Copyright © Thom L. Jones
He could easily have been the first Mafia boss of bosses from Sicily to come to the United States, although when he hit New York, he may not yet have reached that lofty position. There were at least three men whose lives crossed his, who would have a crucial impact on the face of organized crime in America. One would try to destroy him, one would emulate him and one, acting as his missionary, would perhaps help establish the foundation for what became perhaps the greatest criminal organization in the nation's history. He was semi-illiterate, but at the height of his power, was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom of Sicily, ruling for over 25 years, helping to nurture a criminal dynasty, laying the foundation for the modernization of the Sicilian Mafia.
He was Vito Cascioferro. His name is often spelt incorrectly as Cascio Ferro and sometimes even as Vito Cascio Iron. Ferro, translates into English as iron.
He was born on January 22nd. Some sources say June 25th. All agree on the year-1862- maybe in the city of Palermo or in the Bisacquire province of Palermo in the small town of Sambuca Zabut ( its name changed in 1923 to Sambuca di Sicilia ). His father was a coltivatore diretto, that is, he owned a smallholding and also came from traditional tough campiere stock, the private armies retained to protect the vast estates of Western Sicily. He was a close friend and associate of a local landowner, Baron Inglese, whose holdings included the town of Bisacquino, about 80 miles south of Palermo city, not far from where Vito was born. The town is also noted as the birthplace of a particularly distinguished America, the late and much admired movie director, Frank Capra.
Vito grew up into hot-headed, illiterate and rebellious youth, a natural candidate for the ranks of the brotherhood, and was a made member by his early twenties. His branch of the Mafia had perhaps grown out of an organization called the stoppaglieri or “the draughtsmen,” formed in Monreale, west of Palermo, sometime prior to 1870. His criminal resume which started in 1894, would come to include charges of participating in twenty murders, eight attempted murders, five robberies with violence, thirty-seven acts of extortion and fifty-three other offences including arson, kidnapping and threatening behaviour. And that's only the ones the law knew about.
No run-of-the-mill hoodlum, he was in his youth, tall and handsome with bronze skin and dark, chestnut eyes that matched the colour of his flowing hair. He did not learn to read or write until well into his adulthood, coached and tutored by his wife, a schoolteacher in Bisacquino.
In 1893, the former mayor of Palermo, and one-time director of the Bank of Sicily, Marquis Commendatore Emanuele Notarbartolo, had been attacked while on a train journey between Caltanissetta and Palermo city. Stabbed to death, his body was flung from his carriage into a field. A powerful Mafia Don, called Raffaele Palizzolo was accused of complicity in his murder, and the plot somehow also revolved around Cascioferro. The actual killer was probably a notorious Mafioso called Giuseppe Fontana, who would reappear in connection with another highly publicized murder sixteen years later. Vito disappeared for a time, and travelled to Tunisia to avoid the heat from the police investigation.
Back in Sicily, in 1899, he was again under investigation by law enforcement officials in connection with the kidnapping of a well known Palermo socialite, Baroness di Valpetrosa. Probably as a result of this, Cascioferro made the decision to once again leave Sicily and travel, this time to America. According to an intelligence report written by the Royal Carabinieri, he had a sister, Franscesca, who lived there, in New York, in an apartment above a drapery shop on 103rd. Street, in East Harlem. Vito travelled to New York from the French port of Le Havre on the SS La Champagne, embarking on September 1st. and arriving in New York on September 30th. 1901. According to the ship's manifest, he claimed to be a 'dealer' and was carrying $30. He listed his contact in New York as: 'cousin on Main Street.'
There was a lot of logic in this move, at this time. Through his local power, and his many connections, Don Vito may well have been pivotal in the accord between the Sicilian Mafia and the Black Hand movement, especially in New York. Prior to him, allegiances had been between people rather than conventional groups. He may have perfected the links between different Sicilian Mafia families and the many and confusing Black Hand factions and taken it up to the next notch once he settled in America, except for the actions of a little, tough Italian-American cop who had an abiding hatred for Italian criminals.
