By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
“Without evidence there is nothing.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
The train rumbled into the night, hugging the cliff top, the illuminated carriages reflecting in the wine-dark sea. A few miles to the north lay Palermo, the capital of Sicily. The cinder-speckled white smoke from the steam engine drifted behind, layers falling onto a figure crumpled like some discarded toy near the track-side. A man, ripped and torn by twenty or more stab wounds, and then tossed out of his first-class compartment. He had been murdered it would be claimed, by two men, part of a criminal organization that was recognized in Sicily, and increasingly, on the mainland of Italy, by the name Mafia.
They were allegedly hired by a man known to the Palermo police as a patron of this criminal underworld; especially the clans to the south-east of the city, especially the Fratellanza (brotherhood) of Villabate which was known locally as i Zubbio.
Situated just a few miles from the city center, the small town of about four thousand was well-known as a breeding ground for crime. Mafia politics heavily influenced this insignificant township independent of Palermo, its municipality and citizens’ lives. There were about 250 men connected into the local clan as inducted members or associates. Perhaps the most prominent Mafia clan in Sicily. It was a significant center for abigeatera (cattle smuggling). Parlimitans referred to the Villabatesi as “degenerates, liars, unable to distinguish good from evil.”
Nicknamed “U Cignu” The Swan, he had been born in Termini Imerese in 1844 and was elected member of Sicily’s Parliament (the oldest in the world,) in 1882. His first political position was in Caccamo in 1876, where apparently, he won the mayoralty by an overwhelming majority, guaranteed by Mafia gunmen who patrolled the polling booths. He served as a member of both provincial and municipal councils and was a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.
Represented on several company boards, he was also a member of the Bank of Sicily’s general assembly which he joined in 1888. His genius in the politics of the time was his control of what was known as sottogoverno, literally, the under-belly government, the bartering of favors in return for political influence. He was a wheeler and dealer before the term was coined in the 1940s using his political power as a driver of not only prestige but also wealth. Salvatore Lupo believed “he related to politics and property as an element of connection between the Mafia cosche (clans)…….a grand coordinator on a sub-provincial scale.”
As Gaetano Mosca, the Italian political scientist and journalist observed: “He welcomed everyone, promised everyone, held everyone’s hand, chatted tirelessly with everyone.”
Palizzolo ran his business, from of all places, his huge bed, in the stately home he owned, Palazzo Villarosa, on Via Ruggerio Settimo at the junction of Mariano Stabile, right in the heart of the city.
Here, he would meet and greet everyone he did business with from street thugs to the highest politicians in the country. He enjoyed being referred to as il pezzi grossi, the big potato. Some sources claimed he was the political boss of Palermo, indeed, the uncrowned king of Sicily, which was taking it to the extreme.
Ironically, in the context of this story, he lived in a house that had been built towards the end of the eighteenth century by Francesco Paolo Notarbartolo, Duke of Villarosa, who was a relative of the man Palizzolo is alleged to have had murdered.
Antonio Starabba, Marquis di Rudinì, the prime minister of Italy, was a man who had served his country for forty years as a conservative politician. He had been a close friend of the murdered man and referred to Palizzolo who was once caught, in 1873, stealing money from a fund to finance flour for the poor as a canaglia, a rogue.
Corriere della Sera, the Milanese newspaper, Italy’s most widely read and respected, described him in 1902 as, “a vain and irresponsible intriguer.”
Another newspaper in December 1905, breathlessly proclaimed: “he stands branded as the most pernicious spirit that ever wielded the scepter in the councils of the Mafia interwoven with Sicilian affairs so great was the power he exercised over the criminal element in his native city.”
Today, psychiatrists refer to people like Palizzolo as a “Dark Triad” personality: someone whose actions and moods are determined by a mixture of Machiavellian, psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies. A socially malevolent type of person, self-promoting and, duplicitous.
Dead body by the railroad
If evil in Sicily was not only ubiquitous but the norm, Palizzolo thrived on the social currents that drove the decision-making policies in a country that was trying to find its way following legal unification a little over thirty years before the murder of the man lying dead by the railroad.
The body discarded by the railway line was that of Emanuele Notarbartolo di San Giovanni (right).
According to author, Salvatore Colucello, “Marchese (Marquis) Emanuele Notarbartolo was from a long line of one of the most important aristocratic families in Palermo, admired and highly regarded by all for the moral rectitude and administrative capacity that he had demonstrated as Mayor of Palermo (1873–76) and director-general of the Bank of Sicily (1876–90). Notarbartolo was part of the Destra Storica the historic right-wing grouping that supported elitist policies but remained faithful to certain moral principles that opposed political interference in administration. He had stood against the mafioso clientele class that was emerging at the time.”
