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Crime in America – The Black Hand
They came from the mobbed-up city of Corleone, Sicily, but they perpetrated their murder and mayhem in the mean streets of New York City.
The co-leader of the Black Hand was a monstrosity of a man named Giuseppe (Joe) Morello. Morello was born in 1867 with a severely deformed right hand that contained only an elongated pinkie finger that was bent grotesquely downward. As a result, Morello was called, “The Clutch-Hand,” “Little Finger,” and “One Finger Jack”; whatever that means.
Joe Morello’s father, Calogero Morello, died in 1872 and his mother, Angelina Piazza, remarried one year later to Mafioso Bernardo Terranova. Joe Morello’s stepfather and mother had four children together: Nick, Ciro, Vincent, and Salvatrice. There is some confusion as to the exact relationships, but Nick Terranova, also known as Nick Morello, was, in fact, not Joe Morello’s brother, but his half-brother. Salvatrice Terranova married a wicked man named Ignazio Lupo The Wolf” Saietta, who later in America, along with Joe Morello, and Nick and Vincent Terranova, formed the hated, and much feared Black Hand. For all practical purposes, Saietta and Morello had equal power in the organization.
While still in Corleone, Joe Morello and his three half-brothers were introduced by Bernardo Terranova into the Corleonesi Mafia (sometimes called the Fratuzzi), where they made their bones by killing whomever the Corleonesi bosses said needed to be killed. One such victim was Giovanni Vella, the head of a quasi-police force called the Guardie Campestri, or Field Guards, which patrolled Corleone on foot looking for Corleonesi Mafia members up to no good.
In 1888, Joe Morello was arrested for the murder of Vella, but then strange things began to happen.
First, the smoking gun Morello was arrested carrying minutes after the Vella murder, oddly disappeared from the local carabinieri (police) lockup. Apparently, the gun was snatched by an enterprising carabinieri, who was paid molto lira to do so.
Secondly, there was the slight problem of a woman named Anna Di Puma, who claimed she saw Joe Morello shoot Vella to death in a darkened alleyway. Two days after Vella’s demise, Anna Di Puma was sitting outside a friend’s house, having a nice conversation, when a gunman walked up behind her and shot her in the back, killing her instantly. With no smoking gun, and no witnesses to testify against him, Joe Morello was set free.
Morello decided it was time for him to start making some big money by dealing in the sale of “funny money,” or counterfeit bills. This went fine and dandy for a while, until in 1892, when Morello was arrested with a fistful of phony cash in his good left hand. Rather than face charges in Sicily, Joe Morello thumbed his nose at the Italian authorities, and absconded secretly to America, settling in the Lower East Side of New York City. Little did it matter that Morello was tried “in absentia,” and sentenced to six years in solitary confinement. Morello was a vast ocean away from his punishment and ready to make his mark in the grand “Mountain of Gold.”
Soon after Joe Morello escaped from Sicily and landed illegally in America, Bernardo Terranova, his wife Angela, and six of their children, boarded the ship Alsatia and headed for America to join Joe Morello. Also with them was Joe Morello’s wife, Lisa Marvelesi, with her two-month-old baby Calogero, who was named after Joe Morello’s blood father. They passed, as all immigrants did at the time, through Ellis Island and entered America legally. While most immigrants came to America with only the clothes on their back and a few measly few bucks in their pockets, the Terranovas brought with them the stunning total of eighteen pieces of luggage, filled with the finest clothes, and who knows how much money. Even though, this certainly was not against America law, it should have raised some eyebrows among the Ellis Island officials, since Sicilian Mafioso Bernardo Terranova listed his occupation as “laborer,” even though he was a well-known murderous Mafioso in Corleone.
When they first came to America, Morello and the Terranovas tried their best to fly under the radar of American law enforcement. Even though there was basically no communication between the Sicilian police and their American counterparts, there was still a three-year grace period after which an Italian immigrant became immune to deportation. The Terranovas joined Morello and settled in Manhattan’s Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At first, they tried to make a living in a series of legal jobs, including plastering.
