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Out of Africa: The Story of New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello

By Thom L. Jones

Tunisia is a republic in North Africa. Bounded on the north and east by the Mediterranean Sea and on the south and west by Libya and Algeria; its capital is Tunis. 15 kilometers to the north is the famous ancient city of Carthage. A deformation of "Kart Hadasht" (the new town) it was how the Phoenicians came to describe it, when they conquered the region in the 9th century.

Built on the hill of Byrsa, it was founded in the 8th Century BC. The city and nearby Salammbo Port, abound in vestiges of Punic and Roman empires baths, dwellings, temples and shrines. For over one thousand years, the Phoenicians were masters of the sea; pirating and trading on the Mediterranean encouraged the prosperity of Carthage and nearby Tunis. Under French rule from 1881-1956, the population of this area increased dramatically as thousands of Europeans were drawn to the area by growing commercial and industrial facilities.

Marcello’s origins

In 1908, among the hundreds of workers who landed in Tunisia were a couple from Sicily. They moved to Carthage, living in La Goulette, now the main sea port of the city, replacing Salammbo to the north, and worked hard for the next eighteen months. Guiseppe and Luigia Minacore both came from Ravanusa, a small village about seventy miles north of Girgenti, which is now known as Agrigento. The two immigrants would have been familiar with ancient ruins, as Agrigento is world famous as the site of some twenty Doric temples. Ironically its decline as a trading city can be traced back to when raiding parties from Carthage sacked it. But the wild, open beauty of hilltop medieval villages, rocky slopes pitted with olive trees and the canopy of a vast, endless open blue sky, was always overshadowed by what Sicilian peasants called malafortuna, the grinding, unending poverty. And so as a result, many of them left their land to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Guiseppe was short and squat with the rugged build typical of Sicilian peasantry. Luigia was a strong, handsome girl, talented and multilingual. She would eventually master six languages through her long life. At the end of September, 1909, it had been decided that Guiseppe would leave North Africa and travel to America. Their family had friends and relatives living in New Orleans, and word had traveled back that there were many more opportunities in Louisiana than in Tunisia.

Five months later, on a cold, chilly day-February 6th, 1910, Luigia gave birth to her first child, a son she called Calogero. Later in the year, Luigia returned to Sicily and in October, she and the baby sailed away from Palermo to join Guiseppe and begin their new life in America. For Calogero, it was the start of an eighty-three-year odyssey. He would start it as a baby and end it in a state of childish innocence. But the years between would be filled with sound and fury, and he would become one of the most notorious gangsters in American history. Infamous in many ways, but especially for his connection to the public assassinations of three of America's greatest twentieth century icons.

Sometime, later in October 1910, the Italian steamship Liguria carrying 625 passengers, docked in New Orleans. All the immigrants were checked out by customs, immigration and police officers. By this time, there were over 200,000 Italians living in and around the city. The police were particularly interested in all Italians, especially those from Sicily, because of the problems they had with the dreaded Mafia brigands who had caused so much trouble in Louisiana over the last twenty years or so. Luigia and her son were cleared and were soon with Guiseppe who could now hold his son in his arms for the first time.

One of the first things Luigia found was that her name had changed. Her husband had been forced to adopt a different surname to avoid confusion with his immediate supervisor on the sugar plantation where he had started work. His overseer, also Minacore, chose as a new name for Guiseppe the appellation Marcello, which was more generally found in the north of Italy than Sicily. In due course, the family changed all their other names, and became Joseph and Louise and their son became Carlos.

Then again. Another story emerged as the reason for this. In the mid-1920s Joseph owned a bar in the black section of Algiers, the second oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, situated on the south bank of the Mississippi River. He worked 24/7 in his tavern and kept a crib in the back room as he would often finish late and sleep the night there. He woke up one morning to find a black man carrying out a case of whiskey. Joseph shot the man dead. Fearing the repercussions Joseph fled and changed his name to Marcello. Years later he was surprised to find out that there was no one pursuing any investigation into the death of the burglar. 

