19 May 2019

The Pittsburgh machine gun murder that wasn't

'The Big Gorilla' may have been
killed with his own shotgun

On this date in 1927...

Lamendola
A Pittsburgh booze racketeer known as "The Big Gorilla" was murdered May 19, 1927, in what was initially proclaimed by the local press to be the city's first underworld assassination to involve machine guns. Newspapers subsequently backed away from the machine gun claim, when law enforcement concluded that a shotgun was instrument of death.

Coverage of the killing of Luigi Lamendola involved a great many journalistic disagreements. Newspapers could not agree even on the age of the victim. He was reported to be twenty-seven years old, thirty-two and thirty-five. (He was probably close to twenty-seven.) And the uncertainty did not end there. He was said to be a member of a Black Hand extortion organization or a victim of a Black Hand extortion organization or possibly neither. He suffered either three or six bullet wounds in the head. And he was killed in a hail of machine gun fire or through a double-barreled blast of a shotgun. Or possibly two shotguns.

There was general agreement that Lamendola - known to his friends as "The Big G" - was a bad guy. He was a brutal Prohibition Era gang leader, who held a monopoly on moonshine liquor distribution in Pittsburgh's Hill District and used threats of violence and a fair amount of actual violence to maintain that monopoly.

Some have claimed that he learned his craft from the Capone Outfit in Chicago before striking out on his own. (It is difficult to support this claim. However, Lamendola may have had connections with the underworld in the Hamilton, Ontario, area.) He may have served as a lieutenant of sorts for the Pittsburgh Mafia organization (led in the period by Stefano Monastero) until ambition caused him to strive for greater status.

Lamendola knew well that he had enemies. It was said that he did not often stray from the Hill District restaurant, 27 Chatham Street, that served as his headquarters. The building was also his home, as it contained a well furnished bachelor apartment upstairs. When he did go out, he carried a sword-cane with him. With the touch of a button, the outer cane covering fell away to reveal a fifteen-inch blade.

Late Thursday evening, May 19, after he locked up the restaurant and relaxed in the establishment with a couple of business partners, some enemies came calling. A large touring car with curtained windows pulled up in front. Two men got out and tapped on the restaurant's front window and called for Lamendola to come outside.

The Big Gorilla made it to the doorway. The two who tapped on the window ducked behind the car, and two others pointed weapons - most likely shotguns - at Lamendola through the car window curtains. The weapons fire, according to the Pittsburgh Press, "shattered" Lamendola's head. The damage done left the impression that a machine gun was used.

Pittsburgh Post


Lamendola partner Peter Curatolo, nearby at the time of the shooting, was superficially wounded by some of the shrapnel.

The automobile then proceeded north on Chatham Street, while the gunmen inside of it continued to fire. At least one bit of the fired lead cracked through the window of Charles Sparano's New Italian cafe at the corner with Webster Street - still busy at that late hour - and passed within inches of the head of a violinist in the cafe orchestra. The vehicle turned onto Bigelow Boulevard and sped away to the northeast.

Lamendola was rushed to Mercy Hospital. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. Authorities noted that he was wearing diamonds valued at about $12,000 and had four $1,000 bills in his wallet. His death certificate attributed the end of Lamendola's life to "shock and hemorrhage following gunshot wound of head. Prob. murder."

During their investigation of the killing, police searched the Lamendola restaurant and discovered several hundred gallons of moonshine whiskey. In the upstairs apartment, they found automatic pistols, knives and ammunition, including shotgun shells that matched those that took his life. They found no shotgun. At least not right away.

When detectives traced the escape route taken by the gunmen, they found a shotgun discarded on Bigelow Boulevard, near Washington Street. They assumed the gunmen tossed it out of the car as they drove away.

Days later, rumors circulated that Lamendola had been betrayed by someone in his own organization and had been killed with his own shotgun.

Adding further insult to fatal injury, press coverage subsequently suggested that Lamendola was working in the U.S. as an agent of the Fascist government of Italy. That charge seems to have resulted merely from the fact that Lamendola's remains were returned to his native city of Caltanissetta, Sicily, for burial.

