Showing posts with label Murder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Murder. Show all posts

10 January 2018

Criminal Curiosities: Twelve Remarkable reprobates you've probably never heard of.

Out now for the Amazon Kindle.

As a crime writer with a long-time interest in crime's more unusual aspects, I often try to find some of its more overlooked stories. Who needs yet another rehash of Jack the Ripper or JFK reshuffling old evidence while seldom offering anything new? Apart from accountants at publishing companies wanting bestsellers to boost their quarterly balance sheets, at any rate?

All walks of life have their pioneers, those who stand out as the first, last or only example in thier field. Crime is no exception., but crime's stand-outs are seldom as widely acknowledged as, say, the first Moon landing or the discovery of the New World. It's time that changed. Criminal Curiosities is a small step toward that.

Some readers will have heard of William Kemmler or Herbert Rowse Armstrong. Kemmler was, after all, the first convict ever to be legally electrocuted. Armstrong was (and remains, the UK having abolished capital punishment) the first and only British lawyer to be hanged for murder.

But who was the first convict to face the guillotine? Why were legendary figures Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse so closely entwined with William Kemmler and he with them? Whose murder trial saw the victim's body transported to the scene of the crime, then used in a live reconstruction in front of the jury? And how on earth did Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren get away with trading a fake Vermeer for 137 genuine paintings (today worth around $60 million with, of all people, Gestapo founder and Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering? 

You probably don't know. Criminal Curiosities is where you find out.

They're all singular in their own particular way. All have a fascinating tale to tell of their own misdeeds and how they sometimes forever changed the world around them. All of them are often overlooked and some are barely historical footnotes, if that.

Criminal Curiosities is currently available for the Amazon Kindle.

09 January 2018

James Wells, America's worst botched execution.


Call it whatever you want. Old Sparky, Old Smokey, Sizzlin’ Sally or Gruesome Gertie, the electric chair has always had a troubled history. From its very first use (executing murderer William Kemmler on August 6, 1890) it’s been dogged by failures, mechanical and human

Initial problems involved untried equipment, new ideas and inexperienced executioners. Limited knowledge of inflicting humane electrocution spawned a series of experimental executions. Successive inmates endured different numbers of electrodes, different voltages applied for different durations, electrodes placed on different body parts and so on.

In 1892 Charles McElvaine’s hands were placed in tubs of brine to conduct the voltage. He suffered horribly before the now-standard head and leg electrodes were used instead. Malfunctioning or ill-prepared equipment (in the case of Willie Francis and so many others) has also caused horrific scenes in America’s death chambers.

What happened at the former Arkansas State Penitentiary in Little Rock (since demolished and replaced by public buildings) on March 10, 1922 made Kemmler’s suffering look comparatively minor. Murderer and escapee James Wells endured perhaps the worst-botched execution in American history.

Wells, born in 1904 and hailing from Drew County, was an African-American farmhand. Convicted of murdering white Arkansas farmer Peter Trenz (his former employer) on May 18, 1921 Wells was never likely to avoid Old Sparky. He was a poor, black defendant convicted of murdering a respectable white victim. In those less-enlightened times, many whites considered that reason enough.

(Arkansas Department of Corrections).

Arkansas introduced electrocution in 1913, the State also taking over executions from individual counties. During the chair’s lengthy tenure Arkansas executed 195 prisoners. Of these two were Native American men, one white woman, one Hispanic male and 57 white males. The rest, 143 men, were all African-American. Warden Luther Castling had resigned rather than electrocute the ten men then waiting to die. His successor Warden Dempsey didn't have similar qualms.

(From the Daily Ardmorite). 

Aside from being poor, black and convicted of murdering a white when lynching and legal execution was equally likely for that crime, Wells hadn’t exactly done himself any favors after his conviction. On December 9, 1921 condemned killer, bank robber and serial escaper Tom Slaughter managed a spectacular escape from ‘The Walls’ and Death Row itself.

Overpowering guards, Slaughter took the Warden’s family hostage, escaping in Warden Dempsey’s car. Dempsey, whose job it had been to carry out executions, soon found himself unemployed. That in turn caused an excruciating death for Wells.

Slaughter had invited the other condemned inmates to join him. Wells, believing his appeal would almost certainly fail, escaped with him. Slaughter survived only a day before being shot by fellow-escaper Jack Howard. Howard claimed to have escaped only to help bring Slaughter to justice, a claim accepted by Arkansas authorities. Howard was never charged over Slaughter’s death, being pardoned and released several years later.

Wells, soon recaptured, returned to Death Row. He’d escaped on December 9, been recaptured within days and his appeal was denied on Christmas Eve, 1921. A foolish time to attempt escape and humiliate the Arkansas justice system. Not much of a Christmas present, either. That said, nothing can justify what happened at his execution.

On March 10, 1922 all the usual preparations had been made. All that remained was for the executioner to do his job competently and professionally. With Warden Dempsey gone, the new executioner was an Englishman, a former car salesman whose sole qualification and experience consisted of having (as he himself put it) taken ‘a correspondence course in electricity.’ The State of Arkansas had entrusted a delicate, potentially dangerous task to a man utterly lacking expertise, training or experience. It was suggested at the time that the nameless volunteer arrived drunk.

(Arkansas Department of Corrections).

Wells entered the penitentiary’s death chamber singing a hymn. He was still singing as he sat in Old Sparky and the straps and electrodes were applied. He remained singing right up until the executioner threw the switch. As the Dallas Express described it:

“Going to the chair singing, Wells continued to sing until the first charge of electricity was sent through his body.”

Wells was certainly silenced by the first jolt, but he wasn’t dead. Either the first jolt was far too brief or the voltage far too low. Still alive, Wells needed another. Shocked again, he remained alive. A third jolt was called for.