Descended from the dukes of Villarosa, he had battled with distinction through Garibaldi’s campaign to unite Italy; fought hard and fearlessly as the mayor to develop the modernization of the city of Palermo, including the building of the world-famous Massimo opera house, and the creation of road networks between the town center and the port. When he discovered what seemed to be corruption and embezzlement at the Bank of Sicily, he did his best to stamp this out. Possibly this fraud extended to the highest levels, including Francesco Crispi, then the Prime Minister of Italy, and not by any coincidence, a Sicilian. The first-ever appointed to this position.
In fighting the corruption, Notarbartolo incurred the enmity of Palizzolo, allegedly one of the primary sources of this duplicious manipulation. In his two years on the board, he had made many friends and, perhaps embezzled a lot of money. The Marquis had sent a confidential report to the Minister of Commerce in Rome, in which he claimed fraudulent and illegitimate operations were being carried out at the bank by Palizzolo and his accomplices. Somehow, the document leaked back to the bank, and in a power struggle among the fifty executive members heavily influenced by Palizzolo, the Marquis lost his executive seat early in 1890 following a directive from Crispi himself who some sources believed was himself involved in the scam.
A change of government under the leadership of Giovanni Golotti in May 1892, and his determination to clean up the banking industry in Italy, strongly suggested that Notarbartolo would be re-elected back onto the administration of the bank. With a government mandate to expose and eliminate fraud, the can of worms would eventually spillover. Whoever was going to stop this had to silence him. They had eight months to work out a plan.
The killers had attacked their victim as the train entered a tunnel between Trabia and Altavilla Milicia, two small towns on the northern seaboard of Sicily. Their intention, was to throw the body from the carriage into the sea, as the train crossed a bridge. Instead, the victim hits the bridge abutment and tumbles to the ground where it will be discovered sprawled close to the railway line near Ponte Curreri.
Cadaveri Eccellenti - Excellent Cadavers - or more precisely - Eminent Corpses - is an expression used in Italy. It describes the killing of prominent or notable people from the hundreds of criminals and citizens murdered during Mafia business. Depending on its interpretation. In the 20th Century, journalists, police constables, doctors, businessmen, a priest, fall into this category.
The Marquis di San Giovanni has generally been considered by historians to have been the first. Maybe he wasn’t. That dubious honor could well belong to another man, who lived and died on the other side of Sicily, twenty years before, in the small town of Vittoria, in the province of Syracuse. But that is another story.
With maybe one exception, the Mafia kept their paws off noteworthy or high-profile victims for the next seventy-eight years. Their first victim in the 20th Century, in 1971, would be a judge, one in a long line of law enforcement who would be felled by gun or explosion in the years that followed.
The investigation of Notarbartolo’s murder was to become a long, convoluted story; not so much complex as labyrinthine in its twists and turns. According to Casey Cep, “History isn’t what happens, but what gets written down.” In the ten years following his murder there would be no shortage of that.
The narrative began in the late afternoon of Thursday, February 1, 1893, at a rural railway station near Sciarra, about twenty-five miles to the southeast of Palermo. A small, farming commune, it came under the Mafia jurisdiction of nearby Caccamo, the head of which was alleged to be none other than Raffaele Palizzolo. It was plotting Notarbartolo’s every move since his arrival some days before at his 300-acre estate, Mendolilla, about a ten-mile journey on horseback from the train station.
The Marquis embarked on Train Number Three in the first-class section, Compartment C, heading north towards Palermo, its final destination. He was attacked and killed sometime after six in the evening. That he was under constant observation by the Mafia became patently evident in due course. Even his own family, wife Marianna Teresa Mello, and two daughters, Teresa and Antonietta, did not know for sure just exactly when he was returning to the city. Before boarding the train that afternoon, and only then, he telegraphed his wife his travel details. His only son, twenty-four-year- old Leopoldo, was an officer serving abroad in the Italy navy.
At Termini Imerese, about ten miles north of Sciarra, the train pulled into the railway station and stopped. It waited there for fifteen minutes. Two men boarded the Number Three Train to join Notarbartolo in his compartment. The train departed a little before six. According to later testimony by the train conductor, Giuseppe Carollo, the two men were both tall, with long mustaches, swarthy, and draped in black cloaks, both wearing dark-colored bowler hats. One, he noticed, “Had a hard face and grim and malicious eyes.” On the other hand, the station guard, Francesco Cannella, described one man as short and the other tall.