Authorities held Lamendola's business partners for a while and questioned known members of the Pittsburgh underworld. But Lamendola's murder was never solved.

Sources:

  • "'Ghost' of murdered bootleg czar stalks through 'Hill' with death in either hand," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, May 23, 1927, p. 3.
  • "Death spurts from auto in Chatham St.; misses girl," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, May 20, 1927, p. 1.
  • "Hill District man victim of machine gun slayers," Pittsburgh Post, May 20, 1927, p. 1.
  • "Hunt slayers of Lamendola," Pittsburgh Press, May 20, 1927, p. 23.
  • "Italian murdered by gang here believed Fascist agent," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, July 16, 1927, p. 3.
  • "Lamendola, slain here, is buried in Italy," Pittsburgh Press, July 16, 1927, p. 1.
  • "Machine gun killers sought in Pittsburgh," New Castle PA News, May 20, 1927, p. 26.
  • "Machine gun theory falls when weapon that killed Hill District man is found," Pittsburgh Post, May 21, 1927, p. 5.
  • "Man ambushed and killed," Pottsville PA Evening Herald, May 20, 1927, p. 9.
  • "Murder cafe owners held," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, May 22, 1927, p. D-12.
  • "Nab gangster as murderer of Monastero," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 9, 1929, p. 1.
  • "Pittsburgh police probe slaying of restaurant owner," New Castle PA News, May 20, 1927, p. 31.
  • "Two more padlocks are clamped on," Pittsburgh Post, April 9, 1926, p. 3.
  • Gazarik, Richard, Prohibition Pittsburgh, The History Press, 2017.
  • Luigi Lamendola Certificate of Death, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, file no. 45184, registered no. 4142, May 19, 1927.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Conte Rosso, departed Naples, Italy, on Nov. 20, 1926, arrived New York, NY, on Nov. 30, 1926.

07 May 2019

Chicago fatal shooting no surprise to U.S. agents

Relatives, phony-money gang may have had grudges against Zagone

On this date in 1909:

Decatur Daily Review
Mariano Zagone, wealthy cigar manufacturer and leader in the Sicilian Mafia of Chicago, was shot and mortally wounded on the evening of May 7, 1909, at his son-in-law's Gault Court saloon. The shooting was not a surprise to some U.S. officials, who knew six years earlier that Zagone was to be put "on the spot."

Chicago Police arrived at the saloon, 154 Gault Court, about seven o'clock, to find Zagone unconscious and bleeding on the sidewalk outside. He had been shot through the temple. Police found a fully loaded revolver beneath him. Zagone was taken to Policlinic Hospital, a few blocks away at 219 West Chicago Avenue.
(Note: Gault Court ran between Oak Street and W. Chicago Avenue. It became Cambridge Avenue. One account placed the saloon at 134 Gault Court.)

Brothers Joseph and Carmelo Nicolosi, owners of the saloon, were taken into custody, though they claimed to know nothing of the shooting. Joseph Nicolosi, married to the daughter of Zagone's wife, told police he was speaking with a saloon patron at the bar when a gunshot was heard, rushed outside and found Zagone wounded on the sidewalk.

Chicago Tribune
Chicago detectives searched the saloon and found fresh blood spots near a chair by a cigar case. In the rear of the saloon, they found a blood-covered towel and surmised that it had been used to clean up a good deal of additional blood that had been spilled near the chair. Nicolosi said he did not know anything about the blood. Detectives decided that Zagone had been sitting inside the saloon when shot and then had been dragged out to the sidewalk.

Mrs. Biaggia "Bessie" Zagone was questioned by police. She had been nearby, visiting with her daughter Laura at Gault Court, when Zagone was shot. Detectives wanted to know if her husband had received any threatening letters from "Black Hand" extortionists. Bessie was allowed to return home after providing police with a statement:

"My husband has been shot at by someone four times in the last two years. The first time and tonight were the only times he was wounded. The first time he was shot in the back while entering the house at night and a short time after he was able to leave his bed and sit up in a chair a shot was fired from the street through a window at him. This missed my husband, but wounded my son Vincenzo in the left leg and arm as he lay in bed. A few months ago he was shot at a third time, the bullet coming through the front door, but missed him. I never knew my husband had enemies, and don't believe he received letters from the Black Hand."

