Murder in a Small Town: The Mafia in Pittston

Murder in a Small Town: The Mafia in Pittston

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

“Europe ends at Naples and ends badly,” said French poet August Creuzé de Lesser in 1806. “Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.”

Antonio Gramsci, in 1926, was even more forthright in his declaration:

“Southerners are biologically inferior beings, either semi-barbarians or out-and-out barbarians by natural destiny; if the South is underdeveloped, it is not the fault of the capitalist system, or any other historical cause, but of the nature that has made Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric.”

They were looked upon as terroni. dirt people.

In at least one part of Pennsylvania, the confirmation of this racialization occurs as thousands of Italian immigrants move into the area between 1889 and 1914. They are part of the over 4 million who migrate to America seeking work, with most men working as miners to harvest the anthracite coal that sprouts everywhere in the Wyoming Valley and hinterland.

In 1908, a bicameral government report called the Dillingham Commission helped dehumanize these people, claiming, “the Southern Italian race as the least desirable and most dangerous.”

“Blacker than Africans,” is how New York City reporter Henry Rood described anthracite miners in 1898, and just to rub it in, “domesticated animals.”

Among this madding crowd packing into the small towns that string along the rivers and hills 130 miles north-west of New York City, were gangsters, many coming from an area in the Sicilian province of Caltanissetta, a small town called Montedoro, a place famous for its sulphur mines.

12357544877?profile=RESIZE_180x180Some of them, members of the Mafia, bringing with them their heritage of violence and intimidation. One of these villains is Salvatore Lucchino (right), who somehow became a cop and then died violently at the hands of other villains.

A narrative filled with spirals but propelled in straight lines, the story of Lucchino is almost as improbable as it is predictable, with a theme of conflict resolution that inevitably leads to only one solution.

“Few remember Lucchino, a Montedoro-born Mafioso who turned on the mob to go undercover with the Secret Service in New York City and later as a cop in Pittston. Claiming he had ‘some ancient wrong to right,’ Lucchino survived four attempts on his life before being gunned down in 1920. Over 6,000 people marched in his funeral, which was one of the largest in Pittston’s history, with “what seemed to be the entire Italian population of Pittston and surrounding towns present,” according to a local newspaper report.

A Sicilian-born Mafioso with a crisis of conscience who turns on the mob in hard coal country?”

At least according to Vinnie Rotondaro in his article at Current Affairs.

Salvatore “Sam Locking” Lucchino came to America in 1903 at the age of eighteen and moved to Pittston. Four years later, he was one of thirteen defendants in a Black Hand gang known as The Committee of the Iron Hand Society,* headed by Calogero Buffalino. Found guilty, they sentenced him to a year in prison on charges of extortion.

12357545653?profile=RESIZE_180x180There is no evidence that supports the claim he was a Mafioso, although just who was doing what and why and where is open to debate. His definite link to the Mafia was through familial ties, as his sister Rosina married Stefano La Torre (right), another man from Montedoro who arrived in Pittston the same year as Lucchino, and he formed the Mafia family that would dominate the Wyoming Valley for years to come. It is, perhaps, the second known Mafia clan to emerge officially in the United States after the Morello gang of New York.

A hundred years after the events, searching for the truth in these matters is like trying to find the haystack rather than the needle.

Meanwhile, across that 130 miles to the south-east, there was plenty of criminal activity taking place in New York City. Among the many gangs operating here, was one run by two men who would play a major role in the Italian-American underworld. One is born in central Sicily, in Corleone, a town that was a Petri Dish for the growth and nurturing of the Mafia. The other in Palermo. Both of them to be linked by marriage. And at least one of them will find a place in the history of crime as being, perhaps, the first Mafia boss of New York.

12357545664?profile=RESIZE_180x180Corleone born Giuseppe Morello (left) used a saloon and cheap restaurant at 8 Prince Street as one of his bases of operation, while Ignazio Lupo operated a grocery wholesale venture at 210 Mott Street, two minutes to the west in Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy district. In 1903, he marries Salvatrice Terranova, the half-sister of Morello. He’s now blood in the Morello family, biological and Mafia. These two men play interchangeable roles in the growth of their gang, with Morello being perhaps the dominant one, as he was already made into the Mafia back in Corleone. Giuseppe Battaglia, his uncle, was the boss of the local branch of the Stuppagghiari brotherhood, as they were known.

