Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts

11 August 2019

Informer special issue on Maranzano

A long lost photograph of Salvatore Maranzano is discovered. Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement marks the occasion by dedicating an entire issue to the one-time American Mafia boss of bosses.



The August 2019 special issue, with articles by Thomas Hunt, Lennert van`t Riet, David Critchley and Richard N. Warner, is available now in print and electronic editions (magazine format) and in an e-book edition (Amazon Kindle format).

Visit Informer's website for more information.


16 July 2019

New York gangster Johnny Spanish: A Retrospective (1 of 2)



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One hundred years ago this month, New York City gangster Johnny Spanish was dramatically gunned down in front of a Second Avenue restaurant in Lower Manhattan. The shooting, witnessed by at least a hundred people, was the final act of a criminal career that wound through the mean streets of the Lower East Side and the foreboding cells of Sing Sing Prison. Although not a household name, Spanish's name is familiar to most crime buffs mainly because of Herbert Asbury's 1927 gangster classic Gangs of New York. Known primarily for his violent feud with fellow gangster Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, Johnny Spanish's life is little known outside of what Asbury sketched of him. It has been variously said that he was a Spanish Jew; that he was related to the notorious "Butcher" Weyler, the Spanish general who ruled over Cuba with an iron fist; that he shot a pregnant ex-girlfriend in the stomach, among other things. In addition to examining his violent demise, the author hopes to separate fact from fiction and provide a more accurate picture of who Johnny Spanish really was.

He was born Giovanni Mistretta in 1889, most probably in Lower Manhattan, to an Italian father and a Spanish mother. Giovanni had at least two older siblings (Antonietta and Antonio) and a younger brother (Giuseppe). Virtually nothing else is known of his childhood, about how he progressed through adolescence and found his way into the street gangs of the neighborhood. Giovanni seems to have been relatively intelligent,  able to read and write well. As an adult, it was noted that he spoke fluent Italian, Spanish, and English. Sometime during Giovanni's youth, his family anglicized their surname to Mestrett. Thus, Giovanni Mistretta became John Mestrett. While young John may have naturally bright, he showed little inclination for academics and soon found his way into the streets. Almost certainly fueled by the hair-trigger temper that would plague him all his life, John quickly began getting into street fights. Sometime in his teens, if the standard accounts are accurate, John Mestrett found his way into the lower rungs of the notorious Five Points Gang.

One of the more storied street gangs in New York City's history, the Five Points bunch got their name from the convergence of four Lower East Side streets; Anthony (present-day Worth), Cross (present-day Mosco), Orange (present-day Baxter), and Little Water (defunct). The five points of this intersection were home to a large gang consisting mostly of Irish immigrants around the mid-nineteenth century. By the turn of the century, the Five Points Gang had grown so much that satellite branch gangs had popped up in other areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. As the demographics changed on the old Five Points turf, so did the ethnic make-up of its ranks; by 1900, the Five Pointers were now composed mostly of Italians, with quite a few Jews and Irish sprinkled into the mob. They were led by Paul Kelly (Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli), a former boxer turned refined gang boss. The brilliant Kelly was able to forge an alliance with the corrupt Tammany Hall city government. In exchange for committing numerous instances of Election Day political terrorism and voter fraud on Tammany's behalf, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye while the Five Pointers made their living stealing and operating brothels and dance halls.

Members of the Five Points Gang around the turn of the twentieth century.

The Five Points Gang's chief rival was a giant mob of mostly Jewish hoodlums led by a former dance-hall sheriff (bouncer) named Edward "Monk" Eastman. A legend in his own lifetime, Eastman was a ferocious street fighter who led his men into action against the hated Five Points mob regularly.  On one occasion in September 1903, they staged a pitched gun battle on Rivington Street that left three men dead and a score of others wounded. At one point, Eastman and Kelly agreed to face off against each other in bare-knuckled combat in an abandoned barn in neutral Bronx territory; the two gang bosses battered each other to a draw. After Monk Eastman was sentenced to prison in 1904 for a botched robbery, his gang began to splinter. As a result, Kelly's Five Pointers were then noted as the most powerful gang in the city.

It was most probably around 1905-1906 that the teenaged John Mestrett began moving within the Five Points Gang. He most probably started small, picking pockets on crowded streets and trolleys before moving up to burglary and armed robbery. Due to his Latin heritage, Mestrett soon became known as "Spanish John" amongst the Five Points crowd. Before long, it was inevitably transposed into "Johnny Spanish." His brother Giuseppe (Joseph) soon joined him on the streets; he would be appropriately nicknamed "Joey Spanish." Despite an undersized build, Johnny attacked an opponent with the ferocity of a wolverine. Sometime during his Five Points apprenticeship, Johnny sustained a bullet wound to the face that knocked out three teeth and left an ugly scar on his cheek near his mouth. By the mid-1900s, the monolithic Five Points Gang followed the Eastman Gang's led and began to fragment into independent crews. Two former Five Pointers, Biff Ellison and Razor Riley, attempted to kill Paul Kelly at the New Brighton hall in November 1905. Kelly was wounded in the gunplay, his life saved when bodyguard Bill Harrington took a fatal bullet meant for his boss. While Kelly survived his wounds, he began easing himself out of the day-to-day business of running the Five Points mob.

Virtually no precise information about Johnny Spanish's early criminal career has survived; he was basically one of the many faceless Five Points thugs who wreaked havoc amongst the slums of the Lower East Side. However, subsequent events show that Spanish was a cut above the usual East Side thug. Intelligent and industrious, he appears to have broken away from the Five Points mob sometime around the age of twenty. Despite his Italian/Spanish heritage, most of the hoods he attracted under his banner were Jewish. As a result, many accounts have labeled John Mestrett as a Spanish Jew. In fact, like Monk Eastman before him, Johnny Spanish was a Gentile who merely moved within the Jewish-American underworld. When he was subsequently sent to prison in 1911, Spanish declared his religion as "Protestant." Upon his 1919 murder, John Mestrett was given a Catholic burial in Queens' Calvary Cemetery. Despite his ability to captain a crew of young thugs, Spanish remained temperamental and something of a loner. Herbert Asbury described him this way; "Spanish was very taciturn and morose, and was inclined to brood over his troubles, real or imagined...Spanish never stirred abroad without two revolvers stuck in his belt, and when he was on important errands he carried two more stuffed into his coat pockets, besides the regulation equipment of blackjack and brass knuckles."

By the year 1909, Johnny Spanish was a twenty-year-old crook that bossed a group of mostly Jewish thieves on the Lower East Side. As his criminal career progressed, Johnny and his brother Joey began using the alias of Weiler (also spelled Wheiler in some contemporary sources). Like most criminals of the era, they appear to have modified their names to shield their families from shame. Herbert Asbury wrote that Johnny claimed to be related to Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish general and colonial administrator of Cuba and the Philippines whose brutal tactics in crushing the Cuban Rebellion earned him the nickname of "Butcher Weyler." No contemporary source confirms Johnny Spanish making such a claim, and while it is uncertain if it has any merit, his mother Rose was noted as using the name "Weiler" in the 1920 Census. It's possible that this may have been a variation of her maiden name. Regardless of the Weyler connection's veracity, it is easy to imagine Johnny letting the hoods of the Lower East Side think he was kin to Butcher Weyler, as such a claim would merely add to his growing mystique. Indeed, quite a few young Jewish hoodlums hitched their wagon to Johnny Spanish Train as the decade came to a close. Some of those who rolled with him were his younger brother Joey, Hyman Benjamin, and "Lefty" Kantor. Johnny's most gifted recruit would turn out to be his eventual nemesis.

Nathan Caplin was a muscular Jewish youth the same age as Johnny Spanish. Accounts are mixed as to how Caplin came upon his nickname of "Kid Dropper." The most widely told story was that Nathan worked a scam as a Lower East Side youth where he would perform the "drop swindle," which featured Nathan dropping a wallet filled with counterfeit cash near an unsuspecting mark. As the pigeon reached to pick up the wallet, Caplin would swoop in and snatch up the billfold. Nathan would then tell the target that he was in a hurry and offer to let them have the wallet of "cash" in exchange for some slight compensation. Then, the victim could take the wallet to its rightful owner and collect an even bigger reward of their own. The second origin story for the nickname was much more coarse, stemming from Caplin's ability to "drop" his opponents with just one blow of his fist or knife. Like Johnny Spanish, Caplan came from the impoverished neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, stealing from pushcarts and unsuspecting passerby. Also, like Spanish, Caplin sought to shield his family and confuse the cops by modifying his name, to Kaplan. The Dropper presented a daunting mix of brains and brawn and was much more gregarious than the mysterious Spanish. Despite their personality differences, the two hit it off and began to cut a swath through the Lower East Side.
   
Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan around the age of twenty.