Mariano Zagone lingered for a day and a half but never recovered consciousness. He died in the early morning of May 9.

Detectives understood that Zagone had enemies. The several previous attempts on his life dating back to November 1906 were well documented. But they found no enemies to charge with his murder. Instead, they had several Zagone relatives booked for murder. Joseph and Carmelo Nicolosi and Zagone stepson Joseph Spatafora were brought before Judge Bruggemeyer, charged and held to await the outcome of a coroner's inquiry.

The coroner's jury verdict on May 26 was unhelpful. It stated that Mariano Zagone had been killed by a person unknown. No convincing evidence turned up against the Nicolosis or Joseph Spatafora. The murder case remained a mystery in Chicago. But it was somewhat less mysterious to some federal agents.

Trouble with the boss

Giuseppe Morello, boss of bosses of the American Mafia, was arrested in April, 1903, in connection with Manhattan's infamous Barrel Murder. He also was suspected at that time of running an interstate currency counterfeiting ring.

Flynn
Following his arrest, New York Police and agents of the U.S. Secret Service searched a Chrystie Street apartment where Morello lived with his mistress and their infant daughter. During the search, Agent T.G. Gallagher observed the woman stuffing a package of papers into the baby's clothing. When the papers were removed, they were found to be a collection of correspondence between Morello and leaders of Mafiosi in Chicago and New Orleans.

The letters were examined at the New York office of the Secret Service. Agent in Charge William J. Flynn noted in his daily report of April 17, 1903, that some of the letters contained threatening remarks about a Chicago Mafia leader. The tone of the letters caused Flynn to believe the Chicagoan was already dead, and he reported, "The name Mariano Zagone is mentioned in some of the letters, if he is missing from #97 Milton Ave. Chicago, he may be the murdered man."
(Note: Milton Avenue was renamed Cleveland Avenue. The address referred to was close to the Zagone home on West Oak Street and to the Gault Court saloon. It may have been a Zagone cigar business address.)

A few days later, Flynn received a telegram from Secret Service Chief John Wilkie in Washington, D.C. Wilkie stated that Zagone "is at home, denies ever had any trouble with Morrello."

It is possible that Morello blamed Zagone for allowing law enforcement to learn of a Mafia counterfeiting network in Illinois, New York and New Jersey. The leader of that operation in the Chicago area, Antonio D'Andrea (a former priest and future Mafia boss), was recently  convicted of counterfeiting and sentenced to Joliet Penitentiary.

D'Andrea
News released in May 1903 did not help Zagone's position with Morello. At that time it was revealed that the Secret Service learned much about the counterfeiting ring by infiltrating it through Zagone headquarters in the Nicolosi saloon. An undercover operative using the name "Joe Bassini" became friendly with the gangsters and provided information the Secret Service used to bring down D'Andrea. The Zagone gang uncovered evidence of Bassini's treachery but did not succeed in silencing the undercover agent.

At one point, Bassini was confronted by gang members at knifepoint. Threatened with death, he denied assisting law enforcement. Joseph Nicolosi, pretending to be convinced by the denials, stepped in to prevent Bassini's murder. He suggested Bassini and the gangsters patch things up and have a friendly drink. Bassini's drink was drugged. The agent awoke as a captive. Only by repeatedly pleading his innocence and claiming to need a doctor did he eventually win his freedom. On May 20, 1903, he returned with other Secret Service personnel and Chicago detectives and arrested Nicolosi. In announcing that arrest, the Secret Service stated that "the head of the gang of counterfeiters is alleged to be Mariano Zagona."

Zagone was soon arrested. The fact that he was found not guilty of counterfeiting may have convinced Morello that Zagone was secretly aiding law enforcement.

A house divided?

Detectives may have had good reason to suspect Zagone relatives of complicity in his murder.

