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“Pay or Die: A Black Hand Story,” a seven-part serial by Park Burroughs, chronicles the rise and fall in Washington County of what may be called the precursor to the Mafia in the United States.
Scroll down for individual Chapters: Chapter One: Murder in East Canonsburg
The Honorable Erwin Cummins had never seen his courtroom so crowded. Not since his appointment to the Washington County bench some 10 months earlier had so many people crammed shoulder to shoulder in the five rows of pews of Courtroom No. 1.
The judge had noticed an oddly large number of onlookers in the room for the selection of the last of the jurors on that morning of Tuesday, Nov. 21, 1922, but there was something different and more menacing now as he was about to convene the afternoon session. Never had he seen spectators standing with their backs against the dark walnut paneling at the rear of the enormous room for want of seats, or the curious fighting for position to peek through the windows of the doors.
The audience might have seemed intimidating to the judge, maybe as intimidating as Cummins appeared to the audience. Despite his youth – just 42 years old – the jurist held a commanding presence. With a large head, square jaw and broad shoulders, Cummins had punished many an opposing lineman during his days as a halfback on the Westminster College football team, and later at the same position on the University of Pittsburgh squad as a law student in the earliest years of the 20th century.
The judge scanned the room: the jury assembled to his right; the defendant and his counsel at one table, the prosecutors at the other; their witnesses seated in a line of chairs behind those tables; and behind the witnesses the throng. And of this throng the judge thought, who were these people? Aside from the local reporters, he recognized not a single face of these men with dark hair and olive complexions, most much smaller than the former halfback.
The judge called tipstaff George Langenbacher to the bench and asked him about the men. They started coming in the courtroom the previous day, the tipstaff responded, positioning themselves in the front, close to the jury box and the seats for the district attorney’s witnesses. They are Italian, many of them from Pittsburgh, the tipstaff said.
The murder trial of Angelo Fragassa was by far the most important case Cummins had encountered in his short career on
the bench. Fragassa, 28, along with Marcantonio Daniele, 40, and his son John Daniele, 18, all of Canonsburg, had been indicted by the grand jury for the murder of Gabriele Fiore, a 27-year-old Standard Tinplate mill worker, shot through the brain in his East Canonsburg home early in the morning of May 29, 1922. The three had been held in Washington County Jail ever since.
The case had attracted widespread attention, because despite the fact that scores of Italians had been murdered over the past 15 years, and hundreds of others victimized by assault and arson, few suspects – members of what had become known as La Mano Nera, or the Black Hand – were ever brought to trial. Bodies turned up routinely, but clues to their demise did not. The killers were skilled, and, according to the popular press, organized in a secret hierarchy. The demands of their victims were quite simple: Give us your money or we will burn down or blow up your house and business; continue to refuse and we will kill you and your family.
This case promised to shed light on these so-called Blackhanders who terrorized their own people – the hardworking immigrants who had fled poverty and possibly the same kind of extortion in their native Italy.
The judge had granted defense attorneys’ request for severance, meaning that the three defendants would be tried separately, much to the chagrin of court staff, who would have preferred to wrap things up well short of the Thanksgiving holiday. Three consecutive trials in the November term would mean day and night court sessions right up to Thanksgiving Day, celebrated that year on Nov. 30, the fifth Thursday of the month.
Fragassa, the accused gunman, was to be tried first, followed by the elder Daniele, portrayed by the prosecution as chief of the Canonsburg chapter of the Black Hand.
Fiore had withdrawn a large sum of money from the bank the day before he died, intending to return to Italy with it. The commonwealth would try to prove that Daniele had ordered his death for Fiore’s refusal to surrender his fortune to him.
Judge Cummins worried how the atmosphere in his courtroom might affect the trial. Would witnesses be too afraid to testify, what with these gangsters staring them down from every angle? As he pondered how to proceed, word came that an Italian from Carnegie named Tony Butera was caught in the act of making sketches of the county jail and was promptly placed in that jail by order of District Attorney Howard Hughes.
Cummins was not about to allow the witnesses to be intimidated, justice derailed, accused killers to escape or his budding career on the bench to be cut short. He ordered the courtroom cleared of spectators. Witnesses, too, would be absent, summoned to testify just as they were needed.
News was printed or ‘megaphoned’
The public’s exclusion from the Fragassa trial only heightened interest in it. Court proceedings were closely followed in the only medium for news and entertainment at the time: the newspapers. Judge Cummins’ order added mystery and danger to an already well-publicized case. But the trials for the murder of the Canonsburg man were not the only things on readers’ minds on that cold and clear day in late November.
Interior construction of the towering George Washington was nearly completed in advance of the hotel’s grand opening in January, and the front pages of the local papers announced that Wade Lowry had been hired as its manager. Also reported were the deaths of two children in a Monongahela house fire and the swearing in of the nation’s first female U.S. senator, Rebecca Felton, 87, of Georgia, who would serve for just one day.
The exploits of the Washington & Jefferson College football team were always of high interest, and it was announced that the team’s game against West Virginia University on Thanksgiving Day would be “megaphoned” to those gathered in front of the First National Bank on South Main Street, directly across the street from the Observer Publishing Co. building then under construction. Because the evening Reporter would not be published on the holiday, play-by-play results from the game in Morgantown would be telephoned to Washington, and a newspaper employee at an upper window would shout the action through a megaphone to the crowd below.
Even though the victim Fiore and his accused killers were all Italians from Canonsburg, readers in Washington, and in fact all over the county, had a keen interest in the trials; the terror inflicted on Italian immigrants, in particular, had been occurring all over the northern United States and Canada.
La Mano Nera, or the Black Hand, was an array of loosely organized criminal rackets with roots in Sicily and Calabria, the most southern area of the Italian “boot,” which came to the United States and Canada with the wave of immigration beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the first decade of the 20th century.
Blackhanders, as newspapers called them at the time, preyed primarily on their own countrymen, terrorizing Italian neighborhoods. They engaged in shakedowns and scams, like selling tickets to nonexistent banquets and strong-arm contributions to defense funds of their comrades. Those known to have money could expect to receive threatening letters demanding payment. Refusal often resulted in explosions, fires, assault or murder. Often the letters were decorated with symbols, such as a black hand, skulls or blood-dripping daggers.
“La Mano Nera was associated primarily with the imprint of a hand over two crossed swords,” wrote Mike La Sorte, professor emeritus of the State University of New York, in a 2008 article on the website American Mafia.com. “The symbol can be traced to Italy in the 1880s when on the walls of dwellings in Sicily began to appear an imprint of a hand blackened with coal dust. It was a message that proclaimed, ‘You do as I say or you are finished. Pay or die!’”
The Black Hand first surfaced in New York City. La Sorte found the first documentation of an extortion letter, which was received by a Calabrian shopkeeper and featured a hand imprint and was published in the New York Herald in 1903.
By 1906, Black Hand-style crime had reached Washington County, and it would continue to grow here until the early 1920s, when it rather suddenly came to an end. Its demise was mostly a result of passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. With Prohibition, gangsters found a source of income much more lucrative than extortion: bootlegging.
The first instances of supposed Black Hand crime in this area surfaced in Donora in 1906 and quickly spread to wherever Italians had settled to work in the mines, mills and factories. Citizens of California, Burgettstown, McDonald, Houston, Marianna, Charleroi, Cecil, Monongahela and other communities all faced the threat of extortion. In Washington, at least five brutal slayings from May 1914 to December 1915 were never solved.
Of course, violent crime was not restricted to those of Italian descent. The overwhelming majority of immigrants from that country worked hard and obeyed the laws. The criminal population was as diverse as America was in the 1910s and ’20s, but media attention did seem to zero in on the Italians. In later years, not just the news media but Hollywood would find fascination in another mainly Italian criminal cartel: the Mafia.
The trials of the accused killers of Gabriele Fiore and the events that quickly followed might well be considered the end of the Black Hand in Washington County. To understand this phenomenon, we must go back to its beginning and meet the characters so central to its rise and fall.
This serial will explore the lives of six people: the three men accused of Fiore’s murder and the three principal witnesses for the prosecution. Of these lives, all but one would end in sudden violence.