In 1909, the Lower East Side gang scene was in something of a state of flux. Monk Eastman's successor, Max "Kid Twist" Zweifach, had been gunned down at Coney Island with his bodyguard Samuel Pristrich aka Cyclone Louie a year earlier by a Five Points gangster named Louie "The Lump" Pioggi. After an extended period, the Eastmans had been taken over by Abe Lewis, a first cousin of  Cyclone Louie. Ex-Five Pointers like Jack Sirocco and Chick Tricker ran their sections of the neighborhood, but Johnny Spanish set his sights on carving out his own slice of the pie. After Abe Lewis was convicted of a grocery store robbery in the autumn of 1909 and sent off to Sing Sing Prison for nineteen years, Johnny Spanish seems to have moved in to attempt to exploit his absence by going into the "labor slugging" business. As labor unions began forming in the newly industrialized America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, companies started hiring thugs to act as strikebreakers and to discourage union activity. In response, the newly forming unions hired muscle of their own to protect striking workers and to recruit new members, sometimes by force. Both sides would often face off on the picket line, verbally and physically attacking their opponents, often with the connivance of local law enforcement. Into this tumultuous breach came Johnny Spanish and his crew, who was hired by the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the autumn of 1909 to break a strike.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, located at the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The factory employed about 500 workers, most of them immigrant women, who worked long hours sewing women's blouses (called 'shirtwaists' in the vernacular of the era) under crowded and unsafe conditions; the plant's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, regularly locked and chained the doors of their business in order to prevent worker theft and unexcused absences. By the beginning of November 1909, the Triangle's workers began protesting the inhumane working conditions and talked of unionizing. As a result, management locked out the bulk of the plant's workforce, roughly 500 workers. Each day on the picket line, the seamstresses were picketing in front of the Asch Building. Members of the Women's Trade Union League appeared on the scene to show solidarity with the workers and to attempt to organize them. Police friendly to Triangle management menaced them at every turn. One officer growled to a young union organizer named Helen Marot, "You uptown scum, keep out of this or you'll find yourselves in jail!" Indeed, a total of ninety-eight women were hauled off to jail for protesting.

Some of the labor organizers who picketed in favor of the Triangle Shirtwaist strikers.

While the police posed a hazard to the strikers, a more direct threat came in the form of Johnny Spanish and his gang, who verbally abused and occasionally physically assaulted the strikers. A picketer named Annie Pardwin filed a complaint against Morris Goldfarb, one of Spanish's goons. Pardwin charged that Goldfarb had, "rushed up to her, slammed her against a wall near the shop and struck her with his fist, at the same time exercising his vocabulary to its limit." Johnny Spanish himself was accused by the picketers of assaulting Joe Zeinfeld, one of the locked out workers. Spanish beat Zeinfeld so severely he had to be hospitalized. Several female picketers cried out to policemen as Spanish ran from the scene. It was reported that an officer caught up with Spanish, calmly spoke with him, and watched as the young gangster casually walked away from the scene unmolested. Eventually, the strike was settled and business as usual resumed at the factory, due in no small part to the labor slugging done by Johnny Spanish and his men. It wasn't until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire sixteen months later - and 146 workers were killed - that the world at large finally recognized the inhumane employment practices of the plant's owners.

"All the horse shows in the world, it seems, they never try so hard to keep up interest in horseflesh, are unavailing - the last straw - night riders and bold bandits come galloping into town to shoot up folks and places mounted on taxicabs." So began the New York Sun's November 13, 1909 article that introduced New Yorkers at large to Johnny Spanish and his crew. Fresh from their successful labor slugging mission, the Spanish crew decided to go on a bit of a rampage. It seems the trouble started on the evening of Wednesday, November 10, when bandits held up the Jefferson Coterie Club on Henry Street. Whether or not Johnny and his bunch were victimized here, they decided on a grand gesture of retaliation the very next night. Automobiles were still the province of the upper crust in the autumn of 1909, as horse-drawn vehicles still significantly outnumbered cars on New York streets. For those that did not own them, there were garages around the city that would rent autos to trustworthy individuals for short periods. It's not sure if this is how Johnny Spanish and his crew procured three taxicab automobiles, but somehow or another, the young gangsters were mobile and looking for revenge. Their actions that night suggest their behavior may have been artificially induced by alcohol or cocaine.

Around 8:30 that Thursday evening, three taxicabs were noted as cruising along Broome Street until they came to a stop. Johnny Spanish and about a dozen of his crew exited the three vehicles and began visiting saloons as if looking for someone. At Pitt and Grand streets, they happened across Assemblyman Aaron Levy, who was speaking to a judge. Bullets began flying in his direction, sending the assemblyman and judge running for cover. The gunmen proceeded to shoot up windows and streetlamps in the immediate vicinity. After this attack, the Spanish crew retreated to the waiting taxicabs. Around midnight, they showed up at Max Schnur's basement saloon and shot the place up. Customers were thoroughly terrorized, and all the mirrors behind the bar were smashed by bullets. Mike Kulisky and Sam Klein, sarcastically described as "innocent bystanders" by the Sun, received minor wounds in the attack. Police were thoroughly roused and rounded up hoods from all over Lower Manhattan that night, including Jake Siegel aka Kid Jigger and a William Albert, soon to become notorious as Big Jack Zelig.

The November 1909 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike and the subsequent taxicab rampage gave Johnny Spanish and his crew a modicum of notoriety in the Lower Manhattan underworld. Brimming with confidence and audacity, Spanish began looking to expand into other rackets. Spanish let it be known that he and his men were available for freelance muscle work. In addition to the usual pickpocketing, burglaries, armed robberies, and labor slugging, Spanish began muscling into underground stuss games. Stuss, known outside the neighborhood as Jewish faro, was favored in the underworld as the house won all the money when two money when equal cards were drawn, as opposed to just half in standard faro. Such an action greatly increased profits for those hoodlums who ran the game. Johnny Spanish would often approach stuss operators and demand a substantial percentage of their daily earnings under the penalty of death. Spanish's gangland spoils had enabled him to buy a new house for his family members at 31 Lexington Avenue in the up-and-coming Maspeth section of Queens. The quiet, suburban setting provided an excellent escape for members of the Mistretta family. Soon Johnny's older sister Antonietta (Kate) had moved into the house with her husband Paul Ciccarelli and their growing family. Their mother Rose and Johnny's brother Joey also called the Maspeth house home.

Around the time that he was spreading his wings in early 1910, Johnny Spanish fell in love. Like many other Lower Manhattan gangsters, Spanish had a roving eye when it came to women and picked them up wherever he could; the dance halls, the theaters, the Coney Island boardwalk during summer months. Johnny had fallen hard for an attractive nineteen-year-old girl named Beatrice Konstant (or Kaplan - no relation to Kid Dropper). Herbert Asbury wrote that Spanish, "...was seized with a burning desire to ornament his adored one with silks and precious stones." In falling in love with Beatrice, Johnny Spanish (without even realizing it) had set in motion a chain of events that would eventually seal his fate.

Like any worthy New York gang boss, Johnny Spanish ruthlessly enforced his will within his own crew and was sometimes called upon to meet out some intra-gang discipline. In early May 1910, two of his men got into a deadly feud; Charles Manheimer stabbed a fellow gangster known as "The Kid" (believed to be Kid Dropper) several times. As The Kid recovered from his wounds, Manheimer avoided his usual haunts. On the evening of May 25, Spanish and Kid Dropper caught up with their wayward comrade at the corner of Norfolk and Hester streets. Manheimer got a bullet in his back that shattered his spine. Rushed to the hospital, the severely wounded gangster growled, "If I don't get a wooden overcoat I'll get the man who shot me without help from you 'bulls.'" Twenty-three-year-old Charles Manheimer died of his wound on June 12.

Buffalo Enquirer

The fatal shooting of his former underling was all in a day's work for Johnny Spanish, who immediately decided to move in on one of the more profitable stuss games in Lower Manhattan. Jacob Siegel, better known in the underworld as "Jigger" or "Kid Jigger," ran the game in question on Forsyth Street. Herbert Asbury gave a dramatic version of the Kid Jigger/Johnny Spanish confrontation, complete with invented old-timey dialogue, in Gangs of New York. Contemporary accounts indicate that there was nothing cinematic about their brief and brutal encounter. Around ten o'clock on the warm evening of May 29, Spanish showed up at Kid Jigger's game with Hyman Benjamin. Spanish bluntly informed Jigger that he was now entitled to half of his stuss profits. While he may not have been the cold-blooded killer that Spanish was, Jigger was still a product of the mean streets of the Lower East Side. As such, he refused Spanish's extortion demand. The gang boss then informed him that he would have to fight it out in the street. After Spanish and Benjamin left, Kid Jigger prepared himself as well as he could by arming himself with a cheap .32 caliber revolver. Jigger then exited his game into the warm spring night and headed north to the intersection of Forsyth and Grand streets. 

