aka Nick Gentile, Zu Cola
Code Name: Joe Mollica
Birth: 12 June 1885
Death: see endnotes
- Mafia mediator
- International drug trafficker
- Escaped mob-issued death sentence... twice!
- Published memoirs which exposed the inner working of the Mafia, and, provided perhaps the most important and intriguing first-hand account of the American mob's evolution - particularly the who, what, when, and how of the so-called Castellammarese War.
Mary Siragusa had an unusually bad feeling as she prepared for church. "Maybe I shouldn't go," she told husband Joe. "Nothing will happen to me, you go ahead," Joe insisted. Reluctantly, and with a foul premonition lingering, Mary headed to St. Philomena's on nearby Forward Avenue. There she prayed the entire time that husband Joe and their seven year old daughter Catherine were in no danger.
Just before noon, Joe ventured to the basement apartment and prepared for a shave. Up several floors, Catherine still in slumber. As Joe put the finishing swath of cream on his cheeks, something or someone was approaching. He turned face to face with several armed men. Joe knew what was going down and tried desperately to escape up the staircase. He made it up three steps before copper jacket .38 slugs pummeled his torso. Grasping the railing, Joe turned his head ever so slightly to capture one more look at his assassins. His lathered face shattered by a .32 round. Catherine, unharmed, never heard a sound. Mary... she knew what she'd find upon returning.
"Poor Joe, Poor Joe!" shrieked one of Giuseppe Siragusa's pet birds. Nonstop the parrot repeated the phrase while Pittsburgh detectives sifted through the bloody scene at 2523 Beechwood Boulevard on the morning of September 13, 1931. A dozen rounds had been fired. Five hit the target. Four .38 in Siragusa's body; one .32 in the face. Dangling on the wall above his lifeless body, rosary beads and broken picture frames.
You Don't Know Nick!
Now, you might ask, what the hell does that story have to do with Nicola Gentile?! We'll be getting to that soon. First, who is Nick?!
Much of Gentile's history has been elusive, to say the least. One of the factors behind the many question marks was Gentile's own ability to remain transient. Use of aliases, residing for short stints in various cities, and remaining fairly under the law's radar helped Gentile become more like a phantom of mob history, especially in terms of the public recognition. The government however, or a few entities within it, were aware of Gentile, though perhaps not the extent of his business and alliances within the network of national organized crime. That would all change by 1937, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (predecessor to the DEA) netted the mob's 'elder statesman' in a large scale drug bust. Of the eighty-eight (this figure varies from source to source) individuals law enforcement figured involved in the widespread drug ring - Gentile turned out to be the missing link, or so they thought. That was just the start of a bizarre, stealthy and historically-hazy relationship between the Gentile, the governments of two nations, and more than few famous underworld associates from the good old days.
|1937 Drug bust in New Orleans. L to R: Nicola Gentile, Jerry Feraci, Thomas Siracusa, Onofia Pecararo|
Since Gentile's name doesn't generally ring of familiarity in pop culture, and obviously his story has proved a bit mysterious even for hardcore mob history aficionados, here's the brief lowdown (For further reading, there exist some succinct bio's, backstory and timeline's reflecting what was taking place in the underworld and Gentile's rise and role within significant moments.):
|1907 'Zu Cola' in Montreal Notary Records|
|Gentile arrest Pittsburgh PA|
|1921 Ship Manifest|
By 1931, Gentile counted among his friends many of the soon-to-be mob all-stars. This crop of enterprising criminals - which included a who's-who of gangland infamy, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Tommy Lucchese, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, etc., among their ranks - were launching a two-phase coup de tat on warring bosses - Giuseppe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, aka the Castellammarese War. Also that same year, Gentile, who was married with six children, made an attempt to become a naturalized citizen. That effort didn't go quite as planned, which we'll get to shortly. Back to the 'purge' of battling bosses..."You have to be strong, courageous, cruel to live in that country." - Nicola Gentile, discussing life in the United States, September 19, 1963.
|1931 Nicola Gentile Declaration of Intention|
The murder of Giuseppe 'Joe the Boss' Masseria in April 1931 ended the so-called 'war' and opened the door to underworld supremacy for Salvatore Maranzano. It is believed that shortly before or during Maranzano's coronation that Pittsburgh boss, Giuseppe "Yeast Baron" Siragusa, attempted to have Gentile put in very bad graces - the kind that get a mobster killed. However, Nicola Gentile, the proven master negotiator, successfully applied such skills in his own defense to claims made by the Pittsburgh boss. It worked. In fact, it impressed the hell out of Al Capone, and that in turn saved Gentile's life. Siragusa's move against Gentile was not to be forgotten. Being loyal to Maranzano as he reportedly was, Siragusa already earned himself a death sentence, he just didn't know it yet. Luciano, Vito Genovese, and most of the men who eventually 'sided' with Maranzano... they had quickly realized the new boss wasn't going to last. Sending a team of Jewish assassins into Maranzano's Manhattan office on September 10th, 1931 sealed the fate of, what some believe, a whole slew of loyalists. It became known in almost mythical terms as the "Purge" and the more dramatic sounding "Night of the Sicilian Vespers."