The witnesses began looking uncomfortable. Inmates were supposed to sit down quietly, say their last words and die. A second jolt might be delivered to make sure, but seldom more than that. The executioner shocked Wells repeatedly. Repeatedly the current crackled, doctors checking between jolts. Wells simply wouldn’t die.

After the first jolts had failed horrified witnesses began leaving the execution chamber. With every unsuccessful jolt the remaining witnesses’ disgust grew. By the eleventh jolt everyone involved just wanted it to end. For the twelfth time the switch was thrown, the current crackled and Wells leapt against the restraints. The power was shut off while doctors checked yet again.
James Wells was finally dead.

As the Dallas Express described it, the execution succeeded at:

“The twelfth attempt, according to witnesses, after terrible suffering on the part of the boy.”

The disaster was publicised in Arkansas, Utah, California, Texas, Tennessee and numerous other States where executions, especially of African-Americans, seldom garnered more than a line or two.
Even the New York Tribune covered it, stating:

‘Wells was examined by the State physicians who pronounced him still alive. Another charge of electricity was sent through his body, with the same result. Witnesses began to leave the death room and only a few were still present when the last charges were sent through his body and Wells finally was pronounced dead. Fully twenty minutes were consumed in putting him to death.’


Had Arkansas employed an expert like New York’s Robert Greene Elliott, the nightmarish exhibition would almost certainly have never happened. Elliott performed 387 executions in six States, perfecting the ‘Elliott Technique’; 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 volts for 57 seconds,, 2000 volts for another three seconds, 500 for 57 seconds and a final burst of 2000 volts. Very rarely did he need to deliver more than one cycle.

A bitter irony that, as his executioner, Wells couldn’t have been in safer hands.


The Daily Ardmorite, Oklahoma.

Arkansas Department of Corrections.

The New York Tribune.

The Dallas Express

Gruesome Spectacles; Botched executions and America's Death Penalty, Austin Sarat, 2014, Stanford Law Books.

08 January 2018

Rude guests pump bullets into their host

On this date in 1929: Chicago underworld leader and olive oil merchant Pasqualino "Patsy" Lolordo, forty-three, was shot to death by visitors to his apartment, 1921 W. North Avenue. 

Lolordo (left), scene of murder (right). Chicago Daily Tribune

Lolordo welcomed three guests at about three o'clock in the afternoon and shared drinks and conversation with them in the livingroom for an hour.

Joe Aiello (left),
Lena Lolordo (right)
At four o'clock, his thirty-eight-year-old wife Lena, tending to the ironing in the apartment kitchen, heard gunshots and ran to the livingroom. She brushed past the visitors on her way to her fallen husband. The visitors left quickly and quietly. Lena grabbed a velvet pillow and placed it under the dying man's head.

Lolordo succumbed to gunshot wounds to his skull, neck and shoulders before an ambulance arrived. Police found an empty .38-caliber pistol on the building stairway and another near Lolordo's body. Three half-filled drinking glasses sat on a livingroom table. A broken glass was in Lolordo's lifeless hand.

Police determined that Lolordo was unarmed when he was shot, though they found a sawed-off shotgun in his bedroom. Eighteen men, believed to be members of the Joe Aiello bootlegging gang, were viewed by Lena Lolordo, but she recognized none of them as her husband's visitors. Later, she picked out a photograph of Aiello himself, saying he was one of the gunmen.

Several months earlier, Lolordo had succeeded the murdered Antonio Lombardo as leader of Chicago's gangland-linked Unione Siciliana organization.

Lolordo death certificate
See also: 

26 December 2017

Survived enemies, killed by friend

NY Evening World
In the early morning of December 26, 1920, gangland legend "Monk" Eastman was shot to death near Union Square in Manhattan. It was an abrupt end to a day of holiday merry-making as well as to a decades-long criminal career.

"Monk" Eastman had spent Christmas evening celebrating with some friends at the Court Cafe at Driggs Avenue and Broadway at the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge. Though Prohibition was in effect, bootleg booze was readily available, and the forty-seven-year-old gangster and his associates drank large quantities of the stuff.

Around midnight, the Court Cafe quieted down, and the Eastman party decided to move on into Manhattan to continue the jolly time. The group piled into a car, and Monk directed the driver, twenty-six-year-old William J. Simermeyer, to the Blue Bird Cabaret, 62 East Fourteenth Street. Eastman was a frequent visitor at the Blue Bird and was friendly with its management and staff.

After several hours of singing and heavy drinking, Eastman and friends left the Blue Bird at about four o'clock in the morning and walked a short distance east on Fourteenth Street to the corner of Fourth Avenue. Several gunshots were fired. The group quickly disbanded, leaving a collapsed Eastman dying on the curb.

Sidney Levine, master of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit subway station at Fourteenth Street, heard the gunshots and rushed upstairs to the street. He saw a body by the roadside and found a still-hot .32-caliber revolver on the station stairs.

NY Tribune
Patrons and employees from cafes in the neighborhood and taxidrivers who were parked nearby all rushed to the shooting victim. None apparently recognized him. When the sound of a heartbeat was noted, driver Peter Bailey  loaded the victim into his taxi and sped off to St. Vincent's Hospital. Eastman did not survive the trip.

Still unrecognized, his "gorilla-like" remains were moved to the morgue of the Mercer Street Police Station. Lieutenant William Funston, serving as acting captain in command of the district's detectives, took personal charge of the investigation. Detectives John Bottie and Joseph Gilinson were assigned to the case.

It was about six o'clock when the two veteran detectives had a look at the victim and instantly identified him as former Lower East Side crime czar Monk Eastman. Their identification was confirmed through police fingerprint records.

Evidence indicated that Eastman had extended his arms and hands in a vain effort to shield himself from the gunshots that took his life. There were wounds to both his forearms and to his left hand. Shots were fired at close range, as powder burns were evident on his overcoat. One slug entered at the left center of Eastman's chest. Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris confirmed on December 27 that it was the cause of death, having pierced Monk's heart. Norris also noted that Eastman was very drunk at the moment his life ended.

