By Steven Ralph (He is a beginning writer and will be writing articles on a number of Italian-Australian crimes and criminals, whether overtly mafia related or simply ethnically Italian. Stay tuned for some good stories from the land down under.)
“I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of an Australian crime family. “Leave the gun, take another shrimp for the barbie?”
- pizzaboy, long-time poster on the GangsterBB forum.
In fact, most Australians have a hard time getting their collective heads around this fact. In reality, even besides the numerous Anglo-Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Slavic “home-grown” criminal groups and individuals, there has been a criminal element dating as far back as some of the earliest immigrant Italian communities.
The Italian Diaspora of mid-19th to mid-20th century has been likened to a haemorrhage by some writers. In a slow peak and gradual ebb over these hundred-odd years, literal thousands upon thousands of families left Italy for the opportunities abroad, to “make a better life”.
While reasonable numbers of northern descended stock also migrated, it has typically been those of the impoverished Mezzegiorno that made up the large bulk of immigrants. Besides the early “trailblazers”, the first in the family to make the trip, for the most part these migrant families simply followed where the rest of the blood was heading to begin their new lives.
The bulk of migrants settled in the Americas, the United States, Canada and smaller numbers in South America. Of course many decided to stay in Europe, forming communities in nations such as England and Spain amongst others. Smaller numbers took to Africa, especially during Italy’s ill-fated skirmishes/land grabs. Communities took root in Tunisia.
For some, apparently these places were not far enough; or at least far enough “removed”. A large number settled on Australia as their destination, perhaps drawn to its mostly tropical climate. While the majority settled in the southern states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, they were not constrained geographically, and communities took root in Queensland and Western Australia.
Akin to the USA, Canada and numerous other “young”, culturally Western nations, Australia is a nation of immigrants. Today, one in four Australians was born overseas, and many speak a language other than English at home. Typical amongst said young nations, a low cost but efficient migrant labour force contributed greatly towards early economic successes. Tens of thousands of migrants earned their notions of “a better life” through their own sweat and honest hard work.
Of course, during the periods of favourable policy that saw thousands of migrants sweep in, Australia unknowingly took in a few bad apples amongst the majority. Of course, this was not restricted to the Italian arrival. A sad fact of the nature of immigration is that sometimes the worst slip in amongst the best. But in the general sense, the benefits a migrant workforce offer to a young nation is innumerable and far outweigh the deeds of a minority of criminals inevitably taken in amongst the whole.
When Captain James Cook first sighted Australian shores from aboard The Endeavour, subsequently landed and made “first contact” in 1770, amongst his crew were two Italian sailors. New York born James Matra (born Magra, changing name in order to claim a Corsican inheritance) joined the crew in 1768 and went on to a career in diplomacy. Some sources claim his account of the voyage as the first published. Antonio Ponto was known specifically as a sailor, and as part of the landing crew is named as the very first Italian to actually set foot in Australia.
While it seems that the Dutch were the really the first to sight and chart Australia, it’s the Anglo-centric story of Cook which is told in schools, though Magellan’s voyages to the Pacific Ocean also predate. Magellan’s crew included a number of Italian’s, and crew member Antonio Pigafetta recorded sighting Australia in his log. Later, in 1789, explorer Alessandro Malaspina sailed the South Pacific commissioned by the Spanish Crown, anchoring in Port Jackson in 1793.
In 1788, Giuseppe Tuzo arrived as a convict to Botany Bay, aged 18, having been arrested in London for stealing. Pardoned in 1802, he went on to settle in Sydney, later becoming a district constable and pawnbroker. Some sources have claimed him as the first Italian to own land in Australia.
In 1846, the Benedictine monk Dom Salvo established a New Norcia mission outside of Perth, and would go on to author a text about his time in the Great Southern Land. A few years later, Rafaello Carboni chronicled the gold rush of the 1850’s, including the famous “Eureka Stockade”.
Nearly 200,000 Australians identify as simply “Italian”. It’s the fifth most cited ethnicity, behind Australian, English, Irish or Scottish. Just under two percent of Australians speak Italian at home, making it one of the highest spoke languages other than English in Australia.
It was not until the 20th century and the final spurt between the 1920’s and 60’s that the Italian migration seen in Australia become for the most part southerners, statistically taking in the great bulk from the province of Calabria..
With the many opportunities for work inherently available in a still developing country, Italian migrants spread throughout Australia, developing a reputation as extremely hard-working, honest, and passionate about good foods, produce and libations, amongst myriad other attributes. The contribution of the Italian migrants labour and their culture is un-ignorable, as is the sweat and integrity of all those that came to this country and helped form what it is today.