According to eyewitness accounts, Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were waiting for Kid Jigger at the corner; there may have been three other men standing just beyond them. After a brief conversation with the gang boss, Jigger stepped back and reached for his pistol. The frantic stuss game operator managed to get one harmless shot off before his flight instinct overwhelmed its fight counterpart and he sprinted for cover while one of his adversaries emptied a pistol at him. One of these bullets, unfortunately, struck a thirteen-year-old girl named Rachael Rooten in the abdomen as she passed through the corner. As she went down screaming, Spanish and his compadres made their escape. Police immediately swarmed the scene and began investigating while Miss Rooten was rushed to the hospital. The cops collared a man who gave his name as Max Hess and who had seemed to have sustained a minor wound to his thumb in the fray. Kid Jigger eventually fell into police hands and claimed that Johnny Spanish and Hyman Benjamin were behind the trouble at the corner that evening, explicitly saying that it was Benjamin who had tried to kill him and accidentally shot the young girl. After much suffering, young Rachael Rooten succumbed to her wound on June 11.

With two very public murders now credited to him, Johnny Spanish was subjected to a citywide manhunt. While Hyman Benjamin was arrested and charged with Rachael Rooten's killing, Spanish fled the city to let the heat die down a bit. Leaving behind his gangland kingdom and girlfriend Beatrice Konstant, the twenty-one-year-old gangster reportedly cooled his heels in Detroit for the duration of the summer of 1910. When Spanish returned to New York in September, he received a considerable shock when he discovered that his beloved Beatrice had cuckolded him with one of his chief underlings, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan. His youthful passions and temper aroused, Johnny Spanish's hurt honor demanded immediate vengeance.

Go To Part 2

New York gangster Johnny Spanish: A Retrospective (2 of 2)

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Around dusk on Friday, September 23, 1910, Kid Dropper was walking through the teeming slums of the Lower East Side. Perhaps he knew that his boss had learned about him and Beatrice. Maybe not. Either way, the Dropper didn't see Johnny Spanish coming that day. As the unsuspecting gangster approached the corner of Jefferson and Monroe streets, Spanish darted out of nowhere and opened fire. His bullet struck Kid Dropper in the neck, ranged upwards through the mouth, and took the remains of four upper teeth with it as it exited his cheek. As he collapsed to the pavement and passerby panicked, Spanish sprinted to safety, most probably thinking that he had killed his rival. A beat cop soon broke through the crowd that had gathered around the bloodied Kid Dropper. The bullet hadn't severed any vital arteries and veins and looked more severe than it actually was. The officer asked Dropper who shot him. "Johnny Spanish," he gargled through his bullet-damaged mouth. The call went out to find the young gang boss who, as it turned out, was just getting started that evening.

Maspeth was still an up-and-coming neighborhood of Queens in September 1910, with new houses sprinkled amongst large swathes of vacant lots that were still waiting for developers to build dwellings for those fleeing the sardine-can crowding of Manhattan or Upper Brooklyn. As a result, Maspeth had a very suburban, almost rural feel to it at the time. Eleven-year-old George Schlegmiller was running late in getting to his Maspeth home in the early evening of September 23. The young boy had no idea that a gangster named Kid Dropper had been shot through the head over an hour earlier on the Lower East Side. All young George knew was that it was rapidly getting dark and that he needed to get home. The young boy turned onto Monteverde Avenue (present-day 69th Place), a brand-new street where no houses had yet been erected.

As he did, a young couple stepped off a streetcar on Grand Avenue near the intersection. They turned the corner into Monteverde, proceeding up the street opposite of the Schlegmiller boy. Young George could tell the couple was having a heated argument, but he purposely was not paying too much attention to what they were saying as he walked along. As George watched, the young man suddenly grabbed the wrists of the young woman, jabbed the barrel of a gun against her abdomen, and pulled the trigger twice. The woman let out a loud scream as her assailant quickly looked around the nearly deserted street. The Schlegmiller boy locked eyes with Johnny Spanish for the briefest of moments before the gangster hopped over a nearby fence and began sprinting across the barren fields of Maspeth. Young George rushed back to Grand Avenue and hailed a passing beat cop. Beatrice Konstant was still alive but severely wounded. When asked who had shot her, she murmured, "I would rather die." A short time later in the hospital, when told she was dying, Beatrice gasped a name that sounded like "John Wheeler." It was soon realized that she had said Johnny Spanish's usual alias of Weiler.

A New York Sun rendition of Johnny Spanish's shooting of Beatrice Konstant.

Johnny Spanish's shooting of Beatrice Konstant is perhaps the most notorious incident of his career. As well as one of the more confusing. Some later newspaper accounts claimed that Beatrice had died as a result of the shooting, though there is no official record of her succumbing to her wounds. Journalist/author Alfred Henry Lewis claimed in a 1912 New York Sun article (that was subsequently picked up by Herbert Asbury and others) that Beatrice had not only survived the shooting but had been pregnant at the time of the attack, and soon after gave birth to a baby that had two of its fingers shot off by Spanish's bullets. Contemporary news accounts of the shooting make no mention of Beatrice being pregnant, however.

Regardless, Johnny Spanish escaped immediate punishment for the dual attacks on Kid Dropper Kaplan and Beatrice Konstant. Later that year in December, when Hyman Benjamin went on trial for killing Rachael Rooten the previous spring, Johnny Spanish's presence loomed over the courtroom. Kid Jigger had been thoroughly intimidated by this point, as he admitted on the stand that he was afraid for his life. Jigger now claimed that it was now-absent Johnny Spanish who fired the shot that hit the Rooten girl, and that was only when Benjamin had grabbed his arm in an attempt to wrest his aim. Hyman Benjamin eventually walked away from the courtroom a free man. As 1911 began, Johnny Spanish was seemingly at the height of his power as a Lower East Side gang boss. Only the nagging presence of the now-recovered Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan seemed to present a problem.

Max Miller was as tough as they come. A large, powerful Jewish saloonkeeper, he ran a popular basement tavern at 170 Norfolk Street. Known in the Jewish underworld as Moishe the Strong Arm (this name is often incorrectly transliterated as Mersher), Miller's tough-guy status made him a target for Johnny Spanish. Despite his notoriety and the increasing attention that he was getting from law enforcement, Spanish put the word out that he would be at Moishe the Strong Arm's Norfolk Street joint at midnight on Sunday, March 19 to clean the place out. Either by legitimate rental or forcible removal, Johnny and two of his men got their hands on a taxicab for the Norfolk Street raid. Just a few minutes after his appointed midnight deadline, Johnny Spanish entered Moishe the Strong Arm's joint with a pistol blazing in each hand. The nine patrons in the place dove for cover as bullets shattered the mirrors and crystal chandeliers of the place. As his two goons kept him covered, Spanish lined up the saloon's patrons and took from them about $200 worth of valuables. Johnny then walked behind the now wrecked bar and relieved the enraged Moishe the Strong Arm of his prized gold watch before snatching sixty-eight dollars from the cash register. Spanish and his two men then made their getaway in the commandeered taxicab.

As audacious as Johnny Spanish's raid of Moishe the Strong Arm's saloon was, it proved to be his undoing. The New York police knew immediately who was responsible and promptly put the screws to their informants and snitches. On the afternoon of March 21, Johnny and one of his underlings, Sam Greenberg, boarded a Graham Avenue streetcar at the Brooklyn Bridge, bound for the Maspeth home of Spanish's family. As they disembarked the trolley at Grand and Columbia avenues, the pair was arrested. Detectives accused Spanish of shooting both Kid Dropper and Beatrice Konstant, to which the gangster snarled, "You'll have to prove it."

Booked back in Manhattan, Spanish was also accused of the death of Rachael Rooten in May 1910 and made to stand in numerous line-ups while various robbery victims viewed him. From the beginning, it seems that the cops wanted Johnny bad and that it would be quite tricky for him to wriggle off of this particular hook. Unable to make bail, Spanish was remanded to the Tombs and marched across the infamous Bridge of Sighs to his new horrid accommodations. Back in 1911, The Tombs was little better than a dungeon, with airless cells that had wooden buckets for sanitation and abusive, underpaid guards overseeing the inmates. As he awaited trial for robbing Moishe the Strong Arm's saloon, Johnny may have gotten word that his old adversary Kid Dropper Kaplan had been sentenced to seven to ten years for robbing a West Thirty-Eight Street brothel in January.

By the time he came to trial for armed robbery in mid-July 1911, some of the sand seemed to have been taken out of the twenty-two-year-old gangster Johnny Spanish. After spending four months in the hell that was the Tombs, and with no guns, liquor, or cocaine for courage, the young man was now looking down the barrel of a hefty prison sentence. While the police were not able to specifically pin the shootings of Rachael Rooten, Kid Dropper, or Beatrice Konstant on him, a few of Moishe the Strong Arm's patrons were willing to testify against him. Spanish's elderly mother Rose was present in the courtroom each day, as was his new girlfriend Mildred. Perhaps it was their presence that finally broke him. On Friday, July 14, Johnny Spanish got on the stand and confessed to robbing the Norfolk Street saloon on the night in question. Judge Mulqueen promptly sentenced him to seven to ten years in Sing Sing Prison. Johnny's mother and girlfriend loudly cried out at the announcement of the sentence. In the blink of an eye, the bill for Johnny Spanish's life of crime had suddenly come due.

