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
With the death of Samoots Amatuna in November 1925, Al Capone was finally able to place his own man, Tony Lombardo, into the leadership of the Unione Siciliana. It was not an easy task. Opposing the Capone interests was Joseph Aiello, one of nine brothers who were active in the Unione. Aiello desired the throne himself. He bided his time…and plotted.
Antonio "Anthony, Tony" Lombardo
By his own account he came by boat to America. He arrived in Chicago by train with just $12 in his pockets. Lombardo got into the commission business. Some accounts describe him as a wholesale grocer and a cheese merchant in partnership with the Aiello family. Another source claims he was a sugar broker and became rich by supplying the Genna brother's alky cookers.
Although not much else is known about Lombardo's earlier years, two things are certain. First, Lombardo was the man Capone wanted as president of the Unione Siciliano, and second, when he became president, his friendship with the Aiellos deteriorated into what some historians called the "War of Sicilian Succession."
Author Alson J. Smith, in his 1954 classic Syndicate City: The Chicago Crime Cartel and What To Do About It, explains that Chicago Municipal Court Judge Bernard Barasa was the "top dog" in the Unione Siciliana in the wake of Amatuna's murder, but only in a figure-head position. Smith gives us his description of the Unione Siciliano:
"Up until 1920 or thereabouts it had been a reasonably law-abiding organization. It provided insurance and burial benefits for its members and functioned as a go-between for Sicilian immigrants and American politicians, police authorities, labor leaders, etc. On the side it acted as an intermediary in the settlement of personal feuds between various members of the Sicilian community who did not wish to take their dispute before the legal authorities. Quite often these private matters involved extortion, kidnapping, etc., which in the Old World had been the province of the Sicilian Mafia, the old Black Hand. The Unione was also the custodian of a set of weird medieval customs by means of which the Sicilian community in America was bound to that back in Sicily, such things as 'blood brotherhood' and 'omerta,' the law of silence."
Smith contends that after Amatuna's death he was "succeeded as president not by one man but by two - Antonio Lombardo and Joe Aiello." Smith claims a "beautiful friendship came to an abrupt end" when Capone "installed" Lombardo as president. Aiello's appeals to the Unione's national president in New York, Frank Uale, went unheeded - initially.
Lombardo changed the name of the Chicago chapter of the Unione to the Italo-American National Union and opened the society's membership to all Italians. The new face-life included moving the organization's offices, opening a publishing house, starting a youth program, and hiring a New York University professor to write a history of Italians in Chicago. Unione member Dan Serritella became the society's representative in "Big Bill" Thompson's administration when he was appointed to the office of City Sealer.
Despite the positive accomplishments, and Capone's backing, Lombardo faced a dangerous road. With Amatuna's death, the raising of funds for Albert Anselmi and John Scalise's defense against charges of killing two policemen continued - with bloody consequences for those who were not making significant contributions. Angelo Genna's brother-in-law, Henry Spignola, was shot to death on January 10, 1926 while leaving a South Halsted restaurant. Spignola, who had already contributed some $10,000 to the fund, balked when pressed for more. Later that month two local grocers, brothers Augustino and Antonio Moreci, yeast suppliers for the Genna alky-cooking operators, were approached for contributions. Both men gave $2,000 apiece, but made it clear that would be the end of their generosity. On January 26 the two brothers were found shot to death.
The overseeing of Amatuna's collection efforts had fallen on Orazio Tropea, a former Genna gunman so widely feared that he had been given the nickname "the Scourge." After the murders of Spignola and the Moreci brothers, retaliation was swift, but by whom was unknown. In a period of just nine days, between February 15th and 24th, 1926, Tropea, and two other fund collectors - Ecola Baldelli and Vito Bascone - were found shot to death. It was rumored that Tropea and his collectors were holding out on the two jailed gunmen.(On June 23, 1927 Anselmi and Scalise were acquitted of the murders of the two policemen.)