Origins of the Vespers and other revelations
Up until the early 1950's (and that's even pushing it; 1963 was truly the turning point) what the American public knew about the 'Mafia'** and for that matter, organized crime in general, was almost entirely provided by the press and/or whispers, hearsay, a few books (written by former journalists usually). To that point, plenty of law enforcement and government agencies had little clue beyond that as well. Although there were indeed government agents and entities very familiar with underworld subculture, it took several sensational whistle-blowers, over the course of basically three decades, to truly expose the complex history and reach of the 'Mob.' There were three primary individuals who 'blew the lid off' mob secrecy: Gentile, Valachi, Bonanno (the latter's memoirs were discovered during a 1979 arrest). Most famously, Joe Valachi, whose televised testimony in 1963 before a Senate committee essentially forced FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Bobby Kennedy did the forcing) to admit their was a 'Mafia.'
Gentile's account served as the most fascinating, if not most revealing look inside the criminal underbelly (albeit a memoir, which by nature is often self-serving) because unlike Valachi (a foot soldier) Gentile was a top guy. Historical accounts of how and when Gentile's 'memoirs' came to fruition, now that's where history gets dark, elusive and truly makes research daunting. The various written accounts are conflicting, and that's of no surprise when considering the two primary investigative bodies (Anslinger's Bureau of Narcotics and Hoover's Bureau of Investigation) that delved into Gentile's life were almost polar opposites in terms of investigation 'style' and (as this author believes) the two investigative bodies were rarely on the same page, metaphorically and literally speaking. The FBI Encyclopedia states Robert Kennedy infuriated J. Edgar Hoover (a common occurrence between the two, no doubt) when the former presented FBN files on over seventy mobsters compared to the latter's office dossiers which numbered around thirty. The point being that the FBI took much credit in the 1960's but the real working knowledge of men like Gentile had been followed closely by the Bureau of Narcotics, and therefore it is more than possible that Nicola Gentile's early memoirs - if actually written as far back as some historians believe - were acquired and translated by FBN agents before the FBI even knew of such memoirs.
"Today, the same as he did yesterday, Nicola Gentile says: 'I am alive because I always acted as an honest man. I always worked for justice. I always respected the law.' In reality what he means is: 'I have always acted as an honest mafia man. I have always worked for mafia justice. I have always respected the law of the mafia.'" - Felice Chilanti, notes translated by FBI.
The official 'published' memoir 'Vita di Capomafia' was released in Italy in 1963 (and was originally going to be titled '40 Years in the Mafia'), and has not been translated from the Italian nor reprinted for retail sale. Journalist Felice Chianti once said Gentile approached him to take the dictation and write the story, but he declined the initial request until Gentile agreed to allow for annotation. From September through October 1963, Gentile and Chilanti also did a series of columns for Rome's Paese Sera newspaper, further divulging the intricacies of mafia life, and more importantly for the Gentile - answering the question of Why he wrote his life story (again, generally self-serving, possibly to improve his reputation), which he said had a lot to do with redemption to the family he shamed. The FBI translated the manuscript and Paese Sera articles in November 1963. But... the book was not an exact printing of the original memoirs. Those original notes, though largely similar to the published version, bear a few differences, and were thought to have ended up in the hands of American law enforcement possibly as early as the late 1940's or 1950's. Nicholas Gage stated in 1971 that the FBI acquired the memoir in 1961 after hearing about its existence from Italian sources. Gage also said the first time the memoirs were mentioned in the United States was in the book 'The Honored Society,' by Norman Lewis in 1964, and further discussed in Hank Messick's book 'Lansky'.
