Feature Articles

March 2002

The Guns Of Zangara

Part Two

By John William Tuohy

     Zangara was born September 7, 1900, in Ferruzzano, a small and very poor village in Calabria, Italy. His mother died while he was still a small boy. His father remarried, to a women with six daughters, and Zangara, small, fragile, seldom smiling and deathly quiet, was lost in the hoard that was his new family.

     By all accounts Zangara's father was an odd man, angry at the world. He had constant problems with authority and he beat his children.

     It was no surprise to anyone when, at age six, after Zangara's step mother entered him into public schools, that his father withdrew him two months later. "When my father come he say me like this, he says me, 'you don't need school, you need work.'"

     Zangara, the child, went to work beside his father building roads. Later he learned the work of bricklayer, which was, in Italy of that time, still almost an art form and required years of apprenticeship. Apparently Zangara had an aptitude for the trade and at age 17 was already a mason, no small feat.

     Zangara the somber and unhappy child grew into Zangara the somber and unhappy man, enraged at the world because he was poor and because he was taken from school as a child.

     He talked about his unhappiness openly and often during his trial. Perhaps, if for no other reason, he finally had someone to listen to him.

     In 1917 Zangara, then 17, was drafted into the Italian infantry and stayed in the army for five years. While in the service, he was arrested, on October 24, 1921, for carrying a knife. He was tried and convicted but the sentence was suspended.

     Discharged from the military in 1923, Zangara sailed to the United States from Naples, arriving in Philadelphia aboard the liner Martha Washington, on August 18 1923, five days before his 23rd birthday.

     He went to Patterson, New Jersey, moved in with an uncle, Vincent Cafaro, a bricklayer who landed Zangara on a job with the construction company he was working for.

     As a skilled laborer and a member of the Bricklayers union #2 in Patterson, Zangara earned as much as $12.00 an hour, an extremely high hourly rate when the average national income was less then $5,600 a year.

     He filed a declaration to become a citizen of the United States, doing so only because it was required by his union that all members be United States citizens or at least have filed to become citizens. The names of the witnesses on the declaration, two men, disappeared with most of the official information that surrounded Zangara's background, but on September 11, 1929, Zangara became a United States citizen, and registered as a Republican.

     Later that month, on September 28, someone named GiuseppeZangara of Patterson, New Jersey, was arrested for running a massive, 1,000-gallon still in rural New Jersey.

     When arrested Zangara used the name Sam Livari, but later changed that to Luigi DiBernardo. Arrested with him was Tony Adgostino, a known racketeer in Northern, New Jersey.

     On May 26, 1930 Zangara/DiBernardo pleaded guilty to owning the still and was sentenced to one year and one day at Atlanta Federal Prison. During sentencing, United States Attorney Philip Forman, later a federal judge, asked, "Your real name is Zangara, isn't it?" and Zangara answered that it was.

     The fact that the prosecutor knew Zangara by sight implies that Zangara wasn't a stranger around the federal courthouse.

     DiBernardo/Zangara entered Atlanta Federal prison, on May 26, 1930, and was paroled seven months later on December 20, 1930.

     Later, when the Secret Service investigated the Cermak shooting, they accepted Zangara's explanation for the missing seven months as his having been in Central America. Even more remarkably, when Phillip Forman, the U.S. Attorney, informed the Secret Service about Zangara's time in prison, the agents pulled Zangara's prison photo and compared it to a picture taken in Florida when he was arrested and determined that "They seem to match, however, our Zangara has a lower forehead but, otherwise, they match." However, the investigating agent never followed up on the lead.

     When 1931 rolled around, Zangara started to change. He lost interest in his job and avoided people even more then he did in the past, and then, without any apparent reason, he left New Jersey for Florida.

     When he departed from New Jersey, he left hurriedly, leaving all of his possessions in the boarding house.