These two were i boia, the executioners. In due course, one of them, Giuseppe Fontana (left), would be identified as one of the assassins. The second man has historically, been referred to as Matteo Filippello, although his part in the crime was never legally established.
Fontana has been described as “a man with a face full as a moon, small and sunken eyes and brown as if his flesh had been smoked, the flesh covered in the marks of smallpox.” And, “Well-dressed, good-looking…… in a dark blue suit, like the successful businessman he was.” There seems to be no description available on Filippello unless it was in newspapers of the period.
North of Trabia, the railway line runs through a tunnel at Tore Colonna San Nicola. This tunnel is where the killers would have attacked, as the evening folded itself over Sicily, and their actions hidden from the luster of the giant moon hanging over Palermo. As the train hammered into the tunnel, for the Marquis di San Giovanni, it’s the end of the line. Presumably, without warning, he is suddenly attacked by eldritch demons stabbing and stabbing him repeatedly. They have less than a minute before the train emerges back into the evening light. Stumbling into an abyss of mayhem, the victim is overwhelmed by the two killers and hacked to death.
Although he was fifty-nine, almost twenty years older than the assassins, he must have put up a formidable defense. He stood five-six and weighed two hundred pounds and was strong and robust. When police examined the carriage, they found the upholstery ripped and shredded. One of the luggage racks is torn away from its housing, and blood smeared across the seats, walls and, windows and pooled across the floor. An attempt had been made to clean it away, but there was too much spilled. During the autopsy, the pathologist found at least three wounds to the heart and two to the lungs, with multiple lacerations on the belly, arms, legs, neck and, face.
It's believed the two killers had finally shoved Notarbartolo up against the seaward side compartment door, stabbing him repeatedly as he was standing. His clothes were found saturated and, when his shoes were removed, his feet had turned red from the amount of blood that had pooled there.
One of the killer’s trousers is marinated in blood during the struggle. They were discarded in a warehouse in the Altavilla area close to the railway station. The brakeman, Pancrazio Garufil, had seen two cloaked men disappearing into the darkness at this stop. A tip-off led police to the building where they found the blood-soaked pants. It was a clue like so many to come that lead nowhere. For unknown reasons, the police never pursued an investigation of the owners of the building, Andrea Barone, and Angela La Monica. What was also unexplained was how a murder of this brutality could be carried out and, no one-train conductor, brakeman, guards, station masters, other passengers and numerous bystanders along the way-even noticed anything amiss.
In 1882, Notarbartolo was kidnapped by four men dressed as bersagliere (Italian rifle brigade) soldiers, near his country estate, and eventually released on payment of a ransom. On an informant’s advice, the police surprised the gang hiding out in an empty house in the countryside near Villabate on the farm of Countess Collucio right next door to the estate of Palizzolo. The ransom of 50,000 lire, was never recovered; the site of the kidnappings located near Caccamo was controlled by Mafiosi who may have been under the control of Palizzolo. It would transpire that the outlaw’s uniforms were supplied by a client of Palizzolo who in return, received a favorable position within the national railway system. The leader of the kidnapping gang, made up of the three Piraino brothers, was Matteo Barone, the same surname as the warehouse owner at Altavista train station where the bloodied clothing is discovered after the murder.
Coincidence or family ties? The Mafia and chance is almost always an oxymoron.
The police raid on the house was led by police Inspector Francesco Di Blasi, who would turn out to be another crony of Palizzolo, who in this instance, having presumably been involved in the kidnapping, had to give the villains up because of pressure brought down from the Palermo Prefect, Count Cesare Bardesono Di Rigras.
The body of Notarbartolo was found later that evening by guardia campestre (rural policeman) Giuseppe Sanfilippo, and a woman, Santa Sorge who was walking near the tracks with her son. Sanfilippo later disappeared and was believed to have emigrated to America. Investigators thought he might have been trying to remove the body when the woman stumbled upon the scene. Which if correct, makes him part of the conspiracy. The carabinieri (military police) were called to guard the body through the night until the arrival of the medical examiner. Thirteen hours after the murder, the body is identified by Baron Alessandro Minneci, the nephew of Notarbartolo (right). And the investigation began.
If they killed Notarbartolo in the tunnel, the killers had waited with the dead body for at least two stops before reaching the bridge in their determination to remove it permanently from discovery. Although they failed in this, their ultimate objective was successful in that the police inquiries drifted into limbo.