The hills and plains of Calabria (the "toe" of Italy's "boot") is the home of the secret men’s society known as ’Ndrangheta, or the Calabrian Mafia. In early days the ‘Ndrangheta was known for banditry, as horse and cattle thieves, as extortionists of farmers and village tradespeople. Primary rackets for decades included huge scale cigarette smuggling operations, local protection rackets and kidnap-for-ransom schemes (certain sources hold that Calabrese mafiosi were reputably responsible for the Getty Jr. kidnapping)
Over the decades, times change and economically expand. The ‘Ndrangheta as a force expanded considerably, moving into to lucrative drug trades and counterfeit products, and the growth has been exponential. Over the last decade or so, the ‘Ndrangheta has moved into the top echelon of international crime syndicates, especially in Italy, Canada and Australia. With Sicilian mafiosi still suffering the reverberations of the bloody Riina reign and the slew of turncoats it produced, and Cammoristi too busy battling amongst themselves to expand far beyond Italy in a major way, the ‘Ndrangheta have risen almost unchallenged. This is not to say there is no internecine bloodshed, as clans are known to go to war over disputes.
Much of their recent successes have to do with the very nature of the syndicate’s organisation. Unlike the Sicilian mafia, the Calabrese families are formed around actual blood-lines, with families united through strategic marriages. For obvious reasons, this makes the cells extremely difficult to infiltrate, as Calabrese mafiosi operate nearly exclusively through blood relatives. Likewise, there is an extremely low rate of turncoats and informants, especially in comparison to the other syndicates. While recent reports contend that the command structure has in recent years been moving more towards the Sicilian model, their familial structure served them well for many years, as turning would require the betrayal of actual family members in most cases. For this reason, the major syndicates are known by family names: the Condello clan, the Barbaro, the Sergi, the Strangio, the De Stefano, etc.
Much of their power is also derived through their satellite cells. With family members spread through-out the globe, key drug routes and connections can be utilized to set up virtual cross country pipelines (nearly all of Australia's cocaine in the early part of this century was being exported via Colombia and then distributed via Calabrese mobsters in Melbourne, Victoria.) Counterfeit products are also moved in this fashion.
The ‘Ndrangheta came into Australia hidden amongst the thousands of honest Italians, in the same fashion that Cosa Nostra infiltrated America. And where their countrymen settled inevitably they did as well; for who else better to leech and rip off in the early days in a foreign land? The conditions in Australia were very much like Southern Italy; and oft-quoted anecdote is that Southern Italians found the climate conditions very similar to their home lands. “You planted seeds and watered, tomatoes grew”. Many Italians became farmers, and a racket was born: the mafiosi could exploit ignorant farmers by conveniently offering to arrange the sale of his produce, as most couldn’t speak English, and were only too happy to accept the help of a fellow Italian who offered help. After gaining trust, the criminal could con and scam, making himself rich of the sweat of another (even future generations of assimilated Italian-Australian farmers were victim to extortion, as marketplaces were infiltrated and stallholders were made to pay for the privilege of selling their own produce) Black hand schemes were rife, and many Italian businessmen payed “protection” to operate, as the notorious Market Murders of the 1960’s would prove.
As Italian communities planted themselves around the country and the ubiquitous “Little Italy’s” began popping up in major cities, the ugly side of a great culture began to be noticed. Despite making inroads towards assimilation, those early days still saw a great deal of prejudices aimed towards these migrants, and naturally they turned in towards themselves for security. The shadowy notion of an “Honoured Society” consisting of criminals was still considered fanciful, and many Italians themselves, historically mistrustful of authority, refused to acknowledge or report on crimes, despite being otherwise honest and industrious.
When a teenage girl, Nancy Insitori, was murdered in Sydney in 1953, police bemoaned the closed off nature of many Italian’s which hampered investigations.
Although active by this time in other parts of the country, the late 1920’s saw perhaps the most notable string of early mafia type crimes not in the southern states, but actually in the rural cane-fields of the north.
PART ONE: QUEENSLAND BLACK-HAND
During the 1920’s, Australia’s sugar cane plantations required a steady supply of cheap labour. As such, the northeast Australian state of Queensland attracted large numbers of migrant workers. Alongside numerous other ethnic groups, Italian families settled in the coastal towns of Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane, and in the inland towns of Ingham and Ayr where work was plentiful.