Morello, who becomes known to agents of the Secret Service, as “One-Finger-Jack,” arrives in America in 1892, although this date is not set in stone, and Lupo arrives six years later. Both men apparently flee from the consequences of homicide charges. Morello had been involved in counterfeiting activities in Sicily, and carried on with this illegal operation from time to time after he founded his original mob on 107 Street in Harlem. It was this that would grow into his Mafia family, which exists to this day as the Genovese.

This is back-story to the narrative of Sam Lucchino. He gets drawn into the Morello and Lupo web through James P. Price, the head of the Pittston police department who arranged an introduction between Lucchino and William J. Flynn, an agent in charge of the Eastern Division of the Secret Service, who was tracking the Morello gang and their counterfeiting associates across the Tri-state area.

12357547864?profile=RESIZE_180x180Flynn discovers Lucchino is associated with Giuseppe Boscarino (right), one of Morello’s gang and a significant part of the counterfeit ring. He was also very close to Vito Cascioferro, a major Mafioso visiting America from Sicily.

Just what was driving Lucchino has never been explained, although Flynn claimed the Italian had told him he had an ancient wrong to right, without ever explaining what his grievance against the Black Hand organization was. Having been a part of it and spending jail time for his sins must have figured in there somewhere.

Following the arrests, trial and conviction of Morello and his counterfeiting gang in early 1910, Sam Lucchino is back in Pittston, where in the spring of 1911 (some sources claim later, in 1915) he joins the police department as a “special officer.” Subsequently promoted to detective, he will serve the department on a salary of $20 per week. Lurking in the background is a man called Ferdinand Rombola, who serves time for his part in the counterfeit case and never forgets that it was Lucchino who helped to send him to prison. He will come back to haunt Sam years down the track.

And there is another, a man of Iago proportions, who will cross paths with the detective and perhaps be the stone that finally breaks the camel’s back. This one is a contractor called Calogero “Charles” Consagra who will feature in many significant events taking place in the area involving labour disputes, strike-breaking activities at mines and murders, lots of murders.

He is part of the Mafia clan based in this area, along with his brother Luigi, both of them serving as soldiers working under the boss, Santo Volpe, who had taken over the reins from La Torre.

Consagra is tied into the subcontracting system, which was built around a small group of southern Italian immigrants, mainly Sicilians, who hired their compatriots and drove them with “pushers” and “hustlers.” Known, organized criminals were among the leading subcontractors, a reality that the mines ignored publicly but encouraged privately. It seems company bosses knew they were dealing with well-known organized mobsters, but turned a blind eye. The Wyoming Valley was part of the largest urban mining region in America. As always, everywhere, profit was the driving force behind all business activities in Pittston, just as it was across America.

On February 6, 1911, about three months before he joined the police department, two men ambushed and shot Sam Lucchino shortly after he returned to the town from his activities in New York, where he had been working with The Secret Service and testifying in court against the Morello gang. Although wounded in the neck and head, he recovered. Despite being arrested, the prosecution failed to prove the case against the assailants.

This was the first, in a series of attacks he would endure as well as a personal tragedy. Six months later, his father, Tranquillo, seventy years old, a retired miner, suffering serious health issues from “miner’s asthma,” commits suicide at the home he shares with Sam and his family on Jenkins Alley, on the south side of Pittston. He shoots himself in the head twice and dies in the hospital.

In 1915, gunmen fire shots at Sam’s home on Railway Street striking around his bedroom window. Attacks like this happen again, and on one occasion as he was walking down the street, two men ambush him at a lonely spot, although he fights them off with his own revolver.

It has never been explained who was trying to kill Sam. Was it disgruntled Black Handers? Was it the Mafia under Steven La Torre and the men he gathered around him from Montedoro, or was it Consagra and his allies within the mining industry? We will never know.

Although Sam Lucchino has another back story that might show the fact that making enemies was, to him, the easiest of endeavours.

Evidence presented in the Black Hand Trial of April 1907, claimed Lucchino and Calogero Consagra had visited one Giuseppe Guitanno and Lucchino threatened him with death for being a police spy, somewhat ironic in view of later events that will unfold, telling the unfortunate victim that they would cut off his head and use it as a football, before murdering his family.