While no authentic photograph of Johnny Spanish is currently in public circulation, a portrait of him can be drawn from the notes of the admission clerk at Sing Sing. Recorded as "John Wheeler," Spanish was described as being 5'4 3/4" inches tall and weighing 132 pounds; his build was so slim that his warders mistakenly thought he may have been tubercular. Johnny was described as having a dark complexion with dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. Address: 322 E. 11th Street. Occupation: Kept a pool room. Size hat: 6 7/8. Size shoe: 6. Forehead: Normal. Ears: Small, irregular. Eyebrows: Arched & Medium. Nose: Short & Small. Mouth: Medium. Lips: Medium. Teeth: 3 Absent. General Features: Regular.

Little specific information survives about Johnny Spanish's subsequent sentence in Sing Sing Prison. His arch-rival Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan joined him there by the end of 1911, but it is unknown what, if any, contact they had with each other. It must have especially galled Johnny when the Dropper's lawyer managed to finagle his release within a year of his original sentence. While on the outside, the now ascendant Dropper ingratiated himself with a rapidly changing Jewish underworld that rocked and swayed with the nationwide furor over the Becker/Rosenthal murder case and the subsequent Labor Sluggers War. Even after Kid Dropper was re-incarcerated at Sing Sing in March 1914 on a charge of bigamy, it seemed like the Dropper was beginning to exceed him in gang circles. Johnny could only watch with envy.

One can only imagine the culture shock that twenty-eight-year-old Johnny Spanish experienced upon his return to the Lower East Side in the spring of 1917. Automobile traffic would have increased considerably since his departure six years earlier. The Queens suburb of Maspeth where his family lived had become increasingly built up. Spanish appears to have begun making the rounds of his old haunts and to put his reputation to good use on the streets. At his side was his brother Joey Spanish, who had avoided attention from the police and media. Johnny would have encountered Arnold Rothstein, a powerful gambler and underworld power broker who had probably paid little attention to Spanish before he went away to prison. Another was Jacob Orgen, who was known as "Little Augie" due to his small stature. Orgen had followed the now imprisoned "Dopey Benny" Fein as general overlord of the Lower East Side underworld. Johnny Spanish seemed to have made a deal with Little Augie to operate independently and not infringe on his territory.

Standard accounts have Spanish going back into the labor slugging business. Since Johnny had been locked up, the Harrison Narcotics Act had outlawed the sale of hard drugs. Both experienced users and sellers of cocaine, the Spanish brothers became perhaps the biggest dealers of the drug on the Lower East Side during World War I. Johnny's new program was complicated significantly by the return of Kid Dropper to the Lower East Side in December 1917. By now, it was the Dropper who had a higher standing in the underworld. In the interest of diplomacy, both Spanish and Dropper agreed to peaceably co-exist in the underworld. Arnold Rothstein may have even been brought in to mediate their dispute.

With the end of World War I and the attendant parades of victorious American servicemen around New York, the city's gangsters began anticipating the coming Prohibition of alcohol. After the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919, the sale and manufacture of beer, wine, and liquor was due to be outlawed. Gangsters around the city anticipated the financial windfall that was about to befall them. At this late date, no one can say what thoughts Johnny Spanish had on the impending booze racket that was about to open wide up. On the surface, it seems as if the fast-moving New York underworld had bypassed Johnny during his time in prison, that he was now surrounded by gangsters were far more sophisticated and dangerous than the mentors (Paul Kelly and Monk Eastman) of his youth. If Spanish was going to survive in this brave new world, he needed to adapt. And there was Kid Dropper to worry about. Despite their non-aggression pact, the bad blood between them simmered just under the surface. All the Dropper had to do was slide the tip of his tongue around the gap in his upper jaw where the four teeth that had been knocked out by Spanish's bullet formerly resided. As for Johnny, all he had to do was close his eyes and think of Beatrice Konstant's face. The woman he had loved like no other. And how her eyes had sparkled for him no more after Kid Dropper had his way with her.     
 
The summer of 1919 began, and it seemed that the longtime hatred between Johnny Spanish was Kid Dropper Kaplan was on the verge of bubbling over. Spanish was noted as getting $100 a week for his labor slugging activity, and Dropper was trying to get his hands on a large percentage of it. Johnny had even had himself elected as a shirtwaist labor delegate, to better control illegal activity both for and against the union. With the beginning of the Wartime Prohibition Act on June 30, it was now illegal to sell liquor, wine, or beer stronger than 2.75 ABV. Whether or not Johnny began to make any inroads in the budding booze business is unknown. In retrospect, it seems a moot point, as Prohibition was part of a future that Johnny Spanish would have no part in.

Tuesday, July 29 was yet another hot and humid day in New York City; the temperature peaking at ninety-one degrees. The city regularly turned into an oven during the summer months and those who could often fled to the beach at Coney Island for heat relief or out to the broader expanses of the country. The precise movements of Johnny Spanish throughout that Tuesday are uncertain, but it is known that he agreed to meet his wife at Levitt's Restaurant at 19 Second Avenue at 4 o'clock that afternoon. Johnny stepped from a northbound taxicab across the street from the restaurant a little after four that day. Dressed in an expensive summer suit and straw boater, Spanish navigated his way across Second towards Levitt's. Johnny would have noticed the expensive touring car of his valet, Philip Rotkin, parked at the curb, which meant his wife was waiting for him inside.

As Spanish reached the sidewalk in front of the restaurant's door, he stopped dead in his tracks. Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan stood by the restaurant's door flanked by two goons, Herman "Hymie" Kalman and Billy "The Kid" Lustig. Witnesses saw the two rivals speaking to each other briefly, but no one was able to catch what was being said. Suddenly the man in the center, almost certainly Kid Dropper himself, pulled a revolver. Johnny Spanish neither tried to run or draw a gun of his own, as if he was frozen at the moment that nine years of hatred finally reached its climax. The first bullet struck him in the heart and caused him to stagger before falling face-forward onto the sidewalk. The Dropper fired a second bullet into the back of his rival's head as passerby began yelling and scattering. The Dropper and his two men were seen casually walking around the corner into First Street and disappearing into the crowd. Meanwhile, Johnny's wife ran screaming out of the restaurant, with Philip Rotkin close on her heels. The two lifted the bleeding gangster into Rotkin's touring car and made for the hospital. Johnny Spanish was still showing faint signs of life after his arrival at Bellevue Hospital, but he soon expired in the examining room.

After a wake at his family's home at 31 Lexington Avenue in Maspeth, Queens, the thirty-year-old gangster was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery under the name John Mestrett. Police announced that they were looking for Nathan Kaplan, Herman Kalman, and Billy Lustig. The latter later admitted that he had been at the scene of the crime but denied knowing who had fired the fatal shots. Charges against all three men were eventually dismissed. In the absence of his brother Johnny, Joey Spanish was not quite skilled enough to hold their various criminal enterprises together. Nevertheless, Joey was still determined to avenge his brother and began lurking near Kid Dropper's home at 195 Madison Street in the hopes of catching him off guard. On the evening of December 3, 1919, Joey Spanish mistook Adolph Caplin for his brother Nathan and opened fire on him as he walked down Madison Street with a young girl named Martha Janoff. Joey's bullets missed the intended target and struck Miss Janoff in the abdomen. The younger Spanish was captured by police after a brief foot chase and charged with assault with intent to kill.

One of Johnny Spanish's killers did eventually met a violent end when Herman "Hymie" Kalman was shot and killed on September 20, 1921 while exiting an East Broadway movie theatre. The prime suspect turned out to be Lefty Kantor, a longtime member of the old Spanish crew. Kantor was never convicted of the crime, and became a victim of gangland himself in 1925. With the murder of Johnny Spanish and the imprisonment, not long after, of Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan became the undisputed leader of the Lower East Side underworld. The Dropper attained power and wealth beyond his wildest imaginings, but Little Augie Orgen was soon back on the street and had his own designs on the seat of power. On August 28, 1923, Kaplan was arraigned on a concealed weapons charge at the Essex Court Building. After being remanded to another court, Kid Dropper was transported outside to a waiting vehicle. A crowd of at least one hundred police officials and newsmen observed the move. After Kid Dropper and his wife had entered the car a low-level Little Augie henchman named Louis Cohen, hopped up on cocaine and false promises, darted through the crowd, put a gun to the vehicle's rear window, and blew Kid Dropper's brains out.

A New York Daily News headline describing the assassination of Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan.

In retrospect, the career of Johnny Spanish was somewhat unremarkable when compared to New York gangsters of old like Arnold Rothstein, Lepke Buchalter, or Meyer Lansky. Even his nemesis, Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan, made more of an overall splash in the underworld. Nevertheless, Spanish had qualities of resourcefulness and daring that made a name for himself amongst underworld denizens who could not be fooled on matters of personal courage. Johnny's hair-trigger temper and lack of caution in certain situations proved to be his undoing in more ways than one. Had Johnny Spanish survived his Second Avenue encounter with Kid Dropper, he probably would not have lasted very long in the rapidly changing New York underworld. With the coming of Prohibition and the tremendous profits that turned street gangsters into millionaires, Spanish's fiercely independent streak and famous temper would have almost certainly resulted in a violent demise at some point during the 1920s.