In 1928, Vincenzo D’Agostino arrived in Brisbane from Milan. With a small but thriving community of Italian migrants having taken root in Ingham, he set his sights on the small rural town and settled there. Though a baker by trade, unlike most of his kin D’Agostino was evidently not prepared to sweat for his earn, and the Milanese attracted to himself a gang of criminal Italians consisting of several small time thugs and cut-throats. (Known members the gang would eventually be identified by victims and police as Vincenzo Speranzo, Niccolo Mammone, Giuseppe Parisi, Giuseppe Buette, Domenico Belle and Francesco Femio, men that had in most cases been in Australia for a short time and were known as violent, petty criminals and conmen)
Via the extortionate practice of the ‘Black Hand’, D’Agostino and his crew began demanding payments from fellow Italians, mostly farmers and labourers, banking on traditional fears backed up with implicit threats of violence. If ignored, they would first destroy livestock, poison water supplies and ruin crops. Further refusal would result in bodily harm to the victim and/or his family. There was a string of fire-bombings in and around Ingham during this time linked to extortion attempts. Failing persuasion, victims were murdered. During the years of D’Agostino’s peak (late 20’s, early 30’s), a number of murders took place around the Queensland cane fields. At least eleven are documented directly in relation to D’Agostino and his crew.
Fellow migrant Alfio Patane, known locally as “Nicky”, had been in Australia longer then D’Agostino. Having worked hard over many years to establish his farm, by the mid 1920’s he was known as a prosperous farmer. Following D’Agostino’s arrival in town, Patane is known to have eventually yielded to demands and paid out a string of increasing sums over time to the gang, until he was facing possible bankruptcy.
In 1929 the greed peaked, and D’Agostino allegedly ordered Patane to mortgage his house in order to continue payment. Understandably, Patane balked and point blank refused to pay out anything further. A few days passed without incident until a knock on his farmhouse door roused Nicky Patane late on the night of August 11th. When he answered the door he was shot in the head. He is said to have died in his wife’s arms without identifying his killer. Though there was not enough evidence to bring charges against him, this is the first murder in Ingham to be linked to D’Agostino.
(Patane’s widow Marie would go on to marry another farmer, Venerando Di Salvo. Unfortunately he was also murdered at his home outside of Ingham on June 5, 1934. His assailant is unknown, though numerous newspaper articles revelled in pointing out Marie’s sad spousal history.)
Aware that traditional codes of silence were seemingly being observed, D’Agostino plunged on, prosecution laws hobbled. He and his gang continued their activities terrorising the local Italian community. D’Agostino would make enemies on both sides of the law, and around this time is alleged to have suffered a falling out with one of his underlings.
Domenico Belle, said to be dissatisfied with his share of plundered loot, made a split from D’Agostino and began his own foray into racketeering and crude Black Hand extortion. Shortly after moving to Sydney, on the 11th of February, 1930, Belle was observed by witnesses arguing in Italian with a man at the Newtown train station at around 11 am. The unidentified man stabbed Belle above the heart before fleeing the scene. Despite remaining conscious for a time before dying, he declined to identify his assailant to questioning officers.
Some two decades later, a confidential informant in Melbourne is alleged to have identified his killer as the barber Belle’s widow had claimed he had left to meet the morning of his attack. With no concrete evidence to allow a charge, to this day the Belle murder is officially recorded as unsolved.
Four months after the Belle murder, the mutilated body of D’Agostino gang member Giuseppe Parisi was fished out a creek near an Ingham cane field. Though also officially unsolved, some theories have linked this murder to the D’Agostino/Belle dispute.
During 1931, at least two others were killed in suspicious circumstances, Ignazio Gatti in Ingham and Antonio Raguso in Bambaroo, outside of Ingham. Named as Black Hand murders in papers at the time, police would later investigate D’Agostino for these crimes.
By 1932, Francesco Guglielmo “Frank” Femio had ascended to D’Agostino’s right hand. By some accounts linked to prostitution (or ‘white slavery’ as newspapers of the time called it) Femio had taken as his mistress a prostitute known as Jean Morris, also known as “Stiletto Jean” from her penchant for carrying a small dagger with her at all times, well known throughout Cairns, Ayr, Innisfail, Ingham and other towns around the Queensland cane-fields.
On the night of October 4th, 1932, her body was found stabbed to death in her Ayr home, the post-mortem revealing 35 stab wounds. While unsolved and possibly the work of a random psychopath, she was believed to have also been involved sexually with D’Agostino. Certain sources link him to her death, believed to have been ordered for fear of certain incriminating knowledge she was apparently in possession of. Both D’Agostino and Femio were in Ayr that night, though of course, had alibies.
