For many years, people have assumed that the Sicilian crime faction called the Mafia and the Unione Siciliana were one and the same. However, this assumption is not entirely true. At least, not at the beginning.
The Unione Siciliana, a fraternal organization of Sicilian Americans, was first created in 1893 in New York City, and almost simultaneously in Chicago, by legitimate Sicilian businessmen. The original concept of the Unione Siciliana was to provide life and health insurance to Sicilians, who had recently emigrated from Sicily. This insurance was needed because the working conditions at that time were abominable for all workers, but especially for the alien newcomers, who were desperate for work of any kind, no matter how dangerous.
For a small dues, members were able to receive this insurance, as well as other social benefits desired by strangers in a foreign land, who were, by nature, extremely clannish. These social benefits included dances, friendly card games, and a social network where Sicilian men could meet Sicilian women, with the intention of eventually getting married. Soon branches (lodges) of the Unione Siciliana sprung up all over America, in any place that had a sizable Sicilian community. By the 1920, Chicago alone had 38 lodges, and over 40,000 members.
The Unione Siciliana also had a very sizable voting block, which made it attractive to politicians, especially the corrupt political machines in Chicago, and the notoriously crooked Tammany Hall hacks in New York City. The Unione Siciliana threw frequent fund-raising activities for politicians in both cities, making these politicians, when elected, deeply indebted to the leaders of the Unione Siciliana, who were increasing morphing from honest businessmen into criminals of the highest order.
If there was a buck to be made, or a politician to be bought, the Mafia, which also originated in Sicily, knew how to take advantage of the opportunity. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Mafia moved in, both in Chicago and in New York City, to take control of the Unione Siciliana.
In the early 1900’s in New York City, the elected President of the Unione Siciliana was a beast-of-a-Mafioso named Ignazio Saietta, also known as “Lupo the Wolf.” How a man like Saietta could be elected by honest businessmen to a position of such great influence can only be attributed to Saietta and his followers exerting tremendous pressure on the voters to elect Saietta, or suffer grave consequences.
Saietta, originally from Corleone, Sicily, was also one of the leaders of a Sicilian extortion group known as the Black Hand, which operated exclusively in New York City. Saietta was so feared in the Sicilian communities, Sicilian immigrants were known to make the sign of the cross at the mere mention of his name. The leadership of the Black Hand consisted of the Morello Brothers, Joe and Nick, and Ciro Terranova, who was known as the “Artichoke King.” So at the time Saietta became the president of the Unione Siciliana, the Black Hand and the Unione Siciliana became basically one and the same.
Through the membership rolls of the Unione Siciliana, the Black Hand gang members were able to ascertain which Sicilian immigrants were generating income, thereby making these members ripe for a shakedown. Before any violence was perpetrated, the Black Hand sent threatening notes to Sicilian businessmen. On the bottom of the extortion notes, was the imprint of a “Black Hand,” which was made by a hand dipped in black ink. However, due to the inroads law enforcement was making with fingerprinting at the time, the “Black Hand” was later drawn instead. If the person who was being extorted did not pay the Black Hand’s demands, they were brutally tortured, and sometimes even murdered. If they were lucky, only their places of business was destroyed by explosives.
In 1905, a butcher named Gaetano Costa, got a Black Hand extortion letter, demanding $1,000. Costa was instructed to put the $1,000 into a loaf of bread, and to give it to a man who came into his shop to buy meat, and pulled out a red handkerchief. Costa refused, and the very next day, two men came into his butcher shop and shot Costa to death. No one was charged with the murder, but the police were sure the orders were given by Saietta.
One of the Italians being extorted by the Black Hand was the famous opera singer Enrico Caruso. Caruso was, at first, given an ultimatum to pay $2,000 for his safety. Caruso, knowing the murderous reputation of the Black Hand, agreed to pay that amount. However, before he could pay, Caruso received another letter now demanding $15,000.
The nemeses of the Black Hand was a short, barrel-chested police lieutenant named Joseph Petrosino. Knowing Petrosino was hot on the trail of the Black Hand, Caruso immediately took the second letter to Petrosino. Petrosino told Caruso to make arrangements to drop the money off at a prearranged place. When two Italian men showed up to pick up the money, Petrosino arrested them on the spot.
The magnitude of the atrocities perpetrated by the Black Hand was uncovered, when in 1901, acting on a tip from an informant, Petrosino discovered the infamous “Murder Stables” located at 304, 108th Street in Harlem. Petrosino directed his men to dig up the grounds of the entire stables. He was horrified to discover that 60 bodies were buried there. The landlord of record of the stables was none other than Ignazio Saietta, president of the supposedly respectable Unione Siciliana. When Petrosino questioned Saietta as to the slight problem of so many dead bodies being buried on his property, Saietta played dumb, saying he was only the landlord, and not responsible for the work of his tenants. Saietta provided Petrosino with a bogus list of the tenant’s names, all of Italian decent, but Petrosino was not able to locate any of these tenants, if indeed they existed at all.
While investigating the Black Hand’s roots in Sicily, on March 12, 1909, Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino was shot to death in the piazza of the Garibaldi Garden in Palermo. Petrosino’s murder was ordered by the Black Hand members in America, and orchestrated by the head of the Mafia in Sicily – Don Vito Cascio Ferro.
However, Saietta was not so lucky himself. Saietta owned operated, with his partner Joe Morello, a bar/restaurant, at 8 Prince Street, in Manhattan’s Little Italy. The joint was actually a front for an extensive counterfeiting operation. Counterfeit two and five-dollar bills were shipped to the restaurant from Sicily, in containers of olive oil, or in crates of spaghetti, cheese, and wine. These counterfeit bills were sold throughout the United States for as little as 30 cents on the dollar. Soon, the U.S. Secret Service caught wind of their operation, and in 1909, both Morello and Saietta were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
After Saietta’s incarceration, the presidency of the New York Chapter of the Unione Siciliana changed hands from one thug to another, when in 1918, the crown settled on the head of Brooklynite Frankie Yale, real name Uale. Yale’s ascension to the throne put an end to the misguided impression that the Unione Siciliana was an Sicilian-only organization. Yale was born in Calabrian town of Longobucco, Italy, and had no Sicilian roots whatsoever. Not only was Yale president of the New York Chapter of the Unione Siciliana, but due to the influence of his friend Johnny Torrio, a Brooklyn boy who was running Chicago with another Brooklynite Al Capone, in 1925, Yale also became National President of the Unione Siciliana.
But more on Frankie Yale later.
While Ignazio Saietta’s Unione Siciliana was prospering in New York City, the Chicago chapters of the Unione Siciliana were also going to the wolves.
In 1902, the Chicago boss of the Mafia was Antonio D’Andrea, an ex-priest who in 1902 was also arrested for counterfeiting. After his release from prison, D’Andrea decided to go straight; at least somewhat straight. D’Andrea got a job as a professional translator, than later as a court translator. In 1919, using his legitimate position in the courts, D’Andrea ran for the presidency of the Unione Siciliana. D’Andrea was somehow elected, despite his criminal record, which tells you all you need to know about the crooked path the Unione Siciliana had taken in Chicago.
In 1921, D’Andrea decided to also run for Alderman in the 19th Ward against entrenched incumbent, John “Johnny de Pow Pow” Powers. That turned out to be not such a great idea.
Powers was an incorrigible saloonkeeper, who was known for his attachments to Chicago’s more infamous Irish criminals. The Chicago hoods loved “Johnny de Pow Pow,” but those not so-in- love with Powers called him “The Prince of Boodlers.” Powers had been the powerful Alderman in the 19th Ward of Chicago since 1888, when almost all his constituents were Irish.
According to the Chicago Times, “The only way Powers can get votes is by hypocritical posing as a benefactor by filling the role of a friend in need when death comes. He has bowed with aldermanic grief at thousand of biers. He is bloodless; personally unattractive. His demeanor is one of timid alertness and anxiety to please, but he is actually autocratic, arrogant, and insolent.”
One detractor said, “Johnnie Powers distributed turkeys on Christmas Day, but he has robbed the people 364 days in the year and he can afford to give them a little back on the 365th”.
The Chicago Herald also wrote, “Powers is as fit to be an Alderman as an elephant is to take part in a roller-skating match.”
By 1921, Italian immigrants had steamrolled into Chicago, so much so, Powers’ 19th Ward was now 80% Italian, all with equal voting rights with the Irish. Powers still was successful in getting out the Irish vote, but until this time he had also been very successful with the Italian community.
“I can buy the Italian vote with a glass of beer and a compliment,” Powers told his pals.
However, running against the Italian powerhouse D’Andrea, president of the powerful Unione Siciliana, changed the equation considerably for Powers. He decided it was time for more drastic actions.
The campaigning by both men was exciting, to say the least. As both pleaded to their constituents for votes, bombs started exploding at an alarming rate; one on Power’s front porch, another at a D’Andrea rally (seriously injuring five people), two more on D’Andrea’s front porch, and a final one at D’Andrea’s election headquarters.
Councilman James Bowler, a fast pal of Powers, told the press, “Gunmen are patrolling the streets. Alderman Powers’ house is guarded day and night. Our men have been met, threatened and slugged. Gunmen and cutthroats have been imported from New York City and Buffalo. It’s worse than the Middle Ages.”
The election was extremely close, but in the end Powers prevailed by a tiny margin of 435 votes.
However, D’Andrea turned out to be a sore loser, and as a result, the body count began to pile up in the Chicago streets.
Paul Labriola was one of the Italians who had backed Powers. On March 9, 1921, Angelo Genna, of the terrible Genna brothers and an ally of D’Andrea, shot Labriola full on holes on the corner of Halstead and Congress streets. On that same day, cigar store owner Harry Raimondi, who had switched sides from D’Andrea to Powers, was shot five times in the back, behind the counter of his cigar store.
In quick succession, D’Andrea had his men eliminate Powers’ loyalists, Gaetano Esposito, Nicolo Adamo, and Paul Notte. Powers’ faction countered back by killing Joe Marino and Johnny Guardino, two of D’Andrea’s most capable men.
On May 11, 1921, while D’Andrea was playing cards at a local restaurant, three men drove past the entrance to the apartment building where D’Andrea lived with his wife and two daughters – 902 South Ashland Avenue. After the driver parked the car in a narrow alley on the side of the building, the two other men quietly exited the car. They pried open an alley window with a chisel, then crept through a coal bin to the basement stairs. Up the stairs they went, until they stopped at a vacant ground floor apartment right across the hall from D’Andrea’s apartment; an apartment they knew was vacant, because they had told the occupant, Abraham Wolfson, to move out, or die.
Shortly after, they watched from an open window facing the street, as D’Andrea’s car, driven by his bodyguard Joe Laspisa pulled up to the entrance. D’Andrea got out and walked into the building as Laspisa drove away. As soon as D’Andrea reached the front door of his apartment, the two men opened fire with two shotguns. D’Andrea took the two blasts full in the chest, but he would not go down without a fight. As his two killers exited the building the way they had entered, D’Andrea, lying in a pool of his own blood, fired five times at the fleeing men. But to no avail.
When the police arrived, they found a note pinned to the floor of the vacant apartment, along with a two-dollar bill. The note said: “This will buy flowers for that figlio di un cane.” Translation: “Son of a bitch.”
D’Andrea died a few hours later in Jefferson Park Hospital, after telling his wife and daughters, “God bless you.”
D’Andrea’s demise left a vacancy at the top of the Chicago chapter of the Unione Siciliana, which was quickly filled by Mike Merlo, who was on vacation in Italy when he heard his good friend D’Andrea had run into some bad luck. Merlo was considered a conciliator; someone who felt peaceful negotiations was better than blasting someone with holes. Still, that did not stop Merlo from immediately ordering the murder of the men involved in D’Andrea’s killing.
Irishman Dion O’Banion was the head of the notorious North Side Gang, which was in constant conflict with the Italian mob led by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, over who had the right to sell their illegal booze in which bars in Chicago, and in the surrounding rural areas. However, Merlo, for some unknown reason, liked O’Banion and as long as Merlo, who as president of the Unione Siciliana was as powerful in Chicago as Capone and Torrio, kept O’Banion under his wing, O’Banion life was secure.
Still, O’Banion, who owned and operated a Chicago flower shop on the side, couldn’t wait to stick to his supposed Italian friends.
With a broad smile on his handsome Irish face, O’Banion approached Torrio and Capone, and offered to sell them his Sieben Brewery, on the North side of Chicago. The Sieben Brewery, which was under the protection of the North Side cops, had the reputation of producing the best quality beer in the entire state. O’Banion told the two Italian mob bosses that he had made enough money in the illegal hootch business, and that he was quiting completely, and settling with his lovely wife on a obscure ranch in Colorado. Capone and Torrio were delighted at the prospect of buying the brewery, and they didn’t even flinch when O’Banion told them the price was half a million dollars. As a gesture of good will, O’Banion offered to assist in the delivery of one last shipment. Then he said he was out and gone for good.
On May 18, 1924, thirteen trucks stood inside the Sieben Brewery, manned by twenty two men. Each truck was loading up to their full capacity with cases of beer, which due to the fact the half a million dollars had already changed hands, now belonged to Torrio and Capone. Two policemen on O’Banion’s pad, stood guard to make sure everything went hunky dory. Also on the premises supervising the operation were Torrio, O’Banion, and O’Banion’s right hand man Hymie Weiss. Capone was absent because he was on the lam for killing a thug named Joe Howard.
All of a suddenly, before the first truck had left the brewery, an avalanche of cops descended upon the brewery like roaches swarming a loaf of bread. The cop in charge of the raid was a Chief Collins, and in minutes, the beer trucks had been seized, and Torrio, O’Banion, and Weiss were arrested.
The three men were soon released on bail, but Torrio, who was known as “The Fox,” smelled a rat. He had cops on his payroll too, and one of them informed Torrio that O’Banion was in on the raid, and only agreed to be arrested to cast suspicion away from himself.
Torrio was further incensed when he was informed that O’Banion was bragging about how he set up the Sieben Brewery raid, saying, “I guess I rubbed that pimp’s nose in the mud alright.”
Torrio immediately set up a meeting with O’Banion nemeses Angelo Genna and his brothers Mike and Tony, Capone, and himself, to discuss what to do about O’Banion. The group unanimously voted to whack O’Banion. However, Torrio did caution the group that Mike Merlo, the powerful president of the Unione Siciliana, was still in O’Banion’s corner. Angelo Genna told Torrio not to worry. Merlo was deathly sick with cancer, and, in fact, would die on Saturday, November 8, 1924, less than a week after the meeting. Frankie Yale, still the head of the National Unione Siciliana, flew in from New York City, and he appointed Angela Genna the new head of the Chicago chapter of the Unione Siciliana. Yale also renamed the group the “Italo-American National Union,” thereby justifying the fact that he, a Calabrese, could rightfully be the president of the former Sicilian-only organization.
With Merlo out of the way, the Chicago mob, with the blessing of the Italo-American National Union, planned O’Banion’s demise.
Merlo’s funeral was, up until that time, the biggest funeral in Chicago history. More than $100,000 worth of flowers were ordered, and as a result, O’Banion’s flower shop was bombarded with requests for numerous flower displays. On Sunday, November 9, O’Banion and his partner William Schofield spent the entire day in their flower shop weaving lilies, roses, orchids, and carnations into wreaths of various sizes. Capone had ordered $8,000 worth of red roses, and Torrio placed an order for $10,000 worth of various types of flowers and floral displays
Near closing time on Sunday, Angelo Genna phoned the flower shop and told Schofield that he needed to order another wreath, and that he would come to pick it up the following day. The vast amount of orders necessitated Schofield and several of his employees to stay up almost the entire night fulfilling their floral obligations.
At around noon on Monday, O’Banion was alone in the back room of the flower shot clipping the stems off chrysanthemums. The only other person in the flower shop was a black porter named William Crutchfield, who was busy sweeping up the mess from the day before. Suddenly, three men entered the shop. Two of Torrio’s men, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, were familiar to O’Banion, but the third man was a total stranger.
O’Banion came out of the back room and said, “You boys here for Merlo’s flowers?”
The stranger was none other than Frankie Yale, who had been imported to Chicago once before, to eliminate Torrio’s uncle-through-marriage and Chicago mob boos “Big Jim” Colosimo. Colosimo’s sudden demise paved the way for Torrio and Capone to take over the town.
Yale extended his hand to O’Banion, “Yes, we are here for the flowers.”
O’Banion took Yale’s hand, when suddenly, Yale yanked O’Banion’s hand toward him, and pinned both of O’Banion arms to O’Banion’s sides. Before O’Banion could extricate himself, Scalise and Anselmi fired six bullets into O’Banion. Two blasted into O’Banion’s chest, another hit him in the cheek, and two more buried themselves into O’Banion’s larynx. The final shot, which was the capper, embedded itself in O’Banion’s brain. The guns had been fired at such close range, there were scorch marks on O’Banion’s face.
O’Banion’s funeral was even bigger than Merlo’s funeral. O’Banion’s coffin, which was made of solid silver with bronze double walls, cost $10,000 alone; four times more than the average yearly pay of a Chicago wage-earner.
After Merlo’s death, being the head of the Chicago chapter of the Italo-American National Union (formerly the Unione Siciliana), was the kiss of death. Within a year, Angelo Genna was murdered by members of O’Banion’s North Side mob. Genna’s place was taken by Samuzzo “Samoots” Amatuna, who was killed within a few months after he took Genna’s place, by another North Side mobster, Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci.
After Amatuna’s demise, Capone, who was now the Chicago boss due to Torrio’s retirement, inserted one of his pals, Antonio Lombardo, as boss of the Chicago chapter of the Italo-American National Union. This was done without the blessing of Frankie Yale, who would not be Capone’s friend much longer. It seemed that Yale had wanted to appoint Joe Aiello as the new boss of the Italo-American National Union in Chicago. Aiello was not too friendly with Capone, and in Yale’s opinion, was more likely to pay the proper tribute to Yale in New York city rather than Lombardo, who was closely aligned with Capone.
Yale and Capone were now at cross-purposes, and if Capone needed another excuse to whack Yale it was presented to him in the spring of 1928. Capone and Yale were partners in the distribution of illegal whiskey, which was sold in the Chicago speakeasies, and speakeasies in the rural suburbs. The booze would arrive from Canada, and was transported through New York in trucks, on it’s way to Capone in Chicago. It was Yale’s duty to ensure the safety of those shipments. However, Capone was dismayed to discover that some of his trucks were being hijacked on route from New York City to Chicago by none other than Yale himself.
On Sunday afternoon, July 1, 1928, Frankie Yale was sitting comfortably in his Sunrise Club, located on 14th Avenue and 65th Street in Brooklyn. Suddenly the phone rang and Yale was informed that his new wife Lucy was in some sort of predicament concerning their year-old daughter. Yale associate Joe Piraino offered to drive Yale home, but Yale refuse the offer. Instead he jumped into his new light-brown Lincoln and headed down New Utrecht Avenue. The Lincoln had been bullet-proofed, but not the windows, which turned out to be a fatal mistake.
At 44th Street, Yale stopped at a red light, and he noticed that a black Buick occupied by four men were following him. Yale jumped on the gas, turned down 44th Street, and a wild chase ensued. The Buick managed to pull alongside Yale’s car and the four men opened fire. Yale was hit by a barrage of bullets fired through the window of his car. The weapons used were two .45 caliber revolvers, two sawed-off shotguns, and a new invention called the Tommy Gun, or Thompson Submachine Gun, which fired bullets from a .45 caliber, 20-round magazine. Yale’s car swerved out of control and crashed into the stoop of a house located at 923 44th Street. When the police arrived minutes later, Yale was indeed very dead.
The death of Frankie Yale greatly reduced the need for and the influence of the Italo-American National Union. In Chicago, Capone ran the town, and he soon eliminated both Lombardo and Aiello with bullets. In 1930, Capone put in Agostino Loverdo as the new president of the Italo-American National Union. Loverdo lasted until 1934, which by this time, Capone had already been sent to prison in 1932 on an income tax evasion charge. In 1934, former Capone bodyguard Phil D’Andrea was appointed boss of the Chicago Italo-American National Union by Frank Nitti, who was now running Capone’s old crew.
In New York City, after the death of Yale, there was no real boss of the Italo-American National Union. After the Castellamarese War eliminated both Joe “The Boss” Masseria and his successor Salvatore Maranzano, Lucky Luciano became the head of the Italian Mafia and his used the concept of the Italo-American National Union to start a National Crime Syndicate, which included Jewish mobsters, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Louis Lepke. Irishman Owney Madden was also part of the Syndicate. So in effect, in New York City the Italo-American National Union, formerly the Unione Siciliana, ceased to exist.
In Chicago, Phil D’Andrea kept the Italo-American National Union loosely in place until he dissolved it in 1941, due to the lack of interest from it’s members. However, after the dissolution of the Italo-American National Union, the Mafia continued to remain strong in New York City and in Chicago, as well as in other major cities throughout America. The Mafia continues to thrive today as it did in the Roaring Twenties heyday of the Unione Siciliana.