With his savings and the addition of his wife's dowry, Joseph purchased a small, run down farm on the bayou in Algiers. Here he brought his wife and son and they settled down to run the property, a rambling structure of antebellum days, badly in need of paint and restoration. They grew fruit and vegetables, which they sold in the old French Market along Decatur Street on the fringe of the Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, in New Orleans. The couple worked hard and played hard. Over the next twenty years, Louise had eight more children, six boys and two girls. They were, in order of seniority:

Peter, Rose, Mary, Pascal, Vincent, Joseph, Anthony and Sammy. Along with their parents, the children became naturalized US citizens. For some, unknown reason, Carlos did not. It would cause him a lot of grief in later life.

Carlos grew into a squat, tough and muscular image of his father. He was always the leader of the pack among his siblings, who learned to accept the fact that he was the boss and gave him their untiring loyalty and support. He left school at the age of fourteen. By then, he was entrusted by his father to deliver the farm produce over the ferry to the market in New Orleans, and fight there for the best prices among the produce dealers and wholesalers. The vegetable and fruit markets had long been under the control of the Mafia and it was inevitable that young Carlos would become involved with people connected to the dreaded secret society that was already well established in this part of America.

Coming to America

Sicilian criminals had been around in the Louisiana area and in particular New Orleans since at least the 1860s. For some reason, during the period 1860-1890, more Sicilians immigrated to this area than anywhere else in America. It was claimed that the climate was closer to that of Sicily, than the colder less hospitable regions of the Northeast. It was largely an agricultural state, not unlike Sicily, and the port of New Orleans became a major destination for shipping from Palermo through the second half of the 19th Century. Also, the geographical isolation of the region from the rest of the United States made it appealing. It had its own strange culture and quaint customs, and its political structure fostered corruption. Both Sicily and Louisiana had at one time been under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had sold the territory to the United States in 1803 in what was known as 'The Louisiana Purchase', allowing Thomas Jefferson to pull off one of the great real estate buys in history. Bonaparte's assumption of rule over Sicily in 1805 led directly to social turmoil, which encouraged and cultivated the growth of the Mafia brotherhood.

Like the Sicilians, Louisiana folk had always been wary and disrespectful of law and order, and the Mississippi delta with its endless acres of bayous, swamps, scrub forests and trackless wilderness was an ideal hiding place and hunting ground for criminal elements. Alligator and snake-invested places like the Bayou Rigollettes, the Bayou des Allemandes, the marshes around Barantaria Bay, and lands west of Lake Salvador and north of Lake Ponchartrain were ideal hunting grounds. Criminals gravitated naturally into these wastelands, as they offered sanctuary and a base to work from, unencumbered by the threat of any law enforcement presence. Many of these criminals were men who had arrived from Sicily, carrying with them a strong affiliation or actual membership of Mafia brotherhoods. It did not take these umini di rispeddu or "men of respect" long to band together into groups as a means of creating a stronger force and to protect themselves against the social conditions and prejudices that they had experienced in their homeland. In Louisiana, they found that they were despised as a minority and at odds with an establishment largely of French and English origin, determined to keep them suppressed, just as generations of Arabic, French, Spanish, Bourbon and Austrians had controlled their ancestors for centuries past.

The Mafia establishes roots in the US for the first time

Although it cannot be stated with absolute certainty, it is highly probable that the Mafia established itself here in America for the first time.  Perhaps the earliest recorded link to them, was the murder of Francisco Domingo in January 1855. A Sicilian farmer, his body, stabbed and mutilated was found on the banks of the Mississippi River. A few days before his death he had received a “Black Hand” threat demanding $500, although the link to this particular form of extortion and the Mafia was tenuous at best. In 1861 The True Delta newspaper reported the arrest of a gang of Sicilian criminals on counterfeiting charges. (This was a major source of income for Mafia gangs in New York in the early part of the 20th Century.)

In the years to come, men of a similar nature and criminal predilection would form into clans, or borgatas, in the major cities of America such as New York, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and even smaller urban areas such as Denver, Minneapolis, Rochester and San Jose. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the "honored society" was growing and consolidating its power base in Louisiana.

By 1890, many of these groups of Sicilian immigrant gangsters were well established in and around the city of New Orleans, also known as "The Crescent City" because of its location within a bend of the Mississippi River. Described by Pierce Lewis as the inevitable city on an impossible site, it is located at the mouth of America's greatest and most singular river system, the Mississippi and its vast network of tributaries. It became a city so strategically placed, that it could control the trade between the vast American interior and the rest of the world. The immigrant gangsters were aware of the opportunities this place could bring them, and the largely straight laced and blue-collar population did not welcome their presence. In fact the mayor of New Orleans, Joseph A. Shakespeare, went on record, publicly vilifying the immigrants from the south of Italy who "had singled out this part of the country for the idle and emigrants from the worst classes of Europe: Southern Italians and Sicilians.... the most idle, vicious and worthless among us.... They are without courage, honor, truth, pride, religion or any quality that goes to make good citizens...I intend to put an end to these infernal Dago disturbances, even if it proves necessary to wipe out every one of you from the face of the earth."

