Excerpt # 5 – Murder and Mayhem in the Big Apple – From the Black Hand to Murder Incorporated


Soon after Petrosino’s murder, a man called John Lupo, brother of Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta, was heard saying in his Hoboken, N.J., store that one of the reasons Petrosino was killed was because of the vicious beating Petrosino had given Saietta in Saietta’s Little Italy grocery store.

The tremors felt in New York City caused by Petrosino’s murder were sudden and severe. Due to the newspaper leaks concerning Petrosino’s “secret” trip to Italy, Police Commissioner Bingham was immediately fired; his place taken by neophyte William F. Baker, who oddly enough, in 1913, after an undistinguished career as commissioner, became president of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.

However, the damage caused by Petrosino’s murder was already done. It was estimated that because of Petrosino’s demise in Palermo, hundreds of Italian criminals were allowed to stay in America, causing murder and mayhem in the New York City streets for the next two generations.

            At the time of Petrosino’s death, Saietta and Morello ran a counterfeiting operation originating in the sleepy upstate town of Highland, N. Y., 50 miles north of New York City. Saietta was the hands-on partner in the operation, while Morello continued operating their rackets in New York City.

After reading the news about Petrosino’s demise in a local Highland newspaper, Saietta turned to an associate named Zu Vincenzo.

“Petrosino was killed!” Saietta said. “It was successful! The way it was done could never have missed in Palermo. It was well he was fool enough to go there.”

Zu Vincenzo opened a bottle of wine and said, “No one will now go to Sicily to search for evidence to use against the Mafia. For in going there they will find death.”

Saietta was somewhat disappointed the Sicilian Mafia would get most of the credit for the Petrosino hit, since the money sent to Palermo to insure the Petrosino hit was raised by the Black Handers in New York City.

Saietta poured himself, and Zu Vincenzo, each a glass of wine.

“Some credit is due to us,” Saietta said. “Though the Palermo crowd will get the most.”

Then the  two men toasted the death of their late mortal enemy: New York City Police Lieut. Joseph Petrosino.

However, the Black Handers had an enemy as great as Petrosino – and his name was Deputy Inspector William Flynn, who had taken Petrosino’s place as head of the Secret Service.

Flynn, an expert detective but a little on the talkative side (especially when talking about himself), had been actively investigating Morello and Saietta since the “Barrel Murders” of 1903. Flynn also knew that Morello, Saietta, and their gang were running an extensive counterfeiting operation, but at the present time Flynn could not uncover where the bills were being printed. However, he was fairly sure they were not being printed in New York City.

Employing several undercover policemen, Flynn had what he called a “life surveillance” put on Morello. “Life surveillance” was an over-exaggeration, since, because of the lack of police manpower, Morello was only intermittently observed. Still, Morello was certainly on Flynn’s radar, as was Saietta, until Saietta inexplicably disappeared from New York City and went into hiding in Highland, 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, while other grocery stores throughout the city were owned by Saietta’s confederates, active not only in the Black Hand extortions, but also in a nationwide counterfeiting operation.

In November 1908, Saietta filed for bankruptcy concerning his imports businesses. As a result, Saietta’s Mott Street store was seized under the orders of the United States court. When the receivers went into the store to examine the books, they found only $1,500 inventory and more than $100,000 in debts. The receivers also discovered that the week before he disappeared, Saietta had made more than $50,000 worth of purchases, but those goods were nowhere to be found. This meant the people who sold Saietta these goods were stiffed of the 50 grand he owned them. (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’s cohorts in the scheme also filed for bankruptcy around the same time as Saietta.  Antonio Passananti, who had been sent to Sicily by Morello and Saietta to do away with New York City Police Lieut. Joseph 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 had both disappeared. The New York Times reported that a dozen other Italian wholesale dealers had also gone into the wind, resulting in total liabilities of close to $500,000.

In November of 1909, with Petrosino now deceased, Saietta triumphantly returned to New York City. With his lawyer Charles Barbier in tow, Saietta marched 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 had 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 returned to his old haunts in New York City, socializing with Morello and other Black Handers. What Saietta did not know was that Inspector Flynn had his men following Saietta. One day, they followed him to Highland  and now they knew exactly where the counterfeit bills were being printed.

            Flynn had enough evidence to arrest Morello, Saietta, and several other Black Handers who were in on the counterfeiting operation. 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 lived in a tenement at 207 East 107th  Street. However, Flynn did not know in which apartment Morello resided. One of Flynn’s operatives was 17-year-old Thomas Callahan, who had been posing as a shoeshine boy on 107th Street.

On the night of 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 Mafiosos inhabited, Callahan immediately ran into the four-story building. The building was totally dark, since the janitor, as was the custom at night, had turned off the interior lights.

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 skipping down the stairs. Between the third and fourth-story landing Callahan came face to face with “The Clutch Hand.”

At first Morello looked puzzled. Then 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 Mafiosos passed Callahan and continued to the top floor. Expecting a bullet in his 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.

Within minutes after Callahan exited 207 East 107th  Street, Flynn’s agents had surrounded the building; their eyes on the 4th-floor window where the lights were 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 Mafiosos look out of the window. That was a lucky break for Flynn.

It wasn’t until 11 a.m. the following morning that Flynn decided it was time to make his move.

Flynn, along with six of his best men, including Callahan, quietly entered the building and climbed the steps. Flynn had 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. He heard no movement inside. He quietly inserted the skeleton key, unlocked the door and with their guns pointed in front of them, Flynn and his agents slowly crept into the apartment.

The front door opened into the kitchen, but nobody was there. Flynn opened the door to one of the bedrooms, and there was Morello, deep in dreamland and 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 cops 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 Flynn’s men made in snagging the two Mafiosos awakened the rest of the apartment’s inhabitants. In seconds, three half-dressed men exited their bedroom, screaming and cursing in Italian. 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 the agents had invaded her privacy, Lina spat on them in defiance.

The Italian men tried to create a diversion, so that evidence could be hidden and eventually destroyed. As two Italians started making a fuss, 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 letters, and stuffed them into her infant’s clothing.

Holding the baby, 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. There he found three letters and several more in Lena’s apron. They were all Black Hand letters waiting to be sent to their intended targets.

However, Flynn’s men did not fare too well in their battle with “Hellcat Lina,” as was evidenced by the several dozen cuts and bruises all over their battered bodies.

Flynn’s men fanned out and searched the other apartments at 207 East 107th Street. When the dust settled, they had arrested 14 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.



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