Rumors surfaced about a Sicilian vendetta. Zagone reportedly stole another man's sweetheart. The man, not a gracious loser, swore to kill Zagone. Police were unable to confirm the rumors, but there may be some connection between them and known Zagone family relationships.

Shortly before marrying Zagone, Bessie was Biaggia Catronia Spatafora. She traveled to the United States in 1898 with her husband Gioacchino Spatafora and five children. The couple had a sixth child after settling in Chicago. The Spataforas appear to have been related by marriage to Rosario Dispenza, a Mafioso from the Ciminna area of Sicily who settled in Chicago in 1899. The Dispenzas and Spataforas lived along Milton Avenue, near Zagone.

About 1901, Gioacchino Spatafora died. The circumstances of his death are uncertain, but old age can be ruled out, as Gioacchino seems to have been in his mid-thirties. Might he have been killed?

Widow Biaggia married Mariano Zagone in October of 1902. Zagone became stepfather to the six Spatafora children and stepfather-in-law to Joseph Nicolosi (married to Laura Spatafora in January 1902).

If Gioacchino Spatafora was a victim of foul play, his kin would have had reason to suspect that the local underworld chief at least had knowledge of the matter. When that chief quickly took Spatafora's widow as his bride, a vendetta could have resulted.

Chicago Tribune 1914
After Zagone

Whatever led to the murder of Zagone, the primary beneficiary of the act seems to have been Rosario Dispenza, banker and saloonkeeper. Dispenza became the new Mafia boss of Chicago's Near North Side Sicilian colony. He also acquired the nickname "Heartless." It is known that Dispenza corresponded with New York-based boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello about Mafia matters. Dispenza's reign was a bloody one. The area near his business on Milton Avenue between West Oak Street and West Hobbie Street became known as "Death Corner."

Dispenza and a business partner, Anthony Puccio, were killed in January 1914, as Anthony D'Andrea brought Chicago's Sicilian underworld under his command.

Bessie Zagone relocated to Rockford, Illinois, for a time, living there with several of her younger children and working as a midwife. She died in Chicago, November 6, 1927, at the age of sixty-one.

(Note: Given the "G" sound of the letter "C" when pronounced by Sicilians, it is possible that Mariano's surname originally was Zaccone or Zarcone. That opens the possibility that he was related to Zarcone Mafiosi, originally from the Bagheria area of Sicily, who settled in Brooklyn, Chicago and Milwaukee. Like Mariano Zagone, a Giovanni Zarcone of Brooklyn had been involved with Giuseppe Morello counterfeiting operations and was murdered after a falling-out with the boss.)

Sources:
  • "Bad money gang raided," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 21, 1903, p. 5.
  • "Black Hand got wealthy Chicagoan," Decatur IL Daily Review, May 8, 1909, p. 1.
  • "Black Hand victim shot," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 8, 1909, p. 1.
  • "Booked on charge of murder," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 12, 1909, p. 4.
  • "Marriage licenses," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 7, 1902, p. 13.
  • "Repeated attempts to kill result from Italian feud," Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 21, 1906, p. 3.
  • "Would-be assassin shoots man at threshold of home," Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 7, 1906, p. 13.
  • "Zagone dies of his wounds," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 9, 1909, p. 2.
  • "Zagone murder still a mystery," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 27, 1909, p. 6.
  • Cook County IL Deaths Index, Ancestry.com.
  • Cook County IL Marriage Index, Ancestry.com.
  • Flynn, William J., Daily Report, April 17, 1903, Department of the Treasury, United States Secret Service Daily Reports, R.G. No. 87, Roll 109, Vol. 9, National Archives.
  • Flynn, William J., Daily Report, April 20, 1903, Department of the Treasury, United States Secret Service Daily Reports, R.G. No. 87, Roll 109, Vol. 9, National Archives.
  • Flynn, William J., The Barrel Mystery, New York: James A. McCann Company, 1919, p. 177-179, 206-214.
  • Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths Index, Ancestry.com; Cook County IL Death Index, Ancestry.com.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Aller, arrived New York on June 28, 1899.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Trojan Prince, departed Naples on May 24, 1899, arrived New York on May 19, 1899.
  • United States Census of 1900, Illinois, Cook County, North Town Chicago, Ward 23, Enumeration District 700.
  • United States Census of 1920, Illinois, Winnebago County, Rockford City, Ward 5, Enumeration District 201.

