19 March 2017

74 years ago: Chicago boss suicide

On this date in 1943, Chicago Outfit leader Frank Nitti responded to news of a federal indictment by sending his wife to pray a novena, getting himself drunk and then firing a bullet into his brain. 


Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943.
The indictment was not entirely a surprise. Chicago mob bosses were well aware that their plot to extort millions from the motion picture industry and theater projectionists had been exposed. Willie Bioff - hand-picked by Nitti to oversee the racket - and Bioff's more visible partners had already been convicted in federal court. And it was clear that federal investigators were not done. News from New York suggested that some mob big-shots in Chicago were likely to be indicted. It seemed certain that Bioff was aiding the investigators, but the extent of the damage was not known until March 19, 1943.

Chicago Daily Tribune
Oct. 25, 1941
That's when authorities in New York announced that indictments for racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud had been returned against Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti (real name Nitto), Paul "the Waiter" Ricca (DeLucia), Louis "Little New York" Campagna, Philip D'Andrea, Charles "Cherry Nose" Gioe, Ralph Pierce and Francis "Frank Diamond" Maritote. Bioff's betrayal had been complete.

Nitti had bet his reputation - and, likely, his life - on Bioff's reliability. When the extortion plot first came to light with complaints that mobsters controlled the International Alliance of Theatre and Stage Employees (IATSE), Outfit leaders contemplated severing their most dangerous connection to IATSE by murdering Bioff. Bioff reportedly survived only because Nitti opposed the idea.

On the morning of March 19, attorney A. Bradley Eben (a former assistant U.S. attorney) called the Nitti home at 712 Selborne Road in Riverside, Illinois, and provided his client with news of the indictments. Nitti made arrangements to meet with Eben at his law office that afternoon, but the mob boss actually had other plans.

Nitti told his wife of nine months, Antoinette (known as "Toni") Caravetta Nitto, to begin a prayer novena at Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Chicago's west side. (The Sorrowful Mother Novena was an enormously popular service at the church from the late 1930s into the 1950s.) She left the house at 1:15 that afternoon.

Nitti was next seen by railroad employees at about three o'clock, as he staggered along the Illinois Central tracks near Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road, less than a mile from his Selborne Road home. As the railroad men called out to him, the intoxicated Nitti leaned back against a chain-link fence, drew a handgun and fired it twice, sending bullets through his hat. Positioning the weapon more carefully, he then fired a third shot. The slug entered the right side of his head near his ear and traveled upward, lodging in the top of his skull.

Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943.
When police arrived, they found Nitti's driver's license and Selective Service draft card - both made out in the name Frank Nitto - in his pockets. The documents gave his birthdate as Jan. 27, 1886. The draft card contained his Selborne Road address. The license, however, showed an address of 1208 Lexington Street in Chicago, which belonged to Lucia Ronga, mother of his first wife, the late Anna Theresa Ronga Nitto.

Toni Nitto returned home about a half hour later. "The first I knew of what had happened was when [the police] came and told me he was dead," she later told the press. "I knew something was wrong. There were always strange men watching our house. He knew something was up, too. Frank wasn't well - it was his stomach, nerves I think. They were always after him. They wouldn't let him alone. They made him do this."

Toni's brother Charles appeared at the coroner's inquest to testify that Nitti had been dealing with a number of issues: "He was suffering with a heart ailment and he had stomach trouble. I think he was temporarily insane." Some sources indicated that Nitti was also suffering with physical pain from a serious gunshot wound suffered back in 1932 and with lingering emotional pain from the death of his first wife in November of 1940.

A federal informant provided a more direct explanation for Nitti's suicide: "It was that or be killed. [The Outfit] held Nitti responsible for the problem. Bioff has been his man and it was Nitti who had persuaded the group to withdraw the original 'hit' order on Bioff. It was felt that if they had killed Bioff earlier in the investigation, his death would have silenced most prospective witnesses."

Nitti's estate was valued at greater than $74,000. That was divided between the widow Toni and Joseph, Nitti's son by his first marriage.

What happened to Willie Bioff? Click here.

Sources:
  • World War II draft registration card, serial no. U2138.
  • Yost, Newton E., "La Cosa Nostra," FBI report, file no. 92-6054-683, NARA no. 124-10208-10406, July 22, 1964, p. 18.

