The 1969 Corleonesi trial

The 1969 Corleonesi trial

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.

 

Sources

Gordon Kerr. “Fugitives: Dramatic Accounts of Life on the Run.” Accessed https://books.google.com/books?id=x5lIAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT69&lpg=PT69&dq=angelo+di+carlo+mafia+corleone&source=bl&ots=90htLvjpEF&sig=yiEBNLstADFThVCsIVEQ2tXZ4rY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDoQ6AEwBGoVChMI3_H958GHyQIVhNgeCh0ZsgKt#v=onepage&q=angelo%20di%20carlo%20mafia%20corleone&f=false 11 November 2015.

John Follain. “The Last Godfathers: Inside the Mafia’s Most Infamous Family” Accessed https://books.google.com/books?id=hkDFCi3ItawC&pg=PT29&lpg=PT29&dq=angelo+di+carlo+mafia+corleone&source=bl&ots=H-UjJyHeun&sig=41arcl2L3b85RB3Va5TAo_Dg0NE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAWoVChMI3_H958GHyQIVhNgeCh0ZsgKt#v=onepage&q=angelo%20di%20carlo%20mafia%20corleone&f=false 10 November 2015.

Paternostro, Dino. <<Fratuzzi>>, antenati di Liggio e Riina. Accessed http://www.cittanuove-corleone.it/La%20Sicilia,%20I%20fratuzzi%20di%20Corleone%2008.08.04pa03.pdf 16 November 2014.

Senato della Repubbblica VII Leglislatura. Documentazione allegata alla relazione conclusiva della commissione parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia in Sicilia. Accessed http://legislature.camera.it/_dati/leg08/lavori/stampati/pdf/023_001011.pdf 13 May 2016.

Wikipedia entries on Michele Cavataio, Salvatore Riina, Cesare Terranova, and the 1960s Sicilian Mafia trials

 

Image credits: Luciano Leggio, by Il capolinea del padrino, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41505544

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The godfathers of the American South

The godfathers of the American South

 

In Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone is called by the name of his hometown because he was fleeing the mafia. But why was he called “don”?

In the US, we don’t have a term similar to this Sicilian honorific. The Southern custom of calling elders “Mister” or “Miss,” along with their given name, like “Mister Vincent,” comes close. “Don”  began being used by Sicilian nobility during its centuries under Spanish rule. In rural settings, the titles were applied more loosely, not only to the marquis, the barons, and their families (the feminine form is “donna”), but also to priests, and to other respected men in the town. In Church records of marriages, baptisms, and deaths, the elite guildsmen are recorded with the title of “maestro,” and nobles, priests, and a very few others are called “don.” The vast majority of people are peasants, and are given no title at all.

Children in Sicily call their godparents padrino and madrina (or cumpari and cummari), or they might call them “uncle” and “aunt” (zio, zia) or “grandpa” and “grandma” (nonno, nonna) but not “don” and “donna.” These honorifics are communal, not familial. Sicilian culture associates masculinity with self-sufficiency. In an agricultural setting, with little infrastructure or police presence, decisive—even violent—action can be necessary to survive. Men who command the resources to solve problems not only for themselves, but for others, prosper and earn the respect of their neighbors.

As a rule, the owners of large tracts of farmland in Corleone in the 19th century employed farm managers, agricoltore or gabelloti, to run their estates, and rural guards (guardia campestre) to protect them. Meanwhile, the landowners lived in Palermo, an arrangement that sheltered the landowner’s property, both within Palermo and outside of the city, from taxation. Because there were so few police working on the island, the guardia were a necessity in rural areas: so much so, that the state paid guards’ salaries (to protect land on which the state did not earn tax, a corporate loophole familiar to anyone who reads the US news). The nobles’ absence from small town life made the next rung down, the gabelloti and the guardia, the public face of authority to the peasantry. “Becoming a field guard was a familiar way of acquiring local power and influence,” writes Denis Mack Smith in his “History of Sicily.” They had the power to solve their neighbor’s problems, and some were so widely called “don,”the title appears in the Church records of their children’s baptisms and marriages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a system of patronage helped many new immigrants from Sicily find work and housing in America. The farm managers to whom peasant farmers went, hats in hands, to beg for work on the estates of Corleone, had money to loan.

With the advent of steamship travel, farmers who could no longer make a living in Sicily, could do so in America. Ships from Naples stopped in Palermo before crossing the Atlantic. One’s patron could secure passage from Palermo to New York, and from there, to a high-paying job in the American South. The Americans who had previously performed agricultural labor in the South were being lured north to cities, to work in new industries. Their vacancies were filled, in some degree, by immigrants from Sicily, through the connections of their patrons, their patrini. Because whoever sent them to Ramos, or to Bryan, knew the name of the don of that place, who would help their countryman.

Not all of the farmers in Corleone who wanted to go to America, were able. People who could afford passage were still turned away at the port in Palermo, because they had physical handicaps, or not enough money to reach their final destination. One of my twice-great grandfathers is listed on a 1906 ship manifest, and then crossed out, indicating he attempted to immigrate but was not allowed to sail. His wife and some of his children had already immigrated, and he was attempting to join them. Family legend says that he was blind. After he died, his two remaining children at home, both teenagers, joined the rest of the family in New York. One of them was my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano.

Besides the cost of a steamship ticket and the physical health necessary to travel and work, immigration required other resources. For an illiterate Sicilian who spoke no English to consider immigrating, he would need clothes, including shoes, suitable for travel, and enough advance money and food to make the journey. To be allowed to sail, he must provide the name and address of a contact person in America. Once he arrived, he needed work and housing. Besides these immediate concerns, Sicilians abroad depended on their local patrons for insurance against unemployment, disease, and death. The men called “don” solved such problems: for a fee. Like “Don Vito” Corleone, they helped their friends, who in turn would help their patron.

Many families from Corleone went to Ramos, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, and to Bryan, Texas, 100 miles inland from Houston, both places where large numbers of Sicilian immigrants settled. On one ship manifest, a bride travels with her brother-in-law to meet her husband in Ramos, and their neighbors from Corleone, the Grizzaffis, heading to Bryan to work. The bridegroom shares a name with “Mr. Vincent” Collura, another immigrant from Corleone, of unknown relation, who returns to Corleone after WWII.

The Morello-Terranova family spent time in each of these communities in the 1890s, planting sugarcane in the former, picking cotton and contracting malaria in the latter, before returning to New York. In the City, they delivered ice (an age-old mafia activity), ran saloons and coal cellars, and printed counterfeit money. That their story would be exceptional is evident from the passenger manifest: among mainly illiterate passengers, the men in Giuseppe Morello’s family could read and write. Despite Giuseppe’s birth defect, which left him with only one finger visible on his right hand, he was not turned away at the port. And while their neighbors had one or two bags each, the Terranova family brought more than a dozen pieces of luggage.

For the poorest of the poor, escape was impossible. For those with the ability to pay, however, the choice to escape the cycle of poverty was an easy one to make. Help from one’s “godfather” was an offer no one could afford to refuse.

 

Image: “Decatur Street Italians, 1938” Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons