Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy

Coming to America

Sicilian criminals had been around in the Louisiana area and in particular New Orleans since at least the 1860's. For some reason, during the period 1860-1890, more Sicilians immigrated to this area than anywhere else in America. It was claimed that the climate was closer to that of Sicily, than the colder less hospitable regions of the Northeast. More probable was the geographical isolation of the region from the rest of the United States. It had its own strange culture and quaint customs, and its political structure fostered corruption. Both Sicily and Louisiana had at one time been under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had sold the territory to the United States in 1803 in what was known as 'The Louisiana Purchase', allowing Thomas Jefferson to pull off one of the great real estate buys in history. Bonaparte's assumption of rule over Sicily in 1805 led directly to a social turmoil, which encouraged and cultivated the growth of the Mafia brotherhood.

Like the Sicilians, Louisiana folk had always been wary and disrespectful of law and order, and the Mississippi delta with its endless acres of bayous, swamps, scrub forests and trackless wilderness was an ideal hiding place and hunting ground for criminal elements. Alligator and snake-invested places like the Bayou Rigollettes, the Bayou des Allemandes, the marshes around Barantaria Bay, and lands west of Lake Salvador and north of Lake Ponchartrain were ideal hunting grounds. Criminals gravitated naturally into these wastelands, as they offered sanctuary and a base to work from, unencumbered by the threat of any law enforcement presence. Many of these criminals were men who had arrived from Sicily, carrying with them a strong affiliation or actual membership of Mafia brotherhoods. It did not take these umini di rispeddu or "men of respect" long to band together into groups as a means of creating a stronger force and to protect themselves against the social conditions and prejudices that they had experienced in their homeland. In Louisiana, they found that they were despised as a minority and at odds with an establishment largely of French and English origin, determined to keep them suppressed, just as generations of Arabic, French, Spanish, Bourbon and Austrians had controlled their ancestors for centuries past.

Although it cannot be stated with absolute certainty, it is highly probable that the Mafia established itself here in America for the first time. In the years to come, men of a similar nature and criminal predilection would form into clans, or borgatas, in the major cities of America such as New York, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and even smaller urban areas such as Denver, Minneapolis, Rochester and San Jose. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the "honoured society" was growing and consolidating its power base in Louisiana.

By 1890, many of these groups of Sicilian immigrant gangsters were well established in and around the city of New Orleans, also known as "The Crescent City" because of its location within a bend of the Mississippi River. Described by Pierce Lewis as the inevitable city on an impossible site, it is located at the mouth of America's greatest and most singular river system the Mississippi and its vast network of tributaries. It became a city so strategically placed, that it could control the trade between the vast American interior and the rest of the world. The immigrant gangsters were aware of the opportunities this place could bring them, and the largely straight laced and blue-collar population did not welcome their presence. In fact the mayor of New Orleans, Joseph A. Shakespeare, went on record, publicly vilifying the immigrants from the south of Italy who "had singled out this part of the country for the idle and emigrants from the worst classes of Europe: Southern Italians and Sicilians.... the most idle, vicious and worthless among us.... They are without courage, honour, truth, pride, religion or any quality that goes to make good citizens...I intend to put an end to these infernal Dago disturbances, even if it proves necessary to wipe out every one of you from the face of the earth."

Although his diatribe was extreme and heavily biased against a minority that in theory should have been able to seek support and shelter in a country renowned for offering a welcome to poor and oppressed people, it was perhaps in some respects not without foundation. In a twenty-year period ending in 1890, the New Orleans police determined that over one hundred murders were connected to the Sicilian Mafia. By this time, there were a number of clans operating in the city. They were extorting others in the local Italian community, through the operation of "Black Hand" threats. Notes were left demanding money, imprinted with the outline of a black palm print. Those who rejected or ignored them were threatened with violence, abuse of their property, and sometimes death. This was a typical threatening letter:

A Black Hand Letter (Archivio Storico Nicola Scafidi, Palermo)
A Black Hand Letter
(Archivio Storico Nicola Scafidi,

"Most Gentle Mr Silvani,
Hoping you will be so good as to send me $2000 if your life is dear to you. So I beg you warmly to put them on your door within four days. But if not, I swear this week's time not even the dust of your family will exist.
With regards, believe me to be your friends."

Although the English was not that good, the meaning was all too clear. A characteristic of a Black Hand threat was excessive politeness, a kind of Old World courtliness.

The Mafia was also moving in to control the operations of the docks and to dominate the port of New Orleans, along with the considerable commercial activities of the many fruit and vegetable markets that had sprung up around the Mississippi River. Two of the most prominent "men of honour" in New Orleans at this time were brothers Antonio and Carlo (Charley) Matranga. Originally from Palermo in Sicily, in 1886 they and their men began trying to get a lock on the shipping in and out of the docks and make owners and freighters pay them a tribute to guarantee trouble free loading and unloading.

Opposing the Matranga brothers were a wealthy family, the Provenzanos. Led by three brothers, this politically influential clan was not connected to the Mafia; although it is possible they were allied to the Camorra, a Naples-based version of the Sicilian gangsters. They were however, in direct competition with the Matrangas over the control of freight lines shipping in fruit from Central and South America.

As part of their terrorising tactics, the Matranga group savagely murdered Giuseppe Mataino, one of the Provenzano men. He was found with his head rammed into a stove fire, burned beyond recognition. Another of their men, Camillo Victoria, was shot dead as he played cards with some friends.

On May 6, 1890, Antonio Matranga and three of his men were attacked. Although they fought off their assailants, one of the men was so badly injured he had a leg amputated. Leading an investigation into this incident, New Orleans police chief David Peter Hennessey learned of the feuding between the two groups and became aware of the existence of a secret society called La Mafia. Faced with the usual blank wall of silence that would become only too familiar to law enforcement officers in the years to come, he decided on an unusual strategy. In order to gain control over the investigation and the situation, he gave his tacit support to the Provenzano faction over the Matranga brothers.

This proved to be a serious mistake; one that would not only cost him his life, but would also set the stage for perhaps the largest bloodbath ever to occur among Mafiosi in America.

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