They accused him of bombing a victim’s home after shooting at it with a machine gun

In May 1911, authorities charge him, his brother Peter, and Steve La Torre with the murder of Peter Savaglio on June 2, 1910. Angelo Manero supplies the evidence, triggering the arrest, just a few days after his release from prison, awaiting charges of shooting at Sam Lucchino. The press refers to Sam Lucchino, his brother, and La Torre as "The Lucchino Faction" actively providing information and evidence against The Black Hand in the area.

The contradiction of an alleged Mafia boss like La Torre embarking on these kinds of endeavours is perhaps in some ways explained by the comments of Giuseppe Morello, the supposed Boss of All Bosses in the American Mafia. In 1911, when imprisoned in Atlanta Penitentiary, it’s alleged he claimed it was the privilege of a king for a Mafia boss to ignore the rules whenever it suited him.

Pittston is a dangerous town.

Eight years after the events in this story, gunmen in another vehicle ambushed and blasted to death two mining union executives, Peter Reilly and Alex Campbell, as they forced their car to a stop at the corner of East Railway Street and Vine.

In 1920, there were 91 bars, one for every 180 residents. Robberies, attacks and murders were a standard pattern of daily life. Almost every other man carried a gun, a knife or some other weapon as self-defence or for criminal intent. Life is not so much cheap as seemingly irrelevant in certain circumstances. Those men who worked the mines knew their daily existence, often hung by a thread of chance.

The police officers earned their $20 week's pay, probably by the end of their first working day.There would have been an endless supply of potential killers willing to gun down a police officer.

On the 21 July 1920, they did.

The sequence of events that unfold this Wednesday are complex, and there are many conflicting accounts of the events that occur. Sam Lucchino is working the “middle shift” on this day, his tour of duty beginning at 12.01 pm and due to end at 10 pm.

By midday it would have been hot, mid-high 80s and cloudy with some precipitation based on yearly averages. Without access to logs or police reports, we don’t know what went on during the day, and how often Lucchino was in and out of Police Headquarters, based in City Hall, on Water Street.

At around seven in the evening, Sam confers with his boss, Sergeant Anthony Reddington, about “strangers” in town. Although Pittston had a significant Italian population, Lucchino apparently knew them all, and strangers rang alarm bells. Reddington made enquiries and confirmed that there were two strange men sighted in Pittston. He passed this on to his detective, who went off in search of them, agreeing with Reddington to meet up again at ten. After their meeting, Lucchino heads off for home on East Railway Street.

12357545695?profile=RESIZE_710xJust before eleven this night, while Sam was opening the gate to his property front yard, someone ambushed him and shot him multiple times. Two nearby police officers, Hessian and McManus, alerted by the gunfire, rush to his help and they took him to the hospital. Newspaper reports claim Lucchino had wounds near his chest, stomach, lower back and left shoulder. Here is where it gets confusing.

The doctor who carried out the postmortem claimed there were two wounds on the body, not four.

Some reports claim the detective never regained consciousness and died close to eleven. Others, that he was awake and told the police chief Leo Tierney “strangers shot me,” before he died. Yet more claim the statement was made to Officer McManus. Were these the men he had been tracking that day?

A witness to the murder, Mrs John Curran who lives opposite the Lucchinos, testified after hearing the first shot she rushed to her front window and saw a man in a grey suit and straw hat, firing at the detective as he struggled to regain his feet, following the ambush. She claimed that the gunman then strolled away, down the street.

As Lucchino lay mortally injured in the hospital, the hunt for his killers was under way.

The following morning, a young boy, Isaac Dupont, finds a gun on the berm of the main highway running between Brownstone and Dupont. It’s over half a mile from the scene of the crime. The revolver, a calibre.45, matches the bullets removed from the body of Lucchino.

12357545876?profile=RESIZE_180x180The same morning, Sergeant Reddington arrests a man called Peter Enrico (right). He is one of the “strangers” in town. He’s living at a house on the corner of Vine and John Street, along with another man called Tony Puntariro. The house belongs to Sam, brother of Ferdinand Rombola, who also lives here. The same man who went to prison for five years in the Morello-linked counterfeiting investigation.

Following the arrest of Enrico, evidence emerges that Rombola had sent a telegram to two men inviting them to Pittston on “urgent business”. Rombola claims this was simply a matter of family affairs. The police had a different take. They claimed they hired the men for a fee of $3500 to kill Lucchino. Police soon arrest Puntariro.

It further transpires that the money was being offered by Charles Consagra, who wanted the detective removed because he was getting too close to the truth in Consagra’s shady mining and contacting business. They arrest him on August 13, although he’s released after the prosecutor in the case decides the evidence against him is too weak to stand up in court.