Ignazio Saietta, known as “Lupo the Wolf” had a different type of journey before he hooked up with Joe Morello and the Terranovas in America. Ignazio Saietta was born in Corleone, Sicily, on March 19, 1877. After being inducted into the Sicilian Mafia, Saietta escaped to America to avoid prosecution for the murder of Salvatore Morello, and to hook up with Joe Morello and the Terranovas in a series of legal and illegal endeavors, most of which terrorized the Italian immigrants of New York City.
When they first arrived back in New York City, Morello ostensibly tried to earn an honest living, but this was all a front for his illegal activities, like bookmaking and loansharking. Soon flush with money, Morello invested in several small businesses, including a coal store in Little Italy, and several bars and restaurants in Little Italy, and as far north as 13th Street, all of which soon folded for “lack of business.” In 1899, Morello went back to what he knew best: counterfeiting – but this time the counterfeiting of American money.
Morello installed a small printing press in an apartment at 329 106th Street, in what was known as Italian Harlem. He printed up mainly two-and-five-dollar bills, which were the most commonly used American currency. To spread these bills around New York City, Morello hired several men, both of Italian and Irish descent. The New York City police got wind of the counterfeiting ring, and several of Morello’s workers were arrested. A man named Jack Gleason (not the comedian) immediately flipped and gave the police Morello as the mastermind of the operation. Morello was arrested, but since none of the other men arrested dare testify against Morello, and also since when arrested Morello had only legitimate American currency in his possession, Morello walked out of jail without even being indicted. But this embarrassment taught Morello a severe lesson he’d never forget: never work closely with anyone, except men he knew from Sicily.
It is not clear whether Joe Morello, or Ignazio Saietta originally started the Black Hand extortion scheme in America. What is clear is that around 1898 or 1899 both Morello and Saietta, along with the Terranova brothers Vincenzo and Ciro, began terrorizing local Italian businessmen of some means by sending them “Black Hand” or “La Mano Nera” extortions letters. These letters threatened local businessmen with the bombing of their businesses, or even death, if the businessmen didn’t immediately cough up some very substantial cash. On the bottom of the extortion notes was the imprint of a “Black Hand,” which was made by a hand dipped in black ink (but due to the inroads law enforcement had made with fingerprinting at the time, the “Black Hand” was later drawn instead). If the businessman did not comply with the note’s demands, he would indeed get his business bombed, and sometimes he was tortured, and even killed in the infamous Murder Stables, located at 323 East 107th Street in Harlem.
One such incident occurred in 1905, and the unfortunate victim was a butcher named Gaetano Costa who received a Black Hand letter demanding $1,000. The letter instructed Costa to put the money into a loaf of bread, then hand the loaf of bread to a man who came into his butcher shop the next day, and waved a red handkerchief. Costa refused to give in to the extortion, and two days later two men marched into his butcher shop and shot Costa dead.
To assure his collections, Joe Morello added an innovated new wrinkle to the Black Hand extortion scheme. Morello would mail an extortion letter to his victim, and then wait near the victim’s store as the postman delivered the letter the following day. While the victim was reading the letter, Morello would mysteriously appear in the victim’s store. Noticing the consternation on his victim’s face, Morello would inquire as to the cause of the victim’s distress. The victim, knowing Morello’s high status in the local Mafia, would hand Morello the letter and beg him to intercede with whomever had sent the letter; and maybe reduce the price, if not eliminate the payment completely. Morello would take the letter, and tell the victim he would find out who had sent the letter and what could be done about it.
Of course, since Morello had sent the letter himself, there was no chance of the demand being withdrawn completely. And since Morello was now in possession of the letter, the victim did not have any evidence to give to the police about the extortion attempt.
In a few days Morello would return to the victim’s store and tell a tall tale of how he was able to reason with the extortionist, and get the demand reduced to a smaller amount. At this point, the victim was only too glad to still be alive and his store still intact. So he would happily pay the sum to Morello, who would, in turn, promise he would deliver the money to the extortionist, putting this matter to rest once and for all.
Saietta and Morello ran a counterfeiting operation originating in the sleepy upstate town of Highland, New York, 50 miles from New York City. Saietta was the hands-on partner, while Morello continued operating their rackets in New York City.