Mystery of the knives
One of the many mysteries in the murder of the Marquis was why his killers used knives. As newspapers of the day and books and articles that came to follow commented, bladed weapons would be used in crimes of passion or perhaps spontaneous acts of violence, but rarely by Mafiosi.
Symbolically, yes. Lu scusaturi was the weapon which the Mafia used to untie the fabric, the skin of its victim, but their weapon of choice was the gun or garrote.
Wolves often attacked the flocks of sheep that lonely shepherds guarded in the high country of Sicily, and they needed a capable long gun to fight them off. What evolved over the years, was a cut-down shotgun that carried efficiently but had a brutal terminal effect. Made in Belgium with old-world skill and pride, these imposing little guns were passed down from generation to generation. They were called luparas, literally “for the wolf,” and it was no coincidence that many Mafiosi started their working lives guarding livestock. A mob killer in Sicily was as familiar with this kind of weapon as his trouser pockets. And of course, Mafiosi had access to all manner of revolvers.
So why stab their victim to death? They knew they would kill him while the train passed through a tunnel. No one would hear them, especially as an adjoining carriage was empty. They intended to dispose of the body into the sea so that no one would find it. So what was the knife thing? Knives at this kind of close quarter were a messy, dangerous way to dispose of someone. The carriage was eight feet in width and the distance between the seats a little over two feet. Factor in three men struggling and two of them stabbing away at their target in a dark and shadowy space, which is moving and swaying; the train, like an enormous sausage in a frying pan, jumping and rattling.
A weapon, a triangular dagger, double-edged, wide blade, bone handle, seven inches long and nine inches wide, was found by toll operator, Rosario Tomasello, near the track-side, smeared with what looked like dried blood. It was never proven beyond doubt to be one of the murder weapons, but the discovery of this knife had to be more than a coincidence.
At this stage removed, we will never know. Just as we don’t know who and what was Matteo Filippello. Even the Sangiorgi Report finds little to say about him except for the time fellow Mafiosi attacked him. It had him, and Giuseppe Fontana listed as two of the thirty-five known inducted members of the Villabate clan.
Ermanno Sangiorgi, questore (provincial chief of the state police) of Palermo, investigated the Mafia between 1898 and 1900. He wrote a series of reports that runs into hundreds of pages, detailing for the first time the workings of Italy’s most infamous criminal cartel in and around the greater Palermo area.
With a record involving robbery and kidnapping, Filippello was allegedly a link-man between the Villabate Mafia cosca and Palizzolo. Employed on his estate as curatolo, or foreman, some sources claim as castaldo, agricultural administrator, and perhaps his bodyguard when traveling around the less salubrious suburbs of Palermo, what triggered his selection as the alleged second assassin is anyone’s guess.
He came from Caccamo, near the country estate of Notarbartolo, the small bucolic town that was allegedly under Palizzolo’s influence and was his protege as early as the 1870s so, there was obviously a connection there.
Maybe he was a close associate of Fontana. Perhaps he was the middle-man’s middle-man, connecting Palizzolo to Fontana. There is also references that possibly Filippello was related to Fontana through their biological families. He also worked as a debt collector for Gaetano Focher, the chief inforcer of Palermo's leading money lenders.
Like any respectable Mafioso, he ran himself dry working day and night to achieve their Holy Grail: money. For these men, whatever their background, the possesion of wealth, on whatever scale somehow, identified them. In their strange, subset of society, cash brought them power and respect, an unbreakable combination in a country where violence and sudden death were a daily commodity. Umberto Santino, one of Italy’s leading Mafia experts, claimed, “Mafia is a system of violence and illegality that aims to accumulate wealth.” Judge Rocco Chinnici, murdered by the Mafia in 1983, confirmed this, stating, “Mafia is a tragic, relentless, cruel vocation to get rich.”
Maybe Filippello was just a good killer. Like Fontana, the cousin of the capo or head of the Villabate i Zubbio, also called Giuseppe Fontana, identified as the son of Rosario to avoid confusion with the other, known as the son of Vincenzo.
In the Mafia, the pezzinovanta, the chief, doesn’t usually go around murdering people. If of course, they are exceedingly special, then he trusts the job to his blood kin.