Vito soon became involved with the criminal underworld in New York, a seething, shifting mass of conflicting forces and alliances that was constantly at war. The conflict between Manhattan based Mafiosi and Brooklyn's numerous Camorra gangs, would rage off and on for nearly thirty years, culminating in what crime historians refer to as “The Castellammarese War” of 1930-31.
Cascioferro linked into the loose knit coalition of Sicilian gangsters headed by Giuseppe and Nicholas Morello, working alongside Vincent and Ciro Terranova. They in turn, used as back-up, the terrifying enforcer, Ignazio Lupo, often erroneously referred to as Saietta, the brother-in-law of Giuseppe “Joe” Morello. Soon after he arrived in New York he was working with a gang of forgers and counterfeiters led by a woman named Stella Fraute, narrowly escaping arrest when she and her gang were rounded up by U.S. Secret Service agents.
Vito’s future in the New York underworld may well have been assured and his continuing presence there would undoubtedly have had a notable impact on its future, except for the actions of a man, whose naivety or cupidity cost him his life, and also indirectly led to Vito Cascioferro hitting the trail again.
On April 14th., 1903, a woman called Carmelina Zillo, was emptying trash onto a vacant lot at the corner of Avenue D and East 11th. Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, when she came across a barrel into which was stuffed a man who resembled chopped liver. Stabbed 17 times, his head was almost severed from the body. The corpse in the barrel became famous for a number of reasons, not the least being that it formed the basis for the first story ever produced in America about the Mafia, called, “The Barrel Mystery”, written by William J. Flynn, a Secret Service Agent, and published by McCann in 1919.
The dead man was eventually identified as Benedetto Maddonnia, who had occasionally used an alias, Ben Morris, and who lived in Buffalo, New York. He had it seemed, been trying to threaten the Morello brothers over their treatment of another member of their gang, a suicidal tactic, that brought him nothing but expected trouble. Interestingly, Maddonnia was not the first mobster in New York to turn up dead in a wooden tub. In 1902, Joe Catania, a Mafia associate, was found with his throat cut, crunched up in barrel in a swimming hole, where 73rd Street met the bay in Brooklyn.
The man thought to have solved the Maddonnia murder, was a short, thickset, tough and extremely aggressive NYPD officer, a lieutenant called Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino. He headed a distinct “Italian” squad in the detective bureau, the first and only secret service unit in the force's history, and went after the Mafia and Camorra mobsters as though he was working a personal crusade to cleanse the city of Italian criminals. Through his efforts and detective work, he tracked down the killer of Maddonnia- a hulk, who also hailed from Buffalo- called Tomasso Petto, also known as “Petto the Ox.” Maddonnia had been part of a currency counterfeiting ring run by the Morello brothers; at the time he tried to screw his partners. His death and the manner in which he was delivered into it, was clearly intended to be a message to others.
Although Petto was arrested, the evidence against him was not strong enough to convict, and he went free. He changed his name to Luciano Perrino, moving away from New York, and was subsequently gunned down by an unknown assailant on the door step of his home in Brownstown, Pennsylvania.
The pressure Petrosino brought to bear on the barrel murder mystery and its ongoing developments involving the Morrello gang, also pointed to Don Vito as a key player in the gang. Before the police could arrest him however, he slipped out of New York, taking up residence in Brooklyn and then upped stakes and left town, moving south, and living for a time on Royal Street in New Orleans, home to one of the oldest Sicilian immigrant communities in the United States. He stayed there until embarking for Sicily on September 28th. 1904. He had been in America, exactly three years short of two days. It's tempting to try and imagine how the future shape of the American Mafia might have changed, had he stayed on.
In the Crescent City, he connected in with Paul di Christina, head of the local Mafia clan that was operating under a low profile, following the murder of police chief Hennessey on Girod Street in 1890, and the subsequent public uprising and lynching of eleven Sicilian suspects suspected of participation in the assassination. Christina had been a partner in Palermo, of Francesco Matesi who went sometimes by the name of Francesco Genova, and the two had fled Sicily following their involvement in the murder of seven members of the Sienna family in 1900. Paul di Christina finished up in New Orleans, where he became a major Mafia boss until shot-gunned to death by one Pietro Pepitone, a grocer, in 1909.
Cascioferro's hatred of the tough New York detective would fester on for five years, and then he would be presented with the perfect opportunity to exact revenge. According to the Royal Carabinieri, Vito always carried with him a snapshot of the American policeman, Petrosino, to remind him how much he hated the cop.
Christina, whose real name was Paulo Marchese, had arrived in America originally at the port of New York. He had likewise tangled with Petrosino, and left the city as a result, also harbouring a hatred for the courageous cop. He may have been involved in the events that subsequently unfolded in March 1909, in the capital of Sicily.
By 1909, the unit New York Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham had established, a 15 man Secret Service branch of the agency, exclusively “to crush the Black Hand and Anarchists of the city,” was operating at full steam. Lieutenant Joe Petrosino persuaded Bingham to let him travel to Italy to collect accurate intelligence from his contemporaries there, about the Italian criminals who were creating so much mayhem in New York, and to also set up an espionage ring in Sicily to gather information ongoing. He may also have been researching a counterfeiting ring out of Italy which was a cause for concern of the U.S. Treasury, and linked into the New York activities of the Morrello's. It all seemed a good idea at the time and ear-marked as a highly sensitive exercise, but word of Petrosino's visit became public knowledge before he had even arrived at his destination.
Early in February, 1909, he sailed for Italy, aboard the liner Duca di Genova, travelling first class, arriving in Rome on February 21st. It was a difficult passage due to the bad, winter weather. After meeting various officials in the Italian government and police departments, he travelled south to Palermo, arriving there from Naples on February 28th on a mail boat.
He checked in to Weiner’s Hotel de France, room number 16, at five lire a night, registering under the name of Simone Valenti di Giudea. His attempts at camouflaging his presence were unsuccessful. His arrival in Palermo became known to his enemies before he even stepped off the boat. It would seem, from that moment on, everywhere he went, and everyone he met, was on record with the people who hated him the most.
At approximately seven-thirty on the evening of Friday, March 12th. he left the hotel and sought out his usual place for an early dinner. Dressed in a black suit, and a long gray overcoat, sporting a derby and with an umbrella hooked over his arm (light rain was falling that evening), he crossed the Piazza Marina, walking from his hotel to the restaurant he had been using since his arrival.
At the Café Oreto, he sat at a corner table, with his back to a wall enjoying pasta, fish, potatoes, cheese with peppers, fruit and a half-litre jug of wine. At some point in the evening, two men approached him and spoke with him. Petrosino listened and then waved them away. Soon after, he paid his bill and left the restaurant. At eight forty-five, he walked to the Piazza Marina, six hundred and sixty feet away, to catch a trolley back to his hotel, and he was standing near the base of the Garibaldi statue at the small garden, his back to the square, pissing into the bushes, when he was shot dead.
According to an article in the New York Herald on Sunday, March 14th, he'd been approached at 9 p.m. by two men. They fired a number of shots at him, and as fell, he drew his own handgun, firing twice at his killers. According to a memorandum sent to Police Commissioner Bingham, from the American consul in Palermo, two men came up to Petrosino, and shot at him four times, three bullets hitting him, in his right back, puncturing both lungs, a through and through in his throat, and one into the side of his face. He died instantly. The Herald story got it wrong. Joe was unarmed, having left his Smith and Wesson revolver in his valise in the hotel room. A heavy, Belgian revolver lay near the body, one barrel discharged. Investigators assumed it had belonged to one of the gunmen.
A contemporary police report published later, into Petrosino’s death, gave away an important detail that had never been previously recorded: “Petrosino was shot when, walking by the fence of the gardens, the poor detective had stopped to satisfy a corporal need.” His murder had to be seen as an act of public execution; it was a lesson, and a warning to others not to come meddling in the affairs of the Mafia. Poor Joe, his bladder bursting from the jug of wine, stops to take a leak, and gets blown out of his socks. Wanting to humiliate him, the killers, known in Sicily as sicario, hit men, choose just the right moment. The only witness, officially at least, was a seaman, Alberto Cardella, from the ship, Calabria, docked at the port, who had been waiting at the tram terminal about one hundred feet away. He ran to the scene, but Joe lay dead. The sailor saw two men run off into the darkness, heard a carriage drive away. On the ground, speckled by the gentle rain, he saw a derby and an umbrella and a gun.
In Petrosino’s pockets, among letters of introduction and his notebook, was a picture postcard addressed to his wife. It read, “A kiss for you and my little girl, who has spent three weeks far from her daddy.”
So who were the killers, and who was behind the hit?
The Palermo police headquarters received an anonymous letter dated 13th March, from New York. It claimed that the organizers of the murder were: Giuseppe Morello, Giuseppe Fontana, Ignazio Milone, Pietro Inzerillo (who ran a bar/brothel at 260 Elizabeth Street, Manhattan, called 'Stella d'Italia,') and the two Terranova brothers, step brothers of Morello. All of these men were allegedly 'Black Handers.' The contract on Petrosino may have been handed down to them by Vito Cascioferro.
One of the two gunmen may indeed have been Giuseppe Fontana, who left Sicily soon afterwards and made his way to America. An alleged member of the Villabate cosca, forty-seven year old Fontana was well known to the Palermo police department and had been arrested for criminal activities ranging from counterfeiting to murder.
He was a major suspect in the murder of Emanuele Notarbartolo, the banker. Another report suggests that the killers were Giovanni Campanillo, an ex-New York based Camorra boss who'd been deported earlier in the year as a result of Petrosino's rigorous investigations, along with a friend and murderous partner, Errico Alfano. Both of these men were spotted in Palermo not long after the detectives ship had docked.
To complicate things further, other accounts indicate the killers were Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti who had sailed for Sicily from New York, the day after Petrosino left the country. To muddy the waters a lot deeper, Costantino had in fact been one of many men arrested in the Barrel case in New York. To complicate matters more, there was another man in Palermo that night called Giuseppe Giunta, who had arrived in Palermo direct from New Orleans. He linked into Paulo Marchese back in New Orleans. So were New York and New Orleans working together to set up this contract on Petrosino?
Then, what about the two men who called into the cafe while Joe was eating? They may well have been Paolo Palazzotto, who Petrosino had caused to be deported from New York for criminal activity, and Ernesto Militano, who was a local tough guy. When Joe left the diner, did they follow Joe off and off him?
The one I like the best for no reason other than that he sounds really evil, is a man known as Schiffizano, so called because he was involved in the selling of blood from slaughtered animals. This man had two brothers in New York who had been investigated by Joe. A man of flagitious moods and violent nature, he may well have been a local butcher called Giovani Ruisi, and was in fact one of the few men arrested by Baldassare Ceola, the Police Commissioner of Palermo City, although like the rest, he was released for lack of hard evidence.
One target, ten possible shooters, and as a bonus, Casioferro waiting in the wings.
The sort of case that would have given Colombo, the television detective, a migraine just thinking about it.
Were these the killers of Joe Petrosino?
In due course, the police commissioner of New York prepared a detailed report on the killing of Joe Petrosino, and nominated Constantino and Passananti as the most likely suspects. Neither man was ever tried for the crime however.
William J. Flynn, head of the U.S. Secret Service, claimed that in 1911, Giuseppe Morello, imprisoned in the Atlanta Penitentiary, had confessed to him that Constantino and Passannanti had been the killers of Petrosino, acting under the orders of Vito Cascioferro.
The visit to Sicily to flush out information on the Mafia was meant to be secret. On February 20th. the day before he arrived in Rome, the New York Herald published details of the trip. Every man and his dog knew where he was going and why. One theory about his murder that later emerged, suggested that Marchese had plotted the murder from his base in New Orleans. Another, that the Italian police, in the payment of the Mafia, set it up. Yet another, that the two men who approached him in the restaurant, who were apparently informers working for Joe, were in fact working for his killer, and were busy making him the patsy for his own hit.
In all probability, his arch nemesis, Vito Cascioferro was plotting his death, day by day as Joe moved closer and closer to Palermo. Like a big, fat tarantula spider, the Mafia boss waited near his web, ready to spin in and destroy the man he hated and whose death he had lusted after for over five years. Although examining magistrates interviewed fifteen people, including the Mafia don, no one was every charged with the murder.
After Petrosino’s murder, the American consul, Bishop, found in Petrosino’s valise, a piece of paper written in the detective’s handwriting: “Cascioferro, resident of Bisaquino, a dreaded criminal.”
The policeman had carried his killer’s name. The murderer his victim’s photograph.
Joe Petrosino’s body was returned to New York and buried in St. Patrick's old cathedral where, in 1907, he had married his sweetheart Adelina Saulino. The funeral ceremony witnessed by over 250,000 people became a major event in the New York calendar. The funeral procession took over five hours to travel from the church to the grave where he was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery, in Brooklyn. His widow received a city pension of $1000 a year to support herself and her daughter. She lived on with her memories, for another 48 years, dying in 1957 at the age of ninety-nine.
There are still traces in New York of that brave police officer, one hundred years after his brutal murder. In lower Manhattan, on the corner of Lafayette and Kenmare Streets, sits the Lieutenant Giuseppe Petrosino Park and monument. It is small, littered with garbage, and ignored by the public. Ironically, across from the north-west corner, on the junction of Lafayette and Spring Streets sits a building that in the 1930s was a hub of anarchist and mob activity.
His photo hangs on the wall on the 13th floor of One Police Plaza, commemorating the only officer of the force killed in the line of duty outside of America.
Joe Petrosino's life and death was the subject of one of the first feature length films (silent) ever produced in the U.S.: 'The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino' made in 1912, by the Feature Photoplay Company of New York, produced and directed by Sydney Goldin.
On the night of Petrosino's murder, Vito Cascioferro dined with a Sicilian parliamentary deputy, the right honourable De Michele Ferrantelli, who supposedly had the best cook in Sicily. Vito loved his food, as his huge belly testified. Some legends have it, he had enjoyed the meal, leaving between courses, to shoot Petrosino, giving him the coup de grace as the seriously wounded detective slumped against the garden fence, and then returning to savour the delights of the cassata, coffee and grappa, and his favourite monogrammed Hungarian cigarettes. The deputy and his guests swore on oath that Cascioferro never left the table that night.
Privately, Don Vito made no secret of his role in the killing. “My action,” he claimed, “was a disinterested one and in response to a challenge I could not afford to ignore.”
Every Wednesday following the execution of Petrosino, Cascioferro dined with his friend the politician, on the same meal, that has become a legend in Palermo, and is still created to this day in some of the better restaurants there. It consisted of roasted olives followed by chauchas (green beans) in mint, then salmon garnished with hinojo seeds, which preceded the course of baked lamb in lechtal sauce. It ended with a special Sicilian cassata.
It is apparently a meal to die for.
By the time Petrosino lay dead on the rain washed cobblestones of the Piazza Marina, Vito Cascioferro, at the age of 47, was at the top of his profession. If not the capo di tutti capi, he was the nearest thing to the boss of bosses in the Sicilian Mafia. He held power over at least seven major Mafia cosche, or families, in Palermo province: Bisacquino, Campofiorito, Corleone, Contessa Entillina, Chiusa Scalfani, Burgio and Villafranca Sicula, as well as some of the districts of Palermo City, and his presence and word appeared to be honoured by the capos of gangs he didn’t officially control. Prominent figures on both sides of the law owed him favours, and rumour had it that if he felt so inclined, he could arrange the recovery of any property stolen anywhere in Sicily. It was largely because of his presence and forceful personality that the Mafia flourished through the first thirty years of the twentieth century, and in Rome, legislators knew what was expected of them in return for his ability to deliver votes when needed.