Newspapers of the time describe an unnamed “lesser member” of the crew who shortly after the Morris murder left Townsville for Italy. Upon his arrival in the old country, he was arrested and questioned but is alleged to have hung himself in a prison cell before offering any information (some sources have claimed it was actually the other prisoners that killed him). Police at the time held the\ belief that Morris was in reality a Sydney woman who had gone missing many years earlier, one Anna Philomena Morgan, though later authors have cast doubt on this belief.
As their next victim, D’Agostino’s gang targeted Giuseppe Iacona, an Innisfail farmer. After receiving a series of typical Black Hand letters of extortion and refusing to comply with demands, he was visited by three members of the gang, who arrived at his property on the 11th of February, 1934. Following an alleged altercation and subsequent scuffle, Vincenzo Speranzo and Giuseppe Buette held Iacona down while Niccolo Mammone cut off his ears. Recuperating in hospital over the next three weeks, Iacona refused numerous entreaties to name his attackers, and was later shown to have held his reasons.
Upon release, he returned to his home and retrieved his shotgun. He confronted Mammone in the main street of Innisfail and shot him dead. Duly arrested for murder and vengeance apparently sated, he came clean on everything, named Speranzo and Buette as being involved and described his attack and mutilation in court. Iacona received his own 16 year sentence while Speranzo and Buette received seven years each for their roles in the attack and were later deported back to Italy, reportedly going on to fight in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.
For the time being, D’Agostino continued untouched and unchallenged in his cane-field fiefdom. On the 8th of October 1934, a bomb exploded at a home in Ingham, killing housewife Pina Bacchietta, allegedly a response to her husband’s refusal to yield to extortionate demands. She was not the first “housewife” to be killed however; in 1933 Concetta Cinnardi had been shot dead on the farm at Home Hill where she and her husband lived. Though linked by some papers to Black Hand activity at the time however, the connection cannot be conclusively demonstrated.
On 11th June, 1935, Domenico Scarcella was shot on his property outside of Ingham. On his person was found a threatening letter demanding he leave £250 in a tin can close to a tram line that ran through his property. His widow would later claim that said letter was years old, and that she suspected his death was actually related to the activities her late husband’s brother in Italy, dubiously but understandably hesitant to name D’Agostino in connection to her husband’s murder .
On 12th December 1936, Frank Femio was shot to death while sleeping in his bed. The tides were starting to turn for the local gangsters. At the inquest into the murder, Detective David V. Quinn claimed that the consensus amongst the Italian community was that the death was the result of a blood feud between Calabrese and Sicilian elements. Since the Sicilian criminal element was almost non-existent in Queensland during this time (indeed, the only viable Sicilian cell ever named in Australia operated outside of Perth, Western Australia during the 1920’s) the author of this text chalks these claims up to inherent fears amongst locals, and believes more internecine gang conflicts led up to the murder. In any case, D’Agostino was becoming increasingly hated and isolated.
On the 13th of January, 1938, a bomb exploded beneath the Ingham bakery he co-owned. Strategically placed below the kitchen floor, D’Agostino was gravely wounded, despite reports of a four-year-old child in a room above sleeping through the blast. Before he died of the injuries sustained that day, he was quoted by a local newspaper (in a somewhat racist verbatim) as exclaiming upon police questioning, “Mama-Mia! Why-a dey do this-a to me?”
The post script quoted most often in books on the subject state that such was the local hate for Vincenzo D’Agostino, the only person to turn up at his funeral was the paid undertakers assistant. Many newspaper reports actually debunked these claims by citing two paid assistants and an officer as present, and by some accounts perhaps his widow. Obvious though is the implied point; that he was not a well-liked man by that stage in his life. While some articles cite his age as 35, others cite 39 at the time of his death. Over the next few years, police investigations would continue to link D’Agostino to murders.
Finally it seemed that something aggravated the populace enough into outrage and the Queensland Government announced upcoming draconian crackdowns on the Black Handers. Whether this was hyperbole or not, in any case an internal migration of criminals took place, and those involved moved to the southern states to continue their rackets.
Considering the number of innocents slain, why D’Agostino’s murder in particular sparked such a response seems a mystery. Whatever it was, it marked the first concentrated attack on Italian based organised crime in Queensland, and succeeded in driving it out of public view.
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