No weapons were found on Eastman. Investigators did find $144, a heavy watch and chain and two pairs of gold eyeglasses, indicating that Monk's killer did not intend to rob him.

NY Evening World

Press speculation

Assistant District Attorney John R. Hennis, chief of the D.A.'s homicide bureau, became the public spokesman for the investigation. It was a challenging role, as there seemed no limit to speculation by the New York press. In just the first two days following Eastman's murder, newspapers had suggested that it was the result of a disagreement with a bootlegging or narcotics trafficking partner, that it was related to a love affair, that it was an act of vengeance by an old rival and that it was an underworld penalty for cooperating with authorities.

There was some support for each of those possibilities. Investigators in Brooklyn were certain that Eastman was engaged in bootlegging and narcotics distribution, though he had sworn off such activities following his heroic return from service in the Great War. For a time, he made an effort to stay away from gangs and rackets. He worked in an automobile accessories store and tried managing his own pet shop (he had great affection for birds and other pets and had run a pet store many years earlier). But the old life drew him back in. In recent months, police had been following him into Manhattan in the hope of identifying a narcotics supplier.

The romantic angle related to the discovery of a Christmas card signed "Lottie" that was found in Eastman's pockets. Some Eastman friends reported that he had been married years earlier. His wife had not been seen for some time, and one report explained that she died. Authorities doubted that Monk would have jeopardized his life for love, as he seemed never to place a great deal of value in the company of a woman.

NY Herald
As far as enemies and rivals were concerned, Eastman had made plenty since his days as street gang warrior, strike-breaker and Tammany Hall-hired political "slugger," but he outlived many of them. "Eat-'em-up Jack" McManus had his skull crushed back in 1905. Bullets took out Max "Kid Twist" Zwerbach in 1908, "Big Jack" Zelig in 1912, Jack Pioggi in 1914 and "Johnny Spanish" Weyler in 1919. A number of the old brawlers were still around but were giving way to a new generation of Prohibition Era gangsters.

The notion that a lifelong underworld figure like Monk Eastman might be cooperating with police seemed outrageous. However, on the day after Eastman's murder, authorities revealed that Eastman had been holding meetings with narcotics investigators. Acting Captain Daniel Carey, commander of detectives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, went to Eastman's room, 801 Driggs Avenue, in the middle of December and again just before Christmas to discuss an investigation of a drug ring. Dr. Carleton Simon, deputy police commissioner in charge of the narcotics squad, and squad Detective Barney Boylan had also met with Eastman during the month of December. When questioned about the meetings, the police did not deny that Eastman helped to expose an opium ring.

Killed by a friend

Speaking with reporters on December 28, Hennis refused to address the press assumptions. He revealed a belief that Eastman was killed not by an old enemy but by a longtime friend. He refused to identify the suspect, who was not yet in custody.

Hennis explained that, after Eastman and a half dozen partiers left the Blue Bird, they met an old acquaintance. Eastman spoke to the man briefly before the man fired the shots that took Eastman's life. After that, the remaining partiers all scattered.

"We cannot tell whether Monk was double-crossed [by the friends he was with]," Hennis explained, "but we do know that the man who shot him was known to all the rest. He is a well known character, although not so famous as Monk."

A later announcement described the suspect as "not a gangster" but a man who was on intimate terms with criminals in the Union Square area.

On December 30, news reports indicated that the identity of Eastman's killer was learned through the questioning of driver William J. Simermeyer and Eastman friend Sylvester Hamilton, both of Brooklyn. The men were each held in $10,000 bail as material witnesses.


Burial with military honors

Monk Eastman was buried with military honors on December 30, 1920. The funeral was arranged and financed by friends who had served with Eastman in the World War I American Expeditionary Force and could not bear to see him interred in a potter's field.

Infamous for his brutality on the streets of New York City, Eastman earned the respect of his fellow servicemen during the war. He volunteered for military service in October 1917, after emerging from a term in Sing Sing Prison. He enlisted in the 47th Regiment, New York National Guard, under the name of William Delaney. A short time later, part of the 47th, including Eastman/Delaney, was joined with the 106th United States Infantry and sent overseas to fight in France.

Eastman and the 106th participated in the advance along Vierstraat Ridge in Belgium in the late summer of 1918. During that battle, Eastman rescued a fallen comrade, braving enemy fire and suffering two bullet wounds. Following that act of heroism, he was sent to the hospital to recover.

Just three days later, he reportedly left the hospital, without orders and without his uniform, to rejoin his old unit at the front. Wearing hospital pajamas, it is said that Eastman single-handedly slithered through mud to a German machine gun nest and succeeded in taking the position from the enemy.

Eastman's courageous service so rehabilitated his image that Colonel Franklin W. Ward, commander of the 106th Infantry, and First Lieutenant Joseph A. Kerrigan went to New York State Governor Alfred E. Smith to plead that the former gangster's state citizenship, lost due to his felony convictions, be fully reinstated. Governor Smith agreed to the request on May 8, 1919.

On the day of Eastman's funeral, thousands came out to Mrs. Samuel Yannaco's small undertaking establishment, 348 Metropolitan Avenue, to pay their respects. Eastman's body was was dressed in his military uniform, adorned with the American Legion wounded men's button. On his left shoulder was an insignia for his military unit. His sleeves showed three service stripes and two wound stripes.

A silver plate on the coffin was inscribed, "Edward Eastman. Our lost pal. Gone but not forgotten."

At a funeral service, Rev. James H. Lockwood expressed regret at never having gotten to know Eastman: "It is not my province to judge this man's life. His Creator will pass judgment; He possesses all the particulars and is competent to judge any soul. It may startle you to hear me say I wish I had known this man in life. We may have been reciprocally helpful. It has been said there is so much bad in the best of us, so much good in the worst of us, that it does not become any of us to think harshly of the rest of us. That is one way of saying 'let him that is without sin cast the first stone.'"