02 May 2019

Frank Costello: 'Somebody tried to get me'

NYC underworld leader survives assassination attempt

On this date in 1957...


New York City crime boss Frank Costello suffered only a superficial wound late on the evening of May 2, 1957, when a tall, hulking gunman fired a bullet at the back of his head.

The assassination attempt, along with legal battles relating to a tax evasion conviction and government attempts to revoke his citizenship, convinced Costello to retire from crime family leadership. Vito Genovese stepped in as boss of the organization that has since been known as the Genovese Crime Family.

May 2, 1957

Earlier on the night of May 2, Costello, the sixty-six-year-old leader of Salvatore "Lucky Luciano" Lucania's former organization, had dinner with his wife at the Monsignore Restaurant, 61 East 55th Street in Manhattan. They were joined by a number of friends, including New York Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope, Jr. (who, with loans from Costello, would build his newspaper into the National Enquirer), and modeling agent Philip Kennedy. Costello decided to leave the party "early."

New York Times
Leaving Mrs. Costello at the restaurant with their friends, Costello and Kennedy took a taxi for the one and a half mile trip to the Majestic Apartments, 115 Central Park West, near 72nd Street. The taxi pulled up to the building shortly before 11 p.m. Costello and Kennedy spoke briefly, and Costello exited the vehicle.

The Mafia leader passed through an exterior door, descended two stairs and was opening an interior door to the building lobby when the large man in a dark suit and dark hat ran up behind him, said, "This is for you, Frank," and fired a single shot.

Kennedy heard the gunshot as his taxi pulled away from the curb. He told the driver to stop, and he jumped out and rushed to Costello.

The underworld boss had staggered to a lobby bench. Blood was oozing from a wound that stretched across the back of his scalp. Red blotches stained his jacket and shirt collar. He told Kennedy, "Somebody tried to get me."

A taxi was summoned to take Costello to Roosevelt Hospital, where it was found that the bullet had not penetrated his skull. Mrs. Costello joined her husband at the hospital at 11:50 p.m.

Investigation

About an hour later, police escorted a bandaged Costello to the West 54th Street Police Station, where he was questioned.

Though one Roosevelt Hospital doctor believed the nature of the scalp wound indicated that Costello turned toward the gunman at the moment the shot was fired, Costello insisted that he did not see who shot him and had no enemies in the world. "I didn't see nothing," he said. "I feel fine."

Costello claimed that he did not hear the gunman approach and did not even hear the shot that hit him. He merely felt a stinging sensation behind one ear and, when he touched the spot, felt the wetness of his blood.



The doorman of the Majestic Apartments told police that he saw the large gunman get out of a Cadillac double-parked behind the taxi that brought Costello home. He recalled that the man seemed to waddle as he rushed toward Costello. The gunman returned to the Cadillac after firing the single shot, and the vehicle sped away south on Central Park West. The Cadillac had curtains in its rear windows and no light on its license plate, according to the doorman.

(At some point that night, police acquired a slip of paper that had been in Costello's possession. After a fair amount of study, it was determined that numbers written on the paper - 651,284 - matched the gross gambling earnings of the Las Vegas Tropicana Hotel for the period April 3 to April 26. The opening of the Tropicana's casino had been delayed due to reported links to Costello associate Phil Kastel. The State of Nevada granted a license to the casino only after being assured that it had severed its connections with the underworld. Costello's slip of paper strongly suggested a continuing relationship.)

The Chin

For months, dozens of NYPD detectives struggled to identify the shooter. (They even picked up Carl Lucania, cousin of former boss Salvatore Lucania, for questioning, holding him on a vagrancy charge until June 25.) In July, they heard from sources that the gunman was former prizefighter Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. It took until late August to find and arrest Gigante.