Meanwhile, North Side mobsters were still gunning for Capone in the wake of O'Bannion's death. Capone forces struck back twice during August 1926. Within a six day period two attacks were orchestrated on Earl "Hymie" Weiss and Vincent "the Schemer" Drucci, both times in front of the Standard Oil Building on South Michigan Avenue. The North Siders fought back in spectacular fashion on September 20, when a motorcade of ten automobiles shot the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero to pieces in an attempt to kill Capone.
At this point Lombardo, who acted as a consigliere to Capone, was commissioned by "Big Al" to arrange a peace initiative with the North Side leadership. Willing to agree to anything within reason, Capone had Lombardo meet with Weiss at the Hotel Sherman. Weiss demanded that Anselmi and Scalise be turned over to him for execution for the slaying of O'Bannion. When Lombardo telephoned with this demand Capone responded, "I wouldn't do that to a yellow dog." Weiss then stormed out of the hotel. Perhaps he should have been more conciliatory: three weeks later Capone's gunmen slaughtered him.
With Weiss dead, Drucci was more open to a peace proposal. It wouldn't take long. This one was initiated by one-time Capone ally Joe "Pollack" Saltis, who was found recently to have committed to the Weiss camp in Chicago's on going beer war. Saltis was fearful that his new allegiance would make him Capone's next target. Maxie Eisen, a Chicago labor racketeer representing Saltis, called for another meeting to be held at the Hotel Sherman on October 20. Eisen, flanked by Lombardo, spoke to a gathering of approximately 30 of the city's top mobsters and a five-point peace plan, submitted by Capone, was accepted by the warring factions.
There was relative calm between the warring gangs in Chicago for almost seven months. Then Aiello offered the chef of Capone's favorite restaurant, Joe Esposito's Bella Napoli Café, $35,000 to put prussic acid in Capone's soup. The chef allegedly agreed, but later changed his mind and exposed the plot to Capone. Infuriated, Capone prepared for war. Aiello then offered $50,000 to anyone who would kill Capone. William Helmer, in his book Public Enemies: America's Criminal Past, 1919-1940, chronicles the chain of events:
May 25, 1927 - New York gangster Tony Torchio is machine-gunned to death in Chicago, after responding to Joe Aiello's bounty on Al Capone.
June 1, 1927 - Aiello gangster Lawrence LaPresta is killed by the Capone gang.
June 29-30, 1927 - Diego Attlomionte, Numio Jamerrico and Lorenzo Alagna, Aiello gangsters, are gunned down by the Capone gang.
July 11, 1927 - Giovanni Blandini, an Aiello gangster, is shot to death in Chicago.
July 17, 1927 - Dominic Cinderello, an Aiello gangster, is murdered in Chicago.
September 24, 1927 - Sam Valente, Cleveland gangster hired by Joe Aiello to kill Capone, is machine-gunned in Chicago.
Aiello, who was suffering huge loses, aligned himself with the North Side gang now under the control of George "Bugs" Moran. Included in the Moran group were Jack Zuta, Billy Skidmore and Barney Bertsche. At the time of the Hotel Sherman Peace Treaty, this trio ran several North Side prostitution houses and gambling dens. As a result of the treaty, their operations now came under Capone who collected a percentage of their profits. The three men, who hated Capone, snubbed him and conspired with the Moran - Aiello combination against him.
November 9, 1927 - "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn shot and wounded by the Moran gang's Gusenberg brothers, Pete and Frank, in the cigar store of Chicago's McCormick Hotel.
November 10, 1927 - Robert and Frank Aiello, rivals of Capone, are shot to death at Springfield, Illinois.
November 20, 1927 - Bombs damage restaurant owned by gangster Jack Zuta at 323 North Ashland in Chicago.
November 23, 1927 - Bomb damages headquarters of Jack Zuta - Billy Skidmore - Barney Bertsche vice syndicate, at 823 West Adams in Chicago.
On November 13, police raided an apartment across the street from Lombardo's home on Washington Boulevard and discovered shotguns and a large supply of ammunition. Lombardo's followers went to Joe Aiello's home to get an explanation but were told he was away in New York City.