  • Fulton, William, "5 aliases bob up to haunt Bioff at extort trial," Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 30, 1941, p. 2.
  • "List gangsters who prey on Chicago unions," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 18, 1943, p. 1.
  • Wiegman, Carl, "Nitti kills himself!," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943, p. 1.
  • "Gang leader Nitti kills himself in Chicago after indictment here," New York Times, March 20, 1943, p. 30.
  • "Nitti long held business chief of underworld," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943, p. 6.
  • Geserick, June, "Nitti sent wife to church at hour of suicide," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 20, 1943, p. 6.
  • "FBI hunts new clews bearing on Nitti suicide," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1943, p. 3.
  • "Nitti's widow once was secretary for slain Edw. J. O'Hare," Dixon IL Evening Telegraph, March 22, 1943, p. 7.
  • Wiegman, Carl, "Schenck bares Bioff threats; cash paid here," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 26, 1943, p. 2.
  • "Swears Nitti was treasurer of movie union," Chicago Daily Tribune, July 3, 1943, p. 6.
  • "Bioff reveals tributes paid by movie firms," Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 8, 1943, p. 15.
  • "Frank Nitti leaves $75,000 estate," Bloomington IL Pantagraph, Oct. 12, 1943, p. 1.

12 March 2017

108 years ago: Petrosino is slain

On this date in 1909, Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino is assassinated while on assignment for the New York Police Department in Palermo, Sicily. He is the only NYPD officer to be killed in the line of duty while on foreign soil.



Though he was traveling under an assumed identity, New York newspapers and the Sicilian-Italian underworld learned of his trip across the Atlantic before he reached Europe. For years, Petrosino had hounded organized criminals in New York's Little Italy neighborhoods. Many were imprisoned or deported due to his efforts. A network of Mafiosi, apparently linked with the Morello Crime Family of New York, is believed to have arranged the shooting death of Petrosino at Palermo's Piazza Marina on the evening of March 12. Police officials in Italy were certain of the identities of the plotters and participants in the assassination, but none were successfully prosecuted.

Officially, Petrosino's mission was to gather Italian criminal records of outlaws who had made their way to New York. The records would allow recently arrived outlaws to be deported from the U.S. Petrosino's actions suggested that he also intended to establish NYPD informants within the criminal societies of southern Italy and Sicily. The first leader of the NYPD Italian Squad (which also spawned the NYPD Bomb Squad), Petrosino had recently been named to command a privately financed, undercover service within the police department. The transatlantic trip, which took him from his wife and young daughter, was his first major task in that new role.

Known for employing tenacity and toughness in numerous successful battles with lawbreakers and underworld organizations, Petrosino became a hero, as well as an important role model, for the quickly growing Italian-American community.

09 March 2017

'Wrongly Executed?' earns notice

The current issue of Vermont's esteemed alternative newsweekly, Seven Days, provides readers with a glimpse of my recently released book, Wrongly Executed? The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution. That such a fine periodical took notice of my work and decided it was worth sharing with readers is an honor. Thank you to Seven Days and to arts reporter Sadie Williams.


See:

07 March 2017

Framed and Defamed

Framed and Defamed:  Stephanie St. Clair Meets Samuel Seabury



Stephanie St. Clair was known as the "Harlem Policy Queen."  In antiquated parlance, she was called "Mme. Stephanie Ste. Clair."  This black woman of another age was a policy banker in Harlem when that area north of 110th Street was the destination of black people migrating from the South in search of better social conditions.  She is sometimes remembered as the "Tiger from Marseilles" who fought back when the mob governed by Dutch Schultz tried to take away her business interests. 

Historically, she is confusing.  She was: 
1.  A hardened black woman who fell for the ministrations of a kindly old white man. 
2.  A numbers runner who sold out her network of cops-on-the-take. 
3.  A fierce street fighter who stood up to Dutch Schultz. 
4.  A rejected, dejected wife who tried to kill her cheating spouse. 
5..  All of the above. (This is the correct answer.) 

Today she remains a paradox.  Her life in the numbers was underground.  Her life as an informant was somewhat documented.  For this reason, we know more about her life after the fact -- "the fact" having ended the moment she started to talk to authorities about the underworld.

Even her existing pictures are a puzzle.  With the exception of one world news photo that shows her in police custody, none of her photos are substantiated beyond a shadow of a doubt.  The photo subject here was identified as being  the wife of Sufi Abdula Hamid.  For that reason, this is most likely an image of a slightly older St. Clair.  Researchers might look for ways to positively identify the providence of the few photos that exist of her.

St. Clair worked as a numbers bankers when neighborhood folks controlled the policy.   As a local figure, she blended in easily.  She arrived in the U.S. on a Caribbean steamship in 1911.  Its manifest listed her as a servant.  From that humble start, she started up her policy banking business around 1922.  At that time it cost a few days' pay to get started.