Next: The Calabrian Conn
Chapter 2: The Calabrian Connection
March 12, 2017
The story so far: The trials of the accused killers of Canonsburg mill worker Gabriele Fiore begin. Judge Erwin Cummins, fearing intimidation of witnesses, clears the courtroom of spectators. Prosecutors portray one of the defendants, Marcantonio Daniele, as the Canonsburg chief of the Black Hand, a secretive cabal of ruthless criminals.
Southwestern Pennsylvania’s abundant reserves of coal, oil and natural gas and its navigable rivers made it an ideal location for the development of heavy industry in the later years of the 19th century. What the primarily agricultural area lacked, however, was the manpower to mine the coal, to build the mills and stoke the furnaces.
That manpower would come from Europe. The coal and steel barons recruited workers in countries where poverty and hopelessness were most present. And so they came, in waves of hundreds of thousands, from Italy, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Croatia. The Greeks, Czechs and Slovaks came pouring in through New York’s Ellis Island, seeking whatever work they could find.
Italy had been newly unified under one flag, but its government was weak and in no position to aid the poor, suppress violence or help those, particularly in the south and on the island of Sicily, recover from natural disasters. In the 1880s, about 300,000 immigrated to the United States; in the 1890s, 600,000. In the decade after that, more than 2 million came, and by 1920, when immigration began to taper off, more than 4 million Italians had left Italy for America.
Most were men who came with the intention of working for a while, then returning home with their earnings. Many did, but many more stayed and used their money to bring their wives and family members here. Once those families were established, other family members and friends would immigrate and settle in the same communities where they had relations, and so it was not unusual for a town to have a neighborhood populated by people mostly from the same country or even the same region of that country.
Terry Necciai of Monongahela, an architectural historian, has studied Italian immigration in the Mon Valley extensively. Many came to work in the 150 coal mines operating in Washington County in the early years of the 20th century, according to Necciai, and settled in towns that formed around the mines, later taking up again their trades as blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, grocers and musicians.
Immigrants from Tuscany in central Italy first settled in Dunlevy, Monongahela and Charleroi, and later across the river in Monessen. “The Italians in Donora came in a later wave,” Necciai said. The Donora Italians were from the southernmost parts – Sicily, Naples and the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” Calabria.
Edith Costa Niverth’s grandfather arrived in Donora around 1895 with his two brothers. He was a bricklayer and intended to work for a year and return to his home in Mendicino, Calabria.
“My grandmother, with my mother (then 6 years old) and uncle, came to visit for six months,” Mrs. Niverth said, “but my grandmother got pregnant, so they stayed. My grandmother never wanted to live here.”
Mrs. Niverth’s grandfather worked on the construction of the wire mill in Donora and in 1903 moved to Marianna, where he helped build the brick houses for the workers of the Pittsburg & Buffalo Mining Co. He would later work on the construction of another model housing development: Donora’s Cement City.
Mrs. Niverth still lives in the same house in Marianna in which she was born 93 years ago.
For as long as government has existed, so have those who rebelled against it. But it wasn’t until 1642, during the English Civil War, that the term anarchism entered our language.
Anarchism is a political theory holding all forms of government authority to be unnecessary and envisioning a society based on voluntary cooperation. It first surfaced in the United States in the middle of the 19th century and was adopted by groups advocating socialism and communism. Later in the 20th century it would be teamed with pacifism.
In the late 1800s and early years of the 20th century, anarchism was most often associated – particularly by the barons of manufacturing and mining – with the formation of labor unions and those striving for workers’ rights such as the eight-hour day.
The Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886, after which four anarchists were hanged, brought anarchism to the attention of the American public. And the assassination of Italy’s Umberto I in 1900 and U.S. President William McKinley in 1901 by anarchists solidified the movement’s violent and sinister reputation.
The Monongahela Valley with its steel mills and coke plants was fertile ground for labor unrest and anarchistic sentiment. But those fighting for the rights of workers were often wrongly labeled anarchists and blamed for all kinds of violent crime.