He established his image as an enlightened modern man of the twentieth century by making a pioneer trip in a hot-air balloon. He is accredited with creating the framework of extortion called pizzi, an onomatopoeic word in the Sicilian dialect which translates roughly into English as “rackets.” Pizzi is the beak of a small bird, and in his usual conservative and understated way, Cascioferro spoke of levying a “toll” calling it in Sicilian: fari ragnari a pizzi- “wetting the beak.”
“Don’t be greedy” he would say, “you have to skim the cream off the milk without breaking the bottle.”
His descendants are still wetting the beak to this day, across Sicily.
Meticulous in appearance, he would often appear in public in a frock-coat, wide-brimmed fedora, pleated shirt and flowing cravat. His conduct described as princely, his demeanour modest but majestic, he was a king of sorts. Under his reign, peace and order was observed, albeit, the peace of the Mafia, which was hardly what the official law of the Kingdom of Italy would have imposed, but not many people stopped to draw too fine a distinction.
In his later years, he sported a long, white beard, and grew his hair long. A favourite of high society in Palermo, he was constantly in demand to host art exhibitions, and organize social parties and musical evenings. He was often reported gambling significant amounts of money at the Circoli dei Civili, a prominent gentleman's club, in Palermo. Sometimes, dressed in Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, he would go on thrush-shooting jaunts, and join the Palermo aristocracy to pelt children of the poor with cakes and candies on All Saints Eve. He was a magnet to women, and once had to chastise his barber for selling off his hair-clippings to be used by a manufacturer of amulets.
The primary social meeting place in Palermo at this time was the Birreria Italia Café, and Don Vito was often a visitor. Dressed like a Mississippi gambler, he would arrive at eleven in the morning to drink the full, dark roasted coffee, and have his hand kissed by hangers-on. By his side, would be his pearl-encrusted mistress, who legend has it, was not only a woman of nobility, but who had also persuaded him to make her the first female member of the Mafia. Now that's something to try and get to grips with.
Luigi Barzini, the Italian writer claimed Cascioferro brought the Mafia to its highest perfection without undue recourse to violence.
In 1921, Cascioferro gave his blessing to one of his youngest and most promising picciotti, or soldiers, to leave Palermo and travel to New York. The word picciotti, literally “the boys” in the Palermitan dialect, had acquired a sinister meaning by the start of the twentieth century. It was the vernacular term for the gunmen of the Mafia. He often said he thought the young man had talent and would go far in the life. He had, and he did. The youth idolized the Don and may well have spent the rest of his life trying to justify his mentor's approval. He stepped off the S.S. Vincenzo Florio, in Newport, Virginia on December 23rd, 1921, and into the pages of mob history.
His name was Carlo Gambino.
Sometime between 1924 and 1925, another of his protégées, this time a mature man in his forties, also left Sicily bound for New York. His objective may have been to establish a bridge-head for the eventual and triumphant return of Don Vito back into the New York underworld. Some crime historians claim that there was in fact no link between the two men. If there was, he was unable to achieve this goal, but he had a major, although transient impact on the formation and future of the American Mafia.
His name was Salvatore Maranzano.
Early in the 1920’s, things started to change for the worse for the Mafia. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator became the premier of Italy in 1922. Visiting Sicily in 1924, he was humiliated at the hands of the Mafia. Surrounded by a mob of bodyguards he arrived in the small town of Piani dei Greci, the only town in Sicily, in Italy in fact, to have a Greek Orthodox Church, and was gently rebuked by the Mafia mayor, Don Ciccio Cuccia, described as a “malevolent frog of a man.”
“There is no need for so many police,” the mayor is reported to have said. “Your Excellency has nothing to fear here when you are with me.” The notion than anyone could control absolute power, anywhere in Italy, except himself, infuriated Mussolini, a man with an ego bigger than Mount Etna, and within a year he had promoted into the prefecture of Palermo police, one of his closest aides, Cesare Mori.
His mandate was simple. To destroy the Mafia. Mori also hated them with a passion. He announced his intentions when he made his first public address following his appointment:
"My name is Mori and delinquency must disappear or I shall have people killed. If Sicilians are afraid of the Mafia, I'll show them I'm the meanest Mafioso of them all."