In or around 1930, she started having trouble with the cops.  Although her runners wore identification tags to indicate "no arrest," police started harassing them.  Around this time, Judge Samuel Seabury, a reformer, launched a commission to investigate New York corruption.  In those days New York had one reformer for every crooked cop and politician, so this didn't look like a big shakeup.  St. Clair, oddly enough, was fooled into thinking that this commission could bring her cops into line.  Threaten them with exposure, and they would allow her to continue her numbers.  It was kind of a blackmail by proxy and it backfired on her. 

The commission is now a page in the history of Tammany Hall and the ill-fated term of Mayor James "Jimmy" Walker.  It is worthy to note that this commission, which came to be known as the "New York City Investigation," heralded in a new "fusion" administration that blended reform and populist principles and resulted in the reign of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.   

When St. Clair visited Seabury's offices, he welcomed the well-dressed, stately woman.  She sensed his empathy.  He considered her complaints about crooked cops to be at the heart of his investigation into corruption in the lower courts.  Police and bailiff bribes went hand in glove with the compromised criminal justice system that the commission uncovered in 1931. 

In going to Seabury, St. Clair abdicated her royal position in this insular, black community.  Speaking to the authorities was an act that made her a figure of betrayal to the neighborhood.  She had crossed 110th Street in more ways than one.  After that, her precinct bag man deserted her.  She was arrested by the same officers she'd once paid off.  She was sentenced to a term at Welfare Island.  The 1930 Census confirms that St. Clair was a resident there, living as a "work detainee." 

Her imprisonment was more than revenge over some precinct dirt.  Her arrest had come through higher channels.  It was a way to silence her violent opposition to the new numbers runners and bankers coming into Harlem.  The combination, fronted by Dutch Schultz with the backing of Tammany politician Jimmy Hines, was moving in and taking over.  After her release, she had a new complaint to take to Seabury.  She wanted police protection from the combination in order to allow her to continue her racket.  

The takeover had caused other bankers to emigrate back to their native Caribbean islands.  The bankers were all faced with the same choice.  They could let Seabury audit their books (assuming anything was written down) or they could roll over and allow the combination thugs to bash their brains in.  Those who did not leave the neighborhood would remain and work for the combination.  While St. Clair made the most noise, her barrel was as empty as the frightened bankers who had abandoned ship.

For now the system had moved from street corners to candy stores, from street runners to storekeepers.  One banker, Paloma Lida, put it this way:  "The racket is a snare and a delusion . . . now old lady Stephanie gets mixed up with the law and the grand jury.  Why did she do that?  Wasn't good business . . . no money in the policy slip profession; bottom done dropped out."

Why did she do it, is a good question.  Maybe she was too street -- she knew her neighborhood but not much else.  She was Caribbean.  She knew corruption, not reform politics.  She was a 19th Century woman, born into a gas-lit winter, December of 1896.  Why did the Tiger trust Seabury?  Perhaps her righteous anger needed a righteous authority figure -- which she thought she'd found in the kindly white man who was fighting injustice. 

By 1932, with all of the old bankers now working for the combination, St. Clair was shut out.  Her name never surfaced among the documented lists of bankers who survived the takeover. 

She went on to a spectacular life through her marriage to Harlem activist Sufi Abdula Hamid.  Nicknamed "Harlem's Hitler" by the press, Hamid advocated the boycotting of Harlem's white-owned businesses.  The marriage was not made in heaven, in spite of Hamid's affectations to spiritualism.  St. Clair was eventually replaced by a younger woman in Hamid's life.  Never one to turn the other cheek, St. Clair attempted to murder him by shooting at him outside his home.  Having survived the wrath of St. Clair, he went on to die in a plane crash above Bellmore, Long Island, as he was preparing to testify in the trial of politician James "Jimmy" Hines.

Her later years were obscure.  As a black underworld woman, she wasn't fodder for justice stories or detective magazines in the way that white gangsters and their molls would be featured.  For this reason, also, she was able to drop out of site.  Thus, her last years are a mystery.  She was mislabeled "The Tiger from Marseilles" in one book.  In spite of its incorrect birther origins -- she was born in Guadeloupe -- the tag has become part of her lore. 


Sources: 

Sann, Paul.  Kill the Dutchman!  New York:  Arlington House, 1971.  New edition of same cited above.
U.S. Census 1930.
Port of NY Passenger Lists

The following sources were found via primary research in the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem:

9 March, 1931, New York Tribune
13, 20 August, 1932, New York Age
9 October, 1934, New York Telegram
1 August, 1938, New York Post.

Ellen Poulsen, author, Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang; and The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial.
Lecturer and commentator on the 1930s Crime Wave.  Currently completing work on a biography tentatively entitled:  Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the F.B.I."