Showing posts with label Morello. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Morello. Show all posts

26 November 2016

'Wrongly Executed?' book now available

Sing Sing Warden Lewis Lawes had no doubt on the evening of January 5, 1939: He had just presided over the electric-chair-execution of an innocent man. The prison chaplain and many guards also felt that convicted cop-killer Charles Sberna had been sent to his death unjustly.

Lawes made his feelings known in a published book a short time later. Syndicated Broadway columnist Walter Winchell also called attention to the flawed case against Sberna in the summer of 1939 and again early in 1942. According to Winchell, the government knew that District Attorney Thomas Dewey's office had sent an innocent man to the chair and was providing "hush money" payments to Sberna relatives. Since then, opponents of capital punishment have included Sberna's name in collections of those deemed "wrongly executed" and have used the case as a somewhat vague example of the possibility of death penalty error. Still, little is known about Sberna or the circumstances that led him to the electric chair.

The story is a complex and controversial one, involving celebrity attorneys, Mafia bosses, violent political radicals, media giants and ruthless establishment figures, all set in a period in which Americans sought stability and government-imposed order after years of political upheaval, economic depression and Prohibition Era lawlessness.

Dust jacket for 'Wrongly Executed?' hardcover

I first became aware of Charles Sberna's story during research into U.S. capital punishment errors. Archived newspaper columns by Winchell revealed a tale worthy of retelling. Sberna and Gati both were convicted and executed for the 1937 murder of Patrolman John H.A. Wilson. Gati admitted his role but insisted that Sberna was not present for the crime. Names of other possible Gati accomplices were revealed, but prosecutors made little effort to check into them.

Email conversations with publisher Rick Mattix relating to the startup of the On the Spot Journal of "gangster era" crime history led me to assemble an article on the Sberna case for the journal's December 2006 issue.

That first article noted the relation by marriage of Charles Sberna and the Morello-Lupo-Terranova clan, which had been a major influence in early New York organized crime. Sberna took as his bride Carmela Morello, daughter of former Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello and niece of New York City rackets leaders Ignazio "the Wolf" Lupo and Ciro "Artichoke King" Terranova.

Sberna's own family background remained a mystery until later research into Amedeo Polignani of the NYPD shed light on the involvement by Charles Sberna's father Giuseppe in the anarchist-terrorist bombings of the 1910s. Giuseppe Sberna was a vocal leader in the East Harlem-based Bresci Circle, the nation's largest anarchist organization. Local, state and federal authorities hunted Giuseppe Sberna, but he escaped to his native Italy, leaving his wife and children behind in New York. Learning this, I began to wonder whether Charles Sberna, so closely connected to so many fearsome public enemies, possibly could have received a fair trial. My decision to fully explore the Sberna case soon followed.

Accused cop-killers Charles Sberna (left)
and Salvatore Gati (right) in court.

I examined court documents, the careers of prosecutors and elected officials, the history of law enforcement efforts against the early Mafia and the American anarchist movement, the questionable philosophies and courtroom tactics of D.A. Thomas Dewey and his assistants, and the known and suspected crimes of the men who might have committed the murder attributed to Sberna. Much of what I found was deeply troubling.

A fair trial may have been denied to Charles Sberna. Given the mood of the time, the background of the defendant and the circumstances of the case, a truly fair trial may have been impossible.

Wrongly Executed? - The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution is now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats. For more information and purchase options, visit the Wrongly Executed? website.

(I wish to express my appreciation to Christian Cipollini, C. Joseph Greaves, Ellen Poulsen and Robert Sberna for their support and assistance on this project.)

15 November 2016

Bad-bills bust

On this date in 1909, agents of the United States Secret Service and detectives of the New York Police Department Italian Squad arrested Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello and a dozen of his aides.

Morello and the others were charged with participating in a counterfeiting ring. Authorities initially suspected that they were importing counterfeit U.S. currency printed by associates in Italy. It was later determined that the phony bills were generated at small printing plant on a farm in Highland, New York.

The arrests concluded a Secret Service investigation of more than half a year. Morello had been watched by the Secret Service for years.

New York Tribune, Nov. 16, 2016

29 October 2016

On this date in 1921: President commutes Lupo sentence

On this date in 1921 - President Warren Harding granted paroled counterfeiter Ignazio Lupo a conditional commutation of a thirty-year sentence imposed in 1910. 

Ignazio Lupo
This turned out to be a significant moment in U.S. Mafia history, so let's take a closer look at what went on. Though Lupo was already out of prison (paroled on June 30, 1920), the Oct. 29, 1921, commutation lifted parole restrictions and allowed Lupo to leave the U.S. legally and return. Harding's decision followed months of pressure by Lupo and his allies.

In September of 1920, U.S. Pardon Attorney James A. Finch received requests to process an application for clemency that had been filed when Lupo was still an inmate at Atlanta Federal Prison. Finch's office found the requests improper, as Lupo was essentially a free man at that moment. The clemency application had become void upon Lupo's parole. In December, Lupo filed a new application for executive clemency, noting that other men imprisoned at the same time as Lupo and for the same offense were out of prison and unimpeded by parole restrictions at that time. The application went unnoticed.

Lupo made appeals to U.S. Senator William M. Calder, a resident of Brooklyn. In June of 1921, Calder wrote to Pardon Attorney Finch, saying that Lupo recently had received a telegram from Italy reporting his father's death. (Lupo's father appears to have died about 1916.) Calder argued that it was necessary for Lupo to return to Sicily to settled the family estate. Finch and acting Superintendent of Prisons Sewall Key reviewed the situation and found there was nothing they could do for Lupo. They reported back to Senator Calder in July, suggesting that only a Presidential pardon could lift the parole restrictions. A clemency petition bearing 60 signatures was submitted to Senator William M. Calder in August. Calder then received clemency requests in letters from Lupo and others, including a former assistant U.S. attorney and the editor of the Italian-language newspaper Il Giornale Italiano.