Although his diatribe was extreme and heavily biased against a minority that in theory should have been able to seek support and shelter in a country renowned for offering a welcome to poor and oppressed people, it was perhaps in some respects not without foundation. In a twenty-year period ending in 1890, the New Orleans police determined that over one hundred murders were connected to the Sicilian Mafia. By this time, there were a number of clans operating in the city, the two biggest controlled by Joseph Provenzano and Charles Matranga (sketch on the right).

Murder of a police chief and a lynch mob

On the evening of October 15th 1890, as he walked home from work, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was ambushed and shot several times, allegedly by 5 men. Before he died, he claimed he had been shot by “Dagoes,” but did not identify anyone by name. There was great pressure on the police to find the killers as Hennessy had been a well-liked and popular chief. Eventually, 19 suspects, all Italians, were rounded up and imprisoned. Following a trial, nine of the suspects were found innocent or victims of a mistrial, but all the men were returned to the Parish Prison.

Stunned by the verdict, a huge crowd gathered on Canal Street on March 14th 1891, and stormed the prison. Eleven of the prisoners were either shot dead or lynched by the mob. The city's business community and the daily newspapers supported the lynchings. A national survey showed that 42 of the nation's newspapers approved of the action, while 58 disapproved. A grand jury indicated that if there was guilt, it was shared by the entire mob, estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 people.

The Provenzano gang, slipped into the shadows and moved their operation south of the Mississippi River, and Charles (Carlo) Matranga, who may well have been the guiding hand behind the police chief’s murder, quietly and discreetly built up his crew into the most powerful and controlling Mafia Family in Louisiana.  Charles and his brother Tony, had arrived in New Orleans around 1870 and quickly opened brothels and saloons to form the baseline of their criminal empire. They had been part of the Stoppaglieri a branch of the Mafia based in the commune of Monreale, to the west of Palermo City in Sicily, before moving to America. In Corleone the brotherhood called themselves Fratuzzi and in Villabate the Zubbio and the Fontana Nuova in Misilmeri. The Matrangas were uber successful in their red-light activities. Labor racketeering and extortion quickly followed, everything carefully hidden behind a legitimate facade of import and retailing of fruits and vegetables.

The underworld of New Orleans

David Critchley, the Mafia historian claims in his seminal work on the history of the New York Mafia, The Origin of Organized Crime in America, that there was another criminal boss in New Orleans. This was Francesco Motisi, born in the 1860s in Sicily. A Mafioso, head of Palermo’s Pagliareli cosca, a wealthy citrus merchant and municipal councilor in Palermo, he had fled the island after a murder charge was laid against him, and ended up in the American deep south in 1900. Here in New Orleans, he adopted the name of Francesco Genova, became another successful businessman and the head of the Mafia in The Big Easy.

In 1907, an eight-year old boy, Walter Lamana was kidnapped and later found murdered. The police round up all the usual suspects, including Genova, simply because he was Italian and allegedly linked into the local “Black Hand” syndicate. He was eventually released and subsequently left New Orleans. He was last heard of in London, England, in 1910, although Salvatore Lupo, the Italian Mafia expert, claims he returned to Palermo in 1921 and continued to exert influence on the affairs of the Sicilian Mafia. Just how he and Provenzano and Matranga co-existed in those first ten years of the 20th Century has never been explained.

The New Orleans underworld was a murky pond, clouded by shifting currents, year by year. Louis Vyhankel’s book, Unorganized Crime in New |Orleans, claims until Marcello took over, there was no major power in Louisiana, and the Mafia was simply a gang among gangs. There were the Holland Gang, and the Terminal Gang, and the Bailey/Acosta Gang, and the Zechenelly Gang, and at least three major narcotic rings operating in the French Quarter of the city. In terms of criminal associations, The Big Easy was an eldritch landscape by any definition. 

Continue reading Out of Africa: The Story of New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello

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