Probably the main reason we know the name of Johnny Spanish today is because of Herbert Asbury. The hood of Gangs of New York is a violent, mysterious thug with noble Spanish origins who carried out several daring crimes of the era. The far-less poetic reality of Johnny Spanish featured a bright yet temperamental Italian/Spanish hood who blazed a short, self-destructive trail through Gotham gangland, occasionally retreating to his family's suburban Maspeth house when he needed an escape from the pressure cooker of the Lower East Side. Like many gangsters of the era, Johnny Spanish (once known as Giovanni Mistretta) survives today as a footnote in the violent underworld history of our nation's largest city.

Sources:

Athens, Lonnie. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Champaign, IL: University of
Illinois Press, 1992.
Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1927.
Fried, Albert. The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America. New York, Columbia
University Press, 1993.
Keefe, Rose. The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, The Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the advent of the Jewish Gangster. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2008.
Lewis, Alfred Henry. The Apaches of New York. New York: M.A. Donohue & Company, 1911.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle: May 26 and 30, 1910; March 22, 1911; August 6, 1919; September 21, 1921.
Brooklyn Standard Union: March 22, 1911.
Brooklyn Times Union: July 14, 1911.
New York Daily News: July 29, August 4, December 4 -5, 1919; August 29 and November 11, 1923.
New York Evening World: March 22, June 30 and July 12, 1911; July 30-31, August 26 and December 4, 1919.
New York Herald: July 30-31, August 27 and December 4, 1919; September 21, 1921.
New York Sun: November 5-6, 12-13, 1909; March 19 and July 14, 1911; October 6, 1912.
New York Times: September 24-25 and December 14, 1910; March 19 and 22, July 1 and 15, 1911; July 30, 1919.
New York Tribune: May 26, September 24 and 26, 1910; February 7, 1916; July 31, August 27 and December 4, 1919.
1920 and 1930 U.S. Census.
New York, Queens Probate Administration, 1919, Case No. 1010.
New York, Queens Probate Administration, 1927, Case No. 2116/27.

14 July 2019

Maranzano-focused Informer issue taking shape

The August 2019 issue of Informer: The History of American Crime and Law Enforcement will focus exclusively on Prohibition Era Mafia leader Salvatore Maranzano: life, career, assassination and post-assassination aftereffects. Through articles, photos and maps, Informer will tackle many questions about Maranzano, including:

  • Who was Salvatore Maranzano?
  • What did he look like? (And what did he certainly NOT look like?)
  • What does a recent discovery tell us about him?
  • What was said about him by those who knew him in life?
  • Where were the locations significant to his life and career?
  • When did Maranzano-related events occur?
  • Why was he important in U.S. Mafia history?
  • How has he been portrayed by Hollywood?
  • What do we know of Maranzano's life in Sicily?
  • Was there really a post-Maranzano Mafia purge?

Pages for the issue are currently being assembled. (Issue is expected to weigh in at around seventy-two pages.)

Plans call for the August Informer to be released in the usual print and electronic (PDF) formats, both available through the MagCloud service. And, with some luck, the issue also will be available in a Kindle ebook format.

Stay tuned.

31 May 2019

Detroit fish market murders spark Mafia war

On this date in 1930...

Detroit Free Press
Detroit Mafia leader Gaspare Milazzo and aide Rosario "Sam" Parrino were shot to death May 31, 1930, at an East Vernor Highway fish market. Their deaths helped ignite a widespread rebellion against U.S. Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria.

Cesare "Chester" LaMare, Masseria-aligned leader of an Italian gang based in Hamtramck, had called a conference of regional underworld leaders at the fish market. He secretly planned to eliminate as many as six rival bosses, including top men in the eastern Detroit Mafia dominated by the Tocco, Zerilli and Meli families.

He had once been close friends with the Tocco and Zerilli crowd, but by 1930 most of the bosses apparently knew that LaMare could no longer be trusted. Milazzo and Parrino were the only invitees who showed up for the noon meeting.

Milazzo 
Milazzo, also known as Gaspare Scibilia (and referred to in the Detroit Free Press as Gaspare Lombardo), was a native of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, born to Vincenzo and Camilla Pizzo Milazzo in 1885. In his mid-twenties, he crossed the Atlantic to settle in a growing colony of Castellammaresi centered at North Fifth Street and Roebling Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

He likely participated in a Mafia organization led by Sebastiano DiGaetano. The DiGaetano organization was subsequently commanded by Nicola Schiro, under the strong influence of Castellammarese Mafioso Stefano Magaddino, and decades later became the Bonanno Crime Family.

Milazzo married Rosaria "Sarah" Scibilia, also a native of Castellammare, in 1914. (She entered the U.S. a year earlier with her parents and siblings, heading to 222 North Fifth Street to join an uncle.) After just a few years in New York, where their first child was born, the Milazzo family began traveling, perhaps made necessary by gangland feuds or by Milazzo's involvement in bootlegging rackets. Two children were born to the couple in Pennsylvania between 1918 and 1920. A fourth child was born in California.

In the 1920s, the Milazzos settled down in Detroit. Gaspare Milazzo opened a grocery, which served as handy cover for an illegal brewery operation, and became a respected leader in the local underworld. By 1930, he was owner of a comfortable home at 2511 Lemay Avenue.

Parrino
Born in 1890 in Alcamo, just east of Castellammare, Rosario Parrino and his older brother Giuseppe settled in Brooklyn as young men. Giuseppe's immigration documents indicated that he was heading to Johnson Street in Brooklyn to meet an uncle named Vito DiGaetano. This opens the possibility that the Parrinos were related to the bosses of the DiGaetano underworld organization.

During Prohibition, Giuseppe Parrino became a wealthy member of the Schiro organization. By 1930, he was owner of a tile store and a expensive home on Ocean Parkway in central Brooklyn.

Rosario appears to have been less fortunate. There was uncertainty about his address at the time of his murder. His death certificate stated his address was 2739 East Vernor Highway, the same address typically given for the fish market. Some press reports placed his residence at 2721 East Vernor Highway, a few doors from the market. This was also the address of a Tom Cochello, longtime friend of Milazzo and Parrino who was held by police for questioning following the murders.

The shootings
Milazzo and Parrino were blasted with shotguns at close range shortly after arriving at the market. As the gunfire began, market owner Philip Guastello ran out of his business and did not return.

Powder burns were evident on both of the victims. Milazzo's body was ripped apart, and he died instantly. The official cause of death was listed as "shock, hemorrhage and internal hemorrhage following gunshot wounds, homicide."

Milazzo death certificate

Parrino, struck by slugs to his chest and abdomen, was still alive when police arrived and responded to some questions. He told police that he did not know his assailants and could not imagine why anyone would target him or Milazzo.

Parrino was brought to Receiving Hospital, where Doctor Nathan Schlafer attempted to repair his wounds. Parrino died at two-thirty in the afternoon of internal hemorrhage.

Milazzo was buried June 4 at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit. Parrino's remains were shipped east to relatives. His Michigan death certificate indicated that the body was sent to a brother-in-law named Luigi Tommasso of 264 Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn. Parrino was buried in St. John Cemetery in Queens.

Aftermath
LaMare
Following the death of Milazzo, "Joe the Boss" Masseria endorsed Chester LaMare as overall leader of Detroit's Italian-Sicilian underworld. But the fish market murders were a strategic failure. The Hamtramck racketeer did not have the muscle to compete with east Detroit Mafiosi. In summer of 1930, LaMare reportedly left Detroit to hide in New York for a while.

The Castellammaresi in Brooklyn were enraged by the Detroit murders and noted that Giuseppe Parrino was oddly accepting of his brother's death. Under pressure from Masseria, boss Nicola Schiro abandoned the organization and returned to Italy. Masseria then backed Giuseppe Parrino as that crime family's new boss, raising Castellammarese suspicions that Parrino was in league with the forces behind the killings.

Many from the former Schiro family secretly assembled under the leadership of Magaddino and Salvatore Maranzano to oppose Masseria. They formed alliances with Mafiosi around New York City and across the country. The resulting conflict became known as the Castellammarese War.

In the late afternoon of January 19, 1931, Giuseppe Parrino dined with three other men at the Del Pezzo Restaurant, on the second floor of 100 West 40th Street in New York City. Just before six o'clock, his dinner companions became argumentative. One of the group resolved the argument, and the men returned to their meals. A gunshot was then heard, and Parrino stood up from his chair. As he did so, the guest who had been the peacemaker held out a handgun and fired a bullet that struck Parrino between the eyes. Two more were then fired into the back of his head.

The dinner companions calmly walked out of the restaurant, leaving the handgun and Parrino's corpse behind them on the floor.

New York Daily News

Weeks later, Chester LaMare quietly returned to his two-story brick home on Grandville Avenue in the northwest of Detroit. His return was noted by local police, who planned to raid the home on the morning of February 7. LaMare was to be arrested and brought to testify before a Wayne County grand jury. He would not live that long.

Overnight, while LaMare's wife was out on an errand, the boss received a visitor. The guest was apparently seen as a friend by LaMare and his two guard dogs. The friendship ended abruptly when the guest fired two bullets into LaMare's head.