The American Legion provided a military escort for the coffin to its gravesite in Cypress Hills Cemetery. Taps was played, and a final military salute was fired.

NY Evening World

Drunken quarrel with a Prohibition agent

The press learned the identity of the murder suspect and published it on the final day of 1920.

Jeremiah Bohan, a Brooklyn businessman and longtime pal of Eastman, was believed to have been part of the group of holiday revelers who accompanied Eastman from the Court Cafe to the Blue Bird Cabaret on Christmas night. Police had not found Bohan at his home or his work or any of his usual haunts since Monk was shot to death.

An interesting wrinkle in the story was provided by Bohan's appointment several months earlier as a local inspector working under State Prohibition Director Charles R. O'Connor. With Bohan's job responsibilities - ensuring compliance with the national law against the production, transportation and sale of alcohol - came a license to carry a firearm.

Authorities revealed that Bohan had a police record. He had been arrested several years earlier in connection with the killing of "Joe the Bear" Faulkner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was exonerated by a coroner's jury.

Bohan had worked as a stevedore and as a retail liquor merchant before being assigned to Prohibition enforcement duties. (The assignment was the result of a recommendation by a Brooklyn political leader unnamed in the newspaper reports.)

On January 3, 1921, Bohan surrendered to Acting Captain Daniel Carey in Williamsburg and confessed to shooting Monk Eastman. According to Bohan's statement, he shot Eastman in self-defense during a drunken quarrel.

Investigators found Bohan's description of the quarrel less than believable. He said that the two men argued about whether to leave an especially large Christmas tip for Blue Bird waiter John Bradley. Eastman wanted all in his party to contribute to the tip for Bradley, who was his personal friend. Bohan claimed that Eastman became upset when Bohan objected to contributing. According to Bohan, the idea was objectionable because Bradley wasn't even waiting on the Eastman party's table.

Bohan said he left the establishment with Eastman and the rest of the group following closely behind. At the corner of Fourth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, Eastman grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around and snarled, "Jerry, you've become a rat since you got that Prohibition job." Bohan said he saw Eastman reach for his overcoat pocket and feared he was getting a handgun. Bohan drew his own revolver, fired several times and fled, tossing the revolver into the subway entrance as he left.

Despite their years of friendship, Bohan said he felt certain that Monk was about to kill him. "I knew what his methods were," he said, "and he had his friends with him, and I thought he was going to start something which would end in my being killed. So I drew my revolver and shot him and made my getaway."

As incredible as it was, Bohan stuck to his story. When the matter came up for trial about a year later, on December 22, 1921, he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Judge Thomas Crain of General Sessions Court sentenced him to between three and ten years in Sing Sing Prison. He served just seventeen months in prison before he was paroled.

  • Asbury, Herbert, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, Garden City NY: Garden City Publishers, 1928.
  • Hanson, Neil, Monk Eastman: The Gangster Who Became A War Hero, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
  • "'Monk' Eastman rewarded," New York Times, May 9, 1919, p. 24.
  • "Monk Eastman, noted gangster, slain in street," New York Herald, Dec. 26, 1920, p. 1.
  • "Eastman slain in feud over bootleg," New York Evening World, Dec. 27, 1920, p. 1.
  • "'Monk' Eastman, gang leader and war hero, slain by rival gunmen," New York Tribune, Dec. 27, 1920, p. 1.
  • "Monk Eastman's murder is laid to squealing on ring," New York Herald, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Eastman's slayer sought in his gang," New York Times, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Expect to arrest 'Monk' Eastman's murderer to-day," New York Evening World, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Eastman met death as drug ring squealer," New York Tribune, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 1.
  • "Eastman's slayer sought in his gang," New York Times, Dec. 28, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Monk Eastman's slayer identified as one of his gang," New York Herald, Dec. 29, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Military funeral for Eastman as police seek nine," New York Evening World, Dec. 29, 1920, p. 12.
  • "'Monk' Eastman buried as hero beside his mother," New York Tribune, Dec. 31, 1920, p. 6.
  • "Chauffeurs name Eastman's slayer," New York Herald, Dec. 31, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Search in vain for 'Monk' Eastman's slayer," New York Evening World, Dec. 31, 1920, p. 2.
  • "Seek dry agent as missing link in Eastman case," New York Tribune, Jan. 1, 1920, p. 3.
  • "Dry agent sought to clear murder of Monk Eastman," New York Herald, Jan. 1, 1921, p. 16.
  • "Prohibition agent admits killing Monk Eastman after row, police say," New York Evening World, Jan. 3, 1921, p. 1.
  • "Dry agent admits he slew Eastman in drunken fight," New York Herald, Jan. 4, 1921, p. 20.
  • "Monk Eastman slayer gets 3 to 10 years," New York Herald, Dec. 23, 1921, p. 3.

04 November 2017

Evidence of some lingering hostility

Bioff's body lies in the wreckage
of his exploded pickup truck
(Arizona Republic)
On this date in 1955, a former Chicago Outfit member living under an assumed identity in Arizona was killed in a car-bombing. The fatal explosion was linked to an extortion racket exposed more than a decade earlier.

"Fat Willie" Bioff, a native of Chicago's West Side, relocated to southern California before World War II and became an aide to International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) union President George Browne. As he became a union official, Bioff already had a reputation for violence (Chicago police suspected him of involvement in the murder of Wisconsin gang boss Jack Zuta) and for close affiliation with members of the Capone organization. In California, he remained in close touch with the Outfit's West Coast rackets overseer Johnny Roselli.

In the early 1940s, federal authorities became aware of an ongoing Chicago Outfit scheme to extort vast sums from movie companies through control of motion picture industry unions, and Bioff emerged as a central player in that scheme, the main link between the IATSE union and Chicago organized crime. Word leaked from federal grand jury proceedings in New York City that studio executive Joseph Schenck was revealing the extortion scheme.

