Excerpt # 1 – Murder and Mayhem in the Big Apple – From the Black Hand to Murder Incorporated
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, which featured only an elongated pinkie finger, which was bent grotesquely downward. As a result, Morello was called, “The Clutch-Hand,” “Little Finger,” and “One Finger Jack.”
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 powers 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 started to happen.
First, the smoking gun Morello was arrested with 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 shooting the breeze, when a gunman walked up behind her and shot her several times in the back, killing her instantly. With no smoking gun, and no witnesses to testify against him, Joe Morello was released from jail.
His status in the local Mafia augmented by the Vella murder, Morello decided to make a bigger killing by dealing in the sale of “funny money,” or counterfeit bills. This went fine and dandy for a while, until Morello was arrested in 1892 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 on the Lower East Side of New York City.
Little did it matter that Morello was tried “in absentia” in Sicily 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 majestic “Mountain of Gold” – New York City.
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 did all immigrants 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 bucks in their pockets, the Terranovas brought with them the stunning total of 18 pieces of luggage, filled with the finest clothes, and who knows how much cash. Even though this was not against American law, it should have raised some eyebrows among Ellis Island officials, since Sicilian Mafioso Bernardo Terranova listed his occupation as “laborer,” even though he was a well-known Mafioso in Corleone. You can believe something of value changed hands from Bernardo Terranova to a few crooked immigration officials
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 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.
However, the Panic of 1893 changed everything.
In the 1880s, America was the land of milk and honey. Railroads were being built at a record pace, and, in fact, they were over-built, because railroad revenues could not cover the expense of the railroad’s construction. By 1893, new silver mines had flooded the market with silver, causing the prices of silver to plummet. In addition, the American farmers, especially the wheat and cotton farmers, suffered low prices, triggering their markets to dive as well.
The combination of all three crises reverberated throughout America, but it especially devastated the metropolis of New York City. The final nails in the economy’s coffin were driven in when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad claimed bankruptcy in February of 1893, and almost simultaneously, President Grover Cleveland convinced Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Americans panicked and rushed to the banks to withdraw their cash. This effect rippled across the Atlantic, and United Kingdom investors quickly sold off their American stocks and replaced them with stocks backed by gold. This caused the second biggest national credit crises ever; topped only by the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
With no jobs available in New York City, and figuring it was not the right time to return to a life of crime, in 1893 Joe Morello, to support his family, traveled to Louisiana to work in the cotton fields and sugar plantations. Eventually, Morello became a fruit peddler, selling lemons from a sack on his back. In two months, Morello had accumulated enough cash to send up north, so that the rest of his family could come south to work on the plantations with him. Since Sicilian laborers were highly valued by the southern plantation owners for their hard work, Morello, Bernardo Terranova, and all their women and children, easily obtained jobs cutting and stacking cane sugar.
The work was grueling and the pay nothing to write home about, but it was better than anything they had back in New York City. Working 18-hour days during the height of the sugar season (known as the zuccarata) the grown men were paid as much as $1.50 a day. Woman and children were not valued as highly, and as a result, the Morello and Terranova women earned only $1 a day, and their children were paid as little as 10 cents a day.
Still, it all added up and the family earned enough cash in two years to move to a rural area near Dallas, Texas, where they were able to obtain work as sharecroppers. The money was good, but the work was hard and malaria was easily contracted. In 1897, after all members of the family had endured bouts of malaria, Joe Morello and the Terranovas, now with more than a few bucks in their pockets – blood money they had earned in the fields down south – made the trek back north.
It was time for Joe Morello, his stepfather, and his half-brothers to go back to what they did best, being Mafioso – this time in New York City.