Philadelphia Inquirer
Spot of LaMare's murder

Detroit police were certain that the East Side Mafiosi were responsible for the LaMare murder. They arrested Joseph Zerilli and William "Black Bill" Tocco but could not make a case against them.

The war went badly for Masseria in most of the country, as he and his allies suffered serious losses. The one exception was Chicago, where Masseria's man Al Capone emerged victorious over rebel-aligned Joseph Aiello. On April 15, 1931, Masseria's own lieutenants ended the war by arranging the assassination of Joe the Boss at Coney Island, Brooklyn. Castellammarese war leader Salvatore Maranzano was subsequently selected as the next Mafia boss of bosses.

Sources:

  • "5 killings laid to rum racket," Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1930, p. 2.
  • "Alleged gangsters arrested in Detroit," Marshall MI Evening Chronicle, Feb. 10, 1931, p. 2.
  • "Cafe patron put on spot in 'Met' cafe," New York Daily News, Jan. 20, 1931, p. 3.
  • "Detroit gang leader killed in own kitchen," Lansing MI State Journal, Feb. 7, 1931, p. 1.
  • "Gangs receive machine guns," Detroit Free Press, Sept. 18, 1930, p. 1.
  • "Hamtramck waits move by governor," Lansing MI State Journal, July 14, 1924, p. 5.
  • "LaMare, lord of West Side, assassinated," Escanaba MI Daily Press, Feb. 8, 1931, p. 1.
  • "LaMare's slayer still at large," Escanaba MI Daily Press, Feb. 12, 1931, p. 2.
  • "Mob leader 'put on spot,' belief of investigators," Detroit Free Press, Feb. 8, 1931, p. 1.
  • "Police death warrants out," Detroit Free Press, June 4, 1930, p. 9.
  • "Police slay thug who defied search," New York Times, Jan. 20, 1931, p. 5.
  • "Riddled by lead slugs," Detroit Free Press, June 1, 1930, p. 1.
  • "Tip says one of Saturday's victims is wanted for murder," Detroit Free Press, June 2, 1930, p. 3.
  • Chester Sapio Lamare Death Certificate, Michigan Department of Health Division of Vital Statistics, State office no. 140778, register no. 1599, Feb. 7, 1931.
  • Gaspare Milazzo birth certificate, Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, July 18, 1885.
  • Gaspari Milazzo death certificate, Michigan Department of Health Division of Vital Statistics, Reg. No. 7571, June 1, 1930.
  • New York City Extracted Death Index, certificate no. 2435, Jan. 19, 1931.
  • New York City Marriage Index, certificate no. 12669, Nov. 4, 1914.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Luisiana, departed Palermo on March 5, 1910, arrived New York on March 21, 1910.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Prinzess Irene, departed Palermo on Oct. 25, 1913, arrived New York on Nov. 6, 1913.
  • Rosario Parrino Certificate of Death, Michigan Department of Health Division of Vital Statistics, Register no. 7449, May 31, 1930.
  • United States Census of 1930, Michigan, Wayne County, Detroit, Ward 16, Precinct 33, Enumeration District 92-523.
  • United States Census of 1930, Michigan, Wayne County, Detroit, Ward 21, Enumeration District 82-791.
  • United States Census of 1930, New York, Kings County, Enumeration District 24-888.
  • Vito Tocco Marriage Certificate, Detroit, Michigan, Certificate no. 256195, license dated Sept. 19, 1923, ceremony performed Sept. 26, 1923. 
See also:

16 April 2019

Death of former Chicago gang chief goes unnoticed

Torrio founded Chicago Outfit
and mentored young Al Capone

On this date in 1957...

Chicago Tribune
May 8, 1957
Johnny Torrio, seventy-five-year-old former Chicago underworld boss, died April 16, 1957. His passing was virtually unnoticed. Newspapers were not alerted until about three weeks later, when his will was filed for probate.

Raised in the gangs of lower Manhattan's Five Points area, Torrio went west (along with longtime friend and fellow Five Points gangster Rocco "Roxie" Vanella) around 1909-1910. He became bodyguard, enforcer and business manager for Chicago vice lord "Big Jim" Colosimo - possibly a relative of Torrio's step-father Salvatore Caputo.

After a while, Torrio brought young Al Capone from Brooklyn to Chicago to assist him. Following Colosimo's 1920 murder, Torrio turned the Colosimo organization into a bootlegging operation and competed with other local gangs and the powerful Chicago Mafia for rackets territory.

A January 1925 assassination attempt convinced Torrio to retire as gang boss, and he turned his organization over to Capone. Following a jail term at Waukegan, Illinois, for Prohibition violations, Torrio returned to New York. He and his wife settled into a Brooklyn residence, spent winters in St. Petersburg and traveled abroad regularly. Torrio continued his involvement in underworld rackets, repeatedly running into trouble with the authorities.

The final decade of his life was spent out of the public eye. His last years were lived quietly in a recently constructed apartment building, 9902 Third Avenue in Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton section.

On April 16, 1957, he suffered a heart attack while in a barber's chair and was rushed to Cumberland Hospital (named for its first home on Cumberland Street but located on Auburn Place in 1957). He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery. Torrio was survived by his wife of forty years, Anna.

NY Times, May 8, 1957

27 March 2019

Buffalo mobster Sam DiCarlo dies in Florida

On this date in 1987...

Sam DiCarlo
Retired Buffalo Mafia member Sam DiCarlo, brother of the notorious Joseph DiCarlo, died March 27, 1987, in Miami, Florida, at the age of 82. While often in the shadow of his better known brother, Sam DiCarlo was an influential underworld leader and participated in some of the more important Mafia events in U.S. history.

Born Salvatore DiCarlo on April 2, 1904, he was the fourth child (third son, after Francesco and Giuseppe/Joseph Jr.) of Giuseppe and Vincenza Grasso DiCarlo of Vallelunga, Sicily.

At the age of two, "Sam" crossed the Atlantic with his mother and siblings. Giuseppe DiCarlo had made the trip the previous September, settling in a New York City colony of Vallelunghesi that included the related Mistretta, Muscarella and Bonasera clans. Giuseppe was late meeting his family at Ellis Island, and the first meal eaten in America by Vincenza and her children was the boxed lunch provided by the immigration center.

The family lived briefly in Brooklyn and then moved in 1907 to Manhattan's East Harlem. Giuseppe DiCarlo commuted to work at a Manzella grocery business, 190 Elizabeth Street, between Spring and Prince Streets. Giuseppe was friendly with Pasquale Enea and Isidoro Crocevera, associates of local Mafia leader Giuseppe Morello. In summer 1908, apparently with the blessing of Morello, Giuseppe DiCarlo became boss of the Mafia organization in Buffalo, New York (he had been a regular visitor to the city since March 1907), and resettled his family there.

Giuseppe DiCarlo
The Buffalo area was home to large numbers of Sicilian immigrants from the inland Vallelunga-Valledolmo area (where the provinces of Palermo and Caltanissetta meet) and the coastal city of Castellammare del Golfo (province of Trapani). Castellammarese Mafioso Benedetto Angelo Palmeri, likely a Giuseppe DiCarlo acquaintance from their time in New York City, soon moved into Buffalo and became a key figure in the DiCarlo underworld administration. (Palmeri later married into the Mistretta family, relatives of Vincenza Grasso DiCarlo.)

Sam and the other DiCarlo children grew up in comfort, thanks to their father's position. But the family was not immune to tragedy. Francesco just reached the age of eighteen when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in January 1917. He died of the disease in March 1918. The following year, Vincenza, age forty-six, died following cancer surgery.

Sam was in his early teens when brother Joseph (four and a half years older than Sam) became an aide to their father in the early days of Prohibition. Joseph was involved in a shooting incident in August 1920 that left one man dead and one man wounded. The wounded man was Vincent Vaccaro, connected with local Black Hand extortion rackets. The dead man was eventually identified as Giuseppe DiCarlo's old friend Isidoro Crocevera. Police pieced together enough about the incident to decide that it was related to a squabble over bootlegging proceeds. Joseph DiCarlo was charged with first-degree assault in the shooting of Vaccaro. Vaccaro's brother Anthony was charged with Crocevera's murder. Witnesses refused to cooperate with authorities, and the charges were later dropped.

Sam got into trouble with the law at about the same time. At the age of sixteen, he and a nineteen-year-old friend were arrested for assaulting two young women. Charges were dismissed.

Joe DiCarlo
Giuseppe DiCarlo died July 9, 1922, at the age of forty-eight. The cause of death was reported as acute pulmonary edema. Ill (and likely depressed) for years, with diabetes and heart and kidney problems, he had recently pulled out of a number of legitimate businesses and spent his time at a "country home" in Bowmansville, New York. His death left the Mafia of western New York leaderless.

Sam was eighteen and Joseph was twenty-two. Buffalo Mafia leaders considered installing Joseph as the new boss, but decided he did not have the maturity for the position. Angelo Palmeri was given the nod instead, perhaps as a sort of regent for Joseph. Joseph's path toward the top spot in the organization set up by his father was blocked by the Buffalo arrival of Stefano Magaddino later in 1922. Palmeri turned power over to the more senior Castellammarese Mafioso.