|1940 From the Declassified Gentile Files|
Nicola Gentile may have actually begun penning his story shortly after he skipped bond and fled to Italy in 1937. Then again, it's also possible he never dictated nor jotted a word until lawmen put him under pressure (some documentation states this occurred in 1958 after a letter to Joe Biondo was intercepted and agents basically caught Gentile in a sting operation). Treasury Department declassified documents reveal that as early as 1940 (probably earlier than that) an agent of the Bureau of Narcotics - Frank Di Lucia - had made contact with Gentile. The Treasury Department (which oversaw the FBN) wanted Gentile back in the United States, but not to prosecute him. With regard to the New Orleans drug bust, well, the Feds wanted Texas mobster Sam Maceo and they wanted him bad, and under that pretense they figured Gentile could deliver just the testimony they needed. From March 1940 through 1942, correspondence was exchanged between the State Department, the FBN, Treasury Department, American diplomats, Italian police, Agent Di Lucia, and Nicola Gentile. The deal to get Gentile (who was identified as 'Sam Mollica' - which was either a code name or his own chosen alias) into the United States, protect his safety, and get him back into Italy afterwards. The deal never materialized. Gentile assured Di Lucia he would do as asked, but the Italian government refused to issue a passport. If the deal had gone through, police in Palermo wanted the U.S. to deposit at least $9000 - just in case something happened to Gentile, and the money would be given to his wife, of course. After memo upon memo, letter upon letter back and forth between agencies, the final determination stated that bringing Gentile to the United States wasn't worth the trouble, but... they wanted to keep lines of communication open. Although no specific mention of 'memoirs' were mentioned in the correspondence, the government did think Gentile likely had further information to offer, particularly on the traffic of narcotics. Thereafter, documents make note of Sam Maceo and others indicted in the 1937 narcotics ring, some of whom plead guilty, some dismissed, others became fugitives.***
Keeping tabs on Nick
Between 1942 and 1947 Gentile was thought to have continued working within the Italian Mafia, assisted the controversial 'government/mob alliance' during WWII, and reunited with former American gangsters. The declassified Bureau of Narcotics paper trail picks back up in spring of 1947, showing their interest in two of Gentile's old friends: Giovanni Schillaci (exiled in 1947) and Charlie Lucky Luciano (exiled in 1946). Italian police kept tabs on Luciano from the moment he arrived til the day he died, and in doing so they discovered what American authorities viewed as sort of gangland reunion. The correspondence from Questura (Police headquarters) to the American Consulate, December 4, 1947, read: "Schillaci arrived at Capri on July 3, 1947 together with Salvatore Lucania, the American citizen, Sharon Mildred Block, Saverio Cuccio, also an American citizen, Igea Lissoni and Ida Pogi..."
The letter later states that police lost track of Schillaci and Lucania after the group left Capri in September. Then Lucania was spotted by police in Rome, in November, with Nicola Gentile, whereby they listed the latter's criminal record: "The Questura in Palermo informed this office that Gentile was sentenced in 1900 to five months of prison for deliberate assault (lesione voluntare) that in 1929 he was acquitted by the Accusation Section of the Tribunal of Palermo of the charges of robber, extortion, and homicide, and in 1929 he was sentenced to two years prison and to liberty under surveillance for conspiracy. He obtained release from the above mentioned with decree of October 23, 1946."
Back to the 'Parrot' story, sort of...
Nick Gentile's early memoirs and published memoirs both described the 1931 hit on Maranzano, with a few subtle variations in wording between the two.
Here's how Gentile's original notes described Maranzano's murder and the actions taken immediately afterward:
“They hurried to telephones and informed the boys in various parts of New York advising them that they could start the purging operation. Almost immediately with that word there took place the slaughter of the ‘Sicilian Vespers’. In fact, many of the followers of Maranzano were killed, who were stained with the most atrocious wickedness.
No sooner did the news of the death of Maranzano reach Cleveland that I and Bazzano thought of eliminating Siragusa of Pittsburgh... ”
Compared to the 1963 published published version found in 'Vita di Capomafia':
|Excerpt from pages of Vita di Capomafia|
"They rushed to the phone to inform picciotti (the boys, slang for thugs, mafia friends) in different neighborhoods in New York who could begin the operation of purging.So it was the massacre of all those followers of Maranzano who had committed the cruelest atrocities.
Once in Cleveland news came of the death of Maranzano, Bazzano and I think to suppress Siragusa of Pittsburgh."
The published version didn't consistently share the colorful wording of the early translation, but basically the theme and gist of events remained constant. Also of note, Gentile never explicitly states in the either version that he and Bazzano actually killed Siragusa. This intentional 'leaving out finer details' is not surprising of course. Gentile admits he has committed violent acts, confirms the brutality that is innate to mafia life, yet keeps most of the self-incriminating specifics under wraps throughout the memoirs - that is with the exception of when he felt wronged, and he tends to divulge much more detail in such instances.