Early in October, Lupo parole officer Louis Miller of Brooklyn approached President Harding with a formal request for a temporary conditional pardon of six months. According to Miller, Lupo needed to travel to settle his father's estate.

Lupo elected not to reveal that he wished to travel abroad in order to escape a death sentence imposed by American Mafia boss of bosses Salvatore D'Aquila. Following the prison releases of Lupo and his brother-in-law Giuseppe Morello, D'Aquila apparently felt that his position was threatened. Morello was the previous boss of bosses and had been D'Aquila's underworld commander until heading to prison for counterfeiting. At a Mafia meeting in the summer of 1920, D'Aquila trumped up a conflict with Morello and his loyalists and condemned Morello, Lupo and ten other Mafiosi to death. Most of the targeted men traveled to Sicily in quest of a safe haven and some underworld support.

Miller managed to interest Harding in the case, and the President asked Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty to weigh in on the matter. On October 10, Daugherty responded that there was no precedent for a limited-time pardon. "Further," wrote the attorney general, "I am not entirely satisfied that [Lupo] goes to Europe for the purpose stated." Assistant Attorney General John W.H. Crim wrote to Harding with a similar opinion but suggested that the President could commute Lupo's sentence to expire fully, effectively causing parole also to expire, and that place "conditions subsequent" to the commutation.

The commutation issued by President Harding on October 29, 1921, was specifically conditional on Lupo remaining law-abiding, "of which fact the President himself shall be the sole judge."

The short-term impact of Harding's decision was to allow Lupo to escape D'Aquila's wrath in November 1921. While he was away, a new rival, Giuseppe Masseria, emerged to challenge the boss of bosses. By the time of Lupo's return on May 13, 1922, D'Aquila and Masseria were at war for control of the Mafia in New York. Masseria emerged victorious, and figures from the Morello faction became his trusted advisers.

The long-term impact of the decision was not as favorable for Lupo. In July of 1936, then-President Franklin Roosevelt determined that the 59-year-old Lupo had not lived up to the conditions imposed by Harding (Lupo had been arrested in connection with murder investigations, extortion and labor racketeering). Roosevelt ordered that Lupo's original counterfeiting sentence be restored and that Lupo be arrested and returned to Atlanta Federal Prison to serve the remaining 7,174 days (more than 19 and a half years) of that sentence. He remained in prison for about ten years. A generous "good time allowance" permitted the release of the ailing and senile Lupo just in time for Christmas 1946. Lupo died in mid-January, 1947.

Sources:

  •   Ciro Terranova passport application, submitted Oct. 14, 1921, approved Oct. 17, 1921.
  •   Flynn, William, Daily Report, Feb. 19, 1910, Department of the Treasury, United States Secret Service Daily Reports, R.G. No. 87, Vol. 29, National Archives.
  •   Gentile, Nick, with Felice Chilante, Vita di Capomafia, Rome: Crescenzi Allendorf, 1993, p. 71-72, 75, 86.
  •   Ignatio Lupo, appellant, v. Fred Zerbst, appellee, United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, No. 8471, Oct. 19, 1937.
  •   Ignazio Lupo Prison File, #2883, Atlanta Federal Prison, National Archives and Records Administration.
  •   New York City Death Index, certificate no. 524, Jan. 13, 1947. 
  •   Passenger manifest, S.S. Dante Alighieri, sailed from Naples on April 30, 1922, arrived in New York City on May 13, 1922.
  •   Passenger manifest of S.S. Presidente Wilson, arrived New York on Jan. 18, 1922.
  •   Santo Calamia, application for passport, 73710, New Orleans, LA, Aug. 5, 1921.
  •   "150 years in all for the Lupo gang," New York Times, Feb. 20, 1910, p. 1.
  •   "30 years for 'Wolf,'" Washington Post, Feb. 20, 1910, p. 1.
  •   "Bread racket violence traps Lupo 'the Wolf' at baker's door," New York Herald, July 17, 1935.
  •   "Contractor slain by Bath Beach gang," New York Times, Oct. 9, 1930, p. 29.
  •   "Gangland adds 2 more murders to its Brooklyn list," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 9, 1930, p. 23.
  •   "Girl, woman, 4 men shot in battle of two bootleg bands," New York Times, May 9, 1922, p. 1.
  •   "Gunmen kill cousin of 'Lupo the Wolf,'" New York Times, May 9, 1922, p. 3.
  •   "Law's limit given," Washington D.C. Evening Star, Feb. 20, 1910, p. 5.
  •   "Long jail terms," New York Tribune, Feb. 20, 1910, p. 1.
  •   "Lupo freed from Ellis Island," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 13, 1922, p. 2
  •   "Mulrooney orders harder crime fight by police officials," New York Times, Aug. 29, 1931, p. 1.
  •   "Only two crimes reported in 24 hours as police seize 84 suspects in city round-up," New York Times, Aug. 28, 1931, p. 1.
  •   "Police round up eight," New York Times, Dec. 3, 1923, p. 19
  •   "Prison shuts again on Lupo the Wolf," New York Times, July 16, 1936, p. 1.
  •   "U.S. bars 'Lupo the Wolf,'" Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 14, 1922, p. 6.
  •   "'Lupo the Wolf' notorious criminal, freed by Washington from Ellis Island," New York Times, June 13, 1922, p. 1.

- Thomas Hunt