Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Chicago’s Unione Siciliana
1920 – A Decade of Slaughter
By Allan May
Allan May takes us through an eight-part in depth look at Chicago's Unione
Siciliana during the bloody decade of the 1920s. All eight men who held the
position of president of the society died. Seven of them were brutally
In the early morning hours of May 11, 1921, Anthony D’Andrea was having dinner with two friends at “Diamond Joe” Esposito’s Neapolitan Restaurant at Taylor and Halsted Streets. After dinner he was driven to his apartment by Joseph Laspisa, a friend who served as D’Andrea’s bodyguard. D’Andrea said goodnight and turned to climb the stairs. Assassins, hiding in the recently vacated apartment, blasted away at him. The 49 year-old D’Andrea staggered inside the doorway and called out to his wife.
“Lena, Lena,” D’Andrea cried. “I’m dying. I’m dying.”
D’Andrea was carried into his home and a doctor was called. An ambulance arrived and took D’Andrea to Jefferson Park Hospital where, suffering from massive internal bleeding, he arrived in critical condition.
Police searched the vacant flat from where the gunmen had fired. They found a new shotgun – with the barrel sawed off – and a hat that was left behind. Inside the hat band was a $20 dollar bill with a note marked: “For Flowers.”
The police were out in force the morning after the shooting. In the time-honored tradition of omerta, the Italian code of silence, D’Andrea wouldn’t, or couldn’t, provide any clues for the police. It was reported that he told his friend, Assistant State’s Attorney Malato, that he didn’t recognize his assailants.
On the street the police met the usual wall of silence. One resident told police detectives, “The man who talks is a marked man. Our safety lies in minding our own business.” A local attorney described the neighborhood in the wake of the recent rash of killings and bombings. “Conditions here are terrible,” he said. “Flats are vacant because the fear of bombs prevents any one from moving in. Houses cannot be mortgaged nor insured because of the danger. And no one dares complain, or his life would be forfeit.”
D’Andrea, with thirteen shotgun slugs in his body, succumbed to his wounds 36 hours after the shooting, but not before, police allege, he asked “Two Gun Johnny” Guardino to avenge his death.
On May 17, the day of the funeral, D’Andrea’s body was to be taken from his home to Our Lady of Pompeii, for the service and then to Mount Olivet for burial. As his $3,000 bronze casket was being carried down the front steps of his apartment, word arrived that the Catholic Church refused to allow the remains to be brought to the church, or to be buried on consecrated ground. The explanation was that D’Andrea, “had not lived as a Catholic, therefore he should not be buried as one…as he lived so shall he be buried”
The pallbearers, which included “Diamond Joe” Esposito, Dr. Gaetano Rongo, and Peter Russo (listed as D’Andrea’s replacement as the president of the Unione Siciliana) placed the casket on the sidewalk in the exact spot where he had been shot. Two of D’Andrea’s brothers, Horace and Louis, both priests, took over. The Reverend Horace D’Andrea conducted the prayers and sprinkled holy water on the casket of his late brother. He then said a prayer, which the newspapers described as not being from the ritual, but from the heart. A chorus of “Amen” followed the prayers from the 8,000 estimated mourners who filled the street.
D’Andrea’s body was driven to Mount Greenwood Cemetery amid a caravan that included twelve flower cars. The funeral cortege was estimated to be two and a half miles long. Of the 39 honorary pallbearers, 21 were judges. The Chicago Daily Tribune wrongly stated, “Representatives of thirty branches of the Unione Siciliana, a fraternal organization founded by D’Andrea and of which he was the first president, were among the foot marchers who followed the body from the home.”
The day following the D’Andrea shooting, police arrested Paul Labriola, a cousin with the same name of the slain Municipal court bailiff. Labriola, who suffered from tuberculosis, had returned from Mexico, where he was living for health reason, for his cousin’s funeral.
“I didn’t kill D’Andrea,” Labriola told detectives. “I would have killed him in a minute though, if I had the opportunity. Some one beat me to it. I’m glad they got him.”
Police detectives claim when Labriola returned, he purchased a “large revolver and vowed he would avenge his kinsman.” Police claimed Labriola and a brother of the victim, Felix, swore an oath of revenge at the gravesite. When Labriola’s fingerprints didn’t match those found at the ambush site he was released.