Outfit leaders, trying to assess the damage of the Schenck testimony, quickly got in touch with Bioff through Roselli. Bioff's response to the news - "Now, we're all in trouble" - concerned his higher-ups in the mob. Outfit leaders feared that Bioff would make a deal with the federal prosecutor and reveal their connection to the racket. The underworld bosses wanted to kill Bioff in order to resolve the issue, but Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti talked them out of it. Nitti convinced them that Bioff was a "stand-up guy" and could be trusted to keep his mouth shut.

Bioff and Browne were convicted in November 1941 of extorting more than half a million dollars from movie studio bosses at Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and other companies during the 1930s. (Bioff later admitted that the total profit was more than a million dollars. The figure was subsequently inflated in the press to $2.5 million.) Bioff was sentenced to ten years in prison. Brown was sentenced to eight years. Each man was fined $20,000.

While in custody, Bioff betrayed his underworld colleagues and provided evidence to investigators. He confessed that he had arranged annual studio payments ranging from $25,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of the studio, and revealed that the racket was directed by a group of crime figures. By cooperating, he earned a sentence commutation - he and Browne were released in 1944 - but he also incurred the wrath of the Chicago Outfit.

Bioff grand jury testimony in 1943 resulted in indictments against Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti, Charles "Cherry Nose" Gioe, Frank "Frankie Diamond" Maritote, Johnny Roselli, Louis "Little New York" Campagna, Paul "the Waiter" Ricca (DeLucia), Phil D'Andrea and Ralph Pierce of the Oufit, as well as IATSE business agent Louis Kaufman. Upon learning of the indictments on March 19, 1943, Nitti, friend and staunch defender of Bioff to that time, shot himself in front of witnesses.

The other Outfit mobsters were successfully prosecuted and sentenced on Dec. 31, 1943, to ten years in prison. Gioe, Campagna, Ricca and D'Andrea received early paroles in summer of 1947. Many expected immediate action against the Outfit traitor Bioff. But years passed without any related news.

In 1955, all the past unpleasantness seemed forgotten. Bioff and his wife Laurie were living under assumed names (Mr. and Mrs. William Nelson) in Phoenix, Arizona. There seemed little threat of underworld retribution for Bioff's betrayal. Involved Chicago mobsters had long ago served their prison terms and completed their probations. Most of them were no longer among the living.

Nitti shot himself in front of witnesses immediately upon learning of the extortion indictments. Charles Gioe and Frank Maritote were shot to death in August of 1954. (The FBI determined that their murders were due to Johnny Roselli's suspicions that they had cooperated with federal authorities.) Phil D'Andrea and Louis Campagna had died, reportedly of natural causes, in 1952 and 1955, respectively. (Ricca, Pierce and Roselli lived into the 1970s. Ricca and Pierce died of natural causes, in 1972 and 1976, respectively. Roselli was the victim of an apparent gangland execution in the summer of 1976.)

Evidence of some lingering hostility was seen on the morning of Nov. 4, 1955: Fifty-five-year-old Bioff climbed into his pickup truck inside his home garage. As he stepped on the starter, an explosion suddenly shook the neighborhood.

According to a press account, "The blast threw Bioff twenty-five feet and scattered wreckage over a radius of several hundred. It left only the twisted frame, the motor and the truck wheels. The garage door was blown out, the roof shattered and windows in the Bioff home and several neighboring houses were broken. Jagged chunks of metals tore holes in the wall of a home 100 feet away. The blast rattled windows a mile away."

Bioff's body, minus both legs and a right hand, were found 25 feet from the explosion.

A representative of the local sheriff's office told the press, "I don't know whether this was a professional gangster job or not, but it certainly was an effective one."

Phoenix police had noted a visit to the city of Outfit leader Anthony Accardo a short time before the murder of Bioff but could not meaningfully connect the visit to the bombing. No one was ever convicted for Bioff's murder.

See also:
  • Lahey, Edwin A., "Willie Bioff, who sent Capone Mob to prison, should rest easier with Maritote's death," Des Moines IA Tribune, Aug. 24, 1954, p. 13.
  • Lee, Eddie, "Blast in Phoenix kills Willie Bioff," Arizona Daily Star, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • Loughran, Robert T., "Underworld caught up with 'Fat Willie' Bioff," Sheboygan WI Press (United Press), Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • McLain, Gene, "Willie Bioff blown to bits! Bombed at Phoenix home," Arizona Republic, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • Parker, Lowell, "Willie Bioff has reason to complain he'd been 'Peglerized,'" Arizona Republic, May 7, 1975, p. 6.
  • Wendt, Lloyd, "The men who prey on labor," Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1941, p. Graphic Section 2.
  • Yost, Newton E., "La Cosa Nostra," FBI report, file no. 92-6054-683, July 22, 1964, NARA no. 124-10208-10406.
  • "Campagna, Gioe ordered freed in parole fight," Chicago Tribune, Dec. 5, 1948, p. 17.
  • "Blast in truck kills Willie Bioff, once Hollywood racket leader," New York Times, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.
  • "Revenge-bent gang killed Bioff, view," Sheboygan WI Press, Nov. 5, 1955, p. 1.

30 October 2017

CIA joins with Mafia in effort to kill Castro

Some Kennedy assassination-related documents released through the National Archives last week (October 26, 2017) and earlier this year (July 24, 2017) discussed CIA cooperation with American organized criminals in an effort to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The documents revealed little about CIA-underworld interaction that was not already known to historians through other sources, but the release provides an occasion to reflect upon that interaction and its aftermath.