In June 1896, Filippello was attacked by a group of men near Villabate and severely injured. The leader of the gang, Luciano Annia, would become the capo of Villabate in due course. The others were Biagio Giammona, Antonino Maggiore, and his brother Giuseppe. All well-known local thugs. The dispute seemed to center around the way payment for the killing of Notarbartolo had been disbursed. Filippello keeping it all for himself, and not sharing it around the gang as was their custom.
A witness to the attack, Loreto Lo Monaco, an excise guard in Villabate, subsequently passed this information onto Francesco Gaipa, a Sicilian delegate, who was, unfortunately, careless enough to confide this tidbit with Palizzolo.
In due course, Monaco was murdered, almost certainly by the Mafia, as the killing was never solved. The Sangiorgi Report states his death was decided during a Mafia gathering at the home of Guilo D’Agati in Portella di Mare, near Villabate. It was carried out in September 1898 by Giuseppe Lo Jacono or men under his command.
Following the discovery of the blood-stained garment, there were plenty more tip-offs, over fifty, which led nowhere; numerous political and business enemies of the victim were also checked out to no avail.
The first official link into Palizzolo and the Mafia may have been early in the summer of 1893.
Carabinere officer, Giuseppe Garrito received information from an informant that a gathering of Villabate i Zubbio and the clan from Caccamo had celebrated the death of Notarbartolo at a feast, a social grouping the Mafia called schiticchio, held at the La Montagnola estate of Palizzolo that sprawled to the west of Villabate, butting onto the Greco lands in Ciaculli and Croceverde Giardini.
Salvatore Greco was high enough on the police radar to star in the Sangiorgi Report. Through these areas, along highways, locked and guarded, stolen cattle could be herded into the city from the south and east, especially from Villabate, avoiding the rural and city police.
The High Mafia
The fasci (socialist and workers) uprising in Sicily came to a head in 1893 and kept the authorities fully occupied until the government in early 1894 brought in the army to restore some normalcy. By then there were plenty more unsolved Mafia murders to add to a list that never stopped growing over the next one hundred years.
However, as early as February 1894, the attorney general, in a report to the minister of justice, referred to “the High Mafia” as possible killers of Notarbartolo.
Leopoldo, the son, had tried everything to re-invigorate the inquiry into his father’s murder. At one stage he sought help from the then prime minister, Antonio Starabba, a former friend of his father, who looked at him and said: “Find a good Mafioso. Pay him well and let him take care of Palizzolo.” Leopoldo who thought the minister was “slimy,” decided to do it the right way, legally.
At this point, Palizzolo never featured as a potential suspect in the police inquiries and, the Palermo investigation of the crime, under the jurisdiction of magistrate Giovanni Tiraboschi, is officially closed in 1895.
Then later in the same year, came the kind of break that snaps like a tree branch in a storm. Augusto Bertolani incarcerated in the prison of Sant’ Efrem di Napoli is happy to help the authorities in their investigation provided he got something in return. He had been arrested in a counterfeit money scam in Venice and was serving his time in Campania. A sentence of eighteen years.
He claimed the head of the counterfeit ring is Giuseppe Fontana, (himself then serving time in a Venice prison,) and through his connection to him, he had discovered that Fontana was one of the killers of Notarbartolo along with Carollo and Garufi, two of the railwaymen on the train the night of the murder. Or so he claimed.
In April 1897 Palermo questore Michele Lucchesi, visited the inmate at the prison. His knowledge of the murder and his cast of characters was convincing. A fellow convict, also serving time for counterfeiting, was a Mafioso from Villabate, Francesco Ghetta. He had disclosed the details of Notarbartolo’s murder to Bertolani, naming Fontana and Corolla as the killers, aided by Garufi.
Fontana had a cast-iron alibi for the day of the murder, except he didn't, and Leopoldo Notarbartolo would eventually help to unravel it, at least to his satisfaction. At this stage, only the two railway employees are remanded for further investigation. Part of Fontana’s alibi involved Francesco Ghetta.
Fontana had proved to the police that he was in Tunisia on business that day in February 1893 along with Ghetta, and had been in Hammamet since December of the previous year, not returning to Sicily until the second week of February.
Which it turned out he maybe wasn’t. Leopoldo worked out that Fontana could have left Tunisia, traveled to Sicily, carried out the killing and returned to North Africa within the time frame, aided by his same-name cousin, who was also visiting Tunis at the time.
Fontana, the alleged killer, was also identified by the station-master at Termini Imerese, Salvatore Diletti, as being one of the men who boarded Notarbartolo’s carriage. Unfortunately, when faced with a line-up of men including Fontana at a magistrate’s hearing, Diletti lost courage and backed down.
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