Police were also looking for “Two Gun Johnny” Guardino. He had been missing since the day he allegedly received word from D’Andrea from his deathbed to avenge the shooting. On May 15, police raided a poolroom on West Polk Street and arrested 38 men for gambling, including Guardino. The poolroom was the scene of a shooting shortly after the Labriola murder. Guardino and Giuseppe Nuzzo, the poolroom owner, were wounded during a drive by shooting while standing out front.
Despite the murder of D’Andrea, the bodies continued to pile up. On May 14, employees of the sanitary district discovered the body of a man in a drainage canal. The victim’s head had been crushed and mutilated and a grain sack was tied around the neck with wire. Tied to the feet was another sack weighted down with cobblestones. The man had been dead for about one week. Although the victim was never identified, the police determined the murder was part of the 19th Ward political feud.
Less than two weeks later, Michael Laccari was shot to death. Laccari was a former D’Andrea friend and political supporter. One month later, on June 22, another D’Andrea friend and supporter met the same fate. Clemento Basile, a father of three, was sitting outside a candy and fruit store when two men shot him to death. The newspapers reported that when the killers struck there were, “Hundreds of children playing in the Ghetto streets,” near the store.
Four days later, former D’Andrea bodyguard Joseph Laspisa was murdered. Laspisa was the president of an Italian mutual benefit society called Ventimiglia and was busy planning its annual picnic. On this beautiful Sunday afternoon Laspisa had dropped off his son at relatives and was taking care of some business involving the outing. Around 2:00 p.m. Laspisa was seen driving on Oak Street with two men in the back of his automobile. All of a sudden the two men drew guns and aimed them at the back of Laspisa’s head and fired. Laspisa’s body was blasted forward over the steering wheel. While the two killers jumped out and vanished, the automobile hopped the curb and came to rest after hitting a building located next to St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church. As a crowd of onlookers gathered around, the shadow from the cross of the church rested on the car.
At the sound of the shooting and the crash, many of the parishioners ran to the street. They were soon joined there by Reverend Louis M. Gianbastiano who urged the crowd, “If you know who the men were who have done this fearful crime, and if there is in you the least spirit of Americanism, you will go to the police and tell. You owe it to the good name of your race, which has been shamed on many occasions by your silence. If you know these men, I implore you in the name of all good Italians, in the name of all good Americans, and in the name of the Lord, to tell the police.”
Laspisa’s wife soon arrived at the scene. Upon seeing her husband’s body she became hysterical. She cried out, “Why did they kill him. He was not a politician. He was not a gunman. He was not of the Black Hand. He was the best man in the world. He was just as good a friend to Alderman Johnny Powers as he was to ‘Tony’ D’Andrea. Everybody liked him, loved him. Why? Why? Why?”
Found in the car, next to posters advertising the upcoming picnic, was Laspisa’s straw boater, which had powder burns on it. Police advanced two theories for the murder. The first was that D’Andrea’s killers silenced him in case he knew more about the murder than he told the police. The second theory, in spite of all the wonderful things his wife had to say about him, was that Laspisa was murdered in revenge for a killing he had allegedly been involved with in 1913. A boarder at the Laspisa household had been found in an alley a short distance from the home riddled by shotgun pellets. When Laspisa’s body arrived at the morgue it was placed on the same slab as his alleged victim.
Laspisa’s attorney made a statement to the police that the murder was surely a mistake. He claimed, “No one would want to kill Joe Laspisa. Everyone liked him” Commenting on Laspisa’s memberships in Italian social associations he said, “As far as I know he did not belong to the Unione Siciliana, D’Andrea’s organization. No they must have killed the wrong man.”
On July 7, another shooting took place involving a former D’Andrea supporter. Joseph Sinacola lived across the street from Laspisa. The two men were best friends; Sinacola was godfather to one of Laspisa’s four children. Sinacola had seven children and when Laspisa was murdered, Sinacola became a father figure to his children. Sinacola was leaving the Laspisa apartment walking across the street to his home when an automobile pulled up and one man got out. As Sinacola’s 13-year-old daughter Josephine watched in horror, the man pulled a gun and shot him in the head. The bullet entered Sinacola’s right temple and exited through his left cheek. Incredibly, Sinacola recovered, but refused to identify his attacker.
Still another D’Andrea loyalist was murdered on July 21. Andrew Orlando, a 30 year-old barber, took eleven bullets in the head and back as he sat in his automobile at 11:30 at night. The killers, three gunmen who were in the backseat of Orlando’s automobile, fled to another vehicle, which pulled alongside after the shooting.