Joseph viewed Magaddino as a rival and an obstacle and spent the rest of his life trying to build an underworld organization of his own. Sam DiCarlo, however, seemed to have an easier time finding his place in a crime family run by Magaddino. He became a Magaddino ambassador, representing his boss at national Mafia events.

During his underworld career, Sam DiCarlo was arrested twice at Mafia conventions. The arrests helped to reveal the interstate nature of organized crime many years before the famous gathering at Apalachin, New York.

Sam DiCarlo
Sam was arrested along with more than twenty other Mafiosi from around the country at the Cleveland Statler Hotel in December of 1928. That gathering, held following the New York murders of Mafia boss of bosses Salvatore "Toto" D'Aquila and Brooklyn leader Frank "Yale" Ioele, was probably intended as a coronation of the Mafia's new supreme arbiter, Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria. (Some disagree with this view, noting that Masseria and his known associates were not among those arrested at the Statler Hotel. But, with Masseria kin living in Cleveland, his presence among the out-of-town visitors at the hotel would have been odd.)

In the summer of 1932, Sam DiCarlo was found with gathered Mafiosi from around the country in New York City. At the time, Sam was free on bail pending his appeal of a year-and-a-day federal sentence for interstate transport and possession of a stolen automobile. He was taken into custody as New York police investigated the ice pick murder of visiting Pittsburgh crime boss John Bazzano. A loose-cannon in the Mafia, Bazzano had recently ordered the killing of several Neapolitan associates, apparently as a form of ethnic cleansing in his underworld organization. Bazzano was called to New York by Mafia higher-ups to answer charges. His answer was deemed insufficient, and he was executed.

Magaddino
Sam's appeals kept him out of federal prison long enough to attend the summer 1933 wedding of his sister Sarah to Cassandro "Tony the Chief" Bonasera. A member of the Brooklyn-based Profaci (later Colombo) Crime Family, Bonasera was one of the Mafiosi rounded up following the murder of Bazzano.

Frustrated by Magaddino's increasing power and influence in western New York, Joseph DiCarlo began to search for greener pastures. In the mid-1940s, he established himself as leader of gambling operations in the City of Youngstown, Ohio. He was assisted in that role by his brother Sam, two brothers-in-law of the Pieri family and John "Peanuts" Tronolone (later Mafia boss of Cleveland). The DiCarlo brothers within a few years also involved themselves in gambling rackets in Miami Beach, Florida.

These rackets were exposed through the Kefauver Committee hearings of the early 1950s. Sam DiCarlo and John Tronolone were arrested together at a Miami Beach barbecue restaurant on New Year's Eve, 1953. They were charged with running a gambling house, gambling and bookmaking. Joseph DiCarlo was arrested a few days later.

John "Peanuts" Tronolone and Joseph DiCarlo

The U.S. Senate's McClellan Committee opened hearings into organized crime in summer of 1958. As it did so, it published the names of 135 individuals who were found to be attendees or associates of attendees of the November 1957 Apalachin meeting. Joseph and Sam DiCarlo were included on that list.

Sam DiCarlo, in his mid-fifties, seems to have made it a point to avoid public scrutiny following the McClellan Committee revelations.

The underworld career of his big brother Joseph was far from over. In the late 1960s, Joseph DiCarlo returned to Buffalo to aid and advise the Pieri faction in a revolt. Under the leadership of Sam Pieri and Joseph DiCarlo, the Mafia organization within the City of Buffalo broke away from the regional Mafia of western New York commanded from the Niagara Falls area by Stefano Magaddino. Diminished in power and influence, Magaddino died after a heart attack in 1974.

Sam DiCarlo was the longest-lived of his siblings. Sarah DiCarlo Bonasera died October 19, 1975, in Brooklyn at the age of seventy-three. After more than a decade as consigliere of the Buffalo Crime Family he helped build, Joseph DiCarlo died Oct. 11, 1980, at the age of 80.

A resident patient of the Four Freedoms Manor facility in Miami, Sam DiCarlo died at the age of eighty-two following a stroke.

Read much more about the DiCarlos, 
Magaddino and the Mafia 
of western New York in:


DiCarlo: Buffalo's First Family of Crime - Vol. 1, to 1937, by Thomas Hunt and Michael A. Tona.


DiCarlo: Buffalo's First Family of Crime - Vol. 2, from 1938, by Thomas Hunt and Michael A. Tona.

21 March 2019

'Sally Bugs' is killed to ensure his silence

On this date in 1978...

Briguglio
A Teamsters union official, suspected of involvement in James R. Hoffa's 1975 disappearance, was murdered March 21, 1978, on Mulberry Street in Manhattan's Little Italy.

Salvatore "Sally Bugs" Briguglio was observed standing in front of the Little Italy's Andrea Doria Social Club, 165 Mulberry Street, at about eleven o'clock that night. (The Andrea Doria club was a known hangout for members and associates of the Genovese Crime Family. It sat about a block from Umberto's Clam House, the location of the 1972 murder of renegade Colombo Family Mafioso "Crazy Joe" Gallo.)

Minutes later, two men, wearing jackets with hoods pulled over their heads, approached him from behind. There are different opinions about what happened next.

Some witnesses reported that the two men spoke with Briguglio, perhaps trying to convince him to come along with them. As conversation became argument, one of the men struck Briguglio. Other witnesses saw no such thing. They stated that no words were exchanged at all; the two hooded men merely went up to Briguglio and knocked him down.

At that point, witnesses agree that the two men with hooded jackets drew handguns and started firing. Four bullets entered Briguglio's head. One struck him in the chest. 

The gunmen ran a short distance north toward Broome Street, climbed into a light blue Mercury Monarch with New Jersey plates and drove off.

Briguglio was rushed to Bellevue Hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Though the killing, which occurred just outside the front windows of the popular Benito II restaurant, 163 Mulberry Street, was seen by a number of people, all witnesses told police that they could not identify or even describe the gunmen.

Provenzano
Briguglio was secretary-treasurer of Union City, New Jersey, Local 560 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He was known to be a top aide to powerful New Jersey Teamsters official Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, a Genovese Crime Family mobster. Provenzano and Hoffa once had been friendly but had a serious falling out when they served time together in prison.

Federal investigators received information that Briguglio and his brother Gabriel participated in the abduction and murder of Hoffa. Salvatore Briguglio was brought twice before a Detroit federal grand jury investigationg the Hoffa disappearance. He reportedly refused to testify, citing his right against self-incrimination.

At the time he was killed, Briguglio was awaiting trial with Provenzano, New Jersey racketeer Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg and others for the 1961 killing of a previous Local 560 secretary-treasurer, Anthony Castellito, who dared to oppose "Tony Pro." Rumors suggested that Provenzano feared Briguglio was providing information to prosecutors and had him silenced.

Briguglio and Konigsberg may have been on thin ice for some time. FBI heard that there was a Mafia death sentence against both men just months after they worked together on the killing of Castellito.

A different Provenzano associate, Salvatore Sinno, was cooperating with law enforcement and provided all the information needed for a successful prosecution. Provenzano and his codefendants were convicted of the Castellito murder just a few months after Briguglio was slain.

Sources:

  • "Tony Pro convicted of murder," Passaic NJ Herald-News, June 15, 1978, p. 9.
  • Buder, Leonard, "Federal agents hope Teamster slaying in Little Italy will offer leads in the Hoffa-disappearance case," New York Times, March 23, 1978, p. B3.
  • Casey, Dave, "Hallandale men indicted, sought in pension fraud," Fort Lauderdale FL News, Nov. 29, 1978, p. 1B.
  • Doyle, Patrick, and Joan Shepard, "A Hoffa witness is slain by 2 in Little Italy street," New York Daily News, March 22, 1978, p. 3.
  • Edmonds, Richard, "Says Tony Pro paid for a hit," New York Daily News, June 2, 1978, p. 18.
  • Gage, Nicholas, "Provenzano indicted with Teamster aide in '61 union killing," New York Times, June 24, 1976, p. 69.
  • Kramer, Marcia, and Paul Meskil, "Cops read 'contract' in killing of Hoffa suspect," New York Daily News, March 23, 1978, p. 5.
  • Linker, Norbert R., "Criminal influence in International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 560, Union City, New Jersey," FBI report, file no. CR 92-5215-22, NARA no. 124-10300-10030, Jan. 15, 1962.
  • Social Security Death Index, 141-22-0294, March 1978.

14 March 2019

Gambino chief shot, killed at his home

Low-key boss linked New York, Sicily mobs

Cali
The reputed boss of New York's Gambino Crime Family was shot to death March 13, 2019, in the street outside his Staten Island home.

Shortly after 9 p.m. emergency dispatchers received a 9-1-1 call from 25 Hilltop Terrace in the Todt Hill section. Fire department medics and police responded. They found Francesco "Franky Boy" Cali, 53, had suffered multiple gunshot wounds.