Yet, the Black Handers had an enemy and his name was Deputy Inspector William Flynn. Flynn, an expert detective, but a little on the talkative side (especially when he was talking about himself), had been actively investigating Morello and Saietta since the “Barrel Murders” of 1903. Flynn also knew that Morello, Saietta, and his gang were running an extensive counterfeiting operation, but at the present time Flynn could not uncover where the bills were being printed. But he was fairly sure it was not being done in New York City.
Employing several undercover policemen, Flynn had what he called a “life surveillance” put on Morello, which was not exactly the proper term, since, because of the lack of police manpower, Morello was only intermittent observed. Still, Morello was certainly on Flynn’s radar, as was Saietta, until he inexplicable disappeared from New York City and went into hiding in Highland, New York, where he oversaw the group’s counterfeit printing operations.
In early 1908, Saietta began a large-scale fraud scheme, using his wholesale network of grocery stores in New York City (he imported olive oil and other Italian delicacies from Italy). Saietta operated out of his Mott Street store; other grocery stores throughout the city were owned by Saietta’s confederates, active in not only in the Black Hand extortions, but also in a nationwide counterfeiting operation.
In November 1908, Saietta filed for bankruptcy concerning his imports business. His Mott Street store was seized under the orders of the US court. When the receivers went into the store to examine the books, they found only $1,500 inventory, and over $100,000 in debts. The receivers also discovered that the week before he disappeared, Saietta had made over $50,000 worth of purchases, but those goods were nowhere to be found, and the sellers were now stiffed of the 50 grand. (This is called the standard “bust out” scheme, where you buy as much merchandise that you can on credit, sell the merchandise on the black market, pocket the cash, and then file for bankruptcy.)
Saietta cohorts in the scheme also filed for bankruptcy around the same time as Saietta did. Antonio Passananti, who had been sent to Sicily by Morello and Saietta to do away with Petrosino, owned a wholesale wine business in Brooklyn. He too used the ‘bust out” scheme to close his business and claim bankruptcy. When the receivers investigated Passananti’s store, they found records that he had given huge sums of money to Saietta before they both disappeared. The New York Times reported that a dozen other Italian dealers had also gone into the wind, resulting in total liabilities close to $500,000.
In November of 1909, with Petrosino already dead, Saietta returned to New York City. With his lawyer Charles Barbier in tow, Saietta march into the bankruptcy receiver’s office and told a tall tale of why he had suddenly left New York City. Saietta said he had been sent a Black Hand extortion letter, and fearing for his life, he fled to Baltimore, then Buffalo, before spending the final few weeks at his brother’s grocery store in Hoboken. Saietta hired a phalanx of lawyers to fight his creditors, and he returned to his old haunts in New York City, socializing with Morello and the other Black Handers. What Saietta did not know was that Inspector Flynn had his men following Saietta too. One day, they followed him to Highland, New York, and bingo, now they knew where the counterfeit bills were being printed.
Flynn now had enough evidence to arrest Morello, Saietta, and several other Black Handers who were in on the counterfeiting operation originating in Highland, New York. However, Flynn didn’t want to arrest the minor players first, because he feared Morello would be tipped off and go into hiding. From his surveillance on Morello, Flynn knew Morello now lived in a tenement building at 207 East 107 Street. However, Flynn did not know in which apartment Morello resided. One of Flynn’s operative was 17-year-old Thomas Callahan, who had been posing as a shoeshine boy on 107th Street.
On the night Nov. 15, 1909, Callahan spotted Morello, along with Vincenzo Terranova and another man heading down the block toward their building. Without an exact plan in place, and wanting to know which apartment the Mafioso inhabited, Callahan immediately ran into the four-story building. The building now was totally dark, since the janitor had turned off the interior building lights. After Callahan stopped on the second floor of the tenement, he heard the three men enter the building and begin walking up the steps towards him. Callahan, not knowing exactly what to do, slithered quietly to the top floor. He then realized that the Black Handers, who were always armed, might continue upwards and see him trapped on the 4th floor, with no reason for being there.
Here is where Callahan made a bold move that might have saved his life.