In February 1906, Monongahela Mayor H. T. Billick charged three anarchists – John Spadi, Constantino Levi and Petro Foracika – with “blackmail, conspiracy and crimes against the United States.” They were accused of sending a letter through the mail to Lucy Pezzoni, threatening her life. Police Chief Leo Logan and Washington County Coroner W.H. Sipe testified that “literature and pictures believed to be of an anarchistic character were found in the homes of Spadi and Levi.”
But the crime for which they were accused had little to do with politics. It was the type of crime – extortion, primarily of Italians by Italians – that had just recently surfaced a few miles upriver in Donora and would later spread throughout the county.
In 1906, newspapers – and Mayor Billick – were using the terms “Blackhander” and “anarchist” almost interchangeably. It would take a while for the dust to clear and the criminals to be seen for what they were.
Canonsburg’s first Italians arrived in the 1890s and dug the ditches for the borough’s sewers. Others, especially from Calabria, followed to work in the factories and the mines not far from town. They made their homes in South and East Canonsburg, where many of their descendants still live.
The poverty and desperation that had gripped Southern Italy and Sicily in the late 19th century had given rise to an insidious criminal presence. Honest work was hard to find and offered little reward; acquiring wealth with the thrust of a knife was easier. The ships that sailed from Palermo and Naples carried not just the industrious and desperate optimists willing to take any job, but also the thugs.
James Barber has been researching the Black Hand in the Ohio River Valley for 16 years. He and three others he has been working with have created an index of more than 2,000 names of people associated with the Black Hand. He has shared a good amount of the data he has collected for the writing of this story.
“We have traced most of them back to Reggio Calabria, where my family comes from,” Barber said.
“My project started with my own ancestors who were gunned down between September 1924 and October 1925,” Barber said. “My great-grandfather and great-uncle were killed in Youngstown, where my family settled, and my other great-uncle was found dead in Sewickley Heights, Pa., all Black Hand related.”
The victim’s history
Three days before his 16th birthday, Gabriele Fiore and his stepmother boarded the freighter Ancona at Naples, bound for America. They had come from Biccari, a town of about 4,700 residents at the time, in the province of Foggia, east of Naples. They arrived in New York on Dec. 8, 1911, intending to join Gabriele’s uncle, Lorenzo Fiore, in Washington, D.C. Years later, Gabriele would declare on official documents that Lorenzo was his closest relation. At just 5 feet, Gabriele Fiore was still three inches taller than his 44-year-old stepmother, who carried their combined fortune of $40.
By 1915, when he first applied for naturalization, Fiore was living in East Canonsburg, working at the largest factory in town – the Standard Tin Plate mill. He declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen in October 1916.
In its May 29, 1922, story on the murder of Fiore, The Daily Notes of Canonsburg reported that the victim was industrious and successful, that he had saved a considerable amount of money from his job at the mill and was planning a visit home to Italy soon. It would later come out that he had withdrawn the money from the bank on May 28 and planned to depart the next day.
The newspaper also noted: “When the World War was on, he was registered June 5, 1918, for service, and was to have left service with the contingent scheduled for departing camp on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed.”
Canonsburg police became aware of some trouble brewing in the east end that night of May 28 – a group of men harassing someone – and knew generally who was involved. Reinforcements were called for, but by the time they arrived in that area of town in the small hours of the morning, Fiore was dead. It was the second murder of an Italian in East Canonsburg in less than a week. On May 24, Sam Coluscio had been gunned down outside the Standard Tin Plate Co. office.
Police quickly arrested their main suspect – Angelo Fragassa, one of the troublemakers seen a few hours earlier. Then they roused Marcantonio Daniele from his bed and hauled him and his son, John, to jail.
The Danieles and many others in their neighborhood were Calabrians; Fiore was not, and neither was Fragassa, the young barber accused of gunning down Fiore, although both were from the south of Italy, just east of Naples. In fact Fragassa had grown up in the village of Bovino, just 12 miles from Fiore’s birthplace. The two were just two years apart in age, and given that they both ended up living within shouting distance of each other, it’s possible they were acquainted in their native country.
Whatever personal connection existed between victim and killer was of no concern to Washington County’s district attorney, however. He and his detectives were determined to end finally the reign of terror in Canonsburg, and to do it they would need to connect Marcantonio Daniele, the reputed leader of the borough’s Black Hand gang, to the murder. They would need witnesses for that – a tall order considering how fearful citizens were of revenge by the borough’s thugs.
Surprisingly, one person had the courage to step forward: a housewife named Erminia Orsino.
Next: Dynamite and Daggers
Pay or Die: A story of the Black Hand
– Chapter 3: Daggers and Dynamite
March 19, 2017
The story so far: Three men are placed on trial in late November 1922 for the murder of a 25-year-old Canonsburg mill worker. One of the defendants, Marcantonio Daniele, is reputed to be the boss of the Black Hand in Canonsburg. The district attorney hopes first-degree murder convictions will crush the gang and end its reign of terror. Extortion and violent crime associated with the Black Hand first arrived in Washington County in 1906 and quickly spread.
“The Black Hand,” filmed in 1906, is considered to be the oldest gangster movie. It was advertised by American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. as “the true story of a recent occurrence in the Italian quarter of New York City.”
And the Black Hand – or at least a crime attributed to the criminal gang – debuted in Washington County that same year.
Michael Carrazola, an agent of the Charleroi Brewing Co., owned a general store in Dunlevy and a shoe store adjacent to it. Shortly after 9 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1906, he heard a knock at the entrance to the store. When he opened the door, he was shot twice through the chest. On Jan. 22, Guiseppi Barli was arrested and charged with Carrazola’s murder. The newspapers called the killing the work of the Black Hand. Barli was later released due to a lack of evidence.
Population in the Mon Valley had soared with the arrival of immigrant labor, and so did crime. Anarchists took the blame for some of the arson, assault and murder in the Mon Valley in the first decade of the century. Since President William McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in September 1901, the native population was highly suspicious of the political leanings of the foreign-born. Blame also fell on the Italian Blackhanders, and sometimes the two elements and their motivations were confused.
The idea that the Black Hand was a powerful and organized criminal conspiracy of Italian Mafioso – an idea fostered by newspapers and by the Blackhanders themselves – is mostly myth. It was more a method employed by miscreants – and not just Italians – to enrich themselves by way of fear and violence. And that violence spread through Washington County quickly.
The first known incident occurred in Canonsburg on Jan. 29, 1906, when a group of men fired shots outside the grocery store owned by Simez Piccolo on East Pike Street and demanded $20. Piccolo refused, and eventually the men left. The Washington Observer reported Piccolo “has lately heard much about the ‘Black Hand,’ and last night’s episode tends to strengthen his belief that there is such an organization in Canonsburg.”
The incidents would grow more serious and widespread. Italians who had immigrated recently and were known to have money were the targets, but not always. In June 1907, Zollarsville farmer James Keefover received a threatening letter, and when he ignored it, one of his haystacks was blown up with nitroglycerin.
A month later Washington County coroner W.H. Sipe was threatened with Black Hand letters for investigating the murder of Antonio Sebelea at the Midland mines, for which Frank and Dominic Spiller were accused. The threats were not empty. On Aug. 23, 1907, Sipe escaped an assassination attempt.
Later that year, two Canonsburg men, Dominic Foletti and Joseph Schorelli, were arraigned in Pittsburgh for extortion. The Daily Notes reported that Petro Porcelli, a wealthy Italian in the East End of Pittsburgh, received one threatening letter, which he ignored. Then he received another.
•“It was decorated with elaborate and crude ‘Black Hand’ signs and symbols and instructed him to leave $300 at the end of the Lincoln Avenue street car line,” the Oct. 2, 1907, article stated. “He was threatened with the extermination of his entire family if he did not follow the wording of the letter in every detail.”
The victim in that case went straight to the police, and the threat was extinguished. But as time went on, victims of extortion were not as likely to turn to police for help. They had little faith that police could protect them. Many suspected that local cops were actually in business with the gangsters.
The stiletto knife was not just a symbol drawn on letters; it was used with deadly consistency. Dozens of bodies, most of them never identified, were found in Washington County over a 15-year span in the early 1900s. The victims had most often been shot and stabbed, and often so horribly mutilated that recognition was impossible. All pieces of possible identification were missing in most cases, including labels on clothing removed.
In September 1917, the body of Salvatore Sasso of Joliet, Ill., was found outside Canonsburg. He was the 10th murder victim found in the Canonsburg area in 1917 alone, most of them never identified.
Dynamite became a favored method of punishment for those who refused to meet demands. In October 1911, the home of Joseph and Rose Barbella at 261 S. College St. in Washington was badly damaged by dynamite. Mrs. Barbella had received several letters, which she had ignored, demanding $4,000 in cash to be left at a Prospect Street location. Her husband owned a grocery store on South Main Street, where the Southside Restaurant is now.
Perry Como’s first career
Perry Como statue in Canonsburg photographed November 19, 2007 for the GO page nose game. Published November 26, 2007.
Canonsburg’s most famous native is Perry Como, whose singing career spanned six decades. He died at age 88 in May 2001, but he remains a constant presence in the borough, with his voice emanating from a statue in the center of town and a street named in his honor.
The seventh of 10 children, Como was born in Canonsburg to parents who had emigrated in 1910 from the Abruzzese village of Palena, east of Rome. He began working in Steve Fragapane’s barbershop at age 10 to help support his family, and his ambition was to become the town’s best barber.
Although he was born here, Como did not learn English until he began school, because only Italian was spoken in his home.
The accompanying photo provided by Canonsburg historian James Herron shows the young Como at work along with Fragapane. Antonio Terlingo is the customer in Fragapane’s chair. From the holiday message written on the mirror behind them, it can be surmised that the photo was taken in December 1922, just after the conviction of Angelo Fragassa and Marcantonio Daniele for the murder of Gabriele Fiore.
A few months later, a wealthy grocer named John Tesauro was forced to leave Washington because of Black Hand threats. Trouble followed him. In July 1912, his new home in Hays Borough, Allegheny County, was leveled by an explosion.
R.T. Bell retired in 2014 from the Canonsburg police department after 47 years on the force, 36 of them as chief. The reign of terror in the borough was long before his time, but he recalls the remembrances of his father.
“Now, these are just stories that I have been told, but my dad (Louis Bell Jr.) told me he remembers coming out of the house in the morning and seeing someone hanging from a telephone pole. That’s the message that the Black Hand sent,” Bell said.
Bell’s grandfather, Louis Bell, owned a building where Sarris Candy Co. is now. He lived upstairs but had a grocery store, a candy store and a bar in the building. Blackhanders demanded money and he refused. His building was bombed with dynamite in November 1919.
“Houses in Canonsburg and for miles around were rocked and many windows in the vicinity of the railroad station were broken last night when a bomb exploded at the store of Dominic Colaizzo, an Italian merchant, at North Jefferson Avenue and Murdock Street,” The Washington Observer reported in its Dec. 10, 1920 edition.
Black Hand gang members swaggered through the streets of South Canonsburg, a neighborhood populated mainly by Greeks and Italians, at that time. They congregated at a house near the corner of First Street and Elm Alley. Local police and county detectives referred to them as a secret society, but the identity of the Blackhanders was not mysterious to South Canonsburg residents. They feared the thugs and avoided them. When bad things happened, they turned their heads. They knew that snitching on the Black Hand could get them killed.
Erminia Orsino was wakened in the early hours of May 29, 1922. It was a warm night, and through an open window of her house on Third Street (now Perry Como Avenue) she heard loud voices. She approached the window and tentatively looked out. Five men were standing on the sidewalk, their faces illuminated by a street light. She recognized them. Three of the men eventually wandered off. Of the two who remained, one stood with his back toward her window. He extended his right hand, which the other man, then kneeling, took and kissed.
Minnie, as she was called by all who knew her, heard the standing man utter the word “carogno.” Then the kneeling man stood and the two walked south, turning after her house onto Elm Alley. Fearful that the men might be thinking of entering her home, she fetched a rolling pin and positioned herself by the door.
Minnie would agree to testify in court to the events of that early morning when Gabriele Fiore was gunned down. She must have known then that if Fiore’s killers did not pay for their crime in the electric chair, she certainly would receive a death sentence.