For four years, instituting a program he called “Plan Attila,” Mori had all legal rights in Sicily suspended, torture was used to obtain confessions and suspected mafioso were often tried and convicted of non existent crimes. Victims of hearsay and innuendo were put in chains and shipped by the boat load to penal island prisons off the coast of Sicily. If anyone came close to destroying the Mafia, it was Mussolini and Mori.
Of all the eleven thousand men taken into custody and imprisoned, Mori’s greatest catch was Don Vito Cascioferro. Arrested and tried on a trumped-up charge of smuggling, in 1928, through most of his trial, the Mafia boss contented himself with disdainfully ignoring the proceedings of the court. Along with the smuggling charges, the law remanded him in connection with twenty murders, a number of robberies and thirty-seven acts of extortion and fifty-three other offences. Before sentence, on the smuggling charges, he was asked whether he had anything he wanted to say in his defence. Don Vito replied, “Gentlemen, as you have been unable to obtain proof of any of the numerous crimes I have committed, you have been reduced to condemning me for the only one I never committed.”
Another version of the downfall of Cascioferro suggests he was in fact arrested earlier, in 1926, and condemned by the Court of Assizes of Agrigento to prison for the murder of Francesco Falconieri and Gioacchino Lo Voi.
Sentenced to life for either of these crimes, and imprisoned in the gaunt and daunting Bourbon Ucciardone prison in Palermo, and died there in 1945. Prisoners took their turns in cleaning out his cell and making his bed. If a guard got too overbearing, Don Vito spoke to the governor, and the jailer was discharged.
At some point, he had a prisoner carve into one of the prison corridor walls a motto in Sicilian dialect which read, “Vicaria, malalia e nicisitati, si vidu lu cori di l’amicu: “In prison, in sickness and in want, one discovers the heart of a friend.”
It remained long after he died, covered and protected by a sheet of glass for future generations of prisoners to ponder. It stayed in place until sometimes in the 1960s when the current prison governor had it painted over.
Don Vito finally died of heart failure at the age of eighty-three. His cell became almost a shrine, and was from then on, always used to hold prisoners of distinction. However, one Mafia researcher, Arrigo Pettaco, claimed in fact he died earlier, in 1943 while imprisoned at Puzzuoli Prison, near Naples. The prison was evacuated during the war, and his guards fleeing an allied air attack, left him behind, to die of thirst.
Vito Cascioferro laid the foundation for a criminal organization without equal, anywhere in the world in his time. He beget generation after generation of men who would come to carry out and develop his concepts: Calogero Vizzini, who was followed by Giuseppe Genco Russo, who handed over to Dr. Michele Navarra, who was then brutally murdered and his position grabbed by the homicidal maniac, and youngest Mafia boss in history, 19 year old Luciano Liggio. From him the reins were taken over by Michele Greco, and then on to Salavatore “Toto” Riina, who lifted the Mafia’s propensity for violence and destruction to new levels. From there it was all downhill through other monsters like Giovani Brusca and Bernardo Provenzano. Between 1977 and 1992, in a population of five million people, there would be over 10,000 underworld killings and assassinations, as a consequence of a power struggle within the sistema del potere, the system, the power structure, by which organized crime is more often referred to than Mafia or Cosa Nostra on the island of Sicily.
To-day in Sicily, the Mafia is on the defensive for the first time in generations. However it is believed that there are still around 600 cosches involving perhaps up to 25,000 “made” men and over 250,000 associates. This, on an island with a population around the size of Atlanta, Georgia. In 2006, it was estimated the Mafia generated revenues of around 30 billion Euro ($US 46 billion approx.)
There is little doubt that the Mafia will continue to operate in one form or another. The sistema del portere is now as much a part of the Sicilian landscape as olive trees. As one boss gets taken down, there is sure to be another who will appear to take over the seat of power.
Nonetheless, there was only ever one Sun King of the Mafia, and he was Don Vito Cascioferro.