Like he had nary a care in the world, Callahan started heading down the stairs. Between the third and fourth story landing, Callahan came face to face with “The Clutch Hand.” Morello looked puzzled. Morello stared Callahan straight in the eye and said, “‘Scusa please.” Callahan moved to one side of the stairs, and without saying another word, the three men passed Callahan and continued to the top floor. Expecting a bullet in the back, Callahan sped down the stairs and out of the building; his heart pumping like a runaway train. As he hurried to where the other agents were waiting, Callahan turned around to see if he had been followed out of the building. He hadn’t.
Now it was time for Flynn and his crew to make their move. Within minutes after Callahan had exited 207 East 107 Street, Flynn’s agents had surrounded the building; their eyes on the 4th floor window, where the light was still on. Every so often, they could see one of the men in the room pass the window, but not once did any of the Mafioso look out of the window. That was a lucky break for Flynn. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. the next morning that the agents made their move.
Flynn, with six of his best men including Callahan, quietly entered the building and climbed the steps. Flynn has a skeleton key in his possession, which could open virtually any lock. When they reached the door of the 4th floor apartment, Flynn pressed his ear to the door and heard no movement inside. He quietly inserted the skeleton key, unlocked the door and with their guns pointed out in front of them, Flynn and his agents slowly entered the room. The door opened into the kitchen, but nobody was there. They opened the door to one of the bedrooms, and there was Morello, dead to the world; snoring lightly. On a second bed next to him lay his half-brother Vincent Terranova, also sawing wood.
“We had no intention of waking them,” Flynn later told the press. “Until we were sitting on them.”
Flynn gave the word to his men to pounce, and in seconds both Morello and Vincent Terranova were in custody. Under Morello’s pillow, the agents found four loaded revolvers; under Terranova’s pillow – five. Certainly, if they were not sleeping, the two men would have put up a hell of a fight.
The noise the agents had made in snagging the two Mafioso awakened the rest of the apartment’s inhabitants. In seconds, three half-dressed men exited their bedroom, screaming and cursing in Italian. Then Morello’s wife Lina emerged from a third bedroom, her infant daughter in one arm, and a huge knife in the other hand. It took two men to subdue Lina and relieve her of her weapon. Still holding her baby tight, and incensed that the agents were just doing their job, Lina spat on them in defiance.
The other three Italians tried to create a diversion, so that certain evidence could be hidden, and eventually destroyed. One of Flynn’s men spotted one of the Italians stuffing several letters into Lina Morello’s apron, which lay sprawled on the kitchen table. Thinking no one was watching, Lena grabbed her apron, pulled out several of the letters, and stuffed them into her infant’s clothing. Holding the baby in one arm, Lina tried to leave the room. Two burley agents pounced on her and a fierce skirmish ensured. With Lina kicking, screaming and cursing, Flynn was able to search the infant’s clothing. He found three letters in the infant’s still clean (thankfully) diapers, and several more in her apron. They were all Back Hand letters waiting to be sent to their intended targets. However, Flynn’s agents did not fare too well in their battle with “Hellcat Lina,” as was evidenced by the several dozen cuts and bruises on their battered bodies.
Flynn’s agents fanned out and searched the other apartments at 207 East 107 Street. When the dust settled, they had arrested fourteen Black Handers and counterfeiters (some men were both). As an added bonus, $3,000 in fake two-dollar bills was found in a paper bag under the bed in the apartment occupied by the Vasi brothers. It was a fine roundup for Flynn indeed, but one of the big fish was nowhere to be found: Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta.
As the search for Saietta continued, other members of Morello’s and Saietta’s crew were arrested throughout the city. Domenico Milone was arrested in a grocery store at East 97th Street. Antonio LoBaido, Frank Columbo, Giuseppe Mercurio, and Luciano Maddi were among the others who were snagged by the police.
Failure of communication within the New York City police department delayed the arrest of Saietta on the Highland, New York counterfeiting charges. On Nov. 18, 1909, just three days after the arrest of Morello and his gang, Saietta was arrested for extorting a man named Manzella, a Manhattan store owner, who claimed Saietta had ruined his business. On November 22, Manzella, not surprisingly, got cold feet and refused to appear in court for Saietta’s arraignment. The Manzella case was dropped, but then Saietta was immediately arrested under a bench warrant dated April 21, that charged him with being in the possession counterfeit money way back in in 1902. The bail was set at $5,000, which Saietta immediately posted. As a result, Saietta walked out of court a free man. When the New York City police department finally got their communication wires uncrossed, they realized they had their man in the clutches, but let him escape scot free.
