ownership of a small garment factory. He was reportedly making $20,000 a year , an income equivalent to $110K today. He married and had a son.

Pileggi wrote early in 1972 that “Today, LaSalle, who is 83 and almost blind, is still being watched.” Although at least one source reports his death in 1974, an SSDI record that matches his name and date of birth tells us that Steve died at the age of 87, in November 1975. According to the record of his death, his last address was in Queens.

 

Sources

“The Apalachin Meeting.” Tutti Mafiosi. http://la-mafia.wikidot.com/the-apalachin-meeting Accessed 5 March 2017.

Black, Jon. “The Struggle for Control.” http://www.gangrule.com/events/struggle-for-control-1914-1918 Accessed 7 March 2017.

Critchley, David. The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge: New York, 2009.

“Guests at the Mafia Bar-B-Que”. http://www.greaterowego.com/apalachin/guests.html Accessed 5 March 2017.

Maas, Peter. The Valachi Papers. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968. Print.

Pileggi, Nicholas. “The Decline and Fall of the Mafia.” LIFE, 3 March 1972.

Tuohy, John William. “Joe Petrosino’s War on the Mafia.” http://mywriterssite.blogspot.com/2016/12/joe-petrosinos-war-on-mafia.html Accessed 7 March 2017.