Another release of documents is expected in six months' time. Any additional pages will likely be in general agreement with those we already have. The key features of the government-underworld conspiracy appear to be these:

  • A small group of CIA officials decided to accomplish the assassination of Cuba's Communist President Fidel Castro by working with American Mafiosi, who had been deprived of Havana casino income by Castro's rise to power.
  • No written approvals of the plan by top CIA administrators or White House officials were ever obtained, though the CIA plotters later insisted that oral approvals from CIA higher-ups were obtained and that some discussion occurred with the White House.
  • In an effort to keep CIA involvement in the plot a secret, an outside intermediary was used to make contacts with Mafiosi. CIA was prepared to pay $150,000 to the Castro assassin.
  • The intermediary met and plotted with Mafiosi Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli. The mobsters refused to take any money. Despite the efforts to keep CIA involvement a secret, the mobsters quickly figured out that CIA was involved.
  • A level of cooperation between the Mafia and the CIA was first exposed early in the planning process, when a technician illegally wiretapping a Las Vegas entertainer's telephone for Giancana was arrested and sought help from the CIA. CIA became involved and succeeded in having charges dropped, but FBI investigated the matter.
  • As FBI reported to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the incident, the Bureau warned that any CIA-Mafia arrangement could subject the U.S. government to underworld blackmail.
  • Several times, Giancana and Roselli sought to use the CIA relationship to their personal advantage.
  • CIA scientists designed six poison pills. Those pills were delivered in two separate batches to Mafia contacts in Cuba so they could be placed in food or drink consumed by Castro. The pills reportedly were never used.
  • CIA-Mafia plans to poison Castro were called off following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. CIA conspirators remained in contact with Mafiosi for several years and continued to develop Castro assassination plans, though new leadership at the CIA did not know of the contacts or the plans until they were brought to light by the FBI.
  • Columnist Jack Anderson wrote about CIA plotting against Castro in 1967 and exposed Mafia involvement in the plotting in 1971. Official documents relating to the CIA-Mafia venture were discovered by the Rockefeller Commission and the Senate's Church Committee in 1975. Some secrecy was maintained until the New York Times published information about the government's relationship with Giancana and Roselli the following year.
  • Giancana was murdered in 1975. Roselli was murdered in 1976. Their killings appeared to be gangland "hits," but some were concerned that the murders related to their work with the CIA.

Click here to read the full article (including links to released government documents) at the American Mafia history website (

23 October 2017

Dutch Schultz, aides, fatally shot in New Jersey

On this date in 1935, mob-affiliated assassins invaded the Newark, New Jersey, headquarters of gang boss Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer. They opened fire on Schultz and his aides, mortally wounding Schultz, Abe Landau, Bernard  "Lulu" Rosencrantz and Otto "Abbadabba" Berman. 

Berman and Landau were dead by the next morning. Schultz lingered through the following day before succumbing to his wounds.  Rosenkrantz died hours after his boss.

The killings reportedly were ordered by the leaders of New York City Mafia organizations, who sought to prevent Schultz's planned murder of prosecutor Thomas Dewey and to consume Schultz's lucrative underworld rackets. Murder, Inc., gunmen Charles Workman and Emanuel Weiss have been identified as the shooters.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

New Brunswick NJ Home News

Plainfield NJ Courier-News

Quad City IA Times

Tampa FL Daily Times

New York Times

Philadelphia Inquirer

Fort Myers FL News-Press

15 October 2017

New Orleans police chief ambushed, murdered

On this date (Oct. 15) in 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was fatally shot by several Mafia assassins a short distance from his home. He succumbed to his wounds the following morning.

Scene of Hennessy assassination

Hennessy attended a meeting of the city's police commission during the early evening of October 15. The meeting broke up at about nine o'clock. Hennessy was driven back to police headquarters at the southwest corner of Common (Tulane Avenue) and Basin Streets. Captain William O'Connor of the private Boylan Protection Agency met him there to escort the police chief home. Hennessy, perceived as a partisan in a local underworld feud, received a number of death threats from the local Mafia. City fathers hired the Boylan agency to keep him safe.

New Orleans Police Chief David C. Hennessy
Though Hennessy had a reputation for punctuality (he lived with his widowed mother and tried to avoid worrying her), the chief did not immediately head home. Instead, he and O'Connor, long acquainted, chatted at police headquarters for more than an hour. They left the building a few minutes after eleven.

While Basin Street was the most direct route between Hennessy's office and his home on Girod Street, heavy rains of earlier in the day had caused some flooding in the area. Hennessy and O'Connor took a significantly lengthier route, riverward on Common Street and then up Rampart Street to the intersection with Poydras Street. At that corner, the two men stopped into Dominick Virget's Oyster Saloon for a late snack. A teetotaler, Hennessy had a glass of milk with his plate of oysters.

At eleven-thirty, the men stepped out of Virget's and continued up Rampart Street. They paused in front of the McDonough schoolhouse at the corner of Rampart and Girod, about one and a half city squares from Hennessy's home. O'Connor said goodbye to Hennessy at that point, though he had been assigned with seeing the chief all the way home. O'Connor crossed the intersection diagonally to his left - his intended destination is unknown - while Hennessy turned right on Girod.

The chief took only a few strides and then halted as a young man darted out of a Girod Street doorway and ran toward Basin Street whistling loudly. The youth turned right onto Basin and disappeared around the side of Mrs. Ehrwald's second-hand store.

Hennessy assassins fired from beneath shed roof
The assassins' first
shots were fired from
beneath this shed roof
Hennessy managed just a few steps more. As he reached the front of the residence at No. 269 Girod Street, shotgun pellets tore into him from his left. The initial blast, originating from the darkness under a shed roof on the opposite site of Girod, shredded his umbrella, disabled his left hand and knocked him backward. Hennessy instinctively drew his ivory-handled Colt revolver. Another blast of shotgun pellets ripped through his slacks and shattered his right knee. On his way to the ground, the chief was struck by pellets in the chest and abdomen and then in the face and neck. Hennessy fired his revolver into the darkness across the street as he struggled to stand up.

Two shadowy figures stepped into Girod Street. Illuminated by a streetlamp and within sight of some residents whose attention was caught by the gunshots, they advanced toward the fallen police chief. They fired large-caliber slugs into Hennessy's midsection and then ran off.