On Nov. 26, the New York City police department issued an internal proclamation saying that any officer who could arrest Saietta in connection with the Morello counterfeiting case would immediately made first grade detective. As it turned out, because of an unrelated case of a piano theft, Saietta fell right into Flynn’s hands.
The piano was stolen in Hoboken, New Jersey by a man who was described as an “Italian immigrant.” This man was traced to a home at 8804 Bay 16th Street, Bath Beach in Brooklyn. When the police arrived there, low and behold, they found Saietta, who had rented the house under the name of Joe LaPresti. Lupo was arrested, along with fellow counterfeiter Giuseppe Palermo. When the police searched the house, they discovered a loaded revolver, Black Hand letters, phony passports, and three bank books under the names John Lupo, Joseph La Presti, and Giuseppe La Presti.
Saietta, realizing he should have used the phony passports while he had a chance to escape the country, offered the arresting officer a $100 bribe (presumably not in counterfeit cash). The police officer refused the bribe, but received his promotion to first grade detective.
The counterfeiting trial commenced on January 26, 1910, in a federal courthouse on Houston Street. It turned out to be a raucous carnival show, showcasing crying clowns as its main act. The judge was the honorable Judge George Ray, and there were eight total defendants, including the stars of the show: Joe “The Clutch Hand” Morello and Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta. They were represented by attorney Mirabeau Towns, who was born in Alabama and went to law school in Atlanta, Ga. Towns was notable by the fact that he sometimes presented his court addresses in verse, which couldn’t have please Judge Ray too much.
There were 60 witnesses in all put forth by the state, but the main witness against the counterfeiters was a timid little man named Antonio Comito, who was kidnapped by the Black Handers, and along with his wife, was forced to do the actual printing of the counterfeit bills in Highland, New York. Comito told the court that he and his wife personally printed $46,000 worth of counterfeit bills.
Comito also said that when New York City Police Lieut. Joseph Petrosino was killed, Saietta had commented, “We did a fine job with Petrosino in Sicily.”
The trial came to its conclusion on Feb. 19, 1910, and it took the jury only 1½ hours to come back with the eight guilty verdicts.
When it came to the sentencing, the real theatrics began.
Morello was the first defendant called before the judge for sentencing. According to published reports, “Morello was cringing before the judge. He held out his left hand, deformed from birth, for the inspection of Judge Ray. This was the hand that Morello was averse to showing to the jury that had tried him. He was the father of a family, he said (through an interpreter), and if the dear court would only suspend sentence, he would go to Italy at once.
“But Judge Ray told Morello that he might serve fifteen years and pay a fine of $500 on the first count against him, and serve 10 years and pay another $500 on the second count against him. Morello didn’t wait for the interpreter to tell him about it. He dropped into a faint and had to be picked up and carried to the pen by the deputies.”
Big, bad Lupo the Wolf was next in line for the sentencing. Newspaper reports said, “Was Lupo the brave and nervy criminal that he had been supposed? Not for a moment. He began to weep before he reached the bar, and by the time Judge Ray had finished asking him what he had to say, he had used up one whole handkerchief with his tears. His tick, fat body shook with emotion as he told the court how the murder charge against him (in Italy) was all wrong, and he had been hounded by the police of two countries.
“Judge Ray, getting in words between the sobs, told Lupo that he had passed sentence on himself as to the old murder case when he fled from Italy instead of standing trial.
“‘I believe you and Morello were at the head of this undertaking. You have been convicted. I sentence you to fifteen years and a fine of $500 on the first count and fifteen years and a similar fine on the second count,’ said the court, and Lupo was led back to finish his weeping in private.”
When the other six men had been sentenced by Judge Ray, the eight men were given a total 150 of years in prison.
The sentencing of Saietta and Morello effectively ended the Black Hand extortion letter scheme in America.
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