Both versions of Gentile's life story regard his entrance into narcotics as almost forced. Although he may have taken a hit in the press when authorities labeled him the big shot of the drug ring (he probably wasn't the top individual, though definitely a major figure, and that later government correspondence admits the weakness of the case against him in the first place), his blaming the younger mobsters (Luciano, etc.) for pushing him into the lowly dope business, nearly ousting him from relevance, contradicts his later actions in Italy, which include remaining quite chummy with many of those old pals and associates.
|1937 Captured in New Orleans with Gentile. Antoinette Lima & Mrs. A. Scontrino|
As for Gentiles life after the book release, stories later circulated that Gentile had been issued a death sentence, for the second time in his life. This instance was deemed punishment for the published revelations, but the faction tasked with carrying out the assassination simply decided - for whatever reason - not to kill the old man. Hmmm... but then there's this:
Sometime in the 1960's Soviet spy/KGB agent Leonid Kolosov befriended Gentile and recruited him as an unknowing informant. This particular segment of Gentile's life isn't a secret, nor a new revelation to most historians. However, as disclosed in a 2003 Italian Parliament transcript interview with Kolosov, the former KGB agent's story filled in a few gaps and contradicted original versions thereof. In a nutshell, Kolosov explained he met Gentile through Felice Chilanti (whom he described as 'lonely') and was offered the chance to meet the mafiosi. Now, all the while, according to the spy, Chilanti nor Gentile knew he was KGB, but probably knew he wasn't just a nosy Russian journalist. Kolosov asked his Soviet bosses for permission and they told him 'yes' but the responsibility was all on Kolosov's shoulders. In the parliament interview Kolosov went on stating that Gentile was killed several years later. Kolosov mentions 1971, but later admits it could've been in the 1960's, and that Gentile's death had nothing to do with him. Pressed for clarity by the parliament, Kolosov said he visited with Gentile on several occasions in Palermo, whereby the Mafia capo revealed information regarding what later became known as the 'Piano Solo Coup Scandal.' The parliament President reminded Kolosov that scandal occurred in 1964, to which Kolosov admitted his memory of dates could be off, but that in fact Gentile died several years later and that Kolosov's book - 'Farewell, My Dear Colonel' - even featured a photograph of the funeral. If in fact Kolosov's account of Gentile's death was accurately recalled, then that would make the date of death somewhere between 1966 and 1972, approximately. However, that he describes Gentile's death with the word 'killed,' and makes a point to clear himself from having had anything to do with it, contradicts previous (and often accepted) accounts of Gentile dying of old age (see below).
"At the end of his days, Gentile was a pitiful figure who only survived through the pasta which his neighbors gave him." - Pino Arlacchi, author of 'Gli uomini del disonore. La mafia siciliana nella vita del grande pentito Antonio Calderone,' 1992.
|Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics File|
*Details on Gentile's exact date and circumstances of death are sketchy at best, and information is conflicting. Nicholas Gage commented in 1971 that, to his knowledge, Gentile was still alive. However, a report allegedly from the FBI, dubbed the 'Dead List,' marks Gentile's death as 1966. Author Helen Womack's 1998 book 'Undercover Lives: Soviet Spies in the Cities of the World' , which covers Leonid Kolosov's association with Gentile, marks Gentile's death - heart attack - in December 1964.
** Gentile stated the commonly-called 'mafia' was actually known as 'L'Onerata Societa'
***The 1937 drug bust was, according to Gentile, a result of Gentile's girlfriend 'Dorothy' tipping authorities off. In his memoirs he strongly suspected she was actually an undercover FBN agent. The bust itself ultimately led authorities to link Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter, Ralph Liguori (already incarcerated with Lucky Luciano on the vice charges in 1936), and other New York gangsters including Charles La Gaipa, Gentile's son-in-law, who at the time had been operating in the Southwest.
Dickie, John. Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia. Palgrave Macmillan LTD. 2004. pp 176-189.
Reppetto, Thomas. American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power. Holt. 2005. pp. 190-192.
Critchley, David. The Origins of Organized Crime in America; The New York City Mafia 1891-1931, Routledge, 2008. pp. 168-173.
Cipollini, Christian. Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend. Strategic Media Books. 2014.
Wife Finds Husband Slain As She Returns Home From Mass. The Pittsburgh Press. 14 September 1931. p. 2.
Gage, Nicholas. New York Times News Service. Nashua Telegraph. April, 21, 1971. p.14.
Gage, Nicholas. Memoirs of a Elder Support Late Valachi's Testimony. The Arizona Republic. April 12, 1971. p. 8.
Newton, Michael. The FBI Encyclopedia. McFarland. 2012. p. 18.
RG 59 ARC Identifier 6100835 Gentile, Nicola