Aided by a series of tips, the police made three more raids. At an apartment on Western Avenue they found a cache of dynamite and percussion caps. Next they went to the Rex Hotel on North Ashland where they arrested Milwaukee gunman Angelo La Mantio and four Aiello associates. Taken to the South Clark Street station to be questioned, La Mantio, only 23, confessed that he had been hired by the Aiellos to kill Capone and Lombardo and had been paid a $5,000 advance.
From the Rex Hotel, police went to a room in the Atlantic Hotel where they found two rifles and ammunition in a room that overlooked a saloon owned by former alderman Michael Kenna. Both Capone and Lombardo were known to frequent the place. Capone and Lombardo were brought to the detective bureau on South Clark Street to view the suspects. Both Capone and Lombardo refused to identify any of the men.
In the meantime, police, acting on the La Mantio confession, went to the Aiello home and found him there. When word got back to Capone that Aiello was being held at the South Clark Street station he reacted as Capone normally did - sensationally. Six taxicabs soon approached the station house, one behind the other. Twenty to twenty-five gunmen got out and began to take up positions around the station.
Louis "Little New York" Campagna, a top Capone bodyguard, along with two other men, stood near the front door of the station. Campagna drew a revolver from his shoulder holster and stuck it in his coat pocket. This caught the attention of a policeman inside the station and he went outside with several other officers and seized the three men. They were placed in a cell next to Aiello. The police then placed into a nearby cell an officer, disguised as a prisoner, who understood Sicilian. Aiello quickly recognized his enemies and became terrified.
"You're dead, friend, you're dead," Campagna told Aiello. "You won't get to the end of the street still walking."
"Can't we settle this thing?" Aiello pleaded. "Give me fifteen days, just fifteen days, and I will sell my stores and my house, and leave everything in your hands. Think of my wife and my baby, and let me go."
"You dirty rat," replied Campagna. "You started this thing. We'll end it. You're as good as dead now."
A short while later, Aiello was booked for conspiracy to commit murder and had his bond approved. Aiello and his wife and child were given a police escort to a taxicab and driven away to safety. The following day, three bakery shops owned by the Aiellos were found closed. Due to appear in court the following day, his lawyer announced Aiello had suffered a nervous breakdown. This brought smiles to the faces of Campagna and the other Capone associates in the courtroom. Joe Aiello then disappeared from Chicago - for a while.
The assault continued however, into early January 1928.
January 3, 1928 - Bombs damage the Forest Club, an alleged gambling resort at 7214 Circle Avenue, Forest Park, Illinois, and the Newport Hotel, a Zuta-Bertsche-Skidmore gang hangout, at West Madison in Chicago.
January 5, 1928 - Capone gangsters shoot up the Aiello Bros. Bakery at 473 West Division Street in the Capone-Aiello war. Dago Lawrence Mangano and Phil D'Andrea, Capone lieutenants, are sought by the police.
Joe Aiello and several of his brothers reportedly headed to Trenton, New Jersey to lie low. While there Aiello visited Brooklyn to meet with Frank Uale. According to Alson Smith in Syndicate City, "Frankie was not particularly concerned about justice, but the dues hadn't been poring into national headquarters from Chicago in their customary volume and Frankie assumed that Al and Tony were holding out on him. So he listened to Joe Aiello's tale of woe and issued a ukase (order) - Tony was to step down and let Joe run the Chicago Unione."
If Uale felt that Capone had been holding out on him, this might have been the reason the Brooklyn leader of the national Unione Siciliana had been hijacking liquor shipments headed for the Chicago mob boss beginning in June 1927. Capone certainly suspected as much after an old Brooklyn friend, James DeAmato was gunned down on July 7, 1927. DeAmato had been asked by Capone to watch a few of his shipments. DeAmato reported back that Uale had been behind the hijackings.
With the latest edict from Uale to remove Lombardo, and because of the hijackings, Capone decided to move against his old mentor. On July 1, 1928, a brilliant Sunday afternoon, Capone gunmen snuffed out the life of one of New York City's most popular gangsters. The killing was the city's first Tommy gun murder and Uale's funeral was one of the grandest ever held in the Big Apple.
To be continued next week.
Copyright A. R. May 2000