     In Florida, Zangara became a gambler, a degenerate gambler, betting mostly on the horses. When he gave up on the horses, Zangara turned to the dogs, and in one incident lost $200 in one night, a huge amount of money for anyone in the depression-racked America of 1933, but a small fortune to an out-of-work bricklayer.

     On February 12, 1933 Chicago city hall announced that his Honor, Anton J. Cermak of Chicago, would make an appearance in a Miami park, at night, to greet the arrival of president-elect Roosevelt. Thousands were expected to turn out for the event.

     It was a godsend for the mob. Ricca sent word down to Dave Yaras, a transplanted Chicago hood, that they were going to whack Cermak, and Yaras had to line somebody up to take the fall for the murder, a patsy. Yara reported back that he had just the man they needed.

     Dead broke, Zangara took a slot in Dave Yaras's highly secretive heroin- smuggling operation, in or about, early 1932, when he was spotted regularly around the municipal docks.

     According to Reverend Elmer Williams, a Chicago minister who exposed political corruption in the Windy City during the Capone and Nitti reigns, Zangara worked in Ricca's narcotics processing plant in extreme south Florida, as a mule, transporting narcotics up to New York, a city he knew well.

     In New York, Zangara turned the dope over to distribution specialists like Bugsy Siegel in Brooklyn, Longy Zwillman in Jersey and others. He would collect the money for delivery and then return to Florida to run the entire cycle all over again.

     According to both Williams and Jack Lait, while Zangara was on one of his runs to New York he got spotted in a mob casino in Manhattan by a group of the New Jersey hoods that he had cheated back in 1930.

     Now the boys from New Jersey had a make on him and they brought their complaint to Ricca since, technically, Zangara was under Chicago's protection. The New Jersey hoods wanted him so they could kill him. Even if New Jersey didn't want him, Zangara had now been uncovered as an unreliable worker, a detriment in a racket as volatile as narcotics. So Yaras would have to deal with him.

     The boys sat Zangara down and explained his two choices. The mob could kill him, right then, right there...or Zangara could take his chances and shoot Cermak for them.

     Shooting Cermak, they explained had its up side. Maybe the cops would kill him. Maybe the crowd would ripe him to pieces...or maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe he'd get caught after he killed Cermak. He could pretend he was insane, and, at the most, he might get, ten...maybe fifteen years on a farm for the mentally insane and then he could walk. All debts forgiven.

     Someone had checked. Florida, second only to Texas, as Jack Ruby later pointed out, had the most lenient laws on the books in dealing with mentally unstable criminals.

     Zangara may have actually believed that he was going to get away with it. When the Secret Service went into Zangara's room after the shooting they found only a few personal items in his travel bag, which was left on his bed, neatly packed. It included clothes and three books, The Wehman Brothers Easy Method for Learning Spanish Quickly, Italian Self Taught and an English-Italian grammar book and several newspaper clippings about Roosevelt's trip to Florida and one about the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.

     But, of course, the mob had no intention of letting Zangara walk away. According to Roger Touhy, the second after Zangara fired into Cermak, a mob assassin would plug Zangara and disappear back into the crowd.

     The Miami police, Secret Service or Cermak's private guards would get the recognition. Whoever it was, the American public would hail them as a hero.

     Jack Lait, a top Chicago reporter noted: "Had Cermak escaped Zangara's bullets another triggerman would have gotten him."

     Lait was right of course, except there weren't going to be any mistakes because Paul Ricca, the mob's acting boss, wouldn't leave room for one to happen.

     Ricca was sending his best killers down to Florida to make sure the hit went off correctly: Three Fingers Jake White and Frankie Rio.

     Two days before Anton Cermak was shot, a Chicago beat cop spotted White sitting inside the main terminal of the Chicago railroad. Within minutes, several carloads of detectives were inside the station and had White and his companions, Frankie Rio and ward politician Harry Hockstien, up against the wall for a body search.

     The officers found nothing on the three smirking hoods except a bag of donuts and were forced to release them. White and Rio explained that they were on their way to Miami, Florida for a short vacation.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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