Cali was rushed to the North Campus of Staten Island University Hospital, about a mile and a half away at Seaview and Mason Avenues. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

According to published accounts, no one in the generally quiet residential neighborhood saw the shooting. Several residents reported hearing a series of six or seven gunshots just after nine o'clock. One resident said those were followed by a pause and then several more shots. According to the New York Daily News, a Cali family member stated that Cali was run over by a pickup truck before he was shot. (This incorrect report was likely the result of Cali being found behind and slightly under his SUV, parked at the road.) A blue pickup truck was observed leaving the area immediately after the shooting. Police are investigating.

Cali's wife and children were home at the time of the shooting. The home - a two-story red-brick Colonial-style structure - sits close to Hilltop Terrace. It is separated from the street by a small front yard consisting of several trees, a semicircle driveway of paving stones and a patch of shrubs. (Built in 1970, the home was last purchased in 2007 for $1.225 million. Extensive renovations were done to the home and the property at that time.) The residence is reportedly held in the name of Cali's wife, Rosaria Inzerillo.

Plastic cups cover shell casings found by
police following the Cali shooting
New York Daily News photo.


'He's everything'

Long suspected of underworld involvement, Cali's importance to Mafia organizations on both sides of the Atlantic first became apparent to authorities on October 21, 2005. On that date, electronic surveillance overheard Palermo, Sicily, Mafioso Gianni Nicchi talking to his district chief Antonino Rotolo about Cali in the U.S.: "He's our friend, and he is everything over there."

Authorities found that Cali had risen quickly in the Gambino Crime Family and was then a powerful capodecina based in Brooklyn. Under the reign of the Gottis, Cali had been used as an ambassador to the Mafia in Palermo. Cali became close to the Inzerillo clan of Palermo's Passo di Rigano district and was also known to have contacts within the 'Ndrangheta criminal society of Calabria, in the south of Italy's mainland.

Cefalu
The FBI learned more about Cali's underworld career from Frank Fappiano and Michael DiLeonardo (brothers-in-law and members of the Gambino Family). DiLeonardo recalled Cali from spring 1994, when DiLeonardo had recently been appointed capodecina and Cali was just a crime family associate.

During 2006 court testimony, DiLeonardo pointed out Cali in a surveillance video: "This is Frank Cali, associate at the time. He later on gets straightened out with Jackie D'Amico." DiLeonardo explained that being "straightened out" meant being formally inducted as a Mafia member. D'Amico handled crime family operations for the Gottis following the life imprisonment of boss John J. Gotti.

Cali paid a price for his new notoriety. Early in 2008, Cali and dozens of underworld figures were arrested as a result of the federal Operation Old Bridge. Cali pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy - relating to his attempt to force payments from a trucker working at a proposed NASCAR racetrack in Staten Island. He served sixteen months in prison and was released in 2009.

After the Gotti faction was removed from power, largely through a series of successful prosecutions aided by informants, the crime family was ruled for several years by a panel of bosses. In 2011, Sicilian native Domenico Cefalu was given the title of boss. His reign marked a return to power of the crime family's Sicilian faction (and relatives of former boss Carlo Gambino, for whom the organization was named.) Cali served in an underboss role for Cefalu.

Cali
Under Cefalu and Cali, the Gambino organization made increased use of Sicilian immigrant criminals and of its relationship with the Sicilian underworld. According to law enforcement sources, the organization became a major player in international heroin trafficking and traded also in prescription narcotics, such as oxycodone. (It continued to generate income through gambling, construction and labor rackets.)

Members of the Inzerillo clan, who earlier fled a Sicilian gang war, returned to Palermo and reclaimed their rackets territory. Cali, an Inzerillo in-law (Cali's wife also is niece to Giovanni Gambino, a relative of the late Carlo Gambino), benefited both from the increased power of the Inzerillos in Palermo and the resurrection of the Sicilian faction in the Gambino Family. There were rumors of Cali taking over for the retiring Cefalu in 2013 and again in 2015.


Factional conflict?

Some in the press are speculating that the killing of Francesco Cali is the result of a new phase of an old factional struggle within the large but deeply divided Gambino Crime Family. Through its history, the crime family has changed leaders as often through murder as through peaceful transfer of power.

The underworld organization's competing factions became evident a short time after the 1928 assassination of early boss Salvatore "Toto" D'Aquila. Manfredi "Al" Mineo assumed control of the crime family with the blessings of then-boss of bosses Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria. The combined Masseria-Mineo strength kept the organization's sub-leaders and members in line for a time. After the 1930 murder of Mineo, however, new conservative Sicilian leadership behind Frank "Ciccio" Scalise of the Bronx took power and pulled away from Masseria.

The old-line Sicilians retained control, but changed leadership to Vincent Mangano, when the Castellammarese War against Masseria concluded a year later. Mangano ruled for two decades but had trouble with a non-Sicilian faction led by Albert Anastasia, a native of Calabria. The regime of Mangano and his brother Philip was ended in 1951. Philip was found murdered. Vincent Mangano simply disappeared. Anastasia reportedly admitted to his colleagues that he was responsible for the deaths of the Manganos but claimed self defense, as they were planning to move against him.

Anastasia became boss. The Sicilian faction champion, Carlo Gambino, served as underboss. Anastasia's murder in fall of 1957, restored the Sicilians to power. Gambino stepped in as the new top man. He quickly suppressed a rebellion led by Anastasia loyalist Armand Rava and then made Rava ally Aniello Dellacroce his underboss. Gambino groomed his brother-in-law Paul Castellano as his successor, offending the out-of-power Dellacroce faction.

A crime family civil war could have been triggered by Castellano's move into the boss role in 1976, but Dellacroce restrained his followers. (Like Francesco Cali, Castellano was a resident of Todt Hill, Staten Island.) Upon Dellacroce's death late in 1985, the Castellano opposition united behind John J. Gotti. Gotti set up the assassination of the boss in Manhattan on Dec. 16, 1985, and secured for himself the leadership of the crime family.

Cali's murder may be a sign that the Sicilians, in power through the past eight years, may once again be forced out.



Old neighborhood


While some sources point to Sicily as Cali's birthplace, it appears that Cali was born Francesco Paolo Augusto Cali in New York City on March 16, 1965. He was raised in Brooklyn.

His father Augusto, recalled as proprietor of a video store on Eighteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst, reportedly maintained a clean record. He was questioned by the FBI in 1986 as part of the Pizza Connection investigation but faced no charges.

In addition to the home at Todt Hill, Francesco Cali was also associated with the 7306 Eighteen Avenue address in Bensonhurst. That address sits in an old Sicilian neighborhood, perhaps the same one where Augusto ran his business. Currently, a large number of business signs in the area feature Asian writing. But a Sicilian presence is still evident. Three private Sicilian social clubs sit on the same block with 7306 Eighteenth Avenue: Società figli di Ragusa (No. 7308), Sciacca Social Club (no. 7316) and U.S. Vizzinese Association (no. 7320).

See:

Sources:

  • "25 Hilltop Ter," Zillow, zillow.com.
  • "25 Hilltop Terrace," Realtor.com.
  • "Francesco Cali, a man with reported mob ties, shot and killed in New York City," USA Today, usatoday.com, March 14, 2019.
  • "Reputed Gambino crime boss Frank Cali shot dead in front of Staten Island home," CBS-2 New York, newyork.cbslocal.com, March 13, 2019. 
  • Bolzoni, Attilio, "Franky Boy, the invisible boss who wanted to have Palermo back," Rome La Repubblica, repubblica.it.
  • Burke, Kerry, and John Annese with Rocco Parascandola, "Gambino Crime Family boss Frank Cali shot and killed outside Staten Island home: sources," New York Daily News, nydailynews.com, March 13, 2019.
  • Celona, Larry, and Ben Feuerherd, "Gambino crime family boss Frank Cali shot dead outside Staten Island home," New York Post, nypost.com, March 13, 2019.
  • Celona, Larry, and Bruce Golding, "Gene Gotti's release from prison has mob on edge," New York Post, nypost.com, Sept. 17, 2018.
  • Cornell, Irene, "Report: Gambino Crime Family picks Domenico Cefalu as new boss," CBS-2 New York, newyork.cbslocal.com, July 29, 2011.
  • Dienst, Jonathan, Marc Santia and Michael George, "Gambino Crime Family leader shot dead outside home: sources," NBC-4 New York, nbcnewyork.com, March 13, 2019.
  • Egan-Chin, Debbie, "Frank Cali, 2008," New York Daily News, nydailynews.com.
  • Michael DiLeonardo Testimony, United States v. John A. Gotti, Jr., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Feb. 22, 2006, mafiahistory.us.
  • Murphy, Mary, "Gambino Crime Family boss fatally shot at Staten Island home," WPIX-11, pix11.com, March 13, 2019.
  • Weiss, Murray, "Mob pick for Gambino godfather turns down the job," DNAinfo New York, dnainfo.com, July 18, 2013.
  • Winston, Ali, Nate Schweber, Jacey Fortin and Liam Stack, "Man said to be Gambino boss is killed on Staten Island," New York Times, nytimes.com, March 14, 2019, p. 22.