Feature Articles

April 2009
The Honorable Raffaele Palizzolo,
Mafia Supporter

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

     The Raffaele Palizzolo affair in Sicily, on the eve of the 1900s, brought into bold relief the systematic collusion between the mafia and the political system, during a period when such corruption did not dare speak its name. The Palizzolo trials constituted an historical turning point in the recognition of the spirit of the mafia's infiltration into the societal mechanisms.

"The mafia does not exist without the complicity of others. They include businessmen, corrupt politicians, scheming Freemasons, and some members of the authorities. The mafia does not exist without these conspirators just as the police do not exist without confidants and collaborators. This is the reality." (Giacomo Lauro, mafia informer, 1995)

     Giacomo Lauro's mention of Freemasonry is not without foundation. The Italian Antimafia Commission has noted a "continuous and organic bond" between mafiosi and Freemasons. Such associations "offer the mafia a formidable instrument to extend their own power, to obtain favors and privileges in every field."

     One Roman parliamentarian, Gianelli, spoke in blunt terms, in 1898, calling the mafia "an insatiable and multiform union of persons of all classes, who in the face of all law and order commit assassinations, falsify wills, influence civil or criminal procedure, and even secure their partisan positions in the function of the State itself." Gianelli did not spare men of his station, when he concluded that among mafiosi were not only the usual array of banditti, thieves and crooks, but more importantly "mayors, judges, and  deputies." (Source: The New York Times, 1898)

     On February 1, 1893, on a train traveling from Messina to Palermo, on the section between Termini Imerese and Trabia, Emanuele Notarbartolo was attacked and murdered, suffering twenty-seven stab wounds. The audacity of the crime on a high official shocked the nation. Soon there was talk of mafia involvement.

     Notarbartolo came from a distinguished family and was a personage of many accomplishments. He was the Marchese of San Giovanni and a descendent of the dukes of Villarosa. As a youth, he fought with distinction during General Garibaldi's campaign to free Sicily. As mayor of Palermo (1873 to 1876), he set in motion the modernization of the city and rallied against corruption and privilege, thereby earning the ire of the elite. From the mayoralty he moved on to the presidency of the Bank of Sicily (1876 to 1890). His integrity and work ethic were never in question. Such that when fiscal problems arose at the bank, he moved with dispatch to resolve issues of poor investments and fraud, taking the investigations wherever they might lead.

     Commendatore Raffaele Palizzolo was the counselor for the comune of Palermo and a member of the national parliament. He was in good standing in the Destra political party. He had many business interests, including being director of a maritime insurance fund and superintendent of the Palermo insane asylum. His political and electoral base in Villabate (a few miles east of Palermo) was his center of influence, which extended as far east as the towns of Caccamo, Termini Imerese and Cefalu?. He was alleged to be a political referent and protector of "men of honor," who controlled the traffic of cattle rustled by the Villabate mafia clan. A mafia specialty of that era, the animals were butchered and the meat sold on the Palermo black market. A number of crimes were to be attributed to Palizzolo: fraud, social insurance swindles, giving false testimony and favoritism to the advantage of the mafia.

     Palizzolo would hold court every morning in his Palermo residence in Via Ruggero Settimo, palazzo Villarosa, receiving friends, associates and petitioners. Some were there to seek employment, others a job transfer. There were public functionaries who aspired to a promotion, merchants in search of a license, council members a higher rank, criminals who had the need to carry guns, students who sought a recommendation to pass their exams, as well as those who sought money. Some came bearing gifts: cannoli, flowers, perhaps a lamb ready for slaughter. Don Raffaele, at ease, with his straight forward, unassuming manner and an obvious charismatic style, would receive his visitors in the bedroom with the grace befitting his social position, accommodating each person with a kiss on each cheek, in the Sicilian style, listening attentively, even while shaving, and offering advice and assistance.

     Palizzolo was the administrative executive at the Bank of Sicily. He used this position to enrich himself by gambling with funds that had been deposited by investors. The error he made was to credit his winnings to his own name rather than establishing a dummy account. Once the fraud was discovered the bank director, Notarbartolo (under the direction of the Italian government), looked into the matter. As the investigation led to Palizzolo, he (apparently) took action to permanently neutralize the investigator.

