27 July 2017

1909 Connecticut murder linked to NYC Mafia

On this date in 1909...
An orchardman in Danbury, Connecticut, is ambushed and shot to death at his doorstep on Hospital Avenue. Newspaper reports immediately link his murder to the Morello-Lupo Mafia organization in New York City and to the famous Barrel Murder case.

Giovanni Zarcone of Danbury
Near the centennial of this murder (now eight years ago), I was invited to speak about it at the Danbury Museum and Historical Society. A couple of documents were prepared for that event: One was the text of my remarks and the other was a collection of related images. Links to these documents are provided below.

An article relating to the murder and its background was published in the July 2009 issue of Informer: The Journal of American Mafia History. That issue remains available in print and electronic formats through the MagCloud service.


26 July 2017

Embryo of the FBI

On this date in 1908: Former U.S. Secret Service operatives were assigned to serve under Chief Examiner Stanley Wellington Finch of the Justice Department. The following year, the DOJ's new investigative arm was given the name, "Bureau of Investigation." In 1935, it was rechristened, "Federal Bureau of Investigation."

Stanley W. Finch
Aside from a staff of accountants used to monitor financial dealings of the U.S. court system, the DOJ had no investigative staff before July 26, 1908. When it needed to engage in an investigation of a federal crime, it hired private detectives or "rented" operatives from the U.S. Secret Service.

The practice had a number of flaws. It was costly and inefficient. The quality and technique of a private investigator could not be controlled. Secret Service agents were primarily loyal to their full-time bosses in the U.S. Treasury Department. The inter-department renting of operatives also could be cut off at any moment through Congressional budgeting measures.

Finch reportedly argued for some time for the creation of an investigative unit within the DOJ. U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte of the Theodore Roosevelt Administration was convinced to give the idea a try. He hired a group of former Secret Service men in the summer of 1908. On July 26, Bonaparte placed the group under the command of Finch.

Finch remained at the helm until 1912, when he was appointed special commissioner for the suppression of white slave traffic. His successor at the Bureau of Investigation was Alexander Bruce Bielaski, who continued as chief through the Great War and into the early stages of America's first "Red Scare."

23 July 2017

Brooklyn's 1902 'Sack Murder' (1 of 4)

Bay Ridge boys, heading out for summer evening swim,
were first to encounter grisly contents of discarded sack

(Jump to Part 2)
Joseph Donahue, Robert Pearsall
and John Mulqueen (left to right)

On this date in 1902...
Fourteen-year-old John Mulqueen and three of his friends slid down the grassy slope from the foot of Seventy-third Street in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. As they moved through trees and tall weeds toward the rocky shore of New York Bay, they began removing their clothes. The sun had set on a steamy Wednesday, July 23, 1902, and the boys were ready for a cooling swim.

Before heading into the water, the four teens fanned out, looking for remote hiding places for their clothes. None wanted to take the chance of falling victim to the “chaw beef” trick. That practical joke involved tying tight knots into the shirt and pants of a bather. When the victim came out of the water, he would need to use teeth along with fingers to get the knots out. Onlookers would cheer, “Chaw beef, chaw beef...,” as the knots were undone.

Young Mulqueen carried his garment bundle off into the grass, where he spotted what looked to be a large and very full potato sack. The boy found the object irresistible. He pulled a small knife from his clothes and put a slit into the sack. Underneath, he found another container, which appeared to be made of tougher material.

He gathered his friends and began slicing into the inner liner. When the dusk light fell upon a portion of the sack’s contents, the boys recoiled. A man was inside, naked and lifeless.

“It’s a dead man!” Mulqueen shouted.

The boys, stunned by what they saw, retreated and hastily put their clothes back on. Mulqueen, who lived a few blocks away at 321 Seventy-fourth Street, decided that the police were needed. He suggested that two of the group leave at once for the Fort Hamilton Police Station on Eighty-sixth Street near Fifth Avenue. The other two should keep watch on the area, he said. Joseph Donahue of 346 Seventy-fourth Street, Robert Pearsall of 1671 Third Avenue and William Chambers of 206½ Chambers Street all agreed that Mulqueen’s plan was sound. However, none of the boys wished to be left behind with the bagged corpse. They decided on an alternate plan – they would all go together to fetch the police.

By road, the distance between their favorite swimming spot and the station was about one and a half miles. But the layout of Bay Ridge in 1902 – sprawling farms, large vacation estates and smaller homes surrounded by woods through which paths had been carved – allowed a more direct route and cut the trip to the station by about a third.

Desk Sergeant Hughes somewhat reluctantly listened to John Mulqueen’s story. He doubted that the boys had stumbled upon a corpse in a bag of potatoes, but dispatched three police officers with Mulqueen and his friends in a patrol wagon to investigate.

The Brooklyn officers followed Mulqueen’s direction to the sack and quickly verified his tale. Unprepared to conduct an investigation on the dark shore, the officers decided to take the large bundle back to their station. With considerable difficulty, they dragged the sack and its contents up the twenty-foot-high slope to the intersection of Seventy-third Street and Shore Road, loading it into the patrol wagon.

A thorough examination of the corpse and its wrappings was conducted under the lights at Fort Hamilton Station. The outer covering was indeed a large potato sack. Stenciled on it were the words, “Paton’s Selected Scotch – 168 lbs.” Police determined that the inner lining had been assembled from some floor matting sewn into the shape of a bag. Another bag was found over the head of the victim. Around that was wrapped a few pages from the Sunday, July 13, issue of the New York Times.