The bloodshed was not over. Two days after the brutal murder of Orlando, assassins struck again. This time it was “Two Gun Johnny” Guardino, the man selected to extract revenge for D’Andrea’s murder. Guardino was standing with two friends in front of a grocery store on Polk Street across the street from the poolroom where he had been wounded several months earlier. While the men talked, a lone gunman approached and fired six shots at Guardino, striking him three times.
The gunman ran a few feet down the sidewalk, knocked over a youth, and disappeared down an alley. Guardino’s two friends stopped a man driving a pickup truck and placed the dying man on board. On the way to Jefferson Park Hospital Guardino died. His two companions fled the truck once they reached the hospital leaving the driver to explain what happened. By midnight police were holding 35 men for questioning, but again they were frustrated with not being able to find anyone witness who would talk about the shooting. By the following day, police had brought in more than 150 men for questioning, all to no avail.
Violence had become a typical way of life in the 19th Ward. Nothing was more indicative of that and the neighborhood’s attitude toward crime than an event which occurred on July 24, 1921. Mrs. Mary Esposito (it is not known if she was related to “Diamond Joe”) was sitting on the steps of her flat watching the excitement of a Sunday bridal party as they prepared to head to the church. Mary Esposito’s husband had been a victim of the 19th Ward political feud. A henchman of Johnny Powers, he had been murdered several months back.
As Mary watched the excited wedding goers, Mrs. Emilia Panico stepped from the crowd and confronted her. Panico cursed at Esposito in Italian and slapped her in the face. Esposito jumped to her feet and the two began fighting – pulling hair and scratching – as members of the wedding party cheered them on. Panico pulled a knife from her “bosom” and cut Esposito on the arm. Esposito screamed and ran down the steps to her apartment trying frantically to close the door behind her. After a short struggle Panico stabbed Esposito in the breast and again in the abdomen.
Panico then ran out of the building where she was stopped by a taxicab driver who disarmed her. The wedding guests moved menacingly toward the driver and told him, “Let go of her!” Panico then disappeared up an alley.
Esposito, true to form, refused to name her attacker and died a short time later on the operating table.
Police soon suspected Panico as the murderer and after searching for her for 24 hours left word with neighbors that if she didn’t turn herself in they would place her six children in an institution. The following day Panico went to the Maxwell Street police station and confessed. She told detectives that she murdered Esposito because, “She was going around with my husband.”
Joseph Sinacola, who had miraculously survived being shot in the head on July 6, became the last victim of the bloody 19th Ward battle when killers returned to finish him off on August 14. Incredibly the murder took place in front of his young daughter Josephine who had witnessed the first shooting. Sitting on a rocking chair in front of his home around 10:00 a.m., two men walked down the street and approached Sinacola. As the pair got closer, Sinacola recognized them and jumped up and drew a gun. The gunmen responded first firing two shots at Sinacola, who dropped his weapon and took off on the run. He got about fifteen feet before he was cut down in a hail of bullets. The assassins dropped their guns and fled. Sinacola’s wife, Catherine, ran outside with several of her children and surrounded her mortally wounded husband.
Two days later an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune claimed:
“Joseph Sinacola was murdered because he was going to talk.
“He had prepared ‘for the good of my people,’ to break the Latin code of silence and tell police the names of the gunmen whose swift and certain vengeance already had taken a toll of twelve lives in less than half as many months.
“He had agreed to bare the mess of ward political intrigue which levied a ‘tax’ upon the business men of the district for the support of the banditti in such a way that evidence could be obtained, witnesses procured, and convictions won.”
Chicago Chief of Police, Charles C. Fitzmorris, made the following eye-opening statement, “Sinacola was killed because he had agreed to talk. The murderers must have learned about it, for they murdered him just in time. Another day or two and … I would have had information that would have sent a lot of fellows to the gallows and cleaned up the Nineteenth ward.”
Reporters asked the chief why Sinacola would break the honored code of silence. The chief replied, “If I told you that I would be tearing down the whole fabric by which we eventually hope to break through the reign of silence in the Nineteenth ward.”
A police official, not wishing to be identified, claimed, “It was money; money and the belief that by telling what he knew he could do his people a real service.”
At the coroner’s inquest Catherine Sinacola was asked who killed her husband. As she opened her mouth to answer, she looked at five of her children who were seated nearby. Then through tear-filled eyes she softly stated, “No, no, I can’t tell.”
Although president of the Unione Siciliana, D’Andrea’s death was not a result of his holding that position. However, at least six of the eight remaining titleholders throughout the decade would be killed directly as a result of their obtaining the office.
To be continued next week.
Copyright A. R. May 2000