Mortally wounded, Hennessy managed to rise to his feet. He stumbled a few yards in the direction of home. At the corner, he turned onto Basin. He dragged his disabled leg just a few more paces and collapsed onto the front steps of No. 189 Basin Street. Captain O'Connor, at most only a single square away when the gunfire erupted, somehow reached the chief's side far too late to fulfill his function as bodyguard.

"They gave it to me," Hennessy gasped, "and I gave it back the best I could."

O'Connor asked if the chief could identify his attackers. Hennessy reportedly replied, "Dagoes."

 - - - 

Hennessy died before he could provide any additional identification of his killers. Suspected Mafia members and associates were arrested and charged with conspiring in the assassination of the police chief. Nine men, including New Orleans-born businessman Joseph P. Macheca, were the first to be brought to trial early in 1891.

Captain William O'Connor, who should have been the prosecution's key witness in the case, was never called to testify. O'Connor might have explained the timing and the route of Hennessy's walk home, factors that brought him late at night into a well-planned ambush. The captain also might have explained his own fortuitously timed departure from the chief's side - just seconds before the shooting began - and his slow return to the chief after the shooting had finished and the assassins had run off.

None of the accused men were convicted. Six of those tried, including Macheca, reputed Mafia boss Charlie Matranga, and Asperi Marchesi, the boy-lookout who whistled upon the arrival of Hennessy, were acquitted. The jury could not reach a verdict for three other defendants identified by witnesses as shooters of the police chief.  After the trial, some jurors revealed that they had been concerned that Captain O'Connor did not testify.

Angered by the jury verdict, a mob stormed Orleans Parish Prison on the morning of March 14, 1891, and murdered Macheca and ten other prisoners.

 - - - 

Read more about Police Chief Hennessy
and the early Mafia of New Orleans:

Deep Water:
Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia

by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon
(Available in softcover and Kindle e-book formats)

07 October 2017

Mafia leader's corpse discovered in Long Island

On this date (Oct. 7) in 2008, a body excavated from a roadside in Farmingdale, Long Island, was officially identified as that of William "Wild Bill" Cutolo, former underboss of the Colombo Crime Family. The partly decomposed remains, found wrapped in a tarp beneath a grassy area east of Route 110, were identified through dental and medical records.

Cutolo had been missing and presumed dead since 1999. On May 26, 1999, the forty-nine-year-old underworld leader told his wife Marguerite "Peggy" Cutolo that he was going to a meeting with acting boss Alphonse T. Persico in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He never returned. His death was immediately suspected when he did not show up for a weekly dinner with his crew at the Friendly Bocce Social Club in Brooklyn that evening.

Investigators noted that Cutolo's underworld rackets - including a lucrative loan sharking operation - and business interests were immediately taken over by Alphonse Persico. In 2001, Persico pleaded guilty to federal racketeering, loan-sharking and money-laundering charges. The case was built in part on Cutolo financial records found in Persico's possession.

In 2006, Persico and his top aide John DeRoss were tried in federal court for racketeering and murder. They were charged with ordering the killing of Cutolo. That case ended in mistrial, but Persico and DeRoss were retried and convicted on the charges in 2007. For that trial, Cutolo's wife emerged from the federal witness protection program to testify against them. In addition to noting that her husband was on his way to meet with Persico when he disappeared, Marguerite testified that, the day after the disappearance, John DeRoss showed up at the Cutolo home demanding all of "Wild Bill's" money and financial records.

On Feb. 27, 2009, Persico and Cutolo were given life prison sentences. At the time, prosecutors believed that Cutolo's remains had been disposed of in the Atlantic Ocean and would never be found. It was argued that Persico and DeRoss, fearing that Cutolo and his faction (described as remnants of the Vittorio Orena faction that years earlier warred with the Persicos for control of the organization) intended to take over the crime family, had Cutolo murdered.

Acting on a tip from informant Joseph "Joey Caves" Competiello, agents of the FBI's Evidence Recovery Team and police officers from Suffolk County began digging at several Farmingdale locations on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008. They hoped to find the bodies of Cutolo, Richard Greaves and Carmine Gargano, all believed murdered by the leadership of the Colombo Crime Family.

They discovered the tarp-wrapped body, said to still be wearing a pair of Italian loafers, the following Monday, Oct. 6. In addition to dental records, the body was identified as Cutolo's through a distinctive physical feature - the tip of the right middle finger was missing.

The story of Cutolo's murder was made public in Brooklyn Federal Court in March of 2012. "Big Dino" Calabro, a Colombo Family capodecina, cooperated with authorities and testified against his underworld associates. According to Calabro, Thomas "Tommy Shots" Gioeli (who later rose to acting boss) arranged the 1999 hit. Cutolo was to be called to a meeting of crime family leaders. Gioeli planned to drive Cutolo to the meeting at the home of Calabro's cousin, "Little Dino" Saracino. There Cutolo would be killed and his body disposed of.

Calabro recalled; "When the time came, we were sitting in the basement. [Calabro was apparently looking out a basement window at Saracino's house, expecting to see Gioeli and Cutolo walk up.] We seen one set of legs walking by, not two. I went outside to see who it was, and it was Billy Cutolo. I shook hands with him. He asked me where to go. I showed him the stairs. He walked ahead. I pulled out my gun and shot him in the head. I closed the door. I went outside. I seen Tommy. He said, 'What happened?' I said, 'It's done'"

Cutolo's body was then tied up and wrapped in the tarp and buried in what at the time was a wooded lot.

According to prosecutors, Calabro was promoted to capodecina as a reward for eliminating the Cutolo threat.