Despite the date of that newspaper, investigators could see that the victim had been dead not longer than twenty-four hours. He was a fairly large and powerfully developed man, with a height of about five feet and ten inches and a weight approximated at two hundred and forty pounds. He had gray eyes, black hair and a lighter color mustache. Police guessed that he was roughly thirty eight years old.

The cause of death was readily apparent. A deep gash ran across the victim's throat from ear to ear, nearly disconnecting the head from the torso. The coroner noted that only a single cord of neck muscle remained intact. The victim had bled out quickly, possibly losing as much as a gallon of blood in the moments following his murder.

Two other short stab wounds were found on the neck and face. A number of other wounds on the body were noted. The victim’s left thumb and forefinger were missing, the result of a much older injury. Several scrapes looked to be defensive injuries. Bruises were visible all over the body. Several larger bones had been broken. The coroner theorized that the broken bones might have occurred after death, as the body was stuffed into the floor mat bag. Heavy twine had been used to fold the body in half by joining the upper spine to the lower legs. This, too, was seen as a measure taken to allow for easy disposal of the victim.

Detectives and patrolmen returned to the shore with lanterns to search for additional clues. They discovered another potato sack, which held a black suit, a shirt, shoes and a derby hat. The suit and shirt had been cut into large strips and were stained with blood. With the clothes, the detectives found two folded documents. One was a bill of lading for a tomato-based product imported from Italy. The other was a notice of eviction relating to a commercial establishment at 165 Columbia Street. Though the victim remained nameless, the documents suggested he was an Italian merchant doing business on Columbia Street.

Further up the slope from the spot where the body had been found, Officers Burns and White noted that a section of fence had been knocked over and several saplings crushed. From the available evidence the detectives concluded that the two potato sacks had been driven to Shore Road and thrown onto the slope from a vehicle. They speculated that the perpetrators of the crime, believing the water was closer to the road than it actually was, expected the sacks to roll out into the bay. Area residents reported seeing a wagon stopping briefly in the area during the night.

(Jump to Part 2)

Brooklyn's 1902 'Sack Murder' (2 of 4)

Victim identified as 'Joe the Grocer,'
Sicilian immigrant living under assumed name

(Return to Part 1)   (Jump to Part 3)

Police officers under the command of Captain Michael Devanney of Fort Hamilton Station and sleuths of the Brooklyn Detective Bureau led by Captain James G. Reynolds met at Columbia Street to follow the only clues to the victim’s identity.

167 Columbia Street
Detective Sergeant Antonio Vachris was one of the investigators dispatched to the scene by Captain Reynolds. Vachris, born in France to an Italian family making its way to the United States, was a longtime resident of Brooklyn and knew its Italian population well. He spoke Italian and some Sicilian dialects. One of the few non-Democrats to advance through the ranks of the Brooklyn police, Vachris secured promotion several months earlier from roundsman - street supervisor of patrolmen - to detective sergeant in an unusual way. He sued administrators of the New York Police Department, charging that he had been performing detective sergeant duties at Brooklyn headquarters for years while being denied the corresponding title and pay. The courts found in his favor and compelled Police Commissioner “Colonel” John N. Partridge to appropriately grade Vachris and others in his situation.

The building at 165 Columbia turned out to be a second-hand furniture store owned by Mary Noonan. The police awakened Noonan, who lived in an apartment above her business, and asked her about the eviction notice. She directed them to a grocery next door at 167 Columbia.

'Joe the Grocer' Catania
In the apartments above that store, police found grocer Giuseppe Catania’s wife and six children. Vachris learned that Catania, known in the neighborhood as “Joe the Grocer,” had been missing since Tuesday morning. The disappearance had been reported to police at the Fort Hamilton Station and at the Mulberry Street headquarters in Manhattan. Catania’s son Charlie and son-in-law Dominick Tutrone had been searching for him all over the city.

The murder victim reportedly had lived in Brooklyn for more than twenty years under the assumed name of Catania (Secret Service records later referred to him as Giuseppe DiTrapani), since emigrating from his native Palermo, Sicily. He initially worked as a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks and lived for a time in a Sicilian neighborhood on Union Street.

Catania’s wife collapsed and wept loudly after hearing of her husband’s demise. The police learned very little from their initial attempts to question her. Her wailing woke a number of neighbors and drew them to the apartment. Police interviewed the small crowd and began piecing together a possible explanation for the murder.

Det. Sgt. Vachris
They learned that Catania fought with a man named Troia or Trica on Sunday, July 20. Catania showed up at Troia’s second-floor apartment on Hicks Street near the intersection with Summit and attempted to collect an old grocery debt of fourteen dollars. Troia refused to pay. The disagreement became physical, and Troia shoved Catania down a flight of stairs.

When police asked Mrs. Catania to confirm that her husband had fought with Troia, she became more talkative. She dismissed the fight as a possible cause for further violence. She told Vachris that her husband and Troia patched up their relationship on Monday. Troia, she said, pledged to pay his debt the following day.

According to Mrs. Catania, her husband left their home on Tuesday morning to meet Troia and collect his money. He then intended to head into Manhattan to pick up a case of imported tomato paste a friend had moved through the New York Customhouse. Catania had less than three dollars on him when he left the house, she said. She did not know if he ever made it to Manhattan.

She insisted that her husband was very well liked in the neighborhood. He spent his evenings at home, on the front steps, chatting with neighbors. He liked to drink, she said, but never drank too much.

(Return to Part 1)   (Jump to Part 3)