03 February 2020

'Joe Baker' gunned down on Belmont Ave.

On this date in 1931:

Mafia gunmen working for Castellammarese insurrection leader Salvatore Maranzano on February 3, 1931, ambushed Joseph "Joe the Baker" Catania in the Bronx. A key figure in the administration of boss of bosses Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria, Catania was gunned down in front of a candy store at 2373 Belmont Avenue. He was struck by slugs in the head, neck and upper body. He was rushed to Fordham Hospital, where he died the following morning.

Catania
The Mafia's Castellammarese War had been raging for months. The devastating loss of Catania occurred at a time when Masseria was insisting that his loyalists disarm to avoid provoking police. Convinced that the disarmament strategy would cause them to quickly follow Catania to the grave, Masseria's lieutenants began plotting his assassination.

Joseph Catania, twenty-eight,* was a nephew of Masseria group leader Ciro "the Artichoke King" Terranova. The married father of two children, Catania lived at 2319 Belmont Avenue, about two blocks from the scene of his murder. He was known as "Joe the Baker" or "Joe Baker" because of his involvement in the bakery business since childhood.

Catania reportedly was well liked by New York Mafiosi, but somehow managed to deeply offend Maranzano. The rebel leader felt that Catania must be killed before the end of the war. Maranzano sent hit teams to known Catania hangouts in the neighborhood of Arthur Avenue and 187th Street. (The Catania family had a bakery at 2389 Arthur Avenue in this period and years earlier lived in an apartment above it. The address is now home to an Italian restaurant and apartments.) These teams were unable to locate their target.

Maranzano next negotiated with Frank Scalise of the Bronx, a recent convert to the rebel cause, to eliminate the Baker. After two weeks, Maranzano gave up hope of Scalise taking care of things. The Castellammarese leader stationed a team, including Salvatore "Sally" Shillitani, Nick Capuzzi, Joseph Valachi and Maranzano's top assassin Sebastiano "Buster" Domingo, in a top-floor apartment across narrow Belmont Avenue from an office known to be used by Catania. The office was just a two-minute walk from Catania's apartment but was in a busier and more commercial setting.

Valachi later wrote about the assignment in his autobiography, The Real Thing, recalling that he personally liked Catania but hid that fact from his boss Maranzano.

New York Times
From the apartment windows, the team was able to spot and track Catania. They watched him go through the same routine at about nine o'clock every morning except Sunday - he appeared at the office, picked up some money, then came out and quickly walked a short distance to the corner, rounded the corner and disappeared. Each morning for weeks, Domingo prepared to take a shot at Catania as he reached the corner, but Domingo was too high over the street and Catania visible for too short a time to do so reliably.

Valachi became aware that a first-floor apartment in the building was vacant. He suggested that the team burst into that apartment one morning and target Catania from its windows. Maranzano approved the plan.

At eight o'clock on the morning of February 3, 1931, Valachi used burglar tools to open the door of the first-floor apartment, and the team members entered with guns drawn. Three painters were at work inside. When they saw the gangsters, they believed they were being held up and offered their money.

Valachi recalled, "I told them that we did not want their money, just go on painting the way you were doing and everyone will be happy and no one will bother you." The painters, whose names and home addresses were released to the press, later told the police that the gangsters entered with their faces masked with black scarves.

The other team members set up, but Valachi claimed that it was his job to go outside and start the getaway car. (With this claim, Valachi removed himself from the actual shooting of Catania. Interestingly, Valachi did not mention getting the car ready at any of the other times that Domingo had Catania in his sights.) In addition to putting six slugs in Catania, the shooters put numerous holes in the front windows of the candy store and an adjacent butcher shop.

Valachi estimated that he was in the car less than a minute when his associates arrived there. He did not recall whether he heard the gunshots. During their escape, Shillitani told him about the shooting:

He [Shillitani] felt bad because Joe Baker came out of the office and as he reached the corner his wife met him and she handed him something and they kissed and he went the other way and the wife just stayed there and was watching him go when Buster had to shoot... Solly said that he saw the dust come out of Joe's coat as the bullets hit him in the back.

A crowd gathered around the fallen Catania. One of the first to him was taxi driver Daniel Stefano. Catania was loaded into Stefano's cab and driven to Fordham Hospital. The Baker died of his wounds at ten minutes to eight the next morning.

Police questioned Daniel Stefano, Catania friend Daniel Iamascia and Catania's wife Louisa, but could not figure out the killing.

Catania (right) and underworld associates John Savino (left) and Daniel Iamascia

The New York underworld gave Catania a magnificent send-off. Press reports estimated that his funeral cost as much as $35,000, with about $10,000 said to have been invested in his coffin. (The coffin was bronze, according to the New York Times. The New York Daily News reported that it was silver.)

News from Catania's wake reached Maranzano through his spies: Ciro Terranova reportedly stood by the coffin, placed one hand on it and the other hand high in the air, and swore to avenge the killing of his nephew.

"When the old man [Maranzano] heard about this," Valachi recalled, "he sent someone at the funeral parlor to see if there was a chance to get [Terranova] at the wake. Naturally it was a spy but word came that it was impossible to do anything."

The funeral procession on February 7 was watched by about 10,000 people. It reportedly took forty cars to carry the floral offerings of friends, family and associates. Dozens of mounted and foot police officers kept order along the route and dozens of plain clothes detectives mingled in the crowd.

A Roman Catholic Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated by three priests at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, about a block from the scene of the murder. Police frisked known crime figures, including Terranova, as they entered the church.

After the services, Catania's remains were placed temporarily in a crypt at Woodlawn Cemetery while a mausoleum was constructed at St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.


* Different records point to different birthdates for Joseph Catania, ranging from March 1900 to November 1902, but the most reliable available sources point to between September 29, 1902, and October 1, 1902.

Sources:
  • "10,000 at funeral of 'Joe the Baker,'" New York Times, Feb. 8, 1931, p. 30.
  • "Bail runner shot in street ambush," New York Times, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 11.
  • Birth records of Palermo, Italy, vol. 455, no. 108.
  • "Gang shots fatal to Joe the Baker," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 2.
  • "'Joe the Baker' dies of wounds," Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 1.
  • "Machine gun pair in Bronx riddle thug," New York Daily News, Feb. 4, 1931, p. 38.
  • Miley, Jack, "$35,000 funeral puts thug in last spot," New York Daily News, Feb. 8, 1931, p. 6.
  • New York State Census of 1905, New York County, Assembly District 32, Election District Special no. 3.
  • New York State Census of 1915, New York County, Assembly District 28, Election District 2.
  • New York State Census of 1925, Bronx County, Assembly District 7, Election District 45.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Trojan Prince, departed Palermo, Sicily, on April 15, 1903, arrived New York on May 1, 1903.
  • United States Census of 1910, New York State, New York County, Ward 12, Enumeration District 341.
  • United States Census of 1920, New York State, Bronx County, Assembly District 4, Enumeration District 393.
  • United States Census of 1930, New York State, Bronx County, Enumeration District 3-552.
  • Valachi, Joseph, The Real Thing - Second Government: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra by Joseph Valachi, Member Since 1930, unpublished manuscript, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, p. 323-328.
  • Van`t Riet, Lennert, David Critchley and Steve Turner, "Gunmen of the Castellammarese War - Part 5: A lifetime of tangling with the law: Salvatore 'Sally Shields' Shillitani," Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement, April 2013.
  • World War I Draft Registration Card, serial no. 3655, order no. 736, Local Board 17, New York City, Sept. 19, 1918.

No comments:

Post a Comment