  • Newman, Andy, "Reputed Colombo mob family boss pleads guilty to racketeering," New York Times, Dec. 21, 2001.
  • "Mistrial is declared in mob murder case," New York Times, Nov. 4, 2006, p. B3.
  • Algar, Selim, "Mob widow points finger at Persico," New York Post, Nov. 9, 2007.
  • "Is a mob hitman buried in Farmingdale?" Eyewitness News, WABC-TV, New York, Oct. 1, 2008.
  • "F.B.I. digs for mob bodies on L.I.," New York Times, Oct. 2, 2008, p. B6.
  • "F.B.I. may have found body in search of L.I. burial site," New York Times, Oct. 7, 2008, p. 27.
  • Marzulli, John, and Leo Standora, "Corpse found at Long Island mob dig may be Wild Bill Cutolo," New York Daily News, Oct. 7, 2008.
  • "Body identified as missing mobster's," New York Times, Oct. 7, 2008, p. 28.
  • Feuer, Alan, "Awaiting an awkward burial," New York Times, Oct. 9, 2008, p. 31.
  • Wilson, Michael, and William K. Rashbaum, "11 years after officer's slaying, reputed mob figures are indicted," New York Times, Dec. 19, 2008, p. 38.
  • Marzulli, John, "Former Colombo family boss indicted in 1997 murder of NYPD cop Ralph Dols," New York Daily News, Dec. 19, 2008.
  • Marzulli, John, "Colombo boss Alphonse Persico sentenced to life in prison for 1999 hit," New York Daily News, Feb. 27, 2009
  • "Colombo organized crime family acting boss Alphonse T. Persico and administration member John J. DeRoss sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William 'Wild Bill' Cutolo and related witness tampering," press release of U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, Feb. 27, 2009. (LINK)
  • Rashbaum, William K., "F.B.I. resumes search for mob graves," New York Times, March 9, 2009.
  • Secret, Mosi, "Witness testifies how plot to kill officer was set up," New York Times, March 28, 2012, p. 22.
  • MobNews blog entries for "Cutolo." (LINK)

11 August 2017

Live by the sword...

Mafia assassin Umberto Valente
killed in East Village shooting

On this date in 1922: Mafia assassin Umberto Valente was gunned down in a bold daylight shooting on a busy Manhattan street corner.

Valente was seen with a group of men at the intersection of East 12th Street and Second Avenue at about noon, when he suddenly darted into the intersection toward a taxicab. Two other men also moved into the intersection, drew handguns and opened fire on the fleeing man.

Valente reached the runningboard of the taxi and tried to return fire before collapsing unconscious to the street. His attackers fired a few shots toward a gathering crowd and made their escape through the basement of an apartment building at 233 East 12th Street.

Stray slugs wounded a New York street cleaner and an eleven-year-old girl from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in New York City visiting her grandfather.

NYPD Detective Sgt. Kirk witnessed the end of the gunfight from a streetcar. He rushed to the fallen Valente and commandeered an automobile to take Valente to St. Mark's Hospital. Valente never regained consciousness. He died of his wounds about an hour later.

According to an often repeated underworld legend (told and likely created by the notoriously inventive David Leon Chandler), the gunman who fired the fatal shots into Valenti was Salvatore Lucania (later known as Charlie Luciano), at that time an underling of Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria. Evidence in support of the tale is lacking. Lucania's only documented brush with the law in August of 1922 occurred near the end of the month when his car was pulled over for a traffic violation.

Investigators determined that Valente had been responsible for the attempted murder of Giuseppe Masseria a few days earlier on August 8. Masseria surprisingly escaped unharmed - except for a couple of bullet holes through his straw hat - after being cornered by a gunman near his home, 80 Second Avenue (less than half a mile from the spot where Valente was killed). On the afternoon of the eleventh, police found Masseria at his home, insisting that he had not been out of the building and knew nothing of the attack on Valente. His denials were unconvincing. It was assumed that Masseria either directly participated in or ordered the shooting of Valente.

Already awaiting a murder trial for the shooting death of Silvio Tagliagambe two months earlier, Masseria was charged also with the murder of Valente.

Police hypothesized that Masseria and Valente, both known to be involved in Manhattan bootlegging and gambling rackets, had become underworld rivals. Much later, authorities learned that Masseria and allies were engaged in a gangland war with reigning Mafia boss of bosses Salvatore D'Aquila. Valente had been assigned by D'Aquila to eliminate Joe the Boss.

  • "Eight men shot in mysterious battle on street," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 8, 1922, p. 1.
  • "Gunmen shoot six in East Side swarm," New York Times, Aug. 9, 1922, p. 1.
  • "Cloakmaker, victim of gunman, dies; 3 more in hospital," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 9, 1922, p. 20.
  • "Gunman's volley fatal to striker," New York Times, Aug. 10, 1922, p. 13
  • "Car used in street battle traced here," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 10, 1922, p. 18.
  • "1 dead, 2 shot, as bootleggers again fight on East Side," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 11, 1922, p. 1.
  • "One killed, two shot in pistol battle," Brooklyn Standard Union, Aug. 11, 1922, p. 1.
  • "One man killed, two wounded, in gang war," New York Call, Aug. 12, 1922, p. 4.
  • "Mystery in rum street battle near solution," New York Tribune, Aug. 12, 1922, p. 16.
  • "East Side bad man killed as shots fly," New York Herald, Aug. 12, 1922, p. 16.
  • "Gang kills gunman; 2 bystanders hit," New York Times, Aug. 12, 1922, p. 20.
  • "Valente's arrest balked by murder," New York Evening World, Aug. 12, 1922, p. 3.
  • "New Haven girl wounded in New York bootleggers' feud," Bridgeport CT Telegram, Aug. 12, 1922, p. 1.
  • "Bootleggers at war," Philadelphia Inquirer (Associated Press), Aug. 12, 1922, p. 2.
  • Chandler, David Leon, Brothers in Blood: The Rise of the Criminal Brotherhoods, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975.
  • Gentile, Nick, with Felice Chilanti, Vita di Capomafia, Rome: Crescenzi Allendorf, 1993.

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.