On this date in 1909:
|Decatur Daily Review|
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.
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, native of Corleone, Sicily, and reigning 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.
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.
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 surprisingly was found not guilty of counterfeiting could 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 (Mafia historian/genealogist Justin Cascio determined that the Spatafora family was from Corleone) 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, who married Laura Spatafora in January 1902.
If Gioacchino Spatafora had been 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|
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.)
- "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.
- Cascio, Justin, "Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court," Mafia Genealogy, mafiagenealogy.wordpress.com, Feb. 24, 2021.
- 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.