Later in the year, resolving the attempted assassination of Costello was shoved to a back-burner, as authorities were busied with the assassination of Albert Anastasia and with a large-scale gathering of known underworld figures at Joseph Barbara's Apalachin, New York, home.

Gigante was tried in May 1958 for the shooting of Costello. On May 27, a jury found him not guilty, and he went free.

Gigante's connection with Vito Genovese - Costello's rival and his successor as crime family boss - became apparent weeks later, when Genovese, Gigante and several dozen others were charged with narcotics conspiracy. Authorities learned that Gigante had been assigned to eliminate Costello, so Genovese could take over the criminal organization.

Sources:
  • "Carl Lucania is freed by court," New York Daily News, June 26, 1957, p. 16.
  • "Costello gunman is sought in vain by 66 detectives," New York Times, May 4, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Costello is shot entering home; gunman escapes," New York Times, May 3, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Costello notation represents 'take' at Las Vegas Inn," Nyack NY Journal-News, June 12, 1957, p. B1.
  • "Gambler Costello shot in 'murder' attempt," Rochester NY Democrat and Chronicle, May 3, 1957, p. 1.
  • "Genovese freed in bail of $50,000," New York Times, July 9, 1958.
  • "Gigante beats rap in Costello case," Nyack NY Journal-News, May 29, 1958, p. 9.
  • "Hunt ex-boxer in shooting of Frank Costello," New York Daily News, July 17, 1957, p. 5.
  • "Jury frees Gigante in Costello shooting," New York Times, May 28, 1958, p. 1.
  • "U.S. jury indicts Genovese, Gigante in narcotics plot," New York Times, July 8, 1958, p. 1.
  • Federici, William, "Hogan links Costello's 'notes' to Vegas casino," New York Daily News, June 12, 1957, p. 4.
  • Katz, Leonard, Uncle Frank: The Biography of Frank Costello, New York: Drake Publishers, 1973, p. 203-209.
  • Machirella, Henry, and Henry Lee, "Jail ex-boxer for trying to kill Costello," New York Daily News, Aug. 20, 1957, p. 2.
  • McCarthy, Robert, Joseph Donnelly and Jack Smee, "Costello shot in ambush at door of home," New York Daily News, May 3, 1957, p. 2.

16 April 2019

Death of former Chicago gang chief goes unnoticed

Torrio founded Chicago Outfit
and mentored young Al Capone

On this date in 1957...

Chicago Tribune
May 8, 1957
Johnny Torrio, seventy-five-year-old former Chicago underworld boss, died April 16, 1957. His passing was virtually unnoticed. Newspapers were not alerted until about three weeks later, when his will was filed for probate.

Raised in the gangs of lower Manhattan's Five Points area, Torrio went west (along with longtime friend and fellow Five Points gangster Rocco "Roxie" Vanella) around 1909-1910. He became bodyguard, enforcer and business manager for Chicago vice lord "Big Jim" Colosimo - possibly a relative of Torrio's step-father Salvatore Caputo.

After a while, Torrio brought young Al Capone from Brooklyn to Chicago to assist him. Following Colosimo's 1920 murder, Torrio turned the Colosimo organization into a bootlegging operation and competed with other local gangs and the powerful Chicago Mafia for rackets territory.

A January 1925 assassination attempt convinced Torrio to retire as gang boss, and he turned his organization over to Capone. Following a jail term at Waukegan, Illinois, for Prohibition violations, Torrio returned to New York. He and his wife settled into a Brooklyn residence, spent winters in St. Petersburg and traveled abroad regularly. Torrio continued his involvement in underworld rackets, repeatedly running into trouble with the authorities.

The final decade of his life was spent out of the public eye. His last years were lived quietly in a recently constructed apartment building, 9902 Third Avenue in Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton section.

On April 16, 1957, he suffered a heart attack while in a barber's chair and was rushed to Cumberland Hospital (named for its first home on Cumberland Street but located on Auburn Place in 1957). He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery. Torrio was survived by his wife of forty years, Anna.

NY Times, May 8, 1957