     It was determined that the murder of Notarbartolo was executed by two men, one with a triangular dagger and the other with a large knife, sharpened on both sides, with a bone handle.

     Initially, the train conductor, Giuseppe Carollo, came under suspicion and was arrested. Then several months later the carabiniere Giuseppe Garrito testified that during a mafia meeting at Palizzolo's farm a toast was offered to celebrate the death of Notarbartolo. Another report indicated that Giuseppe Fontana, an intimate of Palizzolo, who was the capomafia of the cosca of Villabate, Polizzolo's political base, had been present with twenty-four of his some 240 affiliates. Fontana had a notorious reputation and had been arrested for numerous homicides, mailing death threats, kidnapping and extortions. The Palermo Tribunale was to dismiss the evidence without calling Polizzolo to testify.

     In 1895, two years later, the imprisoned Augusto Bartolani swore under oath that the assassins were the train employee Carollo and Fontana. Based on this confession, the case was reopened. Fontana was absolved for lack of proof; Carollo and another railroad employee, Baruffi, were accused.
     Leopoldo Notarbartolo, the son of the victim, pushed to keep the case alive and succeeded in mobilizing public opinion. His father had officially denounced the rampant corruption at the Bank of Sicily and knew that Palizzolo was the author of many of the bank's problems. The two men had engaged in "sharp encounters" resulting in much bad blood between them. Palizzolo was a schemer, a man of many talents, a product of the Sicilian aristocracy (his nickname, u Cignu, means "the swan" in Sicilian). The Notarbartolo killing, it was conceded, had all the signs of a mafia hit. U Cignu had motive and there was enough evidence to conclude that Don Raffaele was a major mafia player, a member of the high-status mafia, the so-called guanti gialli, literally "yellow gloves." For the first time, the yellow gloves had emerged from the shadows.

     In 1899, Rome authorized the arrest of Don Raffaele (and others). He was considered the mandante (the principal, instigator, planner) of the assassination of Notarbartolo.

     In the fall of 1901, before the Court of Appeals in Bologna, the Don was condemned to a thirty-year prison sentence together with capomafia Fontana; Baruffi and the other defendants were found not guilty. But the affair did not end in Bologna. The case went to the Florence appellate court, in 1905, where the Don's sentence was reversed on appeal, thanks to the efforts of his supporters.

     Palizzolo took the night boat back to Palermo in triumph. His old habits and his thoughts that he had been completely rehabilitated led to his candidacy in the national parliament elections of 1905. He was defeated decisively, forcing his retirement from the political scene. His friends and supporters abandoned him and he became a has-been in politics.

     The trials had received much coverage in the U.S. Press and many immigrant Sicilians considered the commendatore a great man. More than half of the 150,000 Italian lire that had been contributed to cover his court costs had come from Sicilians in the United States.

     To get away from Sicily for a much needed rest and to bask in the welcoming arms of his immigrant paesani, in June of 1908 the Don sailed for New York. Despite his somewhat soiled reputation, he was permitted to disembark by immigration officials. The Don was described as a "somewhat stout gentleman of 63 years of age, with gray hair and mustache, and a gentle and caressing voice, capable of great range and many shades of expression."

     All the Italoamerican papers in the city accorded him, to quote The New York Times (June 14, 1908), a "most obsequious honor." He entertained an endless queue of admirers at his ground-floor flat in Harlem in East 116th Street.

     Even the most famous crime-buster cop in New York, Joe Petrosino (who would later be assassinated in Palermo, Sicily, by the mafia), who was head of the city's Italian Detective Force, was awed by the Don's aristocratic bearing. Petrosino was under orders to watch over the illustrious visitor. It was "a privilege," Petrosino was quoted, "to be in the presence of a great man, a man of blood, of action, a gentleman and a scholar."

     When Palizzolo was asked by reporters of the mafia, he responded by weaving the much repeated and fanciful tale of a phenomenon that harked back several centuries to the days of  the Sicilian Vespers, an uprising by the population in an attempt to overthrow a repressive foreign rule. This tale suggests that the mafia was of heroic dimensions.

   As to his own alleged mafia ties, the Don reversed direction and categorically denied any affiliation with that "abominable body of Sicilian cutthroats." Most Italians are law-abiding, he told the reporters, yet there are those few "bad men who commit crimes, and they should be denounced and handed over to the police."


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