Consagra, who was about 50 in 1920, had a long record of committing crimes and then avoiding the consequences. He was a suspect in the 1911 shooting of Lucchino. In 1910, they connected him to the Salvaglio murder, which was one of the more lurid crimes of the period. The suspect committed the gruesome act of decapitating the victim and then disposed of the head by throwing it down a mine air-vent shaft. Back in 1905, police had named him as the killer in the murder of Giuseppe Castelina, and then in 1917, the shotgun killing of Charles Attardo on Vine Street.

The trial of the suspects in the murder of Sam Lucchino begins on November 8 1920 in Wilkes-Barre City Courtroom. The presentation of evidence reveals a Pandora's Box of fascinating trivia.

12357546070?profile=RESIZE_180x180The alleged murder weapon is found 4200 feet from the scene of the crime. Nellie Lucchino, the grieving widow, positively identifies Puntariro (left) as her husband's killer, claiming that Enrico was there also, in the background. Sebastiano Rombola, cousin of Ferdinand who it’s claimed sent the telegram that summoned the killers, is illiterate and can neither read nor write. Enrico and Puntariro claim they don’t know each other yet are living in the same house in Pittston when arrested. Many witnesses, including Lucchino’s sister, testify they have seen them together. A tavern-owner in Trenton, New Jersey, confirms they were regulars at his bar. They both have police records. Which surprises no one.

The men have separate trials. Puntariro first. The prosecution’s strategy is to convince the jury he is the man who fired the shots that killed the police officer. Enrico will be legal collateral damage. He was part of the conspiracy, therefore just as guilty as the trigger-man.

It was a foregone conclusion. After deliberating for 90 minutes, on October 5, the jury found Puntariro guilty of murder in the first degree. On November 16, they find the same verdict against Enrico. They sentenced the two men to death on March 8, 1921.

On Sept. 25, 1922, Enrico, 29, and Puntariro, 32, faced execution at the Western Penitentiary in Rockview. No one claimed their bodies, and they were buried outside the prison walls, in Western State Penitentiary Cemetery, Bellefonte. They came and went like moths in the night. Leaving nothing behind but the man they murdered, his family broken, and the enduring mystery of why.

Consagra, the mysterious figure in the background who haunted much of Sam’s life, disappears in 1924. It’s reported they found his clothing and personal effects on the shore of Lake Erie, about 300 miles to the north and west of Pittston. There is a theory that he was killed by friends or relatives of the two men executed in 1922. He certainly vanished. About a year later, his wife Onofrio and her family moved from their Pittston home on East Railway Street to 100 Cottage Street in Carbondale, about thirty miles to the north-east, from where she died in 1951, as a widow.

Lucchino’s funeral was held at Our Lady of Carmel Church on the morning of July 25, and they buried him at St John’s Cemetery. They claimed in the press, it was one of the largest ever held in Pittston, with over 4,000 miner attending and apparently almost the entire Italian population of the town.

Sam Lucchino’s story is all about violence. If you want power, you do violence. If you want money illegally, you do violence. If you want to be somebody, you do violence. And if you want revenge, most of all, you do violence.

It ends up as murder in a small town.

* Black Hand was an Italian-based criminal phenomenon that existed in America for perhaps thirty to forty years, targeting Italians almost exclusively, using violence, bombing, fire-attacks on homes and commercial buildings, kidnapping and extortion to bleed money from its victims. Just what the relationship was between it and the Mafia, if any, has never been fully determined.

Sources:

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/07/which-italian-america

https://ebin.pub/storytelling-sociology-narrative-as-social-inquiry-9781685854157.html

Officer Down Memorial Page.

Mele, Andrew Paul. The Italian Squad. McFarland & Co. New York, 2020.

Flynn, William. The Barrell Mystery. 1919. Thanks to Tom Hunt at The American Mafia website for converting this historic book and making it available online.

Press coverage in:

Pittston Gazette editions: May 24, 1911, February 13, 1917, August 28, 1917, November 4 1917,September 29, 1920, October 21, 1920, September 15, 1920.

The Tribune, Scranton, editions: November 24, 1917, July 22, 1920, July 26, 1920, August 29, 1920.

The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, editions: November 10, 1920, September 30, 1930, February 4, 2019.

Sunday Dispatch, Pittston, June 13, 1993.

Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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